Recently in tea community~events Category

tea journey

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Greetings, friends. It's been a while, I know, and I apologize for my long absence. But I'm back and not only writing, but also creating videos for a new online digital tea publication called "Tea Journey". Tea Journey is a collaboration of journalists and tea experts from around the world, bringing content from the tea lands, much of which has never before been available in English. I am excited to be a part of this, and I hope you will consider taking a look at the Tea Journey Kickstarter page and perhaps even deciding to subscribe. Here is the link.

It's been great to be in touch with those of you who continued writing to me and sharing your own tea adventures. I value your friendship and your views on tea and tea culture. Keep writing! And thank you for being a part of my own tea journey.

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.

In the coming week, I will be offering stories and interviews from the 2011 World Tea Expo, but today, at the end of a long week of travel for tea and pleasure (how could they be separate?), I want to offer the most salient moments of my visit.

The Expo was busy, with more than 200 exhibitors and approximately 6000 visitors thronging the large Las Vegas Convention Center last weekend. As with any trade show, there is a vibrancy and buzz, and at this special expo, a celebration of reuniting with fellow tea people. 

But in a flash, I was taken aback when the casual and jovial invitation to try tea was suddenly upended by an unusual sight.  A saddened Asian man stands with his eyes cast downward, as he holds out a tray of several small samples of two different kinds of tea.  He is motionless, almost like a mime, and if he were not so distraught, I would think he was doing something akin to performance art with a tray of tea. 

I watch him quizzically, as, barely meeting my gaze, he bows and gently moves the tray toward me in invitation.  I take a small cup of the pretty golden tea liquor and prepare to sip.  "Shizuoka tea," I hear him say softly. 

His eyelashes flutter and lift softly to me, revealing beneath them a tender glance that seems to question: "Are you going to drink this....still?" The news of radiation-tainted tea from Shizuoka, Japan's largest tea exporting province, has arrived just weeks before the largest North American tea trade show, and the spring harvest, which fetches the bulk of the year's revenues for Japanese tea farmers and exporters.

In his crestfallen gaze are tidal waves of sadness and plumes of anxiety. I read the horror of losing loved ones, homes, and perhaps the only means of livelihood his friends, colleagues, and family have known for decades.  

I absorb the meaning of his grief, and in solidarity and respect, I answer with a sure and intentional first sip.  I nod my head.  "O-ishi- desu" (It's delicious), I say to him in Japanese, and mean it.  "Tell the tea master, tell the tea master," he implores, while pulling gently on the jacket of an older man standing behind him.  When the tea master turns around, I repeat in Japanese:  "Thank you so much.  It really is delicious."

The old man drags his wrist across his glistening forehead and sadly nodding, he bows and says "Thank you so much.  Thank you. Thank you."  He is still bowing as he moves away though facing me, not knowing if I will cry first or if it will be he. His eyes are fixed on the ground.

Neither of us break the barrier of formality, but when he momentarily meets my gaze, I try to impart the only message I have for him in a soft glance rather than words: "I'm sorry." 

I take another sip.  "Yes, delicious, O-ishi kata desu," I say. And with a low bow, I leave both the tea master and the young man, who also in a bow and with downcast eyes, remains alone on an invisible stage, making an offering.

tea ceremony etiquette

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Meiya Wender, Head of Tea, Green Gulch Farm & Zen Center
"The tea room is a laboratory for studying the self and our relationship with others," said Meiya Wender, Head of Tea at Green Gulch Zen Center in Muir Beach, CA several years ago when I interviewed her for my book The Way to Tea.

Yesterday, Meiya hosted a public tea ceremony at the Center's Sowing the Moon Teahouse, which gave me an opportunity to "experiment" firsthand.

The beauty of the tea room is distinguished not only by the carefully placed flowers, tea scroll, and tea implements, but also by the behavior of the host(ess) and guests.  

As the ten or so of us filed into the tea room, on our knees as prescribed by tradition, we entered a sanctuary where the norms of the external world fall away to a breathtaking humility and community that is tea and zen. 

