Recently in artisanal tea Category

a tea's identity

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When tasting teas, my goal is to understand the identity of the tea as well as to get a grasp on the palate of the merchant, farmer or craftsperson from whom it was received.  Unearthing the identity of a tea is similar to developing a relationship with a new friend who has their own brand of humor, intelligence, light in the eyes, curve to the brow, and perhaps a uniquely asymmetrical smile. His gait is recognized from a distance by the slant of the shoulder and the jaunt in his walk. He strides like no one else on earth.

Artists like Rodin and Michaelangelo made their reputations by expressing the unique identities of their creations through the smallest details: how a palm braced a forehead in thought; how the finger reached to the sky; how the gaze bore a compatible expression to the hip. Crafting from stone or paint or sounds a whole greater than the sum total of parts, an artist creates not just a piece of sculpture or music, but an identity that people respond to.

For me, a tea's identity has parts to it also, whose unique notes and expressions unite as a greater whole. These include the aroma of the dry and wet leaf, the appearance of the leaves as they change from dry to first steeping and finally to their last infusion; the color of the tea and its liquor, and the way it dances (or doesn't) in the cup. Then there is taste, mouthfeel and rhythm. The taste alone is necessarily unrepeatable The wood, fruit, floral or grassy notes play in concert with each other as no other tea ever has or ever will again. Combine that also with the mouthfeel of the tea--how its silkiness, dryness or briskness reaches across the different parts of your tongue and down your throat, and the aroma that subsequently arises.

Even the sensations produced by the tea in your body will make their own special mark--waking you up or calming you, bringing you deeper inside yourself or more expressive to the world. Not unlike friends, teas will bring out something in you that  arises in response to no other.

This is what I love about tasting teas. Each is a new acquaintance with a gift and message all its own--its unique identity. And best of all, some will, over time, become better known and cherished friends.

When you buy a tea blend, much effort might have gone into providing a tea with a stable flavor profile from year to year. The teas that go into the blend sometimes come from different harvests and farms, and also from different countries. When you buy a major label brand tea, for example, the tea blenders know that you want to have the same taste experience from year to year. They take great pains to blend a tea that will provide this for you.

Contrarily, many tea connoisseurs value teas that are not blended, but come from one particular harvest, which means they come from the same country and farm as well. Teas such as this can change in taste pretty dramatically, not only from season to season, but even from one day's harvest to the next. What is offered from season to season and harvest to harvest has its own characteristics that cannot be duplicated, and for some of us, that is the point!

If you are such a tea person, you might be searching for "single estate" teas. These are teas that come from one tea garden.  The tea may come from different harvests (generally in the same season) , but the tea in your bag comes from the same farm. It is also possible to find "single harvest teas", which come from a particular day's picking.  Tasting a tea that is plucked on Thursday will necessarily taste slightly different than the tea that is plucked on Saturday.  It is quite educational to have the opportunity to taste teas plucked and processed on different days. They can be dramatically different in character, even when processed by the same farmer or tea master.

Then, there are "single trunk" or "single bush" teas. These are teas that often come from older, more mature, and "famous" tea trees, particularly Wuyi teas or Puerh teas coming from "ancient trees" in Yunnan, where tea originated.  In this case the tea in your bag comes from just one tree or bush. This is rare, indeed, and of course, the harvest from just one tree or bush will provide just a small amount of tea and so is more rare and difficult to obtain.

As a tea seller, I have had the opportunity to try teas from one harvest to the next, and the effort to buy the same tea twice can be frustrating. It has happened, for example, that I try to buy more of a harvest only to receive several pounds of tea that is a pale cousin to the tea I have been selling. In this case, I often have to eat the cost of my purchase. Even though the tea might be from the same farm and the same season, it is not at all the same tea, and my own standards won't allow me to sell a tea that I don't wholeheartedly believe in.

Thanks for your feedback, which keeps me alert not only to great new harvests but careful of teas that, while coming from the same farm and the same season, might not be the same harvest and therefore not quite make the cut. 
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Bon Teavant is truly inspired by the amazing qualities of Taiwanese high mountain oolongs. From the floral and fruity aromas of Alishan and Da Yu Ling to the mineral notes of Shan Lin Xi. there is something so special about these teas and I love to share them with friends.

In Part Two of our interview with Bret Hinsch, author of The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea, we learn more about tea by observing and smelling the leaves. Listen and enjoy:

Does your tea have good rhythm? Below is a discussion on the topic with Bret Hinsch, author of The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea. A Harvard PhD in Asian Studies, Hinsch has spent fifteen-plus years in Taiwan as a professor and Chinese history scholar. His years in Taiwan have exposed him to a plethora of connoisseur teas, and his fluency in Mandarin enabled him to to research the subject by reading numerous texts in Chinese. Bon Teavant welcomed the opportunity to discuss tea appreciation with Mr. Hinsch. Does Your Tea Have Good Rhythm? is Part 1 of a series that will hopefully bridge some of the gaps in information on tea and tea culture for an English-speaking audience. Enjoy the interview below!

The growing demand for information from eager English-speaking tea connoisseurs in the U.S. inspires this post. Here is a first-installment list of tea books that are well worth a read as well as a couple of books that will increase the depth of feeling and awareness of the tea connoisseur:

-The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea  (Bret Hinsch) We believe this is possibly the best introductory book out on Chinese-style tea appreciation. Bret Hinsch is a Harvard-educated Asian Studies scholar who has lived and taught in Taiwan for more than fifteen years. Disappointed in what is available on Chinese tea in English, Hinsch researched Chinese teas and tea connoisseurship by surveying a vast amount of information written in Chinese. His book is already out of print, but you can find used copies or an e-book version. This book is so good, it is almost worth purchasing an e-book reader in order to absorb all the great, articulately written information on tea production, appreciation, brewing, and the like. We give it highest marks for both the content and the clarity of delivery. Thank you for your contribution, Bret!!

The Time of Tea (Dominique Pasqualini & Bruno Suet) This French author-photographer duo published a timeless two-volume set that is as beautiful to the eye and the touch as the content is fascinating. One volume is filled with rustically reproduced color photographs of tea culture around the world, and the other volume is a treatise on tea appreciation. This double-volume set is out of print, but there is talk of it being republished in the near future. There are only a handful of copies know where. Get it while you can.

The Classic of Tea (Lu Yu) The first treatise on tea culture in China first published in the eighth century, this classic work informs tea lovers the world over how to consider and participate in tea ritual and practice.

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West (Beatrice Hohenegger) 
Steeped in History: The Art of Tea (Beatrice Hohenegger) These two books by Beatrice Hohenegger really compliment each other and should not be missed by the tea historian interested in how tea came to the West. Full of interesting facts, Liquid Jade reveals some of the darker secrets of tea's history. Steeped in History is a companion volume to the exhibition curated by Hohenegger at UCLA's Fowler Museum in late 2009 and includes discussion and images of fascinating artifacts from various Chinese dynasties and from Europe. Here is an interview with Hohenegger by Bon Teavant in 2009.

The Way of Tea (Aaron Fisher)- This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about tea appreciation from a more spiritual perspective. Written by Aaron Fisher (aka "Wu De"), a tea aficionado living in Miao Li, Taiwan. Check out his site Global Tea Hut to support this outstanding non-profit organization dedicated to the sharing of tea and tea education.

The Book of Tea (Okakura Kakuzo) This 20th century classic on tea culture from a Japanese perspective is a gem that should not be missed. The content of this book has recently been re-packaged and published by Bruce Richardson.

Culinary Tea (Cynthia Gold): What a fine collection of recipes and information on the historical and contemporary uses of tea as food. Cynthia Gold inspires not only the reader to try tea in new ways as an ingredient in dishes, but also invites chefs around the world to reignite the passion for tea as food and to take it in new directions.  As such, Cynthia contributes much to the growing information on tea and tea culture around the world. Here is a more in-dephth review of Culinary Tea by Bon Teavant.

The Tea Dictionary (James Norwood Pratt) This newly minted tea dictionary is a manageable volume of information provided as a quick reference to teas and terms used in the world of tea appreciation and industry. The hefty price suggests that you are receiving a distilled inventory of terms that require curation for the professional or avid tea lover. You can find a video interview of JNP here.

The Art of Tea (Magazine) Published by Wu Shing Press in Taiwan, this magazine, which is published at indiscriminate intervals, is well worth perusing for hours and hours. Back issues are available on a variety of topics, including puerh tea and yixing teaware--information that is not always so easy to find in English elsewhere (but can be found here).

Wabi-Sabi (Leonard Koren) This 1994 classic volume explains the complex concept of wabi or wabi sabi, which I will not try to distill on this page, other than to tell you that this is the concept that infuses Japanese tea culture and frankly, all tea culture to some degree. To understand wabi is to absorb and digest the art of fine tea and the duality inherent in life itself.

The Secret Life of Plants (Peter Tomkins & Christopher Bird) This book is not specifically about tea but about the way plants interact with humans, and should not be missed by those who want to increase their enjoyment of Camellia sinensis on a new level. Scientific studies illuminate the powerful ways in which plants respond to human thought, intention, and actions. This book is revelatory for any lover of plants, and tea is certainly our favorite...

There are so many more tea books that deserve attention, and you can consider this a first installment to our growing bibliography of tea books that we love and want to share. We want to shout out to some of the best tea authors (and their books) of our times and of times past.

letting tea settle

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It is the natural inclination to act on your excitement when receiving tea in the mail by opening the package immediately and sitting down to steep it.  If you happen to feel mildly surprised or disappointed that the tea is not "performing" as you had hoped, try letting it rest for a few weeks or more, then steeping it again.  You will likely be rewarded.

Just as people can often feel a little out of sorts after moving homes or travelling long distances, tea can take some time to re-orient and settle after being jostled over miles of ground travel or pressurized at 30,000 feet during air transport. 

I noticed this strongly with my recent shipment of Asian Beauty, which after five weeks of settling in my storage, now offers a rich, smooth, round body and soft mouth feel that were, shall we say, "struggling" when I first received it.

People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience "shock" when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.

I have experienced this with several teas, and noticed that some teas can take a few months   of "regrouping" to reach their fullest potential, particularly when the tea has traveled from one country to another.

If you are willing to be patient and let your tea get over its jet lag, you will often be repaid with a bright, smooth tea that provides the resilience it has developed, as well as the rest and comfort as it has been given.

roy fong on wuyi teas

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What makes a good wuyi tea and how is it processed?  Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court has been visiting Wuyi Shan (Mountain) in China for thirty years and has watched processing methods change over time. 

(Note: if you have trouble viewing this video, you can see it on Vimeo or try a different browser like Safari)

charcoal roasted teas

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A great tea master once told me that the best tea processing is the processing that cannot be tasted.  In the case of charcoal-roasted teas, I would tend to agree. Some people might really like to taste the charcoal, but I like to taste a rounded, balanced, full-bodied tea with sweet notes that add to the tea, rather than a mouth full of charcoal.  Just as when one grills meat over charcoal, the objective is to heighten the flavor of the meat, not to taste charcoal or, worse, lighter fluid.

