Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Choson Potter's Studio and Kiln

I first wrote and published this post in February 2010.  It was posted on my teabowl blog where I simply try to make sense of and gain a better understanding of teabowls.  I’m about to introduce a Korean teabowl artist and want you to have this background before I do so.   
Some. perhaps all of you may have already read this post but It has been a while since I first posted it and I thought it was worth repeating.   
There is some debate emerging today in Korean and Japan about the bowls that became so cherished in Japan as chawan.  Historians have long suggested that these bowls were originally Korean rice bowls.  Others are now suggesting that they were Korean chawan from the beginning.  Some, particularly the Japanese, are suggesting that the bowls were designed in Japan as chawan and ordered to be made in Korea for export to Japan.  It is a debate that is difficult to prove one way of the other.  For this article I came down on the rice bowl side of this issue but in reality can see the point of each argument, although being Korean I prefer the first two theories.  I may address these views on the teabowl site one day.  But for now, I would simply like to introduce you to the Choson Dynasty Korean potter.          
Choson: Potter,  Studio and Kiln

To begin to understand what went into the creation of the Korean rice bowls, that became Japan’s most desired tea bowls we have to look at the potter and the conditions that helped to create them.
There are basically two conditions that influence the creation of any work of art:  1.  the “inner” conditions including the  skills, eye, hand and creative spirit and even life-style of the potter and 2. the “outer” conditions that lie beyond the potter.  These include: not only the clay, wheel, tools, kiln and firing conditions but also the process of preparing the clay, the studio as well as the environment and atmosphere under which the potter works. 
The potter brings to his work a working attitude.  The old Korean potter had “han” a universal Korean spirit that I will leave to others to explain.  He was most likely “jang-in” a master and/or he was “janggi” a free spirit.  He just made the work.  (In those days most likely the one forming the work was “he” a man [1]).  He wasn’t encumbered by any attempt to be creative – just make the work -- as many of the same pieces as one can make in a morning.  
Today there are Korean tea ware potters who can form on a wheel 400 tea bowls in the morning and trim them in the afternoon.  So certainly a similar number was possible 600 years ago.  But even if they only made 200 pieces, a lot of work was produced and not much time was spent on any of them. 
Having worked with a very disciplined Japanese potter Inoue Manji, I have some sense of what is needed to produce a lot of the same pieces one after another in a short period of time.  But I don’t think the Korean potter approached his work in the same manner as the Arita porcelain Intangible Treasure Inoue.  The Korean potter was relaxed, unassuming and approached his work with little or no thought.  Those of us who have ever been “production potters” know that when you get “into the grove” of production work, your mind empties and your "body knowledge" simply take over.  If we don’t care if they are perfect matches to one another the work produced is relaxed and natural.  This process sounds very easy – just do it – but the reality of it is much different.   We contemporary potters or "ceramic artists" have so many things that influence us that it is difficult if not impossible to adopt a “no mind”, or in Korean a “mot shim” approach.  Hamada once told us, “It is nearly impossible to create loose work in a tight society.”  We in the West have that problem.  Hamada said that Japan suffers from the same problem – potters in a tight society attempting to create loose work.   
For the Korean Choson dynasty potter, making the “loose” bowl was natural, a result of the life and conditions under which he worked. 
As in the studio above, the space for the studio might have been dug out of a hillside.  This provided additional insulation for the studio.  The walls of the studio might have been made of stones and raw clay and it probably had a rice straw thatched roof.  

The preparation of the clay was a lengthy process.  Clay dug nearby was first dried completely then an elaborate lever system was used.   Pushing down of the handle (A) raised the huge mallet (B).  Releasing the handle, the mallet then smashed down on the dry clay below.  Repeat many times until only small coarse pieces remained.  Then the pulverized dry clay was placed into a water-filled shallow pit to be dissolved into s slurry.  The slurry was ladled into a large deep cone shaped pit containing additional water.  This allowed the stones to settle while the pure clay remained on the top.

From there the clay slip was ladled again onto a large flat drying area to allow the excess water to evaporate.  (The above photo is from another studio.) Then the blocks of plastic clay were carried to the studio for foot kneading and spiral hand kneading before being placed on the wheel for forming from the mound.  The Korean process for forming from a mound on the wheel is slightly different from the Japanese method.  Having studied both methods with masters from Japan and in Korea I can simply say the Korean methods are are simpler and more direct but they are best shown rather than discussed.  Sorry I can't explain the differences in a post.  Between 5 and 8 kilograms would be centered from which 10-12 sabbal (bowls) would be formed, each with sufficiently large feet.  Note: The large thick foot is important.

