Essay

“Like Diamonds or Fine Wine”

The most precious teas in China and Koreaby Joan MacDonald

 

Why does some tea cost more than fine wine and occasionally exceed the price for its weight in gold? While researching her latest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, author Lisa See sampled many cups of tea, including some of the world’s rarest and most expensive. To set the scene for characters whose destinies are entwined with China’s wild Pu’er trees, See met tea farmers, tea masters and high end purveyors, who shared their vintage varieties, including a cup made with tea that cost $1,000 an ounce.

“Everywhere we went, we drank tea,” said the author. “Luckily for me, people wanted us to taste the teas that they were most proud of.”

Pu’er is a microbially fermented tea from the southwestern province of Yunnan, obtained through the action of molds, bacteria and yeasts that live on the trees. The finest Pu’er tea, which at a recent auction sold for $300,000 a kilo, is not even China’s most expensive tea. That honor belongs to Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), a dark oolong tea, which recently sold for $1.5 million per kilo. Rarity is key.

“Like diamonds or fine wine, Pu’er is expensive because of its rarity,” said See.

The most expensive tea leaves are not harvested from cultivated, manicured and cloned shrubs found on plantations, but instead grow on wild trees, often in remote mountain locations. Such wild trees have a distinctive genetic makeup, grow without human intervention, and derive some of their flavor from neighboring vegetation. Wild tea trees can live for more than 1,000 years; the longer the lineage, the more valuable the leaves.

“One can buy Pu’er for a few dollars at Whole Foods, but that Pu’er is not the same as, say, a Pu’er made from 1,000-year-old trees or that has been allowed to age 40 years,” said See. “Think of it like wine. There’s Two Buck Chuck, then wines that cost $20 or $30 a bottle, then $100, $500, or $1,000 or more a bottle.”

The aging process contributes to the pedigree and the price tag. Naturally aged teas, processed without artificially altering the normal timeline of oxidation or fermentation, will command a higher price, in part because it lengthens the wait before a tea grower can earn a return on investment.

“Tea leaves are processed for three days, made into cakes, and then set aside to age – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years,” said See. “The older, the more valuable. These teas are highly collectible.”

Some rare teas are said to confer health benefits, attributed to the tree’s ability to survive for centuries.

“The fact that they survived all this time by themselves, without the aid of fertilizers, pesticides, or any care whatsoever, means that they’ve developed ways to protect themselves on their own,” said See. “This has resulted in Pu’er having a lot of antioxidants, which are beneficial for us.”  

When See began writing The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane there were 200 studies underway about Pu’er’s health benefits, including the tea’s ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. When she turned in her manuscript, there were over a thousand studies.

Not all expensive teas are fermented. Da Hong Pao is a heavily oxidized dark oolong tea, grown in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province in China’s southeast. Cuttings taken from the original plants have been used to produce similar tea from genetically identical plants, but tea that is harvested from the original bushes, now estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old, come with a much higher price tag.

Processing plays a part in Vintage Narcissus, an oxidized Chinese oolong tea that tastes of flowers and chocolate, priced at $6,500 per kilogram. Also cultivated in the Wuyi Mountains, the tea is fired once every two years, to help any extra moisture dry out.

Another factor affecting tea price is the number of times the leaves can brew a flavorful cup. The same Pu’er tea might be used fifteen times before the flavor is diluted.

“Each time a new brew is made, another part of the leaf opens up and a new taste profile is revealed,” said See. “Each new taste is then picked up by different parts of the tongue. In other words, each new brew brings another level of taste, subtlety and depth.”

Tieguanyin, named after Guan Yin, the Mahayana Buddhist goddess of mercy, sells for about $3,000 per kilo, but the blend of green and black tea can be brewed up to seven times and still retain its flavor and fragrance.

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Korea’s rarest teas also derive their distinctive flavor from growing on “wild isolated bushes, often in steep places, sometimes amid thick strands of bamboo,” said Brother Anthony of Taizé, the co-author of The Korean Way of Tea. Their remote location rules out machine processing but also means the tea is free of chemicals.

