Category Archives: Pu-erh

Tea for a Sunset and Autumn Rain

IMG_2201A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.

E59E1F05-8A0E-4116-98E4-B6BE55A708FEAs the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.

IMG_2221As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.

61473BB2-4BA8-4910-A874-4418F6591314As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.

D9931783-6303-454E-B403-C090A8463DA9With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.

155B6781-714B-42B7-9854-316586FD4F66As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.

352E95D1-CD09-4F51-9DE5-4F91CE86FAA8Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.

459C9A0C-5554-4E03-9FB0-16F8CF25545CAs I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.

IMG_2222Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.

90EFEF11-4F4F-4BBF-8698-5BA2AA96A000I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.

6363EDA4-50D6-4285-9926-395E165CB778Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.

0063DBF8-7FE7-49A5-8A28-45DD41A28332A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.

 

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As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).

IMG_2223

秋雨夜眠

涼冷三秋夜,
安閒一老翁。
臥遲燈滅後,
睡美雨聲中。
灰宿溫瓶火,
香添暖被籠。
曉晴寒未起,
霜葉滿階紅。

Qiūyǔ yè mián

Liáng lěng sānqiū yè,
ānxián yī lǎowēng.
Wò chí dēng miè hòu,
shuì měiyǔ shēng zhōng.
Huī sù wēn píng huǒ,
xiāng tiān nuǎn bèi lóng.
Xiǎo qíng hán wèi qǐ,
shuāng yèmǎnjiē hóng.

Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain

It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month,
Peacefully within, a lone old man.
He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, History, Incense, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

Clay and Kiln. Wood and Leaves.

There is a sort of meditation that naturally arises from making tea. I’ve tried to ignore it and cannot. It is unavoidable. It is the meditation on change. You put leaves in a vessel. You bring water to a boil. You steep the tea until it offers up its flavor, until it cannot offer any more. The aroma and notes that play on the air and in the mouth come and slowly fade into nothing. Into memories. Over time, these too may pass.

This ebb and flow of actions, of movement and resting, of coming forth and waning into ether are mirrored in the material affects of tea too. It is in the way the clay of an old teabowl was once locked within the earth, formed in the hand of the potter, fired in a furnace, brought into this world and has since, by chance, lasted for generations. It is how the forces of heat and flame bring rise to vibrant reds and earthy greens, turning glaze to glass and clay to stone.

I sit with this as I sit for tea, pairing a newly-acquired antique 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) from the kiln of 信楽 Shigaraki with an ancient Chinese teabowl.

Together with these I place a wooden teascoop, made from a branch of an old gnarled tree.

Once turned over, the rough, sinuous exterior gives way to a smooth and shaped interior, revealing the flame-like colors of heartwood. In turn, this vibrancy was kept in suspension through the artist’s application of a thin layer of translucent lacquer.

Onto this void I place the twisted leaves of an ancient tea tree, 景迈古樹生茶 Jǐngmài gǔshù shēng chá, a fresh, raw puer tea from Jǐngmài in southern Yúnnán, purportedly from tea trees several hundred years old.

For a moment I admire the contrast of leaves upon wood until this, too, shifts as I follow by placing the tea within the warmed stoneware vessel.

Pouring boiling water atop the leaves begins the process of brewing, causing them to slowly unfurl, returning them to a state which closely resembles when they were once alive atop an ancient arbor.

With the lid set over the hōhin, the tea continues to brew until the desired flavors have been expressed.

Emptied, the leaves appear caught in mid-phase, somewhere between tightly-curled and fully-opened.

Peering into the wide expanse of the shallow teabowl, the color of the tea is a soft, amber hue. A gentle aroma lifts from the surface of the liqueur. A complex flavor invites my senses to explore the depths of the lush forests from which this tea was grown.

How much it has changed since when it was but a seed. How much it has developed over the many years it grew. From this came leaves which were labored over by countless people, which now I have just begun the process of understanding.

