Archives for posts with tag: tea

The first time I heard of The Essence of Tea, I felt dismissive; why would I buy tea from China to be shipped to me in the USA via the UK? If I was going to order pu-er online—which is pretty necessary outside of Asia if you want anything of quality—why not just order directly from Asia, e.g. Yunnan Sourcing?

Since then, Essence moved its base of operations to Malaysia for humid aging potential and Panang curry, and I took the plunge on them and have experienced their consistently potent stock.

The 2005 Chang YuHao Yiwu, which I acquired during their Malaysian-storage sale, but is still the most expensive cake I’ve ever bought, is a perfect example of their ability to acquire whole-body-mind-altering pu-er. I tried a sample of this tea with a previous order and was blown away by its strength and depth, vowing to purchase it if it ever went on sale and became a little more affordable.

For a 10-year old (small-scale production?) humid-aged cake of premium Yiwu material, the compression is surprisingly hard. Also, the leaves are small, a bit coarse, and don’t seem particularly special in any way. But, pu-er is like the aikido of tea–cheating is allowed and encouraged, and appearances are deceiving. The energy and longetivity of this tea is simply incredible. With most pu-er, even those I mentally bookmark as “powerful,” 8-10 g is good for a super stimulating, 1-2 hour psychoactive session. With the Chang YuHao Yiwu, 5 g is enough to send me into deep orbit.

If TwoDogTea had made this cake, he should call it Ahmad’s Green, or maybe The Awakening, or Autumn Rain. To me, Ahmad Jamal is an endless source of inspiration, one of the most pivotal figures in jazz—and still working. Like his music, this tea starts out smooth with barely any hints of astringency, then sneaks up behind you, WHAM, and slams you into the mat like only a 5th+ dan can. Like the motifs that Ahmad weaves into his playing, the effervescent returning themes, doubling back again and again with slight variations, this tea creates a myriad of subtle but intense feelings and moods—fiery stomach-qi, a happy, calm sensation that all is right (in this scary world) in the universe, a true lucid tea-drunkenness (a phrase that I usually think is the epitome of annoying geek-talk but is actually true here), an occasional tingling in the extremities.

A friend of mine stopped in an Indian grocery store this morning after our aikido practice to buy a large quantity of black teabags. I half-jokingly told him I could give him some real tea if he wanted, guessing what the response was going to be.

“I don’t want to mess with all that.. [gong fu tea, etc.], I don’t have time for that.”

This is a valid complaint, but for those of us involved in high complexity art forms, (the person in question is a 3rd dan in two martial arts, a collector of ephemera, and a PhD engineer), good tea seems like (or should be) such an easy sell. Compared to the rigors one puts oneself through in studying an art or discipline intensively, the huge costs involved for many hobbies (martial arts, airplane flying), the enjoyment of quality tea still seems like a bargain to me. We all have to rest. Good tea restores and rejuvenates, allows space for contemplation, and for me, is so excellent and damningly pleasantness, the way it twists and warps a tired or tense self back into a stable and creative position, that it seems to make life worth living as much any experience.

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Today I spotted an article about a local wine seller of considerable reputation.
I’m hardly the first person to point out the parallels between the tea and wine world (though I think the former tends to be far more aware of making the connection to the latter than vice versa, especially as the latter has tended to be almost entirely Euro and Western-centric), but I thought there were some interesting words in here that are fairly applicable to the tea savant. Namely,

It amuses Lynch that, for instance, he has been pegged as a proponent of so-called natural wines. In his new epilogue, he suggests that such wines’ proponents “in their zeal leave their palates behind.”

“People don’t realize that I made it a point not to have a philosophy, but to first consider the wine in the glass,” he says. “To sit around, arguing it like religion, doesn’t interest me at all.”

and

He prefers to frame his work differently. Having fallen in love with European wine during his 1970s travels, he wondered why so many Americans who made similar journeys would return and wonder why the wines they swooned over abroad didn’t taste as good back home.

