Tag Archives: Oolong

As Summer Wanes, No Autumn Leaves

Late Summer sees the loosening of heat’s grip over the day. Cool breezes flutter even as the asphalt of the streets outside simmers in the sun. Day after day is met with rain and thunder, and I am left to make tea indoors.

On such a day, I pull together a teaset to brew a sample of tea recently sent to me from a tea farmer in China’s Wuyishan tea growing region. The tea, a 老欉水仙 Lǎo Cóng Shuǐ Xiān (lit. “Old Bush/Grove Water Immortal”), is a long-leaf dark oolong, harvested from tea bushes over fifty years old.

To brew this, I select a teapot I rarely use, a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot). In the murky light of a rainy day of early Autumn, the teapot’s crisp form casts hazy shadows from the sharply-hewn lines.

The subtle dome of the lid rises gently off the conical body. The bridge-like handle atop the lid seems to be carved as if emerging out from a mist. The delicate pattern of grains in the clay give the piece an overall glow.

In contrast, the clean white surface of three contemporary 哥窯 Gē yáo cups beam brightly against the warm wooden top of my tea table. Thin lines of crazing, long-ago given the poetic name 鐵弦 tiě xián (lit. “iron wire/thread”), cover each cup and break their circular form into minute fractures for the mind to wander through.

In preparation for brewing, I issue-out a portion of the Shuǐ Xiān leaves into an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”, nickel silver) scoop, itself in the shape of a broad banana leaf that were commonly featured in the classic gardens of scholars and poets of China.

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, I open the teapot and pour hot water inside to warm the tiny vessel.

Emptied, I place the tea leaves into the pot’s warmed interior.

Filling the teapot once again, I close the lid and pour hot water over its exterior, further warming the tea within.

Moments pass and the sound of rain fades. I pour the tea out into each cup until the pot is completely empty. Lifting the lid and placing it against the ridge of the handle, the hot, moist air caught inside the teapot is allowed to escape, rising upward, cooling the tea leaves for subsequent steepings.

Peering upon the copper-colored liqueur of the brewed oolong, my mind is caught in the anticipation of Autumn’s arrival.

As I look out of my tearoom window, the leaves on the trees still shine a slick emerald green, not yet ready to transform into the lacquer-like reds and golds of Fall. As I quiet my mind, the sound of thunder rises in the distance, sounding against the cacophony of the cicada’s cries. As I sip from the first cup, I am reminded of the scent of fallen leaves, of cold weather’s warming spices, and the clean crisp air of Autumn.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

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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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

A Mirror Onto Tea

I recently received a package from a farmer in Fujian, China. Filled with individually-wrapped samples of various 岩茶 yánchá (“cliff tea”) from the ancient tea producing region of Wuyishan. Wanting to test each tea and assess their flavors without distraction, I set about creating a minimal tea space in the center of my brightly-lit apartment in New York City.

In the clear, bright light of the mid-Summer’s day, I could easily discern the various qualities of each teas’ leaves. Opting to do a “focused tasting”, where I would methodically work through teas based on variety, I decided to first test several 肉桂 Ròuguì (lit. “cinnamon”, referring to the characteristic flavor of the tea).

Opening up the first package of tea, I carefully set the long, twisted leaves atop an old 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) tea scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. In the bright light of the day, I could instantly note aspects of the tea’s overall health, care taken during production, oxidation level, and degree of subsequent final roasting done by the tea master in Wuyishan. Pockets of red intermixed with darker shades hinted at mid-level roasting, one meant to preserve complexity of the tea’s original flavor, supported by layers of roasted flavors.

Placed within a warm and wetted white porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (“lidded bowl”), the rich aroma of the tea began to lift upward, foreshadowing flavors to come.

As the mid-afternoon began, I sat before my tools for tasting: the white gàiwǎn, a matching white porcelain 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán (lit. “Chaozhou tea boat”) and white porcelain tasting cup. These, plus a kettle of boiling water, were all I needed to assess the qualities this tea had to offer.

Pouring the first round of hot water over the leaves, a light foam arose from the coiled bundle of tea that sat submerged in the tiny porcelain vessel. From this, I could determine how oily the tea would be (something I often look for in a high quality yánchá).

Placing the lid atop the gàiwǎn, I waited for the tea to steep, using the small space between the lid and the bowl to see the color of the tea liqueur darken with time.

