Tag Archives: Dan Cong

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

Everything Has Its Cycle

IMG_3630Winter is here. As I look out my tearoom window, all evidence points towards this. The tops of trees grow more barren by the day. The sky glows a dull matte grey in all directions. Birds huddle on bare branches and against brick buildings, trying to eek out the last vestiges of warmth. Only a few weeks before, Fall stood resplendent in all its colors. Months before that, sweat collected on my brow. And what now seems like a distant memory, I can recall the first fragrant breezes of Spring. Everything has its cycle.

Sitting in my tearoom, I collect myself around the warmth of my wooden and copper 火鉢 hibachi and the radiant heat given off by my old iron 鉄瓶 tetsubin. As the water inside its metal husk begins to boil I set before me a thin, clay-bodied Yixing teapot. Poetically referred to as a 水平壺 shuǐpíng hú, the shape of the pot is round, balanced, sturdy. It exudes strength and delicacy all in one simple and structured form.

B863EB7C-4430-45D1-B5B8-2EF8A70AAB23As the sound of boiling water climbs to an audible chatter, I open the teapot, set its lid down on top of the crest of its handle’s arc, and pour a measure of hot water into its vacant interior. I warm the teapot and pour the water out, again, to rest the lid atop the teapot’s handle.

23F61326-677C-46AC-A89E-53017AD518ABInto the space now I place a bamboo scoop’s worth of tea leaves. With a tilt of the scoop, they fall into place.

2E3C65E0-BB0B-4571-82DF-004F7B9C7D8FA jumbled mess of wiry fronds. Blades like grass of green and gold.

B41F19E0-1ED0-4350-8F4B-4F91B6540BBBAs it often does, the residual heat of the water begins to wake up the flavor of the tea, sending aromatic wafts of delicate floral notes into the air. This tea, a hand-picked and processed 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá, was harvested in Spring, yet now is joining me to aid in staving off Winter’s chill.

I sit for a while, listening to the water in my iron pot, waiting for the moment it begins to quiet. Steam rises from its spout, coiling like threads, at first just one and two, then more, and then as a steady stream as if it were a column piercing the air. Bubbles break the surface of the water and roil like a babbling source, until it, too, becomes a constant effluence. It is only now that the water has ripened and is finally ready for tea.

551ECADC-FE47-41C8-9815-7322B53E8736I pour the water over the twisted network of tea leaves, being mindful to move in a circular action so as to evenly cover them.

3DBAD72B-9E16-41FE-9E6C-091A7BA14915I place the lid back over the leaves and wait. In this pause I breathe. In this moment, the tea breathes. In and out my chest rises. In and out the tea leaves tumble and unfurl inside the walls of the red clay vessel. Inside my body is an entire system of organs working together to ensure me life. Inside the teapot is a dance of forces, of heat and of unfolding leaves, offering up their flavor. I wait for the moment they settle and absorb their last draught, causing a minute amount of liquid to draw down, back inside the spout of the teapot. I wait a moment more, breathe, and observe the color of the Yixing clay deepen and glow as if it held within it an otherworldly light.

9855E1BF-B4A6-49A0-8827-F4EFF60D3EF8I wait and breathe a last breath and draw the teapot up and out from the clay bowl it is set within. For a moment, as I pour the tea liqueur out, I contemplate on a void. A vast nothingness that exists within the clay bowl where once the teapot sat. The empty space between the branches of the trees where once bright verdant leaves sprung forth. The great hollow expanse of sky that stretches in all directions outside my tearoom window. The emptied vessel of my teapot as I set it back down to play host to another steeping.

FF4F5623-63FD-47C6-8CA0-DCD8801BCBA3And yet in this void there is abundance. In the open cavity of the teapot springs forth a bounty of tea leaves, and held within their once dried skin now exists a sense of life. In the once empty cup that sat beside me is a volume of brightly-colored liquid, and from this rises a complex array of flavors hearkening back to a time and place once thought to be distant and unreachable. As I sit upon the threshold of Winter I am reminded of the blossoming of Spring. On the flat grey of a November day I see the tawny reds and olive greens of Autumn in my teapot. Against the bright white porcelain of my teacup, I see the golden beams of Summer’s sun.

D9E95988-45E4-44BD-90AC-C16FA8928EF1In a world where we get caught within a single moment, how refreshing it is to know that everything has its cycle. When once we feel that we might know all there is to be known, how wondrous it is to be brought back to a place of boundless curiosity. How when we find ourselves in the grip of some unbreakable mental quandary, to scratch and claw against some unknown source of resistance, only to find that the solution was simple and naturally arising. Answers to all we seek are found within us and all around us. In the chill of a Winter’s day. In the scent lifting from a tea leaf. In the hollow of an empty vessel. In the silence that arrives when the water comes to a boil. In the cycles we can observe and in those we cannot.

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

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

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If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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

Two Magpies

This week saw the coming and going of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. Throughout East Asia, this day is celebrated, each culture with its own observation. In China, 7/7 marks 七夕 Qīxī (“Evening of Sevens”, Tanabata in Japanese, Chilseok in Korean).

