Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Thick and the Thin of Matcha Production

The word is out, there are two kinds of matcha.

Posts on Tea Nerd and Another Tea Blog cover the topic briefly, those who haven't read them should do so.

Nevertheless, we will re investigate this topic in a little more detail.

The tea used for matcha undergoes a special method of production that requires the tea plants to be shade grown for the last few weeks before it is picked. At this time, the bushes are covered by a bamboo sheet that only allows a small amount of the sunlight to pass through to the tea bushes. This is a very important part of producing matcha because it encourages the production of chlorophyll in young leaves.

The high levels of chlorophyll in small new shoots gives matcha its famous bright green colour. In most teas chlorophyll levels increase as the leaves mature, but with maturity, taste is compromised.

Shading also decreases the number of catechins in new shoots. Because catechins give tea its astringency and bitter qualities, shading decreases these qualities, it mellows out the harsh edges of the raw tea leaf resulting in a smoother, less harsh, more palatable matcha. So, essentially shading is an attempt at getting the most flavor out of young nutrient rich leaves.

The maturity of the leaves and the location of them on the bush is an important factor in determining the quality of matcha. It has been well know for quite some time now that the young shoots of tea at the top of the bush contain the highest concentration of catechins. These young leaves are also softer and more vibrant than their mature neighbours. They are the most coveted throughout the world and are specially selected for matcha. The older thicker, duller, and less supple neighbouring leaves are also picked.

These leaves are then rolled, dried, deveined, destemmed, and stone ground into a fine powder. In Japan, almost all of these steps take place with the help of intricate machines, very little manpower is needed. It is almost hypnotizing to see these wonderfully functional inventions work their magic (See video from O'cha, it's the 2nd one down) .

After the tea is ground into a fine powder it is put into a final machine before being packaged. This last machine is like a little wind tunnel with a powerful fan on one end. The powdered tea is put through the fan, launching it across the wind tunnel.

The most sought after matcha is launched furthest from the fan. This quality matcha is carried the furthest because it is characteristically light, soft, supple. Like the fluffy snow produced in cool temperatures, it tends to blow further. Not only is this matcha the lightest it is also the brightest green because only the powder of young leaves exhibit these qualities. This bright green powder is also only produced from the middle of these young leaves, the tenderest part of the leaf.

Conversely the matcha that travels the shortest distance from the fan is lower quality matcha. This powder is hard and sandy. Like the icy, grainy snow produced in the frigid arctic, it doesn't blow so far. Its colour is a less vibrant, muddled, darker green. This darker powder comes from the young leaf's more mature neighbours and is the powder produced from the harder areas located around the outer edges of the leaf.

Matcha is then divided into different grades of quality. The soft, bright green powder furthest from the fan is reserved for thick tea (Kor: Nong cha, Jap: Koicha). The harder, darker green powder closest to the fan is reserved for food grade matcha or perhaps for thin tea (Kor: Bach cha, Jap: Usucha). The producers of matcha subjectively decide where to draw the line in the sand or, in this case, the line in the matcha that separates thin tea from thick tea in the wind tunnel. There is no industry standard or test to separate the grades of tea, so really, the divisions are somewhat arbitrary or artificial (see previous post).

Most producers also ofter more than just two grades of matcha. In these processing plants, the settled powder in the wind tunnel is divided into three, four, five sections. How many divisions and the location of the divisions in the wind tunnel depends entirely on the producer.

Before consumption these different grades of matcha should display some of the somewhat pronounced characteristics of their grade. When thin tea is prepared it should be more watery and have a thiner, lighter layer of frothy head. Its taste should also exhibit more astringency and bitterness. Conversely, thick tea should have a thick syrupy consistency, with a much larger and thicker frothy head. Its taste should exhibit more sweetness. Because of these qualities, not as much thin tea can be used during its preparation before the an unpleasant bitterness can be tasted. On the other hand, more thick tea can be added because it is much more sweet and much less bitter. When preparing thick tea you can really 'lay it on thick'.

In the next week or so expect to see a review of four different grades of matcha from the same producer produced at the same time. This post will shed some more light on this subject.

Until then,


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Satisfying Marshaln

With almost every post, Marshaln's experiences with tea always seem to teach me something. Small or big, insignificant or important... I learn from his experiences. So this one's for Marshaln... (If you haven't read the last few posts on MattCha's Blog please read them and Marshaln's comments that follow them before reading this post).

I hope these pics satisfy!

