Friday, July 25, 2014
A few days after our trip to Cheong Seok Gol, I was dropping off the photos at Kkik Da Geo just as they were just beginning their Wednesday night tea class. So, I tried a cup of gu jeung gu po they were discussing then began my quiet exit. I bowed to Prof Ahn and motioned that I would leave and he responded by holding up a bag of puer and asked, "Jo-sep, 100-year old Dong-Gyeong cha, do you know?" "AN GAYO! (NOT GOING!)" I replied, and returned to my seat... (I'd once heard him mention this tea but never thought I'd get a chance to try it!)
As he slowly heated and rinsed the pot and cups, replaced the screen inside the pot, shook out the last few drops of water, the anticipation grew. I'd only heard him mention this tea once, a few years ago and never thought I'd lay eyes on it myself. I thought maybe he would had a few small chunks from the bag into the pear-shaped pot, but instead he slowly scooped poured the whole bag in. I couldn't believe he was able to fit it all the the tall but slender pear-shaped pot.
He gave it a relatively long first steep, about 45 seconds. Even before he began to pour, the scent was heavy around the table. My mouth began watering. With twelve of us in the room, and the pot full of leaf, it took three full steeps to fill everyone's cup.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to follow much of what Prof Ahn had to say about the tea, but I gathered that it was one of the students who'd bought the tea from them twenty years ago, and brought it back as a generous offering to share with the class. Everyone gave her a short bow and thanked her. A 300 gram cake of this tea is worth about $100,000 (if you can find someone who is willing to sell, let alone find it at all, I'll add). "remember how many cups you drink!" he joked. "Even Chinese people rarely get to drink a tea like this. Usually only very rich people can buy it. You must have good "in-yeon" (karmic affinity) to have the chance to drink it."
I received my cup with sincere reverence and appreciation. The richness of the brew was immediately apparent, as the depth of the cup was hidden in opaque darkness. The scent was strong, earthy, and medicinal, like a dark, natural incense. "Look for a special plum flavour in the tea," Prof Ahn advised. Attentively taking in the first sip, it had the usual earthy and smokiness you'd expect from an old puer but with a refined smoothness I had not experienced before, followed by a rich bitter taste, perhaps form the long steeps, which then bloomed into the deep plum flavour he had alluded to.
While Prof Ahn is all about the tea, his wife, Mrs Kim, is all business. While Prof Ahn continued lecturing on the tea and I reveled in the the joy of the second and third sips, she sat beside me at a small table with a calculator figuring out exactly how much we were drinking. "$2400 worth of tea, divided by 12 people..." *click-click* *something-something* *click-click* "$100 A CUP!" she exclaimed. As a finished savouring the aroma of the empty cup, I promptly brought it over to Prof Ahn and asked, "Han jan doh, juseyo!" (One more cup, please!) In my experience, humour has been the most difficult cultural barriers to crack, but at least that got a good laugh from the others!
We enjoyed two more cups together before Prof Ahn switched to a different tea. At one point he asked if I was understanding anything he was saying but, honestly, I was so immersed in the tea that I hadn't even tried to follow. The 'cha qi' was so mellow and relaxing that I just sat, remarkably content. Looking up at the small painting above the tea table of a cup of puer tea with a Buddha sitting on a cushion of steam rising from the cup, Prof Ahn said that the painting was of a cup of Dong Gyung cha. I'd looked at that painting for years but had mostly found it sort of tacky, until now, it finally made sense. I may not of understood a word he said about the tea but I told him, "Now I understand that painting. this tea feels like Nirvana!"
Once I got home, I began the task of scouring the internet for what Dong Gyeong cha is in Chinese and hopefully some credible information about it. If I could read Chinese, this probably would have been much easier, but I was able to put together that is Long Ma Tong Qing Lao Hao (龍馬同慶老號茶/ Old Dragon Horse Tong Qing Cha). Tong Qing was a tea house that opened in 1736, the first year of the Qing Dynasty, and was known for producing the highest quality tea. Their Dragon Horse label was one of the first registered trademarks in China (and therefore, possibly the first to be knocked-off!).
Unfortunately, all I had with me was my phone camera, so these will have to do. Images of the cake and labels were taken from a book at the shop.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
Following the advice of the Cheong Seok Gok tea master, I kept my portion of our Gu Jeung Gu Po sealed for a couple of weeks. Basically, it lets the heat energy of the roasting process mellow out and the true taste of the leaves reestablish themselves. It takes a year for the heat to really fade, but I only have one package... Official 100g boxes from Cheong Seok Gol are sealed in individual 25g packages, so it's easier to keep one of those aside for a year.
It's a bit difficult to make a fair comparison to the batch we made last year, since we used the more elaborate technique of "gu jeung gu po", nine roast, nine dry, but on the other hand, it gives an excellent comparison between roasting nine times and the contemporary standard of roasting three times, as we did last year. The overall flavours and aromas where the same but what I noticed with gu jeung gu po is that they delivered themselves with an extra intensity.
The taste was incredible similar to the sweet, citronella-like scent of the leaves during the processing, which last year's batch only held a faint reminiscence of. The brew had a bright, concentrated colour (not so much in the images below, where I used very short steeps) and were very durable, producing a few more good tasting steeps than I usually get from Korean green tea.