It is the art of the guest, in this case, most specifically the "first guest" (and the only one among us who knows tea ceremony etiquette in detail), to match the hostess' kindness, and whose job it is to compliment and draw out the virtues and efforts of the hostess in creating the ceremony by requesting information about the tea art and tea ware used in the ceremony.

 

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Chashaku resting on natsume
"I see you have chosen a special piece for this tea gathering. Please tell us about this lovely tea scroll," says the first guest to Meiya.  Meiya initially explains to us that each object in the tea room has both a practical and poetic function.  For example, she says, the chashaku (tea scoop) is functional in that it scoops the tea, but it also has a poetic function, which reinforces the theme of the tea experience. In this case, the chashaku was carved by Meiya herself, and was named by a Zen priest.  The tea scoop's name--"Swift And Unbridled"-- comes from a Zen poem and also reinforces the message of early spring, the season in which we are gathering for tea. 

As for the tea scroll, Meiya translates the calligraphy for us: "No highs or lows in the colors of spring," which echos the Buddhist appeal for people to follow the "Middle Path" in which one does not identify oneself with extremes in order to find balance and harmony within.
 
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Sowing The Moon Teahouse
It occurs to me that the guest also has both a practical and poetic function in the tea ceremony. The guest is needed as the one who receives the gift of tea, but (s)he also serves the function of bringing delight and awareness to the gathering. Just as we sometimes learn more when we share our thoughts, the guest serves as the facilitator for the expression of the hostess. Our "first guest" continues to request information, while complimenting the hostess:  "And the flowers that you have chosen and arranged so artfully are lovely. Could you tell us about them?"

Meiya tells us the tight white bud surrounded by high gloss, forest green leaves is a camellia, about to bloom. The camellia is from the same species as the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and so has significance in the tea ceremony.  The other flower in the iron vase is a small-fisted bud of pink-orange quince, one of the transient delights of this season.  Neither opulent nor strongly fragrant, the flowers too reinforce the message of simplicity, humility, and the temporal nature of the moment and of the season. 

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So too might a guest come to tea simply, humbly, and not flashy or full of himself and his ego. The tea room is not a place for heated discussions or demonstrations of one's own knowledge, virtues or abilities. The guest's role, in particular, is to put the focus of discussion on the hostess' efforts and to ask about the objects used in the ceremony.

Subjects considered oafish to raise in conversation in the tea room include anything divisive (most especially politics), gossip (particularly speaking badly of others when they are not present), and money (which creates disharmony, jealousy, and stratification).  The tea room is a place for equals (which is why everyone enters on their knees),  and while certainly no two people have equal abilities or qualities, the appreciation of each others' kindness, intentions, abilities and actions (not one's own), is what creates delight, peace, and harmony.

The guest's role is to compliment the hostess, to draw her out, to put the focus on the inspiring objects created and/or used in the ceremony for the benefit and enjoyment of all present. This  intention by the guest of bringing harmony and inspiration to the tea room heightens the experience for all, and reinforces the meaning of the tea ceremony,  to which is traditionally attributed four words that are as much intentions of awareness: Tranquility. Respect. Harmony. Purity.

Were that the whole world engaged in tea room etiquette throughout all interactions.

global tea culture

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TasteAmericanTeaCulture©2010BonTeavant.jpg In San Francisco, we are fortunate to enjoy the most diverse and exciting tea culture in the history of human kind.  Why?  If you go to China, you will enjoy only Chinese tea culture, but not that of Japan, India, Britain or elsewhere.  Likewise, if you go to Japan, you will enjoy only Japanese tea culture.  But in the United States, and particularly on the West Coast, and even more particularly in San Francisco, we have an "alchemical" tea culture which is informed by traditions around the world, from Asia, Latin America, Europe, South America and Africa.

