Wednesday, May 29, 2013

making tea at Cheong Seok Gol; sealing the fragrance (Surprise Tea!)

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Despite our 20 hours of travel and labour the previous day, I woke up at 5:30 am, after just four hours of sleep (not sure if it was the 20 hours of drinking tea or Mr Ahn's snoring that had anything to do with it...), but was excited for the day. After the heavy rains that fell throughout the night, Jirisan was enshrouded in a heavy white mist rising from its slopes. After the fresh mountain air woke me up a little more, I headed into the workshop to see how our leaves were coming along.

When I got to the racks, another man from the group was standing there with a puzzled look, which I soon duplicated when I saw that our tea was gone without a trace... We turned around and the tea master was suddenly there behind us, saying that he'd moved the leaves upstairs to dry because of the rain. All I could think was, "Man, he was up really early!"

After breakfast and tea, he brought our leaves down in a single, small basket. I was amazed how much they had changed since a only few hours earlier and how similar they looked to the Sejak leaves I usually buy from Cheon Seok Gol each spring; wiry, twisted, more bluish-grey than green.

It was time for the final step of the process, "hyang olligi" (향 올리기), litterally "fragrance giving", or "sealing the fragrance". The gamasot was heated to only 110ºC and the leaves had to be slowly turned in it over the next five hours to completely dry them.

Throughout the process, from plucking the leaves until the final drying, it was important not to have any scented products on your body, but it was especially important now. We couldn't even use soap to wash our hands before this step because the highly absorbent nature of tea leaves would be ruined by the scent. For this reason, it's important to keep yourself as clean as possible.

The leaves had to be gently pushed up along the walls of the gamasot in a clockwise motion and allowed to roll over themselves back to the center of the pile. Mentally dividing the pile into thirds, you rotate the leaves a handful at a time without stopping. Any bright green leaves that appear have to be tossed out because they did not dry properly.

Again, the scent of the leaves was alluring, much like the scent of dry leaves heated in a pot before steeping, but indescribably more alluring, sort of like the difference between a store bought apple pie or one baked fresh by your grandmother.

Every little while, I would take a break and head out to the porch to watch the white clouds as they thinned and drifted through Jirisan. At 6 am, the mountain was completely hidden, but later it had mostly emerged from the mist, which clung like long strips of cotton, then suddenly engulfed again in opaque white, then materializing again. Mr Ahn and I took a walk a short ways up the hill behind the house, just below the tea field, where a patch of rogue tea shrubs were growing. While he cut a few clipping to bring back to Seoul, I continued to admire the scenery and the sacred plants growing in narrow terraces along the slopes.

Soon, we heard Mr Ahn's wife calling us back down to the house. The tea was almost finished and they were waiting for us to join them for the first tasting. As our tea was steeped and poured, I eagerly accepted, quickly admiring the colour and scent before impatiently bringing the cup to my lips. After the first sip, the group let out a collective "Mmm", then Mr Ahn stood up and exclaimed, "와... 맛있는 차!", "Wha... delicious is the tea!" (No, I didn't intend that to sound like Yoda, the translation just works that way!) It wasn't merely his enthusiasm that told me his words were sincere, but the genuine surprise in his tone and the expression in his face! Koreans, like Chinese, love to make puns, and the man next to me, a professor of dentistry in Seoul, dubbed our tea "Gi D'tong Cha", which is Korean slang for "surprise", but happens to end with the Korean/Chinese word for tea. I think it summed it up well, our "Surprise Tea!"

There was something surreal in the experience of drinking the tea we'd all come here to make, apart from the surprise that it was actually delectable. Everything coming together in a cup of tea, the mountain, the leaves, the smells, the old friends and new, and all our hard work, converged. I'd be lying if I said our tea was as good as the tea master's but the experience filled the cup and was in the taste just as much as the tea did. As Matt insightfully commented on the first post of this series, now we know the true taste of tea!

Once the tea leaves were cooled enough, we weighed and sealed them into 30g packages. There were just enough for each of us to take home three. We took turns as Mr Ahn presented us with the leaves of our labour in a sort of ceremonial fashion. Since I taken the job of sealing the packages, I was last to receive mine. It felt somewhat like a graduation, or perhaps more of an initiation into the tea master's realm. He congratulated me on my good work, and with my tea clenched carefully in my hands I thanked him and bowed deeply, in gratitude for the experience.

the leaves after drying over night, nearly fully dried

the tea master, heating the gamasot

Mr Ahn, inspecting the leaves

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the tea master, demonstrating the technique

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the 'minbak' (guesthouse) and workshop

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organic tea leaves

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Monday, May 27, 2013

making tea at Cheong Seok Gol; roasting and drying

⤶ Part 1; harvest

Once we ate and had a quick tea break, it was time to sort through the leaves, one by one to remove any that were to big, broken, or pour quality, and remove the long stems. This may have been one of the most tedious parts of the process but many hands made quick work.

After another tea break, we gathered around the two traditional cast-iron "gamasot", sort of a wide, shallow cauldron set into a fire pit. Traditionally, Korean tea was roasted was roasted over a wood fire and though tradition is important in making good tea, gas fire is preferable for keeping a steady temperature, a very important detail. The gamasot was heated to about 280ºC and the tea master dropped in a basket full of leaves. They immediately began popping and snapping on the hot iron cauldron as he tossed them in the heat. Again, we all remarked the incredible smell, which I personally found reminded me of sweet pea mixed with sort of a dry curry smell.

