Monday, August 29, 2011

Hadong, South Korea- A Recognized Cittaslow, Hadong Tea- A Slow Food

Hadong, South Korea is a special place. Unlike most places in Korea its pace is, well, a lot slower. Slow enough to be recognized as an official Cittaslow, a slow city, promoting the slow food and slow movement. It is special in a sense because it is the only recognized slow tea city in the world. The contrast in the pace of life is quite stark from the rest of the country with its speed trains, tech savy population, and fast pace lifestyle. As a reaction to this almost unavoidable pace of life, Korea has done much to support the slow food and slow movement and in 2009 five slow cities in South Korea were recognized by cittaslow including the Akyang village of Hadong.

When you think of it though, all villages throughout Asia that grow and drink tea in the traditional way are, in fact, slow cities. The problem is that almost all tea areas and cities have since mechanized and/or used some sort of fertilizers/ pesticides in at least some aspect of the tea production in the area or have lost some aspect of their traditional tea culture. This is what makes Hadong so special- it is really hard to find these unnatural (and obviously so much 'faster') ways of growing and producing tea. The slow tea movement of Hadong is essentially a modern revival and trendier renaming of what is traditional growing, producing, preparation, and consumption of tea- nothing more. What is sad is that a certification agency is needed to protect and promote these things and that they are not simply protected and promoted for their own sake.

Boseong is usually the tea producing area that first comes to mind for Koreans because of its relationship with Korean pop culture. Hadong is slowly gaining national and international notoriety for exactly the opposite reasons. Handong is setting a excellent example of how tea areas, towns, and cities throughout Asia can preserve and promote their traditional tea culture.


Thanks to Alex Zorach of Alex Zorach's Tea Blog and his post on "Tea as Slow Food" and to Gingko of Life In Teacup and her post on how to enjoy tea (or noodles) in the spirit of slow food. They motivated one to put these old notes jotted down years ago into a post. Please do have a look at thier great posts for more on the subject of slow food and tea.

Double Peace

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Korean Tea Classics Book Club- Dong Cha Song- Hymn In Praise of Korean Tea- 11

"I have a rock spring, so I brew Excellent Blue and A Hundred-Year Life.
How shall I offer some to Old Hae at the foot of Mongmyeok Mountain?"

Feel free to join the online book club at anytime by simply purchasing Korean Tea Classics. Dong Cha Song is 17 stanzas in length, we will go through each stanza week by week. Jump in and join the discussion as you please.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Harmonizing Water and Tea: Part 11- Pouring Technique

This is a continuation of a discussion on pouring. See part 10- Pouring Method (here) before continuing...

Once the person making the tea decides on a boiling vessel (and type of ladle if applicable) then the next element of the pour that should be considered is the human element of the pour. There are four variables of the pouring technique that can dramatically influence the final cup of tea- the height of the pour, the forcefulness or vigor of the pour, the direction of the pour, and the intent or mindset of the person pouring the water.

The higher the pour, the more time water is in contact with air. In ancient times it was thought that the relatively heavier water would be infused with the light essence of the air thereby infusing lighter characteristics into the water. Today there is some talk of oxidizing the water, where more exposure to air imparts more oxygen into the water. Any scientists out there who want to explain this? One thing that is for sure is that as more surface area of hot water is exposed to air for a longer time, the more the water will cool in temperature. Due to these reasons a higher pour which gives the water a lighter and cooler quality naturally harmonizes better with lighter teas such as whites, greens, and greener oolong, a medium pour which moderately lightens and cools is best with Korean yellow tea and some well oxidized oolong, a low pour which retains the heat and heavier nature harmonizes best with darker, heavier teas such as red tea, and aged puerh tea.

The force and vigor of the pour will also impact the end product. This factor is often overlooked because it is not as obvious to the observer.

