Take the time you need. No one will give it to you otherwise.
Take the time you need it takes to boil water. To set out wares for tea. To sit.
Take the time you need to breathe in and to exhale.
Take the time you need to step away from work. To put space between you and your job. Between you and your expectations. Between the expectations you have of others and the expectations others have of you.
Take the time you need to pour boiled water into pot. Boiled water from pot to empty cup. Warmed cup to waste water bowl.
Take the time to sort through leaves, to pick those you want to steep, to place them into the open pot.
Take the time you need to inhale aromas awakening, sense flavors arising, arouse thoughts from a curious mind.
Take the time you need to brew tea leaves. As much time as you need. As much time as the tea likes to steep. As much time you like to sit.
Pour out brewed liquid into cup and take time to ponder how long it will take you to drink it up.
Take the time you need to do all of this. Again and again and again if you need.
Take the time you need to take up space, both here in this world but also in your mind and in your heart.
Take the time you need to stretch out your body, your wanting soul, your unmet desires.
Stretch each thin until opaque becomes transparent and take the time you need to explore each facet of yourself. Of your inner world and outer world. Of your insides and of your surroundings.
Take the time you need. Take all that you can spare. And when you’re done, return back to your day, knowing you’ve given yourself the time you need.
Dear Beloved Blog Reader,
Upon publishing this article, I thought I’d offer my afterthoughts on writing my 200th blogpost on Scotttea, which I’ve included below.
Thank you for your support, your feedback, your continued readership.
“Take the time you need”
Words that kept rattling around in my head.
I have not been on social media for a short bit and I plan not to be on for a while longer. Life, expectations, social and professional demands. These things can push one inwards and, hopefully, allow for an investigation into what truly matters.
Years of being on social media, fighting screen addiction, and fretting daily about am I on too much or too little has come to this. A breath. A long, drawn-out breath. I’ve chosen to just sit with this feeling and to just engage with the act of not acting, not using online life to become a replacement for the real thing.
Hikes in the forests with friends. Sunlight and the warmth of a Summer’s day. The slow growth of gourds in the garden. The sounds of birds in the trees.
I can’t cling to these things but I also can’t capture them and share them the way technology seems to want to promise it can. Can we truly experience these phenomena through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Twitch? Can an hour on YouTube teach you both how to fix your furnace and fix your life?
Will comments and likes, link shares and photo album memories spark the real change we all need to see in our lifetimes? Or, is it a carousel that keeps us spinning, approximating forward motion but amounting to stasis, to stagnation over decades of use and being used?
For all this, I feel like I still have accomplished nothing. Friendships and memories are the jewels drawn from this hard time spent and these I cherish.
200 blogposts on tea. Digital paper and words. Flavors and phantasms. Pictures and poetry about things long passed.
I hope for more meaningful moments. More life not led online. More connection through cups of tea shared, not facilitated through fiber optic cables.
Summer comes but once a year. In our lifetimes, perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll experience enough to count 100. Then where will these Summer’s warm days be? In memories. In the sensations of heat against our skin as we sip from warmed cups of tea. From the feelings of friends and family whom we still can meet.
To do this, all this, we must all take the time we need.
Wishing everyone a beautiful International Tea Day! Drink a cup, bowl, or pot of tea and think of all that went into the growing, harvesting, processing, packing, shipping, selling, and sending of that tea so you can enjoy it! There are lots of people and beings that work towards making that little cup you and I savor. As they say, it’s all in the tea! So, drink up, give thanks to all the labor and love that went towards making this moment happen, and share!
Today, I brew up a personal favorite of mine: a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers” which I and two of my own “tea brothers”, So Han Fan of West China Tea in Austin, Texas, and Steve Odell of Enthea Teahouse in Portland, Oregon, sourced while traveling in China in 2013.
The tea is grown, tended by, picked and processed by the 林 Lín family on the high slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in 潮州 Cháozhōu, in northeastern 廣東 Guǎngdōng province.
The tea’s poetic name alludes to how it is made up of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove, which when processed, maintain a unique harmony and balance in their flavor.
I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house.
I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house. The cup is one of a pair, a gift from 郑国谷 Zhèng Guógǔ of the Chinese artist collective the Yangjiang Group, whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with on several art projects, namely the 2016 site-specific participatory installation Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken at the Guggenheim Museum.
