Tag Archives: Aged Tea

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Stop Everything

The new year has arrived and with it comes the sensation of getting older. Winter’s snow comes and goes in fits and starts, blanketing everything in the evening, melting away by the mid-afternoon. All that seems to remain is the biting cold and a still, quiet hollowness. The previous year has left me burnt out. What energy is there left to pick up the pieces of a world that lies shattered? To bind a broken nation back together again? Time has told me that regardless of which way the winds of politics or the economy or a society as a whole may go, the old habits will die hard and the work to become a more enlightened person will never be done. Exhausted, like a well-spent bonfire, all I can do now is take pause. I need to re-collect myself. I need to stop everything.

Currently, my new home presents me with a conundrum. Too cold to be outside, the makeshift tea hut in my garden remains empty, unused. Still in the process of moving, my living space is still too disorganized to encourage me to make tea. For someone who finds comfort in order, the chaos depletes me, both body and soul.

Nestled between stacks of boxes, dusty floorboards, and buckets of paint and plaster, I eek out the faintest of foothold for tea and to find a moment’s peace. To stop everything means to put down my work, to, for a moment, ignore the emails and the incessant chiming and pinging of the digital world. It is to close the door behind me. To look out onto the world outside my window, and to look inward into the world within me. The snow-covered mountains, with their bare-branched trees. The low hiss that emanates from the warming kettle. The slate-grey sky with obscured sun. The Winter of early January is an empty space, enough to let the mind wander without chance of attachment.

I dust off the top of an old wooden desk and unearth a small 仿古 fǎng gǔ-shaped 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from a tattered cardboard box.

Other items are collected too. A white 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A bamboo tea scoop, an old coin to use as a lid rest, pinchers made of aromatic wood.

No ceremony. No ritual. No pretense guides me. Absent is specific form, aside from that which facilitates ease of movement, the maintenance of heat from kettle to pot to cup, and the subtle cues that guide me to make the best cup of tea possible.

The tea, the wares, the heat of the water; these will define the space and mindset of this moment.

Items now placed atop the wooden desk, I set forth to brew the selected tea, a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”. I breathe deeply and open the pressed-metal tin that has been holding the tea for the last eight years. I carefully place the thin, wiry leaves into the concave of the bamboo tea scoop.

Their color appears darker, their surface more lacquer-like since when I first procured them years ago when I traveled to the tea gardens of 潮州 Cháozhōu.

I warm the teapot and tea cup and discard the hot water into an old Japanese 建水 kensui. I return the kettle to boil and, as I do so, I remove the tiny tea pot’s lid. Its interior is slick with residual moisture.

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

I place the tea leaves gently within the empty vessel. A void now filled to the brim. Wild, wiry, unencumbered.

I pause. The faint aroma of the old tea wafts in the air, standing out against the scent of dry cardboard, of dust, of the layers of plaster and paint that surround me. A faint reminder of its former self when it was still fresh. A faint reminder of the tea processing room that was filled with the inescapable perfume of the harvest. A faint reminder of life when tea was freely shared between friends, having traveled great distances by airplane, over subway lines and through crowded streets to enjoy the warmth of tea and each other’s company. A faint reminder of life before it was boxed-up, shipped away, and stacked in corners.

I lift the kettle from the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the teapot, over the tea leaves. Bubbles and foam surface. Oils and fragrance re-emerge, long-locked within the curled tendrils of the coiled tea.

I place the lid atop the tiny vessel and let the tea begin to steep. No sound. No movement. Just stillness. Thoughts of work and life momentarily drop away. Worries, fears, anxieties that might normally arise come and go, but I pay them no heed. All there is now is a small pot brewing tea.

I breathe and hear the rise and fall, expansion and collapse of my chest. The rustling of the cloth of my shirt. The air passing through my lips and nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. I hear the creaking of freshly-laid floorboards. Of the furnace burning. Of my partner walking down the hallway in the distance.

Stopping everything does not mean everything stops. One just becomes more aware of their presence, their true nature. A quiet observer to one’s own experience and to the oft-overlooked actions of others. The habitual mind arises as it always does, trying to cling to sounds and movement, to thoughts and distractions.

Here, the act and action of making tea becomes my guidepost. If I am to make tea, I must remain in this moment, focused on this task. I stop. I breathe. I observe the heat of the pot and rely on intuition to know what is happening within its red clay walls. The collecting and evaporating of moisture off its surface, away from the bat and bamboo motif.

