Monday, July 14, 2014

Not Your Typical Taipei Field Trip

Like drunkards returning home from an all-nighter, we staggered away from the bus as the sun broke through the horizon to the left of us. We were tea people returning home after one of the most epic tea adventures ever. As we started out the day before, the plan was to take the high speed rail to Taipei, tour an artist's home, attend a spring roll festival, visit Taipei tea spots, meet elder tea teachers, and either sleep over or head back. The plan was left open, with room for flexibility. We got most of the way through it and here's what actually happened.

As soon as we got to Taipei, I broke off with Teacher Wang for a tour of Yang Po Lin's home / studio and a visit with the artist himself.
Teacher Wang had arranged the tour and invited me along the night before. I had no idea who he was so she quickly filled in with some background information. She made YPL out to be a national treasure. In short, he was an extraordinary artist who came from nothing and had a tough childhood.

We woke up early, at 7 am, to get on the 8 am high speed rail to Taipei. A big group of us were headed up. As our party convened at the rail station, I was temporarily alarmed to find that the party consisted of seven or eight upper middle-aged Taiwanese women. The scenario seems overwhelming this early in the morning. This dynamic presents a high level of cultural difference. But, after getting more sleep as we floated over the magnetized tracks at a speed that I am generally uncomfortable with, interacting with the group started to seem like it would be interesting. A friend of Teacher Wang picked us up at the Taipei Station. The driver, originally from Tainan, was using GPS to guide us to YPL's home. Although it guided incorrectly at first, we eventually made it to the windy mountain road that led to the house.

We parked the cars at the end of the drive ,which was more like a jungle road lined with a maze of shipping containers. The containers showed signs of use. My guess was that they were being used for work, storage, or something else completely. They defused some sort of creative energy and were in the process of being consumed by the jungle. I wanted to stay and explore, but the party was being whisked forward. Within the Taiwan jungle, there lay a public art piece. I wanted to slow down again and take it all in, but I would then be holding up the line, which wouldn't be polite, so I struggled to keep up. Upon entering, we were informed that we could take pictures, but were not to specifically take a picture of a particular piece, not to try to capture a piece in a photo. I wasn't really sure what this meant, so I observed. What I saw was mind expanding. I later learned that he rarely allowed people into this space, but Teacher Wang had insisted that we meet him here as it was vital to her research. He had agreed and he was a tolerant and gracious host. His assistant brought us personally specialized coffee, and he signed our names in one of his books if we chose to buy one. Of course I did and the copy of his rendition of my name is here:
My name in Chinese: 陳博倫
As he states in the English Preface – Craziness and Self-Discipline: “I was born in the most destitute fishing village of Yuanlin County.” His fate, to go from destitution to extreme wealth in the span of a lifetime, was a result of his creative endeavors. It was impressive, but I couldn't help but think that he was not yet satisfied. As I was clear that accomplishment and apparent success do not rid us of feelings such as emptiness or loneliness. I wanted to ask him, “Are you there yet? Have you reached your goal?” He probably would have said that each and every moment his goal is to be in the flow. Creating his vision and bringing it to life is the goal.

I signed his guest book with something to the effect of, “Your creative spirit leaves a path of inspiration in its wake,” or my best version of that in Chinese. He read it over and smiled because I used some strange Chinese words, but said that it was understood and acceptable. I am always glad to be understood...

As we piled back into the cars for the ride back down the hill, all of us were changed. Changed in the soul and serene. If you want to know what happened next, wait for me to brew up this next cup of tea...

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Don't Dump that Tea!

The other day a customer asked how long the first rinse infusion should be. He mentioned that he had read that it was supposed to be about one minute. I let him know that one minute is a hearty infusion. However, that is because I am always brewing tea at a high tea-to-water ratio in little unglazed teapots that retain heat like a son-of-a-gun. This particular customer was brewing out of a bigger pot and using less tea. So I recommended that he add just enough water to fully cover the leaf, maybe a tiny bit more, and then pour this off immediately. This is long enough for a rinse infusion. I mentioned that some people even drink this first infusion. For those of you who see pouring out the first rinse akin to dumping tea into the Boston Harbor, there is also hope for you. Some tea masters even encourage consuming this first rinse. Maybe this will make sense as I explain that the first infusion is not as much of a rinse as it is a waking of the leaves.
As a warm infusion comes to an end - Photo by Andrew Hess
My goal for the timing of the rinse infusion when brewing the old fashioned gong fu way is to pour the liquid from the brew pot as quickly as humanly possible while refraining from appearing rushed. There are several steps that need to be taken when doing a rinse infusion. After bringing a freshly drawn pot of water to a boil, pour water from the kettle into the small yi xing pot, replace the lid to the small pot, return the kettle back to its home and pour the out the liquid from the small tea pot. It's ok to use both hands. The right hand can be doing one thing while the left is doing another. And, like a yoga routine, knowing what you are going to do next with your left hand, with your right hand, makes the process more fluid and thus quicker, speeding the whole process up a bit, while maintaining a sense of even pace and calmness. Practice makes perfect. Or in this case, because tea people are so much more humble by nature, practice makes better.

In Chinese, the technical term for this first rinse infusion is referred to as 溫潤泡 (wen1 run4 pao4) “warm infusion.” This is something I've only seen done with gong fu tea. People think that the point of the warm infusion is to rinse the tea leaves. You might have heard me say, “Tea is an agricultural product. Just like fruits and vegetables, before eating them, it is a good idea to wash them.” Now I just say, “hogwash.” The previous statement is hogwash. Whether or not tea needs to be rinsed, I am not sure. When people steep their PG Tips in a brown betty, is there a rinse involved?

The point of the warm infusion is to “wake up” the tea leaves. If you wake them up, they will be better suited to wake you up. Is that true? No... Waking the tea leaves means that you get them to open just a bit. Why do we need to do this? My current favorite reason is that it gets everything positioned in the pot just so, so that the next infusion, the first drinking infusion, will come off without a hitch. The water will pour smoothly from the pot without getting clogged. Does this always work perfectly? No, but when it does, the feeling is sublime. It takes a bit of practice, and this part of what makes the reward of well steeped tea so sweet. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Tea People

As butterflies dance around each other, so too do people get to know tea. Sometimes they are dancing around tea, but they haven't yet been made the connection. The greatness of tea is still outside of their awareness. There is a special kind of tea person: the tea person who is a tea person before they even know they are a tea person. We can call them a latent tea person. A person who loves tea, but does not yet know they love the tea. This is mostly because they have either not had the right kind of tea, a good tea, or they have not had tea presented in a way that makes them fall in love with the tea. But once they experience the right tea in the right setting, that is just what happens, they fall... and fall hard, deep into the world of tea. They are different than the average person who gets into tea, because when they do, it's as if they have just met a long lost friend. There is no doubt for them that tea fits into their life. They know they will be enjoying high quality tea from that moment when they first experience it until they are no longer with us, here on this earth.

It's funny, after being in the tea business for a while, I can practically smell a tea person, even a tea person who does not yet know they are a tea person. I can almost tell by looking at them, and observing the way that they hold themselves. But then after talking with them for a bit, I can be 90 percent sure if they are a tea person or not. What are some common characteristics of a tea person? They like to travel to distant lands and learn about cultures that are very different from their own. They might be a food person, or a wine person. They are generally into expansive thinking and view the world through a positive framework. They are very often intellectual and exploratory in their thinking, meaning that they want to learn how to view the world and their place in the world in a positive light. Sometimes people are into tea for their own reasons. I once had a customer tell me that he drinks tea because he doesn't eat vegetables. Thus, a tea drinker is a tea drinker, but they might not be a tea person.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Lin Tai Ping, Are You Dead Yet?

I met Lin Tai Ping about ten years and the man struck me as a nut. He was crazy, crazy about joking. On my last trip, I was sitting in a local tea shop when I looked over and saw this old guy ordering a drink. He had a hat on pulled down, so it was hard to make out his features, but his voice was familiar.

“Lin Tai Ping,” I called out his name. He walked toward me saying, “I am Lin Tai Ping.”
“I know,” I answered.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am that foreigner friend,” I answered.
“Oh, that is you! You are more handsome than before. I didn't recognize you.”

He sat down with his tea and asked me if I wanted one. “I've got one,” I said, showing him mine. In our greetings, since I know he is a big fan of photography, I showed him the six physical photographs of Elijah that I carried with me everywhere I went. He was pleased, laughing and cajoling as if Elijah were there in person.

“He looks just like you! It is amazing. Look, look,” he said holding the photo up for Uncle Ray to see. “This baby is this man's child,” he said pointing at me.
“There is no way that kid is his. I've met his wife. There is no way that the two of them made this baby.” Uncle Ray said skeptically.
“You are an idiot!” he says to Uncle Ray. He turns to me, “That man is stupid,” he says.
“He's jealous,” I reply.
“You are an idiot, Uncle Ray! Look at how much this child looks like him.” He gives me back the pictures and starts talking to me.

“Do you know, I just had the funniest thing happen to me. The newspaper reported that a man from Taiwan was traveling in Mainland China and was the unfortunate victim of a bus accident. His name was Lin Tai Ping, the same as mine, and he was the same age as me.” I'd heard about this story, and it was fun to hear it straight from the man himself.

“I tell you, my Auntie is 90. She saw the news at midnight. She didn't want to call so late, but she was so worried. She waited as long as she could, but when she couldn't take it anymore, she called me at 4:30 in the morning. My phone was on, but when I answered, I was still half asleep and my voice was very horse. “Who is this?” she asked. “Lin Tai Ping,” I answered. “No, really. Who is this?” “I am Lin Tai Ping.”

After she knew it was me, she started crying and told me that she was so worried. In the end, 83 people called in after hearing the news story, enough people for Tai Ping to start to have some fun with it. When a good friend would call, Tai Ping would answer, “This is Lin Tai Ping, I am dead.” When his religious cousin called, he answered, “I am sitting next to God now. Is there anything you want to ask him?” Tai Ping describes his sense of humor as a contagion. “Maybe you are in a bad mood and don't feel like joking. But by the time I am done with you, you will be joking right along.”

I ask this man what he is doing out and about. He is a professional photographer by trade and as luck would have it, he is in the neighborhood to take some pictures. At first he played it cool and humble, “Oh you know, I'm just on a walk about with my old friend the Nikon here. You know about this kind of Nikon? These things take amazing pictures.” He has some Nikon S2 Range Finder from about 50 years ago in mint condition.

“You know, a funny story about these kind of cameras,” he starts “I was in France taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower, and I see a French man with the same camera. But he didn't have the original lens like I do. He said he couldn't afford it. So I told him that in Taiwan, only poor people buy these cameras. The guy was shocked and he was wondering how it could be true. I told him it was absolutely true, because after you buy one, you are in the poor house. The man said, well all be damned, I had no idea everyone in Taiwan is so funny.”

Now that I got him talking, he gives me a copy of a postcard that his photo was featured on. “I was recently in this photo exhibition. The exhibition featured some carving, some calligraphy, and some photography. You know, calligraphy is a very important part of Chinese art and culture. Hey, I have something I want to give you. I'll be right back.”
“No, no, Taiping don't worry about it,” I protest. “Come on, take it easy.”
“Will you be here?”
“Yes, I'll be here writing my journal, but don't worry about it. You go on with your day.”

He could see that in earnest, I didn't want to accept his gift. In order to circumvent any attempt at politeness he rebutted, “I'm not giving it to you, I'm giving it to your son. Now, you say, I'll be ready for you when you come back, like we are going to fight, and then I'll say, I'll be back to settle the score with you. That way it sounds like we are getting ready to scrap and it makes us sound cool and tough.”

