Category Archives: Ceramics

During the Heat of Summer

IMG_8638Dear beloved blog readers,

In my lapse as a blogger (if I can actually be called such a thing), winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer (as of seven days ago). During this time, much has changed: the seasons have shifted, the snow came and melted, and the spring rains are now summer thunder showers. The fireflies have emerged and the mugwort now grows wild in the yard. Gone are the narcissus, replaced by the climbing wisteria and emerging, ripening apricots.

From this perspective, a lot has changed. While I do plan to “back track” and discuss all the many “tea moments” that I’ve had in this past year (2016 to 2017), I would be remise if I didn’t opt to live in the moment and offer up my own take on “the now”.

An earlier entry, “Making tea on a hot day” (August 17, 2016), was a general post to offer my insight and advice in brewing tea when the weather is hot. Now that New York is beginning to heat up, my mind returns to this topic and how to, once again, quench my thirst.

Remaining from spring are the now-aging shincha (新茶,”new tea”) that have come to me by way of the Japanese tea farms of Uji (located near the ancient capitol city of Kyoto). Tea from the Uji region, where tea was first planted by the Buddhist monk Kohken in the 1270s (around 1271, after Eisai popularized the drinking of tea in Japan around 1191 with his writing of the 喫茶養生記, Kissa Yōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Health”)), typically produces a full-flavored liqueur with a notably creamy mouthfeel (when compared to teas produced in Shizuoka or Yame). On hot days, I find myself preferring to take this tea at lower temperatures, sometimes even cold, brewing the tea much longer, the result of which is a very viscous and full-bodied brew. Much like brewing gyokuro (玉 露, “jade dew”), the flavor can become slightly savory.

FullSizeRenderWhen mindfully brewing this tea, I find myself pulling out a small Oribe-yaki (織部焼) teapot, the walls of which are thin enough to allow the tea to cool down and enable a longer, more laid-back brewing. When at work, I opt to brew the tea casually in a wide-rimmed glass cup. Much like a summer teabowl used in Japanese chanoyu (茶の湯), the wide, shallow shape allows the liquid to cool down. This allows for the lukewarm water, which I use to brew the tea, to cool down fast enough for the tea to remain submerged for close to an hour without becoming bitter. This is ideal for simple tea while focusing on work.

With the passing of spring also comes the arrival of new matcha from Japan. During this time, too, the heat does not prove an obstacle, merely an opportunity to respond to it. While in Japan (and, similarly, New York), the hottest time of the year typically arrives mid-August, I chose today to bring out my kuro-Oribe (黒織部), “black Oribe”) kutsu-gata (沓形, “clog-shaped”) summer teabowl. While usually reserved for later in the year, I couldn’t help but bring this out, its shape alluding to things to come.

FullSizeRender_9The act of making tea is, in itself, a refreshing practice. Often, as in the case with Japanese tea ceremony, referring to aspects that infer coolness during a hot summer’s day helps to induce a lighter attitude. Unboxing the irregularly-shaped teabowl from its lightweight pine box was just the first of many steps that would help to psychologically bring the temperature down.

FullSizeRender_1Once open, the box presented a sight that I hadn’t seen in over a year: the light cotton furoshiki (風呂敷, literally “cloth for the bathhouse”, historically used to wrap one’s belongings while at a bathouse, now commonly used to wrap anything from gifts to groceries and, informally, teabowls) emblazoned with the motif of a water leaf (or, sometimes seen as asanoha, 麻の葉, lit. “hemp leaf” pattern), wrapped securely around the teabowl. Even the loose knot, in the shape of a bridge, helped to refer back to the coolness of the imaginary water that would flow beneath such a structure.

FullSizeRender_2Pulling back the cloth, the shallow, squat, roughly-hewn teabowl revealed itself. The glaze, smooth and glass-like, terminated in a slight whirlpool-like form in its center. On either side of the bowl (its face and back) were cursory brushstrokes; on one side was painted a water well motif, on the other were blades of grass (though such motifs are always up for different interpretations).

FullSizeRender_4On this day, as the still summer heat filled the tearoom, I began to prepare a bowl of matcha. First went the damp chakin (茶巾, the hemp cloth used to clean a teabowl), folded and placed into the bowl (in the shape of a butterfly, in keeping with the practice of the Sohen-ryu school). Next, the chasen (茶筅, “tea whisk”), placed upright, its tines exposed, droplets of water sparkling in the late-afternoon light. Finally, a tea caddy and bamboo teascoop (made from a type of bamboo that has dark, tiny spots, resembling a light rain) were brought together.

FullSizeRender_5Making the tea was casual and meditative. A perfect way to center oneself amidst the heat of the day. The matcha, whipped into a light foam, was further enhanced by the addition of a simple ice cube. While almost common today, the incorporation of ice into a bowl of matcha would have been an incredibly rare treat for someone centuries ago. Ice would have been hauled by specialized handlers from distant mountains into the cities of ancient and pre-modern Japan to enable for such a delectable refreshment.

FullSizeRender_6To put this into perspective, similar ice treats, like the ever-popular kakigōri, かき氷, or shaved ice, date back to at least the Heian period, with the first written account of the delicacy being found in the Makura no Sōshi (枕草子, “The Pillow Book”) by Sei Shonagon, completed in 1002. Such a delight was reserved only for those in the imperial court, until better transportation and refrigeration came to Japan in the Meiji period, when kakigōri  (and, for that matter, matcha with ice) became available to a mass audience.

FullSizeRender_7Today, the ice is a kind reminder of how tea remains a simple luxury. One does not need to be wealthy to enjoy its rich flavor. Just to take time and be mindful of one’s actions is all one needs. Soothing both in taste and texture, matcha with ice is a great way to wind-down the day.

