Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Primer on Ddok Cha


[Photo Courtesy of The Mandarin's Tea]

Ddok cha (ddeok cha, ttok cha, tteok cha) is a form of Korean compressed tea. The term ddok refers to the pounding method used to process the tea. In tradition, a pestle and mortar or a mallet and plank were employed. The name ddok is popularly thought to come from the sound of pounding with a large, wooden mallet on a large, thick wood plank: ddok, ddok, ddok.

To make ddok tea, fresh leaves were picked and selected, and then the leaves were steamed in an earthenware steamer. The cooked leaves were pounded to a pulpy mass, the pulp formed into little cakes, some as small as the size of a coin. To dry and store, cakes were pierced and strung together on a cord, like a string of copper cash.

According to Brother Anthony of Sogang University, Seoul, ddok cha was very much a traditional tea made by households in the tea-producing regions of the south. The making of ddok tea died out as a result of Japanese colonization, but there has been a recent revival among families and enterprising monks. He describes the taste of the tea as medicinal with the quality of bitter herbs. Brother Anthony, an authority on Korean and East Asian tea, says that ddok cha, like other compressed teas, naturally ages if kept, becoming mellower and less harsh. He recommends a web video showing the preparation of ddok cha, which can be viewed at In a further note, Brother Anthony says that the thick wooden planks used in making ddok are now being used as tea-tables among knowledgeable tea-drinkers.

The term ddok in ddok cha is derived from the traditional Korean food known as ddok, a form of rice made in the tenth lunar month with newly-harvested grain. Ddok is made from powdered rice, a very fine flour mixed with water that is steamed and pounded to make a roll of white, dense paste. Allowed to dry slightly, the roll of rice paste is cut into coin-size rounds and used in cooking. When put in broth, stir-fries, sauces, seasonings, and other dishes, the texture of ddok is soft and chewy. Ddok was one of the sacrificial foods offered to the spirits in ancestral rites. At Solnal, the Korean New Year, ddok was a feast food eaten by all in the form of ddok-kuk, a beef soup in which the coin-like pieces of rice paste were thought to ensure a prosperous year. Different kinds of ddok were associated with specific seasons and festivals. There are many kinds of ddok: some made of glutinous rice, many sweetened with red beans, chestnuts, jujubes, and sesame, some colored white, green, and pink, and often taking a wide variety of shapes. Ddok is being revived as a culinary treat as main dishes, soups, and desserts. The sweet forms of ddok are often accompanied by tea.

Ddok -- tea and rice -- are linked by a number of similar features: the communal nature of the harvest and processing; the use of newly-harvested produce (tea and rice); the process of steaming and pounding; and the popular reference to their size and shape as “coins.” In historical terms, ddok cha is remarkably similar to the process of making caked tea as described in the Tang Chajing, Book of Tea, by Lu Yü (733-804 C.E.).

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Visit to The Tea Gallery, NYC


[EDITOR'S NOTE: as always, you need only click on an image to view it at a larger size.]

My life is a study in contrasts. While I tend to think of myself as a sedentary person, I find myself these days traveling more frequently than just about anyone I know. I live in what can only be called a tropical paradise, among the banyans and palm trees of one of the lushest environments in the US; with surroundings so beautiful, it's easy to find reasons not to go anywhere at all.

Still, around the time of the summer solstice, it was high time to pay a visit to my lady mother, who resides to this day in southern New England. We always find plenty of things to occupy our time together; but during that visit, with a single brief afternoon to spare, I hopped on a train that took me down the 'northeast corridor' to Penn Station. To emerge from the bowels of this enormous depot into the sunny environs of midtown Manhattan on a summer's day is a marvelous experience in itself; this is the time of year, and I lucked into the sort of weather, that puts the denizens of the locale into their most ebullient mood. So, unsurprisingly, the life of the city was surging all about me, in a happy and vibrant way. From this spot, just a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, it was a surprisingly lengthy taxi ride to 131 Allen Street, where The Tea Gallery is located; I would have done better, I think, to take the subway (the 'A,' 'C,' or 'E' line to Washington Square, and then the 'F' line to Delancey Street). But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

I had made advance arrangements, so Michael and Winnie were expecting me. And indeed, not just me, but (as it turned out) a whole raft of Tea Gallery devotees: this being a Friday afternoon, a number of people had also arranged to stop in at the Gallery, and (by my count) about 14 different visitors came and went during the all-too-few hours that I was there.

