31 March 2010

Dwell Deeply in the Present

I recently went out with some old friends of mine whom I’ve known since my college days.  One guy in particular has great stories to tell from his past.  By great, I mean they’re really funny and often quite scandalous.  And they almost always involve quite a bit of alcohol.

Three glasses of red wine later (a very delicious, bold and deep Syrah, I might add) one drunken friend asks me:

“Rich, why don’t you have more funny stories like mine?  Maybe more alcohol would help.  I haven’t seen you since last summer, what drama do you have to share?”

Perhaps we are, methinks, a different breed.  I am a tea drinker. I dwell in the present, sipping each cup of brew as I take in the moments that pass me by.  However, I can still recall the bountiful bouquet of the Syrah that we enjoyed.  The aroma and depth were alluring. Wine was, after-all, once a deeper passion for me than tea. 

The magic of tea is that it reminds me to be aware of the present.  Wine, however, can become an escape, each goblet of it can alter my reality and my understanding of myself.  Tea can stabilize me.  Each beautiful brew reinforces the awareness of my present self.  I am here now, enjoying an oolong that will never be the same again, happy and cognizant of the fulfillment of my desire at this one point.  Wine may lead me to heightened states that reflect upon me an imaginative view of who I’d like to be.  A good cup of tea reminds me of who I am as a whole, dwelling deeply in a continued understanding of my satisfaction in the here and now.

It’s a good life. Drink good tea.

18 March 2010

Tea Books – Fong and Fisher Reviewed

Roy Fong of the Imperial Tea Court is one of the first to make an impact on my personal understanding of tea culture (he used to have a teahouse near Seattle in the 90s) and his tea knowledge is quite vast.  I heard murmurs a few years ago that he was going to begin work on a tea book that he had been wanting to write for a while.  A tea book in the making by an accomplished tea expert, one that it seemed he was truly excited to write?  It would be a great read, I thought, as I impatiently anticipated its publication.

I bought the book from Imperial Tea Court as a pre-order late last year and the book was mailed to me after it was published in December.  In recognition of the patience of pre-order customers, our books were autographed (a nice touch).  However, the book, entitled Great Teas of China, arrived as a narrow and thin paperback.  For a book that costs nearly 20 bucks and took years to plan and write, I was expecting something substantial and insightful, a reflection of Roy’s deep knowledge of tea that I so respect.  I was disappointed by the “introduction to/basic-level” feel of the book, which outlines some of the better-known Chinese teas, interspersed with bits of Roy’s experiences in the industry.  I knew that since his knowledge and expertise span the major types of tea that this book would not be monopolized by oolongs alone.  However, I have a particularly soft spot for Muzha Tieguanyin and Dong Ding, the latter of which was relegated to a few verses in a short chapter that covered not a specific varietal of tea (which pretty much every other chapter did), but a general overview of Taiwan’s teas.  About 10 short pages to cover some of the region’s (some would use the term “Greater China’s”) greatest teas?  Really?!?  To be fair, I did find parts of Roy’s book to be enjoyable because of the stories he included of his own experiences with the tea, and his pictures, as usual, are quite nice.

Did I expect too much?  I don’t think so.  For an industry veteran with such a large amount of insight, connections and understanding of the industry, Roy has the unique ability to put together a substantive English tea book that, like his Imperial Grade Tieguanyin, can have character, body and depth.  There already exist many other tea primer and intro books, chief among them, the Heiss’ 430+ page The Story of Tea that is well-researched and comprehensive; hard to beat at less than $35.  


Last month, I received a complimentary copy of Aaron Fisher’s (of “The Leaf” online tea magazine and “The Art of Tea” English publications) latest book, The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea.  I also received a note from Aaron that I was free to write whatever I thought about the book – good or bad – or nothing at all.  I finished the book late last week and the following review of it will be posted web-wide a little bit later:

“I most appreciated the interweaving of history and tea culture as seen through the stages of philosophical and spiritual thought.  The intelligent and penetrating insights and interpretations offered by the author with regards to the major Taoist and Zen philosophies are engaging to the reader.  Fisher ably uses key examples of "tea Zen" from the ages to show readers that mindfulness can be found not only in each cup of tea, but also in its ritual and accompaniments.  A core theme of the book is that the essence of tea is found not in the debate or study of its characteristics or in the compulsion to find, grab and “own” tea wisdom & knowledge, but through a mindful approach to contemplating, enjoying, and sharing the beauty of each brew.  Overall, the book is a gracious offering by the author to share the life-altering experiences that tea can have, which I think many introspective tea lovers will be able to relate to.  I think this book will be well received by those looking for an experience of tea beyond the brew itself.”

I enjoyed Aaron’s latest offering.  I did find that the book was heavy on philosophy and spirituality, and I commented to him that I sometimes felt that the book was more about those subjects, with tea serving as a bridge to unite thought and material existence.  After some continued dialogue with him, I’m comforted by the fact that there are many more stories for Aaron to tell, and many more books that he will tell them in.  As for this one, it is an enjoyable read and quite an interesting perspective from a fellow student of the leaf.