You can go to a Japanese tea ceremony on a mountain top in Marin in the morning, a British afternoon tea later in the day, and in the evening, enjoy a Chinese gong-fu cha with tea masters who have recently visited the farms where their tea was grown, harvested and processed.

This, I believe, is tea culture in a high form, not because of its adherence to discipline, but because of its nascent, creative spirit.  We are participants and witnesses to the mutation of a tea culture in the making. Here in the Bay Area, we have enjoyed a Renaissance of tea in the past ten or twenty years that has brought both tea and people to us from all parts of the world.

Americans snubbed Britain and her duty-laden tea more than two hundred years ago, and waited to be infused by a tea culture that is inclusive of later migrating Asian-, African- and Latin Americans whose influence, as well as that of early Europeans, would inspire us. That you can get a chai, sencha, dong ding, ti guan yin or yerba mate within the viscinity of a few blocks--and often in one tea shop or tea house--is nothing short of fabulous and surreal.
 
In absorbing the tea cultures of Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, we also invite the philosophies, arts, and merits of these cultures and their offerings, whether in the form of teaware. rituals, literature and music, or the art of tea as a practice and meditation.

We might also be fortunate to pick up concepts embedded in other tea cultures, like the virtues of humility and kindness, the value of serving others, the importance of harmony, or the notion that plants can and do act as vehicles to awareness, healing, and community.  All of these sources of information and illumination are found in your teas.

The stories and inspiration of Shen Nung, Lu Yu, Bodhidharma, Eisai, and Robert Fortune all await you in your tea cup, as do the stories and lore of the teas themselves.  Drink up, with gratitude and a surrender to the creative freedom that awaits you in every sip.

tea picnic season

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Rita&Arnas-falls copy.jpg Rita & Arnas sipping a winter baozhong together by Cascade Falls

In Tang dynasty China as well as in Victorian England, taking tea outside was de rigeur, as well as a marvelous way to share some ebullient times and fine teas with great friends and colleagues.  Japanese tea ceremony also celebrates the natural world, but even the most austere and engaging tea room is no match for Mother Nature.

Arnas1.jpgWe have all seen images of those romantic days when folks joined together to sing, laugh, recite poetry, make music, and share philosophies by soft flowing streams and blue mirror lakes, all the while sipping tea.

 


Spring called up these images, and conspired with memories of last October's Wuwo tea ceremony to get excited about creating an outdoor tea. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, friends Rita Stanikunaite and Arnas Palaima joined me for the first tea picnic of the season in my hometown in N. California, where streams, waterfalls and redwoods converge to create the ideal tea picnic site. The natural tapestry of wild flowers, towering trees, flashing streams, and rich flowing waterfalls spurred by spring rains made the perfect backdrop to an amazing tea gathering.

 
 
Here are some tips for you to consider in creating your own tea picnic or outdoor tea gathering:
  • Bring a thermos of filtered, water which is boiled just before leaving for your hike or picnic.  Use a large thermos--you'll need it to rinse cups & heat teaware besides just brewing tea.. (Sometimes more IS more.)
  • Bring a tea that requires cooler brewing temperatures--often green, white and delicate oolongs work best.  For our picnic, we chose a winter bao zhong, and it was spectacular!  Now that spring teas are newly arrived, you may want to celebrate the event by choosing new spring teas.
  • PicnicTeaware2.jpgBring teaware:  gaiwan or yixing teapot, cups for each person, serving vessel, and cup coasters. It is fun to bring special tea ware reserved for special occasions.  Pack it carefully or use a tea travel set.
  • Bring a nice mat, blanket, or pretty piece of fabric to sit on and create the space.
  • Find a place that inspires you with its beauty, and light, and which is not heavily visited. It is especially inspiring to have tea by a body of water--stream, waterfall, pond, lake, etc.
  • Bring some delicately flavored snacks. ( I brought a lightly sweetened polenta honey cake and fresh organic anjou pears for color and delicate taste.
  • Bring friends, a date, a colleague, or your family.  Or just head out on the trail on your own.  It's all good!
We can slow down and enjoy the seasons and its teas.
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"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:

Download

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 www.atcasf.org to pre-register for the ceremony.

