Thursday, November 25, 2010

Imperial Treasures——Relics of Famen Temple Underground Palace and the Flourishing Tang

This exhibition is held at the National Museum of History of Taiwan until January 9, 2011.

The artefacts on display come from the Famen Temple, near Xi'an in Shaanxi province. During the Tang dynasty, Xi'an was called Chang An and was the capital of China.

In 1987, during renovation works, an underground palace was discovered under the pagoda of the temple. The items that were unearthed had been hidden for over a 1000 years. They include many Buddhist relics, but also imperial teaware that was used during rituals. They were put in this underground palace just 30 years before the end of the Tang dynasty.

Last Sunday, Teaparker guided me and 15 of his students through the teaware portion of this exhibition.

Before the visit, we were encouraged to read about Tang dynasty tea. Lu Yu's Cha Jing is a good place to start.

We are reminded that Tang dynasty used to produce green tea that was first steamed, beaten and then pressed into various cake shapes. Often, these small cakes would have a hole so that several cakes could be attached together with a cord (like Chinese coins).

Tang dynasty tea preparation steps:

1. Reheat a green tea cake over a stable flame: the cakes were well stored, but this wasn't enough to preserve the freshness of the tea. The heat would reduce the moisture and bring out the vivid scent of tea.

2. Break and grind the cake into powder with a specific tea grinder.

3. Sift (filter) the powder. Only keep the smallest powder so as to make the tea as smooth as possible to drink.

4. Cook water and add salt

5. When the water has fish eyes, take a big spoon of water and add the tea powder to it and put it in the boiling water. Skim the bad dark foam that appears on top.

6. Transfer the tea in a big bowl and from there it can be served in smaller bowls.

The full silver tea set can be seen here. Better pictures and an interesting presentation can be seen here (scroll down).

The major item is probably the tea grinder. Compared to the previous link, we can see that it has been restored to its original shine (following the preparation for an exhibition in Japan):

The golden decoration features flowers and typical Chinese clouds. However, we also find 2 flying horses with wings! These creatures belong to the European mythologies. This is one evidence of the presence and influence of Europeans in China during the Tang dynasty. (We can see more such evidence with a flint glass bowl with support ; its shape and style is Chinese, but it comes from the West, as the glass industry was more developed outside China at that time.)

The symbolic meaning we can grasp from this influence is that the Chinese tea culture is inclusive and open to other cultures. We are not breaking any rule when we incorporate elements of our own culture in our Cha Xi. And it's also OK if we add foreign influences in our Cha Xi. But we should do so with a sense of harmony and beauty. Our aim is to increase the happiness of drinking tea.

I had seen pictures of this silver grinder in Teaparker's "Cha Xi - Mandala" book, but I was stunned by its small size and thin shape. It's so exquisitely done. They must really must have loved drinking tea at the Tang palace! No other tea sets have reached this level of magnificence since.


The Exhibition also displays a "secret color" bowl similar to this one. Before this archeological find, nobody knew for sure what is the color of the "secret color ceramic". The mystery was solved, because the discovered items were accompanied by an inventory list mentioning that the words "secret color".

It is celadon, and the current consensus is that the "secret color" ceramics came from the Yue kiln.

If you come to Taipei before January 9, 2011, this is an exhibition you can't miss!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Into the Dragon's Mouth: Shopping for Tea in Maliandao


EDITOR'S NOTE: Warren Peltier, known to our readers as Niisonge and in China as 夏雲峰 Xia Yun Feng, is one of the blogosphere's most prominent authorities on tea. His new book, The Ancient Art of Tea: Discover Happiness and Contentment in a Perfect Cup of Tea, is due out next March from Tuttle. Here he reports from Maliandao, the renowned town-sized tea market -- a place like no other -- with tips for the non-Chinese tea buyer visiting Beijing.

First of all, Maliandao is a huge tea market. Whatever you are looking for in terms of teas or tea equipment, you're sure to find it there. There's just so much choice. If money is no object, then ignore the following. But I usually like most of my money to stay in my pocket, so I know how to restrain myself -- if you're like me, then this should be especially useful:

1. As a foreigner, in China, you have a big, invisible dollar sign on your forehead. Expect to be charged a higher price just because you're a foreigner (or look like a foreigner). But don't be afraid to bargain, haggle and complain. Every Chinese knows how to do it. It could be as simple as "Is there any discount?" (有没有打折 ?, you mei you da zhe?). It's actually useful to have a Chinese friend inquire first about prices and then negotiate a better price for you.

2. People in China are now becoming more and more affluent -- especially in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. They have increased spending power and a bigger appetite for fancy teas. This means tea prices (like most other goods in China) have also increased quite dramatically. The so-called "best" teas currently sell for 10,000 yuan per pound or so (500 g) in Fuzhou (price may be much higher in Beijing). Just ask what the most expensive tea sells for, then you will know.

3. With the rise in affluence and interest in tea in China, certain teas have become more sought out recently than others. Right now in Fujian, hongcha, such as Tanyang Gongfu (Tanyang Congou), Jin Jun Mei, Yin Jun Mei, and others are quite fashionable.

4. Fashionable teas, as well as the famous teas (dahongpao, tieguanyin, longjing) because they have a higher demand, fetch a higher price -- often an astronomical price -- which is not reflected in the actual quality of the tea.

5. Relatively unknown tea varieties, or unpopular teas, though equally delicious, enjoy a lower markup, and thus are economical buys.

6. Each region of China has regional tea favorites. Thus in Guangzhou, there tends to be more puer tea shops than vendors selling other types of teas, in Fuzhou, hongcha and yancha tea shops predominate, for example.

7. Beijing is a regional center for tea supply to China's north. Expect that tea prices will be higher there, simply because it's far from the tea producing regions.

8. Avoid tea shops that are large and lavishly decorated. They look pretty -- but their cost of doing business is much higher. Decoration costs, for example, are reflected in the high prices of their teas. Don't expect to bargain in these shops either. Most of their clients have the cash and pay the asking price. They also brag about it later -- "This tea cost X yuan".

9. When purchasing tea, avoid fancy packaging and boxes. The vendor has to purchase these themselves, and the cost is quite high -- perhaps adding 100 to 200 yuan into the price of the tea. Chinese like to be pampered; and much of the tea purchased is intended as a gift, which is why they like fancy boxes, which seems to be overkill.

10. Do seek out small, plain-looking tea shops -- don't be put off by shipping boxes on the floor. These places are where you are likely to find excellent tea at a reasonable price.

11. Tea utensils, like zisha teapots or fancy glazed ceramics also command a very high price, simply because there are more people around with the money to pay the asking price.

12. If you have the chance, visit a Tenfu tea shop -- not for teas or utensils, but for their wide assortment of tea snacks, which are produced in Fujian. Their tea snacks are all reasonably priced (around 40 yuan) per box. Most are quite delicious, and made with/contain tea or tea leaves.

13. Use common sense and exercise your better judgment. Don't be taken in or swindled by a fancy sales pitch or the salesperson's charisma. Just about everyone says their tea is the best; or will insist that a certain tea can't be found at a better price; etc. Most of these people know how to say the right words to get you to spend more money in their shop. Of course, if you can't understand much Chinese, then they won't have much power of persuasion over you.

14. There is true dahongpao (DHP) to be found, but there are so many distinctions, it's hard to keep track. There is zheng yan cha -- grown in the original growing area -- the famous mountains; there is Wuyi DHP -- grown in many of the tea villages in the Wuyi area (which may be on high mountains or lowland farms); there is outer Wuyi DHP -- grown in mountains outside of the traditional Wuyi area. In Wuyi, there are so many small, family/farmer run factories, which account for differences in taste of the various DHPs -- the processor's skill, growing area, amount of roasting, roasting method all come into play. As end consumers, we're mostly unaware of the nuances: to us, it's all just DHP.

15. If you like Yancha, ask if they have other varieties on hand that you probably wouldn't normally ask for. You might be pleasantly surprised.

16. Tea vendors generally tend to introduce their in-demand teas, but of middle-grade, and expect customers to work their way up from there until they find a grade/style that's satisfying. But remember to ask about the other tea varieties they have on hand -- the less popular and therefore cheaper.

17. Look for teaware wholesale shops (茶具批发) where you can find relatively cheap, but nice tea ware and sets. I have found really nice tea sets in Fuzhou for around 200-250 yuan. Hand-painted, fancy Jingdezhen tea ware, or Ru glaze tea ware sets, though, are very expensive. The cheapest Ru set I saw was 600 yuan, and most were 1,500-2,000 yuan. Don't be afraid to check every piece of teaware out of the box. They expect it, so you don't come back wanting a refund. They will substitute a piece or set on the spot. The cheapest, reasonable zisha teapots sell in Fuzhou for 200 yuan; but there will be little selection. Most good zisha sell for 300 yuan and up. I saw lots of good pots in the 300-500 yuan range. The more highly refined and artistic teapots sell into the thousands of yuan. For zisha teapots, make sure they do a water test: pour with the pot first.

18. If you go to a teahouse, don't expect the tea you order to be really good. They normally buy lower-grade teas, cheap teas, because they have to tack on their markup (2-4 times wholesale price, depending on overhead), and still make the price acceptable for customers. They usually buy teas that are 50-100 yuan a pound. You could bring and substitute your own good tea, but would still have to pay the price for their cheaper tea.

19. If you're buying a lot of merchandise, ask shops about shipping it. Most are able to do it, and have the packaging and know-how to do it without breaking anything.

20. Don't forget: always ask if there's any discount -- 有没有打折 ?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Hastening Death: A Biased Account of Tea as Medicine in Europe, 1607-1657

by Steven D. Owyoung

in honor of Corax and in celebration of the fifth anniversary of CHA DAO

By the time it was imported to the West, tea had already been used in China as a medicinal herb for over three thousand years. Reports of tea reached Europe through the ancient overland trade in spices and drugs, but only a fraction of the knowledge about its role in Asian medicine ever reached the West. As the curative power of the plant and leaf acquired testimony from European diplomats and missionaries traveling in the East during the late sixteenth century, tea attracted the interest of herb merchants, physicians, and apothecaries.

Soon, small quantities of the costly dried leaf and powder were available at European pharmacies serving the aristocracy and wealthy. Founded on novelty and curiosity, the Western reception of tea warmed among enthusiasts who became habituated to the herb’s stimulating effects, both as a beverage and the object of extravagant ostentation.

Tea arrived in Europe during the early decades of the seventeenth century. In 1607, the Dutch East India Company acquired tea from Chinese merchants at Macao for transport to Batam in western Java, the first known shipment of the leaf by a European carrier. A transfer of tea from Hirado in western Japan to Bantam was made by the Dutch before sailing to Holland for its debut in Amsterdam in 1610. The Dutch initially carried only small shipments of tea from the Indies. The herb was not even mentioned in official Company correspondence until 1637 when the directors, sensing a small but growing taste for the leaf, expressed to their governor-general at Batavia that “As tea begins to come into use by some of the people, we expect some jars of Chinese as well as Japanese tea with each ship.”

Company records from late 1650 reveal a shipment of less than 30 pounds of “Japanese Thia, in five boxes.” In 1651 and 1652, similar parcels of tea were sold at auction in Amsterdam.

The reason behind such minimal amounts of tea was market and price. Even in Japan, good tea was costly, and only the wealthy few bought the herb. Like Chinese rhubarb, tea was treated in Europe as a precious and exotic drug, bought in minute amounts at great expense from apothecaries. Circa 1643, the French Jesuit Alexander Rhodes commented on the exorbitant price of ordinary tea: “the Dutch, who bring it from China…sell it at Paris at 30 francs the pound, which they have bought in that country for 8 or 10 sols [sous].”

Fifty years later, the finest tea was even more expensive. Pierre Pomet, apothecary to the French throne, kept a pharmacy and spice shop on Rue des Lombards where he sold “true Japanese tea for no less than one hundred fifty to two hundred francs per pound.” Despite its cost, the drinking of tea as a physic and beverage was prevalent enough among wealthy French, Dutch, Germans, and Danes to provoke their doctors.

The aristocratic courts of Denmark contended with sharply conflicting views of tea throughout much of the seventeenth century. In Schleswig, the ducal court of Holstein-Gottorp read the first-hand observations of the noted scholar Adam Olearius and the enthusiastic accounts from Persia of the adventurer Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo who praised tea as a healthful beverage and an effective medicine. In Copenhagen, the royal court endured the gratuitous and derogatory remarks of the king’s physician who devoted his medical and scientific career to undermining tea as drink and drug. Among the skeptics, the uncertain botanical identity of tea drew suspicion early on, fomenting speculation and debate. Moreover, the exorbitant price of the herb and the remarkable, nigh insupportable claims of its medicinal efficacy struck a nerve in the European medical community. Negative reaction was direct and vociferous. The first among the opposing physicians was the young German doctor Simon Pauli.

In 1635, Pauli wrote Commentarius de Abusu Tabaci et Herbae Thee, a work that three centuries later was called “a medical tract full of terrifying alarms” about tea. Throughout his long career as a doctor of medicine, university professor, botanist, and physician to the Danish throne, Pauli was the most vocal and adamant opponent of caffeine, executing an ongoing harangue against tea that lasted over forty years until his death in 1680. In addition to Commentarius, he wrote A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate thirty years later in 1665. Exhibiting symptoms of xenophobia, he condemned the use of all four substances as foreign and collectively characterized their users as “idle, prodigal, barren, impotent, or effeminate,” emphasizing the latter. His criticism of tea, influential and enduring, was also quite defamatory, and he accused the Chinese of “fulsome Exaggeration” in attributing health and longevity to the herb. Moreover, he viewed himself as a defender of the West against an insidious “oriental” incursion: “As Hippocrates spared no Pains to remove and root out the Athenian Plague, so I have use the utmost of my Endeavors to destroy the raging epidemical Madness of importing Tea into Europe from China.” Regarding the merits of tea, Pauli was obdurate and unforgiving, and his escalating rhetoric, damning:
As to the virtues they attribute to it, it may be admitted that it does possess them in the Orient, but it loses them in our climate, where it becomes, on the contrary, very dangerous to use. It hastens the death of those who drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years.
Skeptical of the medicinal value of tea and convinced of its mortal toxicity, he then attacked the quality of the leaf, claiming that tea deteriorated to an ineffective state after prolonged periods of shipping, storage, and exposure to the European climate. As for the botanical identification of the plant, he wrote:
But if any one should ask my Sentiments of Tea, which some Years ago began to be imported from Asia, and the Eastern Countries ... I answer, that no satisfactory Reply can be made, till we know the Genus and Species of Tea, and to what Species of European Herbs it may be referred or compared ... but we give no Name of any of our Plants to Tea: Nay, it is not known, whether Tea is what the Greeks call ... an Herb, or ... a Shrub ....
He then shrilly demanded to know “Of what Kind and Species the Herb Tea is? ... Whether Tea is only the Produce of Asia, and whether it is ever found in Europe, or not? And ... Which of the European Herbs may be most properly used in its Stead?” He was at the ready with answers. To seal his argument and the ultimate fate of tea, Pauli asserted that the plant and leaves were nothing more than common myrtle.

Actually, the identification of tea with myrtle was nothing new. Before Pauli, several Catholic writers had already noted the superficial resemblance of tea leaves to those of Myrtus communis. However, he took their casual but unscientific observations to heart and concluded his investigation “by opening some Tea leaves.” Based on his findings, Pauli insisted that tea was specifically Myrica gale, the ordinary bog myrtle, known as sweet gale and Dutch myrtle, a commodity that was plentiful and cheap and indigenous to Northern Europe. He then posed the question why one should bother importing tea at great expense and distance and at such a diminution in quality, when myrtle was already and copiously available at home. Paradoxically, the lethality of tea was no longer at issue.

In his writings, Pauli credited his contemporary Alexander Rhodes for indicating the beneficial effects of tea, paraphrasing the priest and calling the Frenchman by his Latin name: “The first of which, according to Rhodius, is, that it alleviates Pains of the Head, and represses Vapors: The second, that it corroborates the Stomach: And, the third, that it expels the Stone and Gravel from the Kidneys.” The positive tea writings by Rhodes and other tea drinking Jesuits ironically provided the primary sources for Pauli’s negative campaign against the herb. Pauli’s attacks constituted a perverse, inverted twist on the Jesuits’ optimistic view of tea and the habitual use of and dependence by the priests on the herb. Based on his reputation as a medical doctor and botanist, Pauli was appointed physician to King Frederic III of Denmark, who was quite fond of tea. Perhaps it was the chilling effect of the doctor’s inexorable lectures on the evils of tea to the gullible aristocrats of his court that disturbed the Danish king, or perhaps Pauli said one direct word too many to his royal patron, but one day Frederic could no longer suffer the doctor’s criticism of his favorite drink and responded in Latin: “Credo te non esse sanum,” i.e. “I do believe you to be insane!”