Extremely vigerous pour which violently jostles the leaves in the pot is thought to impart overly harsh characteristics. The resulting tea is often described as oversteeped, bitter/sour taste, and/ or harsh and choking mouthfeel. It also exhausts the leaves much faster over many infusions. On the other hand, a very gentle, trickling pour which barely stirs the leaves at all is thought to impart overly gentle/ passive characteristics. The resulting tea is often described as understeeped, watery taste, and absent mouthfeel. The person pouring water should always strive for the middle way pouring with just enough vigor to gently stirr and tumble the leaves in the teapot with the incoming stream of water. It should still be noted that deeper, heavier, darker teas harmonize best with somewhat more vigerous pouring and lighter, cooler, more subtle teas harmonize best with a relatively gentle pour. However, a very gentle pour does harmonize very nicely with the lightest most subtle teas- softly coaxing out the soft compexities and subtleties of pre qing ming dragonwell and ujeon grade green teas.

The direction of the pour should also be considered. For most cases the stream of water should be directed to the wall of the teapot (or other steeping vessel), when possible. This is to create a nice tumbling action of the leaves in the pot. When pouring directly over the leaves it can often be too harsh and bring out somewhat undesirable qualities. Pouring water directly over mellowed, aged teas such as aged puerh and black teas will not impact the final cup as much as fresher lighter teas. Still most of the time teamasters are in the habit of not pouring water directly over the leaves if the steeping vessel allows. A cooling bowl is also used from ladle to teapot to help control elements of the pour such as direction- you can see how this could be important when preparing, say a very light ujeon grade green tea.

The last, and most overlooked, element of the pour that should always be considered is the mindset of the person pouring the water, preparing the tea. Those with malicious intent, such as a tea shop owner who wishes to make one tea look better than another, will impart negative qualities into the tea whereas someone who has loving intent will make a much better tea. There are three mindsets that we will examine here- the malicious mindset, the unfocused/ or unaware mindset, and the mindful/ meditative mindset.

The malicious mindset is was mentioned above, people in this mindset also alter other elements of the method and pouring technique to bring out a bad cup of tea. This is different than someone who is maybe in a bad mood and is just not aware of it- this would fall into the second group, the unaware mindset. Whether in a good or bad mood, this is probably where most people are and so the internal environment of the person pouring the water (and preparing the tea) impacts the final product.

Truly amazing tea comes from those who have been honing their mindset for years. Often you hear stories about how a student following a teamaster for several years still cannot make the amazing pot of tea that his master can. The best teamasters go beyond just mindfulness and recite prayers, meditate, do some sort of energy manipulation, or dwell in a 'no-mind' state. These are often closely guarded secrets of teamasters that are rarely discussed but no doubt have a subtle effect on the cup of tea. Just starting with a mindful approach you will start noticing improvements in the tea you drink.

Happy pouring...


Harmonizing Water and Tea: Part 10- Pouring Method

The method and technique of pouring water into the teapot is an important factor in harmonizing water and tea. The instance when water finally embraces dry leaves is one of the junctures in preparing tea where the elements converge- a very important moment in the energetic and chemical reaction of making tea. Most often attention is payed to water temperature and steeping time and occasionally how the steeping vessel (teapot) impacts the final cup of tea. However, very little attention is payed to the pouring method and technique- the focus of today's discussion. Even though pouring method and technique are not given the attention they deserve by most people preparing tea, they are rarely overlooked by keen teamasters. The pour can make the difference between a great cup of tea and an extrordinary cup of tea.

The first thing that should be considered are the mechanics of the pour that are dictated by the boiling vessel. Water is either poured directly from the boiling vessel into the teapot (or other steeping vessel) or scooped from the boiling vessel by a ladle then poured into the teapot. Both of these create subtle differences that should be considered when preparing tea.

Water that is poured directly from the spout of the kettle or tetsubin retains more of the unadulterated essence of the boiling vessel because it doesn't come in contact with anything but air between the kettle and teapot. As a result less heat is lost with this method. Pouring water directly from a kettle or tetsubin is best used for teas requiring high temperatures such as aged puerh, black tea, and red tea.

The purity of a silver pot is also retained by pouring it directly from the spout- which is especially good for lighter, more subtle teas such as early pick green tea, white tea, and green oolong. This method of pouring retains the pure essence of the water to ensure that these pure, soft tastes can be realized.