10 March 2010

A Visit to Hong Kong’s Tea Museum; Sharing a Cup of Old Pu’er

I like to visit Hong Kong, but only for brief periods of times.  The city is vibrant and fast-paced, but the sheer density of the urban areas makes it difficult for me to feel comfortable with the limited amount of personal space.  The city’s frenetic energy tends to stifle my thoughts until I can escape into the vastness of the New Territories on the weekends

Tea culture is decidedly different on the island.  The British influences of black tea and coffee, and mainland imports of oolong, green, pu’er teas etc., have crossed paths and produced interesting results.  HK-style milk tea (港式奶茶: black tea with evaporated milk and sugar), Yuen-Yang milk tea (鴛鴦奶茶: coffee, black tea, milk), and Taiwanese pearl milk tea (真珠奶茶: tea, various flavor additives, milk and tapioca pearls/”boba”) are some of the popular non-traditional tea drinks.  My favorite non-traditional tea concoction is cold lemon black tea with sweetener (凍檸茶).  Of course at dim sum, you will still have your choice of the traditional Chinese goods, staples like Tieguanyin, cooked pu’er, and Jasmine green tea. 

Although I’ve been to HK many times, it was only on my last trip that I made it out to the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware that’s located in Hong Kong Park.  It really is super convenient to get to, shame on me for not visiting sooner.  There are many displays at the museum that are on permanent loan to the museum from a private collection, one that includes very rare and old yixing pots and period tea wares.  I found two of the exhibits particularly interesting:  one was a step-by-step pictorial intro of the Song-dynasty style of whipped tea that was popular during that time.


The other exhibit was a pictorial intro of powdered tea consumption, one of the popular and predominant ways to consume tea during the Tang dynasty, which, as the exhibit mentioned, found its most famous supporter in the great tea connoisseur Lu Yu.


I regret that my pictures have still not been sorted from this trip that happened over a year ago.  I’m working on it!  The Tang dynasty powered tea preparation set of pictorials I have in its entirety; the Song dynasty one is MIA.

I was having tea with Daniel at Arts de Chine last week.  I told him that especially from western pu’er collectors and lovers, there is no small amount of opposition to the wet storage style of pu’er that is predominant in HK.  Daniel mentioned that of course the weather in HK affects storage of teas, but also that perhaps surprisingly, many HK people actually prefer the taste of wet-stored cakes.  Among his clientele, the preference is based on a desire to taste the unique tastes of older, wet-stored tea; a depth of taste characteristics that – for better or worse – dry-stored cakes don’t have.  Undoubtedly so, most old cakes have had some wet-storage (many of the remaining label cakes from the 50s and 60s have passed through wet-storage in HK or Taiwan before being resold elsewhere – many times back to mainland Chinese collectors). 

We broke a small corner off of my 73 brick, not an ancient pu’er, but one that has had no small amount of age for its leaves to soften.  By feel and sight alone, we knew that the cake had gone through a period of wet storage.  Boiling water was poured onto it as it sat in an antique gaiwan (a glazed thick-walled porcelain with blue highlights from the mid Qing era – a future birthday present to myself).  Clearly distinguishable camphor aromas, with some hints of various other herbs, were carried upwards by the rising steam.  Pour after pour yielded a medium-brown colored brew that was clean and not overly rich; one could still see the bottom of the pitcher through the brew.  The mouth-feel was near-complete and soft.  Its flavor was lingering; a part of its taste reminded me of clay.  The wet-storage imparted a unique depth to the tea, as well as some minor off-flavors that were apparent upon sniffing the gaiwan’s lid.  The tea has had more than 20 years of dry storage, though, so by the 3rd infusion, the true nature of the tea was quite brilliant and clear.

Daniel and I smiled at each after the 3rd infusion.  He said that there is affinity between tea, experiences and people.  I had the good fortune to come across this tea, and he had the good fortune to consume some of it with me.  I told him that earlier this year, my Dong Ding teacher told me that good tea will make itself available to a person when one is ready for it.  With that line, Daniel said perhaps it’s not his time to own a collection of pricey and old label cakes.  I’m sure his wife will be happy to know that their money may now be spent elsewhere!

20 minutes later, we were back at it, scheming over how to convince an old friend of his to sell us just a slice of his blue label cake.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

04 March 2010

Stale Teas – Baked, not Roasted

Since oolongs never touch a flame directly, tea roasting is a bit of a misnomer.  Baking is a more accurate term, with “roasting” equipment functioning much more like ovens than like grills. 

But since we all know the process as roasting, I won’t fight the tide. 

I’ve been drinking and giving away more tea these past 6 months than I’ve purchased.  For some of my favorite daily-drinkers, my supplies have dwindled to 1 ounce or less.  Some of these teas have been sitting in little bags or containers for nearly a year and have gone stale.  Too small in quantity to roast with any of my equipment, so what to do?

Wrap it in foil and stick it in a toaster oven.

I take a sheet of foil and place the remnants of tea in it, creating a flat plate-like vessel; I don’t enclose the tea with foil.  I preheat the oven to 150-200 degrees F and put the tea inside for about 20-45 minutes, depending on the tea and what I’m looking for.  The heat serves to push out the moisture and some of the odors in the leaves.  This simple process will not restore the full flavors of the brew, but it will make stale teas more pleasant.

I don’t talk about pu’er much at all, but I do read about and drink it regularly.  There is a lot of discussion about the pros/cons of dry-stored pu’er vs wet-stored ones in the pu’er world.  I like both, but with older wet-stored cakes, there may be some particularly strong off-flavors.  Being that I love to experiment with tea, I wondered if simple baking of off-flavored pu’er would improve the tea.  The formula is different than with oolong (and unfortunately, I haven’t played around with the process enough to share my experiences) but it does work. 

Try it for yourself, baked Pu tastes good.