Charcoal-roasted teas have a very distinctive character that is usually quickly recognizable. When the tea is both carefully roasted and brewed optimally, the roasting adds a rich carmelized sweet note that heightens the flavor of the tea and rounds out or balances other notes in the tea. When charcoal roasting (or brewing) is done carelessly, what is left is the flavor of the charcoal which overwhelms the taste of what otherwise might have been a marvelous tea.

Teas that lend themselves to charcoal roasting include Taiwanese Dong Dings, Wuyi varietals grown in China or Taiwan, and Ti Kuan Yin varietals grown in China or Taiwan. These teas are typically brewed in hotter water (190-200ºF), but I notice that if I brew them in slightly cooler water (175-185ºF), the sweeter notes become more dominant, the tea has a smoother mouthfeel, and the charcoal roasting is not as pronounced.

professional tea cupping

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There is a common protocol used by tea professionals to judge teas which is called "cupping". When visiting a tea farmer or wholesaler, the tea buyer might see several white porcelain cups and several plates of tea which are set up by the tea seller. The seller will then weigh four to five grams of tea, and put it into each of the cups. S/he will then pour near boiling water at the same temperature into each of the cups, which contain the same amount of tea. A timer will be set for five minutes, and when the five minutes is up, the buyer then begins sampling the teas, using a white porcelain spoon to dip into the cups, smell the aroma, and also serve him/herself some tea into the sampling cup.

By using the same weight, water temperature and steeping duration, all of the teas are treated exactly alike. While teas are naturally grossly over-steeped with near boiling water, (which is counter intuitive to making a great cup of tea), this method of employing extremes brings out the characteristics of the teas to the highest degree, allowing the tea professional to quickly assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.

Generally the buyer will be sampling one kind of tea and therefore judging many different options of the same tea. For example, (s)he will be tasting five or six different Lishan teas or Asian Beauty teas (if in Taiwan). From time to time, a seller will also include a sample that is a different kind of tea to the others.

tea poem: a shared tea ritual

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There are three primary tea traditions that influence Western society at present: Chinese (including Taiwanese), Japanese, and British.  From these, other tea traditions have emerged, including Moorish, Persian, Russian and Indian, and what I call "fusion tea", which is the creation of a tea experience that might borrow from traditional tea cultures, but ultimately offers its own unique expression of tea or tea rites, rituals and customs. When you create your own tea ritual, you may want to borrow aspects of traditional tea rituals practiced by Chinese, Japanese, British, or any other tea culture.

Here is A SHARED TEA RITUAL, which you can "practice" with a friend:

Tea Poem Ritual:

•    Invite a creative friend to tea.  Tell him or her that you are going to create a tea poem together.
•    Provide a special piece of paper, maybe Japanese rice paper or a watercolor paper.
•    Put the paper and one colored pen on the table in your designated "tearoom".  (This can be in your kitchen or dining room, or on the floor of a sunroom or even in an office.
•    Bring your favorite tea to the table and make whatever kind of tea you would like to have. Pour (or whisk, if Japanese matcha tea) a cup or bowl of tea for yourself and for your friend.
•    Enjoy a first sip of tea together. Invite your guest to write the title of the poem on the paper provided.  This means your guest begins the poem.
•    Have your guest then hand the paper to you. You will take a sip of tea and then write the first line of the poem.  Return the paper to your friend.
•    Continue to take turns writing a line of the poem, one after the other, until you have decided that your poem or your tea is finished.  Give the poem to your guest as a gift, along with a small bag of the tea that you shared with him or her.

heating elements for tea

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Many variables play a role in the making of a great cup of tea: water quality, water temperature, and amount as well as the  type, quality and quantity of tea leaves, and of course, steeping time. What few consider, however, is the impact of the heating element on the tea.

Some tea people are mindful of this, and go out of their way to find or create just the right  heating element.  Possible sources for heat include charcoal fire, wood fire, electric coil (stove), gas range, and ceramic heat, among others including electric plug-in appliances.

In earlier times, and still now in some parts of the world, people had no choice but to heat water over a wood or charcoal fire. From experience, I can say this does enhance the pleasure of a tea event, but how does it influence the tea itself? Does it matter if you boil tea over a hot flame or stove or more slowly at a medium high temperature?

According to Lu Yu, author of The Classic of Tea (Cha Ching) in eighth century China, "The ancients placed a great store in tea's flavor when it was brewed with firewood that had been cured for a long time." If using charcoal, he said, be sure to use new charcoal so that it does not "give off a musty, rank and greasy smell".  He also advised against using "oily wood or worn-out or discarded utensils as fuel."

It is hard to know what he would have thought of a gas or electric range or a Zojirushi, but my guess is that he would think electricity to be too excitable for the best in tea.

In American society, we tend to like the quick fix - the electric kettle or Zojirushi. Some among us still revert to wood fire, but usually when camping, and not on a regular basis. Others use ceramic hotplates, which heat the tea at an even rate, and have high marks among tea connoisseurs for its impact on the tea.

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Japanese tea ceremony relies on the ritual making of a charcoal fire in a pit as well as the cleaning of same. There are even special procedures for placing and removing particular pieces of charcoal as part of the ceremony.  For the making of the fire to be a part of such an important tea ceremony, the quality of the fire must have impact on the quality of the tea and the tea experience.

Some people think electricity disturbs the energy of the tea water and that a wood or charcoal fire lends a natural element which cannot be duplicated by nuclear generated power.  Whether these enhance the tea itself is up for speculation.  Any comments?

why not flavored teas?

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Lu Yu, one of the original tea connoisseurs and author of The Classic of Tea, a treatise on tea in the eighth century, advised against mixing teas with other ingredients.  "One must guard against...adulterating it with other plants or herbs," he wrote.

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, provides a bounty of different teas, ranging in the thousands, and each unique in flavor because of the terroir, varietal, harvesting methods, and processing that influence it.  Truly good teas need no flowers, fruits, sweeteners or other flavorings to enhance them, and in fact, may even have a negative impact on them.

Many tea merchants will offer at least a small selection of "adulterated" teas for the tea person who craves jasmine or chrysanthemum in their tea, but the connoisseur will generally seek out the essence of a tea in its pure form. Snobbery aside, the tea aficionado will tend to be more interested in single estate, single lot, even single trunk teas (which come from only one tea bush or tree), and rarely, if ever, teas mixed with fruits, flowers, herbs or spices.

There is something really special about knowing the flavor and other characteristics of one plant on its own.  If you want to know rose, drink rose; if lavendar, drink lavender; but if you want to know tea, drink just tea!

I love a great chai and also love flower/herb tisanes. But to really undersand and appreciate tea at its finest, you will want to seek out unflavored, unblended teas that are processed at a level that produces an incomparable taste and experience that cannot be duplicated or "improved" with the inclusion of other plants and spices.

morning tea

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I have found no better way to spend the early hours. JLS

Culinary Tea by Cynthia Gold is a favorite book of Bon Teavant, who interviewed Gold at the Boston Park Plaza, where she is employed as Tea Sommelier. Culinary Tea is not only very elegantly designed, but filled with more than 100 recipes using tea as a prime feature, and tea information that tea lovers will gobble up or sip page by fascinating page for hours with delight.

With this book in your library you don't have to be a trained chef to create a Vegetable Tart with an Assam tea crust,  for example, nor recreate the wheel to prepare a Fresh Tea Vinaigrette on your dinner salad, not to mention the delectible Flourless Keemun-Cherry Chocolate Torte to top off your meal. Are you salivating yet?  If not, the gorgeous photos (both color and black and white) will help you along.

The book is very well organized, with Part One offering valuable information and insights into many aspects of tea from tea storage to the cultural roots of culinary tea.  Part Two serves up recipes and techniques for cooking with tea, and is sorted into Starters, Entrees, Desserts, and Tea Beverages (including cocktails). The book also covers information on pairing teas for drinking with different foods. 

Many readers will appreciate the further categorization of each segment, for example, Entrees are grouped into Vegetarian, Seafood, Poultry, and Meat dishes. If you happen to be vegetarian, this book will not disappoint.  The vast majority of dishes in this book are meatless, and the great information on tea history and culture is worth the cost, even if you don't cook.

According to Cynthia, "In each culture, there is a wonderful tradition of cooking with tea, but for some reason, these historic dishes are looked at as something very distinct and tend not to be replicated, to not go through modern variations within those cultures; so to me, those dishes are beautiful as-is, but they also should be inspiration for a wide variety of other techniques and uses."  In Culinary Tea, Gold offers the results of her inspiration, with a wide variety of dishes and even a series of tea cocktails.

If you are simply a tea lover searching for hard-to-find information on how tea is used as food by different cultures throughout history, Culinary Tea is a great reference.  The book also features a number of stunning color and black and white images of the dishes as well as of tea farms, tea ware, and tea growing regions around the world.

Check it out and feed your ravenous appetite for inspiration, beauty, inventiveness and, of course, the ravishing deliciousness that is Tea.

roy fong's tea farm

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Blog-RoyFongonTractor.jpgFarmer Roy atop his tractor on his tea farm in Northern California

One of the greatest contributions to humankind by the Camellia sinensis plant is the way it encourages the overcoming of difficulty. When people are troubled, few actions express more kindness or healing intention than serving them a pot of tea. 

I was reminded of this quality in tea when visiting the new tea farm of Roy Fong, owner of Imperial Tea Court and the first and most influential tea man to bring high quality Chinese tea to the United States.

I asked Roy if I could bring my video camera when visiting the tea farm for the first time, and he said "Let's wait.  We have had some issues with the tea." Hmmm....


When reaching the bucolic 23-acre property about an hour or so north of his Berkeley tea house, I couldn't imagine what might have gone awry. "We imported and planted 600 tea plants and all but 40 perished," said Roy.  The problem?

Roy looks over some of the 500+ plants that didn't make it.
"We discovered that our water source here is too alkaline to grow tea."  The forty saved tea plants are being rehabilitated at his home, where the water is compatible with the tea.


"The water here [on the farm] is great for brewing tea because it has a high mineral content, but it's no good for growing tea," said Roy. Alas!

Another person faced with such a situation might lament his fate and sell the property. But not Roy Fong.  Instead of discarding his tea farm idea with the failed plants, Roy has come up with a way to change the ph balance of the water before it reaches the tea plants.  In fact, his next planting is already in the works.

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The Fong tea farmhouse
Roy comments on how much he loves the nature of the land and its quietness.He shows me the koi pond, teaming with polywogs as well as koi fish; we amble over to the cherry and peach trees, which already overflow with fruit.  Then we visit the greenhouse, and ache to see dozens of twigs reach up from dry soil where once there were tea plants full of vigor and expectation. 



We leave the greenhouse. Roy looks across the open land, a streak of intention punctuating his expression, as if he is seeing something others can't imagine.  I turn my attention from the rolling hills back to Roy. And there it is: in every muscle and contour of his quietly determined face, I too can see the tea.

Stay tuned as the story unfolds.

While traditional Chinese and Taiwanese tea ceremony normally involves a yixing teapot, a gaiwan or "covered bowl", can also be used, as in the video below.  In this video Chen Shao Lan from the famed Geow Yung Tea Hong in Taipei demonstrates the use of a gaiwan in gong fu cha.

No one seems to know the parameters of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan that continues to play out in northern Honshu, about 150 miles north of Tokyo.  Recently given the  the highest rating for a nuclear crisis--a Level 7-- experts suggest that it will take decades to understand what has taken place and how it will effect the health of the planet--including human health--in Japan and elsewhere.
For those of us who are avid tea imbibers, there is an obvious question lurking: Should we buy or drink Japanese  teas in the coming months and years?  How about teas from neighboring parts of Asia like China and Taiwan? I don't think anyone yet has an answer, but what are the issues we can consider in order to make sense of it?

To offer some confidence, food safety monitoring agencies around the world are on high alert for possible radiation contaminants in Japanese exports. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for testing food products entering the United States from abroad.  They report the following reassuring news: "As part of our investigation, FDA is collecting information on all FDA regulated food products exported to the U.S. from Japan, including where they are grown, harvested, or manufactured, so the Agency can further evaluate whether, in the future, they may pose a risk to consumers in the U.S.." 

If we were to rely only on one agency, like the FDA, we might be concerned about the veracity of information supplied.  But because there are so many food regulatory agencies around the world, and news is so quickly and easily available regardless of borders, it is most likely that we will be able to carefully monitor whether new tea harvests pose any risk in regards to radiation levels. The challenge we face is in distinguishing the accurate from the inaccurate.

Water and food supplies from around Japan will be carefully monitored by domestic and international food safety agencies. Since tea is just one of many food crops grown in Japan, listening for news of other crops and the water supply will help us to understand whether or not teas are safe to drink, as they seem to be right now. 

One thing to keep in mind is that tea growing regions in Japan are several hundred miles south of the disaster, and at present, only neighboring prefectures (counties) to the disaster seem to be effected by levels of radiation that exceed normal standards.   

Taking a look at the above map, kindly provided by tea purveyor Ito En, we see that many tea farms in Japan are at least several hundred miles south of the disaster, and as luck would have it for the tea fields, the winds are blowing east, not south.

According to the Wall Street Journal "Immediate contamination could occur from particles from the air settling on plants or feed, or in the longer run radioactive elements could get washed to the soil where plants grow. The radioactive material, once incorporated, can continue to emit powerful radiation for some amount of time--the exact duration depends on how much and what type of the radioactive material was ingested--and can be passed on if a human then eats the plant or animal."  

Because the cocktail of radioactive materials released has never before been emitted simultaneously nor tested, even nuclear experts are uncertain as to the possible outcomes of such occurrences. We can only wait, hope, and keep our eyes and ears open for qualified, careful and honest reporting from sources we trust. 

Large, reputable tea purveyors like Ito En will also be testing their teas as they are harvested, according to Rona Tison of Ito En. Because their reputations are on the line, and testing will be done by many agencies who will be cross-checking each other's results, it behooves these large companies to carefully monitor the teas that go into their products.  If these teas are safe, it gives us a signal that small batch connoisseur teas grown organically or in the same areas are more than likely safe also.

Tea farmers who grow their teas organically will also be very interested to test their teas and to share the results, as they base their reputations on the integrity of their products.  Bon Teavant will be interviewing several tea purveyors and farmers over time on exactly this issue, so stay tuned here for more news as it arrives. 

In the meantime, relax and enjoy your tea. If you are very worried about Japanese tea, Bon Teavant sells some very nice green teas from China and India, including a Chinese-grown Genmaicha.
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Last Spring, I met with Shiuwen Tai, owner of Floating Leaves in Seattle, who took me along with her on a tea buying mission in Taiwan.  Here is a short video in which Shiuwen explains the process of analyzing teas for purchase:


gift tea and tribute tea

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There has long been a tradition in Asia of giving tea as a gift. Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea all consider tea to be one of the finest and most appropriate gifts to be offered as a sign of respect, and of course, the finer the tea, the finer the gift. 

In 1972, Richard Nixon was given a rare and authentic 50 grams of Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) Wuyi tea by Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong. At first insulted by such a "meager" gift, Nixon was finally pacified when he learned that this gift represented half of the entire harvest of this rare tea for the year.

The concept of "gift tea" (li cha) goes back thousands of years in China, where tea has been viewed as a medicine and currency; and "tribute tea" (gong cha) refers to the offering of tea as a gift to the Emperor and other dignitaries in China. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907) these "tribute" teas for the Imperial Court became a mandatory tax that all tea growers were required to surrender, and the harvesting of teas was carefully monitored by governing agents. 

Tea has also long played a role as a customary betrothal gift, and in the Song Dynasty, was offered to the family of a young woman as a proposal for marriage from the parents of the potential groom. To "Accept Tea" and "Drink Tea" conferred confirmation of the engagement. In some countries, the family's best puerh teas are saved or stored as a dowry for their children.

tuo cha

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Tuo cha are small pressed, nuggets of puerh tea, which are grown, harvested, and processed in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. "Tuo cha" translates as "bowl-shaped tea", and these little bowls are the size of bon bons. They often come individually wrapped in white or decorative paper, making them fun gifts or stocking stuffers for the holidays.

What's great about these little tea nuggets? First, they are naturally single-serving and easy to take with you on the go, whether to work for the day or on a long trip.  In fact, they are made for travel. 

Chinese tea producers first began pressing teas into cakes, bricks and tiny bowls with the specific goal of making them easier to transport long distances and through difficult mountain terrain.  It has worked for them for hundreds of years, and if tuo cha could make it into the mountains of Nepal and Tibet by horse and yak from southern China, they are sure to make it from your house to work by bicycle or, better yet, on a fun road trip to, say, The Grand Canyon, including a mule trip to bottom of the Canyon and camping by the Colorado River.  They are that sturdy!

Second, you will get at least half a dozen, if not a dozen, steepings from one good tuo cha button. This means you will be able to enjoy tea all day long from something the size of a small chestnut. Just put one in a teapot with very hot water, steep after a minute (less after the first steeping), and sip. And there is no tea bag to discard--tuo cha are self-contained and naturally biodegradable. Just put the leaves in the compost when you are finished with them.

Third, these little puerh tea buttons have the same health benefits as other puerh teas, including my favorite--the mitigation of fat and cholesterol in the diet. During this holiday season, who can resist this benefit?  As well, some tuo cha are blended with chrysanthemum, which is said  to further assist the body in the digestion of heavy meals while adding a delicate floral fragrance.

Take a handful with you to Aunt Martha's for Christmas.  Use them as stocking stuffers for your favorite tea lovers.....that will work like a charm, and you'll be thanked, profusely, after dinner.

the imperfect cup

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"Wabi" is a Japanese term that describes "perfection through imperfection," and sometimes refers to imperfections in ceramics and other material things. It is imperfection that gives a thing its true value and perfection, according to those who ascribe to the wabi ethic. 

Now to tea and the imperfect cup...

Not every cup has to be perfection. When the tea turns out to have bitter tones because it has been over-steeped or, on the other hand, too watery because it has been under-steeped, one might be inclined to self criticism.

Be patient! The imperfectly steeped cup is your teacher, as it guides and helps you to  understand tea in a deeper way.

The imperfect cup will lead you to experiment with water types and temperature, different kinds of teaware, and varying steeping times. When taken in combination, the variables to achieving the "perfect cup" will keep you busy, amused, creative, and alert.

Buddhists say that "enemies" ultimately do more to benefit us than do our adoring, accepting friends. The enemy gives us challenges, which when overcome, bring us to a higher level of self-mastery and awareness, and therefore closer to "enlightenment" or spiritual completeness.  So it is with the imperfect cup.

Sip, engage, explore.....and appreciate every sip of your  "imperfect" tea!

how to use a tea aroma cup

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Mmmmm.....the first time you use an aroma cup (also called a fragrance cup), you will understand why some tea people become addicts.  The euphoria one feels when breathing in the fragrant florals of a Taiwnese oolong cannot be measured, and like all undefined things, leaves one searching for words to describe a sensation that defies even the mighty metaphor. But since articles rely on words, I shall do my best to introduce to you one of the most special elements of a tea ritual with Taiwanese oolongs.

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The aroma cup is distinguished by its cylindrical shape which enhances the fragrance of the tea. The use of fragrance cups originated in the 1970s in Taiwan, when oolong production increased dramatically and a connoisseur market for these delicate floral teas developed. The aroma cup became a part of the Taiwanese tea ritual for many years, but since the late 19080s or early '90s, has fallen out of favor, and many people now just smell the lid of the gaiwan when the tea is brewing.

I still favor the aroma cup, and believe that it greatly enhances the overall experience of the tea in a way that smelling the lid of the gaiwan cannot.

Aroma cups are typically used only on the first steeping and only on Taiwanese oolongs. You will rarely if ever see aroma cups used in China or Japan.  (I, however, use my aroma cup on all teas, regardless of tea type, but only on the first steeping).

This is how you use an aroma (fragrance) cup:
1) Heat the aroma cup, tasting cup and tea vessel with hot water, and pour off
2) Steep tea properly
3) Pour tea into the aroma cup
4) Cover the aroma cup with the tasting cup by inverting the tasting cup so that the pair resemble a mushroom.
5) Hold the pair together with thumb and middle finger
6) Flip the aroma cup and tasting cup pair, so that the aroma cup is facing downward, into the tasting cup.
7) Lift the aroma cup vertically, out of the tasting cup, leaving the tea in the tasting cup.
8) Waft the aroma cup to give it some air
9) Sink your nose into the aroma cup and enjoy the fragrance.
10) Smell it every 10-15 seconds to smell the changes of the aroma as it mixes with the air. It will become sweeter and more fragrant for the first 60-90 seconds before falling off.

how experts judge teas

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How do experts judge teas? By "cupping".  That's what it is called when experts line up a series of white porcelain cups, drop a standardized amount of tea (usually 3 grams) into each of them, then pour boiling hot water over the tea and let it sit for exactly five minutes.
Yes, five minutes each--whether a green, black, oolong or white tea. For most teas, this standardized infusion will render the leaves steeped to or beyond their full potential, drawing out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the teas.

Following this, the tea buyer will submerge a white porcelain spoon into an infused tea, then sniff the spoon to take in the aroma of the tea. After that, the spoon is used to allocate a small amount of tea into his or her personal tea cup for tasting.  The spoon is then rinsed in hot water before sampling the next tea in line to ensure that no residue of the previously tested tea will influence the taste of the next.
This process can and usually does take hours of sipping, discussing, waiting, laughing, and weighing (both teas and opinions).  It's all quite fun, until one realizes that the tea is stronger than the tea drinker.  Buyers might even return the next day to try final-selection teas with a fresh palate to be sure of the purchase.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, I found it at first quite difficult to judge teas this way.  They all tasted terrible to me when steeped for five minutes in boiling water.  But watching expert tea buyers cupping teas and asking them many questions helped me to understand what they were looking for in the sample brews.

As in other areas of life, one generally must make compromises when selecting teas.  One infusion might have a floral aroma to knock your socks off, but a bit of a harsh bite to the taste buds. Another might have a very full-bodied flavor but not have as great an aroma. Still others have their strengths and weaknesses. It must be very rare indeed that a tea expert has that "ah ha!" sentiment when finding the "perfect" tea. 

