Tag Archives: Aged Tea

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

When Drinking Tea, Remember the Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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