15 January 2018

Martial Tea Arts

My friend Daniel owns a tea shop in Vancouver. Aside from being very knowledgeable about tea and teaware, he is also an accomplished practitioner of Wing Chun Kung Fu. He can size up another martial artist by the way they move. He intuits how good they are within just a few cycles of Sticky Hands. He can also size them up by the way they talk and what they say.

Experienced practitioners of many arts seem to be able to do the same thing. Tea retailers can start to size up their customers by watching where their customers focus their attention. In a pu’er shop, did the customer walk over to display case with the pricey cakes, over to the sale bin, to the for-display pu’ers with images stamped on them, or to the small section of coffee beans?

When the customer asks a question, what kind of tea are they looking for and what’s their budget? A customer looking for a 15+ year cake for $20 bucks or less is probably not an experienced drinker and has no idea what the market price for a quality aged cake is. Someone who says “what do you recommend” without telling the merchant what she’s looking for probably doesn’t have a very good idea of what she really likes; an unscrupulous merchant may find such a customer to be easy to deceive.

Does the customer watch how the tea is brewed? Take notice of the color, viscosity and aromas before taking his first sip? How does the customer sip and for how long? What does the customer do with the cup when it’s empty? All of these steps, and more, will tell an experienced tea drinker, teacher or retailer much about the customer.

Back in the day when I was more actively buying tea for retailers and wholesalers, I’d often have to visit new suppliers to source tea. I usually had little idea of the quality of the tea beyond the clues I could pick up while perusing the displays, gauging prices, etc. I’d try to minimize any "tells" or “kung fu moves.” I didn’t noticeably study the tea too hard, I asked basic questions to suss out the knowledge and character of the tea merchant, and I never talked about my background with tea. Not at first, anyway. The tea business is a business like any other, with merchants who are in business to make money. My responsibility would be to ensure that my clients would receive good and fairly-priced products.

I’d like to paint a picture of how romantic the tea buying journey is, and parts of it really are. Traveling by train, bus and car deep into tea country. Hiking for ½ a day surrounded by the fragrance of aromatic leaves as far as one could see. Meeting random farmers on their breaks who will treat you to a nice cup of brew and a little snack. But the process is also exhausting. More often than not, the teas were overpriced and sub-standard. As the market for premium Taiwanese tea has grown, prices have gone up and the production of inferior product has gone up, too, driven by growing demand...and greed. Many countries import tea that is then mixed with domestic production and resold as domestic tea.

I learned from several of my tea teachers that the world of tea relationships is interconnected. Each person and each "link' of the tea chain must trust the immediate relationships that they both rely on and serve. An oolong roaster, for example, must have great faith in their supplier, while also trusting that the distributor or buyer in turn trusts that he put his heart and skill into making the best tea he could. This is the ideal world of tea, and while it is changing like all other things in life, these precious relationships still exist. It makes me happy to think of all the joyful, good-hearted people that I've had the opportunity to work with over the years.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 January 2018

Grow by Letting Go

I try to spend about a week at the end of each year in solitude doing a "year in review" and to make goals for the upcoming new year.  It's a great way for me to recall past successes, areas I can improve upon, reflect on gratitude, as well as to catch up on reading and correspondence.  I spent some time on my most recent retreat writing outlines for new blog posts to come.

Although this blog was on hiatus for several years, my adventures in the world of tea continued and my appreciation for the "inner" world of tea deepened.  Winnie Yu's passing late last year, which I wrote about recently, led me to more consideration about the nature of my continuing tea education.  I started this blog years ago both as an online journal of my adventures in tea as well as a way to disseminate the education and experiences that I was able to enjoy, and in her memory, the sharing of my learning and ideas should continue for as long as my passion for tea remains.

I've been traveling back to Taiwan on a regular basis these past several years, and each journey is somewhat like 1 step back and 2 steps forward.  So many things that I have learned over the years have been wiped away and replaced by new methods and thinking.  Conventional tea wisdom or knowledge about things like brewing temperature, varietals, growing conditions, "terroir," etc are not so conventional.  The charcoal roasted, grown-in-Yunnan, Qingxin varietal that one of my teachers roasted last year was probably one of the most surprising teas I've had in years. It had the structure of a cliff tea, the complexity of Taiwan high mountain oolong, and the freshness and energy of pu'er.  I also met an award-winning oolong producer who roasts his high mountain tea at nearly 20% higher heat, something that several of my other teachers think is impossible.  I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it for myself.  I tried his tea and it was pretty delicious, too.

I've been asked what I think is the most important lesson to know about tea and nowadays, I'd say that one should consider the mentality of loose-attachment.  What I mean by this is that one should not rigidly adhere to a set of rules for tea (ie preparing/storing/drinking tea a certain way) or obsess about collecting and regurgitating knowledge or procedures.  I find it lamentable when I meet fellow tea lovers who are so passionate about their point of view that they cannot accept other interpretations or methods.  We cannot learn and grow if we don't listen, explore or keep an open mind.  

I got to accompany Shiuwen of Floating Leaves Tea to Taiwan when she went to film her oolong documentary last summer.  We spent time with some of our teachers, as well as new teachers whom we met.  Master Big Way's teachings on tea brewing profoundly changed the way I prepare tea leaves and brew tea.  I'll get into this more in future posts, but his lessons begin with cultivating our heart and energy before we even touch the pot, let alone the tea leaves.  After you've sipped your cup of tea, he will give your cup a quick smell, through which your level of cultivation and mental state will be revealed to him.  Amazing?  You bet...and a little unsettling for sure.  Shiuwen's documentary will be out later this year and you'll be able to see how beautifully he prepares and serves tea.  A couple of trailers for the documentary have been completed, and the first one can be viewed here:

Happy New Year.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.