Category Archives: Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: History in the Song Period

IMG_6906Friends and fellow tea people! I’m excited to share the live video and presentation component for the tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”, held Wednesday, May 30th from 6:30pm to 9pm at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan!

Join us as we explore the unique history, art, and craft of tea culture during the Song period (960-1279). Learn how today’s matcha craze has its origins in the tenth century as scholars, monks, and emperors alike celebrated the flavors of powdered tea in poetry and prose, paintings and elegant tea gatherings. Examine antique teawares from the Song period and learn about the diversity of ceramics that marked this time as a “golden age” for tea.

This workshop includes a step-by-step demonstration of the grinding of Song period-style powdered tea (抹茶, mǒchá) followed by a diǎn chá (點茶, literally “marked tea”) tea tasting, conducted using historically accurate reproduced recipes.

The presentation (currently a rough version… expect something “beautiful” later) is linked here: Tea in the Song Period Presentation

You can use this presentation to follow-along with the live video of the tea talk and interactive workshop, linked here via Facebook LIVE and Floating Mountain Tea House’s Facebook page.

Any comment you leave on the Facebook page will be answered either by myself or by the proprietor of Floating Mountain. Otherwise, please feel free to leave comments, questions, feedback, and any other notes here on Scotttea.

As always, stay curious and stay thirsty!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

The Taste of Meditation

32235679_10103510293854838_2066875903652134912_n

There is an old saying that “Tea and Zen are of one taste” (茶禅一味). A bit of a kōan (公案; Chinese: 公案, gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án), the phrase is meant to both give rise to “great doubt” and spark the onset of a meditative mind. At the core of this mindset is the realization of one’s inability to grasp that which is logical, therefore forcing one to inquire withing and rely upon intuition, direct experience and wisdom.

The phrase also alludes to the close link that tea and meditation have had over the centuries. Beginning in the Tang and continuing through the end of the Song (from 500-1300), the rise of both tea culture alongside Buddhist meditation (chán 禪, Chinese for the Sanskrit word dhyāna ध्यान , meaning “meditation”, the Japanese word being zen, seon 선 in Korean) had a profound effect on one another. Commonly produced in monasteries for its medicinal properties, tea was also consumed as a means to wake the mind (through tea’s energizing properties). Paired as an aid to meditation, the physical act of making tea was similarly viewed as meditative, as it requires a certain level of mindfulness to achieve the desired results.

As tea continued to evolve in tandem with Buddhist schools of meditation, it was shaped by the people and cultures it came into contact with. Subsequent practitioners, from the Japanese Zen Buddhists and lay people of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1603) who developed chanoyu  (茶の湯, the Japanese tea ceremony), to the Korean Seon Buddhist monks like Cho’ui (writer of the Dashinjeon 다신전(茶神傳, literally “Tea Spirit Record”), 1830) who linked meditation more directly to tea preparation, would continue this trend, pointing the way for modern tea people to follow.

32148914_10103510293904738_8336131312188391424_n

To the tea practitioner, the mere act of making tea can bring about a meditative state of mind, as each tea, vessel, teapot, kettle, cup, and scoop can bring about a myriad of possibilities. From the way a certain clay cools to when or where a tea was harvested, to how one pours water over the tea leaves, or even the temperature of the air, attentiveness to all of these factors and more is the essence of “now-mindedness”.

32207696_10103510293954638_2219173296484646912_nIt is in this moment, the moment of sitting down to make tea, that one must rely upon what they know and how it ultimately bears against what they do not know. It is from this interaction with and inquiry into these dual aspects that great tea can be made.

32160679_10103510293999548_6287867851176935424_n

This morning, as I make a meditation out of preparing tea, I ponder this. Brewing a jakseol (작설, literally “sparrow’s tongue” green tea from Jirisan in Hadong, South Korea), the movements it requires to slowly and mindfully express the tea’s flavor are apparent. Any thoughts of the world around me, of deadlines, of things to do become nothing more than thoughts, things at the moment outside of my control.

32087071_10103510294049448_7742276333178191872_n

The water rises to a quiet boil, the buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teapot, sookwoo (water server), and tea cups (each a gift from a dear friend) are warmed. As I warm the vessels, I roll each slowly within my hand, feeling the radiant heat of the water within them climb up the inside of their earthenware walls, permeating through their dull-colored glazed exteriors.