Marshaln brought up an important issue that should be addressed sooner rather than later. It's the problem with the romanization of the Korean language. There are currently two acceptable ways of transcribing Korean into English. The old way, previously accepted by the Korean government, and the new way, developed by Professor Kim and is some times referred to as 'Professor Kim's Way'. There are also many 'freestyle' or personal transliterations that probably grew out of dissatisfaction with the old system. This, coupled with the fact that there is very little English information about Korean tea and that there has not been a universally agreed upon English standard for tea language in Korea, has led to the plethora of terms that mean exactly the same thing. The posts on this blog will try to keep the Korean transliterations uniform.

These are some of the common versions of the categories of Korean teas:

First flush: Ujeon, Woojeun, Woojeong, or even less common Woojun
Second flush: Sejak, or Saejak
Thrid flush: Jungjak, or Joongjak

Marshaln also checked into what these words mean. So I will go into closer inspection of these terms and their relation to the classification system used.

It makes sense that Ujeon means 'before rain' because it is traditionally picked before Gok-u (Gokwoo, or Gokwu). Guk-u is the 6th of the 24 seasonal divisions according to the lunar calender based on the movement of the sun that falls on either the 20th or 21st of April. Guk-u is the day that signals rainfall for seeding. Tea that is picked during this time, when first shoots are at their smallest, is classified as Ujeon.

Tea that is picked between Guk-u and Ipha (or Ibha) or just a few days after Ipha, is classified as Sejak. Ipha is the first day of summer and the 7th seasonal division according to the 24 seasonal divisions. It falls on the 5th or 6th of May.
Tea picked after Ipha is called Jungjak.

I don't know the word meanings of Sejak or Jungjak. Perhaps the prefix 'jak' means summer and they mean before summer and during summer?

Thanks again for bringing up these important and interesting issues Marshaln.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Satisfying Lee Kang Hyo

Lee Kang Hyo is a master of the buncheong style.

Buncheong style is a broad categorization that covers most stonewares made in Korea. It carries no strict prescriptions- it allows for the free expression o f the artist. It is a reflection of their humanity.

It is humanity.

This style is common throughout the southern tip of the peninsula where kilns once littered mountain sides. Buncheong is characterized by rough, textured, natural clay flourishing under thin, soft, shinny glaze that usually only partially covers the gritty clay beneath.

Buncheong presents a dichotomy of elements that are resolved in its whole.

Buncheong style values the beauty of cracks, holes, and asymmetry- natural beauty. Like the artist, its creator, who gave birth to it, and like the one who sips tea from it now- it is imperfect.

It silently teaches us the beauty of imperfection.

This tea drinking bowl by Lee Kang Hyo is one of these great teachers.

This piece exquisitely exhibits most of the common elements of the buncheong style. Dark reddish clay coated in a translucent glaze then coated in a fine white glaze before being fired.

In the kiln, the energies of earth and fire majestically tangle.

Clay finds gaps in thin white glaze, taxed to its limit under the heat of the kiln, delicate cracks are formed. Air and grains of sand trapped within disperse, forming black spots. Large stones housed within the reddish glaze rupture under the intense heat and bleed through the delicate white glaze creating large pink blotches like flowers that bloom under the warm spring sun. Surprisingly these aren't the work of paints. Only the magic of the kiln can create such wonders as these!

When the tea bowl is removed, it is something that it was not before entering.

This piece was likely fired at a remarkably high temperature given its thin walls and high note. It has the characteristic birth mark of the Korean buncheong style found on many pieces- five rough, unglazed protrusions impressed in the shallow of the bowl. These marks are left after the tea bowl is removed from the fire retardant stand onto which the bowl rests upon while being fired. It too creates a natural footprint and serves as a constant reminder of the kiln's essential contribution.

This bowl's true beauty cannot be full appreciated until powered tea is whisked within. At this instant, the hues of bright greens pull at the pink blotches contained on its walls. They seem as though to come alive fighting for attention over the tea in the bowl- both pinks and greens complementing each other, adding to each others beauty.

In the powdered tea ceremony, one must give their full attention to the preparation and drinking of the tea itself. It isn't until after the tea is mindfully consumed that ones attention shifts to the bowl- then covered in frothy green residue. In this way, this tea bowl by Lee Kang Hyo strengthens ones mind. Only a strong mind can resist the allure of this bowl- how difficult it is to walk down the path of a wonderful spring garden without looking at the flowers?

