Monthly Archives: December 2018

Tea for the Last Day of a Year

With December coming to its final close, the preparations for the arrival of the new year are almost complete. Amidst the bustle and work, tea is pared down, made simpler, and more rustic. Mirrored by the ever-weathered look of the waning final days of December, the “chill” that is often celebrated in the 侘寂 wabi-sabi aesthetic of tea comes out more and more.

Favoring objects that are more roughly-hewn, I pair a Korean-inspired 萩焼 Hagi-yaki teabowl with a bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), upon which the 節 fushi (natural bamboo joint) is lobed, uneven, and gnarled.

Juxtaposed to this is a modest lacquered 棗 natsume (tea caddy), crafted by an unknown monk of the 大徳寺 Daitoku-ji temple in Kyōto.

In the warmth of the last charcoal set before the new year, the last kettle of water comes to a boil. The soft scent of incense is barely detectable as each implement is cleaned.

Tea is scooped and a half-ladle of water is poured upon it.

Once whisked, a bright, almost electric-colored foam rises.

The scent of fresh 抹茶 matcha is a gentle wake-up call to celebrate the moment, and the taste of the last sip of the year’s last tea becomes a poignant closure to one of life’s many “gateless gates”.

In the final quiet that comes from making tea, an informal 拝見 haiken (viewing of tea objects) feels like a fitting farewell to the year.

A teabowl cleaned and then turned upside-down to view its 高台 kōdai (foot).

The lacquer tea container set aside to admire is simple charm.

Another year passes by and teaware once used is put away.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: All About Gong Fu Cha

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

With the year coming to its end, I cannot help but to take stock of all that has been done this year in the world of tea. Reflecting in such a way, I am proud to say that much has been shared and I have had the pleasure to connect with more tea people, both through this blog and social media, but also through (and dare I say more importantly) the enjoyment of a shared experience and cup (or bowl) of tea.

In the spirit of sharing, I offer up all 2.5 hours of “All About Gong Fu Cha”. Dating back from the hot days of this past Summer, this tea tasting and interactive workshop represents one of the “deepest dives” I conducted into tea culture. Focusing on the meaning and evolution of 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, this event was a guided exploration into the origins of this tea practice and how it changed as the culture and materiality of tea continued to transform over the centuries. Core to this was the breaking-down of a monolithic vision of “gong fu cha”, looking into the diversity of forms it has taken throughout time and throughout East Asia.

Along with this in-depth examination, we brewed tea and offered insight into how to hone one’s gong fu cha skills. This included understanding the ins and outs of Yixing teaware, how to select an appropriate teapot, and the “steps” to properly brewing tea.

As with every event, I offer up a recording for you to watch and enjoy from the comfort of your home/office/mobile device (or whatever you choose to use).

“All About Gong Fu Cha”

Link to video

To aid in the watching of this 2.5 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of approximately 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Gong Fu Cha
    • The Skill & Challenge of Tea
  • Origins and Evolution of Gong Fu Cha
    • Ancient Precursors & Early Tea People
    • Historical Forms
    • Place in Tea Culture
  • The Mind & Materiality of Gong Fu Cha
    • The Shape of Tea
    • Teapot Form & Function
  • The Skill & Challenge of Gong Fu Cha
    • How to Pour, Brew, Hold & Other Considerations

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted  & Teapots Used:

  • Traditionally-processed 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva oolong tea”), Anxi county, Fujian province, China. Brewed in a 1990s 朱泥 zhūní (“cinnabar-colored clay”)思亭壺 Sī Tíng hú (“Si Ting/Thinking of the Pavilion” teapot). Tea sourced from Jin Yun Fu, New York, New York. Teapot sourced from Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, California.
  • 梨山高山烏龍茶 Líshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (“Lishan/Pear Mountain high mountain oolong tea”), Spring 2018 from Lishan, Taiwan (elevation 2200m). Brewed in an early 1980s 綠泥 lǜní (“green clay”) 西施壺 Xīshī hú (“Lady of the West” teapot). Tea sourced from Stéphane Erler of Tea Masters Blog, Taiwan. Teapot sourced from Shen’s Gallery, Santa Cruz, California.
  • 八仙鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Bāxiān fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Eight Immortals” Phoenix single bush wulong tea), from Wudongshan, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Brewed in a 1990s 朱泥 zhūní (“cinnabar-colored clay”) 水平壺 Shuǐpíng hú (“water level” teapot). Tea sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York. Teapot sourced from Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, California.
  • 奇蘭武夷山岩茶 Qí lán wǔyíshān shí chá (“Strange Orchid” Wuyishan “cliff/rock tea”), from Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Brewed in a 1990s 芝麻鍛泥 zhīma duàn ní (“sesame seed-colored fortified clay”) 仿古 Fǎng gǔ (“antique-shape”) Yixing teapot. Tea sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York. Teapot sourced from Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, California.

