Tag Archives: Brewing

The Taste of Meditation

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There is an old saying that “Tea and Zen are of one taste” (茶禅一味). A bit of a kōan (公案; Chinese: 公案, gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án), the phrase is meant to both give rise to “great doubt” and spark the onset of a meditative mind. At the core of this mindset is the realization of one’s inability to grasp that which is logical, therefore forcing one to inquire withing and rely upon intuition, direct experience and wisdom.

The phrase also alludes to the close link that tea and meditation have had over the centuries. Beginning in the Tang and continuing through the end of the Song (from 500-1300), the rise of both tea culture alongside Buddhist meditation (chán 禪, Chinese for the Sanskrit word dhyāna ध्यान , meaning “meditation”, the Japanese word being zen, seon 선 in Korean) had a profound effect on one another. Commonly produced in monasteries for its medicinal properties, tea was also consumed as a means to wake the mind (through tea’s energizing properties). Paired as an aid to meditation, the physical act of making tea was similarly viewed as meditative, as it requires a certain level of mindfulness to achieve the desired results.

As tea continued to evolve in tandem with Buddhist schools of meditation, it was shaped by the people and cultures it came into contact with. Subsequent practitioners, from the Japanese Zen Buddhists and lay people of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1603) who developed chanoyu  (茶の湯, the Japanese tea ceremony), to the Korean Seon Buddhist monks like Cho’ui (writer of the Dashinjeon 다신전(茶神傳, literally “Tea Spirit Record”), 1830) who linked meditation more directly to tea preparation, would continue this trend, pointing the way for modern tea people to follow.

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To the tea practitioner, the mere act of making tea can bring about a meditative state of mind, as each tea, vessel, teapot, kettle, cup, and scoop can bring about a myriad of possibilities. From the way a certain clay cools to when or where a tea was harvested, to how one pours water over the tea leaves, or even the temperature of the air, attentiveness to all of these factors and more is the essence of “now-mindedness”.

32207696_10103510293954638_2219173296484646912_nIt is in this moment, the moment of sitting down to make tea, that one must rely upon what they know and how it ultimately bears against what they do not know. It is from this interaction with and inquiry into these dual aspects that great tea can be made.

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This morning, as I make a meditation out of preparing tea, I ponder this. Brewing a jakseol (작설, literally “sparrow’s tongue” green tea from Jirisan in Hadong, South Korea), the movements it requires to slowly and mindfully express the tea’s flavor are apparent. Any thoughts of the world around me, of deadlines, of things to do become nothing more than thoughts, things at the moment outside of my control.

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The water rises to a quiet boil, the buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teapot, sookwoo (water server), and tea cups (each a gift from a dear friend) are warmed. As I warm the vessels, I roll each slowly within my hand, feeling the radiant heat of the water within them climb up the inside of their earthenware walls, permeating through their dull-colored glazed exteriors.

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I carefully place the leaves of the tea within the open mouth of the teapot. The lingering heat trapped within the vessel’s clay walls begins to wake the tea and a slight hint to its flavor rises sweetly into the air.

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The water that was momentarily set to cool within the sookwoo is poured into the teapot and the lid is placed upon its top. The tea is left to brew. All visible clues as to the tea’s progress are kept at bay as the teapot sits. All information that one is left to rely upon must come from one’s own intuition and direct experience.

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The elegant yet roughly-hewn buncheong-jagi cups sit awaiting the tea. Even at this moment of stillness, of emptiness, there is a sense of meaning as the tea continues to brew.

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In a matter of mere seconds, the tea is poured and its light, bright color is exhibited against the soft, mottled grey surface of the teacup’s interior. All of the moment spent sitting in a still and mindful quietude is summed up here. All of colors of a gentle Korean Spring in the mountains of Jirisan are apparent in this cup.

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The tea is brewed and the leaves unfurled. The aroma is released and the flavor of the tea becomes, as I become, fully present.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

When a Carp Turns Into a Dragon

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In Japan, May 5th marks Boys’ Day (端午の節句, Tango no sekku, or, in recent years, こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi, literally “Children’s Day”). A key feature of this celebration is the motif of the carp.

The significance behind this imagery is recognized throughout much of East Asia, as the carp, with its bright, scaly complexion, was believed to possess the ability to transform into a dragon. In ancient China (and subsequently in other East Asian cultures that adopted similar forms of governance), this transformative quality of the lowly carp into a noble dragon was a metaphor for succeeding in the civil service examination and a wish for a child to excel and grow.

Additionally, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually late-May to mid-June) marks the celebration of  Duānwǔ jié 端午节 (Dragon Boat Festival). Many scholars now believe that this was originally a day of making offerings to the dragon king, who was said to dwell in rivers and lakes. This practice continues today with the offering of zòngzi (粽子, glutenous rice wrapped in leaves) to appease voracious river carp. Oddly enough, the bamboo leaf-wrapped chimaki mochi (ちまき餅), which are often eaten during Boys’ Day in Japan, bear a cursory resemblance to these ancient offerings.

