17 December 2009

Hold back your reservations and listen to the leaves

"It's not unlike your Dong Ding teacher's wife. Good tea, it, ng, has the good stuff on the inside that you have to bring out."

We were all laughing heartily by this point.  We'd just had a good joke over his own wife being decades older than me (I swear she looks like she's a college student) and now he was transmitting to me what he thought was the essence of the art of roasting, via a comparison between the roughness of unfinished tea, and, well, my teacher's wife.  Make no mistake about it, she was actually quite a looker back in the day!

Mr. Zhan is not a highly-visible, public tea figure, but the people in the tea world know him.  He is the owner of Nine Pots Manor in Taipei.  It's not an easy place to find and it's not a teahouse, but a by-appointment retail and tea roasting site.  He doesn't solicit for business and his focus is on the art and culture of tea more than the sale, although he happily fills orders for customers that find their way to him and appreciate his craft. 

"Whether we believe it to be good or bad, the farmers and producers that make it put their souls into their tea.  With good inputs of water, work, weather and soil, all tea is good.  After they do their jobs, it's our job to bring out the full potential of the tea with the roast."

The roast is where the art of oolong crafting resides.  Roasting, I've come to see, is not just about the manipulation of heat, air and labor as I have previously written about.  It's a meditation into the inner world of the tea itself. 

"Tea has its own personality and potential.  We must listen and understand that energy.  The tea guides us in the roast.  Most people have their own notions and force a tea to be made or roasted a certain way. That is not right.  Like raising children, we must raise tea with understanding.  The leaves talk back and will tell us how to handle them - if we listen."

Mr. Zhan, like Mr. Zhou, is a tea culture figure (茶藝人) whose primary focus is on the philosophy and culture of tea.  You are unlikely to hear a tea farmer talking about taming the energy of a brew or listening to the leaves for guidance.  You will also unlikely hear a wholesaler talk about the essential goodness of all tea, either.  Different worlds that share the same space.

My time with Mr. Zhan and his wife was brief, but it was a top highlight of my trip.  Taste each tea with a simple goal of understanding what it will teach and reveal to you, and you will certainly develop an even greater attunement and gratitude for the experience.

Drink good tea and enrich your life. 

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