Tag Archives: Tieguanyin

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.”

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

Overflowing with History and Meaning: Appreciating Two Ruò Shēn Tasting Cups

Still coming down from the “high” (perhaps “tea drunkness”) of my time spent in Paris with my tea teacher, I’ve been slowly bringing-our the teawares he gifted me during the week-long studies I had with him. Having known my teacher for over 15 years now, he’s seen me through quite a large arc in my journey, both as a person and as a tea person!

He and I met between a bowl of matcha (he is a master if the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of 茶の湯 chanoyu/tea ceremony), but for much of our time together, he has witnessed the flowering of my practice in gong fu cha. Never wanting to discredit this, he has always encouraged my exploration of the dual arts of gong fu cha and chanoyu. Truth be told, he was first bitten by the “tea bug” back in the 1970s when he traveled to East Asia, first encountering gong fu cha during business meetings, where tea was served before deals were hatched. He knows the power of tea to transform the person and to create lasting relationships.

The teacups in question, given to me as a gift both “between two friends” and to commemorate my relationship between me and my partner (who lovingly accompanied me to Paris), symbolize his “encouragement” to continue to practice gong fu cha. However, the cups, beside occasionally containing tea, contain a story that is very much tied to the history of tea and, specifically, to gong fu cha.

These cups are not your everyday teacups. Instead, they are 若深珍藏 Ruò Shēn zhēncáng 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi. Made famous during the 康熙 Kāngxī period (1661-1722) of the Qing Dynasty, Ruò Shēn zhēncáng wares were synonymous with some of the highest quality teaware available to the well-heeled masses of China at that time.

Perhaps named for the original potter who crafted these wares, or perhaps the individual who commissioned them, Ruò Shēn wares were made in or around the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, at studio kilns (pictured above), though not designated for the court (i.e. not given the imperial mark). Instead, these wares were sold to those who could afford them.

Often emblazoned with crisp blue cobalt designs of flowers, birds, dragons or landscapes against an ivory-white porcelain, Ruò Shēn wares were highly prized by porcelain aficionados and, significantly, tea people, especially those practicing the then-developing art of gong fu cha.

Ruò Shēn tasting cups are mentioned throughout the Qing and early Republican period as being part of the “Four Treasures of Chaozhou Gong Fu Cha”. These “treasures” were 紫砂 zǐshā (“purple sand”) teapots from Yixing, Ruò Shēn tasting cups from Jingdezhen, a 楓溪砂桃 Fēng xī shā táo “Maple Creek” clay kettle, and 潮阳红泥炉 Cháoyáng hóng ní lú Chaoyang “red clay” stove. (All four “treasures” are pictured above, though I cannot claim ownership of this image)

Looking at these two cups, it is safe to say that they are probably not Kangxi (I offer that assessment up to the experts), but I will say they carry with them the joy of use that past tea connoisseurs would have admired. Their clean porcelain white with pale-bluish cast is beautiful to look upon, even when empty. Once filled, the color of the tea seems deeper, more “true”. They are light in the hand and easy to hold, adopting a shape that had been refined through the successive Song, Yuan, and Ming periods (960-1636). The designs, of rock and peony (and perhaps magnolia bud) are sweet, seasonal, and a nod to a scholar’s garden. The porcelain is so fine that these images are viewable in certain light through the inside of the cups given the ceramic’s slightly transparent nature.

To use pieces such as these, even if they might be a reproduction (old or new), is a joy. To have them at my tea table, and used in their intended purpose, completes a circle, of teaware as a skillfully-made form being able to perform their function. A tea practice such as gong fu cha is this, to see such objects as tools for honing one’s actions, thoughtfulness, and, perhaps, connoisseurship in the appreciation of tea and the meditation it creates. This was, maybe, was the intent of my tea teacher when he gifted these two cups to me. To enjoy them for the time I exist on this earth. To share them with those I love. To learn from them what they have to teach. And then to pass them on as we must all have to. This, the spirit of tea, found in two small Ruò Shēn tasting cups.

If you would like to learn more about Ruò Shēn porcelain, I recommend this blog post from Ruyi Studio, which offers greater detail.

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

When Sunlight Joins for Tea

Often is the case that when I am making tea in my meditation room, time passes and the light of the day naturally shifts. Facing West, the morning light is soft, with a distinctive bluish tone. However, as morning fades and the light of the afternoon grows, warmer hues emerge, and the golden rays of sunlight pour through the window of this tiny room, joining me for tea.

As I was quietly brewing tea this morning, I let time meander. The water in my antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) quietly came to a boil, leading to an hour of brewing various teas.

