The Leafies 2022 Special Award: Tea For Life – Phyu Thwe, Mogok Tea

The Leafies ‘Tea for Life’ special award is granted to a farm, estate or garden that is demonstrating community empowerment, economic regeneration and/or uplifting the welfare of the people dependent on the tea-producing facility for their livelihood. With this in mind, there is perhaps no better recipient of this award than Phyu Thwe of Mogok Tea.

Born and raised in Mogok, a village located 200 kilometres north of Mandalay in Myanmar that is famed for its “pigeon blood” rubies, Phyu has travelled far in pursuit of education. She completed her studies in the UK and is now a fully-qualified chartered accountant living in London with her own firm. But she was not willing to stop there. Feeling a disconnect between her affluent London lifestyle and her home country, Phyu has set up Mogok Tea, a factory in her native village that offers the community an alternative employment option to mining. One that empowers individuals financially and professionally, and one that nurtures rather than extracts from the natural environment.

Despite tea being an important part of Myanmar’s culture, it is simultaneously undervalued as a product. Almost all of the tea produced in the region is green tea and a lack of official benchmarks for quality mean that every producer approaches making it with varying processes, resulting in inconsistencies. Myanmar’s green tea does not receive the same appreciation as that from China or Japan and the fact that it is complimentary in restaurants means its production is barely profitable, but Phyu hopes to change that. For a long time she admits she had little interest in tea, until recognising its potential for educating and empowering her family and friends who remain in Mogok.

Phyu trained at The UK Tea Academy and worked closely on the Mogok tea factory project with Tea Consultant and owner of The Scottish Tea Factory, Beverly Wainwright. Together Bev and Phyu travelled around Sri Lanka, where Bev showed Phyu the meticulous process of small-scale, artisan tea production. They drew up plans for a factory and three months later it was built, complete with all the necessary equipment. 

Myanmar’s tea season begins in April and runs until October. A small window for white tea is at the beginning from April to May, which is followed by the rainy season from June. In the initial months after being built, Phyu and Bev directed tea plucking and small-scale experiments in tea production, whick took time to perfect. But Phyu’s strict commitment to learning and a methodical approach to production has resulted in some outstanding, interesting and delicious teas.

Mogok currently produces a white, a green and a black tea. The latter two have been recognised internationally after receiving a ‘Highly Commended’ and a ‘Gold’ award during the blind tasting at The Leafies 2022, respectively. Moreover, the strict regulations around hygiene and processing tea that is observed at Mogok Tea has introduced an industry standard that other producers in the region can aspire to. 

As well as elevating standards in the tea industry in Myanmar, Phyu has been improving living standards for those working at the factory too, Mogok has trained and employs 60% of the local village, from young to old, including some of Phyu’s relatives. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Phyu continued to pay her staff out of her own pocket when no one else in the area would, resulting in people coming to her to ask for work. Phyu’s vision is for the factory to become a training hub for local tea enthusiasts, but the military coup in 2021 and the ensuing civil unrest has prohibited this ambition from being realised.

Nonetheless, the factory continues to produce outstanding quality teas and the recognition granted through winning awards such as The Leafies provides Mogok’s workers with a tremendous boost of morale and confidence. Mogok has recently formed exciting partnerships with other producers in Europe and the United States and Phyu hopes to continue growing its reputation in the tea world. Above all, Mogok continues to be an inspirational model of community empowerment, allowing local people to gain new skills and earn a good living. 

When receiving her special award at The Leafies award ceremony last year, Phyu explained:

Our logo for Mogok is a big tree with birds – it’s from my mother who has told me to be the big tree that can shelter hundreds of birds. This is what Mogok does, it was created with the aim of providing people in my village financial security, job security, and opportunities to learn and grow.”

..Making tea has made me a better person, if I had to choose to do anything, any time of the day, I would choose to make tea. It has given me a new family, even though I am far away from home.

The family that Phyu refers to here are The UKTA tutors Bev and Jane Pettigrew, amongst many others, who have continually supported Phyu to make even better teas. 

It’s the most amazing story of generosity and belief,” said UKTA Director of Studies, Jane Pettigrew, at a recent Myanmar tea tasting event hosted online. In her closing remarks, Phyu noted how the current conditions at home mean that she cannot bring the people in her village to see the world, instead she must bring the world to them. Let a cup of Mogok’s tea connect you to those who have made it. Savour it, and celebrate this inspirational story of community empowerment. 

Congratulations to The Leafies 2022 Tea For Life special award winner, Phyu Thwe of Mogok Tea. All teas are available to purchase directly from Mogok’s website, Cantontea.com and at the Fortnum and Mason Rare Tea Counter, London.