What many tea buyers look for in a tea is balance. The various notes of the tea harmonize with eachother, without any particular aspect of the tea overpowering the others.  They might also be looking for the archetypal qualities of certain tea varietals to be present.  It might be a great tasting Phoenix oolong, but does it have that honey finish for which it is famous?  Does the Lishan have that buttery, light mouth feel that is so sought after by connoisseurs of tea? Does the Ti Kuan Yin offer that "whoosh" that comes off one's face with the delicate, almost ethereal finish?
Judges often cup more than a dozen teas at one time, and each person has his or her own way of marking which ones should be pursued further. Some people move the actual cups forward or backward, others make mental notes, others make notes on paper.  When the contest has narrowed to only two or three teas, the tea buyer might ask the seller to steep the teas in a gaiwan, and as a person would do for himself at home.  This way the tea buyer gets a sense of what customers will actually taste.

What you finally receive in your cup as a customer is a bit of the palate of the tea buyer, the gifts of the tea farmer and craftspeople, and ultimately, the character of the tea.
For those of you who missed my tea tasting comparing winter vs. spring oolongs at the Northwest Tea Festival last weekend, here is some information on the difference between spring and winter harvest Taiwanese oolongs.

Spring teas can be likened to teenagers. They are vibrant, energetic, bursting with character, color, flavor and personality. They have been influenced by the drama of the torrential spring downpours and the variable temperatures and water volume available to them. 

Winter teas are more like the mature individual who has perhaps more depth of character, a little more poise and is a bit more complex, but balanced and even.  Terroir influences on winter teas include light but more constant rain that downplays the drama and increases the steadiness and balance of the teas. Winter teas tend to be more golden and darker in color than spring teas and sometimes require slightly longer steeping times to get the optimal brew.

The influences of shorter days and less sun, combined with cooler temperatures means that winter leaves are smaller, sturdier and thicker than tea leaves of the spring harvest. As such, winter harvest yields also tend to be smaller, and therefore sometimes more expensive.  Winter tones tend to be deeper in both flavor and color than teas of spring.

tea spirit medicine

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Plants have been known to heal people of various maladies for millenia, and in fact, form the basis for almost all medicines on earth. For example, aspirin is a synthetic form of willow bark, and digitalis, taken for heart imbalances, comes from foxglove.  The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has a history of being considered a medicine, and has reached many continents with this reputation. But does tea heal people? And if so, how and of what?

First, I do not make any claims about the tea plant being a medicine capable of healing any ailment, and those who do are not necessarily to be trusted. While tea is loaded with polyphenols, antioxidants, and other agents that suggest excellent health benefits, one would not want to say that tea cures any particular ailment or disease without documented clinical substantiation of such claims, which you will not find offered here.

But I digress. Many herbalists believe that using real plant-based medicine can be more effective than using synthetic pharmaceuticals for a number of reasons, including the avoidance of grave and sometimes even fatal side effects caused by manufactured medicines. But a lesser-known, perhaps even more compelling, reason that traditional herbalists use plants for healing is how the "spirit" of certain plants can assist in healing the patient. This concept is referred to as "plant energetics" or "plant spirit medicine", and has been practiced by traditional healers around the world for thousands of years.

In this philosophy, plants are considered to have spirit, intention, and the capacity for relating to others with consciousness. And while certain herbs physically treat certain maladies, the spirit of the plant medicine can also assist the patient in healing the emotional constructs that are a part of the imbalance. Several compelling books have been written on the subject, including The Secret Life of Plants , The Lost Language of Plants, and Plant Spirit Medicine.  

Does Tea have spirit? Can that spirit heal people? Tea's reputation both as a medicine and as an aid to spiritual practice is what gave it such cache as it traveled from continent to continent, many times in the hands of Buddhist or Christian monks, as it was introduced to new lands like Japan and Portugal. When not spoken of with reverence by priests and monks, it was prized by herbalists and scholars. Some believed it cured plague and other serious maladies.  Of course, it does not, at least not scientifically, but what could tea possibly do as an agent of healing?

What I have learned in my own personal study of Tea (and by Tea, I mean only Camellia sinensis) is that some teas can be transformational and healing in terms of one's understanding of himself and of life. Tea has taught me kindness, deeper compassion, and a peace of mind that I had not experienced before despite years of meditation, yoga, and other relaxation practices.  Tea also brings community and sanctuary, often simultaneously, which in itself is rather a miracle in this age of virtual antipathy for congregation.

I have seen and so believe that people who drink tea are changed by it, in the moment, and if one drinks it regularly, in a very deep and lasting way. I have read numerous accounts of people expressing how their lives have been changed by tea--sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually, and sometimes physically.

Tea helped me personally to develop a greater capacity for kindness and compassion, both for myself and for others, and also to enjoy each moment, sometimes profoundly. It has also given me a greater appreciation of nature and of my immediate surroundings, and enhanced my sense of community and interrelatedness with the world. Are these qualities "healing"? For me, they have been, and I am grateful to this plant--just as I would be to a priest or a doctor who bestowed so many blessings on me.
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David Lee Hoffman is known as one of the great tea experts in the United States. His thirty-five-year history of collecting teas in Asia has given Hoffman a rare and deep understanding of tea collecting and tea brewing. Here, Hoffman shows us how to open up the stalk of the Bamboo Fragrance Puerh and also how to steep it. Each sip of this smokey, exotic tea makes you feel as though you were sitting by a wood fire in a small tribal village with the people who made this tea. A tea no connoisseur would want to miss, and offered at a price accessible to both the novice and the collector.  Enjoy this video:

da yu ling tea farm

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On a recent visit to Taiwan, we were lucky to be escorted up to a Da Yu Ling tea farm, high in the Lishan mountain range. After seeing the tea farm, we understand why Da Yu Ling tea is so precious--there is so very little produced.  Take a short trip with us to Da Yu Ling....

tea vacation

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Many people cannot afford the time or extra expense of a vacation right now. But we all need some rest, to be sure. Years ago, when I was traveling in Bali, some Balinese people asked "Why do you Americans take vacations? We don't have big vacations, but we have a small vacation everyday when we see our friends and make music, art or a meal together."

This got me thinking that it is important to take a small vacation each day, and having a daily tea ritual fits nicely into this logic. While I don't see tea friends in person everyday, I do think of them when I have my tea, as I have bought or received tea ware from some of them.

My wood bark display dish was a gift from Shiu Yuen Li, a Singaporean teacher of tea culture who lives in Taiwan; my tea tray comes from my friend, Shiuwen Tai, my gaiwan and serving pitcher from Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court, aroma cups from friends at Pure Puerh, who brought them back to me from Taiwan, and tasting cups from Peter Luong of Red Blossom. The small ceramic figure of Lu Yu that graces my tea bench was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Norwood Pratt. So when I have my daily tea, I feel the presence of all these special tea friends as well.

I offer up a cup of tea and the scent of an aroma cup in thanks for all the gifts of life so generously given to me. And perhaps even more than tea, gratitude offers the release from care that we seek from a vacation. 

If you don't have time to take an extended rest this summer, take your daily tea vacation....
Naturally grown tea in central Taiwan
A trend noticed in Taiwan is the attention being directed toward wild, organic and "naturally grown" teas. Farmers experiment by searching for truly wild teas to process, as well as using organic or no fertilizers when growing teas.

Organic certification is said to be reasonably inexpensive, so the excuse that certification is too expensive is invalid in Taiwan. One farmer even said if anything, it costs too little to certify teas as organic, and people get away with looser standards for certification than is optimal.

"Naturally grown" teas comprise teas that are not only grown without pesticides, but those grown without fertilizers, and left to grow with and among whatever other plants that might crop up in the tea garden.  I saw this happening in Mao Kong, Dong Ding, Da Yu Ling, Fu Shou Shan, and lower areas of Lishan--areas where one finds Ti Kuan Yin, Dong Ding, high mountain, and black teas from Taiwan. 

This is an interesting and heartening trend that deserves attention. When teas are left to grow "naturally", crop yields decline, but the quality of the teas, and more importantly, the quality of the soil, increases. This also makes healthier tea for the consumer.  Without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, you get the full benefits of the leaf, and the soil from which it is grown is allowed to regenerate. 

There is growing concern in Taiwan that many high mountain teas are harming the environment because the large quantity of chemical herbicides and pesticides used on many of these teas runs down the mountain and into the public drinking water supply. Some Taiwanese people even boycott such teas (primarily the high mountain teas) in opposition to the environmental hazards posed by the production of these teas.

As consumers, we can make a difference by asking questions of our tea shop and tea house owners as to the production methods used on the teas they sell. Many merchants carry teas that have been processed chemically, and while no one intends to throw stones-- particularly at those who are providing quality teas-- it is time for all of us to consider the impact of our buying habits and choices, and to make our best effort to support sustainable growing and processing methods.

The "one planet" mindset helps us to consider how our choices effect people across the world who pay the consequences of consumer choices elsewhere and who gain or lose their land and their health because of our choices.

Here is our video on Ecologically Grown Teas in Taiwan.

fu shou shan

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Fu Shou Shan Farm

The tea harvest came about two weeks early in Taiwan this year, which meant that in Dong Ding and other parts of Taiwan, the harvest we viewed was the summer harvest, which constitutes anything that comes after the first plucking of leaves in spring.  In Fu Shou Shan and Da Yu Ling, which are at higher altitudes and therefore the last places to be harvested in this season, the spring harvest was just about to arrive....

What is so special about Fu Shou Shan?  While it is right near Lishan, Fu Shou Shan tea is grown naturally, which means the tea has few (if any) chemicals, and no pesticides.  We can see this through the lovely weeds, grasses, flowers and other plants that grow around the tea bushes in Fu Shou Shan, as compared to tea bushes in Lishan where the grass and other plants are literally scorched away by pesticides and herbicides.  We saw these chemicals being transported by pully up and down the Lishan range.

You can taste this for yourself when you sample teas from different farms.  Teas grown without chemicals tend to be less bold in flavor but possessing rounder more balanced tones and incredible mouth feel.  Chemicals show up in the back and back sides of the mouth and linger long past the floral notes, leaving one wondering about the real health benefits of tea.

The rub?  Fu Shou Shan tea is difficult to obtain. A small number of wholesalers have these teas, which are in very high demand in China and not very available elsewhere. 

Fu Shou Shan farm continues on for miles and is part of a protected mountain area in Taiwan.  The land is captivating, with a softness that is in contrast to the rugged mountain landscape in much of the surrounding range. 

After planting my feet on this farm, I knew why I always preferred the taste of Fu Shou Shan tea to that of Lishan or even the coveted Da Yu Ling....the land of Fu Shou Shan is spectacularly beautiful.  Look for vidoes coming soon!

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A number of tea masters and merchants recommend brewing techniques as guidelines, and in the same breath say, "But these are just signposts. You have to know the tea."

By learning the nuances of one tea, you pick up the secrets of others. This is the art of the tea connoisseur.

