Thursday, December 29, 2016

Struggles of Being a Weird Tea Guy

This week was not so much a tea week as a lack-of-tea week, but I felt like posting something for my grumpy tea brethren. Continue for grumblings of a grumpy tea addict. Topic: scarcity of hot water.

I traveled a bit for the holidays this year, and it made me realize how inconvenient my addiction to tea is. Decent tea is certainly not ubiquitous in the US, but neither is solidly hot water. I always bring along my little tea thermos, but I was staying in a hotel for a few days without a stove or kettle. When in desperation I eventually turned to the microwave, I found the leaves didn't appreciate microwave boiled water at all. It's not easy having a strange and highly specific addiction. But it feels so damn good!

I think I may start carrying a simple stove, fuel and kettle with me. A good way to complete the crazed, tea addicted alchemist aesthetic.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Drinking with the Seasons

I don't reach for High Mountain Oolong as often as more oxidized, aged or roasted teas. But I must thank my relationship with seasonal green oolong drinking for teaching me some serious lessons. The idea sprang from drinking the winter harvest High Mountain Oolongs at FLT, and learning about their connection to the weather in Taiwan. The new season's teas came in a couple weeks ago and I've been drinking them, trying to get a solid handle on them since then. It seems they have been affected by Taiwan's especially mild winter this year.

So now, a couple days ago I was having tea with a scotch loving friend and realized something about the way I drink tea in contrast to the way he drinks scotch. Besides I get tea drunk while he gets drunk-drunk ;) It seems to be the case that from the earth to the tea table, tea takes a very clear and traceable path. In my own drinking, I strive to understand the leaves in terms of cause and effect. What was the cause (farming, processing, weather, aging, etc) that gave any particular effect that I feel in my mouth, nose or body. It's very interesting to me to read the leaves and broth like a story.

I realized this when my scotch buddy was giggling because I brought up 'dong qi' (winter “energy”). In describing what I meant, it turns out the feeling of dongqi is actually an amalgamation of a lot of different feelings which together point to the weather being sufficiently cool in the tea mountains during winter. But his experience as a scotch drinker is more analytical, perhaps, in that he would rather identify each feeling on its own. In scotch this makes sense, as the path of whiskey from earth to glass is hugely complicated by intricate processing, long term aging and storage. I think they're both very sexy drinks. Their contrastive natures seem to at least imply contrastive approaches in tasting. I'd appreciate input from the scotch-heads!


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Thought on Tea Classification

I have a theory I'd like to test out on the wonderful tea geeks of the internet. I've been thinking about the way we classify tea. By this I mean the generally observed classification spectrum of green, white, yellow, oolong, black and puer. I don't mean to exclude the other possible iterations of that spectrum, that's just an example.

My idea is that it may be more useful to identify teas by their geographical, cultural and historic contexts. For example, although the Western tea market generally classifies Cliff Tea and Tie Guanyin as oolong, I've heard many Chinese tea drinkers call these by their own names and consider oolong also something unique more limited in scope. Same thing with Pheonix Teas. The context that got me thinking about this was when I was asking questions about the origin of Cliff Tea and Pheonix Tea. I don't think that the tea producers from each region got together and decided what they were making was oolong, they more probably were just making tea that fit their geology, geography and culture. I propose this kind of lens because I think it may get us as tea drinkers closer to the tea and its origins and help us look past abstractions.

I'm not saying we should do away with our characteristic/processing based spectrum concept by any means. I'm just thinking this is an interesting point of discussion. Please feel free (or obligated) to comment ;)


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Helping an Aged Oolong Touch Up his Stinky Navel

Old tea is great. But old tea can also be flat and muted, if not just straight gross. Specifically I'm talking about aged oolong. I think this may be the most misunderstood category of oolong tea because it demands either a skillful and attentive merchant or a capable drinker to maintain it, and the disconnect between the great tea lands and our humble tea community is still rather large.

This became obvious to me the other day when a wonderful tea friend (read: tea teacher) and FLT tea source-er brought in an aged mainland Tieguanyin. He lit a candle with an old teapot suspended over it like this (a) and placed a gaiwan lid over the top, like this (b).



My friend waited a few minutes and held the gaiwan lid to his nose. "Stinky!"

He handed it to me. The moisture that had been trapped in the leaves had started to evaporate and re-condense on the apex of the lid. I smelled it. YUCK! It smelled like a stinky navel. So that's what I'm drinking when I drink a long-stale aged oolong. This made the utility of touching up or re-roasting an aging tea very concrete to me. I don't want that stink in my tea! Gross!!

On top of removing stink, my own touching up experiment was more vibrant, clear and strong than when I've drunk it stale. I tried the other day on an aged Miao-li area oolong in the shop, and even the energy of the tea hit me hard and immediately, whereas that tea has always felt sleepy to me. The only problem with amateur roasting-touchups is the tea tends to get a drying feeling in the mouth that it wouldn't have otherwise. And the way I understand it, most of the time if you set it to rest after the touch-up it will go back to the way it was. "Locking in" a tea when touching it up, or roasting for any reason, is necessary for aging. Roasting is no easy skill, and locking in a tea so it remains relatively consistent takes direct experience, oral teaching, and a 'warehouse full of mistakes'. I hope one day I have enough tea to experiment like that, and eventually learn to lock in teas with a good roast. For now I'm just happy I could refresh a tea at all! Very rewarding session.


This is the aged Miaoli Oolong that I was playing with.

Disclaimer: Here's a link to the Miaoli oolong I was experimenting with. I just want people to know I DO work for the company (FLT) selling that tea. I only work there part time and don't profit directly from any sales, but I am involved with and love the company. That being said, I work for her because I really respect what she's doing and love the tea she sells.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Getting Back to the Throaty

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about reworking a gentle touch back into my tea brewing. In the subsequent sessions I've really enjoyed going back to teas which I thought I had figured out, and realizing that the tea has so much more to show me. It's such a great feeling when a new idea breaks through the barrier of a stagnant period! I've found that a little fresh spring water can really help out, too.

Mr. Z brewing Tea

I revisited a tea which I've been having an off and on affair with for a few years now. I bought a jin (Chinese pound) at the time, and now I'm down to a little more than a quarter jin. And just as the tea has started to run low, I started my experiments with lower leaf amounts and felt that with these changed parameters (less leaf, more time) this tea is ALL ABOUT THE THROAT. As I'm sipping on it, although there is plenty of mouth illuminating salivation/stimulation, the first place I notice the tea is in my throat. It's like this tea is pointing deeper past my mouth, saying 'drink from here'. As always with Mr. Z's tea, the lingering aftereffects stay with me as long as I care to pay attention to them. And as always, there's a really clear, heavy energy that makes itself comfortable down around my belly button. But brewing this before, the mouthfeel was so strong (due to my heavy handed pot-stuffing) that the throatfeel suffered for it. For right now, I believe the tea is finally getting across what it wants to get across. At least it's a step in the right direction. Thank you so much, Farmer Z, for making a tea that has continued to teach me over the course of the two years I've owned it. Even a hardy tea can benefit from gentle treatment.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

We are Tea Gatherers

It's true that I love to squirrel away my little jars and nubs of tea, but what I mean is tea can help us gather together. Everybody has their proverbial two cents today. And it's my personal scheduled blog posting day, at that!

I believe no matter which 'side' you were on during this drawn out and exhausting election season, re-integrating this divided/polarized society should be at the top of our agenda. Tea has helped me to come together with all sorts of people and have both fun and difficult discussions. Now more than ever, as tea people we should still extend a warm cup peacefully to bond with those that are close to us, but also to heal the wounds of division with people we don't agree with politically. I feel very blessed to have this community of tea people across the US and the rest of the world.

photo cred: Nomadic Samuel

Gathering together is at the center of gong-fu cha. They say each person you drink a tea with, when you both really are feeling the tea, increases the wonderfulness of the tea tenfold. So let's promote tea-ism and use this plant soup to mend our community!