In the ancient mythology that describes this day, lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) were not allowed to love one another. Banished to the opposite sides of the 天河 Tiānhé (“Heavenly River”, the Milky Way), they were only allowed to join on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day a bridge made from a flock of magpies would span across the Heavenly River, allowing the two lovers to meet.

In Chinese symbolism, the magpie is believed to be the bringer of joy. The word of magpie, 喜鵲 xǐquè, contains the word “joy” (喜 ). In Chinese art, when two magpies are seen together, they are supposed to represent “double happiness”, a wish for eternal happiness between lovers.

On 7/7, while I spent the morning preparing a bowl of 抹茶 matcha in observance of Tanabata, I spent the remainder of the day enjoying steeped tea in observation of Qīxī. As this day is sometimes called “Chinese Valentines Day”, I opted to use a pair of antique celadon 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (lidded tea cups), each of which were decorated with images of two magpies.

Made during the late 清 Qīng to early Republican (中華民國 Zhōnghuá mínguó) period (1880s-1920s), the two gàiwǎn, like the magpies painted upon them, had been kept together. Originally the two tea vessels would have probably have been given to a married couple, the image of the two magpies acting as a visual wish for perpetual happiness. Used on Qīxī, the two gàiwǎn reunited again, across space and time, to make tea together.

Recently arrived from China, I place the thin, wiry leaves of a 杏仁香鳳凰單欉 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cóng (“almond fragrance phoenix single grove”) carefully into the two tea vessels.

Entering into the empty and warmed gàiwǎn, this lets off a subtle hint of the flavor the oolong tea has to offer.

Finally, with the water used from the morning’s tea gathering, I begin the quiet process of brewing tea. The pale color of tea liqueur begins to steep-out from the unfurling tea leaves. The soft green-blue color of celadon darkening as the tea continues to brew.

Placing the painted lid atop each cup, I let the tea sit and strengthen. Time passes, the silence of the interim pause offering a moment to reflect on the meaning of love. Who had enjoyed these cups together before? How long was their happiness shared? A lifetime of love one can only wish for. Perpetual happiness.

I tilt back the lid of one of the gàiwǎn to reveal the deepening color of tea. Slowly I sip from my cup, and offer the other to my partner.

Once emptied of their liquid, the tea sits ready again, all that remains is the fleeting, quiet flavor of crisp, bitter almonds, soft on the palate.

As it often does, one cup becomes two, two becomes three, and countless cups come from this wedded pair. Cups that bring joy. Two magpies joining each other over time and space. On this, the seventh day of the seventh month.

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To note (for all you who know your traditional Chinese lunar calendar), the date which 七夕 Qīxī falls on changes every year. In 2019, it falls on August 7th. That said, stay tuned for when tea is made on this day… More to come!

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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

Friends for the New Year

Every year, as the new moon marks 立春 lìchūn (“beginning of Spring”), billions worldwide travel back to their homelands and to their families to celebrate what is known in China as 春節 chūn jié (“Spring Festival”). In what is regularly recognized as the world’s largest momentary mass migration, Spring Festival (and the events surrounding regional variations of Chinese New Year) becomes a moment when those who travel seek the respite of home and the warmth of close friends and family. In a period that is often known for great feasts and revelry, tea sits center stage, appearing at banquet tables, family gatherings, and adding an air of refinement amidst the clamorous celebrations.

Back in my hometown, I join my dear fellow tea friend Chris Kornblatt for tea at his sun-bathed tea space in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Entering his tearoom, which is a converted upstairs drawing room in an old Victorian home, the simple splendor of a space designed for tea is instantly evident. Set below a typical San Franciscan three-paned bay window, the wooden tea table beams a warm glow.

Placed atop its honey-toned surface, Chris expertly arranged a curated collection of teawares. Splashy Qing period small plates are set in a balanced juxtaposition against more sober contemporary Taiwanese wares.

A flawless Yixing teapot.

A teascoop hewn from flamboyant-grained wood found in an Eastern European forest.

Layers of fabric and woven reeds.

Sweet snacks made of dried persimmon and liquor-cured plums.

Teas emerge, one-by-one, from Chris’ tea chests. An array of Taiwanese oolong teas. A vibrant 高山茶 gāo shān chá (high mountain tea) from 杉林溪 Sān Lín Xī brewed in a handmade 蓋碗 gaiwan.

A beautifully oxidized and roasted 凍頂 Dòng Dǐng (“Frozen Summit”) oolong tea.

A fragrant 杏仁香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Almond fragrance” Phoenix single bush oolong tea).

Every object has its purpose to make the moment happen. Teapots for brewing tea. Cups to enjoy it with.

A unique string of beads to count each steeping brewed.

A setting such as this reveals the traces of one’s 功夫 gōng . Everything within it are expressive of a life guided by tea, a mind that thoughtfully approaches the practice. With such attention to detail paid, one can’t help but to feel at home and to celebrate the beginning of Spring with dear friends.