The pulling of the tiny droplet of water from the tip of its curved spout. The sigh it seems to release when the tea is ready to be poured.

I quickly grasp the teapot with the fingers of my right hand and tilt it above the white glazed Korean cup. Hot tea cascades downward at an even pace, a single, unbroken stream, into the cup. Once emptied, I place the teapot back down into the center of the Yíxìng 茶船 chá chuán, its lid removed to allow the leaves to cool and the steam to rise out from the interior.

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

I lift the cup to my lips and savor the aroma. It is bright, with notes of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit. I pause and sip from the cup. As a now-aged tea, I expect it to be calm, its flavors settled and muted. However, what I receive is far from this. The tea is beautiful. The flavor, arresting. It opens with a burst of fruit notes akin to guava and papaya, followed by sweet and lingering aromatics of blossoms and gardenia. More surprisingly is the presence of a refined, velvety vanilla pod note that awakens me. These favors, which may otherwise be in contrast to one another, blend, meld, and harmonize. It is at this moment that I am reminded of why the tea is poetically named “Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”.

The tea, grown on the slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in Cháozhōu, is comprised of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove. The two tea plants, kept in close proximity, develop flavors that are uniquely their own yet beautifully balance one another. They are two yet feel as one.

As I again pour hot water into my teapot, I further recall memories from my past, reminded of that first journey taken to Cháozhōu, alongside with my own tea brothers, Steve Odell and So Han Fan. There, digging through cities and climbing up mountains in search for direction, in search for tea, we worked at a breakneck speed, not wanting to squander our time and let the opportunity to learn from direct experience pass us by. I recall early mornings, long days, and late nights, tasting cup after cup, in pursuit of knowledge and beautiful tea.

Now, at this point in my life, almost ten years since that moment, these memories, too, seem fresh. Their fragrance and flavor still resounding and surprising.

All that is left now are these leaves. A fitting tribute to time well spent. Something so fragile as a memory, so fragile as a pile of leaves. Through steeping after steeping, their flavors are expelled and spent. All that remains is a sweet, honey-like water.

Even after the tea is gone, its scent still lingers in the empty cup. As I cleanse the wares once again and return to a day of work, I can feel the pull of daily duties, the tug of responsibility and of commitments. I sit and pause for a moment longer, using this time to ponder.

Action and inaction; at times the space between them feels defined and absolute. Here, the habitual mind is inclined to prefer one over the other: one becoming a welcome respite, the other, a dreaded chore. Yet, when you stop everything, inaction is the action. Even within inaction, thoughts, memories, and sensations will still arise. Worries and anxieties still exist. As nothing truly disappears, these, too, will continue.

In the more than two decades now of practicing tea, I’ve come to recognize this. In the inaction of making tea, there is action. Worries, thoughts, memories will still be there; they can help or hinder you, encourage you or deter you, focus your gaze or leave you distracted, expand your mind or cause you to fixate and become attached.

As I wipe the chá chuán and place the lid back upon the teapot at an angle to let the tiny vessel dry, I return to the notion of form and its absence as I’ve been brewing tea. The pot is tended to in a certain way. Warmed, cleansed, utilized as if it were a fine tool to prepare the perfect cup of tea. To do this, one must focus on what is needed for that very moment and let everything else drop away.

Extraneous objects and actions are not invited to the tea table. Neither are worries or distractions. Through practice, everything is honed-down to its most essential, until all that is left is just making tea. Memory serves to guide the body in its movements, the mind in its exploration. Worry is left by the wayside. Instead, care and attentiveness come to the forefront, in service to the moment, to the task at hand, to the invited guests. Habitual fixations and attachments burn away, as time burns away, a ticking clock reflected in the diminishing flavor of every steeping, of every cup consumed, of every last leaf used up until there is no more.

All that is left is the lingering heat of the kettle, the 回甘 huí gān of the tea caught in one’s throat, and perhaps feeling of lightness that carries on into the next task. A pot left to dry.

An overturned cup revealing the name of its maker. The emptiness of Winter in early January. The sensation of getting older. Disparate flavors that harmonize.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Last of Autumn’s Leaves

Autumn has passed and Winter’s presence grows more and more each day. Morning’s light emerges later and darkness arrives over the horizon sooner than the weeks and months before. Winds whip and howl through bare trees.

The mountains, evermore, replace their vibrant pigment in exchange with varying hues of umber and shades of purple. The colors that do remain cling to branches and scatter on the forest floor. The last of Autumn’s leaves.

The lichen.

The moss.

The rich soil.

The slick cascade of water rushing from the rivers and over rocks. I spend the last of these days, where the final forces of Fall remain palpable, crawling up the edge of a waterfall to the top of a mountain.

In the foothills that mark the trailhead, one final stand of bright, golden maples eek out their last celebration for the year.

Fluttering leaves.

Filtered sunlight.

A cathedral’s nave cast from nature.

Further into the forest, the trees grow bare. Looking upward reveals a spindly network of branches, none coming too close to touch, forming empty channels between them. Bright blue rivers of sky. Birds call and sing. The swirl of the wind. The sound of the brook echoing and beckoning me deeper into the forest, further up the mountain.

As I ascend I pause to appreciate small chance-made vignettes that adorn the forest world. A gnarled old root caught in decomposition.

Two fallen tree trunks, blackened by fire.

In Winter’s cold decay, life still pulses through the forest. Springing up from the thick carpet of fallen leaves, young saplings find a foothold.

Ferns of all forms unfurl.

Moss find shelter in cracks and crevices.

On twisted roots.

Over rocks.

Halfway up the mountain, I stop to savor the rush of the cascade.

Perched on a stone boulder outcropping, I spread out a tea set kept in my side bag. A brocaded box and tea-stained linen cloth.

A small 內紫外紅 nèi zǐ wài hóng 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from the early 1980s set atop an oak leaf.

Opened, it becomes a vessel to contain the moment, a chance to pause, an opportunity to meditate in nature. No extraneous noise, just the sound of the waterfall and the wind pressing through the trees. No unnecessary thoughts, just those enough to attend to the act of making tea.

Thoughts enough to guide my hand as I place old tea leaves intro the center of the open teapot. Twisted, dark, aged leaves of an old 普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá that mirror those fallen on the path that led me to the waterfall’s edge. Red and russet and warm. Dry and leathery like a worn boot.

I pour out a measure of hot water into the open teapot and, for a moment, watch as the tea leaves roll and slowly expand. The deep blue of the sky overhead reflecting in the tiny pool of the open teapot.

I replace the lid and wait for the tea to brew.

In this moment of waiting, I observe the world around me.

The waterfall, the rocks, the forest. The cascade and the rush of water.

The pool in which it all collects and churns.

The mountain stream that ambles and coils downward.

The water, disappearing over a bend and humped back of the hillock. Water, merging with earth, with the wood of the forest, with the light caught against the leaves and the skyward stretching columns of trees.

I pour out the first of many steepings from the tiny teapot into a single cup.

The color of the brew is a deep scarlet. The aroma is rich like healthy soil. The favor is sweet and satisfying, akin to a fine wine, with a soft lingering finish that tapers off slowly until it merges and fades with the myriad of scents that define the forest.

I continue to sit and steep tea. Time passes, marked by the slow shifting of light through the trees.

The change in color of the tea’s liqueur

The expanding of the tea leaves.

One last cup and I close the pot and wrap up the small tea set to continue on my journey up the mountain. Further up the mountain, the forest thins. Yet, here, too, Winter’s blooms can be found. 

Witch Hazel flowers burst atop the knobby and twisted branches of their weathered trees.

New moss emerges from underneath desiccated leaves.

Even a fallen sycamore leaf appears new, alive, fiery against the cold earth.

Climbing higher still, I reach a mountain lake, the source of the waterfall.

Here I rest and sit for tea, spread out atop a warm, sunbaked stone.

The same tea is brewed from before.

It’s flavor seems gentler now, it’s color paler.

I let each steeping go on longer, letting the leaves soak and expel their flavor slowly.

Atop the stone, I sit with the teapot in silent mediation. The chill of Winter abated by the heat of the sun, yet its presence surrounds me. The umber and purple mountain tops rising up against the lake’s edge.

The bare branches stretching up to the sky. The cold wind that creeps between the folds in my coat. The last of Autumn’s leaves, clinging on to a season long since passed.

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

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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

In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

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.

****

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

When Sunlight Joins for Tea

Often is the case that when I am making tea in my meditation room, time passes and the light of the day naturally shifts. Facing West, the morning light is soft, with a distinctive bluish tone. However, as morning fades and the light of the afternoon grows, warmer hues emerge, and the golden rays of sunlight pour through the window of this tiny room, joining me for tea.

As I was quietly brewing tea this morning, I let time meander. The water in my antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) quietly came to a boil, leading to an hour of brewing various teas.

Shifting from a roasted 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea) from China’s Anxi county to an aged 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan in Fujian, I finished my tea brewing session with a green Taiwanese 高山茶 gāo shān chá (“high mountain tea”).

As one hour turned into two, the kettle was refreshed with cool water and the sun climbed higher in the sky. Just at the moment I began to let go of time, warm rays of light came flooding through my window and settled down onto my setting for tea.

It set alight the steam that rose from the water, beamed across the stippled iron face of the old chagama, and cast shadows across the assembled teapots which I had set to dry.

The sunlight encouraged me to make another cup of tea and so I did. Scooping water with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) and carefully pouring it into the small tea vessel.

Sunlight lingered over ever facet of the moment, warming the teapot before I decanted its fragrant liqueur.

And, like the sunshine that joined me for tea on this day, the tea shone bright, first in a Korean sookwoo, then in an antique Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white cup.

And, as the sun often does, it passed along, leaving the room out from the window it arrived through. Much like the small crawl-through-door (躙り口 nijiriguchi) that leads into the tea hut (茶室 chashitsu), it had come in, bowed, sat for tea, and left, leaving no trace save for a moment shared and a memory.

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Filed under Ceramics, Japan, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

The Future is Female. The Past was Female.

Today is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, I find myself sitting down and enjoying a pot of tea, a beautiful aged 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea), purportedly harvested in the mid-1990s.

The namesake of this tea, the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin in Chinese), is a being that is associated with compassion, one who “perceives the sound of the world”, and is often depicted as being female (though, throughout history has been depicted also as male, androgynous, and genderless). In China’s Fujian province, where Tieguanyin is grown, Guanyin is seen as a protector of traders, seafarers, and has the power to grant wishes. The origin story of Tieguanyin involves one such instance of her wish-granting powers.

As an aged tea, this Tieguanyin is a bit of a time capsule. A look into how tea used to be made. As such, looking at the leaves alone, one can see that they are considerably darker than their contemporary counterparts. This is largely due to a higher oxidation most traditional Tieguanyin oolongs received, a style dating back to their origins in the early Qing period. This higher oxidation (which hovers around 30-40%) causes the leaves to darken to an “iron-like” rusty green color (unlike modern interpretations that receive 10-20% oxidation). Additional subsequent finishing roasts darker the color further, giving the tea it’s distinctive “iron” hue. As an aged tea, previous tea masters may have performed additional roasts on this tea, adding to its already roasty flavor profile and deepening its color.

To brew this rare and unique tea, I select an equally rare Yixing teapot, one that was gifted to me by my tea teacher on my recent trip to Paris. It is a small, eight-sided vessel, found by my tea teacher in Taiwan while he lived there in the 1980s.

Being so small, it only enough volume to brew tea for two equally minuscule antique 若深 ruò shēn teacups (bearing the mark 若深珍藏 ruò shēn zhēncáng).

Viewing the teapot, it seems impossibly small to fit the tea leaves within it. However, as an aged tea, these leaves will not open as readily as the more pliable younger variants. Similarly, as they have been roasted and re-roasted, this final processing “locks” the leaves into shape.

Once inside the tiny pot, I pour boiling water over them, steeping them at a high heat. It is only with this heat that these leaves will give off their extravagant flavors.

For several minutes I wait to let the tea brew, waiting for meniscus to recede down the teapot’s spout and for the color of the clay of the vessel to deepen. It is only after this that I know the tea is ready.

Opting to make tea on a mirror-topped table in my sunlit room, I can enjoy this process from every angle. Viewing the teacups from this vantage point, I can see their painted exterior and the transparency of their egg-shell thin construction.

Once filled with the brewed tea, they glow like amber. The tea is floral, fragrant, with an aroma of raw honey, dried apricots, and toasted biscuits. Upon tasting, the tea contains a slightly medicinal note; an indication of its age.

And as the warm morning light shifts to the afternoon’s rays of sun, I continue to steep this tea. Cup after cup, round after round, an aged tea such as this can brew for hours.

For a tea like this, we can enjoy the past and the present. From something that was once vibrant, vegetal, green, time has forever changed it. The power of nature. The power of time passing. Evinced in flavors that evolve.

With age comes complexity, and in this tea, that is quite beautiful, something quite indescribable. Named for a bodhisattva, a being that transcends time, form, gender, all this seems quite fitting.

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