32203033_10103510294084378_3094230869674557440_n

I carefully place the leaves of the tea within the open mouth of the teapot. The lingering heat trapped within the vessel’s clay walls begins to wake the tea and a slight hint to its flavor rises sweetly into the air.

32169253_10103510294134278_4371979263662882816_n

The water that was momentarily set to cool within the sookwoo is poured into the teapot and the lid is placed upon its top. The tea is left to brew. All visible clues as to the tea’s progress are kept at bay as the teapot sits. All information that one is left to rely upon must come from one’s own intuition and direct experience.

32116459_10103510294174198_3043783687054295040_n

The elegant yet roughly-hewn buncheong-jagi cups sit awaiting the tea. Even at this moment of stillness, of emptiness, there is a sense of meaning as the tea continues to brew.

32158529_10103510294209128_2899951777841414144_n

In a matter of mere seconds, the tea is poured and its light, bright color is exhibited against the soft, mottled grey surface of the teacup’s interior. All of the moment spent sitting in a still and mindful quietude is summed up here. All of colors of a gentle Korean Spring in the mountains of Jirisan are apparent in this cup.

32148222_10103510294283978_3728982651831320576_n

The tea is brewed and the leaves unfurled. The aroma is released and the flavor of the tea becomes, as I become, fully present.

3 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

When a Carp Turns Into a Dragon

IMG_6637

In Japan, May 5th marks Boys’ Day (端午の節句, Tango no sekku, or, in recent years, こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi, literally “Children’s Day”). A key feature of this celebration is the motif of the carp.

The significance behind this imagery is recognized throughout much of East Asia, as the carp, with its bright, scaly complexion, was believed to possess the ability to transform into a dragon. In ancient China (and subsequently in other East Asian cultures that adopted similar forms of governance), this transformative quality of the lowly carp into a noble dragon was a metaphor for succeeding in the civil service examination and a wish for a child to excel and grow.

Additionally, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually late-May to mid-June) marks the celebration of  Duānwǔ jié 端午节 (Dragon Boat Festival). Many scholars now believe that this was originally a day of making offerings to the dragon king, who was said to dwell in rivers and lakes. This practice continues today with the offering of zòngzi (粽子, glutenous rice wrapped in leaves) to appease voracious river carp. Oddly enough, the bamboo leaf-wrapped chimaki mochi (ちまき餅), which are often eaten during Boys’ Day in Japan, bear a cursory resemblance to these ancient offerings.

IMG_6638

Today, as I sit for tea, I employ a small antique carp-shaped Korean celadon water dropper (an object that would have been commonplace in a scholar’s studio) as a improvised flower vase.

IMG_6639

Paired with this are Korean buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teacups, a purple-hued Jūn yáo 鈞窯 teapot, and an antique bamboo teascoop inscribed with a poem about life in the mountains. The tea which I chose to brew is a Dà Hóng Páo 大紅袍 gifted by a friend. This, too, is a subtle allusion to succeeding in one’s studies as the origin story of this famous tea tells of a young scholar who was able to pass his civil service exam with the aide of the tea’s fortifying properties.

IMG_6640

As is often the case with tea, each element is draw together to create an overall feeling. For today, in the lingering heat of the last day of Spring (May 6th is recognized as the first day of Summer by practitioners in Japanese tea ceremony), I try to infer a sense of coolness that one feels when walking through a dew-laden path (露地, roji in Japanese). Indeed, the flower I feature, which I collected from those growing wild in my garden, helps to make reference to this. As is practiced in chanoyu, I used a wetted chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) to flick cool water upon the arrangement to further enhance this sensation of being in a cooler, more relaxing environment.

IMG_6641

With the tea brewing, the buncheong-jagi cups wait, their plain color offering a foil to the lustrous quality of the Jūn yáo teapot. Both the cups and teapot are gifts from artist friends. While in life these two friends have never met, they come together in a sense through the mediation of tea.

IMG_6642

The tea poured lets the aroma of the dark oolong to fill the tea studio. Hints of incense, toasted caramel, and dark chocolate waft like a light breeze. As a slightly lower-oxidized and lower-roasted Dà Hóng Páo, the flavor once tasted is brighter, softer, and more complex. The verdant qualities that are often roasted or oxidized out of most contemporary variations on this tea are lovingly left within these leaves by its crafters, enabling a highly-developed layering and preservation of well-balanced flavors, from notes of crisp minerals, walnut skins, and egg whites.