Among the scientific community, Pauli’s hard position on caffeine often obscured and distracted scientific research, hindering sound and sober judgment on the identity, properties, and efficacy and defects of tea. It took over a decade for European botanists to overthrow Pauli’s claim that tea was bog myrtle. Andreas Cleyer, a German doctor in the service of the Dutch East India Company at Deshima, sent a specimen of the tea plant to the court of the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I in Berlin where the German botanist and sinologist Christian Mentzel refuted Pauli in 1682 with the publication of the Universal Index of Plant Names. In the annals of European tea, Pauli was thereafter slighted as a “medical terrorist” for his stubborn assertion that deadly tea was gentle myrtle in disguise. Contempt for his botanical view of tea was such that innocent Myrica gale came to bear the sarcastic pseudonym “Thé du Simon Pauli.” In contrast to the Danes, the Dutch possessed no qualms about tea. Holland not only brought the leaf to the West, but also actively promoted its use as both philter and physic. In 1627, the physician Jacob de Bondt, who was stationed in Batavia as surgeon and apothecary to the Dutch East India Company, recommended tea as a remedy for respiratory and digestive ailments. Nikolas Dirx, better known as Nicolaes Tulp, the mayor of Amsterdam, was an eminent burgher and successful physician. Trained at Leyden University, Dirx was an anatomist and botanist who was effusive in his praise of tea:
Nothing is comparable to this plant. Those who use it are for that reason, alone, exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age. Not only does it procure great vigor in their bodies, but it preserves them from gravel and gallstones, headaches, colds, ophthalmia, catarrh, asthma, sluggishness of the stomach and intestinal troubles. It has great additional merit of preventing sleep and facilitating vigils, which makes it a great help to persons desiring to spend their nights writing or meditating.
In nearby Antwerp, Jan Baptist van Helmont, the Belgian chemist, taught that “tea had the same effect on the system as bloodletting or laxatives, and should be used instead.” His Dutch students and followers like Stephen Blankaart became noted physicians, many of whom “recommended enormous quantities of the newly imported novelties, coffee and tea, as panaceas for acidity and blood-purifiers.” The idea that tea was an effective replacement for standard if not antiquated therapies gave grave pause to the conservative medical establishment in France. In 1648, the French physician Gui Patin, known for his stylish and witty letters, dismissed tea as an “impertinent novelty of the century” in a mocking review of the burning of a thesis on tea by members of the faculty of medicine in Paris. Patin, who later became dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Professor of the College of France, was hostile to the use of drugs and herbs, continuing to ridicule tea as late as 1657 when he scoffed that Cardinal Mazarin, the French chief minister, “takes thé as a preventative of gout.” He quickly changed tunes after an encounter with the influential chancellor of France, Pierre Séguier. The chancellor was a learned and sophisticated man who created a library second only to the royal collection and who was the official patron of the prestigious French Academy. Séguier was also an advocate and habitual drinker of tea, and he often entertained the heights of society with elegant tea parties at his literary salons.

In 1657, he formally accepted a College dissertation on tea written in his honor by a doctor, the son of the noted surgeon Pierre Cressy. Gui Patin, in one of his famously sarcastic letters, wrote: “Thursday next, we have a thesis on the subject of tea, dedicated to M. le Chancellor, who has promised to be present. The portrait of the above-mentioned gentleman will be there.” To everyone’s surprise, Séguier displaced his likeness by actually attending the morning-long lecture, bringing in tow an entourage of members of the royal privy council and adding the intimidating presence of officialdom to the gathering. By lunchtime, the dissertation was successfully defended, and tea was accepted as a remedy for gout and sundry ailments. Succumbing to logic, reason, and the palpable pressure of Séguier, the medical Faculty stood in ovation, allowing Patin to nimbly exchange his sly jibes for easy praise of tea.

It is unknown whether or not the eminent botanist and physician Denis Joncquet was with Séguier and present on the day of the 1657 meeting. But sometime during that same year, Joncquet displayed a gift for literary expression when -- like a Chinese sage -- he compared tea to “ambrosia” and praised the shrub as the “divine plant.” From the mid-1600s on, tea continued to find critics within and without the medical profession in Europe. And although the cast of characters and the science have changed over the centuries, the debate on the therapeutic efficacy of tea endures to this day.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Another Landmark for CHA DAO


September is our anniversary month at CHA DAO, and this one is a special anniversary: September 2010 marks five years for the journal.

CHA DAO was one of the very first tea sites in the blogosphere. Since its birth we have expanded our horizons and added to our contributors. Each of them has done their part to conduce to the quality of the whole. Please join me in saluting and thanking all of them -- as we, in turn, thank you, our readers -- for whom we do the whole thing in the first place.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Shifting Tides in the Tea Economy


What goes into determining the tea in your cup? Supply and demand, surely; but what determines each of those?

Let's consider demand first. If you are the end-consumer (and bear in mind that retail vendors and other suppliers may also be consumers, indeed some of the most passionately interested consumers), what you decide to purchase will be influenced by your knowledge and experience. Experience is itself a potent form of knowledge, and those consumers who are repeat buyers of a given tea will naturally tend to rely on what their experience has shown them. If you favor one particular vendor's dian hong, you are liable to go back to that vendor for more of the same tea; and the confidence that those transactions engenders may inspire you to try other teas from the same vendor -- or similar teas from other vendors.

Moreover, as with most consumables and other amenities, increasing knowledge of tea and tea culture is likely to induce the consumer to become more involved with tea and tea-drinking. This can happen in any number of ways; it may entail searching out new vendors; joining online fora or reading tea blogs such as CHA DAO; purchasing teaware that one had, not so long before, not even heard of; and, in what we may call (ahem) extreme cases, traveling to tea-producing lands in order to observe tea culture at its very fons et origo.

Supply, on the other hand, is directly tied to both nature and culture. Nature, certainly, in that all 'tea' in the strictest sense is made from the leaves of camellia sinensis, a plant not likely to thrive north of growing zone 7; and culture, in that tea involves some degree of processing -- if nothing more than plucking the leaves, drying them out, and then decocting or infusing them to make a beverage. Tea, one might say, doesn't just grow on trees; but to the extent that it does, it also requires people to prepare it -- harvest it, process it, package it, sell it, ship it, sell it again, perhaps ship it again, and then brew it. If there are inauspicious growing conditions (nature) or insufficient or inefficient farmers, tea-masters, or vendors (culture), supply will falter. The converse is also true: when nature and culture align in such a way as to favor the growth and production of tea, the supply can (and perhaps will) increase.

Laowai, and indeed all those who live outside the tea-producing regions of East Asia, are at some remove from the variables in the economic equation surrounding the supply-aspect of East-Asian tea, whether in reference to supply or to demand. Even the avid and dedicated tea-drinker in Charleston or Dubuque may not be aware, for example, that Yunnan province has been suffering from severe and extensive imbalances of rainfall -- in terms both of droughts and of floods leading to landslide. And there may be more thoughtful, educated people than we think who are still unaware of the dramatic rise and fall in demand for pu'er tea in the past few years.

But westerners generally, and Americans in particular, would really have to wilfully shield themselves from the daily news in order to remain unaware of the gravity of the national (and indeed global) economy. We are currently living through what some call the worst recession since the Great Depression; and in such times, all but perhaps the very wealthiest tend to trim their spending in some way. Such a practice calls into question whether one can make the case for including high-end (or 'premium,' or 'rare') teas as part of one's monthly budget.

There has been a great deal of talk recently about the notion of 'affordable luxury,' and along with that, about tea as an affordable luxury. That tendentious phrase may not be as clear as it initially seems; even for the middle classes, what is 'affordable' for one household may be quite extravagant for another. But one thing is certain: as supply and demand are synergic, affecting one another in active and reactive fashion, everyone in the chain of commerce -- not just the end-consumer -- is going to be affected. That hard-working and trusted tea vendor that you rely on may be working within a very narrow margin of profit; if the growers cannot get a viable price for their crops, they may not still be growing tea a generation from now.

All of us, Asians and Occidentals alike, wish we had a simple clear answer to the conundrum of the global economic problem in general, and of the tea economy in particular. Manifestly no one does. Perhaps we should honor this massive ignorance as the epitome of the human condition. As Laozi writes (Dao De Jing 1):


[xuan zhi you xuan, zhong miao zhi men ('Darkness within darkness. | The gateway to all understanding'; transl. Stephen Mitchell)] -- we may have reached the limit of our understanding at the moment, the brink of this cosmic darkness (玄 xuan), where the only way out is through. If so, we could do worse than to cling to that Japanese proverb so beloved of tea-drinkers, 一期一会 (ichi-go, ichi-e) -- 'one moment, one meeting' -- and to celebrate the richness of the present by drinking tea with friends.

On the other hand -- if I may direct my gentle reader's attention from the east Asian to the Greek tradition for a moment -- we may want to take some inspiration from the ant as well as from the grasshopper, finding a way to plan for the future as well as living in the moment. In practical terms that may mean developing one's own personal 'tea stimulus package' -- laying in as much good tea as one's purse can bear; and, in the process, spending in such ways as best to support those vendors that one appreciates and respects the most.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reader's Corner: DougH on The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. THE STORY OF TEA: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press 2007. xiv + 418 pages. ISBN 978-1580087452.

The book reviewed here is another of the “recent inundation of English-language books on tea” that I mentioned in my previous review. Judging by the number (and percentage) of positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, the number of online tea vendors who carry this book (even though the authors are actually competitors, having their own online tea store, and its high placing in various food book award competitions), this book has made something of a splash in the tea-book world.

Unlike the Mair/Hoh book, this book is in the mold of James Norwood Pratt’s The New Tea Lover’s Treasury (1999): it includes some account of the history of tea, something about the “culture” of tea, and something about tea itself – the types, the tastes, the steeping. But this book has twice as many pages as Pratt’s, is physically larger, and feels about twice the weight. A lot of work, time and research obviously went into this book.

There is a brief Preface and an equally brief Introduction; both of these are for the most part so general as to provide very little of use. There is no overview of the book’s chapters or structure (as, for example, the Mair/Hoh book’s prologue did nicely). However, this Preface does give us the authors’ statement of the book’s purpose (p. x):
This book is our attempt to transmit the information and knowledge that we have garnered trekking along the tea trail to our interested readers. We hope to cut through the sometimes confusing prattle about tea by providing in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about but few have actually witnessed .... [W]e have attempted to provide in this book material that appeals to beginning tea enthusiasts as well as to seasoned tea professionals. Our goal is to give readers the behind-the-scenes information about the life rhythms and works cycles in a tea village or factory.
Chapter 1, “A Brief History of Tea,” is indeed brief, covering the entire world history of tea in around twenty-seven pages. For illustration, there are around sixteen pages or so for China, at most two pages for Japan (almost half of it devoted to the development of the tea ceremony), perhaps two and a half pages on tea in Europe, two pages on the Boston Tea Party and events leading up to it, two or three pages on the British in India, one paragraph on the British and Sri Lanka, a paragraph or so on the Dutch in Indonesia, one paragraph on Africa. As was unfortunately true in the Mair/Hoh book as well, there is no coverage of Korean tea history, which is as long or nearly as long as Japanese tea history, though there is the obligatory material here on the tea clippers, as a nearly page-long sidebar (p. 27). There is essentially nothing – maybe a couple of sentences – on any developments since World War II.

Chapter 2, “The Life of a Tea Bush,” discusses aspects of the tea plant itself. The authors give some history of the plant. They then introduce three varieties of tea bush – sinensis, assamica, cambodi (which they call “Java bush”) – and their respective characteristics. The authors discuss the concept of the tea-bush “table” – the managed plucking height of the tea bush. There are also sections on “The Terroir of Tea” and “The Yearly Cycle of a Tea Bush.”

Chapter 3, “Manufacture: From Fresh Leaves to Distinctive Tea,” is about the processing of different types of tea. The authors introduce “The Six Classes of Leaf Manufacture” and “The Eight Elements of Tea Production,” then go on to cover, each in its own section, the processing for each of the categories they name. These processing descriptions are quite interesting, and go into often great detail, apparently much of it directly observed by the authors. For example, they have sections not just on green tea but on “Sun-dried Green Tea,” “Basket-Fired Green Tea,” “Pan-Fired Green Tea,” “Tumble-Dried Green Tea,” “Oven-Dried Green Tea,” and “Steamed Green Tea.”

In the section on “Black Tea” (p. 84), the authors are thankfully quite clear on the distinction between and correct use of the terms “oxidized” and “fermented.” Interestingly, the authors also express doubt (p. 83) that much will come of “South Asian” efforts to produce oolongs.

One questionable section is the somewhat confusing “outline” of pu’er types and characteristics on page 96. For example, maocha is purported to be associated only with sheng pu’er. Also, “wet storage, quickly aged” processing is supposedly associated only with shu pu’er manufacture. Both implications are incorrect. Maocha is the initial raw material for both kinds of pu’er, and “wet storage” is mostly or entirely a means for speeding up the aging of sheng pu’er, not shu (for which it would typically be considered irrelevant).

Chapter 4, “Journeying Along the Tea Trail,” is the longest chapter in the book (around 142 pages). It examines the teas of various countries, often by province or state. Some teas are covered at substantial length, others simply mentioned by name, or in a single sentence. The chapter covers China (with individual sections on various provinces and tea types), Japan, Korea, India – with sections on Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri, Russia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Africa - concentrating on Kenya and Tanzania, Vietnam and Thailand, plus mentions for quite a few newer small producing areas. Kenya, astoundingly, in 2004 was the third-largest producer of black tea in the world, and the largest exporter of tea in the world, figures reached in only 50 years or less of tea production. Kenya also is one of the few, if not the only, tea-producing area outside of East Asia where the majority of production is on family (or “smallholder” as the book calls them) farms – over 60% of the country’s tea is produced on 400,000 such farms (p. 240), with the rest produced on large (presumably plantation-style) estates (p. 241).

In this chapter, the authors mention many teas by name, singling out various ones here and there for further discussion. Curiously, they spend four pages (131-135) on a tea known in the West as “Lapsang Souchong” and in China as Zhengshan xiaozhong, considerably more print than they spend on any other Chinese tea, though this tea is not as popular – at least in the USA – as some others. The authors spend considerable effort trying to establish that there are actually two teas here: a lower-grade one known (including in China) as “Lapsang Souchong,” and a much higher-grade one known in China as Zhengshan xiaozhong. However, my understanding from tea-knowledgeable native Chinese friends is that in China and Taiwan, the usual view is instead that these are different grades (varying considerably in rarity and price) of a single tea, both of which are known by the name Zhengshan xiaozhong. And, despite their efforts, the authors did not get to see how these teas are made.

Chapter 5, “An Encyclopedia of Tea,” presents a series of half-page entries on thirty-one specific teas, including a couple of white teas, some Chinese and Japanese greens, a few oolongs and black teas (i.e. hongcha), a shu and a sheng pu’er, some scented teas, and a few others. The information provided for each tea includes origin, brewing recommendations, short descriptions, an even shorter indication of the flavor, etc., along with a picture of both the steeped liquor and dry leaf. This chapter, despite being pretty short and sketchy for something termed an “encyclopedia,” will probably be useful to people unfamiliar with the teas presented.

Chapter 6, “Brewing the Perfect Cup,” provides pretty detailed instructions and suggestions for buying and storing tea, for choosing water and for steeping. The chapter ends with a couple of pages describing professional tea tasting. While one might have quibbles with certain details, and the steeping descriptions are only for Western-style brewing (e.g., nothing here on gongfu steeping), there is a lot of useful information here. (For the authors’ description of gongfu steeping, see Chapter 7, p. 308.)

Chapter 7, “Tea Customs and Culture,” is the third longest chapter (around 56 pages). The chapter presents aspects of the tea culture of China, Japan, Europe (without Russia), the USA, the Russian Federation, Tibet and Morocco. Much of this chapter is actually bits and pieces of history. The longest sections by far are, not surprisingly, those on China and Japan. The chapter covers not only practices (styles of tea making, tea ceremonies, etc.), but also items like teapots, cups and other tea ware, samovars, and even sweets such as Japanese wagashi.

Chapter 8, “The Health Benefits of Tea,” is the mandatory contribution to the “tea and health” literature. Fortunately, and somewhat unexpectedly, given that the authors are also tea vendors, this chapter is for the most part a cautious – and cautionary – handling of the subject, emphasizing how tentative the current state of knowledge is about this subject. They conclude one section in this chapter with:
So, when it comes to tea, think tonic not curative, healthful collaborator not redeemer .... Drink tea to relax and connect with the spiritual nature of life’s simple pleasures. Enjoy the flavors and the subtle and not so subtle differences waiting to be discovered in the world of tea offerings, and should the rich doses of flavanoids [sic] in each cup of tea be determined to cure what ails you, you will be ahead of the curve. [p. 357]
One blot on an otherwise respectable chapter, in the section “Caffeine in Tea,” is the sidebar on p. 360, where the authors repeat (as always, with no citation) the usual Western tea industry myth regarding do-it-yourself caffeine reduction: “After thirty seconds of extraction, it is reasonable to expect a reduction in the caffeine content of black leaf tea by 50 to 70 percent.” Though the “50 to 70 percent” hedge may, charitably, be somewhat less wrong than the usual 80% claim, it is still wrong. See Nigel Melican's now-famous essay in CHA DAO on this subject for state-of-the-art information on this subject.