Using the cup today, I’m reminded of my time working and making tea with Guógǔ, who, while widely known for his art, is also a skilled practitioner in tea, often infusing tea and local tea culture into his art practice.
Flavors and memories always seem to mix and bring up emotions from the past.
Gratitude. Joy. Bittersweet remembrances. Longing to be with friends whose paths I’ve crossed a myriad of times or just once and never again. Teachers and students. Tea masters and aficionados. Farmers, artists, poets, musicians, and monks. Deepest of thanks and warmest of thoughts to all who’ve been part of my life in tea, each somehow pointing the way. So much to celebrate. Today, and everyday.
Spring has faded and the first warm days of Summer of the old lunisolar calendar have arrived in the Hudson Valley. Birdsongs peal against the bright blue sky. Rhubarb flowers climb and explode in the garden and I don’t have it in me to cut them down.
Heat rises. So, too, does a wisp of smoke from my incense burner, filling my studio with the soft scent of 伽羅 kyara. The plastered walls and wooden floors remain cold to the touch. How long before these will warm as well and no cool solace will exist until Autumn arrives?
I pour fresh water into my kettle and sit myself down upon the floor before a sliding glass door that looks out onto my garden. Sounds and fresh breezes blow in, mixing with the incense in the air.
As the heat from the kettle grows, I produce a small ceramic container: a celadon jar originally intended for sweets turned tea caddy with a lid made of dried leaves, cork, and thread.
Inside are the tightly rolled leaves of a 大禹嶺高山茶 Dàyǔlǐng gāoshān chá that a friend gifted to me last Winter. Will their flavors be as tightly kept as their leaves are bundled? Or will they open as Summer has here in the river valley I’ve called home for these past few years?
I loosely arrange objects across the wooden plank I use for a tea table. Cloth. 茶船 chá chuán. A vintage 綠泥西施壺 lǜní Xīshī hú. A shallow 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Objects are kept informal, alluding to the feeling of the day.
I measure out a portion of tea and place it into the hollow of my warmed teapot.
I wait for a moment and watch the sunlight filter through the pines and maples that tower over the garden outside the open door.
Birds cackle and dogs in the distance bark but do not wake mine who sleeps beside my work desk. A relaxed state seems to settle all about me as I wait for the tea to brew.
Pot in hand, I draw it to the wide opening of the shallow teabowl.
With a simple downward tilt of my wrist and the pot and the tea pours effortlessly into the empty vessel. The color of tea is initially bright and clear against the pale blue-green of the qīngbái cháwǎn.
As the liqueur continues to pour, the color deepens and darkens, until jade turns to gold.
The light of the day is caught against the flat surface of the warm liquid. Blue sky against the crystalline tea liqueur.
As I set the teapot back down into the chá chuán and lift the lid off and angle it upon the open top, the distinctive scent of Dàyǔlǐng becomes present. Big, clean, a mixture of fresh vegetation and fragrant magnolia. Even before I let the liquid cross by lips, I feel as if I’ve already slacked my thirst.
As I take the first sip, I am met with minerality. Next, sweetness. Cascades of flavors followed by a pronounced lingering mouthfeel. Dàyǔlǐng is a unique tea.
Often harvested in Winter, the leaves produce a markedly sweet, if not cane sugar-like, flavor, which recede and evolve into notes of fresh greens and flowers that bloom on trees. The feeling left over is soft, buttery, almost chewy. The qualities of this tea meld into the environment of the cool climes of my garden-level studio.
I relax more and, as I do, so too does my brewing style. I let the tea steep longer.
The color, accordingly, darkens.
The liqueur seems to glow as the sunlight does against the trees and the mountains in the distance.
As the day fades, so too does the tea. Countless steepings have pushed this tea to evolve into a calm, crisp elixir. Still holding on to its Wintery sweetness, although, gone is the intense complexity that the first infusions produced.
Early Summer, too, feels this way. Gone are the radical shifts that marked the previous seasons. Gone is the ice and the garden locked with snow. Gone is the hardened soil, the bare trees, the dark clouds.
What has come is sweet, mellow, easy. The birds relax, as do the leaves in the breeze. The sound of a frog is heard nearby as creeks throb and gurgle beside willows and rocks in gullies and between homes and hillocks of the Hudson Valley.