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Today, as I sit for tea, I employ a small antique carp-shaped Korean celadon water dropper (an object that would have been commonplace in a scholar’s studio) as a improvised flower vase.

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Paired with this are Korean buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teacups, a purple-hued Jūn yáo 鈞窯 teapot, and an antique bamboo teascoop inscribed with a poem about life in the mountains. The tea which I chose to brew is a Dà Hóng Páo 大紅袍 gifted by a friend. This, too, is a subtle allusion to succeeding in one’s studies as the origin story of this famous tea tells of a young scholar who was able to pass his civil service exam with the aide of the tea’s fortifying properties.

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As is often the case with tea, each element is draw together to create an overall feeling. For today, in the lingering heat of the last day of Spring (May 6th is recognized as the first day of Summer by practitioners in Japanese tea ceremony), I try to infer a sense of coolness that one feels when walking through a dew-laden path (露地, roji in Japanese). Indeed, the flower I feature, which I collected from those growing wild in my garden, helps to make reference to this. As is practiced in chanoyu, I used a wetted chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) to flick cool water upon the arrangement to further enhance this sensation of being in a cooler, more relaxing environment.

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With the tea brewing, the buncheong-jagi cups wait, their plain color offering a foil to the lustrous quality of the Jūn yáo teapot. Both the cups and teapot are gifts from artist friends. While in life these two friends have never met, they come together in a sense through the mediation of tea.

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The tea poured lets the aroma of the dark oolong to fill the tea studio. Hints of incense, toasted caramel, and dark chocolate waft like a light breeze. As a slightly lower-oxidized and lower-roasted Dà Hóng Páo, the flavor once tasted is brighter, softer, and more complex. The verdant qualities that are often roasted or oxidized out of most contemporary variations on this tea are lovingly left within these leaves by its crafters, enabling a highly-developed layering and preservation of well-balanced flavors, from notes of crisp minerals, walnut skins, and egg whites.

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Much like the objects surrounding it, the tea, too, is a myriad of reference points for the mind to explore and expound upon. This is one of the many subtle pleasures of taking a moment to enjoy tea.

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Layers of images, references, and flavors, each with their own significance and meaning, are just part of the brocaded fabric that can be brought into the tearoom and offer points of further contemplation, a moment of pause, and meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

When Spring Feels Like Summer

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When Spring feels like Summer, the shallow teabowl is favored.
 
In Japanese tea ceremony, the coming of Summer is heralded by a series of subtle changes. The ro (炉, sunken hearth), which was so lovingly appreciated during the cold of Winter, is covered and the furo (風炉, literally “wind furnace”, portable brazier for tea) is brought into the tearoom. Whereas in Winter, thicker, deeper chawan were preferred, more shallow and delicate teabowls are favored in the warmer months of Summer.
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As Spring draws to a close and the first heat of Summer approaches (in chanoyu, May 6th is observed as the beginning of Summer), I cannot help but preemptively begin to alter my practice to meet the new season. Opting to make tea outside on the cool, shaded concrete, I pair this setting with an antique Japanese hakame chawan (刷毛目茶碗, literally “brush-marked eye” teabowl), the light grey and white patterns of which both reference the texture of the brushed concrete and the dappled light of the warm mid-day. Hot water is carried in a hand-blown glass vessel, a contemporary piece by current students of the Bauhaus school in Dessau. Its open mouth allowing the water to slightly cool and its translucent walls offering an ice-like appearance. 
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The matcha is from Uji, freshly-ground at Setsugekka in Manhattan. Contained in a gold-flecked tea container, the hope is to strike a balance between the informality of the act of making tea on the rough-hewn concrete with the refinement and luxury of an object lacquered in gold (save for the fact that, in this case, the tea caddy is a mass-produced matcha tin). As is often the case when a tea person prepares tea for others in an outdoor setting, such as a nodate (野点, open-air tea ceremony) gathering, it is the challenge of the host to create a harmonious juxtaposition between the rustic and wild aspects of nature and the artistic cultivation of beautiful teaware as produced by master craftspeople. For this reason, in the same way when gathering a chashitsu (茶室, tea room) one employs aspects of nature to balance the otherwise man-made interior, the host may use elegant works of lacquer or finer silk to provide a subtle contrast to the exterior setting.
IMG_6568 Here, the chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) aides in creating balance, its natural form with preserved bamboo node and naturally-occurring grooves establishing an almost rhythmic quality between the imperfection of the concrete surface and the crispness of the tea container.
IMG_6569 The hakame chawan, a form and style originating in 15th-16th century Korea, pairs easily with the concrete surface, lending to a more casual feeling for the tea gathering.
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The bright, electric green of the powdered matcha creates a striking contrast against a vignette that is otherwise rather mono-chromatic.
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As Summer approaches and temperatures rise, the chasen (茶筅, bamboo tea whisk) is placed over the small mound of matcha. As water is subsequently poured in to the chawan, it trickles delicately through the thin tines, wetting the chasen and producing a faint sound of water gurgling as if it were through reeds at a river’s edge. This, too, helps to lend a sense of refreshing coolness to the tea gathering.
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When whipped into a silky froth, the lingering foam is bright, almost snow-like within the wide circumference of the low-sitting chawan.
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Even the light cracking of the hakame chawan, which appears almost ice-like, aides in inferring coolness during the warmth of the day.
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With the tea served and enjoyed, one is left only to appreciate the time that has passed, the lingering flavor of the tea, and the joy of the changing seasons.
When Spring feels like Summer, the shallow teabowl is favored.
IG: @cutechajin

