Sunday, April 10, 2016

Mission Impossible: reviewing teas from North Korea

Originally published on the TChing blog, as part 1 and part 2.

I can't believe I did get to try these teas.  It started last year when a Tea for Me blog post listed which countries produce tea, compiled from a number of sources.  Having recently visited South Korea--which was on the list--I wondered if North Korea might not also grow tea.  Google turned up a couple of related articles mentioning that they do, so she added them to her list:

Located mostly above the 38th parallel north, the DPRK is not supposed to be an ideal place for tea planting, as tea bushes won't possibly survive in chilly and arid climate. It is even widely believed that growing tea above 36 degrees north latitude can hardly succeed by traditional techniques.

However, the late leader Kim Il Sung gave instructions as early as in 1982 that the country should produce tea on its own. His successor Kim Jong Il continued to put the task on the agenda and ordered to further advance research in tea growing.... 

Despite unfavorable natural conditions, the Kangryong green tea was eventually produced on a large scale in Kangryong County in South Hwanghae Province on the western coast between 37-38 degrees north latitude, almost a southernmost place in the territory.

Both green and black tea, as it now stands.  Anyone who has visited South Korea in the winter would confirm this really doesn't seem like it should be possible, related to a Seoul climate stat from Wikipedia:

Sometimes, temperatures do drop dramatically to below −10.0 °C (14.0 °F), in odd occasions rarely as low as −15.0 °C (5.0 °F)...

I once visited Everland in the winter, an amusement park near Seoul, and it felt like such an exceptional cold spell was occurring, or that could've just related to my tropical acclimatization.  So how can South Korea grow tea?  It helps to grow a lot of it on Jeju island instead of the mainland:

Typical mild coastal climate with minimum temperatures just below 0 degree celcius even in winter due to warm currents.

So North Korea has probably selectively bred or genetically modified tea plants to survive the extreme cold.  Great job!  But how can someone go about ordering it?  The short answer:  you can't.

Mission Impossible:  how to get tea from a closed country

The internet just doesn't work there, at least for people outside the country contacting web sites inside it.  There are internal official news source sites but they don't really field questions of any kind.  The latest outside news story is about North Korea publicizing a picture of a "miniaturized" nuclear device; not really the best news for some, but I'm setting aside PR concerns to focus on tea here.  Besides, the country I live in now and the one I'm from have their own inconsistencies to sort out too.

Apparently Thailand isn't so concerned about a trade embargo that they would mind if a bit of tea got out, but one by one less and less obvious indirect internet search options completely failed.  It didn't work going through a chain of North Korean restaurants linked back to the country (the closest one to here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia), or external groups related to North Korean interests, or through local embassy contacts.  I even tried to contact Dennis Rodman.

That did bring up a promising indirect route, though, tour group companies going to North Korea, essentially all of them based in China.  To make a long story short, Andrea Lee of Uri Tours, the same guide that helped arrange access for Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters, offered to look into it, and she did come through with picking up the tea.  From my perspective she did the impossible, but to her it was merely ironing out a few details since that's her line of work (more on her background and tours there in this article).

Oddly I almost managed to get the tea through a completely separate source, since a Facebook contact An Sonjae, also known as Brother Anthony, has a friend in North Korea, and he offered to look into it.  But once Andrea was involved things moved quickly.  If anyone is interested in Korean tea, literature, or culture, much of which would almost certainly pre-date the current North / South split, Brother Anthony / An's work is a unique resource.

Tea reviews:  green and black

pressed leaves, looks familiar, maybe slightly darker green

First, about the green tea: it's actually quite good!  I didn't see that coming.  The taste at first reminded me a lot of longjing.  That's no surprise given the appearance, small leaves pressed flat, even though the smell wasn't a close match.  The dry leaf scent was vegetal, between spinach and dried seaweed, with just a hint of the toasted smell dried seaweed often has.  The initial taste was sweet, buttery, rich, and nutty.

I've ran across description of longjing claiming the "right" primary flavor should be toasted rice instead of nuts, another type-description one commonly sees.  To me this tea tasted just a little nutty at first, with that creamy feel overlapping with a bit of butter flavor element, odd for a green tea.  The second infusion had changed, which I'd brewed slightly longer, shifted to more vegetal, to bell pepper.  The buttery effect diminished a little but there was still a good bit of background sweetness.

a pale yellow-gold, nice for a green tea

By the third infusion that pepper element had softened and the taste shifted closer to green beans, together with fresh cut grass, and just a bit of mineral background.  The seaweed implied by the dried leaf scent never really kicked in.

The tea is nice, reasonably full and sweet, with good complexity.  The astringency element was mild, one of the aspects I like about longjing, maybe with just a little less of the soft earthy elements longjing teas can tend to have, more toasted rice element or at least rich background trace of dried hay or the like.

brewed, small leaves and buds

By the third infusion (on green bean taste aspect) the sweetness really hung in there, with a decent length of finish (aftertaste or lingering flavor effect).  Green teas sort of aren't my natural favorite, at least at this point, but this one is nice, with a complexity and balance that works out.  I liked this better than any of the green teas I've been drinking from Indonesia or Thailand over the past few months, all much earthier, with more typical astringency.  A lot of that has to do with more narrow personal preference related to green teas.  I like longjing, other styles not quite so much, although I still drink them, a nice "fresher" tasting counter to more oxidized teas.

The fourth infusion drifted to a more balanced and mixed vegetal scope, really more of what I'd been expecting prior to tasting the tea, still clean in nature, just thinning out a little.  Even after a few infusions it was still decently balanced.  This might be a good place to mention that I was using a hybrid Western / gongfu parameter style, basically Western brewing with a higher proportion of tea to water and reduced infusion times, not so unusual for me, but not ideal for reviewing in the sense that others might tend not to go with that.