“A lot of my career,” he says, “has been figuring out why it doesn’t taste the same.”

Should ring a few bells for anyone who has thought about storage w/r/t to puer. Most pertinently, from a separate article I came across,

“So many people say, ‘I’d love to put some wines away to age, but I don’t have the money for those types of wines.’ You don’t need to be buying expensive wines to age!” He contends that there are plenty of very affordable wines (as in, under $20) that would absolutely benefit from aging.

 

 

While in Vancouver, we hopped on the Skytrain over to Richmond on a rainy Saturday and paid a visit to the legendary and apocryphal, The Best Tea House Company, the only North American, Non-HK branch of a store(s) based in Hong Kong (sadly, I was unaware of it when in HK, and not even particularly up on pu-er at that time, being still infatuated with Taiwanese oolongs, blast it–not that I had any money at the time to spend on anything good).

Like it’s hyperbolic and somewhat funny name, it’s safe to say that The Best Tea House is probably the best tea shop I’ve been to outside of Asia, and echoes the great ones in China and Taiwan, in which knowledgable proprietors with decades into the business combine with excellent products. We were the only non-Chinese in the store. The head of this branch, Michael Fung, only opened up to me and allowed me to start tasting once it was clear that I was serious about tea (probably being able to speak some Chinese and reference my time abroad in China and Taiwan didn’t hurt, either). Amazingly, there is not a single yelp review for this place. Yes, this is the current state of tea outside of Asia; still so behind the times compared to how it is at the source, people here don’t even recognize the real thing when they see it or even know it’s there. There is much work to be done.

As more and more “guests,” arrived at the tasting table, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin were all spoken, and I felt as if I was back in Taiwan or China. I probed Mr. Fung’s mind for information and experience. Among other interesting tidbits, he told me some members of his family/company (the two are often separable when it comes to Chinese businesses) are currently pressing white tea cakes in Fujian,
“Just to see how it will turn out,” he wryly told me.
Exactly the sort of thing I like to hear.

Upon seeing a lone bing on the shelves imprinted with “Cloud’s Tea Collection,” I asked him about the famous tea blogger.

“That’s the only one we have, he gave it to us–he was a student at our store,” Mr. Fung plainly stated.
“Here, or in Hong Kong?” asked Chris.
“In Hong Kong. He is known for always walking around with a camera hanging from his neck, he would take pictures of everything!”
We laughed.
“And what about the cakes that he’s produced? What do you think of them?”
Mr. Fung slowly took a sip of his tea.
“A little better than average.”

I asked him about storage: Is it too dry in California, in his opinion, to store pu-erh well, compared to a more wet environment like British Columbia?
“I think by the coast in California is good, because you have the water, so there will always be some moisture in the air. You don’t need to do anything special..the best storage is just natural,” he emphasized.

At the end of it, tea drunk as we all were, (“If you drink too many teas at once, you will become lost, and forget where you are!”), he handed me his business card.
“Please come back when you are here and call me if you have any questions.”

Fond memories. And now I am making many more new fond ones with the bings I purchased.

First, the 2006 Mengku Da Xue Shan. I can find absolutely no information about this particular cake on the internet, nor is it even listed in The Best Tea House’s online store; searching for “2006 Mengku Da Xue Shan” in either English or the Chinese equivalent will only pull up images of a much lower priced, apparently much more common (and I assume, comparatively humdrum) cake, available at Yunnan Sourcing, among other vendors. This is most definitely, NOT that cake. No, this is a wonderful, magical cake, that retails for $170 Canadian and is well worth it.

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It smells of camphor and pear, and has a full body that permeates the whole mouth and down to the stomach, only mildly bitter, a bit sweet. Deep orange color. After my first session at home, I wrote, “I feel calm, happy, energetic, lingering taste.”
I found myself simply smiling out the window with every sip, at nothing and everything in particular. Are plants not miraculous?