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Korea, Tea, Uncategorized

During the Heat of Summer

IMG_8638Dear beloved blog readers,

In my lapse as a blogger (if I can actually be called such a thing), winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer (as of seven days ago). During this time, much has changed: the seasons have shifted, the snow came and melted, and the spring rains are now summer thunder showers. The fireflies have emerged and the mugwort now grows wild in the yard. Gone are the narcissus, replaced by the climbing wisteria and emerging, ripening apricots.

From this perspective, a lot has changed. While I do plan to “back track” and discuss all the many “tea moments” that I’ve had in this past year (2016 to 2017), I would be remise if I didn’t opt to live in the moment and offer up my own take on “the now”.

An earlier entry, “Making tea on a hot day” (August 17, 2016), was a general post to offer my insight and advice in brewing tea when the weather is hot. Now that New York is beginning to heat up, my mind returns to this topic and how to, once again, quench my thirst.

Remaining from spring are the now-aging shincha (新茶,”new tea”) that have come to me by way of the Japanese tea farms of Uji (located near the ancient capitol city of Kyoto). Tea from the Uji region, where tea was first planted by the Buddhist monk Kohken in the 1270s (around 1271, after Eisai popularized the drinking of tea in Japan around 1191 with his writing of the 喫茶養生記, Kissa Yōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Health”)), typically produces a full-flavored liqueur with a notably creamy mouthfeel (when compared to teas produced in Shizuoka or Yame). On hot days, I find myself preferring to take this tea at lower temperatures, sometimes even cold, brewing the tea much longer, the result of which is a very viscous and full-bodied brew. Much like brewing gyokuro (玉 露, “jade dew”), the flavor can become slightly savory.

FullSizeRenderWhen mindfully brewing this tea, I find myself pulling out a small Oribe-yaki (織部焼) teapot, the walls of which are thin enough to allow the tea to cool down and enable a longer, more laid-back brewing. When at work, I opt to brew the tea casually in a wide-rimmed glass cup. Much like a summer teabowl used in Japanese chanoyu (茶の湯), the wide, shallow shape allows the liquid to cool down. This allows for the lukewarm water, which I use to brew the tea, to cool down fast enough for the tea to remain submerged for close to an hour without becoming bitter. This is ideal for simple tea while focusing on work.

With the passing of spring also comes the arrival of new matcha from Japan. During this time, too, the heat does not prove an obstacle, merely an opportunity to respond to it. While in Japan (and, similarly, New York), the hottest time of the year typically arrives mid-August, I chose today to bring out my kuro-Oribe (黒織部), “black Oribe”) kutsu-gata (沓形, “clog-shaped”) summer teabowl. While usually reserved for later in the year, I couldn’t help but bring this out, its shape alluding to things to come.

FullSizeRender_9The act of making tea is, in itself, a refreshing practice. Often, as in the case with Japanese tea ceremony, referring to aspects that infer coolness during a hot summer’s day helps to induce a lighter attitude. Unboxing the irregularly-shaped teabowl from its lightweight pine box was just the first of many steps that would help to psychologically bring the temperature down.

FullSizeRender_1Once open, the box presented a sight that I hadn’t seen in over a year: the light cotton furoshiki (風呂敷, literally “cloth for the bathhouse”, historically used to wrap one’s belongings while at a bathouse, now commonly used to wrap anything from gifts to groceries and, informally, teabowls) emblazoned with the motif of a water leaf (or, sometimes seen as asanoha, 麻の葉, lit. “hemp leaf” pattern), wrapped securely around the teabowl. Even the loose knot, in the shape of a bridge, helped to refer back to the coolness of the imaginary water that would flow beneath such a structure.

