Sunday, April 27, 2008

Four Origin Stories of Tea in Korea: How'd It Get There?!? PART 1: The Birth of Korea, The Birth of Tea

Over the next few weeks and months this blog will be telling the tale of how tea originated in Korea.

How tea first came to be in Korea is a topic of much speculation and curiosity for those associated with Korean tea culture. This is partly due to two reasons. Firstly, early recorded history of Korea, like the early recorded history of virtually every other culture in the world, is a mix of both history and legend. This is the result of verbal retelling of historical events before they were recorded in written form. Most of what is known about early Korean history comes from famous writings during the Medieval times such as the Samguk Yusa and other eclectic volumes of Korean History.

Secondly, stemming from the historical uncertainty as to which origin story is 'true', the individual's philosophies and religious backgrounds influence what story they believe to be the 'true' origin of Korean tea. The following writings are mostly taken from factual sources, partially from verbal retellings, and are the end product of the outflow of the authors thoughts. Read them all, enjoy, learn, have fun, and decide for yourself as to which seems more likely...

Tea is the stuff of legends. It is so ingrained into the psyche of some Koreans that some say it was given to them by the gods. And as one sips ones cup of green, who could argue?

Steam slowly rolls out of my tea cooling bowl just as mist must have covered Heaven Lake atop the holy Mount Teabeck around 2333 B.C. It was at this time and place when Hawanin, 'the lord of heaven' with his son, Hwanung, and 3000 followers was said to have ministered from heaven. Accompanied by the clouds, rain, and wind, Hawain founded the city of god, enacted laws and moral codes, and imparted knowledge of art, medicine, and agriculture. This transmission of immeasurable knowledge surely contained in it how to grow, use, and enjoy tea?

It has been recorded that these pre-historic peoples first learned the basic principles of tea by steeping the tender first spring shoots of a flowering plant related to the flowering azalea that grew wild on the slopes surrounding Mount Teabeck. This tea is commonly known as 'baeksan cha' or 'white mountain tea' and although it is not of the family of Camella sinensis, it is picked, prepared, and consumed in a similar manner. The knowledge gained from drinking this herbal tea likely acted as a precursor to the eventual production of green tea in Korea.

So it was said that a tiger and a bear pleaded and prayed to Hwanung to become human. Upon hearing their pleas, Hwanung told them that if they could stay in a cave completely devoid of even the smallest crack of sunlight and feed on nothing but 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort for 100 days, they would have their prayers answered. The tiger unable to bear the horrible conditions left the cave after 20 days. The bear managed to stay the 100 days. When the bear left the cave it was apparent that it had transformed into a woman.

The bear-woman was grateful, she made offerings to Hwanung, and gave thanks to him. Although she was grateful, she became sad. She was unable to find a husband. Once again she pleaded and prayed, and Hwanung, feeling sorrow for her and extremely moved by her devotion, took her as his wife. Soon she bore a child named, Dangun Wanggeom.

Hwanung's son, Dangun Wanggeom, built many cities and towns, became the first King of the Korean Peninsula and founder of the Gojoseon Dynasty of Korea. His territory and influence is said to stretch far and wide. Is it too far fetched to imagine that his reach could have touched the seeds of the Camiella sinensis? With the knowledge gained from his heavenly grandfather, Hawain, and experience from cultivating herbal teas, could the tea bush have spread among the southern edges of his rule thereby giving birth to the Korean way of the tea?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gye Yal Style: Stroking Zen

High up the mountains, entrenched in the nature that engulfs it, lies a kiln. This kiln is of the traditional variety, no modern necessities such as gas, or high tech materials are employed. The cackling of burning wood can be heard from the kiln as smoke billows out the earthen chimney. The potter too is one with his kiln, with the nature that he is a part of. The potter, happily and carefree, submits to his work.

Throwing, turning, decorating, glazing, and firing. Throwing, turning, decorating, glazing, and firing. Throwing, turning, decorating, glazing, and firing.

