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.


04 November 2017

Reboot!

About 5 years ago, I lost the custom site name for this blog.  I procrastinated on the renewal and a spammy company took my URL and redirected my readership to nowhere land.  I found an opportunity to buy back my URL for 5 figures, scoffed at it, and carried on with life.

Recently, I randomly checked for the availability of my old URL and it was free again!  

My blog is a way to connect my tea ideas and experiences with whomever happens to find it. During my years away from writing, I didn’t expect to miss the community of tea bloggers and blog readers that I got to communicates with on a regular basis; it’s nice to join the party again.  

With a backlog of 5+ years of stories to share, I hope kindred spirits will be able to find their way back to this blog and share my enthusiasm for the art and practice of tea.  

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

14 October 2017

Yesterday...

Long ago, before this blog’s first lines were published, I was gifted a free ticket to Taiwan.  There are few words I appreciate more than “free,” “travel,” or “tea!”  I fully expected that my first trip to Taiwan would turn out to be an amazing experience - and it was.  I met my first 2 Taiwanese tea teachers, Mr. Purple Clouds and my Tieguanyin teacher, during this first trip to Taiwan and still try to see them when I go back.  Nearly a dozen trips later, I’ve now added so many more teachers to be grateful to.  Mr. Zhan of Nine Pots Manor; My Dong Ding teachers; Mr. Li the tea scientist; The Younger and The Elder, tea distributors; Mr. Big Way, a master of tea brewing; Mr. Stillness, a tea maker who infuses his brew with heart and mindfulness, and so many others I have yet to share stories about.

But before I met any of my current teachers, there was Winnie Yu.  Winnie opened a teahouse called Celadon Fine Teas (now known as Teance) in the Bay Area about 15 years ago.  I was one of the first employees she hired and she taught me everything she could about evaluating, serving and appreciating tea.  What she did not know she found other experts for us to learn from.  She taught me how to brew from a gaiwan without the saucer so that I could maximize the feel and control (nevermind the boiling water...desensitization happens sooner or later!).  I learned the difference between a light oolong like a Baozhong and a weighty one like the Monkey Picked TGY...and came to love oolongs all over again.  Don’t brew Dragonwell too long or it can get astringent!  Don’t brew pu’er too briefly or you won’t get the depth of flavors!  She taught me how to tie the lids to the handle of teapots because they’re more functional that way (less prone to dropping and breaking the lid) and prettier, too.  That was my experience with Winnie, she was really good at getting to the heart of stuff and had a devotion towards tea that was radically different from the nonsense that so many other so-called experts liked to peddle (and still do!).  She was practical and straight-forward, but her devotion to the leaf remained.

...and she was generous, too. Not just with her time, as she patiently explained to me over and over again why and how to do things a certain way.  I can’t tell you how many times she picked up the bill for my lunch or dinner, or sent me home with samples of something to try.  The company’s signature vessel, the celadon-colored gaiwan, was used for tea service, along with matching drinking and aroma cups.  We had a gaiwan that sat in the corner of the tea service bar, out of use, after it slipped out of someone’s hand and banged against the concrete counter.  I asked Winnie if I could buy the otherwise beautiful and perfectly-usable gaiwan from her and she furrowed her brow and said, “Are you kidding?  Just take it home!”  I still have that gaiwan, it sits on the 2nd shelf of my cabinet along with other fun and meaningful pieces I’ve collected.

I ended up moving to Asia for further studies, so my time with Winnie and Celadon was not lengthy.  I kept in touch with her off and on over the years, and even got to see her again a couple of times.  She’d update me on the cool projects she was working on, like bottled tea, new retail packs to sell at local stores, web initiatives, and what other former employees that I knew were up to.  
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Winnie passed away about a month ago, at the age 47.  I had no idea she was ill.  A tea friend texted me and asked if I knew of her passing. I thought the news must have been a mistake...too young!  I scoured the net and read about her death from one of the employees at the teahouse.  I didn’t know how to react.  I have an old pu’er that I thought she’d love to try, but she had a last-minute scheduling conflict that meant I would miss the opportunity to share it with her the last time I was in town.  “Eh, I’ll be back sometime, it’ll taste better as it gets older, anyway,” I thought.  

It may have been my dad’s good friend that sparked my love for tea decades ago, but it was Winnie that gifted me the foundation for understanding and furthering the art of tea.  I always meant to tell her how much I appreciated her time and nurturing.... The tea community has lost one of its great advocates.

Today’s a good day to dust off the old gaiwan.  I’ll put in a generous serving of my favorite Dong Ding and brew up two cups of my best.

Thanks Winnie.  Here's one more for the road.




Drink good tea and enrich your life.

23 May 2013

Neglect…Oops….

It’s been nearly 4 months since I last made an entry…and most of the readership has disappeared because I made a mistake and didn’t update my credit card for auto-renewal of my domain.  myteastories now goes to some random site with someone that has been squatting the domain name with no new content.  My bad.

Life has been really busy as business has picked up and time for tea has diminished.  I got to swing by Asia earlier this year and made some new tea friends also – there are some new things that I’ve learned and some new teas that I’ve tried.  Time to rebuild this site and find a new domain name, too!  More to come…

24 January 2013

Don’t be so quick to judge the brew

Tea can be temperamental and need some warming up before it will brew a really solid cup. You may have found that if your pot is too hot or if the water temperature isn't just right, your ideal cup of tea doesn't turn out quite the way you may have expected it to.

Tea also seems to get jet lag sometimes. It may be the high air pressure, the cold of the cargo hold. . . which leads tea to taste bland, lifeless or just plain bad after it travels. Like people, tea may need to rest for a bit after its flight. A sealed bag of oolong needs to be opened up to breathe before it completely comes back go life. Transferring it from the bag into a jar will do wonders for it. Give it a week or two and try it again, it will taste different and open up for you to enjoy.

I've been relatively critical when tea tasting in the past. When one is on a mission to buy teas, there isn't much time to explore each one in depth. Decisions are made on the spot and tea buyers do their best to guess the potential of the tea and how it will change over a given season. When tasting tea with friends, I have also been quite critical of brews that lack the bouquet, the essence or the range of expected tea traits.

The longer I drink tea, the less judgmental I become. Maybe this naturally comes with aging and maturity! I know what I like and want, but I’m also accepting of all sorts of brews and I trust that many teas have more to share than what I may have experienced with them. Nowadays, I can only say what my initial thoughts are about a tea, I’m not usually inclined to judge how terrible it may be – although there are certain brews that seem so bad that one can never imagine them improving.

I’m especially silent when it comes to predicting how a pu'er will turn out. I have read and been told about so many different ways for judging how worthy a particular cake may be for aging. Aside from fundamentals such as using good raw materials, correct pressing procedures, proper blending, etc, I have yet to meet anyone that can definitively and accurately predict just how good a particular cake will become decades after it was pressed. Do the best ones start off smoky? Rich? Sweet? Woody and camphor-like? My oldest raw teas surpass 50 years and they are still changing. My mid 2000s brand-name old arbor cake started off grassy and smoky, then became a bit flat, and is now somewhat sweet and mellow.

What's next? Actually, not knowing for sure is part of the fun.