As the summer’s sun dips lower on the horizon and lingers longer than it had a season ago, this moment is meant for savoring. Tea, during the heat of summer, helps.

 

Now that I’m back at my blogging (wish me luck that I can continue), I am curious what everyone is doing to relieve the summer’s heat? How do you enjoy tea, typically a hot beverage, amidst the increasingly hotter days?

In posts to come, I will explore various summer teawares and share my approaches to complimenting the climbing temperatures. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, as always, learning more.

FullSizeRender_8(IMAGE: Good even to the last drop, I drink the wash of the teabowl. A light rinse of the remaining matcha can still produce a vibrant green and a delicious taste.)

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Sencha, Tea

Making tea in time of work


(IMAGE: Rather than distract from work, tea can be used to fortify one’s focus. How to do that is the challenge.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

I will admit, making tea isn’t always convenient. Sometimes bringing out the yixing teapot or gaiwan or ceramic chawan (茶碗, “tea bowl”) just isn’t practical when I’m in work “crunch mode”.

Lately I’ve been working on a variety of projects and , well, sometimes tea can get pushed to the bottom of my “to do” list. However, like anything in life, there is a gong fu to approaching tea in the time of work. In this entry, I’m going to share some of my insights into this, and, as always, I hope to hear some of yours as well.

Become part of the 99%

Tea people love their tea and love their teaware. Speaking from personal experience, when given the chance I will almost always use a teapot. The act of making tea in this manner is centering and can change my mental attitude. Studies have even shown that meditative acts like this can even alter one’s neurological state. That said, setting up the tea equipage can take time and has the potential of shifting focus away from a particular priority.

The “work around” for this tea in time for work is to make tea like most of the world (certainly most of Asia) makes their tea: the jar.

Taking just a handful of tea leaves and placing them into a jar and pouring hot-warm water over them can do wonders. The glass walls of a jar will quickly dissipate any excess heat, and the added transparency offers a view into the “progress” of the steep. Filtering the tea leaves is simple: your teeth and gravity is all that’s needed. For this point, I generally brew larger leaf teas for jar tea like Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁, Taiwanese high mountain oolongs 高山烏龍茶, and da ye (大葉, “big leaf”) puer.


(IMAGE: Making semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁 green tea using the jar tea method produces a gorgeous liqueur and balanced flavor.)

When the tea becomes too strong, I add more water. From what I’ve observed, more robust and balanced steeping a come from this method rather than drinking all of the tea and then refilling the empty jar. Likewise, I find that as the tea cools after a long steeping the flavors become more pronounced and complex. Maybe this is why jar tea is so popular!

Mizuya cha: “kitchen matcha”

Another quick tea alternative is to go the matcha route sans the ceremony. In Japan this is called mizuya cha (水屋茶, みずやちゃ), or “water room tea”, referring to the small preparation room that is often attached to a Japanese tearoom/teahouse (茶室, chashitsu). In traditional tea ceremonies where there are often large numbers of guest, only one (or sometimes just a few) tea bowls of matcha are ceremoniously prepared. The remainder are prepared “off stage” and are offered to guests pre-made.

In modern day practice, mizuya cha typically translates to “kitchen tea”, or tea simply made in the comfort of one’s own kitchen, devoid of the “ceremony”. Making tea this way, with a bowl (either traditional chawan or even a basic rice bowl), a whisk, and hot water can be done within a matter of minutes and can offer a quick respite from work without breaking “the flow”.

(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan used for today’s mizuya cha has its historical origins in Korean rice bowls, which were treasured by the likes of 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu for their functionality and informal nature.)

What’s great here too is that making tea in this manner is still very much part of the “tea mind” cultivated in Chanoyu (茶の湯, lit. “hot water for tea”, the practice of Japanese tea ceremony), stressing lack of formality and a humble manner of “just making tea”. So long as your mind and heart are still in it, this way of making tea can still be a meditative act.

(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan is paired with a contemporary negoro-nuri black-and-red lacquer chashaku teascoop balance the informality of making tea in the kitchen.)

Drinking from the teapot

My last “pro tip” for today is maybe my favorite guilty pleasure.

Again, I love teaware (especially yixing teapots), and when there is any excuse to use a finely-crafted piece I will. That said, having the whole “gong fu cha kit” at my desk or work table (or park bench) can quickly clutter the work space and mind. To avoid this, I pare everything down to their most elemental: just the teapot.

With just a teapot, one is left with really just one option: to drink directly from the teapot. While this might seem a bit ungainly (and for those opposed to public breastfeeding, a bit reminiscent and disturbing… for the record, I’m all for public breastfeeding, it’s natural, let people be free damn it!), it is very effective and has historical precedent.

While I am currently unable to cite historical documentation to back this up, I have had countless tea farmers, merchants, and masters tell me that they do this and that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have done this. Some have even gone so far as to say that this was the particular habit of the young, well-heeled scholarly/playboy brats of the late Qing/early Republic era. I, too, have done this on numerous occasions, sauntering down streets in San Francisco sipping from my small teapot and wandering into local establishments to get a “top-off” of warm water. (I have yet to do this in New York City, but hope to soon)

The results of brewing this way is quite remarkable, offering a level of control and intimacy with the tea not available through more “orthodox” means. Like brewing with a jar, one should use warm water, obviously so as not to scald one’s hand while holding the teapot, but also to achieve a smooth and balanced brew.


(IMAGE: For drinking directly from the teapot, I favor my 1980s duan ni Xi Shi hu (鍛泥西施壺). The shape of the pot feels good in the hand and the spout is easy to drink from.)

