Tag Archives: Gongfu Cha

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

The Sun Hangs Highest in the Sky

As the year progresses, the subtle changes of the seasons mark the many “gateless gates” we pass through. While often too minute to notice from day-to-day, nature offers us clues. In Fall, the world becomes radiant in the final brilliant colors of trees and grasses. In Winter, colors mute, the soil hardens, the air becomes crisp, the plum blossom blooms. Spring marks the slow reemergence of life from its frozen dormancy. And in Summer, the world is fully awake, bursting with life.

As the sun hangs highest overhead today, marking the Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, I find myself sitting in my tearoom, enjoying the vibrancy of the day outside. This activity is also felt internally, as I feel full of energy and excitement, having just received a collection of tea samples from a tea farmer based in Wuyishan, China. The small, individually-wrapped packets, each contain a different tea, a veritable treasure trove of flavors, each expressing the slight effects the shifting of one season to the next has on the tea plant.

Today, celebrating the solstice, I opt for a coppery 肉桂 Ròuguì, the name of which literally translates to “cinnamon”. While I will be brewing the tea hot, the effects of drinking it at the peak of Summer will be slightly cooling.

This desire to evoke a sense of “coolness” is revealed in my choice of teaware. An antique porcelain 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) with a touch of 金継ぎ kintsugi (gold lacquer repair). To measure-out the tea leaves, I select an antique 白铜 báitóng (“white copper”) scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. To serve, I select a set of four blue-and-white cups from 景德镇 Jǐngdézhèn, each of which containing a vista reflective of a season. Spring and Summer.

Fall and Winter.

Warming each ceramic vessel, the water brings out their clean, porcelain sheen.

Placing the tea leaves atop the báitóng leaf, I admire their uniformity and the rich color they contain.

Placed into the warm hōhin, the twisted leaves release a soft, complex flavor. Notes of spices and cacao fill the air.

Pouring hot water over the leaves only intensifies the aroma.

Once fully steeped, I slowly issue-out the amber liqueur into each cup. Enjoying the deep color, matched with the swirling, nuanced fragrance of tea brings pause to my busy day and a cool calm to the heat of Summer.

Silently sipping in my tearoom, I enjoy the unfurling flavors of cinnamon, cloves, wet limestone and black walnut. Subtle, gentle, like the shifting of the seasons. On this, the longest day of the year.

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Making tea on a hot day

Jingdezhen teacup

(IMAGE: Young sheng pu-erh in a fine porcelain Jingdezhen teacup, perfect for a hot summer’s day)

Dear beloved blog readers,

Its hot. Its humid. Its a late summer’s day; a time when you might have a bright, dry morning, only to give way to a thick, moist, thunderstorm evening. With such extremes, one might think that drinking tea, a hot beverage, would only cause an added measure of unease. However, on days like these, tea can offer a cooling respite to the heat, you just need to know how to do it right. In this entry, I’ll offer some ideas that will help you to stay cool while still enjoying tea.

Summer Bowl

(IMAGE: A black Oribe-yaki “Horse Trough-shaped” (馬盥茶碗) summer teabowl is shallow, allowing for the tea to cool off quickly)

“In the summer, suggest coolness”: The 16th century Japanese teamaster Sen no Rikyu once noted “In the summer, suggest coolness. In the winter, warmth.” For making tea, this is crucial, as not only can places like Japan (or China, or Korea…or New York City for that matter) can get incredibly hot in the summer, but also the tea you make and the way you make it can change how heat affects you (and your guests). Rikyu had countless solutions for this, from moving the tea brazier away from the guests (placing the mizusashi, or cool water container, between the brazier and the guest, thus keeping the radiant heat of the brazier at a distance), to even using shallow teabowls to serve tea (as this would help to cool the tea down before drinking). Even having visual cues, such as using a crystal tea caddy (since crystal looks like ice), hanging flowers in baskets (to give a sense of “airiness”), or having a scroll with a “cooling” image or poem written on it was deemed helpful to this end. Practitioners of chanoyu are well aware of these strategies and it is reflected in how they offer tea on hot summer’s days.