FullSizeRender_2Pulling back the cloth, the shallow, squat, roughly-hewn teabowl revealed itself. The glaze, smooth and glass-like, terminated in a slight whirlpool-like form in its center. On either side of the bowl (its face and back) were cursory brushstrokes; on one side was painted a water well motif, on the other were blades of grass (though such motifs are always up for different interpretations).

FullSizeRender_4On this day, as the still summer heat filled the tearoom, I began to prepare a bowl of matcha. First went the damp chakin (茶巾, the hemp cloth used to clean a teabowl), folded and placed into the bowl (in the shape of a butterfly, in keeping with the practice of the Sohen-ryu school). Next, the chasen (茶筅, “tea whisk”), placed upright, its tines exposed, droplets of water sparkling in the late-afternoon light. Finally, a tea caddy and bamboo teascoop (made from a type of bamboo that has dark, tiny spots, resembling a light rain) were brought together.

FullSizeRender_5Making the tea was casual and meditative. A perfect way to center oneself amidst the heat of the day. The matcha, whipped into a light foam, was further enhanced by the addition of a simple ice cube. While almost common today, the incorporation of ice into a bowl of matcha would have been an incredibly rare treat for someone centuries ago. Ice would have been hauled by specialized handlers from distant mountains into the cities of ancient and pre-modern Japan to enable for such a delectable refreshment.

FullSizeRender_6To put this into perspective, similar ice treats, like the ever-popular kakigōri, かき氷, or shaved ice, date back to at least the Heian period, with the first written account of the delicacy being found in the Makura no Sōshi (枕草子, “The Pillow Book”) by Sei Shonagon, completed in 1002. Such a delight was reserved only for those in the imperial court, until better transportation and refrigeration came to Japan in the Meiji period, when kakigōri  (and, for that matter, matcha with ice) became available to a mass audience.

FullSizeRender_7Today, the ice is a kind reminder of how tea remains a simple luxury. One does not need to be wealthy to enjoy its rich flavor. Just to take time and be mindful of one’s actions is all one needs. Soothing both in taste and texture, matcha with ice is a great way to wind-down the day.

As the summer’s sun dips lower on the horizon and lingers longer than it had a season ago, this moment is meant for savoring. Tea, during the heat of summer, helps.

 

Now that I’m back at my blogging (wish me luck that I can continue), I am curious what everyone is doing to relieve the summer’s heat? How do you enjoy tea, typically a hot beverage, amidst the increasingly hotter days?

In posts to come, I will explore various summer teawares and share my approaches to complimenting the climbing temperatures. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, as always, learning more.

FullSizeRender_8(IMAGE: Good even to the last drop, I drink the wash of the teabowl. A light rinse of the remaining matcha can still produce a vibrant green and a delicious taste.)

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Enjoying traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin: from historical trends to teapot tips

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(IMAGE: Today’s set up for brewing a traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin oolong.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

It’s been a long time coming. The urge to drink some real Tieguanyin (铁观音, “Iron Goddess of Mercy”) finally took hold and today I broke-out the “good stuff”.

The tea is a high-roasted Tieguanyin, gifted to me by two of my favorite tea friends who are now far-flung across the globe in search of tea (one in Bohemia, the other trekking throughout East Asia). The two recently sent me a care package with a variety of teas (of which I will most certainly review in later posts), the first of which is this splendid tea.

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(IMAGE: Fresh from the tea caddy, the gifted Tieguanyin.)

Before I reveal any more about this particular tea, I should go over the basic history of Tieguanyin, one of China’s famous teas (中国十大名茶, “Ten Famous Teas of China”… of which there always seems to be an ever-expanding roster). As with other oolongs that I’ve discussed in this blog, Tieguanyin most likely has its origins within the oolongs that were first developed during the Song dynasty in what is now Fujian province. During this time, oolongs were pressed into tea cakes, which were later ground up and whipped into a concoction similar to modern day matcha. Famously consumed as part of the diancha (点茶) whisked tea preparation, these teas later evolved into several well-established classes of oolong tea. By the Ming period, oolong was being consumed in its whole-leaf form, and by the Qing dynasty, a recognizable form of today’s Tieguanyin emerged.

Outside of the various “mytho-histories” that surround Tieguanyin (some involve the Qianlong Emperor, others telling the tale of a farmer who dreamed of Guanyin), the tea itself comes from a style of tea that is less-oxidized that the yancha oolongs of the Wuyi mountains. Earlier and more “traditional forms” usually receive around 30% oxidation, lending to a reddish-green hue to their leaves. The leaves undergo a processing that involves a series of tossing, drying, rolling, and roasting, resulting in leaves that are curled into small pellets, as opposed to their Wuyi yancha counterparts. These pellets, depending on the maker, can sometimes consist of one leaf or two leaves and a sprout. The latter form eventually made its way to Taiwan (by way of Fujian, but that’s a whole other story). Tieguanyin is now a very popular tea (again, a noted “famous tea”), and is a staple tea for populations inside Anxi county (where it is produced), but also within outside regions such as Chaozhou county (where it is celebrated in the Chaozhou gong fu cha tea preparation), as well as in southeast Asia and in Chinese populations outside of Asia.