The sun has woken this world around me and now it stands tall and shimmers in shades of green. The tea leaves, too, evoke this change, this quality, this coming to life from Winter’s hold.
Cool shadows cast darker and darker shade across the stretch of wood and floorboards of my studio. The ease of early Summer spreads and collects in the cooling vessels of my assembled tea set.
Warm winds and a shallow bowl. Winter’s tea and Summer’s flavor.
The last few days of 穀雨 Gǔyǔ (“Grain Rain”). Here, it feels unfathomable that we are on the precipice of Summer. How would you know as it is raining today in New York? Yet, hints of the incoming warm season are all around.
Blossoms on trees burst. Leaves shine an emerald green. The earth is warm and wet. The insects abound, soon to chime and chatter as they do in the Summer months.
Today, as the world feels cool and refreshing, I sit by my window and enjoy the sound of rain pattering on the plants outside.
Ferns and hostas.
Lilacs and budding flowers.
Water droplets become small jewels as the collect and form bright prisms on velvet foliage.
Old teaware accompanies new vegetation and the awakening of the latent season.
An antique 石灣 Shíwān pot and blue-and-white cup.
Roasted tea beams bright gold liqueur.
Low light filtered through the trees.
The feeling is calm and casual as I spread my wares and body across the surface of my wooden floor.
Birds call outside.
Reflections fade and evolve across the crackled surface of the iridescent glaze of the old teapot.
The flavor of tea lingers even as the scent of it flags.
Cool breeze and the emptiness that’s caused by the sound of raindrops.
For several days now I’ve been traveling with my wife to see her family in the Philippines. We’re both jet lagged, her more than I. Regardless, I don’t know what day it is. My body is still using New York time as its tether, a bellwether guiding me but in a way that no longer makes sense.
I haven’t found time to sit for tea, save for right now. An aged 肉桂 Ròuguì seems to taste of the flavors from last night’s dinner of braised meats, steamed fish, tamarind soup, shrimp paste, buko pie. The wine here is sweeter. The beer, lighter. The weather joyously warm but not hot. It snowed today in New York. Today, there are white, billowing clouds set against a bright blue sky here in the highlands of Tagaytay.
While my wife sleeps and works-off her jet lag, I’ve found a moment to spread out a small tea cloth and prepare a series of steepings of dark oolong that I’ve tucked-away in my carry-on bag.
A set of vintage white porcelain made up of one small 蓋碗 gàiwǎn and four 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi from the 1980s. Tea from the mid-2000s. Water boiled and stowed in a travel thermos. No flourish. More of a fix.
As I sit, the act of making tea is still meditative, set to the sound of the air conditioner mounted loosely in the wall beside me, to the sound of vehicles of all types zooming outside of the walls of the garden, to the irregular cry of a cockerel somewhere nearby.
The soft gurgle of water and the light clink of ceramic lid against ceramic cup.
Tea steeps and settles in as I do into the concrete and stucco home of my wife’s mother, built on land their family’s owned for centuries.
Outside our room, orchids grow in the inner courtyard and geckos find their homes between the cracks and crevices of tiles, worn brick, and the joints between walls and ceilings.
Inside, the relative quiet allows for momentary respite and another cup of tea brewed.
My wife wakes and wanders into the shower as I pour my third or fourth cup from a third or fourth steeping.
The color is still dark but waning as I pour out the sixth or seventh steeping.
I turn over a second cup to offer to her as she walks from the bathroom, the sent of shower soap now blending with the aroma of tea.
I drink the first of the two cups. The second waits idly for my wife to dry off in the humid air. I breathe over my tongue with mouth closed and taste the lingering 回甘 huígān of the Ròuguì tea. The 岩骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones”, the meat-like quality of this tea is still here.
I pour more tea into my empty cup and the difference in color between the last steeping and this marks the passing of time. Darker is the subsequent. A bit deeper in flavor.
The warm water kept in the gàiwǎn pushing more color and tone from the leaves that continue to brew. The flavor is softer, more complex but gentle. No hint of bitterness, just the spiciness of this particular kind of tea, with just the slightest hint of age. 活 huó, it is still lively in the mouth and the mind.
The last steepings of tea continue to come but, as travel often does, I am pulled away to the work of travel, of coordinating the next thing-to-do, the next stop in the list of stops. Wind blows harder outside in the garden of my wife’s mother’s house. The winds of the Tagaytay are locally famous, peeling and pushing up off from the placid surface of Lake Taal.