The initial taste is almost reminiscent of good dancong or gaoshan cha, before becoming ever deeper, and sweeter and rounder as time goes on. Even after 10+ infusions there is still a powerful depth to the taste. When brewed longer than ideally, it doesn’t get unpleasantly bitter, just thicker, and slightly astringent.
Despite being the highest price bing I’ve ever bought, I’d say it was entirely worth it, and one of the best purchases I’ve made. This is a wonderful tea.

Then, the oddly named, 2007 五餅二魚 “5 Cake 2 Fish,” from Lincang material, made by The Best Tea House Co. itself, and a steal at $96 Canadian.

This unique tea is presented and recommended by Mr. Vesper Chan, Puer Quality Specialist

reads the text wrapping around the bottom of the wrapper. The quaint British-inflected Chingrish prose definitely transports me to Hong Kong, as does the taste:

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Bittersweet, alternately bitter and sweet-甘 “gan,” as Mr. Fung pointed out.
“For a long time I was searching for the right English words to describe this taste, bitter, and sweet. Then someone told me it is just ‘bittersweet,'” he chuckled.

It stays in the mouth for long time, and I can feel undulating waves of taste moving through me. A sweet scent comes from the cup, and strong warmth/qi enters the body like passing through a gate, entering and dispersing. At one point in sampling at the store, a lively member of the tasting table started removing multiple layers of clothing and wiping his bald head with a cloth, “very warm!” he said, and I also removed a sweater. Calm high.

I’ll be enjoying these two for a long time to come and looking forward to my next visit back to Vancouver and that special tea shop with the silly yet well-deserved name, The Best Tea House Company.

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Sitting on my shelf, among the various 50 and 100 g packets of sencha and gyokuro, was this 20 g sencha sample. I didn’t have any expectations going in–I bought it at a stall at central station, Kyoto. The name on the package is “fragrant garden,” and as to be expected, it comes from Uji, that celebration region of tea production side by side with Kyoto, which doles it out in appropriate honorific fashion. I don’t think I paid more than ¥300 for it, maybe ¥200.

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Taking the leaves out of the foil and dispensing them in a gaiwan, they look bright green, well composed, and smell sweet and vegetal. Definitely what I think of when I think of “delicate Kyoto green tea.”

 

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The first time I made this sencha, I think I used too high of a water temperature. There was something interesting about it, in its depth and lingering sweetness, but it wasn’t quite there–I couldn’t quite tell if it reminded me more of a high mountain Taiwanese oolong or a chemically altered Tie Guan Yin.

The second time I did it right and brewed at a lower temperature and..it was vibrant and sweet, definitely reminiscent of a high mountain oolong. The taste became slightly more bitter and deep by the 3rd brewing, and unlike most senchas, it did not give out there right then and there, but lasted with sufficient roundness through the 5th brewing. Interesting. The sensations were most centered on the middle of my tongue radiating outwards, and I felt calm, relaxed, focused, joyful. I came away thinking this was a nice sencha, with some special qualities to it–and judging from the sample, quite reasonably priced.

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Sometimes in life, and particularly in traveling, I have had the opportunity to meet people who seem unassuming at first, but turn out to be special, whom I seem to forge a meaningful connection with during our time together. And then it’s over; we may never see each other again. I never would have guessed, but it turned out to be memorable, leaving an impression on me. This sencha was like that sort of meeting. If I had any idea it was like this, I would have bought a bunch of it. I will probably not taste it again unless I return to that store in Kyoto; but I have faith I will taste another like it, taking my palate and mind’s eye to similar or greater heights.

一期一会

I tend to think matcha is overrated. Unlike puer, the king of kings of tea, a set amount is drunk exactly once, and no more, as the leaves are consumed. This is perhaps the exact opposite the allure of  puer, teeming with a depth of aged nutrients and bacterial growth which promises cascades of evolving tastes, sensations, and many, many brewings in tiny pots.  One might think of puer or oolong as quintessentially Chinese teas in juxtaposition to matcha, which, in its use in the tea ceremony, in Zen, in its psychoactive effects, in its appearance, taste, form, and structure, seem to scream out: Nippon.