I was greeted at the door by Dae, Michael and Winnie's winsome assistant, and led back into the deeper registers of the long narrow shop. The first area one sees, through a keyhole archway, is a honeycomb of shelves lined with canisters and boxes.

Beyond a large square partition, one comes to a long table surrounded by chairs, and it was here that Michael was presiding over the leisurely group. To call it a 'tea tasting,' which indeed it was, somehow fails to do justice to the lively interaction of the company across the hours: the conversation rolled hither and yon in ever-shifting waves, sometimes splitting into twos and threes, sometimes converging again to a single large group. And meanwhile, more or less constantly, there were cups and cups of extraordinary tea being drunk.

Perhaps the ancient Greek word 'symposium' -- which, after all, means 'drinking together' -- might be the best way to describe this experience. Occasionally someone stood up with Michael or Winnie to purchase some tea, but the conviviality never faltered. And the teas we tasted were remarkable.

During the several hours of my visit, we tasted four teas. The first one, described by Michael as a 'mystery tea,' was a sheng pu'er. Its fairly young profile suggested a harvest of perhaps 2005 or 2006. Next, courtesy of our CHA DAO colleague Toki, himself master of one of the most important tea blogs currently online, we savored a Korean green tea known as ddok cha.
More can be read about ddok cha on Toki's blog -- with some gorgeous photos -- and also on MattCha's Blog, in a post that (along with a post on CHA DAO by Steven Owyoung) seems to have inspired Toki to track this tea down in the first place. Essentially, ddok cha is a green tea that has been compressed into small cakes -- 饼 (bing) would be the word, I suppose, though these cakes of ddok cha are much smaller than the average bing of pu'er tea. These were perhaps two inches (or a bit more) in diameter, with a hole in the center like the old fang kong qian, which served as coin in China for over two thousand years.

When Toki brought out these little cakes of ddok cha, it caused quite a stir around the table. How to prepare the tea? What would be the best way to coax out its flavors and nuances? Various worthies debated the question, voicing doubts and consternation. Then Danny Samarkand, who by a stroke of great luck was also with us that day, pointed out that these compressed cakes appeared to be very much like the tea cakes described by Lu Yu in the Cha Jing, the Tang-dynasty 'Classic of Tea.' Why not prepare the tea, Danny softly suggested, the way Lu Yu prescribes?

And that was what -- to the best of our ability -- we proceeded to do. Michael, who is a good sport, got out his tongs and contrived to toast the tea cake over the brazier. Nobody was quite sure how long to let this go on; I suggested that we should aim to give it a toasty flavor without actually burning it. It was an exciting moment -- confronting an aspect of tea preparation that none of us had ever experienced. This task, at once simple and mysterious, put us in touch with tea-makers from over a thousand years ago.

After what seemed an appropriate interval, we transferred it to a stone mortar, and ground it with a pestle. This little heap of coarsely-ground tea was then put into water and simmered awhile over the brazier -- and then we tasted it (omitting salt, onions, and other Tang-era condiments). Each of us, of course, only had a couple of tiny sips, but it felt like a momentous experience to me. The brew, which was a greenish gold in hue, had a somewhat oily surface; its taste was strong and bitter, but it left a sweet aftertaste (might we call this hui gan?). I wanted more.

Because almost none of us had tasted ddok cha before this, we were eager to experiment with it. Thanks to Toki's generosity, we had enough to prepare it in two more ways: the first, in an attempt to emulate the Song dynasty experience, was by whisking some more of the ground tea in a cha wan. Predictably enough, this mixture tasted something like matcha, although a bit more toasty than that tea usually is. Then we prepared the tea in the way that I surmise most twenty-first century drinkers do -- by brewing a chunk of it whole, in a vessel of hot water. After such remarkable ventures into historic tea-preparation, which had something of the feeling of an initiation into ancient mysteries, this modern version seemed almost mundane. And yet, we reminded ourselves, to drink ddok cha in any way at all is an experienced vouchsafed to very few in the West.

It's hard to imagine an encore fitting to follow upon such a moment, but Michael had one ready: he next treated us to some 1950s Red Label Yi Wu. Talk about a rare tea: this is practically the Holy Grail of aged pu'er. Granted, it was already up to its 20th infusion; but sure enough, the tea was still going strong, and we enjoyed several more rounds of it. The word 'sweet,' so often invoked in describing the taste of such old pu'ers, was indeed the mot juste for this brew. There was not a trace of harshness, of mould, or of mustiness, though there was a bit of a papery note at the end -- one of the group described the finish as reminding him of 'old books.'

The participants came and went, the afternoon waned, the conversation flowed, the time slipped away. I took a brief walk round the shop, to have a look at the numerous treasures spread out on tables or housed in cabinets. The Tea Gallery somehow manages to bring together all manner of teaware and accoutrements, in astonishing number, without feeling cluttered: the serenity of the space is not compromised by their remarkable collection of cha jiu. Some, but not all, of these pieces are for sale. Every one of them is beautiful in its own way. I took notes for a future visit.

I sat for awhile longer. Lew Perin showed me his state-of-the-art pocket software for reading and writing Chinese. Then a fourth tea was served -- a 2008 gao shan Guan Yin Wang -- and, with that, though I would have loved to stay for hours more, it was time for me to leave. Goodbyes were said all round; plans were made for future rendez-vous. Off into the balmy Manhattan evening I departed alone, full of tea and warm thoughts. It struck me, as I walked, that what I had just experienced -- while rare indeed in the US -- was something that has been part of Chinese culture for many centuries: the coming-together in the cha fang of travelers from afar and locals, and the leisurely exchange of conversation and goodwill over cups and cups of tea.

If you should find yourself in Manhattan, I urge you to visit The Tea Gallery. It's best to call or email ahead to make an appointment, as one would phone in a reservation at a fine restaurant; you can be sure that Michael, Winnie, and Dae will give you a warm welcome.

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131 Allen Street
New York NY 10002
tel: 212.777.6148

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (ii)

by CORAX & Co.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Not too long ago we posted the first instalment in this series on storing and aging pu'er teas. Today we add a second chapter to that discussion. I remind our readers that the whole topic arose in response to a provocative article by Jinghong Zhang on storing pu'er tea (which itself included a link to an earlier piece by the same author). Today's instalment offers the musings of two of our most esteemed pu'er aficionados. Once again, as always, your comments and queries are most welcome.

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Danny SAMARKAND, eminent tea authority and one of the founding contributors to CHA DAO, offers the following very practical observations:

When I was first approached to contribute my two-cent worth on the topic of storage for puer, my first reaction was "Nooooo, this is too complicated a topic to even hold a decent discussion on!" A week later as I sit down to cook up something to waste blog space with, my sentiments still echo the initial response. It is difficult to write conclusively on the storage of puer, simply because this concept of 'storage' is a recent one, and anyone who writes about it is likely to include a fair amount of expostulation and guesswork.

Before the Taiwanese discovered the joy of puer and introduced it to the rest of the world, most puer was imported into Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and exported from these places to other countries in south-east Asia. Back then, 'storage' as a term was not commonly in use. Most likely it was the Taiwanese who introduced this term to indicate that these puer were kept in warehouses in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

In Chinese, 'storage' can be translated as 入倉 ('to go into storage'), and in both Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the majority of the puer are stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled warehouses. And since puer are mostly stored in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the term 'storage' was a specific term used for puer that were kept in poorly-controlled warehouses. When the Taiwanese discovered the charm of puer and introduced it to the rest of the world, they created new terms for puer, and we find terms such as 'dry storage'(乾倉), 'wet storage'(濕倉), 'home storage'(家庭倉), and the baffling 'never in storage'(未入倉)-- which I find oxymoronic, since nearly nobody drinks up all the puer the day it is brought home, but keeps it aside, whether for ageing pleasure or for investment: and that, even in loose definition, is storage.

Most of us who have purchased puer over the years will have stored them in our homes. Many vendors, puer authorities, and tea masters have come up with their own set of guidelines to storing puer, and since puer has heated up the tea market, there must be at least a dozen sets of guidelines, all to varying degrees of similarity. When we visit a teashop in China or Hong Kong to buy some puer, or mail-order one from these countries, we sometimes ask the sellers how best to keep the tea, and the sellers spell out a litany of do's and don'ts. What we often miss out is that these sellers are telling us their experience in their own natural habitat, which will be very different from Miami or Milan in terms of the temperature and humidity. So do we take their words like a pot of gold? Perhaps, but also throw in a pinch of salt, as that might save your tea. While it is important to heed the advice these sellers offer, it is also important to know the type of tea you have: its ageing potential if it is a sheng, and its mellowing potential if it is a cooked. It is also vital that you know the geographical climate in your own neck of the woods.