Also, by cradling the teapot in your hand and using your thumb to press and release the top hole of the teapot lid as a carburetor, you can adjust the flow of the tea from teapot to mouth. Speaking again from experience, I typically find more success drinking directly from the spout, rather than pouring the liquid into my mouth (however, this is completely up to you, though the aforementioned approach can get messy).

What works for you while working?

For sure this is a very basic “list” of approaches to making tea in time of work. As always, the environment is going to dictate what works best for you (and for the tea). This is where we as tea people can be creative.

So, what works for you? How do you make tea while working…and how do you strike that balance between quality of work and brew? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

Enjoying traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin: from historical trends to teapot tips

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(IMAGE: Today’s set up for brewing a traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin oolong.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

It’s been a long time coming. The urge to drink some real Tieguanyin (铁观音, “Iron Goddess of Mercy”) finally took hold and today I broke-out the “good stuff”.

The tea is a high-roasted Tieguanyin, gifted to me by two of my favorite tea friends who are now far-flung across the globe in search of tea (one in Bohemia, the other trekking throughout East Asia). The two recently sent me a care package with a variety of teas (of which I will most certainly review in later posts), the first of which is this splendid tea.

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(IMAGE: Fresh from the tea caddy, the gifted Tieguanyin.)

Before I reveal any more about this particular tea, I should go over the basic history of Tieguanyin, one of China’s famous teas (中国十大名茶, “Ten Famous Teas of China”… of which there always seems to be an ever-expanding roster). As with other oolongs that I’ve discussed in this blog, Tieguanyin most likely has its origins within the oolongs that were first developed during the Song dynasty in what is now Fujian province. During this time, oolongs were pressed into tea cakes, which were later ground up and whipped into a concoction similar to modern day matcha. Famously consumed as part of the diancha (点茶) whisked tea preparation, these teas later evolved into several well-established classes of oolong tea. By the Ming period, oolong was being consumed in its whole-leaf form, and by the Qing dynasty, a recognizable form of today’s Tieguanyin emerged.

Outside of the various “mytho-histories” that surround Tieguanyin (some involve the Qianlong Emperor, others telling the tale of a farmer who dreamed of Guanyin), the tea itself comes from a style of tea that is less-oxidized that the yancha oolongs of the Wuyi mountains. Earlier and more “traditional forms” usually receive around 30% oxidation, lending to a reddish-green hue to their leaves. The leaves undergo a processing that involves a series of tossing, drying, rolling, and roasting, resulting in leaves that are curled into small pellets, as opposed to their Wuyi yancha counterparts. These pellets, depending on the maker, can sometimes consist of one leaf or two leaves and a sprout. The latter form eventually made its way to Taiwan (by way of Fujian, but that’s a whole other story). Tieguanyin is now a very popular tea (again, a noted “famous tea”), and is a staple tea for populations inside Anxi county (where it is produced), but also within outside regions such as Chaozhou county (where it is celebrated in the Chaozhou gong fu cha tea preparation), as well as in southeast Asia and in Chinese populations outside of Asia.

Traditionally-crafted Teiguanyin is its own beast. Unlike the very green and vegetal Tieguanyin oolongs that have become quite popular today (often categorized as a “Jade Tieguanyin”), traditional Tieguanyin tends to be more highly and evenly-roasted (although not as highly-roasted as a dark-roasted Tieguanyin, which are often very charcoal-forward in flavor). The objective here is to balance the higher oxidation with a mild roastiness. The end result creates a flavor profile that tightly ranges from burnt sugar to caramel, floral notes of gardenia, rose, and marigold, and fruit notes of dried apricot and red date. The layers of oxidation and roasting removes any of the grassiness present in Jade Tieguanyin oolongs, instead, replacing them with notes of dark greens akin to still-green sheng pu-erh or beet greens.

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(IMAGE: A close-up look at the traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin oolong. Note the balance between the “red and green” of the tea leaf, and tightly-coiled leaves.)

Finding a tea like this nowadays (this makes me sound old…ugh) is becoming more difficult. Part of this is due to the amount of steps involved in making this tea, part of this is due to the depth of knowledge and experience required to execute this processing.

From what I’ve been told by tea farmers and tea masters (those who “finish” the tea), this is a style of tea that is disappearing in China. Part of this story is linked to the modern history of China, from the fear and chaos seen within traditional arts during the Cultural Revolution to the recent economic boom-bust tension felt in rural v. urban areas in China. Additionally, due to the “trendiness” of some teas versus others, the demand for traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin has dipped in recent years, shifting to pu-erh and other “big name” teas. Overall, the capricious nature of the Chinese tea market has created interesting innovations, often with “interesting” results (for additional background into this dynamic, I highly recommend the great book by Jinghong Zhang Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, 2013). In response to this, there have been some die-hard traditionalists who continue to produce this tea in China, as well as tea masters in Taiwan who have begun to develop their own take on traditional Tieguanyin oolongs (of which there are great examples!).

Today, as I sit down to appreciate this Tieguanyin, I find great comfort in this tea. Almost a decade ago, as I was beginning to dive deeper into my pursuit of tea knowledge, Tieguanyin was the ONE tea I studied the most. Guided by my tea teacher in the Chaozhou-style of gong fu cha, we easily brewed-through pounds of this tea (which he and famed tea person Roy Fong) had acquired through the years. Throughout this, I used JUST ONE teapot: my trusted pear-shaped “teacher pot”.

