23 March 2009

On Humilitea

Although he's not officially one of my teachers, I think the world of Mr. Zhou and have learned a lot from him.  He is one of the most celebrated tea masters in Taiwan - if not the world - and his contributions to the art and study of Taiwanese oolong in particular cannot be overstated.

On one of our first meetings together, I brought him an old Tieguanyin that my teacher had given me.  As we tasted the brew together, he remarked to me that the tea was a moderate roast and hadn't been roasted in a while, to which I replied that my teacher had roasted it only a couple of years back.  Mr. Zhou accepted my explanation as fact and corrected himself, sincerely praising my teacher's skill in the process.  By that one, seemingly simple action, I was deeply impressed by his humility.  Many other so-called masters have vehemently argued with me over my statements of either opinion or fact, causing me to walk away from such experiences with an unsatisfying sense of disappointment. 

I travel across the world in search of my next fine brew and meet all sorts of interesting tea people.  Rare is the master that is so secure in his standing, with such a solid understanding of Cha Dao, that he need not find fault in others to give himself confidence in his own abilities.  From Mr. Zhou, I have been deeply ingrained with the idea that a true tea master isn't just one who has made tea for generations, has some sort of certification with that title, or can quote all of the relevant tea facts.  A true tea master can transcend the tangible aspects of the tea and touch upon how the brew connects to each of us on a personal level. 

16 March 2009

You're Missing the Point!

The nice gentleman fills my cup again.

tea making machinery1 Machinery at the production facility

Mr. Li runs a maocha production facility.  He grows tea, has teams that harvest the leaves, and then he produces the tea base - maocha - that many tea producers will buy from him in order to roast.  Mr. Li serves me a maocha without the finishing roasts, which tastes overpoweringly bitter and astringent, with a very strong vegetal taste that reminds me of raw Kale.

My Dong Ding teacher urges me to ask Mr. Li what varietal his maocha is made from, what altitude he grows at, and how long he oxidizes the leaves.  I was a bit embarrassed and a bit irked by my teacher, but I didn't immediately realize that he was trying to teach me a lesson.  He does that sometimes; he teaches me things by example instead of just lecturing.  He taught me to temporarily overcome a fear of heights by making me climb the sheer face of a cliff using only a scraggly, old bungee cord. 

dexing waterfall stage 2.4  The view after climbing the bungee

"I'm not interested in asking Mr. Li those questions.  Why are you asking me to?  You already know the answers anyway." 

My teacher looked at me and laughed, but not in a condescending way.  "You're always so interested in the details of the tea.  You want to know what varietal it comes from, what the bush's age is, and all of the millions of other details.  Let me ask you, without knowing any of these details, can you tell whether this tea base, this maocha, is good or not just by drinking it?"

"Of course!" I immediately responded.  "My tastes aren't THAT poor, I do know enough to tell if it's good or bad."

And that was precisely my teacher's point.  I told him on the first day that I had met him that I wanted to drink good tea.  I had found my good tea, but I still didn't know all of the details about it.  But what would I need to learn about those details for?  To satisfy some inane curiosity for random tea facts?  Or to augment the deep desire of my own ego to learn things about tea that few others know, and to be recognized as some sort of authority for it?

His point was that in the grander scheme of tea enjoyment, a "perfect" pot, kettle for heating water, water, energy, environment, etc may enhance the brew, but good tea will still be good regardless of how fine or poor the "supporting actors" are.  Knowing the how's and why's of tea doesn't make it taste better at that moment.

It's unfortunate that there is animosity being passed around online, in tea rooms and between tea merchants over who's right or wrong, what the correct timing - down to the second - is for a certain tea, what the altitude should be for a proper Lishan tea, and all of the many other debatable "facts."  Yes, there are ways to make tea taste better or worse, but many of those ways are subjective to the individual experience.  I have my particular preferences that I advocate, but my teacher once said to me that good tea is whatever tea that YOU think is good.  Period. 

In the grander scheme of life, the tea experience is teaching me about acceptance.  While I may say and believe that one tea is better than another, what I really intend is that one tea is just more suitable for me than another.  Each unique tea is simply the best that it is at that particular moment, and I'm just the best Rich I can be right now, and both are acceptable.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that the most important thing for us tea lovers is the tea itself.  In the moment that we enjoy our brews, the minutiae is bypassed, leaving us with just the one thing that we're rightly most passionate about.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

11 March 2009

Tea Drinking during the Tang Dynasty

I visited the Flagstaff Museum of teaware in Hong Kong Park before I left the city.  It's quite a nice place with some fine examples of ancient Chinese teaware.