For example,  J-Tea's Mi Xiang oolong, smells a little bitter after the rinse, and when brewed for 60 seconds, the tea exhibits a harsh edge and an almost dry mouth feel. When brewed for 20 seconds, however, it's a really fine, smooth tea with complexity, character, and even a wry sweetness.  Where did the bitterness go? It seems to have been swallowed by the black hole created by the absent 40 seconds.

The same goes for the Bamboo Fragrance Puerh from The Phoenix Collection and a number of other teas that I now recognize as a category when I smell them....the sharp, bitter smell, mingled with other notes like sweetness and smokiness signal a tea that requires a short brewing time.  Brew it for only 10-20 seconds and you might not taste any bitterness at all.

This works for Phoenix oolongs, green puerhs, and other teas like J-Tea's Mi Xiang. So in getting to know the Mi Xiang by spending real time with it, I learned something about a certain quality in tea and what it's telling me about its brewing requirements.

From there, brewing variables increase: you can experiment with different tea ware or water, leaf quantity, and higher or lower water temperature. Each tea will sing more sweetly or wail a little louder with each slight change.

What are you learning from tea? Let me hear about your tea adventures....

rethinking the steep

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This morning I did a sampling of the 2006 Rice Pollen Puerh from Pure Puer Tea. Using very hot water for the first couple of infusions for a minute or more produced a very bitter, almost undrinkable tea. But the lovely, smokey aroma wafting off the lid of the gaiwan suggested that I had erred, and there was something good to be found in this tea.

According to Roy Fong in his book, The Great Teas of China, "Younger, less fermented puerh can easily become bitter, so try about 2 tsp in medium-hot water with a 1-3 minute steep time." I've noticed that Roy likes his tea "thick" (heavily infused), so even the 1-3 minute steep time might still be too long for some teas for another palate.

So I started completely over with a new serving of leaves, and this time brewed only one teaspoon in 185-190ºF water for only 5-10 seconds (similar to brewing specs at Pure Puer Tea). Nice!

I had a very similar experience with David Hoffman's Bamboo Fragrance Puerh, which when steeped for 90 seconds was undrinkable.  Taking it down several notches made the magic happen. Brewed in 195ºF water for about 15 seconds created a really fine and unique brew, offering a kind of smokey, exotic taste that made me feel as if I were sitting by an open fire with the tribe that had picked and processed the tea.

So, the next time you find an "undrinkable" tea, try steeping it very differently.  Hotter or cooler water, more or less leaf, different tea ware, or a change in steeping duration (or a combination of some of these variables) can make all the difference.

Then again, some teas ARE undrinkable.  In such a case, toss it in the garden, and find a new tea.
In Roy Fong's new book, The Great Teas of China, Roy shares his 30+ years of knowledge and experience with tea, and distills it into a slim volume that is direct, concise, and elegantly written. You would be hard pressed to find a better book with which to begin your tea adventures, and it will serve for years to come as a reference guide.

In broad, clean strokes, Roy shares information about each of the ten teas he features, including its history, lore, processing techniques, and region of origin (including a map).  He also provides color-correct and proportional images of the teas before steeping and as a liquor in the cup, so readers have a good reference for selecting and brewing each tea. 

All the elements of this book come together to teach tea.  Roy takes this opportunity to reach out to anyone who cares to learn a lot about tea.  With this book, you have a tea master's training in your hands, and someone to whom you can turn with questions. 

Each time you scan this book, you will learn something new or be reminded of a different facet of the relationship between tea, its origins, and the tea drinker.  You will feel as though you were being tutored by Roy directly, and hearing his tea stories first hand, as if walking through China together as he teaches you the most important things he has learned about each tea, and how he learned it.

Very simply, Roy is a great tea man.  If you want to be trained by a master, this is your book.
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Roy Fong, owner of Imperial Tea Court, has just come out with his long-awaited book,The Great Teas of China. We caught up with Roy to do a multi-part interview, with our first discussion focusing on puerh teas.

Click here to listen:


It seems that many tea connoisseurs ultimately favor puerh teas.  Why is this?  Puerhs don't usually have the strong and intoxicating floral fragrances of Taiwanese oolongs, nor do they have the very light, crisp notes we find in some greens and whites. 
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Some people even refer to puerh teas as "dirt teas."  I once saw someone pick up a puerh cake at a tea shop and mention quizzically, "Hmmmmmm....smells like feet!" 
With all this in mind, what is it that tea lovers favor in puerhs?  Click on the interview for a short and fascinating answer from Roy.

teawarecomposite.jpg Some people want to explore the world of connoisseur tea, but are not comfortable with the idea of brewing teas that do not come in tea bags.  Let's demystify the options here and save the planet, friends (for more, see my entry on "Tea's Carbon Footprint"). 

First, the only thing you really need in order to brew loose leaf tea is a device to strain the tea or rather separate the infused tea liquid from its leaves. There are several methods to choose from:

1. Porcelain cup with filter: For many people new to loose leaf tea, this is the most comfortable and familiar method of brewing tea.  You simply put tea leaves in the filter, place the fitted filter in the cup, then pour in hot water.  Steep for the allotted time, then remove filter (with leaves), and your tea cup will be filled with a lovely tea infusion. You can put the filter, with the used tealeaves, aside, and steep it again when you are ready. If your cup does not come with a filter, you can use a small strainer, found in almost any cooking store or even the supermarket. Easy peezey.

Thumbnail image for yixingpot2jpg.jpg 2. Tea pot (with its proprietary strainer or with a filter): The next most familiar method is the trusty tea pot.  You will find many choices, but optimally, you would use a glass, porcelain or ceramic teapot to brew white and green teas and porcelain, ceramic or yixing for oolongs, blacks and puerhs. Many tea pots have a built-in filter or some type of internal system at the interior base of the spout that will prevent tea leaves from escaping the tea pot.  If you have a tea pot that has no such filtering device, simply use a filter or strainer over your cup or serving vessel. You can find some very nice strainers made of bamboo and other non-metal materials (which is preferred).

Red Blossom408.JPG 3. Gaiwan:  Ahhhh, the gaiwan.... For those who are new to tea, the gaiwan can be either  enchanting or perplexing.  Once you learn how to use a gaiwan, you might never want to use a filtered tea cup or tea pot again.  The gaiwan comes from China, and comprises a saucer, a cup, and a lid.  In fact, it means "covered bowl" in Chinese.  Regardless, the lid of the gaiwan is used to cover the tea as it steeps, smell the tea, and also prevent the leaves from escaping the cup when the infusion is sipped or poured into a serving vessel.  To use a gaiwan is simple: put tea in the gaiwan.  Rinse the tea for 1 second with hot water, and pour off.  Pour hot water on the leaves and cover with the gaiwan lid.  You can also use the lid as a kind of paddle to nudge the tea leaves awake while the tea is brewing. 

Then either pour the infusion into a serving vessel or drink the leaves directly from the cup of the gaiwan, using the lid to hold back the leaves. I brought a gaiwan with me on a family trip, and my father blanched and asked "WHAT is THAT??.  Alas, the gaiwan is not for everyone.

Thumbnail image for bamboo whisk for matcha copy.jpg 4. Japanese tea bowl & whisk (for matcha): Tea has been prepared from ground green tea for more than a thousand years.  In China, it was whisked in a bowl. In Japan, it became the primary object of contemplation and practice in the famed Japanese tea ceremony, but you can lose the kimono if you wish, and simply whisk up some tea to elevate your mood. The bright green froth of a matcha brings great solace and energy to those who love this kind of tea.  To use this method: put a few small scoops (2-3 teasppons) of matcha powder in a ceramic tea bowl.  Pour hot water into the powder and whisk briskly (while you say "whisk briskly" briskly three times :>D ) with a bamboo whisk.  Stay tuned for more information on different kinds of matcha and different Japanese tea ceremonies (hint; there is a sencha ceremony as well).

In all, tea brewing can be taken very seriously and require a number of traditional tools, but it can also be extremely simple and require nothing more than a cup and a filter.  This is the beauty of tea.

"Wu-Wo" tea ceremony is an outdoor tea ceremony, based on the Taiwanese gong-fu style tea brewing method, but embracing all different cultural styles of brewing tea. As many as 1000 people brew tea outdoors for themselves and each other--simultaneously and in silence. If you are interested in viewing or participating in such an event, you will have a rare and outstanding opportunity to do so this weekend.

The12th International Wu-Wo Tea Convention--a bi-annual event usually held in Asia-- is coming to the United States for the first time, next weekend. Hosted by the American Tea Culture Association, the three-day event, from October 16-18, will feature two public outdoor tea ceremonies, each expected to draw upwards of 150 people from around the world, who will be bringing their favorite teas and teaware, and in traditional dress, brew tea for each other outdoors. Tea brewers will be coming from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, and other areas for this rare, bi-annual convention.
folliage.jpg  Teas and tea brewing styles will be as different and diverse as the participants. If you miss this convention, you will likely have to wait another ten years for it to return to the United States.

"The Wu-Wo tea ceremony encourages participants to forget about knowledge, wealth, and appearance and to establish group equality without prejudice," said Betsy Meyer of the American Tea Culture Association.

Listen to this podcast interview with Betsy Meyer on the fun and fascinating wu-wo tea ceremony:
Click here to listen:


The wu wo tea ceremony is simple easy to learn.  You simply bring a mat to sit on, a teapot pre-filled with the tea of your choice, a tea serving vessel, four cups, a thermos of hot water, and a tray. There is time to mingle before and after brewing tea, so you can admire each others'  tea ware and enjoy meeting tea lovers from around the world.

   The ceremony originated in Taiwan, where Grand Master Tsai Rong Tsang decided that he would like a more convenient way for modern people to do an outdoor tea ceremony. He discovered that by using a thermos of hot water and placing tea leaves in the pot beforehand,  you can easily take your tea set out on a hike or out to a park. From that outdoor service,  he asked 'Well, why not do it in a group?' and that's how the Wu-Wo tea ceremony and convention was born.

For larger gatherings, tea brewers choose lots to determine their seating, and then brew and serve tea to the three people on their left, while reserving one cup for themselves. Sitting in a circle, the three people to your right will be serving you their tea while you serve your tea to the three people to your left. As such, each person is both host and guest, tea server and tea sipper. At least three steepings are brewed before everyone packs up and goes about their day (or hike). The whole ceremony takes only about 30 minutes.

Many events at the convention require payment, but the Sunday Wu-Wo tea ceremony is open to the public and free of charge. You must register to be a tea brewer at the event, so follow the links in this entry. The Sunday morning (Oct. 18 @ 9 a.m.) event will be held at the Foster City Parks and Recreation Center (650 Shell Drive, Foster City, CA), about 30 minutes south of San Francisco.  Anyone interested in participating must register in advance, and will need a little practice. There will be a practice period on Friday morning, at 10 a.m. at the same location. Listen to the podcast above for information on what to bring with you, and go to to pre-register for the ceremony.

Friday 10/16: 10 a.m. practice session: Pioneer Memorial Park, Mountain View. Contact Betsy Meyer at to sign up for training and to receive an equipment list.
Saturday 10/17: 9 a.m. Wuwo Ceremony in Memorial Park, Cupertino 
Sunday 10/18: 9 a.m. Wuwo Ceremony at Foster City Parks & Rec Center 650 Shell St., Foster City. This event is free and open to the public.
Please go to the American Tea Culture website for complete information on tea ceremony presentations, dinners, and other events taking place during the convention.