IMG_6643

Much like the objects surrounding it, the tea, too, is a myriad of reference points for the mind to explore and expound upon. This is one of the many subtle pleasures of taking a moment to enjoy tea.

IMG_6636

Layers of images, references, and flavors, each with their own significance and meaning, are just part of the brocaded fabric that can be brought into the tearoom and offer points of further contemplation, a moment of pause, and meditation.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

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!

Leave a comment

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

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

img_4506

(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.

img_4508

(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.

img_4507

(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”.

fullsizerender

(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).

fullsizerender_1

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

fullsizerender_2

(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.)

fullsizerender_4

(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.

img_4516

(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!

Leave a comment

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

Making tea on a boat: the gong fu of making a tea set

fullsizerender

(IMAGE: Taking tea outside is a true joy. Taking tea on a boat is a new challenge!)

Dear beloved blog readers,

Over this past Labor Day weekend, I and a few of my close friends were invited to set sail upon the wonderful waters surrounding New York City (technically Brooklyn). Being a tea person, I took this as an opportunity to bring tea along with me and treat my friends and the boat’s captain to tea. The challenge here would be how to pack for the tea outing, especially given the nature of being on a boat. The answer would test my gong fu cha skills. In today’s post, I offer my approach to this, as well as tips to those looking to take tea outside!

Keep it simple

Making tea is always a matter of pairing-down life to its most basic. The tea, the water, the vessel; little more is needed to produce remarkable results. Even in the confines of one’s home, office, or elsewhere, the “luxury” of tea really is less about living luxuriously and more about just finding the means to re-connect with a more straightforward way of living, thinking, and doing. As the 20th century Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, meditation and even enlightenment was “nothing special” in that it was already apparent to us in the acts of everyday life.

This “less is more” mentality is especially important in making tea outside. Packing just a small collection of teas with an all-purpose vessel works wonders. In the case of the boat outing, I packed a glass gaiwan (which I rarely use, but seem to love more when used in situations like these) and a few single-servings of stellar teas (an aged Fuding baicha, a collection of various oolongs, and two tuo cha (沱茶): a sheng pu-erh from Yiwu and a 1985 sheng from Menghai). Additionally, I made sure to pack enough small cups for everyone.

fullsizerender_1

(IMAGE: Keeping it simple: A glass gaiwan is well-suited to brew every tea type.)

Hot water is life

Being an avid outdoor tea drinker (as well as a seasoned backpacker), I am well aware of how much water is the “limiting factor” to the tea equation. Throughout the history of tea, locating and boiling water has always been the starting point to making great tea. Nowhere is this more true than in the first known monograph on tea, Lu Yu’s Cha Jing (茶經, The Classic of Tea), where much of his writing is dedicated to outlining various grades of water, how to boil water, and how to store water. Later tea scholars would continue to develop upon this subject given the importance water plays in making tea.

In regards to my own solution, I’ve chosen to use filtered water and bring it along through the employment of a rather ingenious (and lucky find) of a vintage twin thermos picnic set. In total, the thermoses pack 2 quarts, which is a perfect amount for several tea brewing sessions.

thermos

(IMAGE: Two vintage Stanley thermoses, perfect for tea.)

Making a set

Creating tea sets is a bit like jazz: putting together the necessary components is a matter of improvisation, in how it plays with the key players (in this case, to the tea, tea vessel, water containers, and tea cups), to the audience, and to the environment its presented. To make a truly great tea set, it should speak to the moment, to form following function, and to the notion most treasured by 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu of ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会, “one time, one meeting”). In this regard, the tea set should reflect the situation and the intent on making the best out of just a little.

In the case of the tea set that I assembled for the sailing trip, I was again lucky with the vintage thermos set. As an original 1970s Stanley thermos picnic set, not only did it come with two thermoses, but also a leather carrying case and tin “lunch box”. As a re-purposed tea set, this “lunch box” worked perfectly: its construction was compact and sturdy, and the lid had the added benefit of doubling as a tea tray during brewing and serving. The lip of the lid would also help to keep the gaiwan and teacups from tipping over on a rocky boat.

fullsizerender_3

(IMAGE: A top-down view of tea brewing in action. Note the lid of the thermos picnic set’s “lunch box” serving as a tea tray.)