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(IMAGE: A top-down look at the “teacher pot”. Note the deep “lip” of the lid. This is common within older-style teapots. This pot is one of a five-part series commissioned by famed tea person Roy Fong during the early 1990s.)

The micro-history of the “teacher pot” began in the late 2000s as I was a much-suffering graduate student at UC Berkeley. Having acquired several yixing teapots prior to the “teacher pot”, I had a good understanding of the dynamic a teapot played in brewing tea (from its shape, firing, thickness, etc). When I was presented this teapot by my then tea teacher (thus the name “teacher pot”), I was told it would be just for brewing traditional Tieguanyin. The reason: the teapot’s shape, bulbous in nature, high-fired, and medium thickness in construction, was perfect for this type of tea. Brewing Tieguanyin in this teapot for close to a decade now has not only told me much about the tea, but it has also informed me to how a teapot should work.

Beginning to brew the tea, I pre-heat the pot. Carefully placing a healthy amount of leaves into the center of the bottom of the pot, I pour just a bit of boiling water into the pot to pre-wash the tea leaves and close the pot. This water is immediately poured out into a cup (to be poured-over the teapot during the first steeping). Next I nearly fill the teapot with boiling water and close the pot, pouring additional boiling water and the “rinse” over the pot.

As the teapot brews the tea, there is very little information as to how the tea is brewing. The skill of brewing tea in a yixing teapot is to be able to know exactly what is going on inside the pot. For this, one must be able to “read” the teapot.

For the “teacher pot”, to do this, I am given several “clues”. First, the water poured over the teapot will evaporate. If I wanted a “light” brew of this tea, I would simply pour out the tea at this point and enjoy. However, for brewing in the Chaozhou-style, I will bravely press on!

The next “clue” present will be the meniscus at the spout of the teapot. Upon first pouring the boiling water into the pot, the meniscus will puff-out of the teapot’s spout in a convex, dome shape. As the tea begins to expand and unravel, air pockets will open and the tea will begin to absorb the hot water. This will slightly reduce the liquid volume of the water, resulting in the tiny meniscus dome to contract and pull down into the spout. This “clue” is crucial to brewing tea! If I wanted a “medium-steeped” Tieguanyin, I will pour out the tea upon this moment (if it was a highly-roasted Tieguanyin, I might pour out the tea right before this moment… this takes practice).

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(IMAGE: The first stage of the meniscus, dome-like in shape, indicative of the early-stage of brewing.)

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(IMAGE: The meniscus begins to crawl-down the spout of the teapot as the tea leaves begin to expand and uncurl, absorbing the hot water.)

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(IMAGE: After several seconds pass, the meniscus has completely crept-down the spout of the teapot, noting the progress of the tea steeping.)

The final “clue” requires a greater knowledge of the individual teapot. For this “clue”, one will need to pay very close attention to the color of the teapot, as a high-quality teapot will ever-so-slightly change color. In the case of this zhuni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) teapot, it will darken in color. Once this happens I quickly and intently pour out the tea from the teapot.

The result is fantastic. The color of the tea is a dark gold/amber. The aroma is unavoidable, filling the room in my apartment with a sweet toasted sugar scent, swirling with floral and incense notes. The flavor is punchy, though not bitter. Instead, the flavor is incredibly balanced, full, and complex. In the style of Chaozhou gong fu cha, every flavor is extracted to the point it is almost too much to handle (as my teacher would say “It’s like you’re running up to a cliff, only to stop right when your toes are hanging-off the edge.”). As with any great traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin, this tea is both deep and exciting, with flavors of burnt sugar, marigolds, toast (yes toast), and a lingering apricot and incense finish. The mouthfeel is almost as big and complex as the initial flavor and one cup can easily coat the palette for hours. Subsequent steepings (of which I was able to achieve seven) are equally interesting, remaining full for three and trailing-off towards the fourth, fifth, and sixth, becoming wonderfully light and sweet by the last.

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(IMAGE: Deep color, bold flavors. The results of a Chaozhou-style brewed tea.)

Brewing tea in this style is not easy but very much worth the effort. Honing one’s tea practice is not just about getting to know the tea but also the value of teaware and its usefulness as a tool towards this end. As always, I encourage you, my beloved blog readers, to share your experiences with this. Also, if you have a tea that you just love, show it that love, and share your stories! Until then, I sign-out to enjoy the final steeping of this epic little oolong!

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

Drinking aged Shui Xian oolong: flavors developed over decades

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(IMAGE: Brewing +30 years old aged Shui Xian oolong)

Dear beloved blog readers,

There are teas that age and teas that don’t age. Teas that don’t age lose their flavor, become stale, and fail to inspire. On the other hand, teas that age turn into something transcendent, their flavors transform, and they gain a quality that can inform you of the years they have seen.

While many tea people know about aging tea through their experiences with pu-erh tea, fewer know about aging oolong tea. From the processing to the final results, aging oolong tea can be tricky and “success” often lies in the hands of a skillful tea master (the person who processes, oxidizes, and roasts the tea).

Much like the processing of oolong from fresh leaf to finished product (ready to be brewed), the aging process is often one that involves both “breathing” periods and “finishing” roasts. In the initial crafting of an oolong tea, whether it’s a dark Wuyi yancha (“rock tea”), a vibrant green Taiwanese high mountain oolong, or russet Feng Huang Dan Cong (“Phoenix Single Grove”), producing an oolong tea requires a series of roasting and re-roasting, between which there are several breathing periods. These breathing periods allow for the tea to naturally cool-down from the roasting and air-out any off or undesired flavors. Here, the aim of the tea master is to halt oxidation and preserve (or even highlight) flavors that occur naturally within the tea. When well done,the results can range from being undetectable (preserving the green or floral notes without any additional “roastiness”) to being extremely well-balanced (creating a harmony between the flavor of the tea and the toasted notes produced during the roasting process). Ageing an oolong is, in a sense, an extending of this process through time.