IF YOU WANT TO ENJOY THE NORTHWEST TEA FESTIVAL at the Seattle Center on October 3-4, this isa good time to book a flight. (I found a flight from SF - Seattle for $119 RT on Priceline).  In the spirit of preparation, I caught up with one of the festival organizers, Ken Rudee from The Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle to find out more about the events, vendors, and educational opportunities at the event.  Here is a short interview with information about the upcoming tea festival:
Click to hear interview with festival organizer, Ken Rudee: 


The Northwest Tea Festival was conceived in a 2007 meeting of some local tea purveyors and led by author and tea expert, James Norwood Pratt.  They were talking about different ways to celebrate tea and support the tea industry in the area. 

"We're planning to have more booths, better educational seminars--most of which are free-- and a lot of other things going on," said Rudee.  The NW Tea Festival will  kick off with an opening tea dinner by the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Wild Ginger. On Saturday and Sunday, you will find lots of fascinating tea events and speakers-- several tasting tables will be set up for you to try different teas served by tea professionals,  tea movies, tea book authors doing book signings, and at least one special cooking-with-tea demonstration,.

If your wallet is too heavy, you will find ample ways to lighten your load.  You will find plenty of unique teas, tea items, and tea books to buy.

Click here to listen:

Download | Duration: 00:02:17

Tea book author and consultant, Jane Pettigrew, was kind enough to offer her views on new trends in tea at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in June 2009. Please click arrow above to hear a short podcast of our interview.

Chinese gaiwan (l) and Japanese tea bowl (r) ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer

While for centuries western women have enjoyed afternoon tea, men hear the word "tea cup" and think of a dainty porcelain cup covered in flowers.  For this reason alone, a lot of men have been turned off by tea.  This came to my attention when the 14-year-old son of a friend became interested in tea only after being introduced to Chinese tea. He had to be bribed into coming to Chinatown for tea, sporting a pair of dark sunglasses, just in case a friend of his might see him at the teashop.  But then something great happened: the gaiwan appeared. A Chinese man deftly steeped and poured tea from the gaiwan into a serving vessel.  "Cool," the kid said, non-committally.  By the third steeping, he was fully engaged, focused, and fascinated.

Originating in Chinese tea culture,  "gaiwan" means "covered bowl", and is a three-piece set comprising a saucer,  vessel, and lid. It is perhaps the most ubiquitous teaware in the world, considering the great number of Chinese people who prepare and sip tea with it. Gaiwans are cool, masculine even in contrast to my grandmother's Limoges teaware.  This is "real men's"  teaware.  No flowers, frills, or obviously feminine lines. I could see Clint drinking from a gaiwan, raising his squinty-eyed, chiseled face in stoic silence through the hot steam and hissing a line as quiet and rich as the steam itself. 

Chinese gaiwans as well as Japanese tea bowls and Moroccan tea glasses could be put in the hands of any man without necessitating the extending of a pinky, and with few exceptions, are monochrome, neutrally glazed, or covered in dragons. What guy could feel like a sissy with these in his hands?

The vast majority of Asian tea masters are men, and in fact, the tea industry itself is known as a "gentleman's" business.  Women might drink much of the tea in the western world, but men are usually the ones buying and selling it in the wholesale market. 

Most people think of a delicate Asian female serving tea when they think of the classical Japanese tea ceremony, but in truth, the most prominant Japanese tea masters are men. One of the biggest surprises at a Japanese tea ceremony class at the Urasenke Foundation in San Francisco was the male-dominant ratio of students in the evening classes--and none of them were Asian.  More and more American men are inspired and engaged by Asian tea culture, which is mutating and fusing in the landscape of the "new world".

All of this is great news for American tea culture.  The influence of Asia is bringing the tradition of  gender-neutral or male-leaning tea culture and teaware to our shores, and this makes for a great balance.  Go to any non-British tearoom, where doilies and flowery teaware cannot be found, and you will find highly educated, well-healed, masculine men imbibing in the best of teas.  Check it out. Throw off all notions of tea parties, and join in the old tea traditions finding new inroads in America.

"TEA HAS AT LEAST THREE times the variety and complexity of coffee," said Eliot Jordan, Director of Tea for Peet's Coffee and Tea. When asked about the benefits of being a tea man in the center of a coffee kingdom, Eliot Jordan, in his kind and intelligent manner, cited the great platform he has been given to influence how Americans receive and perceive tea. With 192 stores in the U.S., Peet's is one of the largest tea retailers in the country, and its tea program is highly regarded, thanks to the skill, knowledge and sensitivity of it's quietly diligent tea buyer, Eliot Jordan.

"To put Peet's name on a tea, it has to be worth every penny," said Jordan, who began working at Peet's in 1984, and was mentored by Jim Reynolds for 14 years before being offered autonomous leadership for Peet's tea program.  I'm also not a tea elitist," he said. Rather, his goal is to buy the best tasting teas at the most affordable prices to delight the palates of a broad range of consumers. "The biggest market for quality Chinese teas is China, not the U.S.," said Jordan who shies away from "tribute teas" and tea competition winners. "It is fantastic tea, but even if I could buy it (for Peet's), I couldn't sell it here because of the price. Tea is just not valued in the same way in this (U.S.) market."

Jordan does buy single-estate, hand-processed teas for Peet's Rare Tea collection, including the Ancient Trees Organic Pu-erh, Golden Dragon Oolong, and Silver Cloud white tea. This is greatly to his credit, considering the care and effort that must be made to procure finer quality teas at prices that match the bottom line for such a large retailer.

Jordan focuses mostly on first- and second flush teas from India and China, buying Chinese greens in April, oolongs in May, and North Indian and Chinese black teas in June. He is responsible for buying about 200 teas and spices (in a ratio of 4:1 respectively) which are (often but not always) blended to create the 44 tea products made available to Peet's customers.

He has, of course, different criteria for judging different teas. "I approach all teas with a British style cupping (method) of boiling water and five-minute steep, with the intention of drawing out all the good and bad that the tea sample will offer. Then for certain styles of tea from China and Japan, I will re-evaluate the tea in the context of how it's brewed by Asian experts, in particular for greens, oolongs, and pu-erhs, so that I fully understand how the tea can taste at its best."

Jordan cited the current trend towards the Chinese way of evaluating teas. In China, he said, they value the appearance of teas more than they do in India, and, in fact, sometimes might pay too much attention to how a tea looks rather than on its taste. "When I evaluate a Chinese tea, I take appearance more into account than when I judge an Indian tea. If an Indian tea tastes extraordinary but looks so-so, I might buy it, but with Chinese tea, if it looks bad, I'll avoid it. Americans expect rare teas to look good."  "if it is in a tea bag, the appearance of the leaf is not relevant," said Jordan.  He looks carefully at the leaves in any case to be sure the leaves are evenly graded.

"There is cultural freight or inheritance with every tea," said Jordan. "In China, you have generations of tea farmers experimenting with varietals, and many teas have at least 700 years of history. India has a much shorter history of tea cultivation, Jordan said, "but what the Indians have that the Chinese industry doesn't is a system where all teas are tracked from the field to the factory to the exporter to the buyer. Each lot is tasted and tracked complete with sale price, at least for teas sold at auction. There is a long history of tea cupping and record-keeping that goes back to the British. China, with its much bigger diversity of tea and less Westernized approach to production just has a different and more diverse tradition."

A good tea is only good in its application," Jordan added with enthusiasm. "Green, white, or lighter oolong teas are meant to be smooth and light, so excessive heat is out of balance to the flavor and aroma.  It's better to drink it at a little cooler temperature,. This allows the subtle flavors to come up," he said. "In contrast, black and pu-erh teas are best brewed and sipped hot to get the best out of them."

As we sip our tea together, I realize that this year marks the 25th anniversary for Jordan's career with Peet's, much of it spent as the Director of Tea.  With a light in his eyes, he exclaims, "There is so much more to know about tea.  It is never ending."

Brewing tea is an art and can determine the actual quality of the tea experience. If you buy expensive teas, as I do, you will want to refine your skills to be sure you are getting the most out of your tea.  This morning I treated myself to a wonderful Fu Shou Shan-- fresh from the Lishan mountain range in Taiwan. As I prepared to brew the tea, I took some time to think about the tea and what it might take to brew it to the finest liquor possible.

First, the water has to be good -- at least filtered, if not spring water. Second, the water has to be heated to the right temperature for the tea--not too hot to injure the complexity of the leaf's offerings, but hot enough to excite the leaves properly.  I decided to heat my tea water to near boiling (around 200°F) but not quite boiling (212°F). Third, I had to gauge how long to steep the tea in relation to how much tea was being steeped. I used about one tablespoon of tea, which when steeped, would expand generously to perhaps six times the volume.

For a Formosa (Taiwanese) oolong, which is rolled, I wanted the first steeping to only partially unroll the tea leaves. This process of the tea leaf unfurling is referred to as "the agony of the leaf". In this case, it didn't take too long, around 25-30 seconds for it to open to the degree I wanted (about 2/3). I also checked the aroma off the lid of the gaiwan to see if it still had a water smell (under-steeped) or a round, complex bouquet (correct-o). I hit it just right. The second steeping opened the leaf fully, and this took only about 15 seconds with the same water temperature (around 200°F). Again, spot on. The third steeping allows the full expression of the open leaf to avail itself to the water.  Ahhhhh, perfection. "It's liquor like the sweetest dew of heaven...." (Lu Yu).

Try playing with the above variables yourself--with any tea--and see how many wonderful (and not so fabulous) tastes you come up with.  See what you can do to refine your brewing technique, and along with it, your palate.
To answer the questions of friends and colleagues who visit this site: No, I am not paid by tea merchants to plug their products.  I am simply an appreciator of fine teas as well as a media person. When you combine these two passions, the result is what you find on Bon Teavant: news, interviews, photographs, and musings on the connoisseur tea world and the delightful tea people who engage in its landscape.  

The tea community is vast, ever-fascinating and always evolving, especially in the United States, where tea culture is just taking hold and being created. When I find a tea merchant who has incredible teas, I want to share the news.  When I meet a tea expert who has information on some arcane aspect of artisan tea, I interview that person so I can share what I am learning with a growing audience of tea aficionados. 

I hope you will return the favor by commenting or sharing your favorite teas and tea venues with the Bon Teavant audience.

Until the next posting -- happy sipping, happy spring.


Click on the arrow above to hear our interview with Nigel Melican on tea's carbon footprint.

Nigel Melican (R) and Bill Waddington of TeaSource at World Tea Expo 2009

The World Tea Expo, taking place this weekend in Las Vegas, is a fabulous place to meet leaders in the tea industry who set standards for tea as well as those who undertake in-depth research on the subject of tea. The World Tea Expo educational conference is hailed as the most comprehensive education on tea in the world, and its Core Conference Program & Skill Building Workshops are designed to provide a forum for tea experts to share their knowledge.

