We were in quite a pickle that night in the hotel room.
We'd just finished harvesting a twenty-year old organic tree that day, where Ensar picked up a fresh chunk of wood to keep as a memento. He took the chunk, which smelled extremely fecal (or like some nicely aged cheese), back to our hotel room. Big mistake!
As the night grew older, the smell of that chip became just too intense, and quickly filled the entire room. It was as if we were stuck in a cheese factory. And this was already after we'd put it in a zip-lock bag!
Yet when we collected the oil from this tree a month later, we got the cleanest, greenest scent we've ever smelled in any oud. It's almost too green!
Crassna Cha's Beginning:
Left to grow in its natural habitat, an agarwood tree can mature for many decades, allowing the fragrant resin to embrace the entire tree. An experienced eye can then pick up the signs that show how resinated the tree is, of what quality, and if it's ripe for harvest.
The process by which the tree produces its fragrant resin is a sheer miracle, and trying to replicate what happens in the wild in a plantation is a very delicate affair. It requires a whole new kind of expertise.
When we arrived in Thailand's oud producing province, we were told that there are more than fifty agarwood farmers in the area. But after clarifying what we expect from the farmers, it turned out we could only work with a couple of people.
To spray the earth and inject oud trees with lab chemicals is nothing strange in these parts; the odd thing to do is not to spray. To harvest a tree only five to seven years old is the norm; the odd thing to do is not to harvest. In fact, the couple of farmers we've come to know as friends over the last few months were the only ones eccentric enough to pull off the kind of distillations we had in mind.
The twenty-year organic aquilaria crassna tree we decided on for this experiment is a fine example of how things can be done right: the tree was left to grow in its natural habitat, not inoculated with synthetic lab chemicals, nor pre-maturely harvested to meet monthly production quota.
At twenty years old, this aquilaria crassna was already moribund, fully resinated, free from chemicals, and fit for harvest.
The Distillation Stills:
There are only three distillation methods for oud oil: steam, hydro and CO2 extraction. The latter is seldom used save in large-scale productions. The results are far from impressive, with a pasty, sticky, solid at room temperature wax as the end product. The scent is impaired by the extraction of non-resin particles along with the agarwood essence.
Steam distillation is widely used in Indonesia. We're unsure about the benefits of using steam, considering that normally the oil is subjected to temperatures above 300 degrees fahrenheit. Some of our distillers harbor an intense dislike for steam distillation when it comes to oud. Yet Borneo 3000, Borneo Kinam and Kyara Koutan, for example, were steam distilled.
Then we have classic hydro distillation. Simple chemistry: you boil the wood and the resin rises to the top; from there you funnel it into a glass vessel where it gathers over the course of several days, floating atop the water. This is the oldest, most widely used method in Southeast Asia and Assam. The original Oud Royale, Oud Mostafa, Thai Encens (1 and 2), and other oils were extracted via this method.
This is where distillation can get real high tech, with different material tubes for different steps of the process. You can have, for example, a stainless steel boiler with copper tubes that the oil travels through; or a fully stainless unit; or a fully copper one; or a copper still with stainless tubes; or different material tubes for different parts of the process. The possibilities are endless.
With steam distillation, you get agarwood oil that was heated up to a certain temperature and then separated from the condensed steam, with the resultant oil potentially impaired by the high temperature. In hydro distillation, the raw materials are in close contact with water for a period of several days. The water has an almost magical effect on the oil, changing its character dramatically depending on how long it stays immersed, the type of water it is boiled in (spring, rain, ground water), the chemical breakdown of the water itself, salt and mineral content, etc.
Collecting Crassna Cha:
Water is never filtered prior to soaking or cooking the wood. Rather, it comes directly out of the ground. Every distiller has a signature, and it is most certainly his groundwater. We know of a great master whom we have a huge reverence for, the only man who refused to distill our incense grade wood in his stills, lest our incense notes should disturb his lilies and lilacs which he's worked 20 years to perfect in his oil.
So, believe it or not, whether you get a fecal, a fruity or a woody, a dark or a light, a leathery or a green smelling oud oil depends a great deal on the water you use to cook the raw materials!
We collected the oil from our twenty year-old crassna tree one month after the harvest, after four days hydro-distillation using steel pots.
We picked up a 'fecalicious' scent when entering the distillery where the wood was drying atop the cookers, prior to grinding.
We might have been looking forward to some barnyard Thai oil, given our firsthand encounter with the super fecal smell direct from the still moist tree. But post soaking and distillation we got the greenest smell imaginable, without the slightest trace of the cheesy aroma that kept us awake that night in the hotel.
How did that happen? The type of groundwater used for soaking the wood, and then the stainless steel stills. Would we have ended up with an aged cheese smell had we used steam extraction? Most probably! Would we go back and use steam if we could? Nope!
Most distillers cannot go into the nitty gritty of different material ducts and tubes. Hydro distillation stills are cemented in place, making it nearly possible to change anything once they're built. So changing the set-up or trying out different ideas is easier said than done. We only know of one guy who built and rebuilt his entire distillation system three times within one year because the smell of the oil was not what he was looking for.
Collecting and filtering the oil from our 20 year old organic agarwood tree, rounding off a month-long production process, we couldn't help but be moved by the grandeur of it all.
It's pure ethereal greenness.
Strange thing, though, is that green is not a note you'd associate with Thai oils. When you say 'Thai' I think figs, raspberries, honey, guava, plums, and more honey. In Crassna Cha, you get none of these. In fact, if someone gave you a swipe to try for the first time, 'Thai' is the last thing that would come to mind.
It'd been a few days since I've last sat down with the oil, but as I unscrewed the pyrex jar to re-examine it, I was joyfully reminded of what this oil has come to mean to me, and why throughout almost two months studying its development there were many moments where I thought 'why on earth would I sell this?'
During our first visit to Thailand, oranges came up in a discussion. A local showed us a greenish citrus fruit I'd never seen before, indicating this is the type of 'orange' you get in Thailand. When I explained what we mean by oranges in the West, he said 'those kind of oranges are of little use in Thailand, as they're not tart enough.' Everything here is either zesty, or tart, or sharp, or green smelling (and tasting!) and this zest is found in the unique mineral content of their water, their unique fruits and vegetables, their cuisine; I'd even go so far as to say their sexuality. And it is most certainly found in the aquilaria crassnas that grow here.
In Crassna Cha, instead of plums and figs, you get lime and lemongrass; instead of honey, cinnamon, and cherries, you get crystal-clear sencha tea, mint, and green apples; all under the spell of a perfect melody that permeates the entire fragrance: spicy piercing green incense notes of kinamic proportions.
But above all, the aroma reminds me of the days spent in Trat, where the wind wafted through the open-air coffee houses, and I thought 'there's that scent again.' Where every time I rolled down the car window to let in the breeze, I thought 'there's that scent again'; it's the scent in the distillery, of the crisp early morning air along the riverside at our hotel; of the food and the streets. To my sentimental mind, Crassna Cha is the scent of Thailand, in all its zest.