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

Unwrapping Presence

In the depth of Winter, the swirl of preparation for the New Year can pull one’s mind away from the moment. Planning for the near future is always fraught with expectations. How we can situate ourselves amidst all of this can be a challenge. As I’ve been practicing tea for almost two decades, remaining mindful in every moment is a constant test.

The act of making tea forces one to slow their pace. Nothing can be done too quickly. Water cannot come to a boil faster than the charcoal can make it do so. Even the act of preparing tea is a measured process.

Having stored-away a collection of vintage and antique 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea containers), I bring them out to decide which will be used for 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). This process of unwrapping and unboxing is, itself, part of the meditation that arises from tea.

Does the shape reflect the season? Might the 仕服 shifuku (silk brocaded pouch that holds the chaire) contain an image that relates to an attending guest? Will the glaze of the ceramic tea caddy harmonize well with the 茶碗 chawan (tea bowl)? In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), this is called 取り合わせ toriawase, a collection of items for tea, selected mindfully with intention.

As we bring friends and family together to celebrate the end of this year, observe how you sit in this moment. What do you bring to this moment? How do you let it unfold?

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

A Full Moon and the Longest Night

As the year comes to a close, the days have grown longer and the nights feel all the more still. Each morning I rise and make tea and, still, the night’s sky lingers. As the sun begins to slowly emerge in the East, stars still sparkle in the dull blue haze of dawn. This day marks the depth of this moment, when the night is at its longest in the Northern Hemisphere, met by a full moon.

On this morning, I rise with the dawn to make a pot of tea with leaves gifted to me by a fellow tea friend.

白水仙 Bái shǔi xiān (“White Narcissus”), the poetic name of this tea, is a fitting name, a flower that emerges from the cold of Winter, bright like moon’s glowing light on fresh, crystalline snow.

Opting to brew the downy leaves in a rather large, thin-walled 芝麻鍛泥 zhīma duàn ní (“sesame seed-colored fortified clay”) Yixing teapot, the tea is able to achieve a richer, deeper flavor than had it been infused in a glass or porcelain vessel.

Selecting three small Korean 분청사기 Buncheongjagi cups and sookwoo (water cooling vessel), I warm each object with freshly-boiled water.

Kept in a small Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container, I select each tea leaf and place them gently in the teapot.

The heat of the wetted pot begins to activate the sweet aroma of the white tea leaves as they sit in the large Yixing clay vessel.

Pouring water over the tea and closing the pot, the pause that comes from waiting for the tea to infuse produces a moment to meditate. Minutes pass and the sound of the kettle softly boiling is like a murmur between friends. The sounds of the world waking up from a long night’s slumber rise. The light in the tearoom begins to glow warmer.

The tea decants and its bright liqueur is like that of moonlight against the muted grey glaze of the humble ceramic wares.

Tea to mark the shortest day and the longest night. To enjoy the depths of Winter with a gift from a friend. To find warmth near the kettle and a small teapot. Waiting for a full moon.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea

Listening to Incense

For many, December is a time marked by an intense flurry of work in anticipation for upcoming holidays and the beginning of the New Year. During this time, there is not much celebration nor moments to pause.

Aching to “just sit” I opted to do something a bit different today, a bit outside (though not entirely outside) the realm of tea.

Taking the briefest of moment prior to beginning my busy work day, I rose and began to heat charcoal. From a small wooden 桐箱 kiribako (wooden storage box), I produced a ceramic 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), filled it with white ash, and set it atop a lacquer tray. To the side of this, I arranged the utensils needed for 聞香 monkō (“listening to incense”).

Retrieving the now smoldering charcoal, I pressed it into the center of the ash within the ceramic incense cup.

Shaping the ash into a mound that fully enrobed the charcoal, I then began the meticulous act of shaping the ash into a refined, low apex.

With one metal chopstick, I inscribe the ash with a pattern of lines resembling an antique millstone, finishing-up by gently wiping away any excess dust from the ceramic incense cup with a feather.

Once fully shaped, a single hole is pierced into the ash, allowing the buried charcoal to “breathe”. Peering down this, the live charcoal visibly glows within the mound of white ash.

Finally, a thin mica plate is placed atop the ash peak.

From a wooden 香合 kōgo (“incense container”), I draw out a single, tiny hand-cut fleck of 沈香 jinkō (agarwood).

This is then delicately set onto the thin mica plate.

In a matter of minutes, the subtle fragrance of the incense wood is detected.

Lifting the kiki-gōro to my nose, holding with both hands, I bring it close to my face. Rather than smell the incense, I allow the scent to envelop me. The fragrance is deep, complex, warming.