The practice of aging oolong is almost as old as the history of tea, most likely having its origins in the Song dynasty with the advent of oolong production in Fujian. During this time, tea was still being pressed into cakes, later to be ground up and turned into a frothy concoction reminiscent of modern-day matcha. Much like pu-erh today, the famous Longfeng Tuancha 龍鳳團茶 (“Dragon Phoenix tea cakes) of Fujian enabled the tea to retain its flavor over time by reducing the overall surface area of the tea. When it came time to drink the tea, the tea person would break off a section of the cake, steam it, and administer a slight re-roasting to the tea before grinding it for the final brew. The re-roasting, as it was noted at the time, helped to wake the tea up, re-activating its flavors through applied heat.

龙凤团茶 Dragon Phoenix Tea Cake Image

(IMAGE: Various Song dynasty period Longfeng Tuancha 龍鳳團茶 (“Dragon Phoenix tea cakes))

Being one of the oldest oolong cultivars, Shui Xian developed during this time period and made its way into this form of production (even today, one can still find Shui Xian pressed into tea cakes, enabling a style of aging akin to that of the Song period). With later cultivars and varietals of oolong tea being developed from the Song dynasty onwards, new methods of producing, processing, and aging oolong emerged.

During the Ming dynasty, with an imperial edict that demanded that tribute tea be sent in its loose leaf form, the process of making and aging oolong changed. A style of this is preserved and still practiced in Chaozhou, where oolong tea is often given a quick re-roast to reawaken dormant flavors in the leaf. The tea is then brewed, often very strong, to reveal all of the flavors present in the tea. As with the Song dynasty tea preparation, Chaozhou-style tea brewing, with the final re-roasting, enables tea to age and then “wake” prior to brewing.

Similarly, there is the practice of re-roasting oolong tea to preserve its flavor, not for immediate brewing, but explicitly for aging. Again, probably arising from the practice of roasting oolong tea during the initial processing and recognizing that this and any subsequent re-roasting could help to “lock in” the tea’s flavors, tea masters will often give aging teas additional roasts. There is an art and science to applying these roasts: The tea master will need to gauge whether the tea has longevity to express flavors after years of aging. The tea master will also need to determine the right time to roast the tea as it ages. Finally, the tea master will need to know how to roast the tea, whether to lightly roast it to preserve existing flavors, or to perform a higher roast balance the flavor. The tea master can also use aromatic woods for charcoal (such a longan wood) to produce a more complex flavor profile.

Subsequent roasts to an aging tea can produce a subtle “layered” effect. Usually occurring every five to fifteen years (although this can differ depending on the tea master), these roastings not only help to extend the life of a fine tea but also act as a kind of dialogue between the tea master and tea. If an oolong is passed-down to other tea masters, they may choose to apply additional re-roastings during the time they have the tea. As such, the tea becomes a documentation of this history and interaction.

Finally, there is another way to age oolong tea by simply keeping the tea well-sealed and away from excessive heat, moisture, light, and oxygen (as well as any other odd scents). Oolongs aged this way tend to become quieter with age, smoothing-out any of the “rough edges” that they may have had during their early years. If one is lucky, a good tea can become a great tea, mellowing over time and gaining a depth it may have lacked originally.

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(IMAGE: Aged Shui Xian oolong tea leaves kept in an antique Japanese wooden natsume (tea caddy) prior to brewing. Only enough tea is brought out to ensure the remaining tea leaves do not go stale)

As an avid tea drinker, I have had several opportunities to drink such teas, from a fantastic Feng Huang Dan Cong that had been hidden in a rice bale during the Cultural Revolution to a 120 year-old blended oolong one of my tea teachers’ grandmothers who had enjoyed it when she was a young girl. Needless to say, each tea spoke volumes of the time that passed and of the people that crafted them.

Today, I am sitting down to drink one such “transcendent” tea: an aged Shui Xian 水仙 (“Water Narcissus” or “Water Sprite”) Wuyi yancha. The tea came to me by way of a dear friend who had gifted quite a large quantity of it to me more than five years ago. When he acquired it from a renowned tea person, the tea was already close to thirty years old and had received several re-roastings over the course of these three decades.

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(IMAGE: A close-up view of the aged Shui Xian oolong leaves.)

The leaves are huge, befitting the style and cultivar, as well as the standards of quality that were upheld more than thirty years ago. The tea is, in a sense, a history lesson, showing the attention and care the original farmers and tea master had paid to crafting this tea. Unlike many modern interpretations of aged Shui Xian, the subsequent roasting on this tea was lightly done, the resulting hue of the leaves is leathery rather than black.

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(IMAGE: The stone weight-shaped zhima duan ni (sesame seed-colored clay) yixing teapot specifically for the brewing of aged Shui Xian oolong)

I chose to brew this tea in a slightly larger teapot, one I have dedicated specifically for this tea. The shape of the pot is poetically referred to as a stone weight or metal ingot, given its resemblance to these daily items of the Ming and Qing periods. The bottom of the teapot is flat, allowing for these leaves to sit low in the pot. Unlike new teas or even aged pu-erh, aged oolong leaves tend not to entirely open up upon steeping. For this reason, having a pot that allows for them to retain their shape is ideal.

When brewing the aged Shui Xian, I opt for boiling water. Given that these tea leaves haven’t received many subsequent re-roastings and are now going through a “resting” period, the high heat of the water will help to draw out the desired flavors. For the first steeping, I choose to let it brew for only a few seconds, only enough time to allow for the water poured over the teapot to evaporate.