Your humble tea gatherer,

PS Any readers who are in or coming through Seattle, contact me and we can share a tea in real spacetime. I want to extend a sincere invitation to all you good teafolk.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Stay Entish! We are a Kind of Plant People

I had yet another moment this week in the tea shop where I peered deeper into the abyss of tea knowledge. It's times like these where I have to keep my novice cap on, and not let ego break up my good vibe. I hope this lesson can help my fellow tea steepers!

I have long been a proponent of pushing a tea as far as it can go. When brewing, I would try to put more leaf, and let the tea steep longer, pushing it just to where it's about to break into an unbearable strength. I enjoy sessions where I have to fight with the tea a little bit. And I envy the hefty tongues of Chaozhou brew-monsters.

"Do not let us be hasty"

But if you're always fighting with a tea from the get go, you might not ever see what the tea is 'trying to show you'. After manhandling the tea version of a wise old grandma, my tea friend gently brought me down a few pegs. She said that there's a reason tea buyers in Taiwan will test teas by steeping small amounts of leaf in a big bowl for 15 minutes or more. They want to let the tea completely open up. It's not going to be the most enjoyable session with that tea, but you can really get a feel for its potential that way. Following this train of thought, when trying out a new tea in a gaiwan or small pot it can be handy to be gentle, put less leaf, and let the concoction to set for more time.

Metaphorically, when you come in contact with an old grandma, you should let her relax for awhile, and resist the urge to demand all her wise stories in one sitting. She won't be sharing any good stories with a hasty dumb-dumb.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tea History Through Tang Poetry

I've been going to some really fascinating talks at the University of Washington. Week after week the Chinese Studies department has been hosting brilliant scholars who are doing research regarding some aspect of tea. Recently there was a lecture on the history of "talking about tea" which Dr. James Benn has traced through its origins in the writings of Tang poets. For a thorough treatment of the subject see his book "Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History"

Dr. Benn made a point to emphasize the rapid onset and dissemination of tea drinking in China. We know that tea wasn't as ancient a beverage as Chinese civilization itself, it was probably first consumed for its medicinal properties around early Tang times. But from the time when celebrity poets of the Tang were introducing the brewed/steeped/whipped beverage to the literate elite to the implementation of a market tax for tea sold and consumed by common people was incredibly short. Lu Yu's classic of tea was making its rounds in the mid 8th century, and the tax was implemented by the central government in 780 or thereabouts.

To understand the literary mention of tea in Tang Dynasty China, one has to first understand the basic function of literature at the time. I'll try to be brief: All educated people were well read in the 'classics', a group of texts and their commentaries which were written mostly during the benevolent and properly Confucian Zhou Dynastic period. Being educated meant being familiar with the classics to the point of having them memorized backwards, forwards, up, down and sideways. The poets of the time were not praised for their unique and experimental use of language, but for their brilliant transmission of what had already been stated in the classics. There was a canonical way of talking about most anything a Chinese poet might want to talk about. But the classics hadn't any mention of tea. So poets who were moved to include tea in their work had to find novel ways to incorporate this new beverage into their vocabulary. Li Bo and Li Hua both talked about it as a Daoist elixir of immortality, alluding to mica (used in alchemical immortality elixir) and the saliva production site beneath the tongue (which is key to Daoist meditation practices which lengthen ones life).

Jiao Ran, a poet friend of our man Lu Yu, waxed spiritual about teas ability to raise one to the gods and compared tea to alcohol. In his comparison, he sneers at earlier Daoist poet Tao Qian's use of wine. Jiao Ran made an interesting choice here to compare these two beverages. It was a natural choice because of the ritual context and frequency of wine in the 'Classic of Odes' which he was drawing from. There was already a way to talk about wine, another psychoactive beverage, in the annals of the classics. It also marked, though, a switch of China's 'drug of choice'. I like to think of this switch as parallel to the European switch from beer to coffee which coincided with the Renaissance.