I pour the remaining tea and liquid into a cut crystal tumbler glass with the hopes of saving what’s left. I empty the small cup my wife never got to. I pour-out what’s left in my thermos. It all amounts to one more cup to save for later.
As I did before but in reverse, I pack away my tea set I’d made to travel with.
Gàiwǎn wrapped in a pattern printed cloth. The four white porcelain pǐn míng bēi set around it. Box closed and wrapped-up tightly. Stowed away until next time, whenever that will be.
The roar of vehicles of all types zooming by. The hum of the air conditioner set loosely in the wall. The irregular cry of a cockerel somewhere nearby. Sweet wine. Light beer. The spice of tea and tamarind still lingering. I close the door and my wife and I continue our travels.
Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.
I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.
As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.
Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.
These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.
Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.
Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.
Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).
Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.
With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.
I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.
The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.
Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.
Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.
Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.
Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.
Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.
The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.
As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.
I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.
Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.
Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.
The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.
The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.
I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.
It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.
As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.
The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.
Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 bì, ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.
In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.
Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.
As I begin writing, I await the coming of the new season. One more day, a few more hours, and we pass from 大寒 Dàhán (lit. “Big Cold”) to 立春 Lìchūn (the beginning of Spring). In the mountains and rivers of New York, cold rain comes, just warm enough to melt snow. The process, the thin winnowing-away of Winter into Spring, is slow. It doesn’t happen all at once (not yet, at least). Nature reminding us, always, to pause, appreciate each moment, savor the length of time things take to emerge, grow, mature, ebb, flow, and then wane and fade into nothing.
Looking out onto my garden, the snow becomes soft until it gives way to thick frosty puddles, where grass that survived the cold Winter pushes upwards through. Leaves that fell last Autumn emerge preserved from their chrysalis of ice. Colors still vibrant, but only for today.
Looking out onto this world, a mirror of what transformative forces nature brings, I sit and set a kettle to boil beside me. While the air grows warmer, the space of my studio remains cold, its walls cut into the side of the hill atop which my house is built. Warmth comes from the brazier, the kettle, the sunbeams that stretch across the wooden floor and wooden board I use to make tea upon.
As water warms, I ready objects to steep. A cloth. A scoop made of carved bamboo. A pick fashioned from a twig of a fruit tree.
A small purple-glazed pot gifted to me years ago by an artist acquaintance.
A cup gifted to me by a tea friend from South Korea, its maker a famed ceramicist from the same country.
An archer’s ring for a lid rest.
Soft light stretches across the tea table. Warmer in tone than days before.
This same warm light flickers against warm water which I use to heat the pot and cup. This same warm light settles and creates soft shadows on the twisted leaves of old white tea.
野大白 Yě Dàbái, a wild large leaf white tea from Fújiàn province, was once a fresh tea. Bright, green, silvery in its complexion. Now, more than seven years old, the leaves have darkened. What was once emerald and lacquer-like in appearance now looks leathery and worn. Spring-picked leaves for the last day of Winter.
Lifting the lid from the pot and placing it down atop the jade archer’s thumb rest, I place the leaves inside the tiny vessel.
Warm water is poured atop the tea and the leaves tumble and twirl within the teapot before they come to rest.
The lid is lifted and placed over the opening of the pot and the tea begins to steep.
Waiting for the tea to steep. Waiting for Winter to fade into Spring. Waiting for this world to change. Each season seems to bring something new to us all. Anticipation building each time the weather warms. An unarticulated promise that things will get better and we, somehow, collectively, will be able to step out from our own self-enforced solitary confinement.
As each season arrives, this promise, however, invariably falls flat. Steep expectations eventually evolve into deep resentment. Underlying aggravation arises from the denial of simple freedoms. Reluctant realization sets in as we recognize that the big problems of life don’t just melt away.
The tea, once poured, gives me some hope for what waiting may bring. Patience for a pot to brew brings deep colors and warm amber hues. While outside my window Winter wanes, the flavors inside this now aged tea still remain strong. Subtle notes of caramel, of cardamom, of honey, and sweet dew. They linger and last, as successive cups are poured, each deepening in color and flavor, until no more liquid is left in the pot.
Lifting the lid off the teapot again, more water is added and a second steeping begins.
