Tag Archives: Hongcha

Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

In Autumn, the deep emerald green of Summer wanes and fades in exchange for the umber, ocher and amber of Fall. Looking up into the canopy, gilded edges circle each fluttering leaf, and those which have since fallen gather like flecks of gold in the gutters and gullies of the broad city streets.

In the remaining heat of the day, a lone cicada calls out a solitary threnody to its fallen brethren until it, too, becomes a hollow shell, victim to the chill and the gusting winds. Yet, as seasons shift, not all is lost. Instead, as one moment fades, it transforms, and in this change, something new materializes. Fall’s resplendent colors emerge and encourage meditation.

Golden leaves inform my choice to bring out a bright yellow 黃泥 huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Yixing teapot. Similarly, I select a small leaf Taiwanese red tea, the initial aroma of which strikes a harmonious tone with the sweet, fleeting scent of decaying Fall leaves.

Sitting alone in my tearoom, a single grey Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) accompany me. In the air hangs the warm scent of lingering incense and the rising steam from my boiling kettle. In this time, I give myself a moment to pause. So often do we forget to do this; to sit with the change we are constantly caught within.

Peering down at the small yellow teapot, I see this transformation embedded in the pores of its clay body. A subtle shift from gold to brown. Quiet marks upon its skin from every tea it’s ever steeped. A slow metamorphosis to maturation.

The soft glazed surfaces of cup and cooling vessel, crazed and crackled, too, bear the imprint of time. Once immaculate, the patterns laced upon them now look like the veiny remnants of decomposing leaves. In this there is beauty too.

Laying the tea leaves atop a scoop fashioned from old bamboo, they appear dormant, caught in hibernation.

Placed within the belly of the small teapot, they slowly begin to wake, releasing a faint aroma which is sugary and rose-like.

A quick steeping wakes them and they begin to writhe and unfurl. Poured out, the liqueur they produce is tawny and slick.

Decanted from sookwoo into the lone cup, I first savor the color, then the scent, and finally the taste.

Straightforward and satisfying, simple and sweet is the nature of this tea. As I drink, I am reminded of its origin; a gift from a friend years ago, procured from a farm tended by a group of Buddhist nuns. How in these years the flavors have changed. How in this time, the essence of this tea still remains.

The chattering of the iron kettle in my tearoom. The rustling of leaves outside my window. The final notes of incense passing as I continue to brew tea. A parade of clouds in a clear azure sky. The sharp chirping of a cricket off in the distance.

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Filed under Ceramics, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

The Singular Moment for Fresh Tea

All year round I drink tea. Everyday. Often multiple times a day, and usually different varieties. As a tea collector and lover of aged teas, this means that much of what I drink is “old tea” (tea that is not fresh and is often older than a year, sometimes older than a decade. Often categorized as 老茶 lǎo chá (lit. “old tea”), such tea has a myriad of enjoyable flavors and characteristics that can only be found in aged teas, ranging from earthy to loamy, incense-like, with notes of dried fruit and spices. Their energy is soft, deep, and relaxing.

Even when I drink a “fresh” tea, I must recognize that they may be as fresh as they can be, having been picked and processed a month or two prior to me brewing them. As such, they are not really “new” (新茶 xīnchá, “new tea”), just very fresh. Even the most excellent 抹茶 matcha is aged for several months, picked in Spring and then stored away until Autumn when it is ground into a fine powder. So, when I do have the opportunity to enjoy a truly fresh tea, one that had been just picked and finished, the experience can be quite eye opening.

One such moment occurred this week when Roy, a dear friend, tea person and founder of New York Tea Society returned from a sourcing trip to China and Taiwan. Welcoming me into his home and tea space, he produced a cornucopia of teas, ranging from freshly-picked 普洱毛茶 Pǔ’ěr máochá (Puer “rough tea”) and minimally-produced 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) from Yunnan, and fragrant oolong and baozhong teas from Taiwan.

First came the clean and clear flavors of a delicate 月光白 Yuèguāng Bái (“Moonlight White”) from 景谷 Jǐnggǔ, Yunnan. Its leaves, smooth and silvery in appearance, with a shimmering downy velvet enrobing a dark green interior. Once brewed, the flavor was bright and full, with a viscosity and freshness of crisp cucumber, honeysuckle, and sweet grass.

Following was a gorgeous 金芽滇紅 Jīn yá diān hóng (Yunnan “Golden bud” red tea), the leaves of which resembled the first tea, though with subsequent oxidation, had darkened and achieve a bright golden hue.

Placed into the large porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, their color shone like threads of gold.

Steeped for just a moment, the tea quickly revealed its qualities.

Once decanted, the result was a deep, rich amber liqueur. Much like the Yuèguāng Bái, the Jīn yá diān hóng exhibited the viscosity and freshness that is only found in very new tea.

