Tag Archives: Tea Tastings

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.

****

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, 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.

Leave a comment

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Remembering the Blossoms of Spring

Time has a funny way of playing tricks on you. A year can come and go in a blink of an eye. A lifetime can pass and yet we are reminded constantly of our youthful days. And even when you have taken years to master a craft, in an instant you can be brought back to the mind of a novice.

Tea can be this way too. Constantly changing, all the while one’s expectations somehow remaining fixed. As the great equalizer, tea and time has the ability to humble even the most rigorous of practitioner. This is a recollection of such a moment I recently had.

Last month I met with respected Taiwan-based tea blogger and practitioner of gong fu cha, Stéphane Erler. Having begun his blog “Tea Masters” in the early 2000s, his writing and practice has always been inspiring to me. Finally having the opportunity to meet with him, I was excited to sit and learn directly from him.

Meeting at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we decided to sit beside the window and enjoy several pots of tea. Upon sitting down, Stéphane produced a collection of porcelain cups and a gold-plated silver teapot. Stéphane then unrolled a handmade 茶布 chábù (tea cloth) and began to arrange his equipage atop it. He explained that the cloth and selection of tea and teapots was part of a philosophical approach to brewing tea harmoniously.

Where 功夫茶 gōng fū chá may be primarily utilitarian in its approach, 茶席 cháxí (roughly translates as “tea performance”) suffuses this functional approach with an overall attention to harmony. The result is practice that is both elegant and melodic, with tea and teaware fitting into an overall cadence and rhythm attune to season, breath, and the emotional interplay of host and guest.

Opting to first brew one of Floating Mountain’s teas, we selected a 2018 信陽毛尖 Xìnyáng Máojiān (Xinyang “hairy tip”). Produced in late Spring in China’s colder Henan province, the tea leaves are thin, dark and wiry, having the appearance of pine needles. Set against the bright green and pink field of Stéphane’s chábù, tea and teaware were already bringing to life the harmony Stéphane was hoping to achieve.

Additionally, Stéphane began to further adapt his presentation to the location, employing one of Floating Mountain’s signature stone slab 茶盤 chápán (“tea tray”) into his setup.

For a brief moment we sat and enjoyed the silence before tea.

Once the water came to a boil, Stéphane began the process of warming teapot and cups.

Mindfully, he transferred the hot water from the silver teapot to the porcelain teacups.

Next, using the boiling water, Stéphane began to brew the Máojiān. Initially surprised by his choice, I was delighted to learn that both Stéphane and I shared this approach, utilizing high heat to unlock flavors of even the most delicate of teas, modulating only tea amount and brew time.

In the span of only a few breaths, the tea was steeped and decanted, producing a bright golden hue.

Set atop the wide field of pink and embroidered flowers, the feeling was fresh and serene. The result of this dramatic approach was a sweet, clean flavor that awoke a tea now a year old.

As the first of many teas we had this day, we enjoyed this opening overture together, recalling our first introduction to tea and how we have practiced this art over the decades. For this moment I felt humbled. A new friend. A new approach. Years peeling off of me as my mind returned to those early days of reading Stéphane’s blog, reminded of my “beginner’s mind”.

The tea, too, now a year old, seemed like part of a memory. A year gone by and flavor remaining despite the time that had passed. And now, reflecting on this moment almost a month since it had occurred, how the memory sweetens, softens at its edges, until it, too, will fade. A flavor wafting from a cup. An impression on the mind. A field of flowers remembered in a woven fabric.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Green Tea, Tea, Tea Tasting

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.

Leave a comment

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

One Mile Eastward. One Mile Westward.

In the weeks now that I have been back from two weeks spent at my childhood home, I miss the brief moments of relaxation I had and the sense of minimalism that comes from traveling. With only the clothes on my back, a small suitcase, and no tea to speak of, I was left to rely on less than usual to get by for the time away.

A small, hand-stippled Taiwanese-made 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú (Yixing teapot) and a set of vintage 1970s blue-and-white Dansk ware cups and saucers became my impromptu 功夫茶 gōng fū chá tea set. The weather and sun-bleached wooden table that sits in my parents’ garden became a welcoming tea table. Regardless of what the weather was, I made it a daily practice to make tea outside. The result was that everyday presented itself as dramatically different, greeted sometimes by rain or sun, the sound of birds or pure silence save for an intermittent rush of wind.

The small tea set, an amalgamation of Chinese and European wares, seemed to fit this setting nicely. The thick bisque porcelain, with its sturdy construction and modest form paired sweetly with the warm and textured clay teapot. And, upon closer inspection, even the clean white and blue of the Danish porcelain revealed its own charming imperfections in the form of spots of iron oxide pushing through the glaze.

On my final day before I returned to New York City, I decided to brew a favorite 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea). Sourced from Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco, the tea holds a nostalgic quality for me. Years ago as I first began to practice gong fu cha, I used this tea to train my hand and palate to skillfully brew tea. Now, brewing this tea feels just as much a part of coming home as is the literal act.