–But–No! Modern day matcha (if I understand correctly) is merely the most well known permutation of the category of “powdered teas,” which, in Olden Times, were more widespread. And where did this idea of powdered tea first originate from? Why, China, of course. Like everything else (in the forgotten yet chronicled past, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the present in its cultural forms, bound more tightly by genetics than anything).

The point is: I like evolution. Both in the genetic sense and in the subjective qualitative sense of self and other things. It pretty much motivates a lot of my reasons for living, because I am a person who abhors stagnancy. I used to be impatient (or more impatient), but the difference is, now, I am more accepting and perceptive of small growth/change–and in many respects, 10 small shifts have a potential to be much more interesting than one big one.

Perhaps, for this reason and others, it is no surprise that when we are young we seek to change the structure of our lives and identities through big shifts–jobs, locales, partners. Although I am still young, it seems to me that as we get older, there is a natural shift to want to experiment with change in smaller ways, as the “big” elements become more set–the taking on of additional responsibilities, fine tuning skills we may have already spent years or decades refining. Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who made Mario, said in an interview that he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and moves furniture around.

The point is change comes in many forms. It may be grand of me to say so, but through drinking many types of teas sprung from different legacies and altered over time,  we have a chance to experience a wide variety of tastes, sensations, and even attitudes of different ecosystems, cultures, and people. That seems pretty big to me. But how this is actually experienced is through really small differences, most of the time–this year’s crop vs that year’s crop, an extra hour of roasting–in any art, it’s these kind of small gradations that are the experimental substance that drive the changes of later distinctions,  allowed to emerge as the new sum of a multitude of variations.

After being hit in the face with it at X number of shops, I finally broke down and bought some matcha on my second to last day in Japan. I had already assembled a decent collection of sencha and gyokuro, so I purchased a few containers of various grades of matcha from a small stall with a celebrated history, run by an older, smiling gentleman, in a covered market in Osaka.

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This tea comes from a company called 山口園, which, using my knowledge of Chinese into pidgin-Japanese, I’d translate as something like “garden at the foot of the mountains.” It is grown in Yame 八女, in Fukuoka prefecture, which is a major tea producing area of Japan I was apparently totally ignorant of until just now. As the Osakan website will tell you, this particular varietal, 一葉 (“One leaf”?) retails at 20g for 1,050円 (also known as Yen). I chose it because it was the lowest member of the group of high-class matcha that were being sold, the other two going for about twice and three times as much, which was too much for me. As it is, this one converts to $15/ounce. That’s not exactly cheap, if one takes tea as a whole, so it must be at least pretty good, right? (To make no mention of how good those other two, higher prices ones “should” be,’ but linearity of price vs quality rapidly breaks down once reaches a certain point, as with everything).

Opening the can, a brilliant green luster of green powder appeared, and swirling, gaseous fragments of the tea jumped off of the tiny, low-mass clumps. Now that’s something that’s just never gonna happen with a chunk of puer. This is like earth vs air.

I pre-heated a simple kitchen bowl with water that I think is roughly 70-75 C. The Japanese method of achieving proper temperature water for pre-boiling-water teas (which I think ,are pretty much all greens), is to boil water and do a transfer between cups, thus lowering the temperature by a certain amount with each transfer, due to heat lost. It’s a very elegant, mechanical, Japanese solution. I prefer the Chinese one, which is more poetic and based on intuition, looking and listening to the water, at how many bubbles are appearing and how rapidly they are forming. I think I more or less have a handle on it; besides, it’s more fun this way.