Taipinghoukui

(IMAGE: Large and vibrant leaves of a semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui (太平猴魁) green tea, perfect for lower-temperature steeping)

Choose the “right” tea: The notion of a “right” tea for any occasion seems to be a hotly contested point among tea people. While I can safely say there is no “right” tea, there are aspects to consider when choosing a tea for a hot day. Teas that favor lower temperatures for brewing like green teas are ideal. Likewise, teas that might benefit by being steeped at a lower temperature could also work. Young sheng pu-erh teas, green oolongs, and even some white or red teas can produce amazing results! It is even said in traditional Chinese medicine that some teas (most teas outside of the more “neutral” pu-erh teas) are ying (or “cooling”) in energy. I find that greener teas tend to carry this quality the most, but this can differ from person to person.

Hohin

(IMAGE: A Japanese porcelain houhin (宝瓶) with kintsugi (金継ぎ) gold lacquer repair)

Selecting teaware: As mentioned before with the suggestion made by Rikyu, teaware can have a big effect on how tea is enjoyed in times of great heat. On hot days, I typically avoid using yixing teaware and, instead, use porcelain or even glass wares. Why? Simple thermodynamics. Whereas yixing wares are renowned for retaining heat (which is ideal for steeping strong brews of oolong, pu-erh, and black teas), porcelain and glass tend to give-off their heat, allowing for the hot water for tea to cool down. While this is ideal for green and white teas, with skill, one can brew higher-oxidized teas this way as well, resulting in smooth-tasting liqueurs, often with long-fading finishes (the huí gān 回甘, “returning dry/sweetness”) attributed to finer quality teas. Likewise, using wider and thinner tea cups, as well as water cooling vessels can help bring the temperature down for a more refreshing brew.

 

So, how do you beat the heat and still drink tea? I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

As you may have noticed, I left out any mention of “iced teas” or “cold-brew teas”. This was intentional as I plan on tackling this topic in its own wonderful future post!

Until then!

 

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Gongfu Blog: The Skill and Challenge of Writing a Blog

I was writing a blog.  For several months I had kept it up.  And for several months, I let the world peer just a little into my life, my thoughts, my way of making tea.  There was magic… And then silence. Continue reading

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Tea on a Rainy Day: Steeping Leaves, Writing Poetry

My weekend begins here:
Out of work and at home,
What care in the world do I have?
Cold weather and warm tea keep me huddled under my kotastu.
A single flower decorates my tea room.
Now is the moment I’ve been waiting for.

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Tea Tasting Event: Whole Foods Market on Franklin and California

Hello again, readers, and welcome back! It’s been a whole week since I last posted (having been sick for most of that time) but I’m back with a renewed sense of vigor!
A lot has happened in this past week and despite my invalid status, I’ve been busy setting up my next tea tasting event! Continue reading

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The “Gongfu” of Thermos Tea

Dear Readers,

  For about a month now, I’ve been planning on writing a “how to” for brewing Gongfu Cha in the traditional method, using a Yixing teapot. I promise that this will happen, and SOON! For now, however, I feel inclined to discuss how most of China brews it’s tea… In a thermos! Continue reading

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Brewing Notes: Milan Xiang Honey Orchid Phoenix Oolong

Today I am writing as I sit down to enjoy tea. The tea is a fine example of a Milan Xiang Dancong Oolong, or a Honey Orchid Phoenix Oolong from the Chaozhou region, located in the northeast corner of Guangdong Province, China. Continue reading

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Education: Teaching and Learning About Tea

A Beginner’s Guide to Gongfu Cha
 For about a week I’ve been wanting to write an entry that would act as an introduction to the concept of “Gongfu Cha” (工夫茶), sometimes called the Chinese Tea Ceremony.  I guess I was looking for inspiration, but just yesterday, I believe I found it.

Continue reading

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