Overall the tea was maybe a little soft for someone that really liked that slightly edgy astringency effect green teas often have, even when more or less brewing around that using cooler water (which would kind of seem odd to me), but on the whole it was really nice, in addition to being novel.  I'm really more curious about what the black tea is like though.

Black tea review

looks a little darker in real life; this could be longjing

yellow-gold; could be green tea

The tea looks and smells like a slightly darkened longjing; obvious enough they've just modified the processing style for that green tea.  The dry tea leaf scent is straight longjing with a bit of toffee; intriguing.  I brewed it at water a bit below boiling point, not as cool as for green tea, but but it seemed the tea might respond better than to very hot water.

The brewed tea is golden yellow, not unusual for a lightly oxidized oolong but not in the normal black tea range (which is supposed to be reddish, earning it that Chinese naming convention).  So this gets interesting;  what would a more oxidized version of a green tea be like?  Oolong isn't exactly the same thing, but that has to at least be where this oxidation level left off, not even to the extent more oxidized oolongs reach, and without the complexity the roasting step adds to those.  The first taste is straight longjing, and a decent one at that, very rich and buttery.  Flavors include a taste element between nuts and toasted rice, a subdued soft undertone of dried hay, and a vegetal touch,  just a hint of green bell pepper.

oxidation level:  not that much

The next infusion shifted to more vegetal; no surprise there.  Some of the brightness and "grassiness"--not completely accurate since the taste profile of both tea versions was mostly off the range of grass, but I mean the general effect--had softened, with the richer feel of an oolong.  Overall the effect was somewhere in between normal green and oolong range.

On the next infusion things got more interesting.  The taste moved to a very complex but continuous range of flavors, something like roasting a half dozen types of vegetables together, maybe with a bit of some grain mixed in as a base.  Ok, maybe just a touch of grass too.

Still no astringency,  really, and clean flavors, well presented, with decent balance and sweetness.  They hadn't succeeded in making a black tea but they did make a good tea, and a very interesting one.  Given that they've produced this in a colder environment than tea should thrive in it's quite an accomplishment.

more oolong-ish

On one last infusion I tried out boiling point water instead, just to see what would happen.  The flavor shifted to a rich, buttery butternut squash, a bit different range than I remember from any other tea.  Apparently adjusting brewing style could get a range of different flavors out of this tea.  And the tea has legs, it can brew a lot of infusions, but then decent teas oxidized in the mid-oolong range are often like that.

I would really like to try a true, fully oxidized, sweet black tea version but the novelty still carried the experience.  I'm really glad that Andrea sent enough to keep working with since I get the impression there's a lot more to these teas than one tasting is going to turn up.  The leaf presentation, very small leaves and buds, reminds me of a white tea from Nepal I tried not so long ago, made in the peony / bai mu dan style, but an unconventional version.  This tea would turn out much differently if processed similarly, since processing is only one major factor for tea, but it might be really nice.

How could they do it, about producing these in such cold weather?  Selective breeding, maybe.  I'm also reminded of how growers in Vietnam used greenhouses to grow vegetables or fruit off-season.  You might think Vietnam is tropical, like Bangkok, but some parts get cool, yet another surprise that went badly on a poorly planned vacation.  My grandparents used a simple modified version of this greenhouse concept by covering plants with plastic sheets using simple, removable wood frames, extending the Pennsylvania planting season a month earlier.  I don't know if they used such methods, not so easy replicate on fields of taller plants, and not so cost effective, but they may have been able to since they are working within atypical economic constraints.

Post-script; what if you want to visit North Korea

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il; By J.A. de Roo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

One might wonder, why go there?  For me, the uniqueness.  The country being a bit removed makes it more interesting, like the USSR had been before that re-org.

I was in Berlin less than two years after the Berlin Wall came down but I missed seeing how anyone had really lived there.  The rough edges on the East side of town wouldn't have changed much but the culture and feel were different; that time had passed.  I've been to China twice and to be honest it was disappointing how much the places I visited looked like the West, really a lot more than where I live now (Bangkok), and this city has been Westernizing and modernizing for half a century.

Sure, North Korea is a closed country, a rogue nation, if one must be negative about it.  They've got a beef with my home country, some hard feelings.  It's odd contrasting that to a place like Vietnam, where people would be justified in being upset about a war that tore their country apart, or Laos, where they are still finding bombs in the ground.  Some must still be upset in those places, but the impression you get there is the opposite, that of a warm welcome from a friendly and gracious people.  People move on, and the younger generations don't care so much about what happened before they were even born.  I'd love to see if the response is the same in North Korea.

The one limitation about visiting relates to being guided; that's how it works.  All the visit accounts describe limits to exposure, and rules, and of course visit aspects managed by a guide service like Andrea's.  There are no Bangkok-style back-packers randomly drifting around; probably as well given how that can go here.  Those trip stories usually mention how oddly normal people seem, how friendly, how some aspects are common, children play, some people are quite poor, some aren't poor at all.

There are mass gatherings and unfamiliar cultural elements, and propaganda, but without some of those it might be too similar, like Laos becoming like Vietnam which isn't so different than Thailand.  Anyway, I'd love to see it.  The main attraction I've read of visits tying to relate to running a marathon or half marathon, but that's not for me; I've put in all the time on the roads I ever will at a younger age.  Here is one news story account of that, and a personal account.  At least those say you can sign up for different race lengths, and run a repeating 10k circuit, and I might still have the potential for a 6+ mile jog.

Of course the images are also compelling, like this story including pictures from a visit, or this one linking to four instagram accounts.  The look and feel of those pictures tell some of the same story as the related personal accounts do.  It's different there, and of course the people and the country as a whole face their own challenges, but it seems that the common ground of human spirit stands out most.

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