This is the rhythm of the potter as he turns out thousands and thousands of bowls in thoughtless bliss. Unrestrained by thought, beauty, or restriction. Like mantra in action- product is mass produced. The gye yal (Jap: Hakeme, Eng: brushstroke, brushmark, brush slip), is added in this manner without thought, without fuss, just as another step in the process of production.

The brush used is made up of whatever can be found or used, there is no fuss as to what the brush is made of, whatever is near will due just fine. The soft tails of straw rice, hair, hemp, grasses, a cloth, or a piece of fabric is gathered by the potter.

When the turning is finished and the pot green hard, as the throwing wheel slowly creeps to a stop the slip is broadly applied. In an instant, without thought, uncalculated, free like the natural flow of life, the whims of nature, unconsciously mirroring nature, the potter leaves his mark.

Produced in this manner the brushstroke is Zen.

As one admires it today, they are also liberated. Following the trail of the slip, one transcends ones mind, becoming one mind. Like the brisk stroke of a brush, like the hand of the potter, like his carefree life, like the nature that envelops the kiln- one is free.

These two tea drinking bowls (top four pics are one bowl, the bottom four are the other) were produced in this manner by Kim Kyoung Soo. They are wonderful examples of a 'one shot' brushstroke, famous in the works of Kim Kyoung Soo. Mimicking the functional method for producing bowls first developed in Korea hundreds of years ago, the Korean potters of today invoke Zen in this same manner.

They often produce tens of thousands of tea bowls, only to smash all but a select few into tinny little pieces, returning to the earth what was stripped from it, giving thanks.


Friday, April 18, 2008

A Look at the Different Grades of Pal Yoh Matcha

A little background on the matcha.

This matcha comes from the Yame region of the Fukoka Prefecture. This region is located on the Japanese island of Kyushu and is known for its sweet rich gyokuro green tea and matcha. One could go on and on about the history and harmonious environment of this region but Yame Tea has already done such a great job of that.

The Yame region is one of the most famous tea producing areas in Japan, the others are Uji, near Kyoto and Nishi, on Honshu. Pinched in by two rivers and misty mountains, scenic, definitely worth a road trip if you're ever in that area of Japan.

This picturesque backdrop presents the perfect environmental conditions for the production of matcha and gyokuro. The temperature differential, drainage, high precipitation, and pristine environment all contribute to this regions excellent tea. This Japanese research paper goes into detail about the history, cultivation methods, and manufacturing technology of Yame tea... If I could only knew Japanese!

Now that you know a lot more than any one person needs to know about the Yame tea region (or lazily skipped all those linky-link-link-links) lets look at the matcha.

These four cans of matcha are all produced by Pal Yoh (Korean Name) within days of each other. They come from the same tea fields so supposedly differences between these teas will be due solely to the quality of the power(the pics show the colour variance from Green Label, top, to Pink Label, bottom).

These four grades are divided as follows:

Ji Beck: green label, thick tea, the highest quality
Seng Roh: yellow label, thick tea, thiner than green label
Pal Yoh Roh: blue label, thin tea, thiner than yellow label
Pal Yoh Hwa: pink label, thin tea, thiner than blue label

For ease of discussion they will simply be referred to as Green Label, Yellow Label, Blue Label, and Pink Label respectively.

Each matcha was produced with the same water source, utensils, and tea drinking bowl. The amount of water used remained constant, enough for three satisfying gulps of tea as dictated by the powdered tea ceremony. The amount of tea was also held constant, the amount of one bamboo scoop (Kor: chachik, Jap: cha shaku) is shown below.

Two chachiks of matcha were used for the first tasting, if no unpleasantness was detected, then three were added for the next tasting, if still no repulsing bitterness was detected, then four was used.

The following teas were prepared and consumed with love and a still mind.