With no electricity available for lights, there was a window next to the wheel providing light during the forming process.
There are many clay bodies in Korea and each has its own personality.  Some seem to have a mind of their own and stretch or move if the potter works too quickly.  Others might have a lot of sand and/or fine mountain stone and must be formed very dry.  Some clays even slump or twist slightly during the firing.  Every clay has a great voice in the finished work.
The wheel was a simple kick wheel with very little "carry" or centrifugal force.  It might wobble slightly, a condition the potter thought nothing of.  Forming on such a wheel, even one that does not wobble, is a challenge for Western potters who are comfortable with their electric wheels.  But it was easy for the Korean potter who knew nothing else.  A wobbly pot stops wobbling when the wheel stops  - so it doesn't matter. 
Note: that some contemporary Korean teabowl potters choose to work with this type wheel today because of the special quality it gives to their work.    

Behind the potter or nearby there was a raised ondol floor under which charcoal or wood was burned.  This provided some heat to the studio but more importantly was where the freshly formed work was placed for quicker drying so that they could be trimmed in the afternoon, with a heat bent bamboo gub suay kal.[2]  The larger thick foot would remain leather hard for trimming even with the use of the ondol-heated floor while the body of the bowl became a little stiffer.  The ondol floor photo above was taken after a recent refurbishing of the studio.  You can see the same area before refurbishing in the prior two potos.
This old studio and its kiln could have been made at least 600 years ago and may be very similar to the studio used by the potter who made the Kizaemon Ido tea bowl.  
This studio is the family studio of the Kim family and is one of the only historically preserved studios in Korea.  The father, grandfather and earlier generations of the Kim family used this studio.  Kim Jong Ok, Korea’s National Intangible Treasure in ceramics, his son Kim Kyeong Sik and his nephew the potter Kim Young Sik are members of that family.  The studio and kiln are in the care of Kim Young Sik.  Their studios are in Mungyeong, Korea's 1000 year old tea bowl village.  

The chambered kiln, commonly used in many parts of Korea for this type of work is called an orum gama or mangdaengi gama "망댕이 가마" – the latter from the name of the hand formed raw clay columns or  “bricks” used to form the dome of the kiln.  This particular kiln is the oldest still functioning kiln remaining in Korea.  As stated earlier, it is the old Kim Family kiln in Mungyeong and was built in 1843 during the reign of King Hyeonjong during the Choson Dynasty.  It is kept repaired, as you can see below, and on occasion is fired.  For a number of years I was the USA representative to this festival and return each year often with a tour group.  

Many kilns like this one were covered with a structure that had a rice straw thatched roof.  Occasionally these would burn only to be replaced.  Rice straw was a stable building material for many generations.  It was used as thatch, woven into blankets, braided into rope and even made into brooms to quickly add clay slurry to the cracking dome of the kiln during the firing to seal the cracks. 

This kiln is quite large having six chambers and a large fire box.   Many such kilns had just three chambers.  Each chamber also had its own “fire box”.  The kiln was/is fired beginning with the primary firebox and working up the hill to fire each of the chambers in turn.  The interior is seen below.

