Experiencing Tea, Part One

For those of us who keep com­ing back to tea year after year, there is a much greater reward than a hot bev­er­age or a famil­iar taste. More than the uplift­ing prop­er­ties of caf­feine or the calm­ing effects of l-theanine alone.

You could sub­sti­tute most of these qual­i­ties in a dozen other ways. So why would some­one focus as heav­ily on tea — and tea alone — as those read­ing here are known to do?

For those most pas­sion­ate about tea, our ideal for each and every cup is to stim­u­late the mind along with our senses. This fac­tors heav­ily into how we judge tea. Some­one just begin­ning their tea jour­ney may be sur­prised to hear that some sea­soned tea drinkers rank ini­tial taste as one of the least impor­tant forms of sen­sory evaluation.

Before div­ing into what makes one tea good and another tea great, we should very briefly intro­duce some ways that tea can excite our other senses. For some peo­ple, it will take time to develop the sen­si­tiv­ity to describe these sen­sa­tions, but it helps to know what areas to be mind­ful of.

After ini­tial taste and aroma, the first thing tea drinkers are likely to focus on is known in Chi­nese as 回甘 [huí gān]. In Eng­lish, a near lit­eral trans­la­tion is “Return­ing Sweet­ness,” but we can think of this loosely as after­taste. You can expe­ri­ence this clearly in most good teas, and prob­a­bly already have. In the best teas, though, the taste can go on for hours.

The next place to focus is feel­ing in the throat. Tea here can be cool­ing or warm­ing, rough or wet. Often drink­ing good tea will give you the sen­sa­tion of a ball in your throat. It is good to con­sider how far down the tea goes — in other words, where the sen­sa­tion is no longer appar­ent. If the tea slips down with­out any notice, it is just a drink. Many good teas will stop some­where in the mid­dle of your throat. If it gives a pleas­ant feel­ing all the way down to your core, it is truly some­thing special.

A good place to first look for throat feel is Wuyi Yan­cha. This tea is often said to be unique for its promi­nent 岩韻 [yán yùn], or “Rock Feel,” evi­dent in the throat.

Pos­si­bly the most neb­u­lous of tea’s qual­i­ties are ascribed to 茶氣 [chá qì] — a tea’s “energy.” Most read­ers will prob­a­bly be famil­iar with at least some of the wide rang­ing effects it is attrib­uted with. Prac­ti­cally any phys­i­cal or men­tal stim­u­lus out­side of the mouth, nose, and throat falls into the realm of cha qi.

Some more obvi­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions of cha qi are a heat­ing or cool­ing of the extrem­i­ties (eg, sweaty palms when drink­ing a ‘warm­ing’ tea like aged puerh or heav­ily roasted oolong), a flush­ing of the face, or a mea­sur­able change in mood. In a small group, tea can either lead to deep con­ver­sa­tion, giddy laugh­ter, or con­tem­pla­tive silence.

I find that the stress of the day usu­ally accu­mu­lates in my shoul­der, and I greatly appre­ci­ate tea’s abil­ity to trig­ger relax­ation in tense muscles.

In teas with the most pow­er­ful cha qi, a per­son can feel “blissed out” and start to notice a feel­ing of pres­sure around the head. Pres­sure on the top of head, brow, tem­ples, or a feel­ing of tight­ness in the jaw are all feel­ings to look for, and are all indi­ca­tors of strong cha qi.

There are of course many other places you can find cha qi — a favorite descrip­tion of mine comes from Matt, who related that the tea we were shar­ing felt “like a warm hug around the belly.”

If any of the descrip­tions here are unfa­mil­iar to you, that is per­fectly nor­mal. Just enjoy the tea and remain mind­ful. Drink­ing with oth­ers is a good way to find out what oth­ers are expe­ri­enc­ing, and see how you can relate.

In the next post, we will put the lan­guage of expe­ri­enc­ing tea to work, to help explain the dif­fer­ence between one good — and one great — tea.

