Tag Archives: Brewing Tea

In Accordance with the Dance of Snowflakes

Winter’s sojourn continues to unfold over the city as December’s first snow falls gently down from a matte grey sky. Looking out upon the vista from my tearoom window, snowflakes fall as birds alight from leaf-bare trees. With only the warmth of a glowing brazier by my side, I sit for tea in the silence that is brought by a snowy day.

In the calendar for Japanese tea ceremony, the first snow of Winter is met with a quiet celebration, 雪の茶 yuki no cha (“tea for snow”). Low 下駄 geta (wooden clogs) and wide-brimmed woven sedge hats are given to the guests before they cross into the 露地 roji (the rustic garden leading to the teahouse). Warm water with cut ginger is offered to drink as they wait to warm their bodies.

In the tearoom, no flower is placed in the 床の間 tokonoma alcove, and a window is left open for all to enjoy the sight of falling snow. Teaware is left to be simple as, on this day, nothing is meant to compete with the beauty of the first snow of Winter.

As I sit to enjoy tea to this sight, I bring out a 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan(iron basin-shapes teabowl) to make 抹茶 matcha, the poetic name of which is 柿 “Kaki”, for its resemblance to a large, round persimmon. Balancing the bowl’s rustic feel, I select a carved lacquer 棗 natsume tea caddy. For the 茶杓 chashaku teascoop, I choose one carved from a bright piece of bamboo, the center node (節 fushi) of which is set with an emerging bump of a forming branch.

As I prepare to make tea, I cannot help to remain quiet. The teabowl is cleansed with a scooper of hot water, drawn from the boiling kettle.

Once warmed and set down, the bowl is ready for its use to make tea.

Three measured scoops of freshly-ground matcha are drawn from the natsume and placed one on top of the other within the void of the chawan. After the last scoop is issued, I tap the chashaku against the cream-colored rim of the teabowl, releasing the last remaining portions of matcha powder from its hand-shaped tip and producing a light, bell-like chiming from the chawan.

Tea is whisked as a bright, airy foam rises from the thick, emerald green brew.

Set before me, the bowl of tea glows within the low light of the tearoom.

As if to herald the coming future, the delicate matcha foam lifts up like a drift of snow, the aroma of which is crisp and refreshing. Without a pause, the bowl of tea is whole heartily enjoyed.

In the silence that follows, the gentle roll of the kettle boiling is met with the sporadic tapping of falling snow upon the windowpane. A joy to make tea in accordance with the dance of snowflakes.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: All About Wulong

IMG_3195Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

As we huddle closer to the warmth of the boiling kettle, we cannot help but to be drawn to tea, especially those we like to brew hotter and stronger. As part of my regular “circuit” of tea-focused lectures, I recently led a tea talk and interactive workshop at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that concentrated on one such tea type. Titled “All About Wulong”, it was a deep dive and exploration into one of the world’s most diverse categories of tea.

As with most of my tea talks (of which you can find many of them linked within this blog either in posts or under the “Education” tab), I began “All About Wulong” with a brief but detailed discussion on the meaning of wulong (note I am using the Chinese written form “wulong”, which in Pinyin is wūlóng, in Wade-Giles it is “oolong”, and in tradition Chinese script it is 烏龍). Next I outlined the historical origins and context of wulong tea production, consumption, and brewing methods. Following this, we spent the rest of the evening tasting a variety of select wulong teas, reflecting varieties that originated in (or were influenced by) Taiwan, Anxi, Chaozhou, and Wuyishan. Teas ranged from freshly-harvested to aged. In this, we examined they myriad of different processing styles and how to approach them from both a brewing method and from the many aspects of connoisseurship.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture and tea production, “All About Wulong” was a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, which not only sought to educate minds and palates, but to also encourage inquiry and help to hone participants’ tea appreciation and brewing skills (i.e. their 功夫茶 gōngfūchá skills). As part of this continuing effort, I offer you, my beloved readers, the video and notes to this event, for you to enjoy and learn from it.