Coordinates:
Friday 10/16: 10 a.m. practice session: Pioneer Memorial Park, Mountain View. Contact Betsy Meyer at rabbitz@aol.com 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.

nw tea festival news

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The Northwest Tea Festival held last weekend in Seattle was a great success, with nearly 1500 visitors, more than a dozen tea tastings, and special presentations by great tea peeps like James Norwood Pratt, Shuiwen Tai, and "Tea Geek" Michael Coffey.  If you missed the festival this year, be sure to put it on your schedule for October 2011 in Seattle.

Students had an opportunity to taste countless teas with tea vendors, importers, and specialists, as well as enjoying information about WuWo Tea Ceremony (more soon on this), tea and caffeine, rare oolongs, and a special monologue performance by James Norwood Pratt as Okakura Kakuzo. NWTeaFestival2009023.jpg It was great getting together with some of the Northwest's tea merchants, like Shuiwen Tai of Floating Leaves, Marcus Gramps of Teahouse Kuan Yin, and Julee Rosanoff of Perennial Tea Room.  Barnes and Watson owner (and NW Tea Festival organizer) Ken Rudee was there with his son, Joey, offering tea and tea tastings as well as a wall full of exceptional photographs from Asian tea farms.  The best part of going to the tea festival was the fun of watching people new to tea transform as they viewed, smelled, tasted and learned about tea.  If you missed it, come next year!
SusanaTruax.jpg If you could walk through a time machine and visit the landscapes and history of tea, it might look like the new exhibition, Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, now on display at UCLA's Fowler Museum until November 29, 2009.

Nearly a decade of dedicated attention went into the creation of this seminal collection of Chinese, Japanese, European and American tea ware, paintings, scrolls and other tea paraphernalia. The exhibition was put together artfully by guest curator and author Beatrice Hohenegger, who wrote the fascinating book on tea, Liquid Jade (2006 St. Martin's Press).

Click here to listen to an interview with Beatrice Hohenegger:

Download | Duration: 00:04:46


Staged in five parts, the exhibition introduces tea itself, then covers tea's fascinating history from its origins in China, into Japan, through the "Tea Craze in the West" and finally to "Tea and Empire." The collection and exhibition catalogue highlight the many expressions of tea, from sacred objects to priceless and exquisite examples of art and craftsmanship to the off-beat and obscure. 

teabowlSongDynasty.jpg The collection offers both a historical and sociopolitical look through tea's past and Asian origins as well as to the European and American influences on its present.  It is also a call to attention towards the human cost of colonialism as well as that of mass produced commodities. That Hohenegger is able to scold with an arc of absurdist humor points to the intelligence and good nature with which she created the exhibition.  You are meant to be disturbed, but also awed, amused, and intrigued. 

This is an amazing opportunity for students of tea, ceramics, Asian philosophy and history, or the sociopolitical ramifications of colonialism and commodity manufacturing--to view the story of the world's most loved beverage, next to water.

Whether you make it to the show or not, you will want to purchase the catalogue (with the same title as the show) for its scholarship on tea. This remarkable anthology of essays, written by Ms. Hohenegger and a carefully selected group of experts with divergent points of view and interests in tea, is a must for anyone dedicated to the study of tea. To buy a copy, you can call the Fowler Museum store at 310-206-7004.



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: 

Download


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.


    
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.
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!
IN A FORMER ECONOMIC COLLAPSE, Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous address to a frightened and ailing nation, said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  I would concur and also add that the most important thing we have to choose is discernment itself. And quality tea is one ofour greatest allies in this endeavor.

Discernment is our most precious renewable natural resource, and this concept should be especially appealing to the artisan tea and foodie crowd who welcome the opportunity to hone their palates. Discernment is the axis upon which our love of tea depends and upon which our survival relies as well.