Traditionally-crafted Teiguanyin is its own beast. Unlike the very green and vegetal Tieguanyin oolongs that have become quite popular today (often categorized as a “Jade Tieguanyin”), traditional Tieguanyin tends to be more highly and evenly-roasted (although not as highly-roasted as a dark-roasted Tieguanyin, which are often very charcoal-forward in flavor). The objective here is to balance the higher oxidation with a mild roastiness. The end result creates a flavor profile that tightly ranges from burnt sugar to caramel, floral notes of gardenia, rose, and marigold, and fruit notes of dried apricot and red date. The layers of oxidation and roasting removes any of the grassiness present in Jade Tieguanyin oolongs, instead, replacing them with notes of dark greens akin to still-green sheng pu-erh or beet greens.

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(IMAGE: A close-up look at the traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin oolong. Note the balance between the “red and green” of the tea leaf, and tightly-coiled leaves.)

Finding a tea like this nowadays (this makes me sound old…ugh) is becoming more difficult. Part of this is due to the amount of steps involved in making this tea, part of this is due to the depth of knowledge and experience required to execute this processing.

From what I’ve been told by tea farmers and tea masters (those who “finish” the tea), this is a style of tea that is disappearing in China. Part of this story is linked to the modern history of China, from the fear and chaos seen within traditional arts during the Cultural Revolution to the recent economic boom-bust tension felt in rural v. urban areas in China. Additionally, due to the “trendiness” of some teas versus others, the demand for traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin has dipped in recent years, shifting to pu-erh and other “big name” teas. Overall, the capricious nature of the Chinese tea market has created interesting innovations, often with “interesting” results (for additional background into this dynamic, I highly recommend the great book by Jinghong Zhang Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic, 2013). In response to this, there have been some die-hard traditionalists who continue to produce this tea in China, as well as tea masters in Taiwan who have begun to develop their own take on traditional Tieguanyin oolongs (of which there are great examples!).

Today, as I sit down to appreciate this Tieguanyin, I find great comfort in this tea. Almost a decade ago, as I was beginning to dive deeper into my pursuit of tea knowledge, Tieguanyin was the ONE tea I studied the most. Guided by my tea teacher in the Chaozhou-style of gong fu cha, we easily brewed-through pounds of this tea (which he and famed tea person Roy Fong) had acquired through the years. Throughout this, I used JUST ONE teapot: my trusted pear-shaped “teacher pot”.

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(IMAGE: A top-down look at the “teacher pot”. Note the deep “lip” of the lid. This is common within older-style teapots. This pot is one of a five-part series commissioned by famed tea person Roy Fong during the early 1990s.)

The micro-history of the “teacher pot” began in the late 2000s as I was a much-suffering graduate student at UC Berkeley. Having acquired several yixing teapots prior to the “teacher pot”, I had a good understanding of the dynamic a teapot played in brewing tea (from its shape, firing, thickness, etc). When I was presented this teapot by my then tea teacher (thus the name “teacher pot”), I was told it would be just for brewing traditional Tieguanyin. The reason: the teapot’s shape, bulbous in nature, high-fired, and medium thickness in construction, was perfect for this type of tea. Brewing Tieguanyin in this teapot for close to a decade now has not only told me much about the tea, but it has also informed me to how a teapot should work.

Beginning to brew the tea, I pre-heat the pot. Carefully placing a healthy amount of leaves into the center of the bottom of the pot, I pour just a bit of boiling water into the pot to pre-wash the tea leaves and close the pot. This water is immediately poured out into a cup (to be poured-over the teapot during the first steeping). Next I nearly fill the teapot with boiling water and close the pot, pouring additional boiling water and the “rinse” over the pot.

As the teapot brews the tea, there is very little information as to how the tea is brewing. The skill of brewing tea in a yixing teapot is to be able to know exactly what is going on inside the pot. For this, one must be able to “read” the teapot.

For the “teacher pot”, to do this, I am given several “clues”. First, the water poured over the teapot will evaporate. If I wanted a “light” brew of this tea, I would simply pour out the tea at this point and enjoy. However, for brewing in the Chaozhou-style, I will bravely press on!

The next “clue” present will be the meniscus at the spout of the teapot. Upon first pouring the boiling water into the pot, the meniscus will puff-out of the teapot’s spout in a convex, dome shape. As the tea begins to expand and unravel, air pockets will open and the tea will begin to absorb the hot water. This will slightly reduce the liquid volume of the water, resulting in the tiny meniscus dome to contract and pull down into the spout. This “clue” is crucial to brewing tea! If I wanted a “medium-steeped” Tieguanyin, I will pour out the tea upon this moment (if it was a highly-roasted Tieguanyin, I might pour out the tea right before this moment… this takes practice).