There was quite a lot of compelling content in Dr. Benn's lecture, but I'll leave it to you to go out and buy his book. I get rambly at the intersection of strong Tie Guanyin and fascinating Chinese Tea research. And I'm on my fourth pot of the day.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It Ain't Easy Roasting Dong Ding

Howdy all,

After the tea festival in Seattle, a week or so ago now, I was sitting in the shop recuperating over an aged Dong Ding with a tea friend. He has spent time learning with a Dong Ding farmer/roaster in Taiwan. He knows Dong Ding tea very well. Something that he said struck me this time (although Shiuwen has told me before): that Floating Leaves' DD roaster has a peculiar style. She starts with a high temperature initial roasting that locks in the tea and then decreases the temperature. This is very ballsy!! Most roasters do the opposite, and for good reason. High temperature locks the impurities of the tea into the final product, while starting low and moving towards high gives the roaster a chance to push the raw tea's impurities out. This hot-initial style technique thus requires a high quality base tea with relatively few impurities. Roasting is such a difficult skill, and when the power of this woman's technique really hit home the other day -- the effects of this technique linked up with my own experience tasting her tea -- my brain nearly imploded with respect. Her skill is phenomenal, and her confidence must be just rock-solid.

Shiuwen is working on a documentary right now about one of this woman's pupils who has taken this skill to the next level. 

I've learned sooooo sooo much working for FLT, and every time I learn something really interesting it just makes me realize how much more vast the world of tea is. Thanks for the wonderful chat, buddy! You know who you are.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Belitung Shipwreck with Professor Mair

This last Friday I attended Professor Victor Mair’s lecture at the University of Washington, hosted by our wonderful Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM). Mair is a linguist and tea historian. During his time living in Nepal he became acquainted with Darjeeling and other Indian style teas, and noticed the integral role of our favorite plant in Nepali daily life. He went on to say this inspired him, along with the prevalence myth and legend surrounding tea in China, to research what he calls the “True History of Tea”.

Image result for belitung shipwreck

The lecture Mair presented was centered around the Belitung shipwreck, an archeological site which has been dated to around the mid 9th century, or China’s Tang Dynasty period. According to Mair, the ship has been identified as an Arabian dhow, assumably bound for Persia and the Arabic world with a load of porcelain ware when it sank to the bottom of the sea.

The interesting bit for tea geeks lights up when you are told that the Arabic world had yet to drink tea, and that tea historians believe a very small minority was imbibing our favorite plant at the time the ship is believed to have sunk. So the bowls which look like tea bowls were actually intended, to the best of our knowledge, to be regular, non-tea bowls.
However, Mair made an interesting discovery when he visited the warehouse where the German archeologists are keeping their historically significant spoils. A few bowls had what at first glance appears to be writing. Three or so (pictured during lecture) had symbols that appeared Arabic, and one Chinese. The Arabic ones, pictures of which I don’t have, can be explained by their modern counterparts as follows:

They were essentially a part of the Far East’s long history of mimicking the world’s non-sinic languages and orthographies with little or no intent to derive any meaning. They were pictures that resembled Arabic because, I assume, the artisans knew the destination of the wares they were creating and wanted to ‘throw those Arabs an orthographic bone’.
The significant discovery, though, was the bowl with Chinese characters. Without getting too detailed, on the bowl was written in Buddhist vernacular (not the standard Classical language of the time) which means ‘tea bowl’. [Tidbit: the word they used for tea was actually the predecessor to the modern ‘cha’ (茶 tea), a character meaning 'bitter herb', containing an extra stroke,  and pronounced ‘tu’  in modern Mandarin.] According to Mair, this is good evidence that Buddhist monks were drinking tea at the time, and it was perhaps a plant only consumed by monks.

Special Thanks to:
Victor Mair

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sax and Pu

In the past week, I’ve acquired a big hunk of brass which has distracted me from my tea writing. This baby can really blow. It’s an old 16m Conn, the student model that Conn was making in the fifties. Lonnie Williams, a brilliant and very fair repair guy down in Columbia City opened the horn up a few years ago, and this baby boy sax resonates like a big man sax because of his good work. I’m gonna bring my alto of identical model down to him to do the same work, opening up the keys and such, as soon as my finances recover from tenor madness.