Shifting from a roasted 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea) from China’s Anxi county to an aged 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan in Fujian, I finished my tea brewing session with a green Taiwanese 高山茶 gāo shān chá (“high mountain tea”).

As one hour turned into two, the kettle was refreshed with cool water and the sun climbed higher in the sky. Just at the moment I began to let go of time, warm rays of light came flooding through my window and settled down onto my setting for tea.

It set alight the steam that rose from the water, beamed across the stippled iron face of the old chagama, and cast shadows across the assembled teapots which I had set to dry.

The sunlight encouraged me to make another cup of tea and so I did. Scooping water with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) and carefully pouring it into the small tea vessel.

Sunlight lingered over ever facet of the moment, warming the teapot before I decanted its fragrant liqueur.

And, like the sunshine that joined me for tea on this day, the tea shone bright, first in a Korean sookwoo, then in an antique Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white cup.

And, as the sun often does, it passed along, leaving the room out from the window it arrived through. Much like the small crawl-through-door (躙り口 nijiriguchi) that leads into the tea hut (茶室 chashitsu), it had come in, bowed, sat for tea, and left, leaving no trace save for a moment shared and a memory.

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The Future is Female. The Past was Female.

Today is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, I find myself sitting down and enjoying a pot of tea, a beautiful aged 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea), purportedly harvested in the mid-1990s.

The namesake of this tea, the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin in Chinese), is a being that is associated with compassion, one who “perceives the sound of the world”, and is often depicted as being female (though, throughout history has been depicted also as male, androgynous, and genderless). In China’s Fujian province, where Tieguanyin is grown, Guanyin is seen as a protector of traders, seafarers, and has the power to grant wishes. The origin story of Tieguanyin involves one such instance of her wish-granting powers.

As an aged tea, this Tieguanyin is a bit of a time capsule. A look into how tea used to be made. As such, looking at the leaves alone, one can see that they are considerably darker than their contemporary counterparts. This is largely due to a higher oxidation most traditional Tieguanyin oolongs received, a style dating back to their origins in the early Qing period. This higher oxidation (which hovers around 30-40%) causes the leaves to darken to an “iron-like” rusty green color (unlike modern interpretations that receive 10-20% oxidation). Additional subsequent finishing roasts darker the color further, giving the tea it’s distinctive “iron” hue. As an aged tea, previous tea masters may have performed additional roasts on this tea, adding to its already roasty flavor profile and deepening its color.

To brew this rare and unique tea, I select an equally rare Yixing teapot, one that was gifted to me by my tea teacher on my recent trip to Paris. It is a small, eight-sided vessel, found by my tea teacher in Taiwan while he lived there in the 1980s.

Being so small, it only enough volume to brew tea for two equally minuscule antique 若深 ruò shēn teacups (bearing the mark 若深珍藏 ruò shēn zhēncáng).

Viewing the teapot, it seems impossibly small to fit the tea leaves within it. However, as an aged tea, these leaves will not open as readily as the more pliable younger variants. Similarly, as they have been roasted and re-roasted, this final processing “locks” the leaves into shape.

Once inside the tiny pot, I pour boiling water over them, steeping them at a high heat. It is only with this heat that these leaves will give off their extravagant flavors.

For several minutes I wait to let the tea brew, waiting for meniscus to recede down the teapot’s spout and for the color of the clay of the vessel to deepen. It is only after this that I know the tea is ready.

Opting to make tea on a mirror-topped table in my sunlit room, I can enjoy this process from every angle. Viewing the teacups from this vantage point, I can see their painted exterior and the transparency of their egg-shell thin construction.

Once filled with the brewed tea, they glow like amber. The tea is floral, fragrant, with an aroma of raw honey, dried apricots, and toasted biscuits. Upon tasting, the tea contains a slightly medicinal note; an indication of its age.

And as the warm morning light shifts to the afternoon’s rays of sun, I continue to steep this tea. Cup after cup, round after round, an aged tea such as this can brew for hours.

For a tea like this, we can enjoy the past and the present. From something that was once vibrant, vegetal, green, time has forever changed it. The power of nature. The power of time passing. Evinced in flavors that evolve.

With age comes complexity, and in this tea, that is quite beautiful, something quite indescribable. Named for a bodhisattva, a being that transcends time, form, gender, all this seems quite fitting.

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

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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EXCLUSIVE: All About Wulong

IMG_3195Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

As we huddle closer to the warmth of the boiling kettle, we cannot help but to be drawn to tea, especially those we like to brew hotter and stronger. As part of my regular “circuit” of tea-focused lectures, I recently led a tea talk and interactive workshop at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that concentrated on one such tea type. Titled “All About Wulong”, it was a deep dive and exploration into one of the world’s most diverse categories of tea.

