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.

 





Moonlight and Hope

19 07 2009

春江花月夜 “Moonlight on the Spring River”

Li Po (Li Bai)

Li Po (Li Bai)

I love Chinese characters. There is so much implicit meaning. Not long ago I was looking for characters for the concept “hope.” I discovered the character “wang4.” The number after the word is the tone, thus wang is pronounced with the fourth tone, even.

月 is “Yue4” moon. This is the radical in wang4: 望. From the definitions, I infer a meaning of “to gaze in the distance at the full moon, with hope.” I love the idea of hope. For me, hope gives the world a certain solidity. Anything is possible.

Ha! An old gypsy saying goes, “You are never too old to get married, or jump off of a bridge.” Hope!

I love the moon and night, as certainly evidenced by the name of this blog. Tea by moonlight is an elegant concept, and both the Chinese and the Japanese drink tea whilst viewing the full moon. I recall stories of a famous Chinese poet, was it Li Po, who upon seeing the full moon leaped to his feet and wrote a poem on the ridgepole of the tea house? The next day, a carpenter carved the characters into the beam to immortalize them.

And legend says Li Po, in a drunken attempt to embrace the reflection of the moon, fell into the Yangtze river and drowned.

Cole Porter wrote: “In the still of the night, as I gaze out my window, at the moon in its flight, my thoughts all turn to you…” What thoughts the moon has inspired.

The famous Chinese poet, Zhang Ruoxu (c. 660-c.720) wrote:

Spring, River, and Flowers on a Moonlit Night

The tide in the Spring river meets the flat ocean.
On the sea a bright moon is born with the tide
And shimmers along the waves for thousands of miles.
Nowhere on the Spring river is without bright moon.

The river meanders through fragrant fields
And in the flowering woods moon makes everything snow,
Until even frost flowing in space is invisible
And on the shores white sands disappear in light.

River and sky merge in one dustless color.
Bright, bright sky, with only the moon’s wheel.
Who first saw the moon on this riverbank?
What year did this river moon first shine on men?

Generations keep passing without end,
But the river moon looks the same year after year.
I don’t know who the river moon is waiting for;
I only see the long river seeing off the flowing water.

One scarf of white cloud fades into distance,
Leaving unbearable sorrow in the estuary’s green maples.
Whose husband is drifting away in a flat boat tonight?
Who is missing her lover in a moonlit tower?

What a pity, the moon wandering through the tower;
It should light the mirror-stand of the traveler.
She cannot roll it up in the jade door’s blinds;
Or wipe it from the rock where she beats clothes clean.

At this moment, they see the same moon, but cannot hear each other,
She wishes she could flow with the moonlight onto him.
The wild goose flying off cannot escape this light,
When fish and dragons leap and dive I read patterns in the waves.

Last night she dreamed of fallen petals in a still pool.
What sorrow: with spring half over, the man hasn’t returned.
The current has almost washed the Spring away,
And the setting moon tilts west again in the river pool.

The slanting moon sinks deep, deep into the sea fog.
Between the Brown Rock and the Xiang River is a long way
And I don’t know how many people ride the moonlight home.
The setting moon fills the river trees with shivering emotion.

(Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping)

“…I gaze out my window at the moon in its flight…”

A most famous Chinese musical piece, “Moonlight on the Spring River”

Wang4ToGazeintothedistanceatthefullmoonwithhope





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.”

 

 





Subtle Essenses

18 08 2008

“…close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.” Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

 The Chinese word Qi represents a concept essential to understanding Chinese culture. Here is the traditional character: . Qi might be translated as “life force” or “energy.” The character depicts a stove with rice at the center. On top of the stove is a pot and the lid of the pot is being raised by an invisible force (steam). Many years ago, a Chinese tai chi teacher with whom I was studying, asked me to prepare a single sheet describing Qi for a handout to my fellow Caucasian instructor-candidates. As a Chinese joke, I illustrated the page with a photo of a giant bowl of rice. My teacher thought it was hilarious. My fellow students were not amused. Trying to explain rice as a central object in Chinese life and the equation of consuming rice to having Qi kind of killed the joke. “No rice, no Qi! No Qi, you dead.”