Keeping items safe for the journey ahead

Putting everything together, from the gaiwan to the teas to the teacups, was in itself a mindful act. Using Japanese furoshiki and wrapping each fragile item separately ensured they would not have the chance to easily break on the voyage. For the loose teas, I used small containers I had made from emptied matcha canisters (which I had wrapped in washi paper for aesthetic purposes). As for the compressed teas, I kept the Fuding baicha cake and mini pu-erh tuo cha safely nestled amongst the wrapped items.

fullsizerender

(IMAGE: Items packed safely inside the tin box with gaiwan and teacups wrapped in furoshiki.)

Setting sail

As our day of sailing winded down, the moment for tea came. Quenching the thirst we had acquired from our arduous task (sailing can be quite a work out!) and pairing nicely with the clams we had dug-up and steamed, the tea worked perfectly to act as a closing to a wonderful day. Just as planned, there was more than enough water and certainly enough tea. There was even enough tea to get “creative”, blending the 1985 Menghai with the fresh Yiwu sheng to produce a beautifully-balanced effect.

fullsizerender_2

(IMAGE: Casual and creative: Brewing a blend of 1985 Menghai and 2015 Yiwu sheng pu-erh. The flavor was balanced and incredibly complex.)

More to come

As I am often going out to enjoy tea, I’m certain that this will be just the beginning of posts focusing on “building tea sets”. Stay tuned for more to come. Until then, I’m curious how you meet the challenge of making tea outside. What sort of sets have you created and how might you bring boiled water? Tea always provides opportunities to hone one’s skills.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Tea Tasting, Travel

Deciphering a mystery tea: a beginner’s guide to reading tea leaves

IMG_4303

(IMAGE: The set-up for today’s tasting of a “mystery tea”)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We all have those moments: A friend knows you love tea and out of the goodness of their heart they offer you some tea as a gift. More often than not, when this happens, the tea comes in either a ubiquitous tea canister or Mylar pouch that says “茶” (“cha”, tea) or something slightly more specific. Sometimes it comes as a bunch of leaves in a plastic bag. Regardless, you have just been gifted a “mystery tea”.

Mystery teas are always an interesting case. Their quality can range wildly, from the ordinary to sometimes rare and exquisite. Given their indistinct nature, a bit of detective work usually needs to be done to determine what type of tea it is. Like anything within the scope of gong fu cha, this is a great time to practice one’s skills and figure out how to brew the mystery tea to the best of your ability.

Just the other day I was gifted one such mystery tea. In today’s blog post, I will take you through the deciphering process, offering to you my insight into how I went about determining what type of tea it was. Perhaps this will help you in your journeys.

Read the leaves, not the package

Having worked in the tea industry (and in marketing), I’ve learned not to read packaging. Instead, all you need to know is written on the leaves. Their shape, size, color, texture: everything that you would ever want to know outside of how it actually tastes is already right there in front of you. Given the nature of how Chinese tea is processed, there is a fairly distinct “spectrum” that most teas fall into, based on their processing and oxidation, starting from green teas on one end and ending in pu-erh and hei-cha (“black tea”) on the other. In between are all manner of tea types of which a mystery will fall within. Below is (hopefully) a useful image to help you to find the category of tea that your mystery tea belongs to.

FullSizeRender

(IMAGE: Examples of tea leaves from every major Chinese tea category going from left to right: green (semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui), green oolong (Tiawanese Lishan high mountain oolong), Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong, Wuyi yancha, semi-wild hong cha (“red tea”, or black tea in the west), pu-erh.

In the case of the gifted mystery tea, the leaves were quite revealing. Their long, twisted leaves were like that of a Taiwanese baozhong or Wuyi yancha. However, unlike a vibrant and verdant baozhong, these leaves were dark. Unlike a yancha, these leaves were still quite green. From this I could deduce that these leaves must belong to the Feng Huang Dan Cong (鳳凰単叢,  “Phoenix Single Grove”) oolong category. However, knowing what particular Feng Huang Dan Cong this was would be quite the daunting task.

IMG_4293

(IMAGE: The “mystery tea” leaves in all their glory.)