As with most of my tea talks (of which you can find many of them linked within this blog either in posts or under the “Education” tab), I began “All About Wulong” with a brief but detailed discussion on the meaning of wulong (note I am using the Chinese written form “wulong”, which in Pinyin is wūlóng, in Wade-Giles it is “oolong”, and in tradition Chinese script it is 烏龍). Next I outlined the historical origins and context of wulong tea production, consumption, and brewing methods. Following this, we spent the rest of the evening tasting a variety of select wulong teas, reflecting varieties that originated in (or were influenced by) Taiwan, Anxi, Chaozhou, and Wuyishan. Teas ranged from freshly-harvested to aged. In this, we examined they myriad of different processing styles and how to approach them from both a brewing method and from the many aspects of connoisseurship.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture and tea production, “All About Wulong” was a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, which not only sought to educate minds and palates, but to also encourage inquiry and help to hone participants’ tea appreciation and brewing skills (i.e. their 功夫茶 gōngfūchá skills). As part of this continuing effort, I offer you, my beloved readers, the video and notes to this event, for you to enjoy and learn from it.

“All About Wulong”

Link to video

All about Wulong Presentation Grid ImageTo aid in the watching of this 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Wulong Tea
  • Locating Wulong Tea
  • Origins of Wulong Tea
    • During the Song Period
    • During the Ming Period
  • Wulong Tea’s Constant Evolution
    • During the Ming Period
    • During the Qing Period
    • During the Late Qing to Modern Period
  • Brewing Wulong Tea
    • “Mind & Materiality of Wulong Tea”
    • The Skill & Challenge of Wulong Tea
  • Final Thoughts

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted:

  • 阿里山高山烏龍茶 Ālǐshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (Alishan High Mountain wulong), Spring 2018 from Alishan, Taiwan (elevation 1300m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva” wulong tea), Winter 2017 from Muzha, Taiwan (elevation 600m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 老柚花香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Lǎo yòu huāxiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Old Pomelo Flower Fragrance” Phoenix single bush wulong tea) from 350 year-old bushes, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 鐵羅漢武夷山岩茶 Tiě luóhàn Wǔyíshān yánchá (“Iron Arhat” Wuyi Mountain “rock/cliff tea”), Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 1980年 凍頂烏龍茶 Dòng Dǐng wūlóngchá (1980 “Frozen Summit” wulong tea), Nantou county, Taiwan. Personally sourced.

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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, Travel

Sitting Without Sorrow

Almost a year has passed since I began my new life, set up a new tearoom, and began a new journey. During this time, I’ve criss-crossed the continent countless times, each time returning to New York City, each time realizing how much I feel “at home” here.

To commemorate this moment, I gifted my partner a Yixing teapot. Being her first, learning how to use the teapot came with its own set of challenges.

As a rather large (~250 ml) 四方壺 sìfānghú (“square pot”), it requires her to pack the tea more mindfully, pour water in and over it more precisely, and decant the brewed tea from it more delicately.

Setting the learning curve rather steep, however, can come with its own set of rewards.

Designating the teapot for traditionally-processed 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (Tieguanyin oolong tea) has proven to be an excellent choice.

The shape and height of the pot enables the rolled leaves of this particular tea to unfurl and expand upward.

While the teapot’s filter constitutes of only one large hole, this has not hindered its performance as the leaves of the chosen oolong are large enough to resist entering and blocking the flow of the pour.

Being hand-constructed with thick, lower-fired 紫砂 zǐshā (“purple sand” clay), the teapot retains the ideal level of heat when the tea is brewing. Over time, the oils from the Tieguanyin oolong will season the pot and the clay will deepen in color until it achieves an almost metallic glow, offset by the sprinkling of lighter-colored grains of 鍛泥 duàn ní (“fortified clay”).

Even after the teapot’s first use, the tea it produces is strong and the flavor is clean. With each subsequent use, the trace notes of minerality and raw clay from the new Yixing teapot will subside and the true flavor of the tea will emerge and shine.

For now, just to enjoy the subtle aspects of this new teapot’s use is enough for my partner and I to take in. From the way she first learns how to balance the pot in her hand to the way she must decide how long it will take to brew the tea, each becomes a moment to pause and contemplate one’s intention, an opportunity to hone one’s practice. And as she fully decants the teapot, the action reveals a wonderful surprise: a poem recalling a sage in his (or her) hut, sitting without sorrow.

When there is tea, a moment to share is made. When one starts this path, it is always wonderful to be joined by a partner. On this path we walk together.

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