“All About Wulong”

Link to video

All about Wulong Presentation Grid ImageTo aid in the watching of this 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Wulong Tea
  • Locating Wulong Tea
  • Origins of Wulong Tea
    • During the Song Period
    • During the Ming Period
  • Wulong Tea’s Constant Evolution
    • During the Ming Period
    • During the Qing Period
    • During the Late Qing to Modern Period
  • Brewing Wulong Tea
    • “Mind & Materiality of Wulong Tea”
    • The Skill & Challenge of Wulong Tea
  • Final Thoughts

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted:

  • 阿里山高山烏龍茶 Ālǐshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (Alishan High Mountain wulong), Spring 2018 from Alishan, Taiwan (elevation 1300m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva” wulong tea), Winter 2017 from Muzha, Taiwan (elevation 600m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 老柚花香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Lǎo yòu huāxiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Old Pomelo Flower Fragrance” Phoenix single bush wulong tea) from 350 year-old bushes, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 鐵羅漢武夷山岩茶 Tiě luóhàn Wǔyíshān yánchá (“Iron Arhat” Wuyi Mountain “rock/cliff tea”), Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 1980年 凍頂烏龍茶 Dòng Dǐng wūlóngchá (1980 “Frozen Summit” wulong tea), Nantou county, Taiwan. Personally sourced.

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

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

Sitting Without Sorrow

Almost a year has passed since I began my new life, set up a new tearoom, and began a new journey. During this time, I’ve criss-crossed the continent countless times, each time returning to New York City, each time realizing how much I feel “at home” here.

To commemorate this moment, I gifted my partner a Yixing teapot. Being her first, learning how to use the teapot came with its own set of challenges.

As a rather large (~250 ml) 四方壺 sìfānghú (“square pot”), it requires her to pack the tea more mindfully, pour water in and over it more precisely, and decant the brewed tea from it more delicately.

Setting the learning curve rather steep, however, can come with its own set of rewards.

Designating the teapot for traditionally-processed 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (Tieguanyin oolong tea) has proven to be an excellent choice.

The shape and height of the pot enables the rolled leaves of this particular tea to unfurl and expand upward.

While the teapot’s filter constitutes of only one large hole, this has not hindered its performance as the leaves of the chosen oolong are large enough to resist entering and blocking the flow of the pour.

Being hand-constructed with thick, lower-fired 紫砂 zǐshā (“purple sand” clay), the teapot retains the ideal level of heat when the tea is brewing. Over time, the oils from the Tieguanyin oolong will season the pot and the clay will deepen in color until it achieves an almost metallic glow, offset by the sprinkling of lighter-colored grains of 鍛泥 duàn ní (“fortified clay”).

Even after the teapot’s first use, the tea it produces is strong and the flavor is clean. With each subsequent use, the trace notes of minerality and raw clay from the new Yixing teapot will subside and the true flavor of the tea will emerge and shine.

For now, just to enjoy the subtle aspects of this new teapot’s use is enough for my partner and I to take in. From the way she first learns how to balance the pot in her hand to the way she must decide how long it will take to brew the tea, each becomes a moment to pause and contemplate one’s intention, an opportunity to hone one’s practice. And as she fully decants the teapot, the action reveals a wonderful surprise: a poem recalling a sage in his (or her) hut, sitting without sorrow.

When there is tea, a moment to share is made. When one starts this path, it is always wonderful to be joined by a partner. On this path we walk together.

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

Red, White, and Blue-and-White

I am not typically political in my writings (at least on such a public and tea-focused forum). Alas, to remain politically inactive and indifferent is not only a fallacious privilege but is also callous to the many ills and terrible abuses that our political system has engendered (and continues to engender).

On this day, a cold, rainy Tuesday in November, I encourage all who can vote to vote (I voted by mail). Remember, many have fought and dedicated their lives to ensure this right. To vote is to honor this and protect your own agency in this world.

As dark storm clouds gather outside my window, a 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”) softly bubbles atop the warm, glowing embers inside an antique 火鉢 hibachi. Deciding to drink a bowl of hand-ground powdered white tea, I pull-together the implements needed to properly whip-up a delicate bowl of Song-style 抹茶 mǒchá (matcha in Japanese).