It is good discernment that will save us as a society. The exact same discernment we use to identify and give value to one tea over another is the same quality we use to make decisions about the direction we choose to go in from now on.  The old ways of selling and buying meaningless and irrelevant products are falling away.  What will remain, one hopes, are the products and services that require the affection of our discernment, and as such, benefit us most profoundly in the present and in the future.

Without discernment, drinking teabag tea covered in pesticides would be just as good as sipping a wild tea handcrafted in the remote ancestral tea regions of China by people whose kin have known and tended these tea plants for generations. Those of us who love artisinal tea--perhaps we can call ourselves the "Slow Tea People"--will know the difference and will do what we can to support and defend good tea (and good food).  We instinctively know that in doing so, we support discernment itself. And discernment is survival.

As such, we support tea shops and tea houses that take the risk of buying and serving slightly more expensive teas that are worth drinking. Some think five dollars for a pot of tea is too dear, but we Slow Tea People consider all that we are drinking when we drink this "expensive" tea. For one, our keen discernment tells us we are drinking not just a beverage but a phenomenon. When we pay five dollars for a good pot of tea, we are also paying for the wisdom and responsibility of the tea farmer as well as an earth-friendly cosmology which informs us of our dependence on the soil, the plants, and the many creatures who share and nourish our planet.

Each time we sip a premium tea, we know we are consuming hundreds of years of craftsmanship and skill, and in so doing, we are supporting farmers who for generations have relied upon their own good discernment to protect, nourish and preserve the land. Our discernment in this case naturally leads us to protecting the land and its thoughtful caretakers, so that it will continue to support us. These tea farmers have an intimate understanding of nature and its rhythms and secrets. Our good discernment tells us this is worth five dollars.  It is our survival.

By drinking artisinal teas, we also naturally move into an elevated state of mind, a state that offers us the benefit of a heightened sense of discernment in all of our daily choices and activities, a state that helps us make good, sound decisions with long lasting constructive effects. In this intimate and direct way, tea also supports our personal discernment, which in turn, helps us to make good decisions within our own lives and relationships.  Tea brings out generosity and goodwill, the hallmarks of successful community and business.

As well, if we are in a tearoom or tea shop that serves premium tea, we are undoubtedly sipping our tea among interesting, thoughtful people. These are good people to be surrounded by during any kind of crisis, precisely because they have good discernment. 

In quality tea rooms, we also find ourselves enfolded in an ambiance imbued with fabulous art, be it teaware, photographs, sculpture, furniture, or paintings. Slow Tea People bring these objets d'art into their lives, because they know the value of beauty and craftsmanship, beyond just the obvious. They recognize and cherish symbols that  suggest humanity has the potential to be a successful endeavor at all. It encourages us, and reminds us that our creativity harbors the possibility of continually raising the bar of our potential.

This is one of the pivotal moments of our species, which demands that we consider what products and services we consume and support. This will happen of itself, without any prodding or pushing, because people are not able to afford everything they want at every moment they want it.  We will have to make hard choices and narrowly edit our selections  The paradigm of the moment can be summed up in a couple of words, perhaps "relevance" and "value".  And it is our discernment that will help us to identify what has relevance and value.  Drinking tea naturally supports excellent decision making because it heightens the quality of our discernment.

As such, we Slow Tea People will keep good tea and visiting quality tea rooms at the top of our list and in the "must have" section of our carefully honed budgets.  It is not that we "deserve it," we rely on it and know that it is a metaphor for our best chance at thriving.

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~

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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.......

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TEA ILLUMINATO,James Norwood Pratt, and his lovely Lady Valerie invited me over to share tea and Evensong this week. Evensong is an enchanting, half-hour, weekday afternoon ritual of music and prayer held at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral onNob Hill. Our mutual love of Camelia sinensis combines well with our shared interest in ritual, prayer, devotion,and music, and creates a magical afternoon that some can only dream of.

