Tea by any other name…a rant.

9 08 2009

 Tea refers to the agricultural products of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water, and is the colloquial name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself.  After water, tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. It has a cooling, slightly bitter,  flavour. Wikipedia

(Note: the sections following referring to brewing and enjoying tea apply to Chinese tea, meaning tea grown in China or Taiwan.)

Sniffing Cups

Sniffing Cups Photo: Craig Gibson

Of late, I have had a number of discussions on tea that did not include a discourse on variety and flavor. Sooner or later, in conversation, the fact arises that I am training with a Chinese Tea Master. Someone will say, “Oh, I had a lovely rooibos tea this morning.” I no longer argue. But, folks, if the beverage is not based on the plant camellia sinensis, it is not tea!

Blame the early importers of tea. Someone asked a Chinese local, “What do you call that stuff?” The reply, “Té.” Welcome to the slippery slope. This was a local colloquial nickname for tea. The Chinese word for tea is “Cha.” 茶 The Japanese word for tea is “Cha.” Or if it is a particularly good tea, “O Cha.” But we had to go and screw things up and call it “tea.”

What about herbal teas? No, sorry, that is not a tea. Rooibos is not a tea. There is a nice French word for almost anything brewed in hot water: “Tisane.” You had a lovely rooibos tisane this morning. “How was your chamomile tisane?”

Listen, unless camellia sinensis is present, you are not drinking tea! Interestingly, when I have the audacity to correct slurpers of various concoctions, they either grow angry or refuse to hear me. I am not speaking ill of any of the beverages, I am merely giving them their correct names.

Cha

Cha

So, as of today, I am undertaking two missions. 1. I shall do my utmost to never ever remark on the name of someone’s drink. Don’t even get me started on Martinis and the sludge that bears that once noble name. 2. I am beginning a campaign to change the English language name for the camellia sinensis plant and any beverage brewed from it to “Cha.” Now wouldn’t that be simple? We give the tree and drink its true name back, and that leaves “tea” to everyone else in the world.

When I was little and sick I was given a beef “tea.” My organic gardening guru brews up all sorts of “teas” to encourage plant growth. Yes! Take it, take the word, keep it, call cats “tea” and dogs “coffee” for all I care. Just refer to the plant and drink as “Cha.” Isn’t that a nice sounding word?

While we’re at it. I no longer want to hear about any tea, any cha that anyone drinks and considers lovely that comes from a tea bag. Or any cha that is brewed in a tea ball. God save us from all of these devilish contraptions that get in the way of drinking a good cup of tea cha.

Silver Needle Single Bud, Awakened

Silver Needle Single Bud, Awakened Photo: Craig Gibson

Briefly, the cha ball, when used with loose leaf tea, usually stops the tea leaves from properly rehydrating because they cannot expand completely as they absorb the water.  The Chinese call this initial reabsorbtion of water, “Awakening the Dragon.” What a lovely image. But, if you cruelly imprison your dragon, it will never lift its head up and spread its wings (If you are imagining a Western dragon), or stretch out its powerful limbs and give you the utmost and best cup of Cha. Instead you get a wimpy little chihuahua of a dragon and a poor cup of cha.

Now, consider the tea bag. First the bag. They range from unbleached to bleached cotton, to silk,to plastic. Plastic? And the contents–in the tea industry, the designation for the camellia sinensis that goes into tea bags is FNG. So, what does “FNG” mean? It is an abbreviation that became a sort of acronym. It is far enough removed from its source that we forget the origin. It’s kind of like not seeing the pig slaughtered. FNG is an abbreviation for “fannings.”

Hm-m-m. That’s a curious word. Why would that word be applied to tea? I’ll tell you why. Originally, the loose leaf tea, the good stuff, was fanned with a…well with a fan. And the dust that blew off, probably onto the floor, this dust was swept up and put in tea bags for the rubes. Yum!

Now, modern tea bags do not contain floor sweepings, I hope. In fact, some “premium”–I put premium in quotes because any tea bag tea being premium is doubtful, in my deranged mind–some premium tea bags contain high quality tea. During tea production a certain amount of the good stuff, the loose leaf tea, some of those leaves get too broken to sell as loose leaf and these get turned into FNG.