The sound of rain is gentle and silvery pools of water begin to collect between the shrinking mounds of snow that have covered the concrete platform that leads out to the garden. Concentric circles of ripples from raindrops bend and break.
I pour out the next round of tea into the same small cup from South Korea. The color darker than before. The flavors more open and complex.
One cup turns to two, then three, and then more water is poured onto the leaves again for another steeping, and another steeping after that.
Light from the day continues to shift and, too, wanes like Winter, and I set the lid back atop the teapot once more, this time, empty of liquid. I opt to stop brewing tea for now and to wait until morning comes the next day to return for one final steeping. The cold of my studio space enough to preserve the leaves in the pot and let me enjoy the tea for one more day.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of ice rain against my window. Bright, crystalline, like unearthly chimes in their resonance against the quiet that only exists before the sunrises. Lìchūn is here and yet the cold seems stronger. Where once there were pools and puddles that harkened to an early Spring, today there is sleet and carpets of piling ice that blanket the concrete platform and pathway stones of my garden.
Trees, too, are coated in a frozen sheath. Plum are covered. So, too, are the pine.
The preserved Autumn leaf that inspired my tea time the day before is covered again in a layer of ice, returning to its hibernation for a few more hours or a few more days.
I sit down again beside my kettle like I had done before a day ago. Today is Spring and still there is snow. Ice rain seems to be a fitting harbinger for the new season. A light chiming knell for the end of Winter. A bright shining sparkling tree covered in ice.
The day-old tea, when brewed for one last time, the color that comes is light.
The flavor has faded. The last notes from a Spring seven years passed are finally gone.
A new Spring is here, and yet it’s colder now. For how long will it remain?
When we offer a bowl, or cup, or pot of tea, do we think of the effect it will have on our lives and the lives of others?
Do we think beyond the singular moment that this simple gesture represents?
The leaves are selected with care…
…and placed within the teapot gently.
The kettle is warmed to a boil…
…and water is poured with attentiveness.
The pot is closed and, through one’s own awareness of what is happening within the tiny vessel, tea is brewed to a quality nearing perfection.
In truth, much of this effort to make this happen was already complete well before the tea made its way into the pot. Effort by the countless farmers, artisans, and trades people who cultivated, picked, produced, packaged and delivered tea to you and I, the tea brewer or lucky tea drinker, was done with a level of mastery and attentiveness that we may never fully appreciate.
What one is left with is the mere navigation of knowledge of leaves and wares, of material qualities and the qualities of one’s own self.
In steeping tea and offering tea, there is no true goal, only the hope that through offering tea you can somehow offer something of yourself to others.
This, coupled with showing one’s appreciation and respect to the art and craft and effort that went into producing the fine tea that you have chosen to brew.
Ten years ago, I published the first blogpost on Scotttea. Then, as now, I set out with no goal in mind, just a hope to explore the world of tea and the thoughts that would invariably arise as I sat down to make tea. Since then, a lot has happened.
Almost two hundred blogposts have been written, with enough content to fill several books. Incalculable amounts of tea were made, some shared with others, most savored alone.
However, as I’ve discovered since starting this blog, the vast expanse that defines the digital divide seems less expansive. In many ways, the space that separates you and I is the width of my tea table, the space between one 畳 tatami mat, the space between where we sit in my makeshift tea hut.
The true distance I find that changes is time. Time between ten years ago and now seems vast as it does miniscule. Ten years ago I was living and working and making tea in San Francisco. Less than an hour away from where I grew up. Less than a walk away from the hospital where I was born. Living in a small apartment in a 100-year-old Victorian townhouse furnished with three tatami mats, a few antique 箪笥 tansu cabinets, and a collection of tea and teaware.
For almost a decade I lived in this space and continued a tea practice that I had begun since my childhood, one I further honed and developed during my formative years in college. Little thought was given to writing down these experiences. When I did, they never amounted to much. I’d start a blog about tea and soon after abandon it. There was little staying power. In many ways, Scotttea was no different.
What kept me writing is hard to define. Perhaps the desire to log memories. Perhaps a hope to guide others in the often confusing crossroads of the internet and tea. Maybe it was just to see if writing about tea could encourage myself to just keep at it. An experiment at best. No expectations for an outcome.