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(IMAGE: The final result: The beautiful copper color of the aged Shui Xian oolong)

The flavors of the steeped aged Shui Xian are exquisite. The scent alone of the liqueur fills the air of the northwest-facing room of my apartment. The color is copper with a hint of purple. Finally, upon sipping the tea, I become audience to an unfolding of flavors quite unlike any other tea. First there is aged dried plum, followed by waves of cedar and camphor, ending in a long-fading finish of dark honey. The mouthfeel is clean with a slight minerality (which is often present in many Wuyi yancha).

Brewing this tea one steeping after another, peeling-back the layers of flavor, and revealing its stories has me enjoying this tea for hours. A fitting end to these leaves first picked more than 30 years ago, enjoyed today and shared with you.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea Tasting

Brewing to the best of my abilities: Arranging Da Hong Pao tea leaves and the results

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(IMAGE: Each leaf of Da Hong Pao arranged by size to maximize their potential when fastidiously placed into the teapot)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We tea drinkers learn about tea from various sources. Now-a-days, one doesn’t need to spend much time to find an over abundance of information on tea. From tea blogs to tea shop websites to Youtube videos and all sorts of click-bait health claims that seem to engulf tea knowledge; for the tea drinker, the challenge today seems to be “what information” is valuable as they comb through the deluge of truths, half-truths, and skillfully-crafted marketing material.

As a tea drinker who began his journey before the Internet Age, I have tended to trust the guidance of a teacher and am a natural skeptic of that which I find online (I thank those who read this blog, but, seriously, find an actual person to talk about tea with… You’ll find it infinitely more engaging). As a result, my approach to tea has been shaped by my teachers; people who have dedicated their lives to the study and unwavering exploration of tea.

In around 2009 I began to learn about tea (specifically Chaozhou gong fu cha) from the San Francisco-based tea scholar (and excellent guqin master) David Wong at his then nascent Tranquil Resonance Studio. Working with a tea shop just down the hill in Chinatown and trying to survive the rigors of an attempted Masters/PhD in East Asian History at UC Berkeley, I entered David’s tutelage already “well-steeped” in tea. However, David’s approach to tea (and the path he would take me down) forced me to re-evaluate everything that I knew about the subject, redirecting me towards the historical source of gong fu cha and relying on knowledge of practices that had been handed-down from teacher-to-teacher, often absent from or only hinted at through the canonical texts in tea scholarship.

Along with making me recognize the irrelevance of time an temperature to tea (a topic I will most certainly write about), David exposed me to the importance the arrangement of tea leaves played on producing the perfect brew. Literally going though pounds of tea at his studio in order to get the right flavor, he showed me how the simple act of putting tea leaves into a teapot can have a lasting effect on the end result. From how the leaves are arranged to how the water hits the leaves to how the leaves expand and tumble in the teapot will all determine the flavors of the final brew. Part art and part science, to recognize this was and is the core to understanding the concept of “gong fu cha”.

So why arrange tea leaves? Who has time for that?

In what is probably the earliest mention of tea in a written text, the “Tong Yue (童约)”, written by Wang Bao in 59 BCE during the Western Han dynasty, the author mentions a contract with a servant in which said servant (who was specifically to come from the Bashu area, Sichuan province today, then one of the most prominent centers for tea) was to both procure and brew tea. Probably before this time, but certainly from this time onward, in China, for the well-heeled classes, brewing of tea was almost always done by a servant.

Tea Grinding, by Liu Songnian

(IMAGE: Grinding Tea Leaves by Southern Song dynasty artist Liu Songnain (1155-1218), National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Evidence of the role of the servant (whether a slave, an apprentice, or acolyte) can be seen in many painted depictions of tea gatherings. Tea, although consumed by figures central to these paintings, is brewed often off to the side. In this preparation space, one usually sees a kettle brewing (the look and function of which changes throughout the centuries) and brewing implements, from ewers to tea bowls, grinding stones to eventually teapots. It was in this side register, in a space often out-of-view from those drinking the tea, that the art of gong fu cha was diligently practiced.

Tasting Tea by Wen Zhengming

(IMAGE: Tasting Tea by Ming dynasty artist Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Given the amount of time and attention paid to the preparation, the leaves would have definitely been dealt with a great deal of care (as evidenced through the volumes of texts dedicated to them and their brewing). As tea brewing practices shifted from grinding tea bricks and whipping the powder into a foamy brew (still done in Japanese tea ceremony with matcha or enjoyed in Korea via malcha) to brewing the actual full leaves from the Ming dynasty onward, how one arranged one’s tea leaves in the brewing vessel became more important. Concurrent to this was the explosion of different varieties of tea that were becoming popular, ranging from the various twisted Wuyi yancha (that had become popular by the Song dynasty) to the rolled Tiekuanyin oolong, flattened Longjing green tea, and diverse forms of pu-erh teas (many of which would only become widely popular towards the late Ming and Qing dynasties). With each tea form came a new challenge as each tea leaf would unravel and expand in its own way. Thus came a need to address how one would arrange the leaves to produce the very best brew.

Brewing the “BEST” Da Hong Pao

As a tea drinker, I began to enjoy really fine Wuyi yancha when I was in college. By this point I was already a drinker of many teas, including pu-erh, hongcha (“red tea”, the Chinese name for what is known as black tea in the West), and all sorts of green teas. I even had a dedicated yixing teapot for my favorite tea at that time: Lishan high mountain oolong. Happening upon the Wuyi rock teas (“yancha”) introduced me to new flavors and a new challenge.