For a moment I enjoy the presence of this beautiful aroma. For a moment I pause in the bustle of the closing year.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Incense, Japan, Meditation, Tea

In Accordance with the Dance of Snowflakes

Winter’s sojourn continues to unfold over the city as December’s first snow falls gently down from a matte grey sky. Looking out upon the vista from my tearoom window, snowflakes fall as birds alight from leaf-bare trees. With only the warmth of a glowing brazier by my side, I sit for tea in the silence that is brought by a snowy day.

In the calendar for Japanese tea ceremony, the first snow of Winter is met with a quiet celebration, 雪の茶 yuki no cha (“tea for snow”). Low 下駄 geta (wooden clogs) and wide-brimmed woven sedge hats are given to the guests before they cross into the 露地 roji (the rustic garden leading to the teahouse). Warm water with cut ginger is offered to drink as they wait to warm their bodies.

In the tearoom, no flower is placed in the 床の間 tokonoma alcove, and a window is left open for all to enjoy the sight of falling snow. Teaware is left to be simple as, on this day, nothing is meant to compete with the beauty of the first snow of Winter.

As I sit to enjoy tea to this sight, I bring out a 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan(iron basin-shapes teabowl) to make 抹茶 matcha, the poetic name of which is 柿 “Kaki”, for its resemblance to a large, round persimmon. Balancing the bowl’s rustic feel, I select a carved lacquer 棗 natsume tea caddy. For the 茶杓 chashaku teascoop, I choose one carved from a bright piece of bamboo, the center node (節 fushi) of which is set with an emerging bump of a forming branch.

As I prepare to make tea, I cannot help to remain quiet. The teabowl is cleansed with a scooper of hot water, drawn from the boiling kettle.

Once warmed and set down, the bowl is ready for its use to make tea.

Three measured scoops of freshly-ground matcha are drawn from the natsume and placed one on top of the other within the void of the chawan. After the last scoop is issued, I tap the chashaku against the cream-colored rim of the teabowl, releasing the last remaining portions of matcha powder from its hand-shaped tip and producing a light, bell-like chiming from the chawan.

Tea is whisked as a bright, airy foam rises from the thick, emerald green brew.

Set before me, the bowl of tea glows within the low light of the tearoom.

As if to herald the coming future, the delicate matcha foam lifts up like a drift of snow, the aroma of which is crisp and refreshing. Without a pause, the bowl of tea is whole heartily enjoyed.

In the silence that follows, the gentle roll of the kettle boiling is met with the sporadic tapping of falling snow upon the windowpane. A joy to make tea in accordance with the dance of snowflakes.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: All About Wulong

IMG_3195Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

As we huddle closer to the warmth of the boiling kettle, we cannot help but to be drawn to tea, especially those we like to brew hotter and stronger. As part of my regular “circuit” of tea-focused lectures, I recently led a tea talk and interactive workshop at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that concentrated on one such tea type. Titled “All About Wulong”, it was a deep dive and exploration into one of the world’s most diverse categories of tea.

As with most of my tea talks (of which you can find many of them linked within this blog either in posts or under the “Education” tab), I began “All About Wulong” with a brief but detailed discussion on the meaning of wulong (note I am using the Chinese written form “wulong”, which in Pinyin is wūlóng, in Wade-Giles it is “oolong”, and in tradition Chinese script it is 烏龍). Next I outlined the historical origins and context of wulong tea production, consumption, and brewing methods. Following this, we spent the rest of the evening tasting a variety of select wulong teas, reflecting varieties that originated in (or were influenced by) Taiwan, Anxi, Chaozhou, and Wuyishan. Teas ranged from freshly-harvested to aged. In this, we examined they myriad of different processing styles and how to approach them from both a brewing method and from the many aspects of connoisseurship.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture and tea production, “All About Wulong” was a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, which not only sought to educate minds and palates, but to also encourage inquiry and help to hone participants’ tea appreciation and brewing skills (i.e. their 功夫茶 gōngfūchá skills). As part of this continuing effort, I offer you, my beloved readers, the video and notes to this event, for you to enjoy and learn from it.