Link the leaves to the history

The history and cultivation of Feng Huang Dan Cong is quite unique. The particular style of growing and producing tea of this nature probably originated in the Song dynasty as the development and cultivating of oolong tea began to take root in Fujian province (of which I go into more detail in this post). Adjacent to Fujian and part of a mosaic of politically (and culturally) autonomous regions along the east coast of China, from Fujian to the southern tip of Guangzhou, was the mountainous territory of Chaozhou. To this day, the tea culture of Chaozhou is markedly different from the areas around it, from their brewing practices to the teas they grow and process.

In Chaozhou, the best teas are grown in a manner that is distinctly more “wild” than the more closely cultivated domestic bushes of the Wuyi mountains or Anxi county in Fujian. Rather than keeping the tea plants pruned, resulting in smaller bushes and smaller leaves, Chaozhou tea plants are allowed to grow to the point where they become large trees. Some of these trees can be as old as 500 to 800 years old and grow to to the point where they begin to resemble a large, wiry oak tree. Each tree is treated as if it were its own varietal, and subsequent bushes that grow from it come to be regarded as part of a specific “grove” (“単叢”). Depending on the soil content, climate, and altitude (some of the best teas in Chaozhou come from the highest points on Wu Dong mountain), the quality and flavor of the tea will be affected.

Song Zhong Tree

(IMAGE: The famed Song Zhong tree of Wu Dong Shan, approximately 600-800 years old and more than 20 feet tall.)

As a result of the diversity of these factors present in the tea-growing mountains of Chaozhou, there is an equally diverse range Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong teas. Knowing which one is which depends on knowing the distinctive flavor profile of each tea, of which there are literally hundreds.

Brew the tea the way it wants to be brewed

When brewing this mystery Dan Cong oolong, I chose to do so in the manner that is practiced in Chaozhou, using a small zhu ni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) yixing teapot and a relatively large proportion of leaves so as to produce an intense flavor and residual mouthfeel. I arrange the leaves in the teapot so as to allow them to expand to their full potential. The teapot is a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot, well-suited for these large, twisted leaves. For brewing the tea, I use water that has immediately come off of a boil, quickly pouring the water over the leaves, closing the pot, and pouring water over the vessel so as to super-heat the contents within. Steeping is a quick process: Once the water poured over the teapot evaporates I begin to pour the tea out (for a stronger, more astringent brew, I wait for the meniscus on the teapot’s spout to go from convex to concave, an indication that the leaves have begun to unravel and absorb the water).

IMG_4304

(IMAGE: A top-down view of the fang-gu teapot.)

Appreciate the color of the liqueur

Pouring out every last drop, the tea reveals itself in a bright, light green liqueur. Unlike many Dan Cong oolong, which produce a bright orange or even pinkish-hued brew, only a few teas from Chaozhou will have this color. Already my mind has begun to narrow-down the possibilities.

IMG_4306

(IMAGE: The light green liqueur of the “mystery tea” against the pale celadon cup.)

Savor the aroma and decipher the flavor

Lifting-up the small Taiwanese-produced Ru Yao (窑窯, Ru Kiln) celadon cup, the aroma is sharp and floral, slightly grassy and slightly sugary. Upon the first sip an intense sugar cane note is present, the texture of the liqueur is juicy, and the mouthfeel is slightly astringent, lingering long after I have finished the small portion in the cup.

Trying to decipher what tea type this is amongst the panoply of Dan Cong oolong is difficult. Each tea has its own distinct flavor profile, ranging from orange peel, bitter almond, pomelo, or the scent of ginger flower (just to name a select few). In this case, I was lucky to have been gifted a wonderful and odd tea: Ya Shi (, “Duck Shit”). Unlike what the name might imply, this tea is renown for its pleasant sugar cane flavor with distinctive subdued astringency. The name, as local legend states, came from a tea farmer who was so in love with his tea that he didn’t want to sell it and so gave it the not-so-savory name of Duck Shit. Needless to say, the tea is now quite popular and, evidenced during today’s brewing, quite delicious.

IMG_4305

(IMAGE: A view of the “mystery tea” revealed! Note the length of the leaves, the low oxidation (absence of red on the leaves), and the serrated edges of the leaves (typical of semi-wild teas).)

Continue the exploration

One of the joys of drinking tea is not always knowing what you will experience. Have you ever had a “mystery tea”? If so, I am curious to know more. What did it look like and, more importantly, what did it taste like? The good, the bad, the ugly… Share it all. It’s all part of the journey!

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Oolong, Tea Tasting