August 14, 2012
by Cinnabar
4 Comments

Experiencing 떡차, Korean Tteok-cha

tteok-cha in cupLast Friday I had the opportunity to experience a very special caked, aged tea that is seldom seen outside of Korea. My friend Eric Glass, of The Fragrant Cup, arranged ahead of time to bring the tea to Phoenix Tea, generously wanting to share the experience with me and Brett Boynton. Eric provided the tea and olive pit charcoal, and we had all of the other tools and supplies on hand that would be needed in the four+ hour process: a Chou Zhou stove (we could have used a Japanese Ryoro, but decided that the coal pit was too deep), chopsticks, a portable burner for lighting the coals, a glass kettle, an electric hob (cook-top), a sookwoo (cooling and serving vessel), and Korean tea cups with saucers.

The tea is called 떡차, which is Anglicised in a number of ways, including Tteok-cha, Ddok-cha, and Ttok-cha. For consistency I am going to use the spelling used by Steven D. Owyoung, Tteok-cha in his article on Tsiosophy, “Report on the 2012 Korean Tea Exhibition: Tteok-cha.”

Tteok-cha most commonly comes in two different types of cakes: hand formed, which are smaller and less precisely shaped, and coin-shaped, which are pressed into molds and have a hole in the center which is used to string the individual pieces together. The rare tea that Eric brought was made approximately ten years ago by Master Kim Song Tae, and was a small, thin very dense but lightweight cake. It was acquired through Korean ceramicist Cho-Hak (Arthur Park), of Morning Crane Tea.

Tteok-cha was originally developed for use medicinally, and is brewed by decoction rather than by infusion. Preparation of the tea has two basic stages: roasting the tea over a charcoal fire, and then simmering it over heat for more than three hours.

tteok-cha raw

Tteok-cha, before roasting

tteok-cha roasted

Tteok-cha, after roasting

The roasting process is straightforward, particularly if one is familiar with working with a small tea stove. I had never had the opportunity to use olive pit charcoal before, and although there were some slight issues with the grating in the stove being large enough to allow a couple of the pits to fall through, it was clear that this charcoal is vastly superior to the hardwood charcoal I’ve been using, which tends to spark quite a lot during lighting. (Unfortunately, olive pit charcoal is a very elusive commodity in the US currently. Eric brought his back from Chou Zhou.)

tteok-cha roastingRoasting the tea was a straightforward procedure of holding the tea over the coals with chopsticks for about 10-15 minutes, until the disc became more pliable and would retain a fingernail imprint.

We had already set the kettle filled with spring water to warming, so by the time the tea roasting was done the water was close to boiling. We dropped the little sliver of tea into the water and started the long wait (which consisted, naturally, of drinking other teas).

We kept the heat at a level that was as close to a steady low simmer as we could manage, and throughout the 3.5 hours of brewing very little water evaporated. One remarkable thing about the tea was that even after several hours the tea did not break up at all, remaining one solid piece throughout.

For the sake of comparison and to test its progress, we tasted the tea after one hour of brewing, and it was interesting, but clearly nowhere near what it was going to eventually yield. It was also pretty pale in color. When we tasted it again after three hours, Eric determined that the dark red liquor was close, but still needed an additional 20-30 minutes over the heat.

Finally, after the full 3.5 hours we removed it from the heat and poured into the sookwoo, and then into our individual cups. The rich, brothy tea had a flavor unlike any tea I’ve ever tasted. While it was complex and very delicious, it did have a somewhat medicinal quality to it, though not at all unpleasant. This special tea was very enjoyable to drink, and it was great to have the opportunity to experience this unique type of tea. Thank you Eric, for making it possible for us to experience this tea with you.

For more background on this fascinating tea, read “A Primer on Ddok Cha,” by Steven D. Owyoung.

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July 1, 2012
by Cinnabar
Comments Off on Bai Ji Guan Yancha Tian Xin Yan, Vicony Teas

Bai Ji Guan Yancha Tian Xin Yan, Vicony Teas

Bai Ji Guan, Vicony Teas
I suspect that for most tea people in the United States, the most familiar high-end Wuyi rock oolong is Da Hong Pao (“Big Red Robe”), but it is not the only famous tea at the top end of this respectable family of teas. I recently had the opportunity to taste some Bai Ji Guan Yancha Tian Xin Yan (“White Cockscomb Rock Oolong”), a member tea of the Si Da Ming Cong (four famous Wuyi tea bushes), and very different in character from Da Hong Pao, and I found it quite wonderful.

white roosterThe tea was among four Wuyi Rock Oolongs sent to me by Vicony Teas. Each of the packages was identified only with its product number, and I thought it would be most interesting to taste the teas without finding out much about them first, so I chose the one with the lowest number to taste first (WYA05), not knowing anything at all about it, not even the Chinese name.

The first thing I noted about the Bai Ji Guan was that the tea was really beautiful in dry leaf form, with slender, twisty leaves. They did not look dramatically different from most other Wuyi oolongs I’ve had, although they were a little more reddish and less black. But as the tea infused there was much more of a marked distinction from other Wuyi oolongs, with the leaf unfurling to show yellow and light brown.

The liquor was not very aromatic, but the taste was rich, deep and flavorful, somewhat reminiscent of dried stone fruits. Another distinguishing characteristic was the color of the liquor, a golden yellow, much lighter than any other Wuyi yancha I’ve ever seen. Overall the taste and mouthfeel of this tea were very satisfying and complex, exhibiting new qualities with each of the five infusions I took the tea through.

Bai Ji Guan, Vicony TeasOne thing this tea has in common with Da Hong Pao is a fanciful story. This is the accompanying legend, as described on the Vicony Teas website:

Legend goes that one day a monk saw a rooster sacrifice its life while protecting its child from an eagle. He was moved by the rooster’s courage and then buried its dead body in the ground. However, after a few days, a tea bush grew from the spot where the rooster was buried. In the memory of the rooster, the monk gave the name of White Cockscomb to the tea bush.

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May 30, 2012
by Cinnabar
3 Comments

World Tea Expo, 2012

World Tea Expo 2011Later today I board a plane to take me to Las Vegas to attend the World Tea Expo. This will be my third year in a row attending, and I am looking forward to it. For me the Expo is a rare opportunity to focus entirely on tea, tea culture, and tea community, and it’s a refreshing break from the ordinary.

This year I will be helping Royal Tea of Kenya at their booth, and also with the Kenya segment of the Day of Origin presentations. This is the first year that Kenya is featured as a significant tea origin, although it is fourth largest in worldwide tea production. Joy Njuguna has a great deal of fantastic information to impart, about the emerging specialty tea market, and her connection to the lineage of tea production.

One of the things that has become increasingly clear to me over the past several years is that the tea industry is driven in some significant ways by personal relationships. Having so many tea people converge in one place each year allows for reminders of these connections, and in many cases allows for the opportunity to meet people in person with whom I have only had online interactions with. If you’re also going to be there and run into me, please introduce yourself or track me down through social media. I’ll be easy to find.

Up until a couple of years ago I thought I’d be able to avoid the inhospitable crucible of human misery that is Las Vegas entirely, but I found when I visited the first time that it wasn’t as horrible as I anticipated. This was in large part due to the Expo itself, which is such a great experience.

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