Caught in constant change. From clay to kiln. From wood to leaves. Moment after moment, a meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Japan, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

Gone is May. It will not come again until a year has passed. Now is mid-June and the true heat of Summer has arrived. Wet. Heavy. Sweltering. Outside my windows, the deep green leaves of the forest hangs laden with moisture. The out-stretched hand of a maple leaf, dipping low, dripping with the residue of a sun shower. The tall towers of the city, far in the corner of my vista, stand covered in a thick haze, invisible to me now.

Sitting by my window, I stare out coiled like a spring. Unable to write save for only the thin structure of a thought, and I find myself in the grip of writer’s block. “Have a cup of tea” once mused a Zen teacher, a 公案 gōng àn (“koan” in Japanese) statement that has caused me great doubt. What might exist in a cup of tea? Perhaps I will try it out.

Boiling water and pulling out teaware, I cannot yet find the words to break these mental chains. A tin containing tea now twenty five years aged.

A metal and jade scoop in the shape of a banana leaf more than a hundred years old.

An empty pot and a jumbled mind.

An empty cup to be filled.

The color of the tea once brewed is dark. Red like the bark of an old tree. Becoming blacker and blacker with each successive steeping until it resembles calligrapher’s ink.

Closer and closer it draws my mind inward. Closer and closer to the flavor of nature. Viscous like honey. Bitter like medicinal herbs. Smooth like tobacco. Soft like old, worn leather. Deep like a rambling forest. Onward and onward it goes.

Changing. Waxing and waning like the silver moon. Brightening and fleeting within several hours until the fog of thought lifts and ideas become visible again.

The heat of the day still lingers, but the deadlock of Summer eases. A faint, cool breeze moves through the air and causes dark green leaves to flutter again. Shakes the raindrops off their emerald backs. What a lovely sound this residual rain makes, falling to the ground below.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Rich Flavor of Friendship

Every once in a while I escape New York City, replacing the clamor of the urban jungle for the somewhat more relaxed climes of San Francisco. Being born and having lived in this West Coast city, I find myself feeling instantly at home amidst the hills, the fog, and the “single season” that never seems to shift. Likewise, whenever I return, I find myself reconnecting with old friends and, sometimes, making new ones.

What now seems like a second tea space for me, I often find myself welcomed into the sunlit tearoom of Chris Kornblatt, fellow tea person and purveyor of fine tea.

Unbeknownst to me, that day Chris has also secretly invited our shared friend and my mentor of over a decade! Seeing him again after many so years was truly sublime, a delightful opening to a day filled with tea.

Memories soon began to pour out as freely as tea did into many small cups. A bounty of locally-procured food was present to stave-off hunger. The sweet scent of a high mountain Taiwanese oolong brought by my mentor began our session.

Steeping after steeping marked by the moving of small glassy and metallic beads along a woven thread. New teas emerged in time as the energy of the room became more lively.

An aged and roasted 鐵觀音 Tiěguānyīn (“Iron Bodhisattva of Mercy”). The leaves, twisted and curled, darkened by the slow, calculated roasting overseen by a tea master in Anxi county, Fujian province. The color of the tea, dark and coppery. The flavor, smooth, velvety, with a medicinal finish. As time continued, more tea emerged.

A 蜜蘭香鳳凰單欉 Mìlán Xiāng Fènghuáng Dān Cóng (“Honey Orchid-scent Phoenix single grove”), with its long, wiry leaves, offering up flavors of sugar cane and sweet ripe melon.

A “mystery” oolong, which, after close inspection and several rounds of brewing, was determined to be an aged 金玫瑰 Jīn méiguī (lit. “Golden Rose”) from Wuyishan in Fujian province. Its flavor was shifting, a unique blend of apricot and barley, soybean and zucchini.

A 1990s, Hong Kong-aged 生普洱茶 shēng pǔ’ěr chá (“raw puer”), with the characteristic maltiness and mustiness of a “wet storage” aged tea.

Finally, my mentor produced a final treasure from his pocket, a rare and aged brick of 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá (“cooked puer”).

Like a beautiful day, it opened softly, brightening as it warmed, and ending into a deep, relaxed, inky darkness. Friends sharing tea, sharing stories, sharing time together as if the years apart did not exist.