Using a ladle to scoop water from the boiling vessel and pour it into the teapot is a method that is occasionally found in Japan and Korea. Both of these nations use a different kind of ladle which subtlety impacts the water used for tea.

In Japan a ladle is made of bamboo called a hishaku is used. Water comes in contact with the bamboo and so the taste, feel, and qi of the water is influenced. A bamboo ladle harmonizes best with matcha and green teas. Booth green tea and bamboo have similar energetic properties- they are cold thermal nature, they are of the wood element, they are green in colour, they both help harmonize the body to spring season, they act to calm the mind, ect. So the use of a bamboo ladle to scoop water from a boiling vessel is said to enhance the energetic properties of green tea. It is no coincidence that this pouring technique is done in Japan where they almost exclusively drink green tea.

In Korea a gourd ladle called a pyo choo bak is used. Water comes in contact with the gourd and so the taste, feel, and qi of the water is influenced. A gourd ladle harmonizes best with later picked green teas and especially balhyocha (Korean yellow tea). Both balhyocha and pumpkin (gourds) share similar energetic properties- they are neutral thermal nature, they are of the earth element, they are yellow in colour, they both help harmonize the body to late fall and to changes of the season, they act to center the body and mind and are good for digestion, ect. So the use of a gourd ladle to scoop water from a boiling vessel is said to enhance the energetic properties of balhyocha. It is no wonder that these scoops are used in Korea where balhyocha is produced.

A continuation of this discussion is located in Part 11- Pouring Technique (here)...


Friday, August 19, 2011

Korean Tea Classics Book Club- Dong Cha Song- Hymn In Praise of Korean Tea- 10

"Tea made in the Eastern Land is identical to the original.
In color, scent and taste it is granted the same high merit."

Feel free to join the online book club at anytime by simply purchasing Korean Tea Classics. Dong Cha Song is 17 stanzas in length, we will go through each stanza week by week. Jump in and join the discussion as you please.


Monday, August 15, 2011

2011 Mystery Korean Foil Bag Tea #1

With this year's shipment of Korean tea came a few surprises. Two of these surprises were 80-100g unmarked, unopened foil bags each with a clip on one end. These bags are a common sight in Korea and are the standard packaging for any tea- really, it could be anything.

One is in a mood for some Korean green tea this afternoon, a need to be refreshed and revitalized on this sunny summer day, so let's take a chance on one of these foil bags. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe...

One scoops the boiling water from the tang gwan into the cooling pot, picks up the scissors, and snips open the bag...

The odour that emits from these medium dusty black-dark-brown leaves are unreal. Deep, very rich chocolately notes fill the air. The dark chocolate smell turns creamy and milky and are overwhelmingly coco with a very faint dusty odour also barely noted. Soon one is convinced that some Korean yellow tea (Balhyocha) is more appropriate than green- why resist destiny?

These leaves are placed in a warm pot and water is poured from the cooling bowl.

The first infusion pours a very crisp, clear yellow broth- extraordinarily clear and vibrant for balhyocha. The watery soup has distinct notes of coco that carry on into the long aftertaste. The mouthfeel is watery, smooth, and refreshing. It turns nutty on the breath.

The second infusion delivers a clear refreshing taste of milky coco. Strong nutty notes immerse themselves in this coco taste. The aftertaste is long nutty coco. This balhyocha is the extremely refreshing type- perfect on this summer day.

The third infusion is smooth and watery, now with the nutty taste delivering in the initial flavour burst encroaching coco which was once the more dominant coco notes. The mouthfeel is soft and pools in the back and mid throat. The qi of this tea is very renewing. The mind becomes tranquil, the body light and supple. This tea has very nice qi- no doubt a wild/ semi-wild Jirsan area balhyocha.

The fourth and fifth infusion sees woody tastes emerging in the initial flavour with distinctly nutty and chocolate notes being pushed more to the later taste profile and aftertaste. The mouthfeel is picking up strength with each infusion supplying a nice light coat for the mid throat and back of the mouth.