I once had a dog, Pretty Maggie, by name, who was the light of my life. At the age of 16, it seemed that her time had come. However, the  veterinarian suggested acupuncture as a last resort. The acupuncturist came in and needled dear Maggie. The needles just barely hung in Maggie’s body, ready to fall out. “I think your dog is a goner,” said the acupuncture doctor with not much bedside manner. “Look, ” she said. “When the body dies, the acupuncture points let go and the needles can even fall out.” Stricken, I stared at the flaccid needles. But, Maggie did not die and the acupuncture brought her along enough for more acupuncture, and the needles began to stand up, and she lived another two years, even sporting like a pup, occasionally. The point being, “No Qi, you dead.” 

Which brings us to tea. “Huh?” You say. Well, tea is brewed with hot water and the heating of the water produces steam, emblematic of Qi. And I really wanted to talk about tea, especially my favorite, Yin Zhen Bai Hao. Also called Silver Needle. The Chinese “Bai Hao” means white hair. The very finest tea, when you look closely at the buds, you see what appears to be a very fine white down, white hair. Yin Zhen Bai Hao is all buds, and these exquisite tea buds, with their coating of white hair, look like little silver needles. So “White Hair Silver Needle.”

This is an authentic and traditional white tea. Snapple runs a TV commercial wherein some young American fool is on an airplane wondering where the white tea he is drinking comes from. He is suddenly transported to a field of tea, probably somewhere in Indonesia where Sir Thomas Lipton and other purveyors of inferior tea chose to grow the sacred plant. Then a wizened Asian man says something about the buds on the top of the plant and “we pick it!” Very cute. But he is really describing green tea. Most tea sold in the United States as white tea is really green. Phooey! Real, traditional white tea is processed in the oolong manner and includes sunshine withering. There are only a handful of, or less, authentic and traditional Chinese white teas, and, for my money, Yin Zhen Bai Hao is the very best! The Indians are now marketing something they call white tea. Tastes like dish water to me. I will stick to Silver Needle and another white tea, White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), thank you very much.

Which brings us to the Chabon quote. This was not referring to white tea, but it should. Yin Zhen Bai Hao, the real stuff, as grown and purveyed by my Chinese Tea Master, from his gardens in Fujian province, is so-o-o-o good, that one sip is all you need. One sip of this tea reaffirms all that is right in life. On my death bed, I want my last memory to be a sip of Yin Zhen Bai Hao.

The Chinese have descriptive words for the flavors of fine tea. Note, I said fine tea, nu, nu? You will not find fine tea in any supermarket, or even in most tea shops. The Chinese keep the good stuff for themselves. Shoot, even a well-respected Chinese Qigong Master in England, says white tea tastes like hot water. Either his palate is over-rated or he never had good Silver Needle.

So, Yin Zhen Bai Hao may be described with words like “bamboo” and “orchid.” I like “orchid.” The first time I tasted Yin Zhen Bai Hao from the gardens of my Cha Shifu, my Tea Master, I got a hint of what I called vanilla. My palate was not ready for such a great tea, but I got a glimpse, like seeing a beautiful woman in the periphery of your vision. You know something fantastic just went by, but what in the heck was it? Of course, vanilla is a member of the orchid family, so I was not that far off.

This tea is so-o-o-o-o good…wait, I already said that. Each time I brew this tea, the first sip confirms my previous opinion and I could just stop right there. One sip, that’s all. You don’t need to stare at paradise, just seeing it once is good enough. Well, maybe two sips…or three. This tea is so fine you can keep on brewing it and even after you think you’ve used up every tiny little bit of tea-ie goodness, you find that you have not. A coffee expert friend of mine, Christophe, a Frenchman, sat with me one day and we drank and drank and drank until we gurgled like a tea pot and there was still that sweetness that comes from oolong processing and from the beauty of a true white tea. So we just stopped. It was either that or drown.

Which brings us back around to Qi. The good things, the great things, the fine things in life all have a whole lot of Qi. “It’s hard to keep a good man down.” It’s hard to find a good tea, but when you do, hang onto it by the ears because you are in for one heck of a ride!

Part of enjoying tea is looking at the leaves, smelling them, viewing the color of the brew and sucking it back along the tongue and feeling the Qi tumble down your throat. But there are other pleasures, too. The Chinese and other cultures have long valued the viewing of the moon. That most Yin of planets, glowing with the reflection of the sun in the coolness of the night. When better to enjoy a cup of Silver Needle than by the silver light? Like invisible Qi, inhale the aromas of a pot of Yin Zhen Bai Hao, gaze at the moon, and understand that all that is good is not visible, but, nevertheless, it is there.

And so this blog will attempt to explore the little-seen, the hidden pleasures…the little pleasures of life, be it a good book, a fine meal, or a simple cup of tea.     

           

Courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net