In Chapter 9, “Ethics in the Tea Trade,” the authors “explore several of the social and political aspects of tea production and marketing.” Not only is this rarely discussed in English-language tea books, in my experience: this book's is also by far the most extensive and detailed treatment of the subject I’ve seen. The chapter is divided into sections “Organically Grown Tea,” “Fair Trade,” and the “Ethical Tea Partnership.” Each section includes descriptions of the concepts, background, relevant regulations, agencies, and so on. If this chapter has a flaw, it is a perhaps too-rosy view of the actual situation of many tea estate workers; there is perhaps also a lack of discrimination between the situation of workers in former Euro/British “possessions” – who work on plantations, except in Kenya – and that of workers in most of East Asia, where tea is grown largely on family or “tribal” farms. Otherwise, this chapter is definitely a contribution to popular English-language tea literature.

Chapter 10: “Cooking with Tea,” is the authors’ – also now apparently obligatory – contribution to tea cuisine, providing ten or so recipes. If this kind of thing is of particular interest to you, you may find something useful here. In my opinion, it is the least significant chapter of the book; but it occupies only fifteen pages or so out of over 400.

The book ends with three appendix-like sections, plus an approximately eleven-page Index (which I didn’t use much, but had inconsistent results with when I did). “Buyer's Resources” lists a handful of online tea dealers (all USA dealers except Ten Ren), including the authors’ own two shops (Cooks Shop Here and Tea Trekker), but also excluding a number of well-known vendors. The “Glossary” is seven pages of “descriptive and explanatory terms associated with tea” (p. 396); this is somewhat idiosyncratically organized, but may be useful to some. The “Bibliography” lists two and a half pages of English-language print resources. There are no endnotes or footnotes.

The book is very nicely designed and laid out, with lots of sidebars, very nice typography, and a nice color picture on the dust jacket. This book is an exception to my observation that, in English-language tea books at least, there seems to be an inverse relation between many nice pictures and good information. There are lots of high-quality pictures – all or virtually all in color – throughout the book, many of them taken by the authors. In short, it’s a beautiful book.

The authors try hard to provide both wide and reasonably deep coverage of their subject. They’ve made extensive visits to tea areas in Asia, apparently multiple times (p. ix). The book has probably the most detailed information on the production process for various teas that I’ve seen (with the exception of Mike Petro’s pu’er site). There are various charts and tables and other figures scattered throughout, though there is no page-listing or index of these.

If the above is all you require from a tea book, stop here. Go out and buy it now, and you will probably be very happy.

However, if you want more from a tea book, especially one with the aspirations this one so evidently has, you may want to read on.


(To keep this part of the review from becoming too tedious, I’ve furnished -- on a separate page, provided by Our Gracious Host -- a list of 'Addenda et Corrigenda,' with additional information for those who share my concerns over this sort of thing.)

My criticisms of the book mostly fall into the following categories:
• To use the authors’ own word: sensibilities
• Poor organization and editing of the material
• Grossly inadequate historical coverage
• Romanization, translation and other terminological issues
• Miscellaneous

The text virtually never cites any source, however informally, so it’s usually impossible to know where questionable information has come from.


The authors say in the Preface, “We also offer our sensibilities regarding the complexity and intrigue of an ancient beverage in today’s fast-paced, modern world” (p. x). Unfortunately, my own sensibilities are daggers-drawn at odds with theirs.

One example epitomizes the problem (as well as some editing issues): “Had the Song stayed in power, or had the coarse Mongols not been their predecessors [sic], China mostly likely would have seen their evolving tea culture culminate into a glorious, formal, stylized tea ceremony” (p. 15). First, the Mongol Yuan dynasty was the successor to the Song. Second, there is no way to begin to know what would have happened if the Mongols hadn’t successfully invaded, and the Song dynasty had continued. Further, the Song did have formal tea ceremonies or rituals, as the authors themselves say on the same page: “... the elaborate tea rituals of the Song dynasty came to a swift and unfortunate halt....” Fourth, to call the Mongols “coarse” seems both extreme and ignorant. Worst of all, the core of this statement – that a “formal, stylized tea ceremony” is “glorious” – epitomizes a pretty extreme sort of orientalist, Asian-romanticizing viewpoint.

An even better example – which also illustrates the authors’ ignorance of Chinese characters (hanzi) – is the sidebar on the opening page of Chapter 8 (p. 351). This sidebar purports to deconstruct the Chinese character for tea, cha (茶), into three individually meaningful parts. For brevity, I will quote only the concluding sentence: “The sum of this character's elements creates the Chinese pictorial for tea as, 'The revered plant that sustains man in his situation on earth.’” This is both wrong and a kind of trap, a trap the authors dove headfirst into precisely because of their orientalist sensibility: they want this to be true. This kind of thing drives Chinese language experts (and many knowledgeable native speakers) up the wall. Relatively few modern Chinese characters are constructed in anything like the way this sidebar describes, and cha is definitely not one of them. The authors evince no knowledge of the usage-history of the character tu (荼) as distinct from that of the character cha (茶). The latter didn’t even exist until the Tang (perhaps mid-eighth century), and was clearly created by a slight modification to the tu character, possibly even by Lu Yu himself. See, in my review of Mair/Hoh, the paragraphs on “Chapter 2”, and especially see Appendix “C” in Mair/Hoh, particularly the section entitled “Writing” (p. 264).

This orientalist sensibility pops up throughout the book. And it was completely unnecessary: the authors’ information on tea is generally good and plentiful, and the book is beautiful. Trying to make tea and Asian tea culture and tea history into something romantic and exotic is a serious – and typically Western – misrepresentation of both. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Sensibilities.")


While the appearance and layout of the book are beautiful, the actual editing leaves something to be desired. While there are errors of the type one would hope a copy-editor would catch, a few of these will usually sneak through even in the most carefully and rigorously edited book, at least in its first printing. But, while some of these are fairly blatant, there is a worse problem. The book’s organization is rather ... disorganized.

Though there is a chapter on history, there is historical material scattered over multiple other chapters, especially in Chapters 4 and 7.There is no history of Korea in Chapter 1, but some 3.5 pages of Korean history in Chapter 4 (p. 187). There are almost half as many pages of Chinese history in Chapter 7 as there are in the 'history' chapter (Chapter 1), and more pages of Japanese history in Chapter 7 than in Chapter 1.

One could adduce many more examples (see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Organization and Editing"), but that’s enough for the moment. The overall impression one draws from this lack of sensible organization is that the book is rambling and repetitive. Yet if there had been a decent editing phase, it would have been reasonably easy to consolidate the wide-flung material into a much tighter, more cohesive whole.


The authors’ historical coverage in this book is unacceptably cursory, given the book’s size, and given that it has the word “history” in its subtitle. Chapter 1 barely qualifies as even an overview of the history of tea. Even if you add in the perhaps roughly-equal number of pages of history scattered throughout the other chapters of the book, the result is an inadequate body of material, much of it driven by the same orientalist, romantic view discussed earlier.

While the authors shouldn’t be criticized for not doing something they didn’t intend to do, we can evaluate how useful what they did do is. The history coverage in this book is not worthy of it, and does not compare with the breadth and depth of coverage the authors give to other areas of tea. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "History.")

Language and terminology

There is no evidence in the book -- or on the authors' website -- that either of them speaks any version of Chinese, or any other East Asian (or South Asian) language. They list no Asian language sources in the bibliography. As with many English-only tea writers (and tea vendors), the author’s Chinese romanization is often faulty and/or inconsistent. The translations they provide, usually of names, are often “iffy” if not flat-out wrong.

One of the most blatant translation mistakes is in the title of the “Black Tea” section (p. 84), where the Chinese term “qi hong” is used as the translation for “Red Tea”; the correct pinyin for “red tea” is hongcha, whereas qihong refers specifically to the Keemun/Qimen variety of hongcha. The authors repeat this error in another section title on page 127 (where they use the spelling “Qihong” [no space]), yet they themselves provide the correct pinyin for “red tea” in the same section at the bottom of p. 127.

Another example of faulty translation: they repeatedly translate the name of the Wuyi oolong dahongpao (which they spell as Da Hong Pao) as “Royal Red Robe” (see e.g. pp. 144, 146, 263). This, again, is simply wrong. In this context, da (大) means (and in this context is almost always translated as) “big,” or possibly “great” -- thus: “Big Red Robe.” There is no way to get anything like “royal” from it. Just because a few other tea vendors also make such a mistake doesn’t mean it should be repeated in a reference work like this. And many tea vendors do correctly translate this tea name. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Romanization, Translation, Terminology.")