With a yancha, the leaves are twisted (an older style of crafting a tea leaf). Because of this, the vessel required to brew them should be flatter since leaves like this will want to expand outward (think of a spring uncurling horizontally). For this reason, yancha can be brewed best in squatter-shaped teapots and gaiwan. When it came time for me to decide upon a teapot for Wuyi yancha, I first chose a low-draft, pear-shaped pot. When I eventually began to specialize in more particular teas in this category, I chose a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot for the famed Da Hong Pao (“大红袍”, “Big Red Robe”).

As noted, the shape of this teapot is well-suited for this tea: its squat, wide, and the mouth of the teapot (the opening where both the tea leaves and water enter) is wide enough to accommodate the often large tea leaves of the famous tea. Likewise, in the case of this teapot, the clay is thick enough to keep the temperature relatively high (as Da Hong Pao tends to want a higher heat sustained for a longer time).

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(IMAGE: Delicately arranging each leaf of Da Hong Pao with a pair of chopsticks)

When arranging these leaves it is important to keep them horizontal, so as to take advantage of the shape of the pot. In the case of today’s brewing, I tediously sorted every leaf used, arranging them on a cloth from largest to smallest (choosing not to use some of the very smallest of leaves… sorry small leaves… I promise I’ll use you later). After this, I used a pair of pointed chopsticks to arrange the leaves in the teapot (I had pre-warmed the teapot for those who are curious to know).

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(IMAGE: The “pattern” produced by each leaf carefully arranged one on top on another)

The arranging of the tea leaves was an incredibly mindful act. Each leaf was stacked in a way to ensure they opened to create a weave-like network, allowing each their own space and making sure not to create points where leaves above would limit the expansion of those below. The resulting “pattern” was similar to something like a game of Jenga, with layers of leaves above placed perpendicular to those below (with slight variation at times given the natural irregularity of the leaves).

To be specific, the tea was a purported Qi Dan Da Hong Pao (奇丹大紅袍), a Da Hong Pao that is certified to have come from the original location of cultivation within the Wuyi natural preserve in Fujian Provence. The water used was a filtered and boiled New York City-available tap (being very honest here). The result was exquisite.

The flavor was what I wanted in a Da Hong Pao. Only slightly roasty, no hint of charcoal like most modern interpretations of this tea. Spicy but also floral, with notes of sandalwood, carob, and something akin to rose water. What stood out most of all was how thick the mouth feel on this tea was. The finish lasted for hours!

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(IMAGE: The final result: a beautiful brew of Da Hong Pao enjoyed in a Meiji-period blue-and-white teacup)

Having had this tea under less-fastidious means, I could easily note the marked difference that the leaf arranging had on the brewing. Looking into the teapot revealed the truth behind this: the leaves were evenly unfurled, curling and untwisting at the same rate. In taste, this meant no sour or bitter notes, just a clean and direct flavor that was both complex and distinct. Prepared this way, with no corners cut, resulted in what I can easily say was a tea brewed to the best of my abilities.

 

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Oolong, Tea Tasting

Drinking tea by oneself: appreciating Korean tea

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(IMAGE: Assorted implements for making Korean green tea… plus a Korean celadon water dripper for enjoyment)

Dear beloved blog readers,

I love Korean tea. Those close to me know this well. Those even closer know that I will go to great lengths to find this too-often-rare tea.

Today, I find myself sitting in the north-west facing room of my New York apartment enjoying a 2016 semi-wild jakseol Korean green tea (nokkcha) grown in Jirisan. The tea is a gift from a dear friend, a tea house proprietor in Seoul who, after many years of not seeing one another, had sent me the tea as a token of our long-distance friendship. As I sit and sip, I am left to remember those early days when I was first exposed to Korean tea.

Somewhere around 2008-2010, I began to travel to South Korea. Arriving there first in the dead of winter, the bitter cold of Seoul literally almost killed me (succumbing to high fevers that kept me bed-ridden for a solid week). Once out of my illness-induced stupor, I began to wander the streets of Seoul’s renowned (albeit rather touristy) tea market district of Insadong. Escaping the neighborhood’s flashy veneer down its rambling alleyways, I happened upon a few reputable sources of Korean ceramics and tea.

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(IMAGE: A grey-blue drip-glaze Korean tea set atop a wooden Korean tea tray)

Having already been captivated by the beauty of Korean ceramics long ago, I soon began to recognize the qualities inherent in Korean tea. Much like the celebrated tea ware used to enjoy it with, Korean tea seemed at first simple, rough, and lacking refinement. However, in the aesthetics of Korean tea, this roughness is merely the result of the appreciation of a “natural” approach to things. Whole leaves are often left closer to their natural state when compared to their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Likewise, there seems to be an emphasis on retaining the “wildness” of some teas, especially those coming from the ancient tea farms of Jirisan in Hadong County. The flavors present, whether the tea is green, partially oxidized, black, compressed, or event ground (as is in the case of malcha), tend to have a pronounced minerality to them, which is both refreshing and unique to Korean teas.

Happening into the Sam Hwa Ryung tea house (which was and still is my favorite tea house in Seoul), I was given unrivaled access to excellent Korean teas (they also have amazing ceramics there as well). The proprietor, quickly recognizing my love of tea and interest in Korean tea, began to serve me the various varieties of tea produced in Jirisan, as well as introduce me to noted tea scholars within Seoul. Upon my second trip to South Korea, she began to connect me with tea farmers, sending me down to visit their farms nestled within the lush Hwagae Valley. Needless to say, this was an experience of a lifetime (which I may end up describing in more detail within a later blog post).