Anyway, just because I didn’t spend my time writing about a tea doesn’t mean I didn’t drink a hell of a lot of it. And interestingly enough, having the tenor around has correlated to my increased consumption of young puer, especially material from Qian Jia Zhai. The elevated but grounded, almost magnetic feeling energy of QJZ area tea gets in my body and I swear it comes out through this new horn. Maybe that’s merely a fun image, but it sure feels damn good to be stoned on strong puer and rip up and down my new sax.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fun Times with Dong Ding Wulong

I’ve been thinking about our Traditional Dong Ding at the shop a lot recently, my own, personal bag of which I just finished. Twas a sad day... Getting to know this tea was a long process, but now it’s become one of my favorite go-to’s when I want to attend to a tea but don’t want too heavy an experience. It’s not fluffy, but it can roll.

The farmer doesn’t roast his tea, he leaves that to Mr Z in Taipei. And he’s also a character. See Shiuwen Tai’s blog for some stories Floating Leaves Tea: Dong Ding, Farmer, and Tea: Tasting Tea. He’s the kind of guy who is so focussed on health and organic, traditional foods and medicines that he shoves said subjects and consumables alike down your throat.

"Oh yeeeaaahhhh... Woah!"

His tea is a careful, friendly duel between man and nature, understated and crunchy. He processes his as an orthodox oolong, oxidising the leaves to the point that they are a foresty, marine colored green when dry, and the soup brews up a healthy ale-like copper. Over the course of the bag, the word ‘amphibian’ once came to mind. Another time I thought that was the silliest dingle dangle. Sometimes there’s an herbal, almost medicinal kind of smell to the wet leaves.

It brought me cycling through tea pots before I could understand it, sometimes coaxing out the tea’s very minerally, mouth-watering body with my coarse clay pot (a) which I use for roasted oolongs. Other times the tea produced an almost exotic fruit-like aroma (an aroma earnestly termed “dong-ding fruit”) when accompanied by a fine, high-fired pot (b).

(b) a high fired pot, this one is Japanese clay formed by a Taiwanese maker
(a) coarser clay pot which I tend to use for roasted, heavier teas

There’s a strong salivation effect that approaches dryness, but still tends to remain juicy throughout. What I really enjoy about the tea is the deep feeling that warms the entire throat and sets my nerves abuzz. This can sometimes spread all the way down to my belly, if I’m paying attention, which is plenty pleasurable. It gives a good body buzz, but I can still sleep soon after I drink it. I had some wonderful sessions on these hot summers nights in Washington in my usual Tie Guanyin pot.

I think there’s a lot of ‘traditional’ style oolongs out there that are uninspiring at best, the kind of tea you might drink at a Dim Sum place. I believe the baseline is higher for high mountain tea, so some people feel like they’ve never had a bad one. But finding a tasty traditionally oxidised tea from Taiwan is quite the treat, and I think may be considered more mellow and grounded than their lightly oxidized, modern counterparts. Both types of tea can be very rewarding depending on the season, land and (most importantly?) farmer’s skill, but I spend my time chasing after the former because I’m of the mellow camp.

By drinking a tea by the bag -- or by the cake for puer people -- a person and a tea can become well acquainted. This Farmer’s Dong Ding Wulong has warmed my belly in early spring, provided me with a cool sweat in the heat of our (admittedly oft-relenting) summer, and is currently buzzing up and down my body as the decay of autumn sets in around Seattle. She has contorted herself in my thermos over longer journeys, and contentedly performed with the prerequisite of my attention and patience on a few tea tables. She’s become an old familiar, and I’ll be sad to see her go. But the next season’s crop is growing right now, and tea goes on.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tea Stories and a Thai Grown Black Tea

I learned something about tea stories when I picked up a kilo of a black tea from Meisile in Northern Thailand. The mountainside village of Meisile was founded by ex-Guomindang (KMT) soldiers who were pushed out of Yunnan by the communists in the ‘40s and fought their way into a high altitude alcove where they began to grow opium. When the Thai government tightened their regulations on the opium trade, they switched to tea, and with their access to Taiwanese education, citizenship and tea knowledge they became relatively settled.