Some potters bisque fired before glazing but many did not.  In such cases it took several days of slowly heating the kiln until the ware was dry before  carefully raising the temperature to melt the glaze.  If fired too quickly some or all of the work would be ruined.  No commercial cones were used but some potters created “cones” from small dried coils of the glaze pushed into wads of clay much like we might use a commercial cone today.  Sometimes clay 'draw rings' dipped in glaze were also used.  The ware was stacked directly on the floor or often on short ceramic stands as no shelves were available.  In the case of bowls, small wads of clay, sometimes mixed with rice flour, were placed between the foot and the inside of the bowl.  Usually 5 wads were used.  These might be stacked five bowls high.  In separating the bowls after the firing some of the bowls would be ruined.  The glaze was very simple, often composed of a mixture of locally dug and pulverized feldspar and ash - nearly any combination would work.  Occasionally a little clay was added to this mix.  A number of great glazes can be composed of feldspar, ash [usually from wood, rice straw or rice husk or a combination] and sometimes clay. 
If the clay body was too dark (as in the case of the Kizaemon) the bowl was dipped into a whitish slip composed of a porcelain type clay and feldspar or ash.  If that didn’t adhere well or the clay absorbed too much water from the slip and collapsed, the slip was brushed on using a rough brush (wait for a future post on buncheong).  Everything was very natural and direct.  After all of this, it was not uncommon for the potter to lose 50% or more of the work produced.  Many potters today keep even less than this percentage of their work for exhibit and sale.
To fully understand this Choson Dynasty Korean potter, we have to also identify with his life style.  Such a description would take too long for this blog, but a quote from Hamada Shoji begins to explain it:
I think there are hardly any pots in the world through which a people’s life breathes more directly as Korean ones, especially Yi dynasty wares.  Between pots and life, Japanese ones have “taste”, Toft wares have “enjoyment”, even the Sung pots have “beauty”, and so on.  But the Yi dynasty pots have nothing in between; peoples’ lives are directly behind the pots.[3]  (From Hamada Potter by Bernard Leach, Kodansha International.) 
The early Korean potter lived a life close to nature and his work reflected this natural connection.  

Morning Crane Tea is part of our larger effort to promote Korean arts and culture.  Our pottery Morning Earth has expanded to become Morning Earth Korea.  We continue to organize both tea and ceramic tours to Korea.  In addition after several years of work we are now able to offer new Korean experiences.  These include 1. Individual or small group ceramic workshop experiences with significant Korean ceramic artists covering nearly any aspect of ceramics. 2. Individual or any sized group tour experiences around your arts or culture interest.  Those who have already participated in these experiences have given them rave reviews.  We have a Tea tour in May 2014 and a ceramics tour in August 2014.  Contact us if you are interested.    
[1] During the Chosun or Yi dynasty, women and children also worked in the pottery preparing clay and decorating.  Today there are many well-established women ceramic artists in Korea and in modern Korea it was Ewah Woman’s University that first offered a class in ceramics.
[2] If the clay did not support such treatment, as trimming, the bottom would be beaten to compress it and if a foot were needed it would be wheel formed.  This was a rare practice but potters adapted naturally to the type of clay they had.  I may look at their tools in a later post.
[3] The term Yi dynasty was often used by the Japanese in reference to the Choson or Joseon Dynasty.  The Yi family ruled Korea throughout the length of the dynasty.  Yi is sometimes also Anglicized as Lee, Rhee or Ri.  Hamada was not referring to the “greatness” of the work in this statement but to the connection between a people and their work.  However, it is evident from his many comments about Korean ceramics that it was greatly admired.  It is well known that Korean work influenced Hamada Shoji's work.  In the first World Ceramic Exposition held in Icheon, South Korea in 2001 a special display showing the influence of Korean ceramics on the work of Hamada Shoji was featured.  That exposition is held in three cities including also Yeoju and Kwangju.  We continue to organize both tea and ceramic tours to Korea. Please contact us if you are interested.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Podcast Reviews of Morning Crane Teas

Podcast Reviews
We at Morning Crane Tea are happy to get any review or mention we can for our teas.  Check out what they are saying about our teas on these podcasts.  
By the way I've extended the Cyber Monday sale to be a Cyber week sale so you have until Dec.8, 2013.  Don't miss it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

 A Yeohanggi Teacup
Are you about to miss the Cyber Monday Sale because you are not watching all my blogs?  Click here to check it out.  Happy Holidays.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Yi Ho Yeong, Brother Anthony's Tea Friend: Part 2

Have you read Part 1?
Serving Tea
We had traveled thousands of miles by plane and private bus and walked what seemed like a hundred more until finally we were in the ‘holy’ mountain of Korean tea.  Tea is so compelling, the artisan producers each with their own story - each with their own reasons for being with tea.
It’s simply about tea - tea and fire and the amazing skills of knowledgeable artisan tea producers like Yi Ho Yeong and Lim Jeong Jin. 