After sifting the matcha into the pre-heated bowl, I pour it up to somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 full, using my trusty Made in China whisk (about $8; I’m not paying $30 for a proper, high-quality Made in Japan chasen), and this is the result:

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There’s thin matcha and then there’s thick matcha. I’m a thick matcha kind of guy–I like density and intensity. Adding to my ignorance, I also just recently learned that in the former category (what I had been mistakenly doing), one should beat the whisk in a rapid undulating sine wave/U shape, whereas to make the later, one should simply perform gently circular rotations. Makes sense. I seem to still have the problem of matcha falling out of solution, so is it that I’m doing something sub-optimally that’s resulting in supersaturation, or more that I take too long to drink it? Maybe some of both.

I drank in slowly. Then I waited. A slightly bitter (nothing compared to Lao Ban Zhang) taste with some detectable sweetness and umami. Pleasant. As I continued to drink, I felt calmer and calmer, yet more focused. I drifted–not away but more into my body. By the end of the bowl I was naturally sitting in a meditative posture, looking at a point on the table. I felt completely focused, yet totally relaxed, a razor sharp state of being. There were no thoughts outside my body taking me away from this present moment. I still had the thoughts, but I merely saw them, in great resolution–and yet, I had no desires or compulsions or anxiety about the past or future. It was just Now.

When I started this session, it was maybe 9 PM. I had some vague plans for the rest of the evening, to write, tidy up, read, watch something..but I didn’t, I just stayed in that moment, for at least 45 minutes, completely in a flow state of meditation. After the initial bursts faded and I got up to move around, I still felt very much at peace, engaged, but without any sense of urgency to any particularly activity.

The second session, which was this morning, and done on an empty stomach, was not quite as calming, and I think quite a bit of that might have had to do with these two different variables. I experienced many of the same sensations, but definitely felt my heart tangibly speeding up, and felt a bit anxious, strong heat and a kind of energy building up in my stomach, but in a much more singular way than the  one sometimes experiences that with puer, which is diffusive and expansive in a complimentary but very different way.

In conclusion: DRINK THIS TEA. Or one like it. This is good. Not all the time, but, for when you’re ready to drop everything and enter that state of being for 1-2 hours.

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dead dust of leaves, bright
an empty bowl of matcha
drab carpet. train horn.

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It’s 4:30 AM. This is the second day I’ve woken at 3 AM. I returned home 2 nights ago from 5 weeks in Japan after almost 24 hours of door to door travel: Nankai Osaka airport express train–>Osaka–>Seattle–>LAX–>Oakland–>BART–>walking–>home.

So tea is in order. Enjoying some good-value sencha from Ippodo (which has tons of outlets all over Japan, btw, so not quite as exclusive as its US presence would suggest, like much in Japan). Among other things, I brought back a combined ~600 g of sencha, gyokuro, and matcha, from both Uji and Shizuoka, the two most esteemed tea growing areas of Japan.

Per ounce, good quality matcha is somewhat poor value (aside from those $40k bings one reads about).

Here is a picture of my early morning setup, suitable for the eclectic monk I have apparently become, due to jet lag. It includes some new pieces of equipment I acquired, as well as tried and true ones from nearby, Taiwan, and Korea (feel free to guess what is from where).

Over the past 5 weeks, I ate more sushi and sashimi than I probably have in the past 5 years, and less fruit than..any point in my life. I went to Tokyo, Takao-san, Kamakura, Kanazawa, Nagoya, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, and Koya-San.

Kyoto is the most overrated city in Japan. Osaka is one of the most underrated.

I took more than 1,000 pictures, filled a 230 page notebook with the ugly handwriting that only I can read, (deceivingly filled with beautiful words and astute analysis), and emptied my pockets of approximately $3,200 in total.

Much more to follow, in myriad forms.

