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.