However, through the light processing that involved sun-drying, oxidation, and a final “baking” of the leaves, the flavors were malty, akin to baked sweet potatoes and light caramel.

The day finished with two excellent máochá, one from Jǐnggǔ, the other from the famed growing region of 老班章 Lǎo Bān Zhāng. The first was a fresh-picked, lightly-processed 藤条毛茶 téng tiáo máochá.

Coming from a large leaf varietal found in Yunnan, the flavors it exhibited were dramatically different from the previous teas. Its flavor was crisp and grassy, with a satisfying juiciness.

In contrast, the final tea, a máochá from Lǎo Bān Zhāng, was more wild, its leaves exhibiting a wider range of colors and shapes, forms and sizes.

Once brewed, the flavors shifted from sweet to savory, gentle to astringent, straightforward to complex. Although not initially as pleasing to the palate, this pointed to a tea that would ultimately age better.

And, so, as we enjoyed tea together, we assessed how tea, which was only weeks old, may change over time. What was now sweet may with time fade. What now is bitter may mellow and reveal new levels of complexity. What energy exists in a new tea may dissipate over the years, settling, as all great tea does, to calm the mind and spirit when joined with friends or enjoyed in solitude.

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Filed under China, Hongcha, Matcha, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel, White Tea

Tea After Meditation

Sometimes when I host a morning tea meditation no one comes. Sitting in an empty and quiet room, I still make tea. This, too, is a meditation. As the Korean Seon Buddhist monk and tea master Cho’ui mused in his 1830 茶神傳 Dashinjeon (“The Story of the Tea God”), “drinking tea by oneself is feeling the wonders of god”. Perhaps I was doing this.

Time passed slowly, the light crawled across the room, and the stick of incense burned down to dust. Afterwards, Lina, owner of Floating Mountain Tea House, arrived and opened her tea space. In the brief moment before customers came for tea, she treated me to a wonderful 野紅茶 yě hóngchá (“wild red tea”) from Wuyishan. Set upon a hand-carved teascoop made by master carver Ondrej Sedlak, the leaves looked wild, their twisting and curling shapes somewhere between a fine 岩茶 yánchá (“cliff tea”) and a feral tea.

To brew the tea, Lina selected a vintage drum-shaped Yixing teapot, upon which was inscribed the words of the Heart Sutra, something felt like the brewing of this tea was meant to become today’s true meditation.

Tea between two friends began at a leisurely pace. The tea was placed into the teapot. Water was added.

A brief moment to pause.

Afterwards, water was poured over the little vessel.

Tea was brewed. Time passed.

Decanted into two cups, the leaves were left to rest. Their warm, sweet fragrance could be detected rising from the open teapot.

Two cups sat side-by-side as did two friends on a Sunday after a silent meditation. The flavor of the tea was simple and satisfying. A balance of what tasted like baked apples, incense wood, and dark honey. Flavors not found in one particular tea of this region but, rather, something that could only arise from a wild plant. The exquisite and unexpected.

Note: The quote from the Dashinjeon was from The Book of Korea Tea by Yang-Seok (Fred) Yoo (Myung Won Cultural Foundation, 2007). If you are interested in reading this and learning more about writing on tea, I recommend visiting the Education section on Scotttea.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Hongcha, Incense, Korea, Meditation, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Echoes of the New Year’s Bell

In Seoul’s 종로 Jongno district, as the clock strikes midnight to herald New Year’s day, crowds cheer, friends embrace, and (in modern times) fireworks explode in the sky above. Years ago, during my first visit to Korea, I witnessed this first-hand. Today, years later, and days after the bells rang in the 보신각 Bosingak bell pavilion (the bell of which gives Jongno it’s name, which literally means “bell street”), I woke with the faint echoes of it ringing in my ears.

The biting cold of a Korean winter drives all into the warmth of their homes and, for some, into the comfortable climes of a teahouse. My first journey to Korea was marked by much of this, darting through the tight alleyways of Insadong, discovering Korean tea, in all its depth and diversity, for what seemed to be the first time.

Recalling this today, I sit down to brew cup after cup of one of Korea’s more unusual teas: 발효차 balhyocha.

Grown amongst the shaded groves of bamboo in 지리산 Jirisan, the tea is semi-wild. Its leaves, when viewed, appear as a tangled assemblage, dark and curling.

Having been left to dry and then rehydrate with the morning dew, the leaves were left to partially ferment during the final processing stages, resulting in the tea’s uniquely chocolate-like aroma and flavor.

It has been almost a decade since I last had this tea.

Left to sit in the warm interior of my grey-colored 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teapot, this distinctive scent fills the air of my tearoom.

Instantly, memories begin to flood my mind.

Set to brew for only a moment, I pour-out the amber-hued liqueur into the waiting sookwoo (of which I atypically use as a serving vessel). From there, each cup is served.

