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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'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?

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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.
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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.
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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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tea, nature, and knowing

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WaldenPond163web.JPG Walden Pond - Concord, MA

On the east coast this week, and while walking the old trails around Walden Pond of the famed naturalist, author and father of American ecology, Henry David Thoreau, I was reminded that Nature teaches us all we need to know. The wisdom that springs from Nature is not Taoism, shamanism or any other ism, and no culture or individual has greater access to it than another. It is the most democratic form of education, whether scientific, philosophical, spiritual, or creative. This ancient intelligence is gladly shared with anyone who wants to listen, and it naturally arises when one is quiet, open, and mentally naked, stripped of the trappings of illusion, technology, engines, electricity and all the other manufactured distractions that ironically prevent us from knowing ourselves, each other, and the nature of all things.

Like a walk in the woods, sipping a fine tea gives us this nurturing quality that we so crave and find in nature. Tea brings peace, quiet, and the stirrings of consciousness and awareness. Tea shares its gifts with anyone who imbibes, whether rich or poor, wise or foolish, kind or rotten. It gives us comfort and awareness whether we deserve it or not, indiscriminately.

This is why tea has traveled the world in the hands of Zen and Christian monks, been delivered to one country from another in the pockets of scholars, naturalists, and monks.  Tea inspires vivid insights, and beckons those who are seekers of wholeness and truth.Yet within that immortal awareness, and that of the passing of time, we can't help but appreciate the sensual and sentient nature of life and the importance of how we spend, share, and enjoy it.

I will say no more, but leave you to the task of finding your own teas and truths, preferably in the wild, knowing landscapes that both surround and inhabit you.
How is "ecologically grown" tea different from just organic tea?  First, ecologically grown teas are grown without fertilizers or pesticides, like organics. But one tea farmer we caught up with in Taiwan takes cues from nature to produce the healthiest and best tasting teas:  he allows nature to make the tea as it wishes. 

Most herbalists know that plants grow best in the company of certain other plants, and by doing this, you get the best result. By allowing other plants to grow in and among tea plants, the farmer monitors the teas but allows the tea plants to mimic wild tea by letting nature play the lead role.

We went directly to the tea farmer so he could tell you himself about ecologically grown teas:



We just got our shipment in of the most delicious "ecologically grown" white teas from this tea farmer. We call it Honey Dew White, not because it has flavoring in it, but because this lovely, full-bodied white tea has that slightly sweet white melon taste to it, along with a smooth mouth feel. For those who are interested, this is a great tea to hang onto for aging.

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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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What do you think about organic teas?