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(IMAGE: View of 2016 semi-wild jakseol tealeaves and assorted implements for making tea)

Today drinking the tea she sent me instantly takes me back to that time and place. The tea, as mentioned, is a 2016 semi-wild jakseol (“Sparrow’s Tongue”) from the farms in Jirisan. Like many wild and semi-wild teas, there are qualities within this tea that do not exist within the more-cultivated teas of Korea (mostly coming out of the Boseong and and Jeju-do growing regions). The leaves are more irregular (albeit, they are quite small, being an early spring-picked jakseol) and produce a bright, clean flavor. Unlike the intensely vegetal or umami Japanese green teas, or the more floral Chinese green teas, this tea is balanced with flavors ranging from limestone to (as I’ve heard others describe) egg white, with only the slightest grassy note. Unlike its Chinese or Japanese counterparts, this tea (and most Korea green teas) seems to perform well at higher temperatures.

While I often don’t wax poetic while drinking tea, I am always reminded of a stanza from the 1830 Dashinjeon (“The Story of the Tea God”) by the Seon Buddhist monk Cho’ui. In it he said:

“When drinking tea, fewer guests in attendance are better. With more guests, it becomes noisy, and loses the right ambience. Drinking tea by oneself is feeling the wonders of god; drinking tea with two is sharing the ultimate joy; drinking tea with three or four is fine and comforting; drinking tea with five or six is nothing more than plain; drinking with seven or eight is just doing a favor for others.”

There is something true to what Cho’ui said. Enjoying tea alone seems to allow the tea to speak to you more clearly. In the case of this particular tea, it speaks volumes.

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(IMAGE: A look at the pale liqueur of the 2016 semi-wild jakseol Korean green tea)

NOTE: Quote from Dashinjeon was taken from the excellent book The Book of Korea Tea: A Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony” by Yang-Seok Yoo, 2007.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Korea, Poetry, Tea Tasting, Travel

Making tea on a hot day

Jingdezhen teacup

(IMAGE: Young sheng pu-erh in a fine porcelain Jingdezhen teacup, perfect for a hot summer’s day)

Dear beloved blog readers,

Its hot. Its humid. Its a late summer’s day; a time when you might have a bright, dry morning, only to give way to a thick, moist, thunderstorm evening. With such extremes, one might think that drinking tea, a hot beverage, would only cause an added measure of unease. However, on days like these, tea can offer a cooling respite to the heat, you just need to know how to do it right. In this entry, I’ll offer some ideas that will help you to stay cool while still enjoying tea.

Summer Bowl

(IMAGE: A black Oribe-yaki “Horse Trough-shaped” (馬盥茶碗) summer teabowl is shallow, allowing for the tea to cool off quickly)

“In the summer, suggest coolness”: The 16th century Japanese teamaster Sen no Rikyu once noted “In the summer, suggest coolness. In the winter, warmth.” For making tea, this is crucial, as not only can places like Japan (or China, or Korea…or New York City for that matter) can get incredibly hot in the summer, but also the tea you make and the way you make it can change how heat affects you (and your guests). Rikyu had countless solutions for this, from moving the tea brazier away from the guests (placing the mizusashi, or cool water container, between the brazier and the guest, thus keeping the radiant heat of the brazier at a distance), to even using shallow teabowls to serve tea (as this would help to cool the tea down before drinking). Even having visual cues, such as using a crystal tea caddy (since crystal looks like ice), hanging flowers in baskets (to give a sense of “airiness”), or having a scroll with a “cooling” image or poem written on it was deemed helpful to this end. Practitioners of chanoyu are well aware of these strategies and it is reflected in how they offer tea on hot summer’s days.

Taipinghoukui

(IMAGE: Large and vibrant leaves of a semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui (太平猴魁) green tea, perfect for lower-temperature steeping)

Choose the “right” tea: The notion of a “right” tea for any occasion seems to be a hotly contested point among tea people. While I can safely say there is no “right” tea, there are aspects to consider when choosing a tea for a hot day. Teas that favor lower temperatures for brewing like green teas are ideal. Likewise, teas that might benefit by being steeped at a lower temperature could also work. Young sheng pu-erh teas, green oolongs, and even some white or red teas can produce amazing results! It is even said in traditional Chinese medicine that some teas (most teas outside of the more “neutral” pu-erh teas) are ying (or “cooling”) in energy. I find that greener teas tend to carry this quality the most, but this can differ from person to person.

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(IMAGE: A Japanese porcelain houhin (宝瓶) with kintsugi (金継ぎ) gold lacquer repair)

Selecting teaware: As mentioned before with the suggestion made by Rikyu, teaware can have a big effect on how tea is enjoyed in times of great heat. On hot days, I typically avoid using yixing teaware and, instead, use porcelain or even glass wares. Why? Simple thermodynamics. Whereas yixing wares are renowned for retaining heat (which is ideal for steeping strong brews of oolong, pu-erh, and black teas), porcelain and glass tend to give-off their heat, allowing for the hot water for tea to cool down. While this is ideal for green and white teas, with skill, one can brew higher-oxidized teas this way as well, resulting in smooth-tasting liqueurs, often with long-fading finishes (the huí gān 回甘, “returning dry/sweetness”) attributed to finer quality teas. Likewise, using wider and thinner tea cups, as well as water cooling vessels can help bring the temperature down for a more refreshing brew.

 

So, how do you beat the heat and still drink tea? I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

As you may have noticed, I left out any mention of “iced teas” or “cold-brew teas”. This was intentional as I plan on tackling this topic in its own wonderful future post!

Until then!

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Tea Tasting