I occasionally drink tea bag tea. In the airport, what other choice is there? Tazo makes good tea bag tea and so does Stash. But at home? No thank you. Depending on the brand, you can wind up with more stems than leaves and no buds whatsoever. 

On the road, and I travel a lot–on the road I bring along my own loose leaf tea and some contraption or other for brewing it. I like the TeaMaster Brew-cup. It’s portable, easy to clean, has enough room for the Dragon to awaken, and makes a darned good cup of tea. That said, I use a polycarbonate cup. My family doctor, a fellow Tea-head, will only use the glass version.

West Lake Dragonwell Dry, Note: All buds

West Lake Dragonwell Dry, Note: All buds Photo: Craig Gibson

Strange interlude: And what makes a good, dare I say “great” loose leaf tea cha? 1. Lineage. What varietal did the leaves come from? In what region of China is it grown? 2. Process. Organic or “Organic Process” preferred. Good soil. Now the nitty gritty–3. Leaf style. Part of this is determined by the type of tea. Compare Mao Feng green with Dragonwell (Longjing) green. The best tea is all buds. In my opinion, the finest tea in the world is Yin Zhen Bai Hao from C.C. Fine Tea. This is usually called Silver Needle or Silver Needle white, and it is all buds. Oolong tea is traditionally one bud two leaves. Good to great tea is either all buds, one bud one leaf, one bud two leaves…and one bud three leaves is debatable. Anything past that: Phooey! 4. Freshness, includes storage methods.

So, in bagged tea you don’t know what you are getting. It may even be adulterated, cut with some kind of filler.

As to freshness, smell it. If it smells lovely and fragrant it will probably taste that way too. Which means you should purchase tea someplace that allows you to smell what you are buying. This eliminates the supermarket. I have seen tea shops that sold very nice high quality loose leaf tea, except they didn’t turn it fast enough and it became old and stale. It oxidized. It became dry and crumbly. No aroma, no Qi. 氣 Smell it. And if you buy it from a nice tea shop, you can probably buy a cup of it first and taste it.

To finish this rant, I recently heard “I drink a lot of tea every day. I can’t afford to buy good tea.” Westerners tend to brew their tea once, let the tea sit in the water forever until it is strong enough to repel sharks, and then discard the leaves. Proper Chinese brewing puts the water on the leaves for the minimum time required to extract that flavorful goodness (Awakening the Dragon can be used to get the leaves in the right mood to be drunk.). A good Chinese tea cha may be infused anywhere from 4-7 times. Notice and enjoy the differences each infusion offers. A GOOD Chinese Cha will still offer flavor even after the color of the liquor begins to fade.

My Favorite Yixing Pot

My Favorite Yixing Pot

The easiest way to brew a good cup is with a French Press. Tea Masters often use a traditional Gaiwan for themselves. The Chinese Gongfu (Kungfu) method using an unglazed clay pot (Yixing Clay only! Otherwise beware of possible lead contamination in the clay.) may ultimately be the most satisfying. I have a tiny pot about the size of my fist. Two grams of cha suffice to provide me with a satisfying experience. There is available a porcelain brewer called the TeaMaster Automatic Tea Brewer, that emulates the Gongfu method and is a good way to start enjoying Chinese tea.

Gaiwan Photo: SJS Chen/Wikipedia

Gaiwan Photo: SJS Chen/Wikipedia

Name it right, brew it right, and as my Cha Shifu (Tea Master) says, “Tea makes a Happy Day.”

Rant addendum: 99% of all white tea sold in the US is not. At best it is green.

The following video advertising Japanese tea is hilarious, but note that they are only picking leaves, no buds. Third rate tea. It should be left to the bugs.

 





A Happy Day

27 08 2008

 

 

 This was originally posted  March 14, 2008 at my old blog. I liked it well enough, I decide to repost with a few graphics.

The house has some age on it. It is well-kept but old enough to have learned a thing or two. It’s been around the block. The front yard has green grass and newly planted trees. The walkway winds past several bushes toward the front door where two clay chimera (qilin) wait. A tea plant grows in a bed by the walk, camellia sinensis.