Three small vessels. Three precious jewels. With each sip, the echoes of 108 strikes of the bell. Savoring the new year.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Hongcha, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Ripening Gourds in a Cold Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing the Flavor of Tea Can Lead to Greater Understanding

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This morning I was asked what book I might recommend to deepen one’s knowledge of tea. The answer I offered was to just drink tea. While not openly trying to emulate the Chan master Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn 趙州從諗 (778-897), who advised his students to “have a bowl of tea”, I was trying to point the person towards a form of understanding that comes only from direct experience.

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When one simply sits to drink tea, one can learn about the various factors that constitute a tea’s flavor. Weather, soil content, level and evenness of oxidation, even (and especially) the way the leaves were picked and processed will ultimately determine how a tea will taste. In the same way that the events of our own lives will affect our demeanor, our psychological bearing, or even our physical state, the life of a tea leaf can tell a story, even a history.

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Sitting down to brew a series of Wǔyíshān hóngchá (“red tea” from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian), their “stories” were quite apparent. Between two varieties of 赤甘紅茶 (chì gān hóngchá, literally “red sweetness red tea”), the smaller leaves of the 小赤甘 (xiǎo chì gān, literally “small red sweetness”) were considerably sweeter and cleaner in flavor than those of its larger variation, the 大赤甘 (dà chì gān, or “large red sweetness”). Comparing these two teas to a traditionally-smoked 正山小種 (zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong), the tale these teas told were all together quite different.

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Processing played a major part in each of the teas’ distinctive flavor profiles. For the two chì gān hóngchá, the tea leaves were simply picked, withered, rolled, pan-fired, and rolled again before they were dried and made ready to enjoy. This rather orthodox processing helps these teas to retain their natural sweetness that develops through oxidation, revealing flavors akin to that of a baked apple and dried red dates. The smaller, tender leaves of the xiǎo chì gān, with their more delicate sugars, offered flavors that were sweeter and more complex than the larger leaves of the dà chì gān, which were considerably more tannic and floral, resulting in a subsequently drier mouthfeel.

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While the leaf type of the zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng may have appeared to be superficially quite similar to the two chì gān hóngchá, the “finishing” of this tea transformed it into something that is remarkably different. Achieved through a process of slowly smoking the dried tea leaves over a smoldering pinewood ash pit over the course of several days, the tea leaves are imparted with the characteristic flavors dried longan and smokey pine resin. When done well, this processing adds a complex layering of smokiness, balancing the sweeter fruit notes that naturally occur in the tea leaves with an almost peat-like quality found in a fine Islay Scotch whisky. In the case of this particular tea, the interplay of these robust and subtle flavors remained from the first steeping all the way through the last, becoming lighter, sweeter, and more delicate with each subsequent brewing.

 

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In an approach like gong fu cha, one is able to examine the leaves of a tea, take in its aroma, sip and savor its liqueur. Through this process, rudimentary know-how is slowly gained and one’s abilities to better understand a tea are eventually developed. While this may take years, the “knowledge” gained through direct experience becomes something beyond words on a page or anecdotes shared between a teacher to a student. It becomes a flavor that lingers in your psyche, a memory embedded in your action. You can always open a book, but to be able to listen to what tea can tell you takes discipline, patience, and a curious mind.

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In response to being asked about what books, podcasts, and videos I  have enjoyed for learning about and expanding my knowledge on tea, I offer this short list to you, my beloved readers. While certainly not comprehensive, for those just beginning their journey in tea, it is a wonderful “first step”.

Enjoy!

Books

Baisa-ō , and Norman Waddell. The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto. Counterpoint, 2008. (Link)

Hirota, Dennis. Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path. Asian Humanities Press, 1995. (Link)

Mair, Victor H., and Erling Hoh. The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson, 2009. (Link)

Sadler, A. L. Cha-No-Yu: the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle, 2001. (Link)

Sanmi, Sasaki. Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)

Sen Sōshitsu. The Japanese Way of Tea: from Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū. Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2000. (Link)

Shigenori, Chikamastsu. Stories from a Tearoom Window: Lore and Legnds of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)

Yoo, Yang-Seok. The Book of Korean Tea: a Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony. The Myung Won Cultural Foundation, 2007. (Link)

Zhang, Jinghong. Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. University of Washington Press, 2014. (Link)

Podcasts

Chinese History Podcast – “History of Tea” by Laszlo Montgomery (Link to Part 1 of 10)

Talking Tea: Conversations About Tea and Tea Culture by Ken Cohen (Link to homepage)

Videos

<<茶,一片树叶的故事>> (“Tea, The Story of a Leaf”). CCTV, 2013. (Link to Episode 1 of 6, in Chinese)

Gong Fu Tea|chA by So Han Fan, YouTube channel Tea House Ghost (Link to Episode 1 of a continuing series)

 

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Filed under China, Education, Hongcha, Tea, Tea Tasting