Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tea Tour Korea 2011: The State of Tea Bushes in Korea

Damaged bushes in Hwagae Valley
Tea Tour Korea was in planning for more than two years.  For several years before that we thought about proposing such a tour.  We have many friends and acquaintances that are Korean tea ware artists, have a great interest in Korean tea and have explored Korea’s tea areas - some areas quite often.  But even though I am a passionate consumer of Korean teas, knew some Korean tea producers and have studied Korean tea extensively, our true expertise is in the area of ceramics and tea ware.  I make tea ware not tea.  That is why in developing this tour we asked the advice and help of several experts on Korean teas to assist us in making this tea journey a special one.  I’ll return to these tea experts in subsequent posts.
Normally I would have begun posting about Tea Tour Korea 2011 at the beginning of the tour and followed it chronologically.  But Korea had a terrible winter and their tea bushes suffered terribly.  Have you ever been asked, “What do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?”  If I were to be asked that question I would pick the ‘bad news’ to be heard first just to get it out of the way.  So lets begin there.
Concern about the state of the tea bushes began when several of our Korean friends, on more than one occasion, told us that they were experiencing an extremely cold winter.  As spring and the tea tour were getting closer we received an email from Brother Anthony confirming that the winter was truly a harsh one and would have an effect on the tea bushes.  No one knew when tea might be ready for picking.  Tea would definitely be picked later than usual this year.  How much later, no one knew.
In at least two ways, Tea Tour Korea 2011 began as a great leap of faith, faith that there would be tea to pick and faith that we could even form a tour group.  We were not able to form a viable tea tour group in 2010 so we traveled with our friend Park Jong Il through this beautiful country simply to get a better sense of the area.  This year, our guests were slowly but steadily joining the tour and giving us early hope that a tour would form.  Then, for various reasons, some guests suddenly dropped out.  Most were fortunately replaced so once again the tour was on and off and on again several times.  In some ways I understand the reluctance to join a tour such as this.  After all, who are these people who want to take you on a tea tour?  There are so many scams out there.  Can you trust them?  What do they really know about tea or tea ware or even Korea?  To the courageous guests on our final international group we owe a great deal of gratitude for simply joining this tour.  It really was a leap of faith for these guests.  Better yet we could not have hand picked a finer group to travel with.  So if you were one of those guests, thank you again for your trust.
Once on the tour, what would these guests experience – especially if there was no tea! 
After beginning Tea Tour Korea 2011 by taking the group to experience some great tea ware, to which we will return in other posts, our small group of dedicated tea connoisseurs began the tea portion of our travels near Hadong in Hwagae Valley. 
Hwagae Valley is the most important area in the ‘holy mountain’ of Korean tea - Jirisan.  Our first view of Jirisan mountain looked promising even welcoming but I was shocked at what we found. 

 Weeds Survive Between Dead Tea Bushes

Sure, we know South Korea is a little north of the best growing zones for tea.  But I have heard that tea areas of China were also hit hard by the weather this year.  In Hwagae Valley we found thousands of dead bushes.  Some areas lost field after field.  When we stopped at The Okro-nokcha (Jade Dew Green Tea) Company, the oldest tea producer in Hwagae Valley, we were told that they lost nearly 80% of their bushes.  Oh Young Soon, a new tea friend and teashop owner in Insadong, who produces some wonderful Hwagae Valley hand picked and hand processed wild juk-no-cha 竹露茶 “bamboo dew” teas [1], said that nearly every one of her bushes were damaged. 
Members of Our Tea our View Dong Cheon Bushes w Br. Anthony

Dong Cheon Tea's bushes faired a little better but some fields were also destroyed.

 Still at Dong Cheon a Line is Drawn Between Good and Dead Bushes

By contrast, Ha Gu of Yosandang, a tea master who also produces superb wild juk-no-cha 竹露茶 “bamboo dew” Korean teas, was only slightly affected.

 Some of Ha Gu's Wild Tea Bushes
As was Jeon Ju Hyeon of the Yejeoncha Teashop whose Ujeon was very light and smooth.  Gwan-hyang Dawan a producer of extraordinary tea who is highlighted in the book The Korean Way of Tea also escaped great loss.  We will report on these stops in more depth later.

 Gwan-hyang Dawon Was Processing Tea Over a Wood Fire

To be honest I wanted to take photos of the lost bushes but as we drove up Hwagae Valley most of the bushes where we could find a place to stop were fine.

Overall in Hwagae Valley the cold winter was devastating yes but a catastrophic disaster no.  Never the less, the winter of 2011 will go down in history as a very bad winters for Korean tea.  Several artisan tea producers said it was their worst winter ever. 
Later in Bosong we also found considerable loss.  

 Two Images Taken of the Same Bosong Tea Area 2006 and 2011

These two di’s above compare images at one of my favorite tea spots. The bottom image taken a few years ago and the top image taken this spring show the damage there.  A total loss in that area.  Ironically the bottom photo was in my ads for the tea tour.  But all was not lost in Bosong.  Some bushes yes but in the distance, if you look closely, pickers are still busy picking and new bushes will eventually replace those that were lost.

 Bosong Pickers in The Distance Provide Hope for Korean Tea

As for what we found at the Gu-Chung-am Hermitage at Hwaeom-sa, stay tuned.  This is just an introductory report on the effect of the cold weather on the tea bushes in Korea.  There is much more to come as we present a series of posts on Tea Tour Korea 2011.

Added June 14, 2011:  I have to end this report on a good note.  Dong Cheong Tea, perhaps the largest organic tea company in Hwagae Valley, just told me by phone that in spite of their losses the prices for their teas this year will be the same as last year.  Thank you Mr. Ha!  Let's buy some Dong Cheong tea.  Incidentally, Morning Crane Tea sells Dong Cheong tea to retailers.    

[1] Juk-no-cha 竹露茶 “bamboo dew” tea is true wild tea growing in the mountains among the bamboo.  The plants are typically shaded and watered gently by drippings from the bamboo.  It is tea of the highest quality.