“Picking such tea is almost impossible if the aim is large-scale production for profit,” said Brother Anthony. “It is only done by people, often Buddhist monks, convinced of the almost magical properties of such completely wild tea, watered by dew from the bamboo leaves, untouched by chemicals, in total harmony with nature.”

There are conflicting stories about how tea arrived in Korea. One says an Indian princess brought shrubs when she married Korean royalty, while another credits Korean envoys to the Chinese court. However tea came to Korea, by the time Queen Seon Duk (606-647) ruled the ancient kingdom of Silla tea was served at court and associated with Buddhist ceremonies.

“Hyper-nationalistic Koreans like to claim that Korea always had tea. Some even claim that China got tea from Korea,” said Brother Anthony. “More sensible people like me agree that tea came to Korea through Buddhist monks returning from Tang China after years of study. The ‘wild tea’ always grows around temples or the sites of former temples.”

With the rise of Confucianism during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1897), tea culture was suppressed, but there has been a recent resurgence of interest in tea culture and the rarest, most expensive varieties. According to Sharyn Johnston, Australian Director of the World Tea Organization, the most expensive Korean tea is Bohyung Gold Tea.

“Master Choi Young-gi was the first tea maker in the world to successfully infuse gold minerals in tea using colloidal gold,” said Johnston. “He learned the health benefits after researching the Japanese ‘fad’ of putting gold in food. He obtained this by watering the roots of the tea plant with golden colloidal solution – electrolyzed gold dissolved in water – and then reaped the first tea leaves in the world containing gold. Gold tea is now iconic and costs approximately $1,280 for 80 grams.”

Even an ardent, well-funded tea aficionado might find it difficult to sample some Korean teas, because they are not for sale.

“Perhaps the most expensive tea ever sold in Korea is tea made from the leaves of Korea’s Millennium Tea Tree that sold for $13,000 U.S. dollars for 100 grams, not for a kilo,” said Arthur J. Park of Morning Crane Tea. “It did come with a separately made lacquered container and a tea caddy inlaid with mother of pearl as well as a teaspoon decorated with 75 grams of pure gold. However that tea is not regularly available and was sold at an auction. Tea from this very old plant owned by Dosim Dawan would be the most rare tea in Korea, but again, it may not be available at any price.”

Many of the finest artisan teas continue to grow near and contribute to the economy of some Buddhist temples.

“There are a number of Tea Temples in Korea,” said Park. “Each produces a limited amount of tea, making their teas relatively rare and often expensive. Prices of 100 grams can reach 300,000 to 400,000 or 3,000,000 Korean won ($270 to $2,700) per kilo. But not all temple teas reach that price.”  

Park, who grew up in the U.S., became fascinated with tea and teaware while exploring his Korean heritage. The potter and retired university professor now seeks to share his knowledge of Korean tea culture by leading tea tours and sharing select teas, mostly artisan and temple teas.

“I first became interested in Korean teas seriously in 1979 when I was studying pottery in Korea and visited a potter. His daughter brought in teaware made by her father and served tea the Korean way.  I had never seen that way of serving tea before. To me it was like poetry in motion.”

There are subtle differences between the traditional tea ceremonies found in China and Korea. Compare this simple Chinese tea ceremony by artist Si Chen and to this traditional Korean tea ceremony on Park’s blog Morning Earth Korea.

“Done more formally, it is a ceremony,” said Park. “Using the same steps casually, perhaps without every utensil in the same spot, it is simply brewing tea the Korean way.”

Savoring tea – in Seoul or Shanghai, with great ceremony or simply with friends – allows you to appreciate the moment.

“One of the great things about drinking fine teas is that they absolutely force you to slow down, savor what you’re drinking, and enjoy conversation and your tea companions,” said See.  “Again, there’s lots of art and poetry across Asia about tea-drinking, friendship, and tea’s ability to allow you to commune with nature and think deep thoughts.”

Contemplative teatime is priceless. ∎

Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Scribner, March 2017); Brother Anthony of Taizé and Hong Kyeong-hee, The Korean Way of Tea: An Introductory Guide (Seoul Selection USA, 2011).