The sixth and seventh infusions become more juicy, very juicy, with more wood notes also noticed. By the seventh infusion the coco notes have almost disappeared. The aftertaste is sweet and nutty.

The eighth infusion is thick and malty with honey notes bringing strong apricot-pear taste to this tea. The aftertaste slowly transitions from these tastes to one that is nutty and chocolaty. The mouthfeel is still soft and round. This tea has stamina and could have probably been pushed further so one pours boiling water over it for one more 24hrs steeping.

(The overnight steeping was vibrant with a nice, rich, velvety, pear- apple fruit taste. This tea has great stamina- likely a sign of older growth.)


Friday, August 12, 2011

Korean Tea Classics Book Club- Dong Cha Song- Hymn In Praise of Korean Tea- 9

"In his letter requesting tea, Master Dasan said (that the best times to drink tea were): "When the flowers begin to open early in the morning, when clouds float white in a clear sky, on waking after a daytime doze, when bright moonlight is reflected in a clear stream.""

Feel free to join the online book club at anytime by simply purchasing Korean Tea Classics. Dong Cha Song is 17 stanzas in length, we will go through each stanza week by week. Jump in and join the discussion as you please.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

2011 Ssang Kye Saejak Semi Wild Handong Green Tea

One had posted about the 2009 production a few years ago. The 2009 offering was of very high quality compared to previous years and other producers of the same year. With one's Korean tea order coming late summer, and considering the high price of Korean tea this season, only one box of saejak grade was purchased this season- this box from Ssang Kye.

Ssang Kye is one of only a few producers in Korea that has quite a long history and has proven themselves year after year. They process a tea that is deeper and richer than others in the region- something that retains its essence much longer than some of the more subtle saejak grades from nearby producers. The more subtle saejaks are best consumed immediately but for a mid- to late- summer tea, Ssang kye's seajak feels more appropriate.

Let's see how 2011 has treated Ssang kye...

The dry leaves smell of roasted pines, somewhat fresh and cool with a slight creamy-green back notes. There is a subtle hint of something spicy. When these leaves hit the warmed pot, notes of bread cereal and corn linger out as well as nice forested base.

The first infusion is prepared in ceremony and delivers a grassy, potato, forested taste with barely noticeable nutty-roasted notes hiding in there. The foresty taste lingers in the mouth with a light tangy-lime nuance hanging on. A sticky subtle bland note hangs in there as well. The front of the throat and most of the mouth is nicely stimulated.

The second infusion is more leafy forest, grass, and a touch of seaweed. These very green tea tastes emerge here. This tea is not so sweet with just a tiny touch of sweetness that courts bland tastes. It finishes barely nutty and roasted with deeper forested notes less represented. The mouth and throat feel remain solid.

The third infusion is full of bread, forest, and wood tastes with just a slight sweet-tangy lime finish. There are very faint nutty notes that now appear more in the initial taste than the aftertaste. The qi makes the body light and the mind calm.

The fourth infusion has woody barely nutty tastes which reside in the overall light forest base. The nut flavours turn to a very subtle hint of chocolate before fading away. The finish is barely sweet lime that lingers for a long, long while in the mouth afterwards.

The fifth infusion is prepared and has woody dry grass like tastes up front with faint roasted notes. The fresh forest base is giving way to a mainly woody profile. The aftertaste is mainly just this underlying dry wood profile with ghostly hints of the flavours of past infusions laying under a soft bland-sweet base.

The sixth infusion becomes more watery and woody with an aftertaste that is woody and nutty. The forest base has dropped off and wood notes have taken over. The sweet element of this tea floats around like a ghost in ones mouth.