The farmer who really struck my fancy, Mr. Zhu, produces an organic, coarse black tea. He doesn’t make the best stuff in the world, but he’s proud of it and he cares about producing stuff that makes people happy. The dry leaves are pretty gnarly and very light weight. I think he may be picking further down the branch to get some of the uglier leaves, but I don’t know. Reminds me a bit of a gnarly Autumn picking bancha I drank once, but this has much more laid back body feeling. He uses two varietals, Assam and Jin Xuan (Taiwan #12), and processes them together to yield a black tea with the funkiness of a dark assam, but the Taiwanese body and sweet aroma of a Jin Xuan. I need to really stuff the pot to get any chunkiness out of the tea, but once I stuff the pot it holds up to countless infusions and doesn’t impact my sleep, but gives me a warm/rich but also vigorous energy. I’m not really a mixer, but I’ve been throwing in a few plateau chrysanthemum flowers in the pot. It pairs pretty well!

The tea has a story, and that’s what makes me enjoy drinking it even though it doesn’t knock my socks off. It reminds me of Mr. Zhu, a snag hanging out of the side of his mouth, explaining to me that opium isn’t all bad long as you don’t turn it into heroin. He also said of Thai people that his grandpa told him their soldiers were very cute because they would cower behind a hill to avoid the KMT, that his grandpa would sniff them out without having to look very hard, which is why they successfully defended their mountaintop stronghold in Thailand instead of Burma or Laos.

This brings me to the main point of bringing up this (only slightly vulgar) black tea. In my mind, tea with a story is better than tea without a story. You may call it power of suggestion or placebo, but I think it is just a lens to better connect with the tea, as long as you remember its utility as such. Making a story isn’t easy, and that’s what a good tea person can do. For example, a Taiwanese teaman and roastmaster of some repute says that a certain puer he sells has the calming energy of an older sister. This is a story, or a maybe a myth, but it helps me decode the tea in a way, because it is a very useful and pertinent myth. The same thing goes for meeting the farmer or producer of a tea, which is a different kind of story but a story nonetheless. In the same vein, I believe tasting notes are a kind of mini-story in themselves and, in relativity relegated to the diminutive ‘mini’, a useful way to decode a tea.

Anyway, I’d like to thank Mr. Zhu for the inspiration. The guy's doing good work. It’s always great to meet the real teafolk who are at the roots of our humble obsession.

Self Introduction

Welcome fellow tea geeks and miscellaneous friendfolks,

As you can see, I’ve decided to start a blog (mostly) dedicated to tea stuff. I’m more than a tad obsessed with tea stuff and am needing an outlet. I’m recently graduated from a Chinese Linguistics program and am apprenticing at Floating Leaves Tea in Seattle. I have to thank the wonderful proprietress, my tea teacher Shiuwen, for creating a wonderful Cascadian tea style from this tiny beacon of tea culture, a little shop in Ballard. I also want to thank the other drinkers who have adopted and developed this style, as I will reference their knowledge often. And in the end, the primary source is the most important; those who grow and process the tea. The artists whose tea moves through Floating Leaves are my greatest inspiration.

Because of who I drink tea with and who I am as a tea drinker, I mostly focus on oolongs, and have a passion for more traditional leaves. The kind of teas that give you a warm feeling in your belly and set your throat abuzz. I do however venture outside of roasted, oxidized, stinky, sexy, funky Taiwanese granddaddy teas fairly often, so keep an open mind. I will occasionally play with puer and other ‘dark’ teas, and may even goof around with a green or a black now and again.

Tea for me is a practice of alchemy, both on the tea table and within my mouth and body. It sometimes develops into a meditation, and sometimes it’s just enough that I get sufficiently high so I can float through the city. It’s an ongoing learning process, and I hope that this blog will help me organize some thoughts and share with other drinkers. Feedback is generally very helpful, so be generous with your comments!

I plan here to post stories from my own tea experiences, explore themes in tea and review some teas. Thus, I have to make a disclaimer about tea reviews here: I don’t love reviewing teas and find that listing tasting notes can be profoundly boring. So if I get a little more poetic than scientific in my reviews, that’s why. I think that a tea (especially a good tea) is verbally evasive and always changing on top of that, so the only way I can think to write about them is to be linguistically acrobatic and sloppily literary.

So my goal is storytelling, sharing thoughts and developing tea literacy. Hope you keep reading and enjoy doing so!

Yours truly,