The tender tea leaf picked by hand, joined with a thousand more, 

and processed over a wooden fire for hours – again by hand.  That is Korean tea.  In many ways Yi Ho Yeong embodies Korean tea as she and her friend Lim Jeong Jin continue this centuries old tea processing tradition. Watching them do so is mesmerizing.  The gentle warmth from her tea processing wood fire transports me to a time and place far from the busy crowd, far from the 21st century, into a time and place of peace and tranquility.  For me, that is one of the main reasons I personally ‘do tea‘ every day - simply to escape for a moment, wherever I am, to that place of peace and tranquility.  When you visit with Yi Ho Yeong you know you have arrived.  You are in that place of peace and tranquility.

Now Yi Ho Yeong has invited us into her home to sit for a moment and taste their newest production.  It is 2013.  The winter has been harsh on the leaves and the spring weather has been so cold it was difficult to pick.   They are about two weeks behind in this year’s production.  We didn’t arrive at the best time for our artisan producers.  But we are grateful that they allowed us to visit. That any of them allowed us to visit.  We enter her home.

If you didn’t know it before, stepping inside you become immediately aware that Tea is her passion and way of life.  The rooms are filled with tea ware.  These combined images may look disorganized but the opposite is true.  Still everywhere you look is a teapot, chawan, platter for food, a row of teacups, or a side handled teapot - a classic and traditional Korean style.  Please don’t give credit for side handled teapots to another country even if they want it.
The Tea Tour Korea group sits around the table in anticipation.  The table is prepared. 

Yi Ho Yeong joins us and sets her teacups before her.  They are pure white so that we observe the color of her delicate tea.  The side handled teapot and cooling bowl are at hand. 

Hot water is poured into the cooling bowl, then a moment later poured into the empty teapot.  Water from the teapot is poured into all the cups. 

That water warms the cups as she selects her bamboo scoop and scoops just the right amount of tealeaves into the now empty teapot.  Water, cooled to the perfect temperature, joins the leaves awakening them and drawing from them their essence.  

Less than a moment later she pours the tea through a strainer into the cooling bowl.  Yes the teapot has a strainer but these leaves are small, tiny actually and the strainer is needed to catch the errant leaf.

The cup warming water is discarded and the tea is served.  It is wonderfully fresh and delights my 'tea' palate.  Bret at the Tea Dork blog wrote this after he tasted this tea.  “The aroma from the dry leaf is pristine, clean and sweet. Notes of pine, grain and florals. Very pungent but not heavy. Why can’t all my green teas smell so gorgeous?”  We felt the same.
We savor the tea - delicious.  It is a tea she simply calls her ‘special tea’.  I'll do a post on it on our tea blog soon.

I pause to look more carefully at her tea ware and implements.  
In the background is a water bowl, then teapot, cooling bowl with large bamboo strainer, large bamboo scoop and wooden saucers for the cups.  Wood to reduce the sound.  A cloth is nearby.  It is a perfect grouping for a group tea.
We have had our first cup - delicious.  

Then with subsequent cups a delicious tealeaf pajun (pajeon) or Korean pancake is served.  Those green leaves are not scallions – they are tealeaves!  Again delicious.  The group liked it so much she made more.   

Yi Ho Yeong in 2011
Our visits with Yi Ho Yeong have always been memorable and this one was no exception - a remarkable moment and so Korean.  There is always a sense of peace in the air as Yi Ho Yeong is such a gentle and peaceful lady and a master of both tea and peaceful moments.

Even the walk from her home is peaceful.  I’m sure our tour members will remember the visit with Yi Ho Yeong for years to come.  
To learn how you can obtain her teas*, contact us.  Contact us also if you would like to learn more about our next Tea Tour Korea coming next May.  

Thank you Brother Anthony for introducing us to the remarkable tea producer Yi Ho Yeong.
*It is with a very heavy heart that I must announce that Yi Ho Yeong passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in January 2016.  Thankfully, her son has insured that her tea legacy will continue with her disciples, including Lim Jong Jin, making tea from her bushes at her facility in her manner.  To honor Yi Ho Yeong, we will visit them on our subsequent tea tours.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Yi Ho Yeong, Brother Anthony's Tea Friend: Part 1