A 15th century Vietnamese blue and white teabowl. A red and black 根来塗り Negoro-nuri lacquer 茶杓 chashaku teascoop. A carved Song period-style lacquer tea caddy. A bamboo tea whisk made in Nara, Japan. A lacquered tray atop which all the items are carried. With everything assembled tea can be made.

Opting to make tea today in a relaxed style, I decide to adapt the informal 盆点前 bon temae of the 宗徧流 Sōhen Ryū school to make a bowl of Song period-style white tea. Against the dark crimson field of the red lacquered tray, the assembled items seem to harmonize, their subtle differences still shining through.

Against the rich hues of scarlet, the rough and refined qualities of the Negoro lacquer are evermore apparent. In this style of lacquer, famously produced by the monks at Negoro-ji Buddhist temple in Wakayama prefecture in Japan, layers of black lacquer emerge beneath top layers of red lacquer. The result is an understated elegance.

With all tea objects purified and readied, the moment arrives to make tea. For a brief instance, I sit and enjoy seeing each item as they exist and interplay with each other.

Gathered from around the world, spanning through history, from a multitude of cultures, each have by some unique way come together to enable something beautiful to be made.

A bowl of tea and a moment to meditate. A calm within a violent storm. What will come from this day is not entirely up to me. Which way will the wind bend? In what direction will the storm blow?

To sit and observe these moments is not enough. To act and act with right intention is a start.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Vietnam, White Tea

Ripening Gourds in a Cold Field

October has come and nearly passed. The last day of the month always stands as a liminal period, a two-faced Janus looking to the future and to the past. What moments will the new month bring? What did we learn from the old month, now a not-so-distant memory? Walking through life on this blade cutting through time, one cannot help but to feel a rush.

Even in the quietude of the tearoom, this energy can be quite the stimulus to creation.

Selecting a small antique Japanese Meiji-period 古染付け ko-sometsuke (“old blue-and-white” porcelain ware) teapot modestly-adorned with a curling vine and gourd motif, I pair the little pot with a 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) from Wuyishan. Opting to enjoy the warmth of an antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (iron lidded kettle), I decide to use a water dipper fashioned from a lacquered gourd to pour boiling water into the tea vessel.

With the sound of a gentle wind outside my window and the soft gurgling of the kettle rising, I sit to brew tea. Waiting for the leaves to steep, I allow my eyes to drift and view the changing colors of the leaves outside.

A mild Autumn produces an array of hues. Dappled patterns on the tree tops outside and weathered markings on the surface of my old wooden tea table.

The color of tea when poured becomes the most brilliant tone to be seen. As red as a ripened gourd sitting in a field on a cold and foggy morning. How it captures the light of the sun.

Time captures moments like this as if it were a crystalline vessel. Tiny vignettes and faceted memories stored within. Tea, too, acts this way. Poems on a tea scoop recounting conversations between a traveler and a mountain hermit. Residue from past teas brewed clinging to bright white porcelain. Withered tea leaves hinting at the warmth of the Sun from a Spring years ago.

The gourd ladle tilted atop a hand-cut bamboo 蓋置き futa-oki (lid rest) dries after the tea has long-since brewed-out. The teapot sits partially open to cool. The scent of tea faint now when it was once readily present. A month comes softly to a close.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Hongcha, Japan, Meditation, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

To Encounter a Distant Memory and Invite it for Tea

IMG_2160In late Summer I found myself ambling through the streets of my youth, the tight alleyways and rolling broad avenues of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Falling back into my old patterns, I paid a visit to all of my favorite old haunts: the Hong Kong-style diner, the apothecary, the jade dealer. On my last stop, an old porcelain shop, I by chance found this rather large vintage hand-painted famille jaune 蓋碗 gàiwǎn.

IMG_2161Pulled from stacks of the usual mass-produced transfer-printed blue-and-white plates and cups, this gaiwan seemed to glow an unearthly golden color. Unabashedly kitschy with bright roses, peonies, plum blossoms, and lotuses painted upon an electric yellow field, the gaiwan echoed memories of my youth when such teaware were all one could find in 1980s/1990s Chinatown.