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(IMAGE: The first stage of the meniscus, dome-like in shape, indicative of the early-stage of brewing.)

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(IMAGE: The meniscus begins to crawl-down the spout of the teapot as the tea leaves begin to expand and uncurl, absorbing the hot water.)

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(IMAGE: After several seconds pass, the meniscus has completely crept-down the spout of the teapot, noting the progress of the tea steeping.)

The final “clue” requires a greater knowledge of the individual teapot. For this “clue”, one will need to pay very close attention to the color of the teapot, as a high-quality teapot will ever-so-slightly change color. In the case of this zhuni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) teapot, it will darken in color. Once this happens I quickly and intently pour out the tea from the teapot.

The result is fantastic. The color of the tea is a dark gold/amber. The aroma is unavoidable, filling the room in my apartment with a sweet toasted sugar scent, swirling with floral and incense notes. The flavor is punchy, though not bitter. Instead, the flavor is incredibly balanced, full, and complex. In the style of Chaozhou gong fu cha, every flavor is extracted to the point it is almost too much to handle (as my teacher would say “It’s like you’re running up to a cliff, only to stop right when your toes are hanging-off the edge.”). As with any great traditionally-crafted Tieguanyin, this tea is both deep and exciting, with flavors of burnt sugar, marigolds, toast (yes toast), and a lingering apricot and incense finish. The mouthfeel is almost as big and complex as the initial flavor and one cup can easily coat the palette for hours. Subsequent steepings (of which I was able to achieve seven) are equally interesting, remaining full for three and trailing-off towards the fourth, fifth, and sixth, becoming wonderfully light and sweet by the last.

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(IMAGE: Deep color, bold flavors. The results of a Chaozhou-style brewed tea.)

Brewing tea in this style is not easy but very much worth the effort. Honing one’s tea practice is not just about getting to know the tea but also the value of teaware and its usefulness as a tool towards this end. As always, I encourage you, my beloved blog readers, to share your experiences with this. Also, if you have a tea that you just love, show it that love, and share your stories! Until then, I sign-out to enjoy the final steeping of this epic little oolong!

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

Making tea on a boat: the gong fu of making a tea set

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(IMAGE: Taking tea outside is a true joy. Taking tea on a boat is a new challenge!)

Dear beloved blog readers,

Over this past Labor Day weekend, I and a few of my close friends were invited to set sail upon the wonderful waters surrounding New York City (technically Brooklyn). Being a tea person, I took this as an opportunity to bring tea along with me and treat my friends and the boat’s captain to tea. The challenge here would be how to pack for the tea outing, especially given the nature of being on a boat. The answer would test my gong fu cha skills. In today’s post, I offer my approach to this, as well as tips to those looking to take tea outside!

Keep it simple

Making tea is always a matter of pairing-down life to its most basic. The tea, the water, the vessel; little more is needed to produce remarkable results. Even in the confines of one’s home, office, or elsewhere, the “luxury” of tea really is less about living luxuriously and more about just finding the means to re-connect with a more straightforward way of living, thinking, and doing. As the 20th century Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, meditation and even enlightenment was “nothing special” in that it was already apparent to us in the acts of everyday life.

This “less is more” mentality is especially important in making tea outside. Packing just a small collection of teas with an all-purpose vessel works wonders. In the case of the boat outing, I packed a glass gaiwan (which I rarely use, but seem to love more when used in situations like these) and a few single-servings of stellar teas (an aged Fuding baicha, a collection of various oolongs, and two tuo cha (沱茶): a sheng pu-erh from Yiwu and a 1985 sheng from Menghai). Additionally, I made sure to pack enough small cups for everyone.

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(IMAGE: Keeping it simple: A glass gaiwan is well-suited to brew every tea type.)

Hot water is life

Being an avid outdoor tea drinker (as well as a seasoned backpacker), I am well aware of how much water is the “limiting factor” to the tea equation. Throughout the history of tea, locating and boiling water has always been the starting point to making great tea. Nowhere is this more true than in the first known monograph on tea, Lu Yu’s Cha Jing (茶經, The Classic of Tea), where much of his writing is dedicated to outlining various grades of water, how to boil water, and how to store water. Later tea scholars would continue to develop upon this subject given the importance water plays in making tea.

In regards to my own solution, I’ve chosen to use filtered water and bring it along through the employment of a rather ingenious (and lucky find) of a vintage twin thermos picnic set. In total, the thermoses pack 2 quarts, which is a perfect amount for several tea brewing sessions.

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(IMAGE: Two vintage Stanley thermoses, perfect for tea.)