A Visit With Yi Ho Yeong Part 1: Tea Production
I want to begin a series of posts on several artisan tea producers whose tea we can acquire for you by introducing you first to Yi Ho Yeong. I have selected her for my first artisan tea producer post for several reasons.  I’m sure that you can guess what they are after reading the posts. 
In the book The Korean Way of Tea Brother Anthony of Taize and Hong Kyeong-Hee write:
‘Sitting in a traditional Korean house, with doors and windows open to the early morning sunshine, the taste of the first cup of tea, made with water that is far below boiling point, on a palate freshly awakened, is so intense, so indescribably fragrant, that from that day on the only question can be: ‘When shall I be able to go back and drink that tea again?’
Brother Anthony and Hong Kyeong-Hee must have been referring to the tea made by their good friend Yi Ho Yeong one of the finest artisan tea producers in Hwagae Valley or should I say in all of Korea.  It was Brother Anthony who introduced us and led us to Yi Ho Yeong's beautiful home. A home seemingly dedicated totally to tea.  That was on our first Tea Tour Korea in 2011. We went again on Tea Tour Korea 2013, 2014 and 2015 and hope to continue on any other tea tours we may develop.  Brother Anthony and his co-author Kyeong-hee had been there when Mr. Hong made tea with Yi Ho Yeong in 2006. Brother Anthony photographed and wrote about that experience.  They have been friends with Yi Ho Yeong for many years.  Brother Anthony’s website gives a very good explanation of the way Yi Ho Yeong makes her tea.  With Brother Anthony’s permission, I am borrowing from that post including several images.
That post cemented our desire to host Korean Tea tours and to meet these tea producers and authors on tea.  Over the last several years, Brother Anthony has been very gracious with his time and energy helping us as we continue to navigate the world of Korean Tea.

The Path to Her Home and Tea Area
To get to Yi Ho Yeong’s home, you really have to know where you are going.   Her house seems hidden from the road with a gentle path that leads us to this remarkable tea master.   That path also seems to take us back in time to a time and place when the making of tea was not a business but rather simply a way of life.  The garden behind this beautiful home is dedicated to the production of tea. However, before we explore that area, lets first briefly meet Yi Ho Yeong.

Yi Ho Yeong
What can I say about Yi Ho Yeong?  She is a very gracious host, gentle and dedicated to tea in a very peaceful way.  Dare I say in a Seon or Zen way?  She invites us to view her garden and tea production facilities while she enters her home for last minute preparations to receive our small tea group.  We’ll go with her inside on our next post.

 Brother Anthony Near Chongja
The tea production area is integrated into her garden and is a natural part of it.  It includes several large structures.  Here Brother Anthony, who joined us on our first visit in 2011, stands beside a chongja or pavilion.  The chongja is covered with a thatched roof as are all of her tea buildings.  Behind Brother Anthony is her Korean style home.

Tea Area View
The above combined image shows the area from both directions.  (A) is looking toward the home beyond where Brother Anthony was standing in the first image.  Turn around.  (B) Now you are facing the tea production buildings.  The garden is on the right, (on left in image A)the tea production buildings are on the left in image B.
Quickly Parched Tealeaves
There we find a basket with clumps of fresh quickly parched and hand rolled tea leaves.  

Lim Jeong Jin
The juices have been awakened and Lim Jeong Jin is hand separating the now very sticky green tea leaves.  The leaves must be carefully and delicately separated by hand so that no leaf is broken. 

Tealeaves on Trays
Then they are placed on trays to allow the moisture to evaporate freely.  This process of parching and carefully rolling the leaves by hand is repeated several times - traditionally nine times.  Each time the leaves are separated and allowed to rest while another batch is being dried.  This process is repeated until the final roasting. 
Obviously it is difficult to look at a production area without discussing the production process.

Leaf Drying and Processing Area
This is the leaf drying and processing area. On the right is a metal cauldron that sits over a wood fire.  On the left are winnowing baskets used to both transport and winnow the leaves. On the far left is a door leading into a room with an ondol heated floor.  We will see how each of these plays a part in the production of the tea.

Final Roasting First Stage Over Wood Fire (BA)
Here Mr. Hong and Ms Lim (behind Mr. Hong) are completing the final roasting of the first stage.
After the last roasting of leaves in the first stage of production, the leaves are separated again and allowed to rest indoors for several hours or often over night on the heated ondol floor.  In the morning the leaves are returned once again to the caldron over low heat and stirred and pressed until the leaves are completely dry.