Expectations

After drink­ing a cer­tain num­ber of puerh sam­ples, we start to develop a cer­tain set of expec­ta­tions about stor­age and dif­fer­ent recipes. Two of the most pop­u­lar –7532 and 7542 — are today’s focus.

This blog has usu­ally eschewed dis­cussing a sin­gle spec­i­men of tea. These teas are excep­tional in this regard not because they are unique or have any par­tic­u­larly out­stand­ing qual­ity, but because they chal­lenged my expectations.

When Pamela arrived at the house for tea, we started with some­thing that was a known quan­tity for me.

This 7532 copy was pro­duced in 1996 by the Fu Hai tea fac­tory accord­ing to the recipe devel­oped by Meng­hai Tea Factory.

It is tra­di­tion­ally stored, and aligns very well with my past expe­ri­ence with 7532 from this period.
(In fact, I have had 4–5 exam­ples from the very same year — it is one of my favorites.)

I thought that we would breeze through this tea and ded­i­cate most of our atten­tion to the gen­uine Meng­hai arti­cles — a pair of sam­ples from gen­er­ous tea chum Will. I had been sav­ing these for some time, wait­ing for the right moment to share them.



Want­ing to exam­ine both sam­ples in depth, but also com­pare their dif­fer­ences, I pre­pared them in match­ing teapots (40ml Yixing).

We tried 6 infu­sions of each alone, before begin­ning to brew them side by side. After 3 or 4 infu­sions both teas began to show more bal­ance and sweet­ness, but the “7532” remained a bit more robust.

How­ever, the smoke and tobacco of the 7532 sur­prised me, hav­ing come to expect some­thing thick, creamy and mel­low. Per­haps there was a dras­tic dif­fer­ence in storage.

Sev­eral infu­sions on, I started to find that the two teas tasted extremely sim­i­lar — not just in the late infu­sions, but through­out. Was my small sam­ple actu­ally 7542, or had these two teas — pro­cured in sep­a­rate shops — been stored in just the right way to achieve such a sim­i­lar result?

We decided to award the round to the 7532 — or what­ever it is — by a small margin.

But we really pre­ferred the smoother taste of the “knock off” — 7532 from Fu Hai Tea Factory.

I trans­fered it from a gai­wan to a larger teapot to enjoy the later infu­sions of this tea at a leisurely pace.

Before the cha qi of all this aged tea could send us into a deep sleep, I sent Pamela off with a pick-me-up from this win­ter har­vest Tie Guan Yin.

A bit later on, I asked Will about the prove­nance of the tea. He men­tioned that the shop stock­ing the 7532 had quite a few items that didn’t seem entirely right — but tasted good nonethe­less. “It doesn’t really mat­ter what it is … It’s just tea,” he offered.

So which teas here were real or fake? The Fu Hai? The “7532” that didn’t match our expec­ta­tions in taste? They were all deli­cious and calming.

Most of us are not exis­ten­tial enough to stop seek­ing infor­ma­tion about our tea, but as long as it is good tea, per­haps that is all that matters.

Chinese Paper Cutting

Mr. Min­gLiang Lu made a sur­prise visit to tea with us. He humbly intro­duced him­self as an “art teacher.“
After a few rounds of tea, he pro­duced some small sheets of black paper and a pair of scis­sors and began cut­ting.
Within min­utes, a detailed image of Kyle’s face emerged.

He mounted it with two small pieces of tape onto beau­ti­ful paper bear­ing his chop. I won­dered at first why he seem­ingly put so much care into the cut­ting and the mount­ing seemed so sim­ple. Upon closer exam­i­na­tion, I real­ized that the crease down the mid­dle and the very gen­tle mount allow the work to rise up from the page and give the por­trait depth.

He even made my por­trait while I con­tin­ued to brew tea.

Ming cur­rently has works on exhibit at the Amer­i­can Museum of Nat­ural His­tory in New York.

Pho­tos by Benito.

Tea Time with Kyle

One of the main attrac­tions at Pass­port to Tai­wan was the booth for Fang Tea. Of course, for an event of this size, they brought in the heavy hit­ters — Kyle was brew­ing up tea under one of their green tents.