So, the basics. Firstly, know your tea. Is the puer shu (cooked) or sheng (raw)? If it is cooked, how thoroughly cooked is it -- does it smell damp or like a fish tank? If it is raw, does it also smell damp -- or like the forest air, or sencha? The microbial (or fungal) activities in shu and sheng puer are different, so they should never be in the same basket -- ideally they should not be in the same location, but in a home, one might not have that many rooms to store them separately; so as much as possible, keep them apart. If the tea smells damp or moist to the touch, it might just be freshly out of the factory or kept in a humid area, airing the tea naturally for a couple of days in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight might rid it of the dampness, after which the tea can be returned to its storing place.

Then there is the location. Is the storage area warmer or cooler than the rest of the space in the house? Is there any ventilation? Is the humidity level high or low? Is the location in the line of direct sunlight? Is there food or other strong-smelling items nearby? Most directions for storage on packages of tea picked up at the supermarkets will tell us to keep them in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight, and this is what we should apply to puer as well, including the unwritten tag 'away from strong smelling items,' because tea is a strong absorbent of moisture and smell, and you don't want your precious YiWu puer tasting like garlic or the leftover rack of lamb.

Tea as a plant loves moisture and sunlight, but tea as a product should stay away from these elements. Keep the humidity and temperature in the storage low -- I always believe that if you can stay in there for several hours without sweating a bucket or feeling parched dry, your collection of puer will age rather nicely there too. But as we know, keeping the temperature and humidity level low is relative. To a south-east Asian, 68° Fahrenheit and 60% humidity would be low, but to someone living in Montreal, that is on the high side. Someone has stated that puer should be kept at a humidity level of 60-68%, with a temperature level between 68 and 83° Fahrenheit. To me this seems a workable gauge for storing my tea.

One last point I would like to mention, is that putting puer into storage does not mean forgetting about the tea. Ironically, the famous Red Label was a tea that was chucked in a corner and forgotten, till a chance discovery brought it into the limelight, but I can't say the same for all the puer in storage. The puer craze has stirred up a lot of mass and quick production of the tea, and some of these may not be sufficiently processed or dried before exporting out of the factories. Go through the puer stash once every six months or so to see how each tea is ageing, check for dampness and specks of mold -- any visible mold should raise some health concern, be it white, grey, or yellow. Yellow mold (believed to be eurotium fungi; its functions on puer and fuzhuang [茯磚] is still under study) may be a sign of dampness in the tea which should be dried out and dusted off -- I know I would, as I would if I found any mold on my puer.

I believe the enjoyment of tea should be simple, and would love nothing more to keep it as basic as possible: keep the cooked and the sheng separate, keep the teas in a cool dry place with moderate ventilation, and keep a close eye on the temperature and humidity. Perhaps in ten years' time I may come to regret my own guidelines, but so far in the five years I have keeping puer, they seem to promise me great fun in my golden years.

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MARSHALN, master of the renowned Tea Addict's Journal, has penned the following thoughtful observations:

I think any discussion on tea storage should start with one simple question: why are you storing the tea?

As Toki has already pointed out, there are basically two reasons -- one is because you can't consume something in due time, the other is because you want to leave it around so that something will change, and that over time, it will turn into something else, hopefully for the better.

Since we're talking about puerh, I am going to guess that almost everybody is buying tea to store intentionally -- i.e., you don't just happen to have too much of it.

Then we run into a little more confusion, which requires an answer from the person doing the storing: what is the preferred outcome? Is it to mellow the tea a bit, taking some of the edge off? Is it to change the taste significantly in ways that are hardly imaginable early on? Is it to keep the original fragrance and aromas?

I think if the answer is the last -- to keep its original aroma and fragrance as much as possible, then I'd recommend sealing the teas in nitrogen-flushed foil bags, out of sunlight and any source of heat, and only to be opened when ready to be consumed. I gave that answer first, because that's the most straightforward one. End of discussion.

If the point is to change the taste of the tea, hopefully for the better, then one is confronted by a variety of choices, not all of which are available to any individual in a given locale. It is agreed that long-term exposure to air and possibly micro-organisms in the air will alter the taste of puerh over the long run. How this process takes place exactly, nobody seems to be sure of (if it's common knowledge, then we'd all know exactly how to store teas perfectly).