Mat-Naegi or Hyang-Olligi
Here Lim Jeong Jin (L) and Yi Ho Yeong (R) are completing the process known as mat-naegi or hyang-olligi.  This is Korea’s taste and fragrance enhancing process.  During this process, that can last two or more hours, the tea leaves turn from green to dark gray.  

Lim Jeong Jin Winnowing the Tealeaves (BA)
Then the completely dried leaves are winnowed to pick out stems or broken leaves.  The leaves are separated once more and allowed to cool before packing.     
All of Yi Ho Yeong and Lim Jeong Jin teas are completely hand made from the picking of the leaves on steep hills to their final mat-naegi or hyang-olligi process over a wood fire.  Just as it has been done for hundreds of years.  It is rare to visit such a production area as this.  It is more rare to witness any aspect of this process today in Korea or in any part of the tea world where each country has developed their own ways of making green tea as most have gone, at least in part, to machines.             
We are honored to be able to share this experience and Yi Ho Yeong’s
and Lim Jeong Jin's teas with our customers.  Contact us to learn more about her teas and how you may be able to get some.
Please continue to Part 2.

Hong Kyeong-Hee and Brother Anthony  
Note: It took two visits and some borrowed images from Brother Anthony to be able to present this post. Thank you Brother Anthony and Hong Kyeong-Hee. Brother Anthony’s images are noted (BA).
Join us on our next Tea Tour Korea when you will meet Yi Ho Yeong and many other exceptional artisan tea producers and tea ware artists.  Contact us to learn more.

It is with a very heavy heart that I must announce that Yi Ho Yeong passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in January 2016.  Thankfully, her son has insured that her tea legacy will continue with her disciples making tea from her bushes at her facility in her manner.  To honor her, we will visit them on our tea tours.
Please continue to Part 2

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Picking Tea in Korea: Part 2

 Please read Part 1 First

To continue our post, let's begin by visiting a special tea producer in Boseong.

Kim Se Jin, the owner of Soa Tea is known for his exquisite teas.  His is the first tea plantation, perhaps in all of Korea, to be officially registered as organic in Korea, Japan, Europe and America.  However, our primary decision to offer his teas was based simply on their quality.

Soa teas are hand picked to maintain that quality.  But even here with cultivated bushes and wide paths between them, the footing is still uneven for the pickers.

The line of bushes often takes the path of least resistance in the stony rough soil bending here and there to avoid very rocky terrain on steep paths.  Not all Boseong producers have absolutely gorgeous rows of tea bushes.  In addition, these bushes have had a hard winter.  Never the less even with less than beautiful organized bushes and tealeaves that have had a difficult winter, exceptional tea can be made by exceptional producers like Kim Se Jin at Soa Tea.

Not far away, near the village of Gangjin, the O’Sulloc Tea Company is growing their tea near a beautiful mountain.  O’Sulloc is owned by the Amore Pacific cosmetic company and much of their green tea is used for that purpose.  However their drinking teas, of many varieties, are well known and often admired.  Notice that the tops of the bushes are flat as compared to the rounded bushes found in Boseong and the wild and semi-wild bushes on Jirisan.
The flat top has two purposes and is sometimes used for hand picking as well.  First, it creates a ‘table’ for picking each new flush. 


Second, the picking machine can easily slice the top layer of new growth leaves without getting into the thicker hard bush stems below.  Increasingly more sophisticated tea processing machines can separate the twigs, stems and even broken leaves and produce excellent teas.  Remember that the vast majority of teas from Japan and many other parts of the tea world are machine picked and processed.
The area of Gangjin is historically  famous for tea.  The Venerable Cho-Ui, Korea's most famous tea monk, lived in this area.  The area is also famous for its celadon including some really wonderful teaware.

So which is it?  Do the wild and semi-wild bushes of Jerisan (top) produce better tea than the cultivated tea bushes of Boseong? (bottom)  That is for you to decide, because when it comes down to it taste is taste - personal.  But Korean tea connoisseurs believe so.
That is why we at Morning Crane Tea have selected mostly tea from Hadong cultivar semi-wild and wild bushes.  The vast majority of our teas are Korean teas.  A tea must be very special to join the Morning Crane Tea family.   

Some of the teas we offer are hand picked and hand processed.  Some are hand picked and partially machine processes.  Others are machine picked and machine processed, all are grown under organic growing conditions and all are excellent teas.  Machine picking and processing is common in Japan and many other tea-producing countries but less common especially for early picks in Korea.  
Hand picking is a long, hard and sometimes dangerous job.  It takes dedicated and knowledgeable people to do it.  But the rewards, when the tea is processed well, can be outstanding. 