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

Blue Sky Meditation

I once had a teacher instruct me, “When mediating, think of a big blue sky. Imagine this. A deep, clear, spotless blue sky. Soften your focus and widen your gaze so as to be expansive in all directions. In this sky, clouds may come and clouds may pass in front of you. Observe them without focusing on them. Let them drift naturally.”

Today, when I lead guided meditations, I often call upon this teaching. Paired with tea, I find this helps to settle the restless mind and inspire a mind of wonder. Set against an azure-colored 茶布 chá bù (tea cloth), the assembled tea and teaware for this morning’s meditation become the drifting clouds.

While making tea, we may need to momentarily put these items into use, it’s important not to focus on them.

The Yixing teapot, which has over the years been dedicated to brewing countless steepings of 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá (oolong tea) may feature in the process of brewing tea, but it, itself, is merely a vessel. Empty until filled with tea (and intention).

The other wares, too, have their role, but are not the primary purpose of tea nor a meditation with tea.

A teascoop is whatever you may find that conveys tea leaves into a teapot. Your hands will do just fine.

The wooden coasters upon which one places a teacup can be anything, from a leaf to a rock to nothing at all.

The cups, too, are not necessary. Even I have been known to drink directly from my teapot.

And the tea, yes, even the tea, is just that, perhaps nothing more. Don’t invest too much value into this lest it becomes yet another distraction.

All that is left, really, is nothing. No tea. No buddha. Just the blue sky. Expansive in all directions.

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EXCLUSIVE: All About Gong Fu Cha

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

With the year coming to its end, I cannot help but to take stock of all that has been done this year in the world of tea. Reflecting in such a way, I am proud to say that much has been shared and I have had the pleasure to connect with more tea people, both through this blog and social media, but also through (and dare I say more importantly) the enjoyment of a shared experience and cup (or bowl) of tea.

In the spirit of sharing, I offer up all 2.5 hours of “All About Gong Fu Cha”. Dating back from the hot days of this past Summer, this tea tasting and interactive workshop represents one of the “deepest dives” I conducted into tea culture. Focusing on the meaning and evolution of 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, this event was a guided exploration into the origins of this tea practice and how it changed as the culture and materiality of tea continued to transform over the centuries. Core to this was the breaking-down of a monolithic vision of “gong fu cha”, looking into the diversity of forms it has taken throughout time and throughout East Asia.

Along with this in-depth examination, we brewed tea and offered insight into how to hone one’s gong fu cha skills. This included understanding the ins and outs of Yixing teaware, how to select an appropriate teapot, and the “steps” to properly brewing tea.

As with every event, I offer up a recording for you to watch and enjoy from the comfort of your home/office/mobile device (or whatever you choose to use).

“All About Gong Fu Cha”

Link to video

To aid in the watching of this 2.5 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of approximately 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Gong Fu Cha
    • The Skill & Challenge of Tea
  • Origins and Evolution of Gong Fu Cha
    • Ancient Precursors & Early Tea People
    • Historical Forms
    • Place in Tea Culture
  • The Mind & Materiality of Gong Fu Cha
    • The Shape of Tea
    • Teapot Form & Function
  • The Skill & Challenge of Gong Fu Cha
    • How to Pour, Brew, Hold & Other Considerations

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted  & Teapots Used:

  • Traditionally-processed 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva oolong tea”), Anxi county, Fujian province, China. Brewed in a 1990s 朱泥 zhūní (“cinnabar-colored clay”)思亭壺 Sī Tíng hú (“Si Ting/Thinking of the Pavilion” teapot). Tea sourced from Jin Yun Fu, New York, New York. Teapot sourced from Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, California.
  • 梨山高山烏龍茶 Líshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (“Lishan/Pear Mountain high mountain oolong tea”), Spring 2018 from Lishan, Taiwan (elevation 2200m). Brewed in an early 1980s 綠泥 lǜní (“green clay”) 西施壺 Xīshī hú (“Lady of the West” teapot). Tea sourced from Stéphane Erler of Tea Masters Blog, Taiwan. Teapot sourced from Shen’s Gallery, Santa Cruz, California.
  • 八仙鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Bāxiān fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Eight Immortals” Phoenix single bush wulong tea), from Wudongshan, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Brewed in a 1990s 朱泥 zhūní (“cinnabar-colored clay”) 水平壺 Shuǐpíng hú (“water level” teapot). Tea sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York. Teapot sourced from Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, California.
  • 奇蘭武夷山岩茶 Qí lán wǔyíshān shí chá (“Strange Orchid” Wuyishan “cliff/rock tea”), from Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Brewed in a 1990s 芝麻鍛泥 zhīma duàn ní (“sesame seed-colored fortified clay”) 仿古 Fǎng gǔ (“antique-shape”) Yixing teapot. Tea sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York. Teapot sourced from Imperial Tea Court, San Francisco, California.

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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, Uncategorized

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