The seventh is a roasted woody-nutty bland taste with nothing much holding it together. The mouthfeel is still satisfying so one drinks a few more pots before retiring this tea late morning.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Factors Influencing the Price Increase of Korean Tea

The shelf prices of Hwagae Valley Korean tea have increased tremendously from 2009 to 2011. Prices of the old famous producers such as Jukro (Jookro) and Ssangkae are pretty much fixed across Korea (as noted on their web pages), a study on the shelf price of these teas gives us a pretty good idea of what is happening to prices of Korean tea. Note a personal example of how the standard shelf price has changed:


Jukro Saejak 30 000 South Korean Won
Ssangkae Saejak 30 000 South Korean Won
Jukro Yellow Tea 30 000 South Korean Won


Jukro Saejak 45 000 South Korean Won
Ssangkae Saejak 45 000 South Korean Won
Jukro Yellow Tea 50 000 South Korean Won

Why did the price increase so much? The reason is much more complicated than just the colder than average Winter and Springs and low yields that you have been hearing about...

First off, the actual quality of the tea is not a factor in the year-to-year increase in price. Some years, Jukro Ujeon is thought to be of arguably better quality than other years but the price doesn't seem to reflect the quality. It is important to note that these famous Ssangye area tea producers are very good at producing a fairly consistent, high quality tea from year to year, so the difference in quality is very minimal. However, smaller relatively unknown producers from the same region ARE impacted by the quality of their tea from year to year. Price differences can reflect this but the below factors have influenced the price much more than quality over the last three years.

Increased demand both nationally and internationally, increase in the cost of production, and decrease in yield all seem to be having a synergistic effect on the increasing price of Hwagae tea.

Increase in wealth and stability in the Korean economy has lead to an increase in the purchase of luxury goods (tea at this price is a luxury). Also there has been a recent interest in all things "traditional" in nature of which Korean tea, pottery, and tea ceremony fall into. This interest in the traditional arts of Korea is both a reaction to a globalized world, a result of an increase of wealth, but more importantly, a movement where a sometimes historically repressed Korea is reclaiming its culture. All of these factors have increased demand for tea grown in the most traditional of green tea growing areas, Hwagae Valley.

International demand and interest in Korean teas have increased tremendously over the last few years. Outside of Korea people are becoming more educated about Korean tea. Before 2007 there was only Brother Anthony's webpage that offered information on Korean tea- nothing else on the net or in print was available in English. Now you can find lots of good information on the web and even a few books the focus on Korean tea. Before 2007 Jokro, Ssangkye, and Joytea didn't even market their tea outside of Korea, now these big Hwagae Producers are often in attendance at all the big international tea festivals. On top of this publicity and public awareness about the Korean brand Korean teas have racked up its fair share of international awards particularly in Japan. All of these have added up to an increase in demand in tea drinking countries around the world.

An increase in production costs is another factor that is likely leading to the increase in prices. The traditional movement has even spurred those who once worked as business executives in Seoul to renounce the modern Korean and trade their suits for hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) to live the traditional rural life emulating the monks and aesthetics of long ago. More and more old farmers are being replaced by businessmen driving late model cars (Hogo you can attest to this). The old ladies that would work the fields picking the tea for almost free are dying off with no cheap labourers replacing them- a story seen in every aspect of agriculture in Korea. As Korea becomes more wealthy the cost of the very labour intensive production of traditional Korean tea will continue to keep prices high.

Most people, especially here in the West, are pegging the yearly increase in price solely on low yields caused by the colder than normal Winter and Spring. Although this may be the enough reason to increase the price, will yields back to the pre-2010 levels in the near future deliver prices of 30 000W ever again?- probably not. Prices we see today are likely to be the norm. The days of 25$-a-box all hand produced semi-wild hwagae saejak grade green tea have come and gone.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lee Kang Hyo Gye Hal Style Tea Bowls

These are some rather random shots of two dynamic Lee Kang Hyo tea bowls. Lee Kang Hyo's Gye Yal style is bold, as if challenging the untethered mind.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Korean Tea Classics Book Club- Dong Cha Song- Hymn In Praise of Korean Tea- 8

"A follower of the Way constantly sought tea's perfect beauty,
planting it with his own hands on Mount Meng.
When he had five pounds of it he offered it to the prince."

Feel free to join the online book club at anytime by simply purchasing Korean Tea Classics. Dong Cha Song is 17 stanzas in length, we will go through each stanza week by week. Jump in and join the discussion as you please.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

2010 Yunnan Sourcing Pasha

This sample was gifted by Hobbes with about a hundred others. One sampled this tea just before traveling last month.