The Ven Cho-Ui
click image to enlarge

From Dong Cha Song: Hymns to Korean Tea by Ven. Cho-Ui. Translated by the Ven. Jinwŏl (revised by Br Anthony) 

Thank you pickers of the tea leaf who in spite of often difficult conditions continue your work beginning the journey of those wonderful leaves to my cup.
 Go to Part 1
Don't miss the rare Mu-wi tea post.
Did you see the Park Jong Il teapot sale? Chick here.

Alert Note: This is a Heads-up Notice.
We are developing a very special offering of balhyochas produced by a few select artisan tea producers including Soa Tea mentioned in this post.  These teas will be offered at prices as close to the prices in Korea as possible.  In some cases we will be selling teas at our cost with no profit. To learn more about this extremely rare opportunity to obtain teas from producers we consider to be some of the best artisan tea producers in Korea, contact us to learn more and to be placed on the waiting list. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Picking Tea in Korea: Part 1

I recently changed the heading image on my blog Tea at Morning Crane Tea to an image taken from the image below.  I made that change to give you a better idea of where the teas from Hwagae Valley actually come from.  Compare this image below to the header above taken at Boseong.

click image to enlarge
On the left of this image semi-wild tea is growing.  The bushes were grown from seeds that came from wild tea bushes.  These semi-wild bushes were planted in rows for easier picking.  Looking closely and you will see what appears to be white posts scattered across the field.  Those ‘posts’ are actually ‘insect collectors’ used to avoid the need for insecticides.  No insecticides are used and essentially no fertilizer that would cause the roots to spread.  While these plants are growing in an organized manner, they are left to grow ‘wild’ or naturally in the same way as their ‘parents’ the wild bushes seen on the right. Thus they are referred to as ‘semi-wild’.  On the right of the semi-wild bushes are tea plants growing around the trees and up the hillside.  They are wild tea bushes descendants of the first tea seeds planted not far from this spot in 828 CE.
 Pickers picking from very old bushes where tea was first planted.
The tea bushes on Jirisan and beyond are known as ‘Hadong’ cultivar tea bushes.  Connoisseurs of Korean tea will tell you that the very best tea comes from this type of wild bush followed by their children the semi-wild bushes.

In both cases the roots grow deep into the earth and therefore absorb the ‘energy’ or Cha Qi from the earth.  Actually, Korean tea connoisseurs will tell you that the very best tea from this type of bush is from wild tea leaves growing in a bamboo forest where the morning dew from the bamboo provides special nourishment and moisture to the wild tea plants

By contrast we now go to Boseong where during the Japanese occupation the Japanese tea cultivar Yabukita was planted.  I have read that the Japanese were looking for a place to grow tealeaves for hongcha or red (black) tea when they planted these bushes in Korea.  Today they produce primarily green tea.  After the Japanese occupation, Koreans eventually took over those tea fields and developed beautiful cultivated fields.  Here, I have been told, fertilizers are used and in with some growers very small amounts of insecticides.  After further research into this question, I discovered that only a few tea producers in the Boseong area use chemical fertilizers and insecticides and that a number of producers there are now growing their teas organically as they are in Hwagae Valley and Jerisan.

There is no doubt which bushes are more beautiful.  The sweeping Boseong tea fields can’t be matched for pure beauty.  Many movies have been made highlighting these bushes.
However, as in many things, outside beauty should not influence your judgment of true character. Beautiful bushes do not necessarily produce the most delicious teas.  While there are excellent tea producers in the Boseong area (and I’ll be bogging about one soon) if you are looking for authentic completely Korea tea, you would not choose Boseong as your only destination.  The key to great tea like great people doesn’t lie in the outward appearance.

Hwagae's rugged terrain speckled with wild tea bushes.
Likewise, Hwagae Valley should not be your only stop for wild and semi wild tea bushes.  Dotted across the southern tier of Korea, from the east coast to the west coast, wild and semi-wild tea bushes can be found.  Many independent tea growers have replanted those wild Hadong cultivar seeds in rows, often like small gardens behind their homes or even in large green houses to create personal semi-wild bushes for easier picking and to make their personal teas.
What might the experience of picking tea leaves be like?  Before I look further at this topic, I have to note that I will not be referencing the books The Korean Way of Tea or Korean Tea Classics for historical notes on picking.  Rather I simply want to give you a sense of what the pickers are experiencing.