The theme of several of the galleries was tea drinking and tea culture during different Chinese dynastic periods.  Of particular interest to me was the style of brew during the Tang dynasty, which is the time period that the great tea philosopher and author of the Classic of Tea, Lu Yu, lived.

The wall mural mentioned that powdered tea was the dominant style during the Tang dynasty.  This is not to be confused with the powdered & whipped type of tea of the Song dynasty that the Japanese now call Matcha.  According to the exhibit, the powdered teas of the Tang dynasty could also be mixed with different herbs and seasonings, such as camphor or ginger.

The museum's display listed the following steps that were performed for the Tang-style brew, which I've paraphrased below:

1)  Boil the water until large bubbles (fish-eye sized) form and a whistling sound (like wind blowing through Pine trees) is heard

2)  Add a pinch of salt to season the water

3)  When the water has bubbles like a string of pearls, set aside a ladle of water for later use (this later use is not specified)

4)  Stir the water with bamboo chopsticks as it continues to boil

5)  Add the tea powder; froth will form.  The tea is now ready.

Beginning in the Tang dynasty, certain types of pressed and baked tea cakes were made that would become even more popular during the Song dynasty.  These types of cakes weren't as fermented as puerh, nor was the fermentation or aging processes prized qualities of these baked cakes.  As far as I know, fermented bricks or cakes of teas also existed that were more similar to puerh, but these types of teas were more prized for their ability to be stored and transported rather than their taste.  The tea cakes of the Tang dynasty were broken up and infused with hot water, or crushed into a powder and mixed with boiling water as in the above instructions.

02 March 2009

Remembering your first GOOD tea

What is the first "good" tea that you can remember drinking?

IMG_4065  preparing for tea in Hong Kong

Mine was Longjing. Sure, I started off drinking oolong teas, but the first one I considered to be really special and good was a Dragon's Well tea. It was, and still is, a famous green tea of China and that status probably played the tea up a bit in my mind.

But thinking back, the tea that I had probably wasn't that good, but it was good to me then. So what is good tea? A lot of people spend a lot of time and money searching for what they consider to be good tea. If you can remember the first tea that you deemed to be extra tasty, chances are that it may longer be as good to you if you had it again today.

af

They glanced at each other and The Younger chuckled as he quickly poured out the 3rd infusion of the pricey Tieguanyin sample that I had brought him.

"Let me ask you, how do you know if what you're drinking tastes good and is good tea?"

The Younger is straightforward and not as "gentle" in his wording as The Elder, but I appreciate his humor and his articulation when talking about tea. They've been trading teas for decades, and that day, he had just returned from roasting nearly 10,000 jin of tea; about 14,000 pounds.

"Good tea to me must be roasted and have a strong base that has been well oxidized. It must be complex and have multiple layers of flavor, but pleasant and smooth to the tongue and throat. It need not have a recurring sweetness, but it should be bold enough to withstand multiple infusions in my pot. It should be a forgiving tea also."

The Elder switches spots with The Younger, pours me another cup and asks me, without looking, "So by your standards, even my best puerh teas would not be to your liking."

It was my turn to chuckle. "You have good teas for good prices, and by the standard that they are judged your best puerhs are excellent. But they're not for me."

"Perhaps we should brew you a good puerh. Maybe you've never had a good one, that's why you don't like it." The Younger scans the shelves behind him looking for a suitable cake of some sort.  He finds a small bag of what looks like an old sample of something quite tasty and puts it into a gaiwan.

"No need. I have had many very old and expensive puerhs. They are good teas with roundness and smoothness, but I still prefer a good oolong above all others." I looked at The Younger and asked him, "If you were to choose between a beautiful young maiden and a beautiful older maiden, which would you choose?

We all laughed and he put his gaiwan full of old puerh on the table behind him and continued to brew the Tieguanyin that I had brought.

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Good tea is subjective and it will change. And even with no change, I've written before that it's fleeting. One of the best teas I've had recently is a 1983 Dong Ding produced by the legendary Mr. Kang.  It brought tears to my eyes as I drank it alone at a quiet teahouse in Asia, dually appreciating the teas complete beauty, but also lamenting that such a tea can never be produced again.

Savor each glimpse, each drop of life's treasures, as every worthy moment has its own sublime beauty.

                            IMG_4059