Book Dedication

The book is dedicated to William H. Ukers: “You blazed the trail and in your footsteps we all follow.” Ukers’ 1935 All About Tea was apparently long considered by some (at least in the USA) to be a sort of standard reference or “bible” for tea, and especially for the American tea industry; though why an “industry” whose business for many decades was to serve up the lowest-quality tea fannings and dust, in the cheapest possible tea bags, to a small minority of the American population, needed a standard reference is a mystery to me. The obvious questions, on seeing this dedication, are: a) what “trail,” and b) who is “we all”? This dedication is typically overreaching, unless by “trail” the authors simply mean “writing tea books,” and by “we” they mean only “American laowai.” I doubt if even Europeans would want to be included in that “we all,” and I imagine the East Asian tea industry would laugh at the whole idea. One could also be forgiven for thinking this dedication might indicate greater ambitions than the authors openly indicate.

Tea Categories

One last issue that struck me as problematic is the initial section of Chapter 3, on the “six classes” of tea. The authors first describe supposedly existing classification schemes, then propose one of their own, which I believe is somewhat faulty (though better than the straw-man system they claim is “still popular today”). For fuller discussion, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Tea Categories."


To sum up, let’s first consider the book on the authors' own terms, as presented in the citation at the beginning of this review. Do the authors achieve the goals they set out for themselves? I would answer with a rather qualified “yes.” The book contains a mass of information, which the authors gathered in part through research and in part through multiple visits to tea farms, plantations and factories in East and South Asia, talking extensively with relevant personnel to learn tea growing and production processes. Thus, they do present “information and knowledge that we have garnered trekking along the tea trail to our interested readers,” and they do provide "in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about.” Whether they successfully “give readers the behind-the-scenes information about the life rhythms and works cycles in a tea village or factory” is less clear, but they do try. And they do all this in a beautiful, easy-to-read package.

Then why the “qualified yes”? Because we ought also to consider how effectively and efficiently the authors go about their business. Here the authors do not score nearly as well. The book is poorly organized and would have benefitted a lot from much more thorough editing. As mentioned earlier, this makes the book seem rambling and repetitive, which among other things makes it harder than it should be to find things you want, or that you remember reading somewhere, thus harming its usability, thus reducing its usefulness.

Further, I couldn’t avoid the occasional impression that the authors were showing off a little, with their constant presentation of foreign language names – mostly Chinese – as well as the kind of foreign-language terms that few people except certified tea heads are going to care about or remember. However, I am one of those certified tea heads, I do care, and I think that if you are going to show off your knowledge, you’d best get it right. And here the authors also fall down on the job. Their romanization of Chinese is often wrong or inconsistent, and their translations of names and terms are often either wrong or at best dubious. The authors would have been better leaving this kind of thing out if they couldn’t do it better than they did.

Finally, their inadequate, sanitized history of tea does a disservice, both to the book as a reference, and to their readers; and their pervasive – and so typically Western – tendency to view Asian tea and tea culture in an exotic light distorts and undermines their presentation.

So, do I recommend the book? If you have the money and inclination to buy more than one tea book, I would say “yes.” There is plenty of good stuff here. But when you buy this book, also get as many of those I’ve mentioned (or others) as you can. If you really only want one book, I would have a hard time giving The Story of Tea more than a very half-hearted recommendation.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

Acknowledgements: I would again like to thank – with the usual admonition that all errors, misinterpretations, etc. are most definitely mine alone – the following for their help while I was writing this review: corax and MarshalN. As before, either of these worthies would be far more qualified to review this book than I am, but again, they left it to me. I would also like to thank K. Dodgson, V. H. Mair, and Lew Perin for their time and help – also with the usual “the bad stuff is all mine” admonition. Finally, special extra thanks to Lew Perin for the ever-valuable labor of love that is BABELCARP – what would we monoglot laowai do without it?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Cup2Cup: Compressed Da Hong Pao


Tonight I will enjoy two of my favorite Wuyi teas. They are both Da Hong Pao cakes: Deluxe Compressed DHP Cake from My Fine Collects, and Supreme Aged CHP Cake from Dragon Tea House. The former, I learned from vendor Chris Lau, is comprised of 2005 leaves compressed in 2006 by the Yi Min Yuan Tea Factory, and I received it from Hong Kong in late November of 2008. The latter is comprised of 2005 leaves, and I do not know what tea company produced it. It came as a gift two months ago from a tea-loving friend, and I am delighted to have it. Both of these teas have provided many hours of almost sublime enjoyment, and while I fear that comparison might produce a loser and a winner, I cannot restrain my curiosity. I am going to compare them cup2cup. Perhaps it’s nicer to say that I’ll enjoy them both in the same session.

To that end, I’m using two 100-ml gaiwans. Generally I employ 70-ml zisha teapots, but I wonder whether different flavors from different clay teapots might be significant enough to affect the outcome. I’ll leave that experiment for a later date. Into each gaiwan I’ve placed 6.3 grammes of tea—following the recommendation of Chris Lau received in correspondence. I am making an issue of the weight in this case because generally I do not weigh DHP. To brew loose, non-compressed DHP (the norm), I fill the brewing vessel about two-thirds to three-quarters full and press it down gently. But because this is a night for compressed Yancha, I cannot judge proportions by sight, and my old JS-300 V scale—accurate to a tenth of a gramme—comes to the rescue.

I wash DHP once. I brew it with very hot water. The first infusion after the rinse is fifteen seconds, and the following infusions are flash infusions until the flavor wanes. Then I step up the infusions by fifteen-second intervals. I do not know if this is the best way to brew DHP, but it’s the way I know. Because I am accustomed to these parameters, I’ll use them this evening.

The two cakes are quite different. The Deluxe cake began its life at 400 grammes, the Supreme at 125 grammes. The Supreme is very tight (almost shiny) and very black. The Deluxe is somewhat less tight and perhaps tinged with a tiny bit of red. The Deluxe teacake is, in fact, rather like a shu pu’er beeng cha. Dry, the Deluxe has a hint of earth in the aroma, and the Supreme has a pleasant molasses aroma. Gram-for-gram, the Supreme is roughly twice as expensive as the Deluxe, and that is quite expensive. I try to ration myself with these two teacakes, and to drink them both tonight is quite exciting. Is that not ridiculous? I have tried many compressed Wuyi teacakes, and some were excellent. These two are simply my favorites.

In the first infusion after the wash, the Deluxe is, surprisingly, darker than the Supreme. The Deluxe presents spice aroma from the gaiwan’s lid, and the Supreme presents, interestingly, black pepper. Wow.

In the mouth they’re wonderful tonight. The initial flavors in the nose make me think of chocolate syrup! In the fourth infusion, the liquors from the two teas turn out the same: orange-red. They both taste of cherry cider—the Deluxe with a savory character and the Supreme with a sharper, sweeter quality. But primarily I notice that they are extremely similar. The Supreme is perhaps a little livelier.

In the sixth infusion I note from them both a mineral taste, one I equate with good DHP. The Deluxe continues a little woodier, almost oaken, but that is not a significant note. Given the different weights, years, and companies, the similarity in their flavor profiles is rather amazing. The Supreme is juicier, sweeter, tarter—but not by much.

I am this evening writing more of Ru4 Kou3, the initial burst of flavors in my mouth and nose, than of Hui2 Gan1, the sweetness of aftertaste, because in this case one tea affects the other too much to draw out any different Huigan notes. In fact, these two Wuyi teas are difficult to parse even in the first hot sips. It occurs to me now that I love them both because they share a single, particular flavor range I like. This revelation would not have come to me had I not undertaken a cup2cup session.

I like to store Da Hong Pao to see if it will change for the better over time, but that storage can be fraught with danger because the long, dry oolong leaves are so very friable. What goes into the storage box in perfect strips of tea leaf can emerge later—despite the most protective packaging—as bits and pieces. Compressed cakes prevent this sad shattering. Likely oolong from Wuyi was first compressed for ease in transportation and to protect it from breaking into powder. I have seen compressed Shui Xian and Da Hong Pao shaped as zhuan cha, fang cha, bing cha, pucks, and even little fingers like Tootsie Rolls stuck together in a sheet. I suppose there are other shapes I’ve not encountered.

The best compressed DHP is not as good, I suppose, as the best loose DHP. The cakes’ flavors and bouquet are a little more subdued and subtle. Somehow they recall sensations from further back in the memory. To explore them requires a little more mental spelunking. Loose DHP is about instant floral bursts and sweet fruit aftertastes, and the compressed oolong is more about considerations and suggestions. The quality of loose DHP is unrelated to fancy name or price charged. Buying mail order from vendors foreign or domestic, one rolls the dice, and often, one loses. The same holds true for compressed DHP. But I am pleased to report that these two, the little Supreme and the larger Deluxe, both serve as excellent exemplars of their ilk. I enjoy them because they are comfort-teas appealing to both the scholarly and the informal in us, and because I have a little of each socked away for down the road, the way, the cha dao.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Review: "Vanilla Mint Tea Therapy" concentrate


Like many of the more erudite publications, this forum tends to focus on the rarefied reaches of the tea-mountain (and profounder depths of the clay-pit), seeking ever the exquisite and superb fringe from the true red robe. But if it be that global tea consumption exceeds that of coffee, chocolate and cola combined, with beer, wine and spirits thrown in for good measure (if not a very palatable blend), then it is a safe bet that most sippers and swillers will never even hear of the whole class of leaf in which we here luxuriate, much less touch and taste any such delicacies.