IMG_2162During these years, tea existed side-by-side jars of dried herbs, boxes of Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, and ceramic figures of 關羽 (Guānyǔ) with offerings of tangerines. So much has changed since then. People have become fancier, perhaps more sophisticated. Porcelain wares like this are now not as coveted. But that’s the thing about memories; sometimes you can recall them fondly, sometimes you can invite them for tea.

IMG_2163In this spirit, I decide to do just that. Pulling from a dusty tea tin that I’ve kept for years, I place a handful of thin, curly leaves of an aged 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) onto an antique banana leaf-shaped 白銅 báitóng (“white copper”) 茶荷 chá hé (tea leaf presentation vessel). Like the vintage gaiwan, such presentation vessels were once ubiquitous in my youth, something easily found (and often passed-over) in the many curio shops and curb-side vendors that once vied for attention along the many side streets that radiated outward from Chinatown’s Grant Avenue. Nowadays, these, too, are a rarity, a modest treasure from time.

IMG_2164Warming the large gaiwan for the first time, it brings me to attention in a way that I was not expecting. Like opening a time capsule, I cannot help but be drawn into the vacant void of its gleaming white interior as if in search for some unresolved answer.

IMG_2165Placed into the center of the wide white bowl, the thin, twisted leaves of the aged Phoenix oolong seem small, dwarfed by the great circumference of the vintage gaiwan. Like a mirror offering up a clear vision of the self, the warmed and wetted porcelain instantly reflects back the vibrant, fragrant aromas of the aged tea. As bright and floral as the gaiwan itself, this tea seems to answer back to the vintage gaiwan with an assurance that time cannot diminish the quality of something so skillfully made and lovingly saved.

IMG_2166Closing the lid upon the steeping leaves, the tea is left for a moment to brew. Minutes later and the lid is lifted, revealing a broad field of colors. A bouquet of yellow, green, red, and orange emerge upon the bright white backdrop of the gaiwan’s porcelain interior. Enjoyed alongside the rich and splashy colors of the hand-painted flowers that adorn the vintage gaiwan, the tea and the vessel seem to converse with one another. What words do such things utter when they awake from a long sleep? What memories arise when we bring an object from our past back to use? What can such memories still teach us that we did not yet know?

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

Things That Are Hidden Become Revealed

There is something mysterious about tea. Not that tea, itself, tries to obscure or rarify itself, nor is it “exotic” (in fact, it can be quite ordinary), but tea does not present itself wholly upon first view. To better know tea, one must become quite intimate with it.

In some cases, this means climbing a mountain to see where tea plants are grown. In other instances, it means working in the hot and sweaty processing stations where raw tea leaves are tossed, steamed and roasted to express the desired flavors. In other instances still, one must focus in very closely on the specific ways certain cultures present tea to truly understand it.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) is kept within a small ceramic container called a 茶入 chaire. This small vessel is, in turn, enveloped in a cloth sleeve (雌伏 shifuku), tied together with a piece of cord.

In the case of this specific chaire I have chosen today for a koicha gathering, it is a mid-20th century 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki (“shouldered”) chaire.

Rather than fully reveal itself to those gathered, I (as the host) must first go through a methodical process of untying the cord and removing the little tea jar from the shifuku. The modest Seto-yaki chaire slowly appears from the soft folds of the glistening silk pouch. Its glossy brown glaze contrasts with rich blue, gold and purple thread.

Pulled from the shifuku, the chaire is purified with the purple silk cloth of the 袱紗 fukusa and then set down before tea is made.

For the briefest of moment, both host and guest are able to enjoy the shape of the chaire.

Prior to making tea, the chaire is placed next to the shifuku. Images of travelers on the Silk Road emblazoned on the silk seem to remind those who see it of tea’s ancient past.

With tea, time slows, revealing everything at a meditative pace. Slowly, the pouch is removed and set aside. Slowly, powdered tea is scooped and tumbled from the tea jar.

Slowly, small moments and vistas reveal themselves. Slowly, a mystery becomes understood. In time, tea, too, becomes ordinary.

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