I think the common classifications of "wet" and "dry" storage should be useful here, but here is where the English nomenclature for such things has generally failed us: the most useful Chinese term for this should be whether something has "entered storage" (ricang) or not in its lifetime. Not just any storage -- wet, damp, high humidity/temperature storage units that were probably developed in Hong Kong and now exported to places like Guangzhou and Taiwan.

Whether or not something has entered such storage should actually be fairly obvious to the seasoned drinker -- if you've tried a wide variety of, say, 10 years old puerhs, chances are you've at least come across some that were "wet stored" at some point or another. The liquor for such teas tend to be dark, the leaves brown, the smell slightly musty. None of these, on their own, are good indications of storage condition, and exactly what kind of "brown" or "dark" constitutes evidence of wet storage takes some experience to learn.

It is important to keep in mind that having been "wet stored" doesn't mean that it was in such a storage condition for the duration of its life, whether that's 5, 10, or 30 years. In fact, from what I understand, usually they only go into such spaces for maybe two years at most. After that there should be a period of "reducing/receding storage (flavour)" that entails putting the tea in a dry, aired space that is neither too humid nor too hot. The tea should, properly speaking, spend a good deal more time in such units than in the wet storage unit before it is considered done.

Now, wet-storage condition is hardly something that we can easily achieve at home, but I'd say that the vast majority of older (20+ years) puerhs have been wet-stored at some point or another -- i.e. it went through such storage units. A very small minority, such as the 88 Qing from Best Tea House in Hong Kong, have not, and those are sought after by collectors NOT necessarily because it is better (in my opinion the tea is currently extremely overpriced) but because of its rarity and also because of the rather mistaken belief that wet-stored teas are bad for you. Sorry, but if it's that bad, most people in Hong Kong would die rather quickly. In fact, the city boasts the world's 6th highest life expectancy.

So, storing at home necessarily means that we're dry-storing a tea, but if you prefer the wetter-stored taste, it might be advisable to buy teas that have been through a bit of wet storage first before sending it to your tea closet at home -- there are things like that on sale online, I believe.

I still haven't talked about the difference between wet and dry storage, in terms of taste. I think the simplest way of describing it, based on my meager experience of drinking such things, is that wet-stored tea will be a little musty, with notes that one could characterize as earthy, mellow, and sweet. Dry-stored tea of sufficient age can also be sweet and mellow, but instead of musty, they'll be a little more fragrant with more "high" notes, sometimes a little tart, with fruity notes emerging and also possibly a longer aftertaste. Your mileage, of course, may vary depending on the tea and storage condition.

I think there isn't much to say about dry-storing teas at home -- there's ample discussion on this already. Store it in a dry-ish (but IMHO, not too dry), room temperature space away from light and odd smells. Store teas together. I personally do not think that it is necessary to store them in well-ventilated areas. In fact, I think that's actually a rather dangerous thing to do -- if your air is too wet, your cake can quickly accumulate moisture and mould. If it's too dry, your cake can be rather nasty in a few years' time. Tucking them away in a box or two is probably the easiest thing to do. Exact conditions are always going to vary, and supposed experts on the subject all have different ideas of what's good and what's not, so I don't think it's easy to say what's best.

There's of course the million-dollar question of: so what SHOULD one store? What kind of cake should go into storage in the first place? The very short answer is: I have no clue, and neither does anybody else, from what I can tell. When all the experts differ on exactly what makes a great tea for storage, that means that nobody is really certain, and it's all a bit of a game of luck. Old tree/young tree, blended/single mountain, whole-leaf/chopped, machine-pressed/hand-pressed, spring/fall, the list goes on. There's something for everyone out there, and if you want to hedge your bets, you can always try the shotgun method of having some of everything.

However, there is one thing that is very often overlooked that I think should be kept in mind -- in all my discussions with people who know something about puerh, there is one thing that has basically universal agreement -- that the great teas of today, such as the Red Label, Blue Label, Yellow Label, etc, were all NASTY teas when very young. Positively nasty, some would say. Sour, bitter, astringent ... everything to make you want to put it down instead of drinking it. Some take this to mean that only nasty teas will age well in the future. That may be so, but it does not necessarily follow. What it does tell us, however, is that young teas that are very nasty right now MAY age into greatness. If you bought a cake that's sour, bitter, and astringent, don't throw it away (or burn it, as some have done), but stick it in the box with all your other teas. It could end up being the one that you like the best 20 years down the road.