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In the year 1384, war was upon Europe. On one side stood the Catholic Church, and on the other, China. As the hills of Gascony burned, the confrontation between East and West and Heaven and Earth reached its zenith in the culmination of an epic duel.
Meeting face to face for the first time, Pope Urban XI and General Lu An engaged in a bitter jousting tourney to the death, on their respective beasts of burden. The King of Europe, merely a figurehead by this point, was forced to officiate the secret duel. Next to him were Duchess Myrrh of Sauvignon (sometimes known as ‘the princess of pink’) and Lord Sydnham of Bristol, who was secretly poisoning The Earl of Wellington at this time.
After three long hours, neither party proved victorious, and both were forced to retreat to their respective armies. Although the duel was never spoken of or even revealed by historians until very recently, detailed descriptions of it were found in a monograph later found in robes belonging to The Bishop of Dunkirk, by an American soldier during World War II, and separately, in a hidden compartment in the former imperial palatial estate of Nanjing, by a 17th century half-Dutch Mandarin.

AK Neifei

This is a collage I recently finished. I’m tentatively naming it the “AK-Menghai Lady.”  The bullets are from a feature article on gun violence that appeared in a separate section the same day as the model pic, shortly after the shooting in Newtown happened. The 內飛 (“neifei,” authentication ticket) is from a ~1990 8972 Menghai Brick I bought just a sample of from Gingko of Life in Teacup, but she generously included. Hence, the name. The rest are business cards of various Taipei tea shops.

I haven’t done something like this in a VERY long time. My art is generally focused on writing, music, and the martial arts. It’s interesting to me that I was inspired to do this. It’s now hanging framed on my wall, but I couldn’t get a good shot of that due to reflection off the glass. I’m happy with the way it turned out, especially since I had no idea that I was even doing something that was going to be completed. I just started working on another one, as part of this apparent, in-creation, series..

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And, just like that, it’s raining again! A nice time to enjoy a slice of this autumn Guafengzhai cake I purchased from the Tea Urchins during my last order. Feels like coastal forest-not quite forest-yet. I’m really curious what this cake would be like in about ten years. I don’t think I’ll be able to hold off on drinking it all before then.

Yesterday I went to a sake tasting at one of the only sake breweries in America, a mere 1.5 miles from my house. Even though I can find a vastly wider selection of sake at a Chinese mega-market, I still enjoyed it . The 10-minute “how sake is made” video was really over the top with ceremony and sweeping violins, but it’s Japanese, so I guess that’s what you have to expect. The friend I was with said, after we had emptied our half-filled, tiny cups, “I could have continued tasting..”
Well, it was only five dollars, after all.

We walked by some available commercial rentals at the adjacent corner. Apparently they go for $3/sq. foot. The smallest of them is about 650 sq ft., but it got me to thinking about how many square footage you would need to operate a tea shop. One thing I admire about Asian society is its efficiency when it comes to these matters; I can’t stand excessive wasted space that doesn’t serve a purpose, so central to the American ethos. I like farmers markets, pop up stands, and other such creative use of spaces that maximise the value (theoretically) of the occupants by minimising physical costs while allowing the message/product to still be sold. Constraints are a necessary force towards creation. That being said, Asian cities feel too dense to me to seriously enjoy living in them, at least the ones I’ve been to. Seoul is well planned, though still kind of sprawling and car-centric. I’m curious to see what I think of Japan since everyone keeps telling me, “you’re gonna love it,” with the exception of an insightful friend who once told me it’s like Canada, “incredibly stagnant, stuck in the 1950s.” (He is a Canadian expat attempting to escape Taiwan).

My two goals for this year are to visit Japan during the summer, and to take more risks. I’m excited.
Almost back to work/school. Being a teacher is funny, because working is still looking at books at least part of the time and writing down things, which makes me sometimes slip and say, “I’m studying,” when actually, “I’m working.” Then again, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for students to think of school as a job and teachers to think of teaching as an act of learning. Which I suppose says a great deal about my teaching philosophy. Got a couple of “Manga guide to..” science books and having a great time with them. Giving me some ideas about potential assignments..between that, David Firth cartoons, and the new Nassim Taleb book, I’m set. It’s been a good break.

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