We’re delighted to provide Part 2 of our tea review from North Korea:
Black tea review
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 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.
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. Okay, 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.
On one last infusion I tried out boiling 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 produce these teas 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, since it’s not so easy to replicate this 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
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.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.
Sure, North Korea is a closed country, and 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 just 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 is 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.