Cha Shifu's Tea House

A small metal sign hangs to the right of the front door, proclaiming “TeaMaster” with a drawing of a Yixing clay teapot, a Gongfu (Kungfu) pot. To the left of the front door is the long rectangular kitchen window. There is a large, beautiful bush in front of the window. I should learn its name. Two Stellar’s jays live there. They greet visitors and watch the goings-on inside.

My Tea Master meets me at the door. “Hi Pierce, come in!” He looks much younger than his age.  He is squarely built and has the broad shoulders of someone who regularly plays at taijijian (tai chi sword). He moves from his center, his dandian. He has balance and grace and is obviously connected to di (earth) and tian (heaven). His smile is genuine and welcoming.

I enter and smell the pleasant, homey smell of wood smoke. It is winter in Seattle, cold and wet. The warming fire is also welcoming. The flooring is compressed bamboo. It is beautiful and sturdy. My Tea Master believes in sustaining the earth. Bamboo does that.

Cha Shifu (Tea Master or Tea Teacher or Honored Tea Father) leads me through the clean and compact kitchen. Several large white cups with metal strainers in them sit on the counter. He has been tasting tea, professionally, judging its quality, comparing it.

Past the kitchen is a small wood paneled room with a long table made of compressed bamboo. Six bamboo chairs surround it. Several of the chairs are the type I think of as “Shifu” chairs. They remind me of my Internal Arts Shifu, my Grand Shifu who told the story of Master Jou, Tsung-Hwa. Master Jou wondered why some martial artists lived longer than others. He, Master Jou, concluded that the healthiest men had perfect posture, which included sitting well. These chairs invite proper posture.

To my right, to the west, is a room all of bamboo and glass and light. There is a long bamboo table for study and calligraphy, and a taller table with two statues of the goddess Kuan Yin. Each statue has a small tea cup in front and each cup contains tea. Cha Shifu has taught me to pour a cup to the goddess each day to honor her. The room feels good, it is a right place to be, like my Grand Shifu’s garden in Texas.

Luyu The Father of Tea

Luyu The Father of Tea

Cha Shifu and I sit. We talk of various things, the weather, friends, health, tai chi, while he prepares tea. Today is a new tea so he hands me the pot with the wet leaves that I might sample their virtue. The aroma is sweet and enticing, fine leaves indeed! I look down. The leaves are full and whole and healthy. They seem happy with the hot water that has brought them back to life. There is qi.

Re-hydrating tea leaves is often called “Awakening the dragon.” And I always feel a certain dragon qi, dragon energy about newly invigorated leaves of the camellia sinensis plant…at least when the tea is a good one.

Cha Shifu pours. I tap the table twice with two fingers thanking him, silently, for the good tea which he is serving. Tasting, I suck the tea back across the palate and along the sides of the tongue then across the back of the tongue and down the throat. This is a good tea, it is sweet and tastes of bamboo and what I used to call vanilla, but have now learned should really be spoken of as “orchid.” Orchid is one sign of a fine tea (and vanilla is a member of the orchid family).

The tail down my throat is smooth, and long, and pleasing. Cha Shifu sometimes uses the English word “lingering” as a noun and I have come to appreciate the concept. A good tea does indeed linger on the palate, sometimes for tens of minutes. And it is a pleasant sensation that one is loathe to relinquish.

I guess at the tea and get it right—Bai Mu Dan—White Peony, one of the few true and authentic Chinese white teas. It is from Fujian province. Cha Shifu is always pleased when I guess correctly—note the use of the word “guess”—and he is never too surprised when I am wrong, as long as I am not too wrong.

We drink the tea and discuss it. This White Peony comes from his own gardens in Fujian and it is made from spring leaves instead of the more usual summer leaves. Spring is sweeter than summer, but more fragile.

The tea is indeed a good one and lasts for many pourings and we talk about our tai chi and he tells me more about Kuan Yin. It is a good day. In the Way of Tea (chadao) it is right to enjoy the now, the present. What could be better than tea friends? What could be better than the focus, a tea meditation really, where the woes and worries of life are forgotten in a place of good company and good tea?

Finally, the tea is drunk and it is time to work. Yang balances yin and work earns the repose and the splendid tea. To quote Cha Shifu “Tea makes a happy day.”