Making a set

Creating tea sets is a bit like jazz: putting together the necessary components is a matter of improvisation, in how it plays with the key players (in this case, to the tea, tea vessel, water containers, and tea cups), to the audience, and to the environment its presented. To make a truly great tea set, it should speak to the moment, to form following function, and to the notion most treasured by 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu of ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会, “one time, one meeting”). In this regard, the tea set should reflect the situation and the intent on making the best out of just a little.

In the case of the tea set that I assembled for the sailing trip, I was again lucky with the vintage thermos set. As an original 1970s Stanley thermos picnic set, not only did it come with two thermoses, but also a leather carrying case and tin “lunch box”. As a re-purposed tea set, this “lunch box” worked perfectly: its construction was compact and sturdy, and the lid had the added benefit of doubling as a tea tray during brewing and serving. The lip of the lid would also help to keep the gaiwan and teacups from tipping over on a rocky boat.

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(IMAGE: A top-down view of tea brewing in action. Note the lid of the thermos picnic set’s “lunch box” serving as a tea tray.)

Keeping items safe for the journey ahead

Putting everything together, from the gaiwan to the teas to the teacups, was in itself a mindful act. Using Japanese furoshiki and wrapping each fragile item separately ensured they would not have the chance to easily break on the voyage. For the loose teas, I used small containers I had made from emptied matcha canisters (which I had wrapped in washi paper for aesthetic purposes). As for the compressed teas, I kept the Fuding baicha cake and mini pu-erh tuo cha safely nestled amongst the wrapped items.

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(IMAGE: Items packed safely inside the tin box with gaiwan and teacups wrapped in furoshiki.)

Setting sail

As our day of sailing winded down, the moment for tea came. Quenching the thirst we had acquired from our arduous task (sailing can be quite a work out!) and pairing nicely with the clams we had dug-up and steamed, the tea worked perfectly to act as a closing to a wonderful day. Just as planned, there was more than enough water and certainly enough tea. There was even enough tea to get “creative”, blending the 1985 Menghai with the fresh Yiwu sheng to produce a beautifully-balanced effect.

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(IMAGE: Casual and creative: Brewing a blend of 1985 Menghai and 2015 Yiwu sheng pu-erh. The flavor was balanced and incredibly complex.)

More to come

As I am often going out to enjoy tea, I’m certain that this will be just the beginning of posts focusing on “building tea sets”. Stay tuned for more to come. Until then, I’m curious how you meet the challenge of making tea outside. What sort of sets have you created and how might you bring boiled water? Tea always provides opportunities to hone one’s skills.

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Filed under Education, Tea Tasting, Travel

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

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(IMAGE: The set-up for today’s tasting of a “mystery tea”)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We all have those moments: A friend knows you love tea and out of the goodness of their heart they offer you some tea as a gift. More often than not, when this happens, the tea comes in either a ubiquitous tea canister or Mylar pouch that says “茶” (“cha”, tea) or something slightly more specific. Sometimes it comes as a bunch of leaves in a plastic bag. Regardless, you have just been gifted a “mystery tea”.

Mystery teas are always an interesting case. Their quality can range wildly, from the ordinary to sometimes rare and exquisite. Given their indistinct nature, a bit of detective work usually needs to be done to determine what type of tea it is. Like anything within the scope of gong fu cha, this is a great time to practice one’s skills and figure out how to brew the mystery tea to the best of your ability.

Just the other day I was gifted one such mystery tea. In today’s blog post, I will take you through the deciphering process, offering to you my insight into how I went about determining what type of tea it was. Perhaps this will help you in your journeys.

Read the leaves, not the package

Having worked in the tea industry (and in marketing), I’ve learned not to read packaging. Instead, all you need to know is written on the leaves. Their shape, size, color, texture: everything that you would ever want to know outside of how it actually tastes is already right there in front of you. Given the nature of how Chinese tea is processed, there is a fairly distinct “spectrum” that most teas fall into, based on their processing and oxidation, starting from green teas on one end and ending in pu-erh and hei-cha (“black tea”) on the other. In between are all manner of tea types of which a mystery will fall within. Below is (hopefully) a useful image to help you to find the category of tea that your mystery tea belongs to.

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(IMAGE: Examples of tea leaves from every major Chinese tea category going from left to right: green (semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui), green oolong (Tiawanese Lishan high mountain oolong), Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong, Wuyi yancha, semi-wild hong cha (“red tea”, or black tea in the west), pu-erh.

In the case of the gifted mystery tea, the leaves were quite revealing. Their long, twisted leaves were like that of a Taiwanese baozhong or Wuyi yancha. However, unlike a vibrant and verdant baozhong, these leaves were dark. Unlike a yancha, these leaves were still quite green. From this I could deduce that these leaves must belong to the Feng Huang Dan Cong (鳳凰単叢,  “Phoenix Single Grove”) oolong category. However, knowing what particular Feng Huang Dan Cong this was would be quite the daunting task.