He served us Fo Shou and a nice Gao Shan before we moved on, allow­ing the gath­er­ing crowd to have a seat.

NYC Tea Meetup — April 10 (pt. 3)

Kung Fu Cha — Red ver­sus Blue

Set­ting aside the Jade tea for awhile — it is reported to brew sat­is­fy­ing tea for sev­eral days — Tim chal­lenged me to a kung fu face off.

He doses out the tea into small bowls and we each build our own pot care­fully lay­er­ing crushed and whole leaves.
He is a bit more del­i­cate than I, and man­ages to build a denser pot in the first round.

This makes his brew more rem­i­nis­cent of an espresso, while my pot revealed more flo­ral notes.

We used the tiny pots to densely pack the leaf in with­out wast­ing any pre­cious tea. To serve all of our guests, we both dou­ble brewed, or mixed two sub­se­quent brews in the serv­ing cup for each round. The fra­grance at the bot­tom of the serv­ing cup was intox­i­cat­ing all on its own.

Each guest was served a tiny cup of each, and in keep­ing with tra­di­tion, we lim­ited this to 3 servings.

The Mandarin’s Dan Cong

Dan Cong seemed to fit the weather per­fectly, if not for a few tech­ni­cal prob­lems. We fin­ished with a Dan Cong brewed by Tim, but the sun had started to sink in the sky and the air grew chilly. With the cups cool­ing so quickly, it was dif­fi­cult to catch the fleet­ing aroma of the Dan Cong. It was a fan­tas­tic drink and a good end to the day regardless.

NYC Tea Meetup — April 10 (pt. 2)

As guests arrived we began to set up out­side and drink the remains of a fine tea — 2002 Big Green Tree from Best Tea House CA.
I have been drink­ing this potent tea for 3 days and the leaves had plenty left to share with our guests.

Puerh Pair­ing

Straight back into young puerh, I demon­strated break­ing a sam­ple from a 2008 cake, pre­vi­ously men­tioned, from Luh Yu Tea Empo­rium.
Tim wisely sug­gested that we pair this tea with a favorite of his own, a cake bear­ing the image of a griz­zled Chi­nese gen­eral.

While sim­i­lar in ori­gin and vin­tage, we found it inter­est­ing to con­trast the teas, find­ing Annie’s to be sweeter and more “fem­i­nine” than the General’s smokey brew.

Dan Cong — Ito En

Jeremy took a short break from snap­ping bril­liant pho­tos to fetch his Chaozhou pot and a lovely pewter tin of Dan Cong. He brewed up sev­eral rounds to demon­strate to guests the impor­tance of aroma to tea appre­ci­a­tion. And he looked pretty darn cool doing it!

Jade Tie Guan Yin

Tim gra­ciously demon­strated brew­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of a very high grade Tie Guan Yin.


Evan smells the dry leaves.


Tim poured a steady stream onto the wall of the gai­wan. This rinse awak­ens the tea.


Jeremy cap­tured the essence of the tea’s color — pale yel­low with a tiny hint of green. This is best enjoyed in white porce­lain in nat­ural light.

NYC Tea Meetup — April 10 (pt. 1)

NYC Tea Meetup — April 10 2010 from Bran­don on Vimeo.

The first flush — a selec­tion of pho­tos from the first ever joint meet­ing of NYC and Philadel­phia tea enthu­si­asts. Nearly all of the pho­tos are snapped by Jeremy, not myself this time around. Best to leave these things to the pro­fes­sion­als. In Pt. 2 we will share more pho­tos and details of the meet.

Edit: Music updated to some­thing more date-specific per our music edi­tor Michael V.

NYC Tea Meetup #2

The sec­ond meetup was hosted by Tim in his spa­cious studio.