During one such program, I caught up with Nigel Melican, Managing Director of Teacraft Ltd, who is a scientist as well as a tea man.  He has more than 20 year's experience improving the technology of tea manufacture in over 35 different tea countries and is a consultant to trade experts. Melican has recently undertaken extensive research on tea's carbon footprint, and in his final analysis, he has found that tea has the potential to be an environmental saint rather than sinner when we measure its carbon footprint by a number of criteria (listen to the podcast above for details). But several variables in the domain of the tea drinker herself have a great impact on the environment.

In his research, Melican discovered that the choices of consumers can determine the carbon footprint of the tea they drink. For example, teabag tea has ten times the carbon footprint of loose tea (all other variables being equal). The kind of fuel a tea drinker uses to heat water for tea also has an impact.  Recycling or re-using your tea (as well as its packaging) also improves its carbon footprint.  Used tealeaves can be put to good use to fertilize your houseplants or garden, to clean your home or for skincare.  (Listen to Ito En's Rona Tison in my earlier interview with her on the uses of green tea).  Re-use tea to cook, to clean, and to reduce odors in your home. Composting tea rather than tossing it in the trash will also benefit the earth.  If you don't have a garden, offer your used tealeaves to friends and neighbors who do (they will thank you for it).

All in all, tea does pretty well against other beverages in terms of its carbon footprint, coming in at only 5% of the carbon footprint of bottled beer.

Mr. Melican would like to see mandatory carbon footprint labeling on all food products, a law which is being considered in England and which consumers in the U.S. and around the world can request of their representatives.

Be looking to Bon Teavant for more podcasts and in-depth interviews from the leaders of the tea industry, including Jane Pettigrew on rare teas and Yoon Hee Kim, Korean tea master on her art. 

Norwood Pratt orates at the 2009 World Tea Expo  Image ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer

You would never know our economy was ailing by the way the World Tea Expo was kicked off today with great energy, optimism, and enthusiasm. It began with an 8 a.m. Tea Trends Report presented by Lynn Domblaser, Director of CPG, who brought some interesting insights and suggestions to the tea trade and the way it is blossoming in the new American tea culture.

Here are some salient features of Ms. Domblaser's talk:
  • "Beauty Drinks" made with tea and medicinal herbs are now a hot item, found not in tea shops or grocery stores but in the cosmetics section of upscale department stores.  It is thought that tea drinks benefiting immunity and stress reduction might be found in other unfamiliar places in the near future as well.
  • Consumers are focused on recycling and re-usable packaging and products, and tea companies are responding.  She mentioned other (non-tea) products to emulate, such as a lip balm that comes in a cardboard container, which is imbedded with flower seeds.  Once you are ready to "dispose" of the carton, you simply wet it to soften it, then plant it in your garden.  Soon you will have lovely flowers to match your healthy, soft lips.
And speaking of recycling, shortly after this talk, I attended a fabulous presentation by Nigel Melican, Managing Director of Teacraft, Limited, who has done quite extensive research on the carbon footprint of tea.  In a nutshell, the way tea is grown, processed, packaged, shipped, prepared and disposed of determines the carbon footprint, which can actually favor the environment.  Each of these variables plays a role, and the role of the consumer is no small matter, from tea selection to preparation to disposal.  You will hear much more about this in future posts.

Shortly after this talk (which was one of many being presented simultaneously in different conference rooms), the Expo floor was opened and heralded by a rare opportunity to see a presentation by Master Sen So'Oku (Sen Masayoshi, Zuiensai, 15th generation heir to the sushakoji-Senke School of Tea.  Sen So'Oku was joined in the presentation by his son who is the next heir to the lineage. 

The modesty and soulful simplicity of the tea master was evident in his answers to audience questions. When asked for words of wisdom to new students of Japanese tea ceremony, Sen So'Oku said: "The most important thing is to try to give your guest a delicious bowl of tea.  There are many schools of tea but in the end, entertaining your guests and giving them a good bowl of tea is most important. Think about what makes your guests happy.  At the end [of the ceremony] ask the guest if they enjoyed the tea.  If they say yes, it was a success."

Later in the afternoon, the Expo stage was enlivened with an oolong rolling demonstration.  The energy and strength of tea master Fang was impressive, as the audience cheered and looked on with admiration and curiosity as he twirled cotton draped teas into tight balls and kneaded them with all his might.

And no one could miss the entertaining tea lore giant James Norwood Pratt, who occupied a good portion of the ITI booth which included a grand scale image of Sir Pratt himself.

The day ended with the announcement of the winners of the tea competition, which was entered primarily by large commercial tea manufacturers like Rishi, Peli Teas, Ito En, and Tea Gschwendner.  You can see all the results on the World Tea Expo site.

More news and in depth interviews coming soon!

water for tea #2

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                                                          All images ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer 

WATER TEMPERATURE ALSO INFLUENCES the final cup, and tea masters are vigilant about heating their water optimally to match the tea they are brewing. However, they determine the "readiness" of the water in different ways--visually, auditorially, and electronically.

Some look for visual signs of the water temperature to determine when the water is heated properly for the particular tea they intend to brew. You may have heard that some tea masters look for "fish eyes" in the water. This is when medium bubbles form just before the water moves towards a roiling boil, and when the water is ready for oolongs. The way the steam leaves the spout of the kettle--in wisps or in gusts--also signals the water's readiness to some tea masters.

Lu Yu said:
    When at the edges it chatters like a bubbling spring and looks like pearls innumerable strung together, it has reached the second stage. When it leaps like breakers majestic and resounds like a swelling wave, it is at its peak. Any more and the water will be boiled out and should not be used.1

David Lee Hoffman listens to the water. During our tea time together, as the water began to get closer to boiling, he stopped the conversation and said "Listen!" as he waited in anticipation for exactly the right crackling or rumbling noise to emit from the iron kettle over the fire. A skilled sound man, Hoffman has a keenly trained ear which he puts to good use as a tea master. He said he also pays attention to the way the steam rises from the spout at different temperatures.

Many tea masters simply use automated kettles that brew water to a pre-selected temperature, and still others in the slow food movement who like to be numerically exacting without the aid of electronic technology, will use a simple kitchen thermometer meant for liquids. (Note: these thermometers have a range that does not exceed about 220°F and will melt if accidentally use in the oven).

I rely on a combination of visual and auditory methods to brew water to the right temperature. I watch for the intensity and velocity of the steam coming from the spout of the kettle, and if I am busy doing something else while the kettle is heating, I listen for a certain sound I have come to recognize when the water is close to boiling (kind of like popcorn popping). If the whistle blows before I reach the kettle, I've failed.  I just recently had to buy a new tea kettle, and notice that it makes different sounds than the old one, so I am having to learn the language of this new tea kettle.

You will also want to become familiar with the relationship between tea type and water temperature. Here are some basic guidelines, which are meant to be experimental baselines. Green and white teas tend to require cooler water temperatures, usually between 160-185°F; oolongs do well in higher temperatures, approximately 185-205°F; and black teas can usually be steeped in water 205°F to boiling (212°F). Playful experimentation might also lead  you to discover some of the secrets of tea, such as steeping an oolong in cooler-than-optimal water will bring out sweeter notes in the tea.

This is just a brief overview of water for tea.  Each aspect regarding water for tea is a subject in itself that some tea experts delve into with great vigor and in depth. Collecting and heating water is the first step to brewing good tea. But however you brew tea, be sure to drink, dream, share, and be merry.

1 The Classic of Tea, translated by Francis Ross Carpenter (Ecco Press, 1974)

water for tea #1

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©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer
Before tea there is water.  While you invest time and money to procure great tea, you might also want to consider your investment in "gathering" and brewing water for tea.

Any cup of tea will be at its best when you use the finest water available, heated to the optimal temperature for the particular tea. While I don't profess to be a tea master, I've made it my life's work for the past three years or so to research tea for my book and blog by interviewing great tea masters. They all have different preferences and standards when it comes to water, and I'll share some of what I have learned from them.

One of the most engaging tea experiences I have had was my recent visit with the legendary tea master David Lee Hoffman. During this second tea encounter at Hoffman's home, he gave me the choice of having tea in his open-air teahouse or at a fire pit just behind the teahouse. Despite my appreciation for his gorgous teahouse which he built himself, I chose the latter. At the fire pit, we would be building a fire together as part of our tea gathering. I thought this would be fun, and I liked the idea of building a fire together for tea.

Brewing water this way seems to change the character of the water and certainly that of the tea experience. Hoffman told me that he regularly collects water for tea from an undisclosed local stream. He also occasionally makes a trip up to the Sierra Mountains and when he does, he collects water from high mountain streams that derive from glacial runoff. What's good about this water, he says, is that it has aerated from cascading and also picks up dissolved minerals along its journey. When possible, he brings a bit of this water back for making tea at home.

This is an amazing standard and reminds me that how we live is sometimes much more important than what we do. David Lee Hoffman's appreciation for quality tea water reminds me of Lu Yu, the eighth century Tang Dynasty tea sage who instructed his readers in The Classic of Tea about how and where to collect water for tea:

  On the question of water to use, I would suggest that tea made from mountain streams is
       best, river water is all right, but well-water is quite inferior.

Other tea masters rave about the water used for brewing tea in the rural mountain villages of China where they go to find teas. They believe that where good tea grows, good water is often close at hand. As well, the experience of drinking a tea in its natural habitat with local stream water meant for that tea is an inimitable lifetime experience to be treasured.

Rites and rituals for heating water for tea can of course be found in Japanese tea ceremony. If you were to be a fly on the wall watching a Japanese tea master prepare for a tea gathering, you would see him or her carefully positioning hot colas in the hearth. The vision of the gleaming scarlet coals is meant to heighten the aesthetic experience of having tea. Whether it influences the water or not is hard to say, but seeing the bright coals glowing under the large cast iron teapot makes the guest feel warm and cared for, as if they were existentially "home". There are even ceremonies to mark the seasons by changing the hearth itself. The act of brewing water for tea is that important.

If you don't have the time or will to go to the mountains to collect water for tea and you don't happen to have a tea brewing hearth or fire pit nearby, you will probably, like most of us, be using tap water heated in a tea kettle on a gas or electric range. You can still attain an easily-met higher standard by simply filtering the water. You can find a variety of filters, some that are quite sophisticated and are installed in your water system, and some that are more basic, like a Brita® filter over a plastic jug. You can also do what I've seen done for Japanese tea ceremony, which is to put a special piece of whole-stalk bamboo charcoal into your tea kettle, which absorbs undesirable chemicals and odors while your water heats up. (These can be found in Asian tea shops and in places like San Francisco's Japantown). However you do it, it's worth the effort of filtering local tap water. Your tea will taste better this way.

As an extra note, the distillation process is said to rid water of the minerals that bind with the tea to bring out its best flavor and character, so you will not want to use distilled water for brewing tea.

  Rona Tison, Ito En ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer                 Change, Hope & Progress

DON'T THROW AWAY YOUR USED GREEN TEA leaves before listening Ito En's Rona Tison, who shares her own and her Japanese mother's secret benefits of green tea.  As well, this is a great opportunity to respond to Ito En's haiku contest call for entries on the subject of "Change, Hope & Progress."