Looking back at many of my old posts, all I see are the glaring mistakes of a neophyte, groping and stumbling along the Way. A misplaced 茶杓 chashaku. Too much or too little tea. Poor camera angles. Missed opportunities.
In trying to overcome all of this, my posts seem to have grown in size and length. The desire to want to say everything and show everything combined with a sort of endless thread of thought approach has seemed to evolve over the years, much to the chagrin of readers who may have hoped for a quick musing on tea, a poetic vignette, or singular statement.
The practice that has emerged has been one that longs more and more for the connection with others in the real world, in real time. The hut on the edge of my property remains empty, save for maybe the pair of mice I once evicted or a queen hornet trying to survive the Winter cold. Instead of opening the door, I write and hope that once this pandemic ends and once the sickness of our too busy world is over that you and other tea people like you may join me in a bowl or cup or pot of tea.
Until then, I share with you the same tea that I made ten years ago. A fantastic aged 水仙武夷山巖茶 Shuǐxiān Wǔyíshān yánchá from the mid-1980s that was gifted to me by a dear friend more than a decade ago, the same I featured in my first blogpost. With ten additional years of age on this tea, the leaves have an aroma akin to a fine incense. The brewed liqueur is medicinal, both in its flavor and its affect of the body.
Tea like this is rare and special not because it exists but because of the forces that work against it. It’s delicious. It’s too good to pass up. A fool would store it away. And, yet, I’ve done this so I can enjoy it today.
Perhaps this blog is similar. The tea it documents is, more often than not, amazing. It demands to be savored and enjoyed in the moment. To snap photographs, to think about what I will write about it, memorializing each tea experience with word, prose and pictures to produce a blogpost is, in some sense, madness. I’ve often thought of what happens as I make tea and then invite these thoughts and actions into my otherwise unobstructed, often austere practice.
It is a fool who saves these moments. Old used up tea leaves. The dregs of 抹茶 matcha. The dust and patina that accumulates on old teaware. Memories captured and catalogued. And, yet, here we are. Ten years since I put word to virtual page and pressed share. I’m deeply thankful to all who’ve joined me. I hope some day we can join for tea together in real life, beyond this digital space. Just know that the door to my tea room is always open and my message box is just a click away.
Ten years. Almost two hundred posts. Several books somehow locked within these pages. Who will know where we’ll be in ten more years. More tea leaves? A darker patina on my old teaware? Oil and residue accumulating in the cracks and fissures of old teabowls and old tea pots? We’ll see. Until then, let’s have another cup and see what it inspires.
The year is new and the tea I crave is old. What comes to mind is singular: a memory of a 1999 金帆牌 Jīn Fān Pái “Golden Sail” 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá from a life long ago. This tea was easily one of my first pǔ’ěr experiences when I was still wading around in the shallow waters of my then nascent 工夫茶 gōng fū chá practice back in the early 2000s when I was still a wide-eyes college student in Santa Cruz, California. I can remember when David Wright of Chaikhana offered me a sip of this tea. Back then, it was sold to me under the name “Sailing Vessel” and, indeed, it helped me to venture further into the depths of the larger tea world.
I can recall the experience drinking this tea quite vividly. It was dark, earthy, inky. The texture was slick, viscous, one that would leave a slight resinous feeling in the mouth. Notes of redwood, pine sap, clean wet river stone. I was hooked. Even then, when this tea was relatively young, I felt it had a lot to say. The favors were incredibly active in the mouth for a shú pǔ’ěr, let alone one that is relatively widely produced.
I remember purchasing this tea (for a price now so low that I am amazed I didn’t buy more) and running back to the house I shared with my fellow tea-heads So Han Fan and Sylvia Levine and drinking quite a bit of it (probably all of it, which makes this particular cake the second one I must have bought soon there after). It became the tea that I’d learn how to brew cake pǔ’ěr with, studying how the compression unique to 餅茶 bǐngchá affects the way it brews, how the heat of the water and saturation of the tea are key to unlocking the tea’s potential, and how the shape of a teapot (from the circumference of its opening to the height of its profile) can determine the trajectory of the steeping experience. Tea as teacher became a core understanding from this point onward.
I’d shelve this tea for years, pack it away and almost forget I had it. As I moved from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to New York City, the tea would travel with me, wrapped-up in paper and a Japanese 風呂敷 furoshiki.