Seeking ever the democratic balance, therefore, this intrepid reporter ventured forth into the lower depths, the lower shelves, the lower-priced aisles of the souk in search of the commonplace and congenial.

Let me say from the start that I have no objection in principle to "workingman's tea" (as my late Leodensian uncle instructed me to bring him back from trips across the pond), to admixtures with lesser flora, or even to elixirs dehydrated from previously decocted extractions. Indeed, I begin most mornings with a sizable dose of Taylor's of Harrogate—premium among CTC blends in the New World, but just 99 new pence (at discount) for 250 grams wherever loose tea is still to be found in the supermarkets of the Old. And to this I add a splash of non-fat milk, by way of sequestering tannins from the raw hide of my stomach. I even used to enjoy chai, before lactose intolerance corrupted the pleasure. (One fond memory: an hour-long phone call to a remote beloved, with a handful of loose Sikh masala on the bright-lit kitchen counter, parsing grain by spicy grain with a jeweler's loupe and Dumont & Fils #2 watchmaker's tweezer to reverse-engineer the ingredients and proportions of my favorite but pricey Yogi Tea blend.) And as Gandhi said of Western civilization, I think concentrates would be a very good idea, were very good ones to be had. I often dream of special-ordering just the finest specks sieved from a tonne or so of Yorkshire Gold, dark dust of pure tea-juice, flaked away from crass leaf and potent with all the best savors. The issue is not principle, but execution, which too often descends to the mediocre or downright nasty.

Thus it was that while browsing a local emporium for an unrelated product, I ran across this one, on sale at a price—$1.59 for 15 fluid ounces—low enough that possibly having to throw it all away would not strain the budget. The brand was familiar, though not one of my usuals. And while I do not admire plastic packaging in general, the front label was reasonably attractive

if somewhat less than informative, with ambiguously exotic typeface and a Mumbai-modern image of brew, mint leaf, orchid bean, and what one assumes to be a camellia flower. While vanilla and mint seem a reasonable complement to each other, and each is itself a familiar of tea, my prior experience did not include both at once. (Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!) It was apparent from sniffing the unopened container that vanilla would dominate, not surprising given the low bulk price of more-or-less pure vanillin from waste sulfite pulp liquors or petrochemical guaiacol. (Yummy.) The implausibly aquamarine tone of the foamy, viscous contents was also intriguing, not suggestive of any tea I have ever seen. (–Unless one would stretch the rubric to include that delightfully synaesthetic tapioca confection.)

As a room-temperature concentrate, the fluid had an unpleasant "chemical" smell. Now, I once dabbled in industrial organic chemistry, and am not alienated by unpretentious technical aromas. (In fact, before foul oxygenate blends became the norm, I quite liked the reek of gasoline, and still enjoy splashing fuel into my diesel tractor.) It is the presumptuous ersatz scents that offend: counterfeit perfumes, phony fruit flavors, the cloying pine and lemon in cleaning products. This stuff smelled like a cheap jelly-bean that had baked too long under a Mojave sun.

Diluted considerably with warm water, the whole aroma profile normalized somewhat, to the point of being only slightly annoying. The very small amount that I actually allowed into my mouth tasted soapy-sweet, redolent of the vanilla and mint, but with no detectable tea notes at all under the miasma.

The actual ingredients list was printed in three-point type (what we used to call "minikin" in the hot-metal world), in white ink on the back of the white bottle, shown here with a fresh sprig of mountain mint and a slightly stale vanilla bean:

The NSA could hardly have done a better job of encrypting key data while still complying with FDA disclosure regulations. The first component, predictably, was water. Vanilla plantifolia fruit extract was about two-thirds of the way down, under a slew of polysyllabic better-living-throughs like hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, a close cousin to the fast-food shake thickener whose taste, once identified, makes all such concoctions unpalatable to those of any sensibility. After three more such came Mentha piperita leaf extract, Camellia sinensis leaf extract, then a few vitamins. A small dose indeed of the titular infusion, with any therapeutic effects homeopathic at best.

Notwithstanding the above, I can give this product a just-passing grade for its intended purpose. I am unable to confirm the makers' claim that it "keeps color treated hair looking great" as I maintain what remains of mine in its native state. But it seems to lather and clean well enough, without leaving a residual aroma of either those natural extracts or the refunctionalized tropical-oil base. Not exactly a triumph for Alberto VO5, but adequate to the purpose. And well within the economic and sensory ambit of many readers of this and other tea-forums.

Next April 1st, we'll take another leaf from S.J. Perelman and delve into tea-enhanced fingernail polish, house paint and floor wax.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The 'Starbucks of Tea': A Surprising Turn


Photo: Corax

When Argo Tea opened its first locations in Chicago, its founders were quoted as wanting Argo to become the 'Starbucks of Tea.' Quite apart from the questionable decision to refer to their tea houses as 'tea cafes,' to couch one's aspiration in terms of Starbucks puts the discourse once again in terms of coffee. The logic behind such an urge is completely obvious, but it is not the less undesirable for all that.

Be that as it may, since its inception in 2003 Argo Tea has had quite a bit of commercial success, with already ten locations in Chicago and three more in New York. The casual onlooker might easily infer that these Argonauts are well on their way toward garnering that Golden Fleece of tea commerce: their stated goal of becoming the 'Starbucks of Tea.'

But you really never do know what's next. At this particular moment, the coveted 'Starbucks of Tea' label seems likeliest to be awarded to another, rather surprising contender: Starbucks.

Photo: CFP

Just a week ago, Starbucks launched its new line of tea products -- in China. If this strikes you as a bad case of coals to Newcastle, you are hardly alone. Here we have Yanks importing Yankee capitalism to Communist China -- using Chinese-grown goods as merchandise. Apart from the baroque intricacies of those economic implications, -- will Chinese consumers trust laowai to be able to purvey, without getting it seriously wrong, a commodity so foundational to the daily life of China?

This is by no means Starbucks's first beach-head in the People's Republic. There are several hundred Starbucks shops there already (over 350 by the beginning of 2009). Indeed, until 2007 there was a Starbucks just outside the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing; when controversy arose over this placement, the store was closed.

Photo: Ng Han Guan [AP]

But new locations will be all the more carefully chosen. And the teas on offer in Chinese Starbucks will not be the Tazo tea bags so familiar in the US: on the contrary, the first tea selections in China are three carefully-chosen Chinese teas -- a white, a green, and an oolong: bai mu dan, bi luo chun, and dongfang mei ren.

If anyone can successfully engineer such an audacious undertaking, it is likely to be Starbucks. But -- even with top administrators who are themselves Chinese -- can even Starbucks overcome presuppositions about Westerners and tea culture? An arguably more problematic issue: what long-term impacts might such a juggernaut have on tea culture and the tea industry in China?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fiat lux


Ceaseless flows the river, water ever changing; bubbles in still pool gather and subside, impermanent: so in this world are we and all we devise.

–Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki

A couple of sunspot cycles ago, a soi-disant Zen teacher warned an old novice against high expectations when offering ego repatterning to help people withdraw from tobacco. His thesis: smoking encompasses a broad range of linked cognitive processes, internal states and overt behaviors, each providing some kind of satisfaction, relief or distraction, and all working to maintain the status quo. Unraveling the skein of social interaction, personal ritual and biochemical dependency therefore requires a superbly concerted effort. This assertion was delivered, somewhat ironically, within the pale of “Mad Russian” Yefim Shubentsov, who for decades has claimed to cure 80% of incoming smokers with one deft wave of a bioenergetic placebo.

While none tasteful enough to be reading this tastiest of blogs could ever be tagged an addict of any sort, it is true that for most of us, it is no single aspect of the tea experience, but a veritable congeries, that drives our ongoing engagement. Consider, for example, a few elements:
  • Learn: read, watch videos, attend workshops, sit with veterans
  • Buy: in shops, on-line, via telephone and post
  • Covet: un/pack, inspect, admire; look, sniff, handle
  • Exchange: share, trade, re-sell, swap samples
  • Criticize: write and speak, assess and review
–and infusing all of these, we hope: Drink! Alone in placid contemplation, convivially as a common focus, tangentially as a quenching and revivifying beverage, integratively as a complement to food, tactically as a stimulant, ritually as a foundation for or embodiment of some broader binding practice.