From the gamasot, the leaves were quickly transferred to a cloth-topped table where we tossed them in front of a fan to cool them down. This had to be done quickly because the heat would ferment them, which would defeat the purpose of the whole process. When they were cool enough, we each grabbed a pile and cupping both our hands over them, rolled them in alternating diagonal directions; back and forth to the left, then back and forth to the right. After doing this a few times, the leaves had to be totally untangled form each other by tossing them in your fingers and pulling apart the larger clumps.

After the first batch, we rotated tasks and it was my team's turn to roast. We put on three pairs of thick, cotton gloves for the heat, but even with them, after a minute the heat of the gamasot was scalding. The roasting was done by grabbing the leaves in the back, then bringing them around the circumference of the heap, them pushing them to the middle, making sure that all the leaves got roasted evenly.

Once all the leaves had been roasted, cooled, rolled, and separated, we spread them out on large screens to dry. They had to be spread very thinly and not piled on top of one another or they wouldn't dry properly.

While spreading them on the screens, I asked Mr Ahn what he thought about the leaves. He said they looked a little big, but not too bad. With all the leaves on the rack drying, we gathered again in the common room for more tea and snacks. After a long day of travel, picking, and roasting, I thought we'd be going to sleep soon, then getting up early to continue the process but after 40 minutes, Mr Ahn pointed at the clock and we all returned to the back room, gathered all the leaves into baskets, and began the roasting/drying process again. This time, the gamasot was heated to only heated to about 140ºC and we only needed a single pair of gloves.

Normally, three roasts and dries would be enough, but a heavy rain began to fall, not ideal for drying the leaves, so we repeated the process a forth time. A bit after midnight, after one last tea break, we were finally done for the night.

The sweet, heavy smell of tea leaves hung pleasantly in my throat as I laid down on the mat on the floor. It wasn't long before a slipped into a deep sleep.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

making tea at Cheong Seok Gol; harvest

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Last weekend, Kkik Da Geo organized a trip to Cheong Seok Gol (청석골), to pick and roast our own Jung-jak (중작), third flush green tea.

Cheong Seok Gol is one of the top three tea producing families in Korea (in terms of quality, not sales) but what sets it apart is that it's mix of wild and semi-wild tea bushes are also certified organic. I've been drinking their tea for six years, now, and even once, unsuccessfully, tried to find their tea farm on my own. Visiting them during production time is something I've been hoping to do for a long time. Getting to join in the production was more than I'd ever expected!

The tea field covers a south-facing slope of HwangJang San, one of the foot hills of Jiri San, in Hwagae Valley, the heart of Korean green tea. We arrived in the valley an hour ahead of schedule, so we met the Cheong Seok Gol tea master by SsangGye Temple and made a quick visit to Korea's first tea field, originally planted over 1000 years ago beneath a large bamboo grove. About 30 minutes further up the hill, there is also an ancient tea tree that is the biggest in Korea. We didn't have time to see it, but what a great excuse to come back next time!

Once we arrived at the house, we dropped our bags, climbed into little, hand-made monorail carts, and headed up the hill, through the tea bushes. At the top, we were given a little crash-course in what to look for. I knew the concept of what to look for, but while actually picking the leaves, I was more difficult. What you're looking for is a single, furry bud with one partially opened leaf and one small fully opened but tender leaf below it on a short stem. Since I usually drink Sejak (세작, second flush) or occasionally Ujeon (우전, first flush, ridiculously expensive), I had an eye for much smaller leaves. After a quick look at Mr Ahn's cull, I realized I wasn't doing too bad, though he did remind me to be sure to pick the second leaf. The bud and first leaf give the tea its sweetness but the more bitter second leaf round out the flavour.

After a couple of hours of picking, you start to feel it in your back as your shoulders start getting tired and tight. Then mental fatigue starts to consume you, like the first time you hike a mountain, or try meditating for more than 30 minutes and you start wondering if it's ever going to end. I took a few moments to breath in the mountain air, take in the beautiful scene and enjoy the moment. I couldn't help but notice the degree of intensity in the focus of Mr Ahn, as he carefully searched each bush for the best buds, working his way well down the slope while most of the rest of us were still close to where we'd first started.

As my harvest slowly started gaining weight, I tossed the sweating leaves around a little and held a handful up to my nose. The smell was a beautiful mix of soft, floral sweetness and strong, grassy citronella. After a few hours, we all gathered together, minus Mr Ahn, who'd made his way all the way to the bottom, we all began remarking on the intense smell of the leaves.

Not similar to my experiences hiking, but quite like my experience meditating, knowing that we were finished gave me a second wind, and since we'd arrived at the wild-bush section of the field, a few of us started topping off our harvest with the larger but still very tender wild leaves, pushing out from the stony slope.

Once we were all gathered in the workshop, the tea master weighed our hauls and we combined them in a couple of large, flat bamboo baskets. I managed to pick 300g and the fifteen of us together picked about 2kg of leaves.

When asked how we did, the tea master didn't come out and that we were terrible, but instead mentioned that one professional picker (usually old local women) could pick 2kg of leaves in a day, or 800g of tiny Ujeon buds. It wasn't the most direct of answers, but it had me laughing!

Leaving Kkik Da Geo

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Arriving in Hwagae Valley

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Below Korea's first tea field

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some nice tea buds

About $40,000 worth of Ujeon, Sejak, & Balhyo cha (fermented tea)

looking at leaves for Balhyo cha

boarding the tea train

heading up the mountain

Mr Ahn, picking tea

picking wild tea
my personal effort

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Heading back down the mountain

our combined haul