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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roy fong on wuyi teas

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

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

charcoal roasted teas

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

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

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

professional tea cupping

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

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

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

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.

roy fong's tea farm

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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



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

Stay tuned as the story unfolds.

Last Spring, I met with Shiuwen Tai, owner of Floating Leaves in Seattle, who took me along with her on a tea buying mission in Taiwan.  Here is a short video in which Shiuwen explains the process of analyzing teas for purchase:


finally, a tea dictionary

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The tea trade is excited by the recent publication of James Norwood Pratt's Tea Dictionary, a definitive guide to the terminology used in the industry. First place winner for new books at the 2010 World Tea Expo, Pratt's Tea Dictionary is the first attempt since 1935 at delivering a concise and thorough tea reference in the English language.

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:

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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After taking a day to acclimate, I headed up to Mao Kong in Southeastern Taipei. The number S10 bus took me up the winding mountain to some of the most beautiful tea houses I've seen. Stunning temples dot hillsides with several arteries of hiking trails for those who want to earn their tea and dim sum. 

A couple of favorites for different reasons include Shang Yang Tea house, which served one of the best Jin Xuan's I've ever seen or tried. Dark emerald green tea glistened in the yixing pot. After a 13-hour flight and the rigors of engaging in a new culture, this was a most welcomed tidbit from the heavens.

Yang Syu Yang tearoom is spectacular for it's decor and views. The tea is not superb, but the views, and even the gold-leaf wallpaper make up for whatever is lacking in the leaf.  This tea house features an indoor koi pond, with stepping stones over a bridge to a number of private rooms with carved doors and windows that overlook Taipei, temples, and the lush tropical flora of Taiwan.

For those who don't mind heights, a gondola will take visitors up (or down) the mountain, offering panoramic views of Taipei and the tea houses and temples tossed across the landscape like so many jewels flung from the hands of ancient gods.

Tea Oil Noodles at Shang Yang Tea House in Mao Kong/Taipei

Food is served at the tea houses as well, and at a fraction of the cost of the tea.  I enjoyed "Tea Oil Noodles" at Yang Shang Tea House and the dumplings at Yang Syu Yang.   Just a couple of dollars will buy some amazing home made dim sum. 

I couldn't manage to tear myself away, and as night descended, decided to brave the gondola the trip down the mountain rather than wait an hour for the bus (which had just come and gone). Bravery has its rewards: the views were stunning with Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world, glittering in the distance. 

Coasting through the dark, starry sky, you can hear cicadas chirping along the side of the mountain and the dark sky means one isn't completely aware of the gondola's altitude.  More coming soon, including a few videos.
In Roy Fong's new book, The Great Teas of China, Roy shares his 30+ years of knowledge and experience with tea, and distills it into a slim volume that is direct, concise, and elegantly written. You would be hard pressed to find a better book with which to begin your tea adventures, and it will serve for years to come as a reference guide.

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

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

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

Very simply, Roy is a great tea man.  If you want to be trained by a master, this is your book.

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!

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


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

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

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

Click here to listen:

Download | Duration: 00:02:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

water for tea #2

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                                                          All images ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

water for tea #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Click the Play Button for Rona Tison Interview:



Illustration ©2009 Jennifer Sauer

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

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

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

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

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

the art of the teaball

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©2008 Jennifer Leigh Sauer

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

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

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

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

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


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.


What do you think about organic teas?