Friday, July 25, 2014

110-year-old Old Dragon Horse Tong Qing Cha • 龍馬同慶老號茶

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Prof Ahn, preparing old Dragon Horse (Yong Ma) Tong Qing Cha 
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 the 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.

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