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Dear beloved blog readers,

I wanted to thank you all for reading (and commenting on) my blog. Seven years and 100 posts (yes, this is the 100th post!)! I wanted to bring it all back to where it began: in San Francisco, surrounded by friends, delicious tea, and dreams of a greater and more connected future.

In the over twenty years of making tea, almost two decades of practicing 功夫茶 gōng fū chá everyday, fifteen years of practicing 茶の湯 chanoyu, I’ve only wanted to make tea and share tea. You’ve allowed me to share my most private moments and offer tea to you all. In the end, the tea tastes better. The memories last longer. The world we live in gets a little smaller.

Looking forward to sharing more tea and time with you as time goes on. I hope we can enjoy each moment together!

Yours truly,

Scott

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Singular Moment for Fresh Tea

All year round I drink tea. Everyday. Often multiple times a day, and usually different varieties. As a tea collector and lover of aged teas, this means that much of what I drink is “old tea” (tea that is not fresh and is often older than a year, sometimes older than a decade. Often categorized as 老茶 lǎo chá (lit. “old tea”), such tea has a myriad of enjoyable flavors and characteristics that can only be found in aged teas, ranging from earthy to loamy, incense-like, with notes of dried fruit and spices. Their energy is soft, deep, and relaxing.

Even when I drink a “fresh” tea, I must recognize that they may be as fresh as they can be, having been picked and processed a month or two prior to me brewing them. As such, they are not really “new” (新茶 xīnchá, “new tea”), just very fresh. Even the most excellent 抹茶 matcha is aged for several months, picked in Spring and then stored away until Autumn when it is ground into a fine powder. So, when I do have the opportunity to enjoy a truly fresh tea, one that had been just picked and finished, the experience can be quite eye opening.

One such moment occurred this week when Roy, a dear friend, tea person and founder of New York Tea Society returned from a sourcing trip to China and Taiwan. Welcoming me into his home and tea space, he produced a cornucopia of teas, ranging from freshly-picked 普洱毛茶 Pǔ’ěr máochá (Puer “rough tea”) and minimally-produced 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) from Yunnan, and fragrant oolong and baozhong teas from Taiwan.

First came the clean and clear flavors of a delicate 月光白 Yuèguāng Bái (“Moonlight White”) from 景谷 Jǐnggǔ, Yunnan. Its leaves, smooth and silvery in appearance, with a shimmering downy velvet enrobing a dark green interior. Once brewed, the flavor was bright and full, with a viscosity and freshness of crisp cucumber, honeysuckle, and sweet grass.

Following was a gorgeous 金芽滇紅 Jīn yá diān hóng (Yunnan “Golden bud” red tea), the leaves of which resembled the first tea, though with subsequent oxidation, had darkened and achieve a bright golden hue.

Placed into the large porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, their color shone like threads of gold.

Steeped for just a moment, the tea quickly revealed its qualities.

Once decanted, the result was a deep, rich amber liqueur. Much like the Yuèguāng Bái, the Jīn yá diān hóng exhibited the viscosity and freshness that is only found in very new tea.

However, through the light processing that involved sun-drying, oxidation, and a final “baking” of the leaves, the flavors were malty, akin to baked sweet potatoes and light caramel.

The day finished with two excellent máochá, one from Jǐnggǔ, the other from the famed growing region of 老班章 Lǎo Bān Zhāng. The first was a fresh-picked, lightly-processed 藤条毛茶 téng tiáo máochá.

Coming from a large leaf varietal found in Yunnan, the flavors it exhibited were dramatically different from the previous teas. Its flavor was crisp and grassy, with a satisfying juiciness.

In contrast, the final tea, a máochá from Lǎo Bān Zhāng, was more wild, its leaves exhibiting a wider range of colors and shapes, forms and sizes.

Once brewed, the flavors shifted from sweet to savory, gentle to astringent, straightforward to complex. Although not initially as pleasing to the palate, this pointed to a tea that would ultimately age better.

And, so, as we enjoyed tea together, we assessed how tea, which was only weeks old, may change over time. What was now sweet may with time fade. What now is bitter may mellow and reveal new levels of complexity. What energy exists in a new tea may dissipate over the years, settling, as all great tea does, to calm the mind and spirit when joined with friends or enjoyed in solitude.

