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

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(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.

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(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.

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(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).

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(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.

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(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.

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(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!

 

 

 

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Brewing pu-erh in a relaxed style

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(IMAGE: The leathery leaves of a late 90s shou pu-erh, ready to be brewed in a relaxed style on a late summer’s day.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

As the last hot days of summer begin to shed themselves, the heat gives way to light breezes. In classical Japanese, the saying 天地始粛 (“てんちはじめてさむし”,”tenchi hajimete samushi”), literally “Earth and Sky begin to cool”, was often invoked to describe this natural phenomenon and is often met with a sense of relief. During these days, as the summer heat wanes, my tea brewing sessions tend to become more relaxed. No more is this more evident than in my approach to brewing pu-erh.

Brewing pu-erh (for most folks I’ve met in my travels) tends to be a pretty relaxed practice. Pu-erh is one of the most commonly consumed teas within China and has even become popular in Korea and, more recently, in the United States. In China, this is the tea that I will see people casually drink, paring it either with a meal (the whole act of eating dim sum in Guangdong evolved around drinking this type of tea, the meal is referred to as “yum cha” or “drink tea” in Cantonese), conversation, or just hanging out. As a result, the way I find most people drinking pu-erh tends to be quite laid back.

Today I find myself brewing a pot of pu-erh in this casual manner. For this, I’ve selected a basic “house pu-erh” that I had helped to bring in from China years ago. It is a very straight-forward medium-sized leaf shou pu-erh, picked and processed in the late 90s. The color of the dry leaves are typical of this type of tea: dark and leathery with bright orange-tan tea buds here and there, as well as the occasional stem (which helps to lend a sweet, “woody” flavor to the tea). Given its age, the tea should be very smooth.

I’ve paired the tea with a “Pearl of China” teapot, a classic shape for a yixing teapot. The spherical shape is perfect for this type of tea, allow the leaves to spin freely within the pot. Once the leaves settle, they should have enough room to open up.

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(IMAGE: A “Pearl of China” zisha yixing teapot for brewing shou pu-erh. This teapot has been brewing shou pu-erh in it for the past 5-6 years.)

The key to brewing pu-erh in a relaxed manner is to keep it simple: I will use just one kettle, one teapot, and one cup. Nothing else. The kettle will come to a boil and I will brew the tea. I will not be concerned with the time it takes to brew the tea nor the temperature it is brewed at. The teapot, which has relatively thick walls, will keep the tea at a pretty even temperature. The first steeping will be short, as long as it takes for water to evaporate off of the teapot, after which I will pour only a fraction out into my teacup. The remaining tea in the teapot will remain until I top-off the teapot for a second cup. As I continue to brew, the water from the kettle will naturally become cooler and, as such, I may lengthen the time of subsequent steepings.

The result of brewing in this fashion produces a liqueur that varies in intensity. The first steeping will tend to be quite light, expressing the woody notes of the tea. As the tea continues to brew, the flavors will deepen and the dark berry, earth, and loam notes will emerge. By the fifth or sixth steeping, this tea becomes quite dark, almost as dark as ink or black coffee. In some way, there is even a heartiness to this tea that surpasses coffee, both in its complexity and punch it delivers. By the twelfth steeping, the pu-erh begins to sweeten and brighten in color, shifting from a dark ebony to a light rose. The remaining flavors are almost sugary, akin to a yellow tea.

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(IMAGE: The first steeping of many of a late 90s shou pu-erh. The color of the liqueur is considerably lighter than subsequent steepings, offering notes of dry wood and fruit.)

On a late summer’s day, brewing tea in this manner just seems natural. As always, I am curious how you brew your pu-erh. Is it closely tended to? Or, is it like how I have done so today, casually steeped and enjoyed with the passing of one season into the next?

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Filed under Pu-erh, Tea Tasting, Travel

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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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.

Hohin

(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

Tale of a Teapot: Ōtagaki Rengetsu’s obscured poem on a teapot

Dear beloved blog readers,

I’m a teapot collector. While some of those more near and dear to me might say that I’m a teapot hoarder, to admit to this would be to admit that I somehow indiscriminately gather and stockpile.  While I may have lost count after my thirtieth (I now own an amount I cannot recall), each one is imbued with a specific function, style, and past.  None so more than the humble little kyusu teapot crafted by the late Edo-early Meiji Buddhist nun, poetess, calligrapher, and ceramicist Ōtagaki Rengetsu.

My connection with this piece is rather recent: I was wandering through an antiques store in San Francisco with a girlfriend of mine and low-and-behold I came across this small, white-glazed side-handle teapot.  Covered in a bit of dust and shoved in a corner of a small, cluttered vitrine, I inquired as to its provenance and price.  The salesperson only knew that it had been found in an antique store in Ise (a coastal town in Mie Prefecture, in the Kansai region of Japan) and that he had been using as an informal teapot he kept by his bathtub while he bathed.  The price: a song (a really inexpensive song).

There was something about the teapot that made the decision to take it home obvious (much to the chagrin of my then girlfriend… who knew all too well how many teapots I had at the time).  Its shape was organic, its undulating features were that of a curled lotus leaf, and upon its surface seemed to be some sort of inscription, but its unctuous glaze had filled much of it in to the point of illegibility.  In short, the little kyusu (急須), no larger than a small persimmon, was a mystery.