Ji Beck, Green Label

Upon opening this canister, a light plume of thick, rich, sweet odor slithers into my nose, my mind. It is not overpowering, just a pleasant mildness. It almost didn't smell like tea- something more, something else. The colour, bight exuberant green, unnatural for any living thing except high quality matcha.

This matcha displays small bubbles tangled in a thick milky light green froth after whisking.
The thick syrupy sledge slides down the tongue, throat, and into the stomach leaving behind a trail of pleasant mild astringency and sweetness. The most wonderful feeling is left on the tip of ones tongue- a testament to its astringenic sweetness. When it hits the stomach its energy radiates throughout the body- a calming, alertness prevails.

This is what separates a good matcha from the bad, good sweetness/astringency balance, the mouthfeel and qi. The Green Label exquisitely displays all of these qualities.

When three or four chachiks are used the tea thickens even more so. The head of the froth is more pronounced and the taste seems more balanced between astringency and sweetness- with good astringency slightly tipping the scale.

One has to push this tea to five chachiks before bitter elements emerge, once one goes over the line they pay for it. Having ones innards coated in thick bliss is an experience, having ones innards coated in bitter is also an experience, albeit a horrible one. The encompassing bitter follows one around for what seems like hours afterward.

Seng Roh, Yellow Label

The smell of the powder seems sweeter but less rich than the Green Label. Its colour is more vibrant than green in colour compared to the Green Label. Its power, noticeably thinner than the Green Label. Not to be overshadowed, it still shows signs of being a stellar tea- another delight of the senses.

The froth is much less thick than the green label with slightly larger bubbles more noticeable in the head.

With two chachiks of powder used, the taste is more watery, lighter, and less complete than the Green Label. It has less good astringency but about the same level of sweetness. The mouthfeel is lighter and less noticeable. More powder has to be used to fully appreciate the yellow label. When three chachiks are used a chaulky-thick, sweet aftertaste is felt on the tounge where good astringency emerges in moderate thickness. When four chachiks are used, the tea is still less thick and syrupy than the green label but the mouthfeel is full and complete. Sweetness and pleasant astringency hiding all bitterness. This tea is felt less in the throat, barely in the stomach, and more directly on the tongue itself. The qi of this tea radiates outward, similar to that of the green label.

This tea is only slightly less than that of the Green Label- a blessing in and of itself. In some ways one prefers its chalky sweetness and lighter character over the pleasurable suffocation that the Green offers.

Pal Yoh Roh, Blue Label

The powder ascends as the canister is cracked and slight sweetness mingles with spicy, musty tones that weren't present or perhaps were hidden in the Green and Yellow Labels. The sweetness, much less noticeable. The colour, a much more hazy green, lacking the vibrancy of the Yellow and Green Labels.

As expected, the froth is considerably thinner and more watery. However, unlike the thick teas, the Blue Label exudes a taste and smell that one could find when walking in a damp, dense coniferous forest. Its soup has a watery lightness with much less follow through. It doesn't coat ones mouth like the Green and Yellow Labels. Overall, its quite pleasant by retaining its sweetness. The taste stays with one though mainly on the tip and edges of the tongue and lacks that coating feeling down the throat and into the stomach.

Anything over two chachiks will make one instintually gag. Two chachiks seems just right if one hopes to draw out the optimal flavor. One finds oneself consuming this matcha on a daily basis mainly due to its interesting flavour and light nature suited for consumption anytime.

Pal Yoh Hwa, Pink Label

The powder colour of the Pink Label is almost indistinguishable from that of the Blue Label. The difference lies in the smell, as the Pink Label has a fleeting sweet note mostly hidden by sour and pungent odors.

Two chachiks are whisked with a clear mind. The look of the froth is also very similar as is its taste. It exhibits the same forest-like taste. Its taste is simple yet pleasant as the sweetness is much less than that of the Blue Label but its dry/bitter astringency is slightly more.
One of the biggest differences is the mouthfeel. When a gulp is taken, this tea stimulates the front and sides of the tongue and doesn't engulf the mouth. The feeling is like the Blue Label but thinner on the tongue.

Joy can be taken in this teas mere simplicity.

All four labels offer something different, individual, and special in there own right. They are different and they are the same. They are to be consumed in the moment, only compared to themselves, if they are to be truly appreciated.

Due to the preemptive inquisition by Tea Nerd one dug up two internet retailers that sell this matcha. The Yellow Label is for sale at Bassaro and the Blue Label can be obtained though Yame Tea .


Saturday, April 12, 2008

2007 Nok Ya Won Sejak Hadong Green Tea

Preparing green tea the Korea way involves brewing with a water temperature much below the boiling point. Sometimes water as low as 50 degrees is used for the first infusion. The low temperature teases out the subtleties of flavour in particularly fine tea. As a general rule of thumb, the temperature for the first infusion is lower than the second and the temperature for the second infusion is lower than the third, and so on.

The steeping time is also varied to illicit the most flavour. Similar to water temperature, the steeping time also increases as the number of infusions increase. The steeping time for the second infusion is longer than the first and the steeping time for the third infusion is long than the second, and so on. It is very important that all the water is removed from the leaves after each infusion.

The grade of tea based on picking season is generally used as a rough guide or as a starting point as to what the temperature of the water should be (link to explanation of Korean grades).

Ujeon: 60 degrees
Sejak: 70 degrees
Jungjak: 80 degrees
Deajak: 90 degrees

The temperature should only increase in subsequent infusions by just a few degrees each time. The time of infusion should also not exceed one minute. For one to truly make a full flavored cup of Korean green tea, one must rely on experience and intuition and not on a formula.

Steeping a tea too long with water that is too hot brings out the bitter elements in the infusion that overpower the other finer tastes of the tea. Steeping a tea for too short a time with water that is too cold makes the brew weak and watery. Finding the optimal steeping time and temperature resolves these issues.

Some Koreans use a longer first steep with warmer water and a shorter second steep with cooler water before adhering to an escalating pattern of increasing temperature and steeping time from the second infusion. This softens up the leaf considerably during the first infusion which also allows the leaf to be more receptive to subsequent infusions.

Making tea the Korean way means that one will infuse the same leaves until they are absolutely exhausted. This may have developed in Korea because throughout some periods of Korea's history tea was a delicacy only afforded by the rich and affluent. Or, perhaps this tradition comes from the Buddhist philosophy of economy, thrift, and full appreciation of the gifts of all living things. Either way, tea is respectfully pushed beyond its capabilities until it is spent. And so I push this tea...

Nok Ya Won is the name of a tea shop in Daegu that sells their own tea. The name Nok Ya Won is Korean for Buddha's Enlightenment. The shop offers a little of this as does its traditionally-made green tea from the valley surrounding the wild tea fields of Hadong.

Opening the new foil bag, opening the mind, reveals an intoxicating aroma.

Nutty, Woody, Pine Needles, Seaweed.

The smell would make any tea lover drool all over the place. Rich and complex it stirs ones mind, excited about what is to come.

In the first infusion, a saltiness and woodiness can be detected. Sweet, but more flavored than sweet.

The second round, the peak brew, reveals a full spectrum of tastes- sweet, salty, bitter, and a tat sour. Nutty and woody flavours break away from the pack and throw a real party with ones taste buds.

The later infusions become sweeter and noticeably lighter before the subtle woody pine tones and sweetness give way to dry astringency, and simple woody taste.

By the sixth infusion the tea is pushed past its limit, exhausted, it gives birth to only colourful, hardly sweet water.

Giving thanks I make just one more infusion.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tornado Style of Buncheong

This tea drinking bowl is more typical of Lee Kang Hyo's style.

A grey base with swirling white on the inner and outer walls of the bowl. Like the tornado of our ever moving mind, it mirrors within what it sees without.

Picking up with it oranges and pinks torn from the earthen clay below.

Are you able to calm your turbulent mind as you take a sip?