Monday, October 28, 2013
It's about time I add a bit about preparing Korean green tea, taking a look at the tea we made back in May. For a bunch of first-time tea makers, our efforts were a success, aside from from a few leaves being greener than the desired bluish-jade and a few strands of cotton I've had to pick out from the gloves we were wearing.
Korean tea ware is much heavier and more rustic and bulky than its elegantly simple Yixing counterpart, but there's a humble charm I've always appreciated about Korea's rustic aesthetic. The most recognizable feature of a Korean teapot is the long side handle, perpendicular to the spout. I chose this set because it was traditionally fired in a wood kiln with a beautifully textured and coloured glaze. In the tea shop, I mentioned Japanese "raku" firing, asking if it were the same. This was back in 2007, before I knew better, and if looks could kill, from the other-wise lovely clerk, I wouldn't have lived to see 2008, or even taken another breath, for that matter... You see, during the Japanese invasion of 1592, Korea's best potters were forcibly taken to Japan, entire villages of them in some cases, leaving Korea to relearn what was lost with the sudden absence of its masters. It happened 422 years ago, but anything related to Japan remains a touchy issue!
Korean tea sets often serve 3-5 people, though if you were to substitute Chinese cups, you could nearly double the servings. Some traditional Korean techniques focus on three servings, but I can't help but approach any tea with a gongfu method. An important piece in the Korean set is the "suku"(숙우), a spouted bowl for cooling the boiled water, since Korean green tea requires the water to be cooled to a very low temperature. The first infusion can be steeped at as low as 50ºC/122ºF (which requires a longer steep than usual). Since green tea is unique in that the brewing temperature is much higher as the steeps progress, the suku is convenient for cooling small amounts of water, while the rest may remain heated in the kettle. There's a saying in Korea not to be too greedy during the first infusion. If the first cup is too delicious, the rest of the session won't be as good. I don't see it as choosing quantity over quality, but finding a pleasant balance between the two.
The pot and cups are heated, as the Chinese do, but unlike Chinese style, there is little to no overspill. There is also a smaller leaf to water ratio than gongfu style, but that's often the case with any green tea. Once the set is heated, a single pot's worth of water is poured into the suku. While waiting for the water to cool, the heated pot has some time to heat the leaves and awakens them with a rich, sweet aroma.
There's no need to rinse the leaves. Once the water is cooled, gently pour it over the leaves in a circular motion. With the water between 70-80ºC, steep the leaves for 20 seconds, then you may either pour directly into the cups or back into the suku. I look for a light jade color in the cup. If find a strong or slightly yellow colour is too bitter for my liking and loses its delicate sweetness. The second steep should be 15 seconds and the third 20 seconds again. After the third steep start increasing the time by 10-15 seconds. While steeping, rotate your wrist to gently rock the pot in a circular motion. It always gives me a little thrill to see how bright green the leaves become after steeping them, almost as they were off the bush.
Green tea is one of the trickiest to steep well. It took me lot of practice before I was able to steep more than three cups and still extract any flavour. As delicate as Korean green tea is, even if done with skill, after the sixth steep, the brew is very light, especially with Ujeon or Sejak.
Friday, October 4, 2013
At the tea house the other night, Mrs Kim did a comparison of their authentic Taiping Houkui 2009 vs a second grade spring 2013 production. Following the trend of many other teas, of the last few years authentic, long leaf Taiping Houkui is nearly impossible to find outside of China. Production is very small, requiring great skill and care to harvest at process only the most perfectly formed leaves. Since the Panama World Expo in 1915, Taiping Houkui has won several awards, including the title, King of Green Tea, in 2005. What we do find on the market is a shorter leaf version with a much brighter green colour.
On the left is the 2009, and on the right is this year's spring harvest. The differences in size and colour are obvious. The authentic version has leaves up to 15 cm long, much longer than the lower grade leaves.
Starting with the 2009, Mrs Kim dropped a few tong-fulls of leaves into a glass infuser. The traditional technique is to cover them them water, then swirl them around in the infuser. As the leaves soften in the water, they swirl gracefully around like ribbons. In China, this part of the process is known as the Phoenix Dance.
