This morning I was asked what book I might recommend to deepen one’s knowledge of tea. The answer I offered was to just drink tea. While not openly trying to emulate the Chan master Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn 趙州從諗 (778-897), who advised his students to “have a bowl of tea”, I was trying to point the person towards a form of understanding that comes only from direct experience.
When one simply sits to drink tea, one can learn about the various factors that constitute a tea’s flavor. Weather, soil content, level and evenness of oxidation, even (and especially) the way the leaves were picked and processed will ultimately determine how a tea will taste. In the same way that the events of our own lives will affect our demeanor, our psychological bearing, or even our physical state, the life of a tea leaf can tell a story, even a history.
Sitting down to brew a series of Wǔyíshān hóngchá (“red tea” from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian), their “stories” were quite apparent. Between two varieties of 赤甘紅茶 (chì gān hóngchá, literally “red sweetness red tea”), the smaller leaves of the 小赤甘 (xiǎo chì gān, literally “small red sweetness”) were considerably sweeter and cleaner in flavor than those of its larger variation, the 大赤甘 (dà chì gān, or “large red sweetness”). Comparing these two teas to a traditionally-smoked 正山小種 (zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong), the tale these teas told were all together quite different.
Processing played a major part in each of the teas’ distinctive flavor profiles. For the two chì gān hóngchá, the tea leaves were simply picked, withered, rolled, pan-fired, and rolled again before they were dried and made ready to enjoy. This rather orthodox processing helps these teas to retain their natural sweetness that develops through oxidation, revealing flavors akin to that of a baked apple and dried red dates. The smaller, tender leaves of the xiǎo chì gān, with their more delicate sugars, offered flavors that were sweeter and more complex than the larger leaves of the dà chì gān, which were considerably more tannic and floral, resulting in a subsequently drier mouthfeel.
While the leaf type of the zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng may have appeared to be superficially quite similar to the two chì gān hóngchá, the “finishing” of this tea transformed it into something that is remarkably different. Achieved through a process of slowly smoking the dried tea leaves over a smoldering pinewood ash pit over the course of several days, the tea leaves are imparted with the characteristic flavors dried longan and smokey pine resin. When done well, this processing adds a complex layering of smokiness, balancing the sweeter fruit notes that naturally occur in the tea leaves with an almost peat-like quality found in a fine Islay Scotch whisky. In the case of this particular tea, the interplay of these robust and subtle flavors remained from the first steeping all the way through the last, becoming lighter, sweeter, and more delicate with each subsequent brewing.
In an approach like gong fu cha, one is able to examine the leaves of a tea, take in its aroma, sip and savor its liqueur. Through this process, rudimentary know-how is slowly gained and one’s abilities to better understand a tea are eventually developed. While this may take years, the “knowledge” gained through direct experience becomes something beyond words on a page or anecdotes shared between a teacher to a student. It becomes a flavor that lingers in your psyche, a memory embedded in your action. You can always open a book, but to be able to listen to what tea can tell you takes discipline, patience, and a curious mind.
In response to being asked about what books, podcasts, and videos I have enjoyed for learning about and expanding my knowledge on tea, I offer this short list to you, my beloved readers. While certainly not comprehensive, for those just beginning their journey in tea, it is a wonderful “first step”.
Baisa-ō , and Norman Waddell. The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto. Counterpoint, 2008. (Link)
Hirota, Dennis. Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path. Asian Humanities Press, 1995. (Link)
Mair, Victor H., and Erling Hoh. The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson, 2009. (Link)
Sadler, A. L. Cha-No-Yu: the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle, 2001. (Link)
Sanmi, Sasaki. Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)
Sen Sōshitsu. The Japanese Way of Tea: from Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū. Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2000. (Link)
Shigenori, Chikamastsu. Stories from a Tearoom Window: Lore and Legnds of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)
Yoo, Yang-Seok. The Book of Korean Tea: a Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony. The Myung Won Cultural Foundation, 2007. (Link)
Zhang, Jinghong. Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. University of Washington Press, 2014. (Link)
Chinese History Podcast – “History of Tea” by Laszlo Montgomery (Link to Part 1 of 10)
Talking Tea: Conversations About Tea and Tea Culture by Ken Cohen (Link to homepage)
<<茶，一片树叶的故事>> (“Tea, The Story of a Leaf”). CCTV, 2013. (Link to Episode 1 of 6, in Chinese)
Gong Fu Tea|chA by So Han Fan, YouTube channel Tea House Ghost (Link to Episode 1 of a continuing series)