Here is our group on Tea Tour Korea 2011 picking tea behind Hwaom-sa and the Hall of Gucheung-am in a very rugged wild tea field where the bamboo had been recently cut to ‘prevent fire’.  But the bushes, some several centuries old, now often suffer from drought and to quote Brother Anthony, “Snakes seem happy to frequent their roots.”  The hill is steep and footing rugged and very uneven.  We nearly had a disaster when one of our members fell landing between pointed bamboo stakes.  After 2+ hours of hard picking our group of 10 pickers had just this amount of tea to show for our work.  I spoke to one of the members of that group .  When I told him that I was writing a post on picking, he said, “Don’t forget to tell them the picking was excruciating.”

It was a remarkable experience but for various reasons we probably won’t be picking there again.  Hwaomsa a beautiful place to visit, lying among thick woodlands on the western slopes of Jiri-san near Gurye-gu.  It is one of the first places where tea was planted in Korea.  Had they not cut the bamboo, that tea would have been called juk-no-cha 竹露茶 (bamboo-dew tea). 
To find authentic juk-no-cha 竹露茶 (bamboo-dew tea) we visited the artisan tea producer Ha Gu. 

Ha Gu makes delicious tea from leaves picked from wild bushes growing under bamboo and processes them by hand.  These teas demand a much higher price than from other artisan producers.

Fourteen professional pickers took four hours of hard picking to gather just this amount of tea.  It is about 6 or 7 times more leaves than we amateur pickers gathered but when you realize how much tea shrinks in the drying process. This is still not much tea.  Simply put picking wild tea is difficult and sometimes dangerous work.
What are tea pickers looking for?  This is what they see:

This is what they are after. . .

 . . . just the three lead leaves.  The leaves on the left are what is know as ja soon cha or ‘purple tea leaves’ even though these particular leaves are more orange, the top of the larger leaf does have a purple tint.  This is caused by cold nights and warmer days resulting in the need for phosphorous.  But these are wild or semi-wild organic bushes so they will not be adding phosphorous and the pickers like these ja soon cha.  The leaves on the right are ready to be picked.  I should say the leaves are ready to be “plucked”.  “Don’t use your fingernails to cut the stem.  That will interrupt the flow of juices and qi.”  We were asked to simply grasp the stem and pull i.e. ‘pluck’ the leaves.
There is little wonder why tea farmers from those with small gardens to commercial producers have planted tea bushes in rows for easier plucking.

While these organized bushes behind Dong Cheon Tea may look similar in form to Boseong bushes, these are semi-wild bushes.

The bushes are cared for and monitored – yes - but these bushes are organically grown with no insecticides or chemical fertilizer – simply allowed to grow in the same manner as wild bushes.
Dong Cheon is a cooperative of about 80 tea farmers each growing tea using strict organic procedures.  Because the farms are scattered throughout the Hwagae Valley area, an area that can experience wide weather conditions, even after the harshest winter Dong Cheon Tea can continue to produce excellent teas. 
Please continue to Part 2
Special Note:
To learn about Tea Tour Korea 2015 that will take place in May 2015 and host between 4 and 8 guests, contact us.  We already have some folks on that list.  Contact us now.  It could be the last tea tour we personally host.  There is no obligation.

Note:  We seldom post the exact same post on two different blogs.  This Morning Crane Tea blog is reserved more for informational topics while our Tea at Morning Crane Tea blog focuses specifically on our teas.  For this post I have made an exception but if you are interested in information about our teas, please also follow our Tea at Morning Crane Tea blog.  We also have a morning Crane Tea Ware blog.  One day I hope to have a website where everything can be easily found.  
Remember that although I have what some consider a nice logo as seen on our tea bag labels and try to provide excellent teas.  I am not a big tea company.  I am just a potter and retired professor, trying to also promote Korean arts and culture.  
If you have never tried any of our teas or bought any of our tea ware I hope that you will do so soon.  Search what independent tea blogs are saying about Dong Cheon teas and Morning Crane Tea.  Then tell us about it for a special discount.