Once ready, I fully decanted the tea, letting the now unfurled leaves rest in the gàiwǎn for the next brew, an opportunity for me to further investigate their physical attributes.

Finally, tea in cup, I admired its color; a deep reddish brown, akin to a burnt umber. Next, lifting the cup to my nose, I assessed it fragrance. Sweet aromas of chestnut and spices intermingled with notes of peppercorn, roasted barley, and the haunting scent of incense.

Lastly, I sipped the tea, slurping as I aerated the tea liqueur across my soft palete to enhance my ability to taste the tea’s flavor. Layers upon layers of spice notes, cacao, wet limestone, bittersweet chocolate, caramelized sugar, and cinnamon bark flooded my senses. Even after the tea had been fully consumed, the flavor lingered on.

Breathing out again produced a residual sensation, a cool, slick finish and the characteristic 岩韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”). This, classically, is defined through five distinctive points found in all great yánchá of Wuyishan: 活 huó (liveliness), 甘 gān (sweetness), 清 qīng (clarity, pertaining to the liqueur and taste), 香 xiāng (fragrance), and 岩骨 yángǔ (lit. “rock bones”, as if the tea has substance or the heartiness of eating meat).

Not content with drinking just the first steeping, I continued long through the remainder of the afternoon brewing cup after cup of this tea. Even as the day wore on and my partner returned home from work, I invited her to join in on the appreciation of this fine tea. Brewed in a simple white porcelain gàiwǎn, enjoyed with small white porcelain cups, each acted as a mirror upon tea, reflecting back to us the complex and shifting flavors of this superb Ròuguì yánchá in the bright light of the mid-Summer’s day.

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If you would like to learn more about Wuyishan’s many varieties of classically-crafted yánchá by experiences them directly, I hope to soon offer some of my favorites through connections I’ve collected throughout my years in tea. If you are interested to learn more, and perhaps would like to purchase some of these select teas, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Additionally, I cannot help but to give credit where credit is due to Austin Hodge of Seven Cups Tea. His eloquent definition of 岩韻 yányùn, as well as his detailed information about yánchá was a great help to my developing of this article. You can find his full write up on yánchá here on his website.

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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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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.

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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

Inspiration and Its Source

I have always been drawn to nature. Not growing up religious, I did not go to church. I had no idea of the divine nor the magical. Instead, my most regular practice was to go out into one of the many open fields around my boyhood home in Northern California and to simply sit, to listen to the sound of the wind pushing through the tall grass, and to observe the subtle changes of time and the seasons.

For me, these open fields, the forests of redwoods, and the rocks and streams were my temple. The dappled light that shone through the canopy was my stained-glass cathedral. The stump of a fallen sequoia was the mightiest pulpit. The soft green moss was a sermon enough for me. I realized, at a very young age, that inspiration came from these subtle, silent, still moments I found myself in, surrounded by trees, the openness of a field, or in the company of flowers.

When I began my practice in tea as a teenager, I discovered kindred spirits in the many poets, meditative teachers, potters, calligraphers and painters who, similarly, saw tea as a means to re-insert humanity back into its natural element.

The act of making tea, alone, was just enough to create a pause in breath, a moment of introspection, and a minute to observe change as it occurred. The materiality of tea, too, called my mind to play.

How a painting of a peony on a 15th century teabowl can be just enough to bring the mind to attention. Just enough to remind it of the truth of a peony.

What does it mean to see a peony in a garden? What does it mean to see it painted in a teabowl? Staring up at you, right before you whisk a bowl of tea? Does this awaken the mind?

How a certain shade of purple caught in the clay of a contemporary 茶碗 chawan (teabowl) can become a stream of irises on a warm day in May.

Once it is filled with the bright foam of 抹茶 matcha

…does it becomes alive with the vitality of nature?

Do the mixing and swirling shades of amber and green found in a cup of tea remind one of the light filtering though leaves on a tree?

Will this recollection be cause one’s mind to pause?

Will it ask “What is this?” and not have a ready answer? If drinking tea is about relaxing, is it not also about allowing the mind to be inspired again?

As I sit today and whip-up a hearty bowl of tea, I whisk the green of Summer’s open fields, I breathe in the fragrance of blossoming flowers, and I breathe out the winds that push through the quaking leaves of a forest.

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