Initially set in my hands, I measure out the “correct” amount for a hearty pot of tea.

Next, I place the tightly-curled leaves into the teapot and pour hot water over them. They tumble and rise as they make their way to the opening of the small clay vessel, offering up a small waft of tea aroma.

Waiting for the tea to brew in the cold of an overcast day, I let my mind wander. My gaze falls on to the brightly-painted surface of a vintage porcelain teapot that I use to hold boiled water. Looking down, I enjoy the blossoms vividly painted on its lid.

Sitting down, my eyes trail downward across its side, revealing twisting branches full of ripening peaches; a sign of longevity and of the warmer season to come. Looking further still, a small 靈芝 língzhī (lit “spirit mushroom”, Ganoderma lucidum) painted in red is an informal and playful manner is perhaps the mark of the artist.

With the tea fully steeped, I decant the entirety of the pot into the blue-and-white cup. It’s color is bold and coppery. The aroma is strong, floral, with hints of dark sugar, toasted biscuit, and dried stone fruit.

Lifting the old cup to my lips as I have done since I was a child, the flavors remind me of my youth. Sweet and simple flavors of gardenias and chrysanthemum greens recede into more complex notes of caramels, wet granite and earthy marigold.

A long finish of raw honey arises as I peer into the small Yixing teapot. The once coiled leaves of the oolong tea are now just beginning to open. Further resteepings of each allow me time to linger as the day grows colder and small drops of rain and mist begin to fall from the sky and the old oak tree above me.

Now back home and my life in New York City, that time and place of my childhood home seems distant yet familiar. Now, surrounded by the objects and books and work and red dust of my adulthood, perhaps I long for the austerity of what I had as a child. Only just enough was all I needed then. What happened?

As I deepen my practice, I strive to reduce that which I use. Much like how I was when I was young and new to tea, when all I needed was a teapot, some locally-procured tea, and freshly-boiled water. To return to this was refreshing, eye opening. To be able to go back to this, even now, can still reveal something new to me.

As Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of my old Zen temple in San Francisco, once mused, “To go one mile Eastward is to go one mile Westward. This is vital freedom.”

2 Comments

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

Spontaneous, Like Water Returning to the Mountain in Spring

As Spring arrives and the gentle warming of the season comes, even the mountains can not resist the change. Heavy snow from a wet Winter has left the mountain tops coated in a thick blanket of snow, yet on the slopes and in the forests that surround, water has returned, filling river beds and running through winding streams. The forests awakens to this, if almost suddenly, and the wildlife within become gregarious, filling the wooded environment with their motion and audible calls. What once felt like the depths of Winter has, as if spontaneously, transformed into Spring.

The abruptness of a season’s change can catch one off guard. Sometimes this is met with a sense of sadness, of having lost a time that was dear to oneself. The closeness of Winter has vanished, replaced by the expansiveness of a bright Spring day and the energy and speed it can bring to life.

Sudden shifts like this, however, can and do often occur in life. Relationships can come and go. A job we love may one day end. A person we cared deeply for may leave or die. We often ascribe moments that arrive to us quickly with a sense of unease or perhaps undesirable. But why? What is this that we push up against? Is it the feeling that comes? Is it fear of change? Is it a reckoning that something we had come to expect has forever been altered? Is it that we cannot face this change in our environment, or in ourself?

Spontaneous changes, however, are constantly happening around us. In the city of New York, this is unavoidable. One day there is a worksite, the next day there is a skyscraper. One year there is a neighborhood that is defined by a certain ethos and character. The next year it may completely change.

Tea can be this way too. When I first began to practice tea, every moment was new, every tea I made was eye-opening. Every action, whether picking up a teapot or bring water to a boil, seemed like it was for the first time. It was exciting and, at the time, it felt like every action carried the gravitas of a solemn ceremony.

Nowadays, however, I make tea everyday. I still select a tea, and I still decide which teapot to use. I boil water and I brew the tea. What one might now call a deep-seated ritual that I conduct daily, I consider incredibly ordinary. I simply “make tea”.

This morning, as I gathered to lead yet another Sunday morning tea meditation, I did so as I always had. I laid-out the tea setting, people came, tea was made, we meditated. Nothing special.

Yet to say that it is “nothing special” is not entirely true. The moment was not entirely the same. The people were different. The tea, an excellent 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan, was particularly memorable. And even the light of the early morning in Spring seemed unlike that I had seen all year.

A thought arose between teacups, and, all of a sudden, something that seemed quite routine became something entirely new and ponderous. Within the relative repetition of practicing tea and meditation, when a thought arrives it can come like a crash.

But if one is well-practiced, this sudden moment is met with equanimity. Realizations, whether pleasant or unwanted, are met on the same terms. Each are bowed to. Each are offered a cup of tea. Just like Winter abruptly changing to Spring, we will sit with that which is new. This is quite ordinary and quite special.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea