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.

11 thoughts on “Experiencing Tea, Part One

  1. I have a hard time totally grasp­ing yan yun, and I think it’s hard to trans­late (many tea sell­ers use a very lit­eral trans­la­tion like ‘charm’ or ‘rhyme’.) One friend sug­gested that ‘echo’ is prob­a­bly fairly close. I guess dif­fer­ent folks have dif­fer­ent con­cepts of what yan yun is, but I’ve always under­stood it to be describ­ing a taste (and more specif­i­cally, a lin­ger­ing after­taste), rather than a feel­ing in the mouth.

    Even after drink­ing yan­cha fre­quently, I’m hard-pressed to say for sure that I can iden­tify yan yun when I expe­ri­ence it. I have heard it described by one friend as like the lit­eral taste of rocks in your mouth (say, dri­ve­way gravel, or gran­ite). There is a taste (slightly dif­fer­ent from that) which I have noticed in many of the yan­cha that I’ve drank, that I con­sider “yan yun” for me, but I don’t know whether that’s really it.

  2. Really great arti­cle. I have about the same feel­ing with descrip­tion off tea in body.

    Ami­cale­ment
    Nicolas

  3. Epic post Bran­don. As I progress on my tea jour­ney the sen­sa­tions you describe here are begin­ning to man­i­fest them­selves in my tea drink­ing rit­u­als. Thanks for shar­ing and I look for­ward to the fol­low up posts.

  4. This was a great post. I am just begin­ning my jour­ney through the world of tea and this was good for me. I have been drink­ing tea for many years but never paid much atten­tion to it. Now I have a desire to know more. I look for­ward to sit­ting down to your next post with my favorite tea.

  5. great post, cha qi for me did not become such a strong focus until i started drink­ing higher qual­ity teas. I can really relate to that “blissed out” feel­ing after the Tea Insti­tute had a visit from Tea­Parker and he brewed us some 1976 shu pu. there were about 8 of us in the room and we were all dead silent with huge smiles on our faces just bug­ging out after the first sip. Its inter­est­ing that describ­ing the feel­ing from that tea would def­i­nitely be dif­fi­cult to do to some­one who has never tried it, but any­one who has would imme­di­ately understand.

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