25 February 2009

The same teas, every...single...day...

"Do you ever get tired of drinking the same kind of tea every day?" I asked my oolong teacher.  "You only drink one or two varietals, and it's usually your own tea.  It's been more than 40 years, don't you wanna have a bubble tea sometimes?"

               tea set  

The last part was supposed to be funny and elicit laughter from him.  He smiles at me a lot, as if he's trying to read my brain like mystics read tea leaves.

"My tea makes me feel comfortable.  I can drink it all day for my entire life and I will not feel sick.  It is like medicine to me.  Don't you think it makes you feel good?"

"Yes, that's true."  My teacher touched upon a subject that I had wanted to discuss with him anyway.  "I don't like lightly-oxidized or lightly-roasted teas precisely because they hurt my stomach after many pots.  That is one major reason why I like roasted teas so much.  Puerh is ok too, but I don't prefer it."

My teacher knows how I feel about puerh, so there is no need to explain to him again.  He nods, reclines in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head.  Sometimes he will begin to sing a song that sounds like a lullaby.

"Yes, I know what you like."  He nods at me again and closes his eyes for a few moments.

We sat there for the rest of the afternoon, drinking his precious teas as we waited for the batch of oolongs that we were roasting to finish.  Unfortunately, I ended up over-roasting the tea a bit.  It will need several months of rest in order for the fire to dissipate.  My teacher is forgiving, just like my best teas.  He says that we can learn more from our mistakes than from our triumphs.

"Everyone makes mistakes.  We accept them, learn from them, and try not to do it again.  And if we do make the same mistake again, we will learn the lessons again and again until we truly understand them." 

"It's just like life," I added.  "As long as we have the opportunity to wake up again tomorrow, we have another chance to improve ourselves and correct our mistakes.  Right?"

My teacher pours out another infusion of dark brew from his pot.  He fills my cup and grunts in agreement. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

09 February 2009

Where will my good teas reside?

There are many ways to store tea.  I've seen it stored in plastic sandwich bags, clay jars, Ikea jars, earthenware containers, porcelain urns, metal or tin cans, plastic-like coated foil bags, aluminum foil, silk cloths, bamboo containers, paper boxes....

I've tried several of the above storage methods and although I haven't aged any teas for more than 5 years, I have found that different teas tend to like different environments.  The old rule-of-thumb is to avoid heat, moisture, excessive temperature fluctuations, air and light.  I think this rule can apply to most teas, but some teas, like old puerhs, may do well with some air.  In Taiwan, many of the tea masters store their old vintage teas in clay or earthenware jars that allow the teas to breathe.  Some masters will fire the teas every few years to remove moisture, and some think the teas do fine without more fire.

I've also had very good teas that have been stored for decades in what look like thick, decaying plastic bags.  Still taste good to me.

One mistake that I did make was to store some of my more fired and more recent oolong in a zisha clay jar. The jar was too big with too much room for air, and the properties of the clay allowed the tea to breathe too much.  The result was that after about two months, the tea lost substantial flavor and aroma.  I consulted some teaware suppliers in Taiwan about this dilemma and they agreed that the type of jar that I was using is more suitable for fermented, puerh type teas, and not for oolongs.  Smaller earthenware jars, porcelain jars, or special tin cans would be more appropriate.

I managed to get my hands on some cans that are specially made to store small quantities of good teas.  The cans are not made of any type of metal that gives off its own smell, and it has no coating that will off-gas.  Some tea friends recommended that I get some roasted tea twigs to place inside of the containers for several days in order to absorb any potential odors (supposedly, roasted twigs are very good for this purpose) before I put in my good oolongs. And once they go in, they shouldn't be disturbed too much.

It is inevitable that a tea's taste will change over time, but I want to try to keep the changes as true to nature as possible, with minimal loss or change of flavor due to poor storage conditions.

01 February 2009

The essential Dao of Tea

I arrived in Hong Kong after spending a month in Taiwan learning about tea from the producers, master roasters, reputable shopkeepers, tea professors and the such.  I went there with a sound foundation of tea knowledge, and I left with the new belief that good tea is not complicated.  Maybe Mr. Lin has the best puerh around, but if you don't like it, then "best" doesn't really mean much to you, does it?

                 cilin (kirin) lake 10 Dong Ding Mountain

I was humbled by one of my teachers, who asked me when I first met him, "What are you going to do with all of the tea knowledge that you're seeking and why?"  After I gave my answer, he chuckled and said that unless I intended to be a farmer or a shopkeeper in Taipei, I shouldn't waste my youth, energy or time on learning more about tea than I already knew.  He said that I should find shopkeepers of good reputation that carried good products, and it would be infinitely more time-efficient for me to maintain a good relationship with these people and buy from them.

My intention, though, wasn't to try to find cheap sources of good tea, but to understand what makes tea good in the first place.  After spending a length of time with this teacher, I touched upon the zen-like principle that good tea just is, and then it's fleeting.  If you can remember your favorite cup of brew that you've ever had, you may have a bittersweet moment in which you recall its beauty, but also know that you will never have another cup exactly like the one you tasted.  If you can find the exact same tea, it may still be good, but in a different way.

I oftentimes think of one of Bruce Lee's memorable quotes when I try to settle disputes in my mind of what is "good" or "better." He said:

For in the landscape of Spring there is neither better nor worse? The flowering branches grow naturally, some long, some short

     Dong Ding teas A fine brew of oolong tea

I started this blog with the intention of disseminating the knowledge I have about tea as well as sharing my tea stories.  As a tribute to my teachers, I continue to write with the hope that learning - both as a personal journey to find a good brew and an exploration into the cultivation of oneself - will continue and progress, and that as long as there is passion for the brew, the efforts of the good people that work to make it will continue.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.