      Click the Play Button for Rona Tison Interview:



Illustration ©2009 Jennifer Sauer

 I JUST FINISHED READING the book The Republic of Tea: Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur, by the company's original founders, Will Rosenzweig and Mel & Patricia Ziegler.  In a series of whimsical faxes exchanged during the early 1990s between Mel (as mentor) and Will (as mentee), Mel describes not only how to build a company from the ground up, but how to craft a life: "sip by sip, not gulp by gulp."  As the book progresses, Mel invites both his colleague, Will, and his readers to consider the benefits of Tea Mind-- the state of mind one enters at around cup number five, according to Tang Dynasty poet, Lu Tong who wrote, "At the fifth cup, I am purified," in his poem, Tea Drinking.

"I want what I have," Mel petitions the reader, through his advice to Will. This statement is at the nucleus of Tea Mind, and the raison d'etre of creating a tea business, particularly in a severe economic downturn.  Wanting what you have provides relief, particularly when you need a distraction from thinking about what you may recently have lost or might lose in the unknown future. Tea is a wonderful tonic for any depression, be it economic or physiological. Tea Mind comes naturally from drinking tea and taking time out of one's day to be quiet, observant and resident in his or her own stillness. It comes of itself, as easily as the steam. Tea Mind is enduring and even more important now than it was during that puny recession of the early 1990's when The Republic of Tea book was written (and the company founded).

Tea Mind is wanting what you have rather than angling to get what you want.  This small shift in words nudges the reader toward a huge yet simple segue in thinking and values. You find that wanting what you have is much more gratifying and takes much less energy than wanting things to be different.  "I want, I want, I want," says the incumbent monkey mind. Yet when you sit down and sip a rare, hand-crafted oolong made from the ancient trees of China, you suddenly look around, and although life and its present challenges are still the same, you somehow settle into yourself, and the need for things to change somehow evaporates like streaks of steam rising then disappearing from your cup.  Suddenly, you are still and empty, and simply enjoying the gorgeousness of the steam itself, its aroma mingling with the comfort of your favorite books sitting on the shelf, and the lovely color of your living room walls.

Life has changed, and you didn't do a thing, but drink some tea and start thinking differently. "Wow," says Tea Mind. "Steam, color, smell." Tea Mind is that simple:  "I want what I have."

~Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither~

Thumbnail image for DavidHoffman©2009BonTeavant.jpg 
I had the honor and pleasure of visiting famed tea master David Lee Hoffman and his wife, Bea, for tea not long ago.  An unsuspecting visitor might be tipped off by directions to David's home and private tea house that (s)he is in for a magical adventure:

"Come up the driveway, past the boat on the lake at right and chicken coop on left.  Pass the bell tower, bear to your right, walking up the brick path that leads to the tea house, and enter through the large steel doors on left. Pass through the stone tunnel below the tea house, up the brick steps, past the worm palace and moat on the left....."

I have suddenly become Dorothy searching for the (tea) wizard in a Chinese/Nepalese version of Oz. I would not be entirely surprised to see the Tin Man or the Scarecrow waving to me at any turn of the brick path.  Whimsical stone sculptures stand erect by half-built "castles" and towers. The brick path brings the visitor over bridges and streams and past ponds and chicken coops.  I wonder when the Lollypop Kids will appear to greet me. "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," I think to myself bemusedly.

Finally making it to the open-air deck of the Chinese-style tea house which faces a panoramic cathedral of old-growth redwood trees, I hear the music of male voices discussing the completion of a Japanese tile roof. "Helloooo???" I chime.  "I'm just coming down from the roof," I hear in response, as David magically flies down from above to welcome me to his kingdom. Neither hidden behind a curtain nor donning a cape, David appears before me.  He is as lovely, rustic, and authentic a character as his magnificent Chinese tea house with its gnarled-wood antique Chinese chairs and festive Nepalese prayer flags. We shake hands, and I return the quiet grin spreading beneath Hoffman's kind and curious gaze.

David's private tea house, to which guests are welcome by invitation only, is the ultimate place to savor the delights of tea and take in the lavish gifts of the magical redwood forest (not to mention David's inspiring company). But a late autumn chill drives us into David's home, as the tea house, for now, is unheated and open to the elements.  I have brought with me a photographic print as a gift for David and Bee, yet something in me wonders if I should have brought tea. It seemed imprudent at best, and cheeky at worst, to bring tea to someone whose legendary status in the U.S. tea world is dwarfed only by his reputation among Asian tea groupies, who follow him around China to find out which teas he will buy each season.

We enter David's warm and cozy home, which, like the tea house, faces out to the great  Northern California redwoods. "Did you bring your favorite tea?" he asks.  Hawks circle the air.  I shake my head.  "Not this time," I say, feeling a bit sheepish.  I look around the wood-and-glass home to see the lovely gifts of nature David and Bee have collected, as well as some Asian art and writings.  One piece of writing tacked to a beam in the house especially moves me:

              "These three ways
              lead to the heavens:
              asserting the truth,
              not yielding to anger,
              and giving......."
                        ----Dhammapada, verse 224

David is indeed generous, bringing out three different pu-erh teas to taste, one in a bamboo casing, one a cake, and one a loose tea. He steeps the teas in ceramic gaiwans, lining them up, each behind a tasting cup, so we can taste the brews, one after the other.  He pours the rinse water into a three-legged earthen frog, which he loves because of its stability, and it's mirroring of the Chinese belief in the strength of three-pillared bases.
"Which tea do you think is the oldest?" he asks me later.  "How do you judge the age of a tea?" I ask.  He says there are many factors, each of which can be faked.  Hmmmmm....All of the teas are smooth, and each has a very different and distinctive aroma and flavor.  One is brisk, vegetal, and almost astringent; one is mossy and changes on the tongue, and one is very earthy, the "dirt" taste many associate with pu-erhs.

One tea has a particular depth and, as I decide not to risk flaunting my ignorance, I wait for him to tell me that it is this complex tea which is the oldest.  "Probably around 1992," he says.  "This tea is much darker than the other two," he offers, pointing to a different tea, "so some might guess this to be the oldest tea. But the darkness of the tea doesn't mean its older. It's this other tea here which is the oldest", and he points to the tea in the middle, the mossy one with the personality that keeps growing and shifting with such subtlety.

The afternoon moves forward, the tall trees tossing themselves into a rose sunset.  It is time to go, to let David relax after a long day of working on the roof, which has been in the making for years and years, David says.  We promise to meet again. "Next time, I will bring tea," I add.

"Can you find your way out?" David asks. I assure him I can, although within moments of departing, I find myself in a maze of tunnels, trees, streams, and collected things that have not yet found permanent homes.  I click my heels three times.......

the art of the teaball

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©2008 Jennifer Leigh Sauer

TEABALLS GET A BAD RAP in the Chinese artisan tea drinking scene.  They supposedly cost about a nickel apiece in China and are considered to be made from lower grade teas.  In the United States and Europe, they sell for about two dollars each. 

They grace the cover of The Way to Tea not because of their reputation for great taste, but because they represent new trends in American tea culture and, as you can see, they are quite beautiful, both before and during steeping. 

What impresses me most about the teaball is the great aesthetic care that goes into making one.  They are always hand crafted (sewn by hand) by Chinese tea people. A handcrafted beverage is a rarity in the United States, where sugary soft drinks are best sellers. 
Handcrafted tea is an art that is almost lost, and any reminder of its importance--particularly one this beautiful-- is precious.

I like to think of the teaball as a symbol of beauty and of invention. Whether or not you appreciate it's taste, you can appreciate it aesthetically.  It seems that the people who are the first to discredit teaballs are the same ones who sell them (at an inflated rate).  Why sell them if you don't believe in them?  

They are fun, beautiful, and, if not outrageously delicious like a high mountain oolong, they might at least elevate your mood from their sheer beauty and the care that was used in creating them.  Tea provides all kinds of "highs", not the least of which is aesthetic. 

lu yu

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LU YU, AUTHOR OF THE FIRST comprehensive book on tea culture (before there was such a concept), was intellectually rigorous, but at the same time, soulful and intuitive.  These are the qualities found in a lot of great tea people today, which is why those of us who love tea are drawn to other tea people as well. 

Lu Yu's understanding of tea was paralleled by his love of nature (the true source of any good cup of tea), from choosing the right plant, the right farming and processing methods, to, finally, using the right kind of water in which to brew the tea.  In his book, The Classic of Tea, Lu Yu distinguishes between several different sources of water to optimize the steeping of tea:

"I would suggest that tea made from mountain streams is best, river water is all right, but well water tea is quite inferior....Never take tea made from water that falls in cascades, gushes from springs, rushes in a torrent or that eddies and surges as if nature were rinsing its mouth."

Lu Yu understood the elements of nature and how they played into the final expression of a good cup of tea. He therefore responded to that understanding with cooperation and respect. What initially seems like a personal preference actually has several layers of universal awareness, expediency, and action behind it.

First, water has its own nature, depending on where it comes from and the particular characteristics of its origin.  Tea made from well water will be inferior to tea that springs from a mountain stream, says Lu Yu.  Why?  Perhaps because mountain water is WILD.  What could be more exotic, intoxicating, memorable, and love-inducing than wild tea made from wild water?  Then there is the tea plant and its leaves.  Are the tea leaves from an ancient tree or a young bush?  Was it grown high on the mountain, near lavendar or jasmine or onions?  What time of day was it harvested? Who processed it and with what tools?  How would a machine-processed tea differ from a tea that is lovingly processed with attention and care by the farmer who harvested it? 

These are the questions asked by true tea people, like Master Yu.  Inside these questions lies at least one basic premise: that all beings and objects possess their own nature, or spirit. The tea, the water, the hoe, the hand that plucks and processes the tea, the wok in which it is roasted, and the container in which it is finally packaged--all of these beings and objects influence the tea, not only because of their material composition, but because of the nature and energy they possess.  Otherwise, why would Lu Yu differentiate between river and mountain stream water, or water that gushes rather than sits quietly in a pool?  Although all water is H2O, not all water is the same in spirit or character. And I don't mean just hard or soft water, chlorinated or fluoridated water, but really the energy and nature of the water's source.

This harkens back to nature-based cosmologies in which believers recognize the inherent and particular spirit imbued in each place, object, and being.  We all know it is there, whether we openly acknowledge this eternal truth or not.  Who has not fallen in love with some very personal place--a forest, a quiet beach, a stretch of land that beckons?  Some mystery falls upon a such a place, and we appreciate it even if we can't put a name on it. 

Everything in this paradigm speaks of the intimate network of nature that is required for good tea--and the tea is very very good because it suggests a path to healthy sustainable living and survival.  Not only physical survival, but spiritual survival--the very inclination to love life itself. We are all made of the same stuff:  water, leaf, hand, sun, wok, Chinese paper with pretty designs.  We know goodness better than we know math. We smell and taste it, we see it, fringing the edges of the quietly smiling tea master, who chooses to process his tea with his bare hands rather than with a machine.  Everything in him speaks of the goodness of tea and life. 


What do you think about organic teas?