To hold a delicate creature too closely is to risk choking it, and to reify one transient experience is to constrain the space in which the next will appear. A great part of any mindful exercise of sensuality must therefore be what the Japanese recently call mono no aware, the bittersweet (like a good gyokuro) poignancy of the transient suchness of things. It is a benign expression of wabi-sabi, the gentle communion with transiency itself: the anicca of Gautama; panta rhei attributed to Heraclitus; tides of Tao that do nothing, but through which all things are done. Love each sip and let it go. This is one reason that so many of us, when the illusion of time permits, enjoy gongfu brewing: ten, twenty, even thirty thimbled aliquots of liquor taken in evolving, modulated yet never “controlled” succession from one broad pinch of admired leaf. Taste memory, unpacking the various synæsthesias and comparing this tongue-lave with the last, and the one before that, and many more previous—that is part of the maven’s pleasure. But even without the neurological renormalization that evicts unvarying stimuli into limbo, the limits of our attention make clutching at any one moment’s sensation futile. Better to accept Ovid’s dictum: omnia mutantur, nihil interit: everything changes; nothing is lost. Experiences we cannot remember, even in dream, retain the power forever to alter, amplify and enrich the experiences that follow. So let it be with this morning’s cuppa.

With taste and aroma evanescent, circumstance and company variably fugacious, and the mystic leaf itself a living thing whose maturation and senescence may encompass from weeks to a few score years at dry-stored best, where do we find our concrete exemplars, our durable symbols, the persistent artifacts of our chosen pleasure? Fortunately, perhaps, there requires but a minimal equipage for the heating of water, moistening of leaf and delivery of effusions. So little is enough, to warm a Dalesman’s pre-dawn fingers, lubricate a conclave of Odessan elders or Nyhavn knitters, take each of us—in mind, at least—to reclusion or refuge in our own ten-foot square hut. (Though Thoreau, in his splendid renunciation, apparently found no room for our leaf in his life: “...I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them...”) It is only the conspicuously wealthy, the bored and sated, those requiring expressions of formality to construe meaning in lives set too remote from Nature, who require more. But we are not a species that limits choice according to requirement, so...

With desiderata well in hand, we may wish more carefully or elegantly to store our leafy or lumpy taels, temper water, measure and manipulate the various substances at their various stages. Most often we provide drinking cups, rather than sucking from a common spout (or aiming streams throatward as camel-riders might pass a skin of koumiss), which in turn invites the fair-pot. And then a splashable tray or “tea ocean” on which to perform all these operations, and whisks, picks, funnels, spoons, scoops and other small tools, and perhaps dishes on which to display fresh and spent leaves. Und so weiter, right up to digital thermometers and scales and timers. As though the wings of savory camellia could be pinned to objective time! People of a collecting temperament will have favorite objects, favorite classes of objects, favorite materials, styles, countries of origin; and otherwise establish personal taxonomies of acquisitiveness. And in contrast to the plainsong European aesthetic, aficionados of the Asian schools are free to harmonize gear according to any modality, or none at all. At a certain state of tea-drunkenness, every object looks good; and even before that, the manifest exercise of discrimination and pleasure affords any soul’s accretion of gear its own special numen. My own favorite pieces, modest though they be, span five cultures, four countries and three centuries, and have little in common past a high silica content.

Yet while proclivities vary, as do budgets, access to suppliers, storage and display space, tolerance of cohabitors, threats from light-fingered adults and rambunctious pets or children, most “tea freaks” tend to focus their collecting on the core unit operation—brewing—and therefore acquire a multiplicity of pots and cups even when they have few or none of the many other optional items. In some cases, collecting is itself the main passion, to which the making and serving of potions is mere justification or occasional distraction. For techies, the search for that perfect pot (perhaps one for each type of tea, time of day, class of company, style of service, etc.) is both drive and excuse. For crafts appreciators, the elegance of shape and construction, melding of material to form and function, may incite a desire for great diversity, or conversely to subtler variations around a chosen sameness. (Someone in my past collected Art Deco photographic light meters. Go figure.) Utility, sensuality, investment... For whatever reason, ownership of teapots may quickly become a self-reinforcing cycle.

Though raised on free-leaf tea, with recent decades' reading and travel somewhat expanding scope of knowledge and appreciation, I have safely evaded that unseemly obsession. A recent inventory of my shelves showed just 46 teapots, of which a good quarter are mainly retained for the memories they decant, unusual form, specialist applicability or to complement other displayed items. To be sure, this does not count a smaller number of in-use gaiwans, plus a score or two of both kept on hand as gifts for neophytes who have yet to develop their own preferences. (I would no sooner give a pot or gaiwan unasked to a serious tea-drinker than I would an unsolicited reed to a saxophonist. On one hand, I would not presume to be able to guess another’s tastes, and would not want to put either of us in an awkward position; on the other, I cannot afford teaware of a quality that would constitute a meaningful addition to most of my friends’ collections. But that first Yixing pot or glazed gaiwan is almost always welcome.) Yet even with so sparse a collection, one may eventually find a piece to be surplus to my needs (and even wants). In this case, I usually give the spare to a friend. Like a piano or a sense of humor, a cared-for teapot improves with use. So there is collective benefit in acquiring many pots and keeping few.

Occasionally, though, a pot is not fit to be either used or donated. One such came my way during an expedition to San Francisco’s Chinatown incident to a nearby photonics conference. Not much attractive teaware to be found there at all, and tea of notable quality pretty sparse as well. So it is with our degraded Disneys; real people and the real tea they drink tend not to feature on the tourist maps. But my Geiger counter did perk up in a basement-level knicknack shop, where sat a bad implementation of a bad rendering of one of the most delicious pots I have ever had the pleasure to see, handle and use, at The Tea Gallery in NYC. (Alas, the proprietors of the latter establishment would not sell at any price.) The imitation: rudely trimmed after clumsy slip-casting, with an ill-fit lid and spout too narrow for our lightning steeps, I still found the form compelling. Not $32 worth, but the tag was marked down by half, and it was sitting on a half-price table. Before I could ask for both discounts to be applied, the clerk had performed another binary fission. For $4, it was beyond a bargain, even if not quite pretty enough to display or pourable enough to use.

So sat it alone on the counter for a few years, thirsting for a useful role.

Then one day I noticed a general resemblance to ancient Mediterranean oil lamps. Though for external vision I prefer electric lighting when the sun is in flight, a butane camping torch when the power is out, or a candle lantern if vapors be exhausted, there is something inwardly delightful about an old-style lamp. Especially if one happens to keep a lot of extra-virgin cold-press olive juice around; that makes for a rather pleasanter aroma than, say, kerosene, tallow, or rendered whale blubber. With needle-nose pliers, I carefully snapped out the internal clay screen. When a cotton string proved to transport fuel too slowly, and commercial fiberglass wicks were all too big, I teased a bundle of just the right size from a spare bit of wood-stove door gasketing (available anywhere that cold and cordwood meet, probably at no charge for the snippet required) and threaded it down the spout. Here is the result:

Is it perfect? Not hardly, at least in this relative world. Classical lamps often have a shallow cup surrounding the wick, so that oil—which, as we all know, tends to be pulled away from the flame by a thermal variant of the same Marangoni Effect that engenders wine tears—does not drip down the spout. You can see a hint of this in the photo; though it has not progressed beyond a slight slick, I still keep the lamp in a small saucer. (Japanese porcelain with a blue fugu design, per the crossing of styles mentioned above.) Is it useful? Useful‽ How did that get in there? It is pleasing to eye and nose. Alas, it would not suit for warming o-cha no mizu, or even brightening a brew-table: the aroma, though delicious, would overpower most infusions. Perhaps I’ll make another with an orange-yellow flickering LED in the spout and a fake-flame cellophane tassel above. Or perhaps not. Does tea-seed oil smell nicely when it burns?

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha reminds us that

... this is how to contemplate our existence
in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.

Sometimes it takes a dream to reveal dream, an illusion to reveal that all is illusion, a flickering lamp to reveal a more persistent and immanent radiance. It is said that of the four million words put into Buddha’s mouth since the Council of Arhats, the only surviving ones that actually came out of it were his last, beginning with

Atta dipa viharatha: You are the light itself; here abide.

Until we each and all arrive at that non-place of no-attainment, we need all the illumination we can find. In that spirit, this Yankee-thrift tip for turning an object of limited utility into another of equally limited but different utility—like Gaiman’s werewolf who treasured “a small bone that he had carved into the shape of a small bone”—is offered in humble hope that it may bring pleasure and, in these parlous times, help to generate honorable employment for out-of-work teapots everywhere.