Having found this early on in my time as a graduate student studying Japanese pre-modern history, I used what I could to conduct research on the teapot.  Soon I found a surprising link: the pot was most possibly handmade by the (aforementioned) Ōtagaki Rengetsu.

Ōtagaki Rengetsu, born in 1791 as the illegitimate daughter of a high-ranking samurai and a geisha in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto, her natural father had her adopted by Ōtagaki Teruhisa, a lay priest of the Pure Land Buddhist sect.  During her childhood, she was trained in naginata and jujutsu martial arts, as well as calligraphy, poetry, and the game of go.  By the age of 33, she had married twice, had five children, and had lost her first three children and two husbands to disease.  In 1824, the noted beauty shaved her head and joined the Pure Land sect.  By the age of 41, her remaining two children and her adoptive father had all died. Turning inward, she focused the remainder of her life on producing works of calligraphy, painting, poetry, and ceramics as a means to contemplate on the nature of existence.

By Rengetsu’s time, chanoyu had become the orthodox practice of making tea, collecting with it the various traditions of Japanese arts that had flourished since the Sengoku period up through the Edo period.  Within these traditions were the various kilns, both famous and amateur, spawning provincial kilns and workshops of independent potters, including nuns like Rengetsu.  As part of what is called amayaki (nun ware), Rengetsu was part of a long tradition of amateur, religious-based women who took to pottery and incorporated her own forms, originally tea bowls, of which she inscribed with her own waka poetry.

However, Rengetsu’s ceramic product straddled a period of change in Japanese tea fashion.  With the overthrow of the Ming imperial line by the Manchu (establishing the Qing dynasty in 1644), countless Chinese Chan (in Japanese “Zen”) monks immigrated to Japan, founding the Ōbaku Zen sect.  From this came various literati forms that had their origins in China, of which was the practice of steeping whole leaf tea using a small earthenware teapot (the practice of gong fu cha).

Early practitioners of Ōbaku Zen in Japan came from the ranks of disenfranchised intellectuals (both samurai and commoners).  They preferred things in the more eccentric intellectual forms, from the traditions of Chinese literati to the notion of the wandering hermit and a rustic lifestyle.  Popularized by founding figures like Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, Kō Yūgai, 1675-1763), sencha (or roasted whole leaf tea) became not only a new method of producing tea but also a new way to express one’s connection to this intellectual leaning.

By the time of Rengetsu, sencha had evolved into a formal tea service, with its own forms of etiquette and utensils.  However, compared with chanoyu, senchadō retained the informality that came with its connections to the literati, and, because of this, it remained close to the literati arts such as the composing of waka poetry.  The intellectual luminary Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) probably taught Rengetsu waka poetry when she was a teenager and may have instilled to her some of the styles and forms he had developed for tea ware.  Similarly, literati painter and sencha master Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856), who was renown for his paintings of simple tea ware accompanied by poems reflecting the enjoyment of sencha, may have influenced Rengetsu, both as a poet and as a ceramicist.

The production of this particular kyusu would have been one of many she made during her lifetime.  As a prolific potter, she made a variety of wares from sake cups and beekers (tokkuri), to flower vases, tea bowls, plates, and incense holders (kōgō).  Due to the unique nature of her style and the strength of her poetry it was inscribed with, she became wildly famous in her lifetime and her works highly sought after by sencha enthusiasts and collectors alike.  Her work kept her busy and constantly moving, reportedly never staying in one place for more than a month’s time.  As a result, her forms remained untethered to one particular ceramic tradition, instead allowing her more room for experimentation and originality.

As she produced tea ware, Rengetsu had a profound influence on tea.  Her small pots and accompanying cups were often formed in the shapes of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and, most commonly for her teapots, in the form of wrinkled lotus leaves.  Rengetsu’s techniques replicated the natural textures of the lotus plant with the roughness of their stem giving way to the soft and billowy forms of their wrapped leaves, emulated by the smooth surface of the often white or grey opaque glaze she covered them in.  So loved were these wares that Rengetsu may have even popularized the use of the yuzamashi (water cooler), which she had been making specifically for the enjoyment of gyokuro (a finer grade of green tea that requires water at a lower temperature to produce a deeper flavor).  These yuzamashi, too, were often made in the form of a curled lotus leaf.

This particular teapot, typical of much of her work, was created by hand rather than on a wheel.  The faint impressions of her fingertips are evident, as are the marks of her rudimentary tools.  As with every piece she produced, this teapot is inscribed with a waka poem.  While many of the poems Rengetsu wrote onto her wares were singular to the piece (each piece potentially representing the only existent record of the poem she wrote), the poem on this piece is obscured by the pooling glaze.  There is a chance that this poem remains unread from the day it was first written. History still contains a mystery under the layers of vitrified material.

NOTE:

For those interested in learning more about Ōtagaki Rengetsu, her life and her work, I highly recommend these sources (as I used them in the writing of this entry)

Rengetsu, Melanie Eastburn, Lucie Folan, Robyn J. Maxwell, and Rengetsu. Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2007.

Rengetsu, and John Stevens. Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu. Buffalo, NY: White Pine, 2005.

“BachmannEckenstein | JapaneseArt.” BachmannEckenstein | JapaneseArt. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://www.bachmanneckenstein.com

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Japan, Poetry, Sencha, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized