Tag Archives: Phoenix Oolong

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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

Everything Has Its Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

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

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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

Two Magpies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rich Flavor of Friendship

Every once in a while I escape New York City, replacing the clamor of the urban jungle for the somewhat more relaxed climes of San Francisco. Being born and having lived in this West Coast city, I find myself feeling instantly at home amidst the hills, the fog, and the “single season” that never seems to shift. Likewise, whenever I return, I find myself reconnecting with old friends and, sometimes, making new ones.

What now seems like a second tea space for me, I often find myself welcomed into the sunlit tearoom of Chris Kornblatt, fellow tea person and purveyor of fine tea.

Unbeknownst to me, that day Chris has also secretly invited our shared friend and my mentor of over a decade! Seeing him again after many so years was truly sublime, a delightful opening to a day filled with tea.

Memories soon began to pour out as freely as tea did into many small cups. A bounty of locally-procured food was present to stave-off hunger. The sweet scent of a high mountain Taiwanese oolong brought by my mentor began our session.

Steeping after steeping marked by the moving of small glassy and metallic beads along a woven thread. New teas emerged in time as the energy of the room became more lively.

An aged and roasted 鐵觀音 Tiěguānyīn (“Iron Bodhisattva of Mercy”). The leaves, twisted and curled, darkened by the slow, calculated roasting overseen by a tea master in Anxi county, Fujian province. The color of the tea, dark and coppery. The flavor, smooth, velvety, with a medicinal finish. As time continued, more tea emerged.

A 蜜蘭香鳳凰單欉 Mìlán Xiāng Fènghuáng Dān Cóng (“Honey Orchid-scent Phoenix single grove”), with its long, wiry leaves, offering up flavors of sugar cane and sweet ripe melon.

A “mystery” oolong, which, after close inspection and several rounds of brewing, was determined to be an aged 金玫瑰 Jīn méiguī (lit. “Golden Rose”) from Wuyishan in Fujian province. Its flavor was shifting, a unique blend of apricot and barley, soybean and zucchini.

A 1990s, Hong Kong-aged 生普洱茶 shēng pǔ’ěr chá (“raw puer”), with the characteristic maltiness and mustiness of a “wet storage” aged tea.

Finally, my mentor produced a final treasure from his pocket, a rare and aged brick of 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá (“cooked puer”).

Like a beautiful day, it opened softly, brightening as it warmed, and ending into a deep, relaxed, inky darkness. Friends sharing tea, sharing stories, sharing time together as if the years apart did not exist.

****

Dear beloved blog readers,

I wanted to thank you all for reading (and commenting on) my blog. Seven years and 100 posts (yes, this is the 100th post!)! I wanted to bring it all back to where it began: in San Francisco, surrounded by friends, delicious tea, and dreams of a greater and more connected future.

In the over twenty years of making tea, almost two decades of practicing 功夫茶 gōng fū chá everyday, fifteen years of practicing 茶の湯 chanoyu, I’ve only wanted to make tea and share tea. You’ve allowed me to share my most private moments and offer tea to you all. In the end, the tea tastes better. The memories last longer. The world we live in gets a little smaller.

Looking forward to sharing more tea and time with you as time goes on. I hope we can enjoy each moment together!

Yours truly,

Scott

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Longing for the Respite of Home and Tea

Two weeks away from my home in New York City and I’ve begin to miss it. Yes, being here in the San Francisco Bay Area has its charm. I’ve seen old friends. Sipped delicious tea. Enjoyed the comforts of relaxing at my family home.

Yet, like some distant magnetic force, I feel the call for my own home. Perhaps it is that I feel I lack something here, though this is assuaged by the simple fact that I do have teawares here and, indeed, I fine collection of teas that I keep tucked-away for moments when I find myself back in my hometown. Maybe, it is the pace of life here, though I physically shudder when I think of a commute on the MTA.

In fact, I don’t think what I miss is material at all. Instead, it is the gentle, quiet “in-between” moments, such as when light shifts across the room or when a bird calls, pauses, and calls again. It is the sound of the single pine tree that stands out of my tearoom window. It is the way the smell of incense drifts from one room into the other, a single thread of smoke guiding me to or away from its point of origin.

I miss the lingering aroma of tea caused from first wetting the leaves and then lifting the lid from my teapot.

Tiny teacups offer small, single-colored vignettes like staring at a bright moon.

Crackles in old glaze filled with tea oil marking years of accumulated use.

How books pile up when I pull them from their shelves and let them sit with me, to invited into conversation, offering-up their inspiration.

With my old iron kettle as my only companion, I might engage in some light conference until it’s voice heightens and I must remove it from the heat of the 火鉢 hibachi.

In my tearoom, flowers are picked from budding trees and set in an alcove.

In my tearoom, a wooden 木魚 mùyú/mokugyo (“wooden fish” meditation bell) sits with the likes of Shakespeare, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, all there when I need to work out my own frustrations.

In my tearoom, a metal 阿弥陀仏 Amida Butsu (Amitābha/Amida Buddha) sits by the window reminding me that it’s not my tearoom.

In my tearoom, the bright green leaves of a orchid beam and diffuse light as if they were the prized jade of a scholar gentleman.

Yet, in this myriad of things, I have not mentioned that which I miss most of all; between these moments, the space that defines them, and the flavors that help anchor each memory made. Tea is best made when it is shared with the one you love. Indeed, as I long for the respite of home and tea, I long for this.

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

Friends for the New Year

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

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

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

A flawless Yixing teapot.

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

Layers of fabric and woven reeds.

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

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

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

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

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

A unique string of beads to count each steeping brewed.

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

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

EXCLUSIVE: All About Gong Fu Cha

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

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

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

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

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

“All About Gong Fu Cha”

Link to video

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

Presentation Contents:

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

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted  & Teapots Used:

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

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

To Encounter a Distant Memory and Invite it for Tea

IMG_2160In late Summer I found myself ambling through the streets of my youth, the tight alleyways and rolling broad avenues of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Falling back into my old patterns, I paid a visit to all of my favorite old haunts: the Hong Kong-style diner, the apothecary, the jade dealer. On my last stop, an old porcelain shop, I by chance found this rather large vintage hand-painted famille jaune 蓋碗 gàiwǎn.

IMG_2161Pulled from stacks of the usual mass-produced transfer-printed blue-and-white plates and cups, this gaiwan seemed to glow an unearthly golden color. Unabashedly kitschy with bright roses, peonies, plum blossoms, and lotuses painted upon an electric yellow field, the gaiwan echoed memories of my youth when such teaware were all one could find in 1980s/1990s Chinatown.

IMG_2162During these years, tea existed side-by-side jars of dried herbs, boxes of Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, and ceramic figures of 關羽 (Guānyǔ) with offerings of tangerines. So much has changed since then. People have become fancier, perhaps more sophisticated. Porcelain wares like this are now not as coveted. But that’s the thing about memories; sometimes you can recall them fondly, sometimes you can invite them for tea.

IMG_2163In this spirit, I decide to do just that. Pulling from a dusty tea tin that I’ve kept for years, I place a handful of thin, curly leaves of an aged 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) onto an antique banana leaf-shaped 白銅 báitóng (“white copper”) 茶荷 chá hé (tea leaf presentation vessel). Like the vintage gaiwan, such presentation vessels were once ubiquitous in my youth, something easily found (and often passed-over) in the many curio shops and curb-side vendors that once vied for attention along the many side streets that radiated outward from Chinatown’s Grant Avenue. Nowadays, these, too, are a rarity, a modest treasure from time.

IMG_2164Warming the large gaiwan for the first time, it brings me to attention in a way that I was not expecting. Like opening a time capsule, I cannot help but be drawn into the vacant void of its gleaming white interior as if in search for some unresolved answer.

IMG_2165Placed into the center of the wide white bowl, the thin, twisted leaves of the aged Phoenix oolong seem small, dwarfed by the great circumference of the vintage gaiwan. Like a mirror offering up a clear vision of the self, the warmed and wetted porcelain instantly reflects back the vibrant, fragrant aromas of the aged tea. As bright and floral as the gaiwan itself, this tea seems to answer back to the vintage gaiwan with an assurance that time cannot diminish the quality of something so skillfully made and lovingly saved.

IMG_2166Closing the lid upon the steeping leaves, the tea is left for a moment to brew. Minutes later and the lid is lifted, revealing a broad field of colors. A bouquet of yellow, green, red, and orange emerge upon the bright white backdrop of the gaiwan’s porcelain interior. Enjoyed alongside the rich and splashy colors of the hand-painted flowers that adorn the vintage gaiwan, the tea and the vessel seem to converse with one another. What words do such things utter when they awake from a long sleep? What memories arise when we bring an object from our past back to use? What can such memories still teach us that we did not yet know?

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

Drinking aged Shui Xian oolong: flavors developed over decades

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(IMAGE: Brewing +30 years old aged Shui Xian oolong)

Dear beloved blog readers,

There are teas that age and teas that don’t age. Teas that don’t age lose their flavor, become stale, and fail to inspire. On the other hand, teas that age turn into something transcendent, their flavors transform, and they gain a quality that can inform you of the years they have seen.

While many tea people know about aging tea through their experiences with pu-erh tea, fewer know about aging oolong tea. From the processing to the final results, aging oolong tea can be tricky and “success” often lies in the hands of a skillful tea master (the person who processes, oxidizes, and roasts the tea).

Much like the processing of oolong from fresh leaf to finished product (ready to be brewed), the aging process is often one that involves both “breathing” periods and “finishing” roasts. In the initial crafting of an oolong tea, whether it’s a dark Wuyi yancha (“rock tea”), a vibrant green Taiwanese high mountain oolong, or russet Feng Huang Dan Cong (“Phoenix Single Grove”), producing an oolong tea requires a series of roasting and re-roasting, between which there are several breathing periods. These breathing periods allow for the tea to naturally cool-down from the roasting and air-out any off or undesired flavors. Here, the aim of the tea master is to halt oxidation and preserve (or even highlight) flavors that occur naturally within the tea. When well done,the results can range from being undetectable (preserving the green or floral notes without any additional “roastiness”) to being extremely well-balanced (creating a harmony between the flavor of the tea and the toasted notes produced during the roasting process). Ageing an oolong is, in a sense, an extending of this process through time.

The practice of aging oolong is almost as old as the history of tea, most likely having its origins in the Song dynasty with the advent of oolong production in Fujian. During this time, tea was still being pressed into cakes, later to be ground up and turned into a frothy concoction reminiscent of modern-day matcha. Much like pu-erh today, the famous Longfeng Tuancha 龍鳳團茶 (“Dragon Phoenix tea cakes) of Fujian enabled the tea to retain its flavor over time by reducing the overall surface area of the tea. When it came time to drink the tea, the tea person would break off a section of the cake, steam it, and administer a slight re-roasting to the tea before grinding it for the final brew. The re-roasting, as it was noted at the time, helped to wake the tea up, re-activating its flavors through applied heat.

龙凤团茶 Dragon Phoenix Tea Cake Image

(IMAGE: Various Song dynasty period Longfeng Tuancha 龍鳳團茶 (“Dragon Phoenix tea cakes))

Being one of the oldest oolong cultivars, Shui Xian developed during this time period and made its way into this form of production (even today, one can still find Shui Xian pressed into tea cakes, enabling a style of aging akin to that of the Song period). With later cultivars and varietals of oolong tea being developed from the Song dynasty onwards, new methods of producing, processing, and aging oolong emerged.

During the Ming dynasty, with an imperial edict that demanded that tribute tea be sent in its loose leaf form, the process of making and aging oolong changed. A style of this is preserved and still practiced in Chaozhou, where oolong tea is often given a quick re-roast to reawaken dormant flavors in the leaf. The tea is then brewed, often very strong, to reveal all of the flavors present in the tea. As with the Song dynasty tea preparation, Chaozhou-style tea brewing, with the final re-roasting, enables tea to age and then “wake” prior to brewing.

Similarly, there is the practice of re-roasting oolong tea to preserve its flavor, not for immediate brewing, but explicitly for aging. Again, probably arising from the practice of roasting oolong tea during the initial processing and recognizing that this and any subsequent re-roasting could help to “lock in” the tea’s flavors, tea masters will often give aging teas additional roasts. There is an art and science to applying these roasts: The tea master will need to gauge whether the tea has longevity to express flavors after years of aging. The tea master will also need to determine the right time to roast the tea as it ages. Finally, the tea master will need to know how to roast the tea, whether to lightly roast it to preserve existing flavors, or to perform a higher roast balance the flavor. The tea master can also use aromatic woods for charcoal (such a longan wood) to produce a more complex flavor profile.

Subsequent roasts to an aging tea can produce a subtle “layered” effect. Usually occurring every five to fifteen years (although this can differ depending on the tea master), these roastings not only help to extend the life of a fine tea but also act as a kind of dialogue between the tea master and tea. If an oolong is passed-down to other tea masters, they may choose to apply additional re-roastings during the time they have the tea. As such, the tea becomes a documentation of this history and interaction.

Finally, there is another way to age oolong tea by simply keeping the tea well-sealed and away from excessive heat, moisture, light, and oxygen (as well as any other odd scents). Oolongs aged this way tend to become quieter with age, smoothing-out any of the “rough edges” that they may have had during their early years. If one is lucky, a good tea can become a great tea, mellowing over time and gaining a depth it may have lacked originally.

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(IMAGE: Aged Shui Xian oolong tea leaves kept in an antique Japanese wooden natsume (tea caddy) prior to brewing. Only enough tea is brought out to ensure the remaining tea leaves do not go stale)

As an avid tea drinker, I have had several opportunities to drink such teas, from a fantastic Feng Huang Dan Cong that had been hidden in a rice bale during the Cultural Revolution to a 120 year-old blended oolong one of my tea teachers’ grandmothers who had enjoyed it when she was a young girl. Needless to say, each tea spoke volumes of the time that passed and of the people that crafted them.

Today, I am sitting down to drink one such “transcendent” tea: an aged Shui Xian 水仙 (“Water Narcissus” or “Water Sprite”) Wuyi yancha. The tea came to me by way of a dear friend who had gifted quite a large quantity of it to me more than five years ago. When he acquired it from a renowned tea person, the tea was already close to thirty years old and had received several re-roastings over the course of these three decades.

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(IMAGE: A close-up view of the aged Shui Xian oolong leaves.)

The leaves are huge, befitting the style and cultivar, as well as the standards of quality that were upheld more than thirty years ago. The tea is, in a sense, a history lesson, showing the attention and care the original farmers and tea master had paid to crafting this tea. Unlike many modern interpretations of aged Shui Xian, the subsequent roasting on this tea was lightly done, the resulting hue of the leaves is leathery rather than black.

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(IMAGE: The stone weight-shaped zhima duan ni (sesame seed-colored clay) yixing teapot specifically for the brewing of aged Shui Xian oolong)

I chose to brew this tea in a slightly larger teapot, one I have dedicated specifically for this tea. The shape of the pot is poetically referred to as a stone weight or metal ingot, given its resemblance to these daily items of the Ming and Qing periods. The bottom of the teapot is flat, allowing for these leaves to sit low in the pot. Unlike new teas or even aged pu-erh, aged oolong leaves tend not to entirely open up upon steeping. For this reason, having a pot that allows for them to retain their shape is ideal.

When brewing the aged Shui Xian, I opt for boiling water. Given that these tea leaves haven’t received many subsequent re-roastings and are now going through a “resting” period, the high heat of the water will help to draw out the desired flavors. For the first steeping, I choose to let it brew for only a few seconds, only enough time to allow for the water poured over the teapot to evaporate.

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(IMAGE: The final result: The beautiful copper color of the aged Shui Xian oolong)

The flavors of the steeped aged Shui Xian are exquisite. The scent alone of the liqueur fills the air of the northwest-facing room of my apartment. The color is copper with a hint of purple. Finally, upon sipping the tea, I become audience to an unfolding of flavors quite unlike any other tea. First there is aged dried plum, followed by waves of cedar and camphor, ending in a long-fading finish of dark honey. The mouthfeel is clean with a slight minerality (which is often present in many Wuyi yancha).

Brewing this tea one steeping after another, peeling-back the layers of flavor, and revealing its stories has me enjoying this tea for hours. A fitting end to these leaves first picked more than 30 years ago, enjoyed today and shared with you.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea Tasting