The Yunnan Sourcing website provides great background on the Pasha tea growing region and makes claims that this tea has a "strong pungent mouthfeel" and "cha qi [that] is very energetic and lasting". Let's drink some tea a see if it is true to these claims.

The dry leaves are a mix of many white and very hairy long, big leaves. They smell of very sweet florals- you can smell a pungent kick to these leaves.

The first infusion is prepared and pours a brown yellowish colour. Very soft, sweet somewhat spicy straw and potato sweetness slowly slides away into a bland dryness. A rubbery, bland wood taste is left as an aftertaste. The lips, mouth, and throat are veiled in a thin dryness.

The second infusion begins watery, light, and woody in its initial stage. Very little fruity sweetness returns, what does is only a brief glimmer before turning into dry wood and dry rubber in the mouth. This tea has very little sweetness, if any. It grips the mouth with a thin, rubbery dryiness. Even when less leaf is used this unpleasant sensation remains. The aftertaste is so light and overshadowed by the mouthfeel that it could very easily not exist, lost in the tugging mouthfeel.

The third and fourth infusions are similar with the same watery wood start with no inital sweetness. There is just a glimpse of berry notes before descending into dry, rubbery wood in the mouth. The aftertaste shows signs of green wood that seems to amplify the unpleasent taste of dry and bland. The chaqi quietly retches the stomach and shows harshness to the bowels even when less leaf is used.

In the fifth infusion the pleasant but brief berry taste seems to be getting longer with each infusion. The inial taste carries some hay notes on top of the berry notes that fade quickly to dry, rubbery wood. The aftertaste here has some interesting sour grapefruit notes, the mouthfeel is developing some sharper edges.

In the sixth infusion the berry taste has been pushed into the returning sweetness which is not really sweet at all. There is the faintest hints of these flavours in the aftertaste which is somewhat sour again. The chaqi has a harsh physical presence but does not even nudge the mind.

In the seventh infusion the harshness of this tea relents a bit leaving more lighter notes but they are still very faint and, at times, barely detectable.

In the eighth infusion lighter tangy berry notes are so faint but are there and are now the dominant taste in this very mild tasting tea. These tastes disappear into a rubbery almost bubble gum aftertaste. Very faint but complex florals now emerge.

The ninth infusion shows the depth of lighter notes that were once washed away by the harsher elements. The tastes of black berries, raspberries, florals come out to play with the tastebuds.

The tenth infusion starts with a very light fruity wood taste then turns to wood and slight rubber and ends in a berry taste. The long eleventh shows tastes of fruity chokecherries and becomes mild and creamy. There is nothing left to this tea after one long infusion.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Finding Tea In Old Chinese Medicine Shops

There are not so many places in North America where you can just stumble upon nice, forgotten, aged tea. Even thoughtout Asia these days, finds of old forgotten treasures are rare. Once in a while you hear of people hitting jackpot (see here and here). But your chances of this are slimmer than winning the lottery. In North America your chances are almost 10 000 times less likely. However, coming across some forgotten 10-20 years aged teas for the original asking price is not that far fetched here in North America.

The best place to look are those old, run down, Chinese herbologist shops in town. These shops frequent the Chinatowns of North America- almost every city has one. Chances are that you will probably only come across cheap, poorly produced shu puerh that smells like medicinal herbs or poor, mass produced Tie Guan Yin that is now just a few years old. These old, and often overlooked shops are also your best chance for finding some treasures.

One happened to stumble upon some, yet to be sampled, aged teas that are in the 8-20 year category- a 2004 Xiaguan "Zhi" tou, a very worn 250g box of Anxi oolong, and two sun faded and stained 325 g cylinders of Taiwanese oolong. These teas were found in one of these run down shops. The owner seemed happier than ever that one was clearing out all that was left of his old tea which he explained has been sitting up on that shelf for years and years.
One sampled the Anxi and it tasted solid. Be prepared for tasting notes of these mystery teas over the coming weeks and months.

Feels good to be back behind the tea table.