Since making tea for the last couple of years, it's actually been over three years since I've purchased any tea from Cheong Seok Gol, but I would like to see how our gu jeung gu po compares to the tea master's Ujeon cha (first flush tea).We did taste some very fresh Ujeon between roasts making this tea, but it was too busy to give it my full appreciation.
side note - after seeing the Cheong Seok Gol tea master and Prof Ahn both use Yixing pots to brew this tea, I decided to do the same. I'd love to see how beautiful this tea looks in my favourite Korean pot next time...
Sunday, July 13, 2014
|Image of Korea's first tea tree|
After packing up and leaving Cheong Seok Gol, we piled into a couple of vehicles and headed towards Korea's oldest tea plantation, where the first tea seeds had been planted nearly 1200 years ago, in 828 by the order of King HeungDeok of the Silla Dynasty. The seeds had been a gift from the T'ang Dynasty in China.
I squeezed into GoSan Sunim's (the monk tea master) boxy little SUV with eight others, as we wound through the valley. About halfway up the slope, when it really got steep, his car just wasn't able to pull us any further, and rather than roll back down the mountain, we poured out the back and walked. I was actually glad we did, despite my already-scorched flesh being re-exposed to the burning sun (It was only mid-May, but there were UV warnings that weekend, and we were pretty high up. The view of the rows of wild tea bushes, stretching across the mountain like a bright-green corduroy blanket. It was worth taking in. A famous tea field in Boseong, about an hour to the west, is the most popular tea-tourist destination but I much preferred this scene. It is also public land and anyone can come and harvest tea from these bushes.
Back to the 1200-year-old tea tree, last year I'd seen a picture of an ancient tea tree on an info panel and was hoping to find it this year. I just had no idea that it was the first Korean tea tree. I mentioned to Prof Ahn, who was squeezed in the front sit with his daughter, that I'd thought (don't know the Korean word for "assumed") that the original tree was dead. That's when I found out it was the same tree from the panel that I'd hoped to find.
Once we'd all gathered at the top of the tea garden and fully absorbed the view, I looked around for the old tree. Unable to spot, I figured maybe we had to keep going further up the slope. There was a wooden stair case but it only lead to a small viewing platform a few meters up, perched over some sun-bleached branches, worn down to stumpy limbs and totally parched. That couldn't be it! The picture I'd seen was full of leaves, covered in grey bark and green lichen. It didn't look anything like this. It was ALIVE! Unwilling to accept what was painfully obvious, I asked Prof Ahn where the old tea tree is. "There," he answered. Looking beyond the parched stump, towards the bamboo grove above, I repeated, "Where? I don't see it." "That's it. You were right, it's dead. It died ten years ago."
As the last windows of hope, fantasy, and delusion came crashing shut, I was able to look and see a polished stone marker, eerily similar to a grave stone, on which was inscribed, with great irony, Korea's Greatest Tea Tree; 한국 최고 차나무 (韓國大茶樹) 2003년5월9일). Actually, I'm pretty sure it is a grave stone.
It was sort of like when I found out that Nina Simone was still living, only to hear he news of her death the next day. Ten years ago! I mean, in a span of 1200 years, 10 years is practically nothing! I've been in Korea for nearly ten years! What if I'd arrived just a few months earlier and come straight here? Well, honestly, it still would have been a few years before my path lead me here. I missed it. Nothing could change that and certainly nothing is bringing that skeleton of a tea tree back to life. You'd think the info panel at the BOTTOM of the mountain could have mentioned something!
We'd planned to take a group photo at the tree, but Prof Ahn refused and instead made us gather in front of a nearby info panel. I think he was at least as upset as I was.
And with that, our 2014 tea adventure in Ssanggye Valley came to an end, as we descended the slope and boarded our bus back to Seoul.
Friday, June 20, 2014
The gamasot is heated to only 80°C, and the leaves are gently turned for three tedious hours without pause. Most of the group had lost interest in the process by now, but I thought it was fulfilling to be a part of the final process.
As I mentioned in the first post of this series, Prof Ahn was very impressed with our final product, exclaiming loudly that he could sell it at 500,000 woo per 100 grams (about twice the price of the best Korean green tea!). I think he was exaggerating a bit, but, still, we ended up with some very good tea!
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Once the leaves have been gathered, it's time to remove the larger leaves and trim the stems. This is important because the large leaves and stems would make the tea too bitter. Once that's done, the exciting part begins.
The "gamasot" (somewhere between a cauldron and a wok) is heated to 350°C and the leaves are thrown in and tossed quickly. This stops the leaves from oxidizing and is known as "kill green". They quickly wither and shrivel, tangling together in clumps. When the first roast is finished, the leaves are quickly brought to a large, round table to be fan-cooled and hand rolled. We each grab a handful of leaves and press them into a ball and roll them a bit vigorously.
It's important for the leaves to remain loose throughout the process, so after rolling, we untangle and sort them thinly on screens to dry for 20 minutes. After drinking tea and chatting, we came back to repeat the process. This time, the gamasot is lowered to 180°C, still hot but after watching the tea master stir the leaves with his bare hands I decided to try the same. It was a totally different experience feeling the leaves in your fingers then with the thick cotton gloves. The side of my pinky did brush against the hot iron once, and it was very hot but it didn't burn.
The third roast was done at 150°C and 140°C for the remainder. After the few few roasts, the leaves no longer had to be rolled and the process went much more quickly. It was interesting watching the leaves transform after each roast and dry, from the fresh, tender leaves we'd just picked to the tiny coiled, wiry leaves at the end of the night. What began as four large bamboo baskets full of leaves eventually withered down to a single small basket.