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Throughout history, eminent tea masters have had something to say about the values that are meant to be expressed by the selection or creation of their teaware. And if we go far enough back, to the origins of the discovery of tea, we begin to understand the earliest perspectives on nature and life and the corresponding philosophies that inform the relationship between the tea master and his or her teaware.
Vintage Gaiwan - 1913
Teaware has been as much a topic of discussion as tea, and more so, is said to influence the quality of the tea experience. Lu Yu, who in the eighth century wrote the first treatise on tea, Cha Ching, included a meticulous etiquette for using teaware; and eight centuries later, Japan's famed tea master, Rikyu, expressed his endearment to the wabi style of teaware with its underlying philosophy of simplicity and minimalism which he so respected and to which he paid homage in his practice of tea.
Through the objects of teaware and the relationships held between the teaware and the tea masters, the values and mores of the times were embraced, handled and poured. As such, teaware reflects the philosophy of the age and region in which it is being used and appreciated.
The ephemeral nature of a tea ceremony or even the simple sharing of tea between friends, is heightened by the intimacy we have with our guests as well as with the objects of the tea service. What elevates the event includes not only the disposition and intentions of the tea host and guests, but also and equally so, the character or "nature", if you will, of the objects used to make and serve the tea. We love the way a teapot pours water, the way a kettle hums at different stages of heating, the taste of tea from a particular cup, or the snug, effortless feel of a serving vessel embraced by the hand. These objects comfort us, make us smile, and whether we admit it or not, we befriend them, and, as with good friends, would miss them if they were absent.
We take a couple of thermoses of water that have been brought to a near boil, a few cups, a gaiwan or yixing pot, some tea, of course, and something to eat. The hike out to the ocean takes a half hour or so, and we try to leave an hour before sunset. We find that taking green, white or other teas that require lower temperatures to work best for obvious reasons, though we have been successful at brewing even Taiwanese oolongs on cold evenings. It just takes a little more patience, and with the awe-inspiring scenes before us, the extra time it takes to brew the tea makes for a deeper appreciation of both the nature around us and the tea when it finally expresses its fullest identity.
Taking tea outside under a full moon is great during the summer and autumn months when the weather is warmer, but in winter, enjoying the view of the full moon from a dining room or living room window while sipping tea works quite well also.
Raise your teacup to the moon, giving thanks for tea, for nature, and for the joy of being here, a part of the planet around which the golden lunar orb so loyally revolves.
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.
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.
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.
gaiwan (as above) brings history to the tea table and invites the sharing of legend and lore.
So too does the incorporation of teaware previously owned by those we love or admire.
When writing my book on San Francisco tea culture, for example, I met with famed Zen priest and cookbook author Ed Brown, who shared tea with me using the special tea cups given to him by Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. This gave me an opportunity to ask questions about Suzuki Roshi and the personal relationship he and Ed shared for so many years. It also gave me goose bumps to drink tea from the same cup that touched the lips of such a great man.
The Way of Tea author Aaron Fisher (aka Wu De), created some fascinating tea gatherings with his very nice collection of antique teaware. Watching him pour hot water water from his silver Japanese tea kettle into Song Dynasty tea bowls created an amazing ambiance. This rare and special privilege inspired an even deeper interest in teaware for me and encouraged me to seek out more experience of how teaware effects the taste and feeling of drinking teas.
Sipping tea from such old and rare pieces made me feel as though I were somehow absorbing something of the past and bringing it to the present. This feeling of timelessness is one of the greatest attributes of any tea gathering.
Old tea ware can be challenging to find, particularly at reasonable prices, but it is out there. Sometimes it is of benefit to seek out information from experts as to the authenticity of a piece before purchasing. Here are some suggestions passed to me as I sought out information on the vintage gaiwans I recently bought in San Francisco:
First, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum offers a Contributors Consultation Day the third Friday of every month, inviting contributor level members an opportunity to consult with curators about asian art works (each member is allowed one consultation per year). If you bring several pieces, the $150 membership pays for itself in the consultation alone, and provides other special benefits to the museum as well. You may want to check Asian art museums or Asian departments of museums in your area for consultations.
http://gotheborg.com for those interested in Chinese and Japanese porcelain. For $25, you can become a member, or for $20, you can send photos of your piece to Nilsson for an assessment.
At Bonham and Butterfield auction house, there are three locations in the United States where complimentary appraisal clinics intended for those who wish to consign their pieces are offered. The San Francisco branch hosts such a clinic the first Wednesday of each month; Los Angeles offers one the last Wednesday of each month, and New York offers one every Wednesday. Consultations are free, and you may bring up to five pieces. You can also find an area of their online site that offers consultations by uploading photos of your items.
Finally, you might be lucky to know tea people who are adept at appraising the age and value of vintage tea ware.
Fakes and frauds are rampant, however, and you are best off finding a skilled professional to evaluate whatever you might want to purchase. Bon Teavant is having recently acquired pieces evaluated for our collection and for sale, and we look forward to sharing our special finds with you. Stay tuned!
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.
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.
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....
Stay tuned as the story unfolds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Mr. Pratt, a noted tea guru in the landscape of American tea culture, has outdone himself (again) with this publication. At a hefty $155 price tag, its value is greatly appreciated by tea professionals and serious connoisseurs who will find this reference indispensable in their pursuit of tea knowledge and understanding.
Enjoy this short video of Mr. Pratt discussing the Tea Dictionary:
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 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.
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.
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.