The 2009 Taiping Houkui produced a bright golden infusion. The smell and taste were comparable to the deep roasted bitterness of Dragon Well and highlighted with a strong burst of sweetness on the tongue.
Next came the 2013 Taiping Houkui. The infusion was noticeably greener and slightly stronger with an overwhelming grassy flavour. Though it had freshness on its side, it lacked the dynamic range of the real deal.
Comparing the used leaves, some further subtle differences emerge. The meticulous selection of the 2009 leaves were more luminous and had perfectly clean edges, a trait of the rare cultivar use exclusively for Taiping Houkui to produce young leaves of this size. The inferior 2013 sample showed thicker, jagged leaves, lacking the distinctive youthful characteristics of the original. Straining my ear to follow Mrs Kim's instructions and descriptions in Korean, for her final appraisal, she broke out in English, referring to the 2009, "This tea is more beautiful!"
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Dong Feng Mi Ren (Oriental Beauty) • 東方美人
also commonly named Bai Hao Cha (White Hair Tea) • 白毫茶
Of all the teas I've explored, Oriental Beauty is among the most intriguing, most unique, and all-around most wonderful. Its story is one of serendipity, stubborn determination, and a tiny green cricket.
It all started in Taiwan during the late 1800's with tea farmers who'd recently immigrated from China, bringing tea plants with them. During the early months of summer, when temperatures began to soar, many of the new tea gardens would be ravaged by swarms of tea jassids, a tiny cricket-like creature that sought shelter from the heat in the shade of the dense tea bushes, feeding on the young leaves and buds.
The early tea Taiwanese farmers received prices based on the quality of their tea from the merchants, among them John Dodd, a Scottish merchant who was a central figure in exporting Taiwanese tea to the West. They didn't even bother harvesting leaves from the crops that had been desecrated by the tea jassids, since they figured they would most likely be unable to even sell it at all. Then, one unorthodox farmer, determined to salvage something of his summer crop, harvested his fly-bitten leaves and set off to present his tea to John Dodd. When he returned, his neighbours couldn't believe the price he bragged to have claimed for his tea but he wasn't lying.
It wasn't long before it was in high demand in the west and it is said that when Queen Victoria was presented with it, she was so enchanted with its beauty that she, herself, dubbed it Oriental Beauty. Others dispute this, saying that Oriental Beauty was in fact created in 1920, after the time of Queen Victoria and that it was actually Queen Elizabeth II who named it in the 1960's. It's likely legend that any queen named the tea at all, but according to sources that I trust, it did originate before the turn of the 20th Century. As far as its name, maybe someone should ask Queen Elizabeth II before it's too late!
In response to the tea jassid's bite, the leaves produce an antibody that in turn imparts an incredibly sweet fragrance and flavour to the tea. The insects also prompts the oxidation process and when the entire process is finished the leaves are left with a beautiful range of rich tones; white, green, orange, burgundy, and dark brown.
I was taught to steep Oriental Beauty at a very low temperature, only 70°C (158°F). It doesn't require a huge amount of leaves either, about a third of the pot is enough. Though I usually stick with Yixing pots, I sometimes use ceramic for Oriental Beauty, since it delivers the full flavor of this tea. There's no need for the porousness of Yixing clay to take away anything. For this post, I couldn't help but use a Xishi pot, designed, in a sense, after the legendary "most beautiful girl in China" but more on that in another post...
Oriental Beauty is potent enough to deliver an exceptional taste with a relatively small amount of leaf. It's a deeply oxidized tea, about 70%, medium roasted, and made entirely of buds and small leaves. A high-quality Oriental Beauty has a warm, honey fragrance and even a rose water quality I haven't encountered in any other tea. When brewed strongly, it can release a nearly red color, but a light golden brew seems to express this tea's best qualities.
Examining the finished leaves, you can find leaves with little dark specks on them, where the tea jassid fed. The bitten leaves turn a more yellowish tint (on the bush) and become misshapen and slightly crumpled. A high concentration of spotted leaves means a very high quality tea. The leaves should be small, as well. The more tips and small leaves, the better.
Of course, there are many imitations now, even coming from mainland China. It doesn't mean they're all bad but the best Oriental Beauty still comes from the town of its origin, in Hsinchu County.