Lee Kang Hyo says that in the thirty-five years of making pottery, he is most satisfied with this single tea bowl.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Categorizing Korean Green Teas: Why We Categorize

Categories are artificial.

Categories are parameters that were created by us, for us. We create categories to help us organize information. Categorizing helps us make sense of large amounts of information. It is a cognitive mechanism that has allowed us to evolve as a species. Thousands of years ago, it was vital that we could differentiate the onslaught of incoming stimulus so that our attention wasn't overwhelmed. Instinctively we continue to do this. When we do so, we choose some criteria that we can identify as a basis for the categorization and then categorize things on the differences among this criteria.

After information is categorized, we now have a framework where we can now compare and contrast it to the information in other categories. When similarities in one category are discovered we develop assumptions about all others in that category. This is quite effective for dealing with most simple phenomena and prevents us from wasting our time and energy on everything that we encounter. Problems arise when we attempt to categorize things that are complex and have many individual differences.

Tea is simply one of these complex things.

Korean green tea is generally put into three categories- Ujeon, Sejak, and Jungjak (spellings vary).

Jungjak are the tea leaves that are picked between May 20-30th, they contain a larger leaf. Sejak is picked between April 30th-May 10th, contain a smaller leaf. Ujeon is picked on or before April 20th, these leafs are the smallest of the teas in Korea. These categories were traditionally based on when the leaf is picked in China. These dates correspond to the lunar spring calender.

There are some issues with these categories party because Korea is much cooler than China. If Korea has a late winter, than the picking dates will get pushed back. Also, there are gaps in the picking times (May 11th-19th and April 21st-29th), clearly Koreans don't just take a holiday in the middle of prime tea picking season. In a way these dates just pay homage to the dates used long ago, they are not in anyway taken seriously in Korea today. The tea is picked when the tea needs to be picked.

Quality is often connected to these categories. Ujeon, being the highest quality, next Sejak, followed by Jungjak. Although I have personally never tried a Ujeon that wasn't beyond excellent, often exceptional Sejak, and Ujeon teas from one maker are preferred over the Ujeon of another. All teas have their own individual differences, subtleties, flavors, that influence the end product. The tea drinker also has his own preferences and tastes when it comes to tea. In the end, these categories heavily influence the price as Ujeon usually fetches high prices, and of course Jungjak, a much lower price. This of course doesn't necessary mean that some Jungjak tea isn't great.

Things are what they are.

Categories are only artificial, created by us.
Great teas are only extraordinary creations by us.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

'Hok Sae Mo Eh So Hwan' Traditional Style of Tea Drinking Bowls

Tea loves to dwell in beautiful places.

This post will start into motion an ongoing attempt at highlighting some of these places.

Tea drinking bowls (Kor: cha sa bal; Jap: chawan) are the most grandiose and celebrated of these places. Housing the thick green froth of mal cha (Jap: matcha), the energies of man, water, air, and powered tea converge here. It is both a creation vessel and consumption vessel- its point of conception and its last stand.

Brief descriptions of these different styles of tea drinking bowls by Korean ceramic artists will be featured throughout this blog. Enjoy.

'Hok' means black. 'Sae Mo' refers to the white base. These tea bowls are just that- black colour applied to a white base before being fired in the kiln. During the firing process the black reddens giving these pieces a rust tone that shares space with black globs in areas where the paint was thickly applied. Besides white and black- reds, oranges, browns, and greys can be seen.
Rustic imperfection is a strong attribute of this style. A lot of examples include obvious or exaggerated asymmetry where the shape of the bowl looks warped. A heptagonal base is also a characteristic of this style.

Rusty. Rustic. Old. Imperfect. The 'Hok Sae Mo Eh So Hwan' style is wabi sabi.

The tea drinking bowl photographed is by Kim Jeong Pill. The top black area has a slippery-soft but slightly textured feel while the white base feels smooth but a bit sandy and gritty. This bowl is more symmetrical than most of this style, with a distinct lip that feels natural resting in ones mouth. One of the most wonderful features of this bowl is the colour change that takes place with the white glaze in the bowl. When hot water is added to pre-heat the bowl the white glaze reveals white-grey spots like fresh spring rain hitting old winter snowbanks before freezing within. Only through use can the true nature of this piece be realized.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

2007 Pre-Qingming West Lake Dragon Well (Long Jin)

This tea is a legend in green tea.