Tak­ing a page from Tai­wan tea eval­u­a­tion, we used a com­pe­ti­tion tast­ing cup and spoons to dis­trib­ute the tea. Brewed tea from the pot or gai­wan was decanted into a com­pe­ti­tion cup, and passed around. Each guest ladled 3 sips of tea into their tast­ing cup using their own spoon. The spoon could be used to judge the aroma by smelling top and bottom.

Tie Guan Yin


Mike was first up at the brew­ing table with a packet of jade TGY from Ten Ren. Sweet and flo­ral, good opener while other guests shuf­fled in.

Feng Huang Milan Dan Cong


Mike reprised his role as tea mas­ter to brew this Feng Huang Dan Cong. Fear­ing bit­ter­ness, we took it a lit­tle too easy on this tea. It can be pushed much harder than some Dan Cong.

I sug­gested brew­ing a few rounds with spring water, which pro­duced a thicker and sweeter mouth­feel ver­sus the fil­tered water.

1990’s Aged Tai­wan Oolong (Si Ji)

I took over to brew two aged oolongs. The first I brewed mod­er­ately, and I believe it was met with unan­i­mous approval. Most com­pared aspects of the tea to cedar planks, which was more enjoy­able that it sounds.

15 Year Aged Tie Guan Yin

Dry leaf in the newly opened bag had a strong cin­na­mon smell. Some guests smelled cocoa. I decided to brew this sec­ond oolong to my own tastes, mak­ing it much stronger. Many peo­ple pre­ferred this brew, but a few found it to be too strong.

1980 Mixed Ripe and Raw Puerh


Tim flaked off some tea from this 1980 brick to brew in a gai­wan. By now all of the guests have arrived, so he decided to do dou­ble brews. Two infu­sions were com­bined in my favorite fair­cup, and passed around in lieu of the ear­lier spoon solution.

The aroma was described as wet straw, bark, and all the famil­iar attrib­utes of cooked puerh. The taste was also stan­dard fare. The qi how­ever was very calm­ing and man­aged to reset the hearts and minds from my aggres­sive brews.

Lao Cong Shui Xian

The puerh was a segue into a very lim­ited Yan­cha from Tim’s col­lec­tion. He care­fully demon­strated how to build the pot in three layers.

The desired amount of tea was laid out on the first sheet of paper, and whole leaves were selected and moved to a sec­ond sheet. A hand­ful of whole leaves was crushed to form the bot­tom layer of the pot. Reserved bro­ken pieces formed the next layer, and the rest of the pot was filled with the remain­ing whole leaves.

This was a very exclu­sive tea from a farmer who pro­duces 2 to 4 lbs of this tea a year. It was roasted 8 times, and the taste is very unlike any Yan­cha I have pre­vi­ously encoun­tered. I don’t know whether to attribute this to the skill in roast­ing, or the age of the bushes.

The pot of leaves was left in my care along with a chal­lenge. To brew the tea for 5 min­utes each morn­ing, and to refill with boil­ing water to sit for the rest of the day. Two infu­sions are to be drunk each day for as long as the tea will last.

Depart­ing

Any­one who could stay joined us for din­ner — we rushed to the restau­rant to beat clos­ing time and ordered plates full of “Chi­nese” food — beef and noo­dles, seafood pad thai, a deli­cious egg­plant dish and more. We returned to the stu­dio to clean up and called it a night.

Inter­spersed Events

Before the start of the event, Mike and I ate for lunch at the Bay Leaf and headed to Chi­na­town for some trea­sure hunt­ing. We each bought Yix­ing tea boats and some inex­pen­sive hong ni pots. I found a cast iron trivet
to go with my tetsubin.

We ate ice cream waf­fles from the freezer in a Japan­ese mar­ket before meet­ing up with Tim, who served us large pas­tries from a Hong Kong style shop.


The next morn­ing, I tor­tured Mike by mak­ing him wake up at 6:30 to resume his kung fu cha train­ing. We drank dan cong from a new Chi­na­town pot, and the first of the pre­scribed 5 minute Lao Cong brews. Before we could brew much more, I had to catch the sub­way towards Penn Sta­tion and make my way home.