To enter Norwood and Valerie's home in North Beach is to discover a temple of tea and culture. The aura of literature and art, with its books, busts, and religious icons, wash over the visitor like fragrant notes of a fine tea.

Norwood is devoted--to tea and more deeply and personally, to his sense of the more subtle structures of the universe with its sky-blue porcelain gods, earth-green teas, and amber-brown, leather-clad beckonings of Goethe. Valerie is a lovely English woman whose gentle and intelligent bearing remind one that femininity is both strong and soft.  With ember-red hair, and a liquid awareness about her blue eyes, Valerie offers perhaps more with her attentive and quiet demeanor as most others do with their many words.

What moves me most about Norwood is not only the depth of his knowledge about tea, history, art and literature, but the depth of his spirit. His Southern manners prevent him from flaunting his sturdy intellect, so it slowly seeps into you like a soft, fine mist. I get the sense that he will meet whatever level of mental faculty is offered by his companion, but his gentle kindness and humility would not permit him to brandish overly rigorous thoughts that might elude or intimidate his guest.

Despite his bearing of refinement, Norwood is also magnificently irreverent. One of my favorite art pieces in Norwood's home is a clay cast bust (made by San Francisco sculptor Harriet Moore) of Norwood himself, sporting a large, floppy English afternoon tea hat which Norwood has apparently placed on its head. Norwood loves to poke fun at himself, and this makes him not only endearing inside his gigantic persona as the country's foremost tea expert, but more approachable as well.

Valerie offers me the best seat in the living room, a red leather, high-backed chair facing the San Francisco Bay with its toy sailboat views. We try our first tea, a 2008 spring harvest Tung Ting oolong,  which I brought with me as an offering. Norwood steeps the tea in a lovely white porcelain vessel, custom designed by his friend, Jason Chen, who is the owner of Lu Yu Tea in Bellevue, Washington. The infuser looks like a tall tea cup with an elongated filter. We drink from large white porcelain tea cups, antiques seemingly worn with the ancient sipping of old Chinese tea drinkers. The tea is delicious, and Norwood approves. He is especially pleased, as he has been focusing intently on oolongs for the past six months, he says.  I breathe easier, and the level of revelry between us swirls and rises.

We then try a very special tea, Golden Lily, from Lu Yu Tea. This tea was really spectacular. Just a few kilos of this organically grown and hand-processed tea is made available, and then only to tea maker Jason Chen's closest friends. Apparently Chen owns many hectares of land in the Zhejiang and Fujian provinces of China, where he oversees the growing, harvesting, and processing of his own organic teas. The tea label includes information on the tea's origin, altitude at which it was grown, harvest season, and steeping suggestions--all the information a connoisseur would want to know about a tea (s)he is purchasing. We finish with a lovely Te Kuan Yin, an homage to the goddess Norwood reveres.

"So what makes a great tea, Norwood?", I ask.

"In my opinion, the tea plant is the highest form of vegetation. It is always a combination of heaven, earth, and man -- heaven being everything above ground, earth being the ground and everything below it, and of course, the influence of man relates to the growing, harvesting, processing and brewing of the tea plant. A great tea is made when all three of these factors combine, each at their best and in perfect harmony with each other."

Two hours of discussion and tea evanesce into wisps of fine memories, and we hasten out the door to walk up the hill to Grace Cathedral, which is both grand and graciously welcoming, like my hosts. We sit in chairs on the altar, right by the Grace Men & Boys Choir. Hearing the child voices mingle with adult voices creates a wonderful wand of energy passing over the church. Together, Norwood, Valerie and I sing and pray, voices lifted to the lovely arched ceilings and stained glass masterpieces.

As we leave, Norwood pays respects to a special corner of the cathedral that holds a statue of "Saint" John Donne. "Now this is the kind of saint I can really pray to," says Norwood. "You wouldn't want to trust praying to a saint that was always only good. Donne is the saint of writers and poets," he says with a bemused smile, and gently bows to St. John Donne.

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What do you think about organic teas?