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(IMAGE: The “mystery tea” leaves in all their glory.)

Link the leaves to the history

The history and cultivation of Feng Huang Dan Cong is quite unique. The particular style of growing and producing tea of this nature probably originated in the Song dynasty as the development and cultivating of oolong tea began to take root in Fujian province (of which I go into more detail in this post). Adjacent to Fujian and part of a mosaic of politically (and culturally) autonomous regions along the east coast of China, from Fujian to the southern tip of Guangzhou, was the mountainous territory of Chaozhou. To this day, the tea culture of Chaozhou is markedly different from the areas around it, from their brewing practices to the teas they grow and process.

In Chaozhou, the best teas are grown in a manner that is distinctly more “wild” than the more closely cultivated domestic bushes of the Wuyi mountains or Anxi county in Fujian. Rather than keeping the tea plants pruned, resulting in smaller bushes and smaller leaves, Chaozhou tea plants are allowed to grow to the point where they become large trees. Some of these trees can be as old as 500 to 800 years old and grow to to the point where they begin to resemble a large, wiry oak tree. Each tree is treated as if it were its own varietal, and subsequent bushes that grow from it come to be regarded as part of a specific “grove” (“単叢”). Depending on the soil content, climate, and altitude (some of the best teas in Chaozhou come from the highest points on Wu Dong mountain), the quality and flavor of the tea will be affected.

Song Zhong Tree

(IMAGE: The famed Song Zhong tree of Wu Dong Shan, approximately 600-800 years old and more than 20 feet tall.)

As a result of the diversity of these factors present in the tea-growing mountains of Chaozhou, there is an equally diverse range Feng Huang Dan Cong oolong teas. Knowing which one is which depends on knowing the distinctive flavor profile of each tea, of which there are literally hundreds.

Brew the tea the way it wants to be brewed

When brewing this mystery Dan Cong oolong, I chose to do so in the manner that is practiced in Chaozhou, using a small zhu ni (朱泥, “cinnabar clay”) yixing teapot and a relatively large proportion of leaves so as to produce an intense flavor and residual mouthfeel. I arrange the leaves in the teapot so as to allow them to expand to their full potential. The teapot is a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot, well-suited for these large, twisted leaves. For brewing the tea, I use water that has immediately come off of a boil, quickly pouring the water over the leaves, closing the pot, and pouring water over the vessel so as to super-heat the contents within. Steeping is a quick process: Once the water poured over the teapot evaporates I begin to pour the tea out (for a stronger, more astringent brew, I wait for the meniscus on the teapot’s spout to go from convex to concave, an indication that the leaves have begun to unravel and absorb the water).

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(IMAGE: A top-down view of the fang-gu teapot.)

Appreciate the color of the liqueur

Pouring out every last drop, the tea reveals itself in a bright, light green liqueur. Unlike many Dan Cong oolong, which produce a bright orange or even pinkish-hued brew, only a few teas from Chaozhou will have this color. Already my mind has begun to narrow-down the possibilities.

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(IMAGE: The light green liqueur of the “mystery tea” against the pale celadon cup.)

Savor the aroma and decipher the flavor

Lifting-up the small Taiwanese-produced Ru Yao (窑窯, Ru Kiln) celadon cup, the aroma is sharp and floral, slightly grassy and slightly sugary. Upon the first sip an intense sugar cane note is present, the texture of the liqueur is juicy, and the mouthfeel is slightly astringent, lingering long after I have finished the small portion in the cup.

Trying to decipher what tea type this is amongst the panoply of Dan Cong oolong is difficult. Each tea has its own distinct flavor profile, ranging from orange peel, bitter almond, pomelo, or the scent of ginger flower (just to name a select few). In this case, I was lucky to have been gifted a wonderful and odd tea: Ya Shi (, “Duck Shit”). Unlike what the name might imply, this tea is renown for its pleasant sugar cane flavor with distinctive subdued astringency. The name, as local legend states, came from a tea farmer who was so in love with his tea that he didn’t want to sell it and so gave it the not-so-savory name of Duck Shit. Needless to say, the tea is now quite popular and, evidenced during today’s brewing, quite delicious.

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(IMAGE: A view of the “mystery tea” revealed! Note the length of the leaves, the low oxidation (absence of red on the leaves), and the serrated edges of the leaves (typical of semi-wild teas).)

Continue the exploration

One of the joys of drinking tea is not always knowing what you will experience. Have you ever had a “mystery tea”? If so, I am curious to know more. What did it look like and, more importantly, what did it taste like? The good, the bad, the ugly… Share it all. It’s all part of the journey!

 

 

 

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Filed under Education, Oolong, Tea Tasting