“All About Wulong”

Link to video

All about Wulong Presentation Grid ImageTo aid in the watching of this 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Wulong Tea
  • Locating Wulong Tea
  • Origins of Wulong Tea
    • During the Song Period
    • During the Ming Period
  • Wulong Tea’s Constant Evolution
    • During the Ming Period
    • During the Qing Period
    • During the Late Qing to Modern Period
  • Brewing Wulong Tea
    • “Mind & Materiality of Wulong Tea”
    • The Skill & Challenge of Wulong Tea
  • Final Thoughts

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted:

  • 阿里山高山烏龍茶 Ālǐshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (Alishan High Mountain wulong), Spring 2018 from Alishan, Taiwan (elevation 1300m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva” wulong tea), Winter 2017 from Muzha, Taiwan (elevation 600m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 老柚花香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Lǎo yòu huāxiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Old Pomelo Flower Fragrance” Phoenix single bush wulong tea) from 350 year-old bushes, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 鐵羅漢武夷山岩茶 Tiě luóhàn Wǔyíshān yánchá (“Iron Arhat” Wuyi Mountain “rock/cliff tea”), Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 1980年 凍頂烏龍茶 Dòng Dǐng wūlóngchá (1980 “Frozen Summit” wulong tea), Nantou county, Taiwan. Personally sourced.

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Every Season Has Two Faces

Part of the enjoyment of tea is the continual meditation it provides on time and the constant changing of the seasons. In Winter, this change is marked in many ways. The transition from the 風炉 furo (portable briazier) to the sunken hearth of the 炉 ro, types of incense used in the tearoom, and even the shape of teabowls from shallow to deep; all are mindful adjustments made in reflection of the subtle shifts in the environment and the desire to stay warm.

Even as a season may be conceived as a “single moment”, it, too, is made up of many smaller moments. This may be the appearance of certain flowers or animals, the enjoyment of particular foods that become available during the cold months, and even specific celebrations. In tea these abound and offer ample opportunity to center one’s self and focus on “the now”.

Today is no exception as I sit down in my tearoom to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha.

Pulling together items that I feel will harmonize with this moment in time, I bring out an array of objects from my tea cabinet.

A vintage 赤津焼 Akazu-yaki 茶碗 chawan paired with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume (a type of tea caddy) and a weathered bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop).

For the tea, I select a fine matcha produced from tea plants grown in Uji, freshly-ground by my friends at Setsugekka, a local tea shop in Manhattan’s East Village.

The teabowl, produced by famed Seto-based ceramicist 中島春草 Nakajima Shunsō, is unique in that it has two “faces” (正面 shōmen).

As one prepares the tea and serves it to the guest, the bowl shows the abbreviated image of two 柿 kaki (persimmons), drying from the eaves of a roof (to produce dried persimmon, 干柿 hoshigaki, a favorite early wintertime treat).

However, as one turns the bowl to respectfully drink from the obverse side, the bowl reveals another image: two 梅 ume plum blossoms, a flower that only blooms during the coldest days of Winter.

The meaning here is subtle but direct. What we enjoy now in early Winter (dried persimmons) is fleeting. What is to come (the ume blossoms) will come sooner than you can realize. Enjoy this moment, for it is in this moment that life is truly actualized.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Sitting Without Sorrow

Almost a year has passed since I began my new life, set up a new tearoom, and began a new journey. During this time, I’ve criss-crossed the continent countless times, each time returning to New York City, each time realizing how much I feel “at home” here.

To commemorate this moment, I gifted my partner a Yixing teapot. Being her first, learning how to use the teapot came with its own set of challenges.

As a rather large (~250 ml) 四方壺 sìfānghú (“square pot”), it requires her to pack the tea more mindfully, pour water in and over it more precisely, and decant the brewed tea from it more delicately.

Setting the learning curve rather steep, however, can come with its own set of rewards.

Designating the teapot for traditionally-processed 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (Tieguanyin oolong tea) has proven to be an excellent choice.

The shape and height of the pot enables the rolled leaves of this particular tea to unfurl and expand upward.

While the teapot’s filter constitutes of only one large hole, this has not hindered its performance as the leaves of the chosen oolong are large enough to resist entering and blocking the flow of the pour.

Being hand-constructed with thick, lower-fired 紫砂 zǐshā (“purple sand” clay), the teapot retains the ideal level of heat when the tea is brewing. Over time, the oils from the Tieguanyin oolong will season the pot and the clay will deepen in color until it achieves an almost metallic glow, offset by the sprinkling of lighter-colored grains of 鍛泥 duàn ní (“fortified clay”).

Even after the teapot’s first use, the tea it produces is strong and the flavor is clean. With each subsequent use, the trace notes of minerality and raw clay from the new Yixing teapot will subside and the true flavor of the tea will emerge and shine.

For now, just to enjoy the subtle aspects of this new teapot’s use is enough for my partner and I to take in. From the way she first learns how to balance the pot in her hand to the way she must decide how long it will take to brew the tea, each becomes a moment to pause and contemplate one’s intention, an opportunity to hone one’s practice. And as she fully decants the teapot, the action reveals a wonderful surprise: a poem recalling a sage in his (or her) hut, sitting without sorrow.

When there is tea, a moment to share is made. When one starts this path, it is always wonderful to be joined by a partner. On this path we walk together.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting