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Special Teas From Vietnam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Something new is brewing for American tea drinkers--rare teas from Vietnam that will be ready for distribution here this summer.

The specialty teas, some exotically flavored and packaged in handcrafted, folk-art containers, are worlds apart from the mass-produced, serviceable tea used for everyday drinking in Vietnam.

Consider a sparkling cup of Shan tea, brewed from leaves that once fluttered on century-old trees growing in the northernmost provinces of Hoang Lien Son and Ha Puyen, near the Chinese border. Most tea comes from low-growing bushes, but these are genuine trees, sturdy enough to climb.

How about a tea that has been nourished by a high mountain waterfall; a Central Highlands tea scented with lotus flowers; tea flavored with mango, coconut and ginger; black tea packed in a hand-carved container of cinnamon bark that gently spices the leaves, or in canisters of 2-year-old bamboo, trimmed in exquisite braiding by the Hmong people of North Vietnam.

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The importer is the Los Angeles-based Indochina Tea Co., which sounds like a conglomerate of office personnel, tea buyers, tasters and food brokers. But it’s the work of a single determined, slim, blond woman who two years ago was out of a job.

Gabriella Karsch was national sales and marketing manager for Mitsubishi International. Then, like so many others, she was out on the street, without an income but not without vision and hope.

Leaving her office for the last time, Karsch climbed to her airy, hillside home off Laurel Canyon and did the only thing she could think of. She brewed a pot of tea.

“It’s going to be fine,” she assured herself, wondering if it really would be. Then, getting businesslike, she drew up a simple agenda: “I’ve got to find a product, and I’ve got to find a market.”

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And, behold, there was the product--in her cup. Descended from a long line of hardy Vermont tea drinkers, Karsch sips tea like others breathe air. And she’s been crazy about Vietnam since the 1960s, when she was there with the USO. When Karsch left Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1972, she swore to a sign in the airport that she would be back. “I felt a real affinity to the land, for some reason,” she says. She even settled for awhile in Florida to envelop herself in a similar humid climate.

Karsch learned from census figures that more than one million Vietnamese people live in the United States. “If they each have a cup, I’ll be in good shape,” she concluded. Never mind that a trade embargo prohibited imports. (That embargo was lifted in February.) Meanwhile, Karsch kept going on faith, making contacts in Vietnam, inspecting tea plantations and setting up the mechanics of an import business, which included taking on a partner, Stephanie Roth of Los Angeles.

Spurring her on was her own devotion to the product. “I love the tea over there,” she says. “I like the taste of it. I like the ceremony of it. Every time you have a happy experience you have tea.”

Karsch is due back shortly from her sixth trip to Vietnam since the late 1980s. When she first went back, traveling on a medical aid project, she was amazed to find the sign to which she had bade farewell still in place at Ho Chi Minh City’s Ton Son Nhat airport. Fine tea, she soon learned, was a luxury impractical in post-war Vietnam. In order to produce enough to satisfy demand, leaves had to be pulled indiscriminately from the bushes, the fine buds and first leaves squashed in with leaves of lesser quality.

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Karsch, however, wants only a premium plucking, and only from special sources. Getting the tea processed is no problem. “The Vietnamese say they need lots of capital for new machines. This is not true,” she says. “They just need to clean the old machines.”

Karsch is working in cooperation with Vinatea, the government agency in charge of Vietnam’s tea industry. She plans to buy the tea from farmers with small private plots, then have it processed at government facilities.

About 200,000 acres are now planted to tea, and the country is exporting 40 tons a year. “This is under extreme conditions, I would guess, looking at the bomb craters in the tea fields (outside Hanoi),” she says.

When Karsch goes to Vietnam she flies to Hanoi, stays in a government guest house, then travels by truck over the rough roads to what were once French tea plantations. In the city she wears the ao dai , the graceful costume of high-necked, flowing long top over pants. But in the field, she’s dressed in pants, with leather boots to her knees. “I’m not real partial to snakes and bugs,” she says.

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Karsch has learned Vietnamese--"the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life,” she says. She speaks with a strong northern accent picked up from her tutor. “I amuse everyone I talk to,” she laughs. But that is only in Southern California, where most Vietnamese come from the south.

Karsch has a computer software program that enables her to send faxes in Vietnamese. And she is so immersed in the culture that she goes to Chinatown every weekend to eat in a favorite pho shop ( pho is Vietnamese noodle soup).

Karsch was recently named to head a Vietnamese outreach committee at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. A volunteer, she has written a leaflet on tea for the museum and formulates and packages a spice tea mixture that is sold at the bookstore there.

If her venture turns a good profit, Karsch plans to open an Asian-style tea house where customers can relax and listen to the peaceful sounds of flowing water. She remembers how her boss at Mitsubishi would seclude himself before an important meeting to drink tea, clear his mind and become focused. “He was a lot more effective than people who came in from a two-martini lunch,” she says. “This is such a competitive world. You have to have your wits about you. You can’t do it with coffee, and you certainly can’t do it with booze.”

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For a brochure and price list of the teas Karsch is bringing in, write Indochina Tea Co., P.O. Box 1032, Studio City, Calif. 91614.


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