Since moving to the Hudson Valley, I kept the tea stored away in an antique 桐箪笥 kiri-dansu, the light, relatively porous wood of the Paulwonia acting as a great neutral environment for the tea to live and age. Now that Winter has arrived here along the rivers and mountains of the Hudson, the tea is dormant, its oils and active flavors less readily available.
The cold air that continues to creep through the windows and doors of my studio are both a challenge and an opportunity to make tea. The kettle that I keep by my side is drawn closer to me on the coldest of days. I remove the tea cake from its cloth and paper wrapping and set it down beside me. The compressed leaves look unchanged from when I last opened this cake up for inspection years ago. The scent of the dried tea is sweet, akin to loamy wood and dried black mission figs.
I arrange a setting for tea upon the swirling grains of my tea table (admittedly less a table and more a plank of wood that rests upon two tea boxes).
A pick for loosening a portion of tea from the cake.
A scoop fashioned from a piece of bamboo to set the leaves within.
A dark 紫砂仿古壺 zǐshā fǎnggǔ hú by ceramicist 尹紅范 Yǐn Hóngfàn (1963 – present) which I’ve employed for making cake and brick pǔ’ěr for almost fifteen years now. A shallow 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán to set the pot within.
A wooden cup stand made of cherry wood.
A small 鬼萩焼 Oni Hagi-yaki teacup with unctuous white glaze by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan that has been accompanying me on many of my tea sessions since Winter came.
The pot and cup are warmed by the water that has been boiling in my iron kettle. The portion of broken-off tea cake is set within the open pot. The scent of the dried tea leaves coming in contact with the warm and wetted interior of the teapot reveals just a hint of the tea’s flavor. Again, notes of redwood, of dried black mission fig.
I pour hot water upon the compressed leaves within the pot and close the lid. I wait and do not rinse the tea fearing that this extra step will remove some of the flavor that this tea has acquired over the years.
In waiting I watch the steam rise from the water inside the tiny white-glazed cup, the steam rise from the spout of my boiling kettle, the slight wisps of steam that hover over the dark clay pot.
Waiting has brought this tea here today for me to taste. Waiting has made this moment happen. Waiting will let this now-aged tea express what time and change has allowed it to achieve.
Minutes pass and I pour the first of many draughts from the teapot. The color of the tea is dark, inky, opaque. I am reminded of the first time I sat to drink this tea with David two decades ago.
The aroma wafting from the cup, the sparkling wave that dances across the surface of the dark red liqueur, the bareness of its presentation. I lift the cup to my lips, inhale its profuse aromatics, and sip from the tiny teacup. Time evaporates. I’m for a brief moment brought back to that old time. I feel as if I’m about to cry.
The tea is nothing special and yet it really is. The flavors are big and sweet. There is complexity and layers and unfolding of depth but I am brought back to when I was just first beginning to perceive these things.
I can remember the layout of David’s old shop. The nooks and cavernous shelves that seemed to contain a trove of then-unknowns. Teapots and teas. Books and postcards. Lamps and cups. Tea picks and tea boats. Old lacquered items nexts to objects and figures carved of boxwood and rose wood and agate and jade. The jumble of things and the curl of David’s short beard and the wry smile he’d make when he’d tell you a dry joke that would invariably go over my head.
“Clouds,” he once told me. “Goals are like clouds. You watch them pass in the sky. You might focus on one or two, but you can’t grasp at a cloud.”
They disappear. The dissipate. The dissolve into the something bigger that’s out there. He never said the last part. I’d have to come to realize this on my own years later.
Sitting with this tea I look into the past from the vantage point of now. I’ve aged, no longer the young man I was. This tea has aged too, and yet it contains with it the bright, fresh, buoyant memories of my youth. It’s a good tea.
It steeps for days. On day two, on steeping who-knows-now, the color begins to wane and the once dark opacity it had held breaks and the liqueur becomes slightly transparent. Sunlight finally enters the bottom of the cup and the crimson leathery tones of a typical pǔ’ěr finally emerge.
The staying power of this tea amazes me. So, too, does the staying power of these memories. Sweet and bittersweet. Sad in a sense. Longing. Unable to go back. Happy that I’ve come this far. The cake that we called “Sailing Vessel” has in some way lived up to its name. “Golden Sail” sounds a bit luxurious. This is a simple yet sturdy tea and it and I have ventured for quite a while, for quite a distance. Far from when we first left off.