Heavy water pools in a nearby well. When it rains the heavy waters of this well visibly twist, tangle, couture, and snake about as the fresh water is forced into the well. To the townspeople this sight resembles the movement of a mythical dragon. This well, the dragon well, spills forth irrigating the nearby tea field that surrounds parts of the poetic 'West Lake' in Hangzhou, China. The leaves on these bushes are all picked by hand when they are just small shoots (see Video). They are then hand processed using soft hand motions that give them their characteristically flat look.

Nowadays, there is much more than just Long Jin's mild sweet taste that is talked about...

The quality of the leaf and the abundance of fakes are much talked about issues when it comes to this tea. There is at least as many stories about fakes, or mixed grades as there is about the wonderful taste of an authentic cup of this tea. If you wish to avoid buying fakes just go to a reputable store and make sure that the box of tea you buy has more security features as you can possibly imagine. Included on this box is an individualized code that you can check on the government website, quality seals, a scratch code, as well as all the production information. The most important thing you can check is the characteristics of the leaf itself- high quality Long Jin is a pale green and the leaves are small. These qualities can be seen in this box coupled with the scent of sweet light brush.

The liquor too is pale. There is almost a complete lack of astringency at first as the sweetness of this tea is felt on the tip of the tongue giving it a slippery-smooth mouthfeel. Astringency is an after effect that is slight but coats the full tongue seconds after one swallows. This tea reminds one of eating a good high-mountain banana, not because it tastes like it (or maybe it does), but because more of its feeling in the mouth.

It abstains from the categories 'vegital' and 'grassy' that epitomize the green tea type. An individual tea- smooth, creamy, sweet. This leaf shows off its excellent stamina as liquor color, smell, and taste remain stable (maybe improve) through multiple infusions. A certain, almost unnoticeable, cinnamony sass is given off as this tea enters its 5th or 6th infusion.

There is a reason this tea has such a long reputation of being the best in the world.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

2005 'Mystery' Chinese Puerh

I picked this tea up on a trip to China last summer. I found it off the beaten path, it was my favorite out of the many I had tried that day.

It offers a subtle fruity taste that I can't quite pin down. A peasent mouthfeel as the sides of the tounge feel stimulated- new sliva is born, embracing the liqour. Smooth earthy and woody tones are also present. Calm. Gentle. Subtle. Caring. Smooth. Soft. Are adjectives that come to mind when describing this nicely wet stored tea.

The path of the qi in this tea must be mentioned as it is of the most important features in this crowd pleasing yet still immaturely aged tea. The qi travels to the middle-jiao and then spreads throughout leaving one feeling particularly refreshed, renewed, and a titch energized. One can feel this tea in the fingertips at around the 5th or 6th infusion. A great young tea for long bouts of mediation.

In the end this tea is a bit of a mystery- mainly because I can't read the pinyin on the wrapper, neifei, or other paper identification thingy. Anyone who can enlighten me on the deets wins!!!


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Elusive Aged Ddok Cha

The interest in this rare tea in the bloging community seemed to crest a few months back when a reputable bloger (sorry no link, my memory evades me once more) rallied high praise upon a piece of aged 'Korean Puerh' (that was most likely ddok cha). So the story goes, he had received it from a friend who in turn received it from a monk that had produced it high up in the mountains. This is one of may stories of myth and legend that surround this Korean gem.

And so motivated with the curiosity and encouragement of Toki and you other tea enthusiasts, I went out in search for aged ddok cha. I hit up the seven most popular teahouses and suppliers that occupy the city. This is what I found...

Most tea houses mistakingly thought I was saying 'nok cha' (Korean for green tea) and tried to sell me on the many wonderful varieties that they stocked.

Many retailers flatly denied any knowledge of ddok cha and instead tried to sell me aged Chinese varieties. Claiming that Korea makes green tea, the shopkeepers claimed that if you want the more oxidized tea, you must want Chinese tea.

Other more informative shopkeepers told me that ddok cha is an extremely uncommon traditional tea that is almost exclusively made for personal use.

Mr. Kim, the owner of Nok Ya Won whom I purchased the 2007 Hadong ddok cha from, was the most knowledgeable about the subject. In fact, he showed me his first attempt at producing ddok cha. He pulled out five small densely packed cakes of crushed leaves that could each fit in the palm of your hand. They were produced in 2006 and, to my dismay, weren't for sale. Mr. Kim was running an ongoing aging experiment on them.

He also told me that a friend of his, a local university professor, has a stash of ddok cha that's ten years old!

And so I went home empty handed, the mystery unsolved. I continue to search to no avail as this mission has only added to the mystique surrounding this tea.