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Filed under China, Hongcha, Matcha, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel, White Tea

A Tea Culture Grows in New York City

I am not a New Yorker. I’m a transplant. A Northern Californian relocated from his foggy climes to the urban jungle of New York City. I ride the subway. I see the rats (all of whom I rather enjoy the company of). Amidst the daily clamor, the concrete jumble, the yelling, the kicking, the screaming, I find peace. Eked-out by my motto of “take time to make time”, I have found my solace.

For those who know me, this takes many forms: cooking, exploring, music, meditation, tea. First and foremost, tea. Tea has saved me somehow. From the madness of a PhD candidacy to a vow of poverty, up through to my current life in New York City’s regular and daily “churn”, to simply sit with tea is “just enough”.

But to say I’ve done it alone is to ignore the countless people, places, and spaces that have supported my (and many other’s) cultivation. I’m taking about tea houses and their owners. The people who make it happen.

From the mercantile to the monkish, the tea merchant crisscrosses a vast expanse of ideological and psychological forms, creating along the way spaces dedicated to “their version” of “the Way”. No one is incorrect in their iteration, but each produces something purely their own.

Love them or leave them, what they do is (and will always be) difficult. Turning a tiny leaf into a mighty buck. Boiled water. Ceramic. Bamboo. Paper. Glass. Iron. Caffeine. The list goes on. Yet, I, too have been in their shoes, though only for a while.

To their tough travails I offer up this article, published today on Sprudge (itself, a coffee-centric publication). Even in this realm, tea (the second most consumed beverage worldwide) is a side note (though a noteworthy one).

My little guide to New York City’s tea houses is by no means complete. By no means extensive. Just a breath on the wind. But I hope it causes conversation. I hope it sparks pondering. This city is always evolving, and, currently, it holds some of the nation’s (dare I say the world’s) most interesting tea houses.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Hongcha, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Oolong, Pu-erh, Sencha, Tea, Travel, White Tea, Yellow Tea

When Drinking Tea, Remember the Source

A week ago I found myself slowly crawling out of a moment of stagnation. Facing writers block and feeling uninspired, I sat in my meditation room, the bright midday sun coming through a West-facing window. Caught in this moment, I decided to reconnect with my oldest “tea brother”, who I met years ago in college and who is now running his own tea business and tea house in Austin, Texas.

Rather than chat over the phone as we often do, he was busy unloading a new shipment of 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr (“raw” puer). Using this moment to virtually “drink tea” with my comrade, I decided to pull out a sheng puer of my own, a wild sheng puer picked in 1993, one I had been aging since my early days as a tea person and one I had acquired when I was working with Red Blossom Tea Company in San Francisco.

With tea and teaware set out in the warm light of the day, I began the process of making tea.

Paying homage to my days with Alice and Peter Luong, I chose to use a fine aged 硃泥 zhūní (“cinnabar clay”) Yixing teapot, undoubtedly procured by their father in the mid-1990s.

The tea leaves, placed in a 白銅 báitóng (“white copper”) and jade-accented leaf-shaped tea leaf-viewing vessel, the dark, curled leaves hinted at their wild nature, uneven, irregular and unpretentious.

I pause before I settle the leaves into the teapot just to breathe.

Once inside the red walls of the Yixing ceramic, a sense of anticipation comes over me.

My iron kettle comes to a boil and I pour water over the leaves.

Closing the teapot, what will emerge from this crucible is a mystery. I allow for a few minutes to pass to allow the tea to fully “wake”.

Pouring the tea out reveals a wonderful aroma. In the small space of my meditation room, abundant flavors of earth, of a dark forest floor, sweet incense, and wet stone rise into the air. Almost instantly I am taken back to the first moment I sat for tea, when everything was still new, when with every step I was still learning. It was humbling.

Just then, an old saying crossed my mind, one that a mentor of mine once taught me: 飲水思源 Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán, “When drinking water, remember the source.”

As I sat for tea, my mental blocks finally cleared, I contemplated this, perhaps to ask 飲茶思源 Yǐn chá sī yuán, “When drinking tea, remember the source.”

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting