Tag Archives: Aged Tea

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

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

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.

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(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