Here is this 64 year old man acting like he wants to fight with me. So I'm writing and writing, and guess who pops back...Tai Ping. He grabs an manila envelope, opens it, and unfolds a series of words. “Long Fei Fong Wu,” he states. It means “Dragon Flies, Phoenix Dances.” I actually came here to take a picture of this tree. He points to the tree across the street. The funny thing about Tai Ping is that he is always observing. He is always looking at the changes in patterns and mostly, I think, the changes in light. He had noticed it, the moment he was waiting for, and he went out in the street to get a photograph of the tree. I could hardly pick up my phone and chase after him fast enough to get a couple of photos of him taking pictures of the tree. Then I went to the exact spot where he was crouching and assumed the same position and took a photo. I took it back and showed him.
 “Pretty good,” he said. “But my picture doesn't have this post and this building, just the tree and the sun.”

He showed me where the sun was through the clouds. So I went back and retook this photo according to his instructions. I proudly showed him and he said, “Now you are getting it.”
Then we got a group shot together, and when he is getting up to go, I thank him for the calligraphy. “When I die, that will be worth a lot of money. When you come back, come visit me. You can come to my house. Bring your son and he and I can box each other.” The image of this man in his sixties or seventies boxing with my toddler pops into my head and we both start laughing.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sun Moon Lake Solstice Tasting Recap – Anna V. Smith & Josh Chamberlain

photo by Anna Smith 
Saturday's tasting of Sun Moon Lake tea for the summer solstice yielded a great group of people eager to explore new tea and thought. Here are a few of their descriptions of the tea itself:

"Nice vermilion color. Hints of mint, menthol, and prunes. Astringent." - John

"The tea is bold and at first shocking, but then almost instantly refreshing. The flavor was a taste unrecognizable but is very calming. I think besides the flavor the tea was unusually intense/striking. As the tea unfolds, it softens and it seems as if it matches the flavor." - Darren

"The perfect Solstice Celebration tea. Slight minty flavor, feels smooth on the tongue. Can taste hints of traditional Assam." - Eileen.

photo by Anna Smith
Notes by Josh Chamberlain:
The tea was brewed in glass tea ware and it was brewed a little bit light. The two factors might have something to do with each other. One participant noted that the overall body feeling was distinct. He was describing the feeling in his own body, no

t the body of the tea. He mentioned that checking in with the feeling in his body and had a sense of lightness and euphoria, and an overall sense of well being. He asked us to check in ourselves with this feeling. I did notice the feeling and he asked me to talk about this, but I was a bit shy on the subject. "I feel it, but I don't like to talk about it because I'm not sure how much of it is the power of suggestion." "Yes, but do you feel what I am talking about?" "Yes." And I did. It was the feeling of ultimate tea euphoria, in which somehow by just drinking a tea, we are buzzing with contentedness. It's as if the feeling is created in the room. People realize that the feeling is there and they cherish that feeling. It almost amplifies the power of the feeling.

What a wonderful tea experience! I feel so grateful having shared the day with fun tea loving people.
I was also able to share my summer solstice poem with the group. It’s still under revision because it isn't done, but nonetheless stands as:

Have you ever felt the sun and the moon at the same time?
In the dead of winter, this feeling is sublime
Shuffle the deck, let your heart decide
We enter the world alone, with nothing to hide
On the moons face burns the sun
The longest day! The longest day calls for celebration!
The sun says, “Moon, I don't need your help today.”
The moon says, “Sun, today is your day.”
Evolving as we revolve around the sun
Soon to become that which was once undone.

It was 5:18 pm when the light started to seem a bit dark. Anna flipped the light switch. The hue had textural value. Because of its crowd pleasing nature, it hung around for the rest of the party.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Winter Solstice Poem

On the eve of summer solstice, I've decided to post last years winter solstice poem. Just a reminder of how far we've come, and where we are headed.

Teahouse 6/1/2010

Dark, as we move from the depths of the
Warm beams transform us with rays of energetic light,
As decay manifests, taking hold...
When it seems things just can't get any worse, but then they do, because anything is possible.
With the unfolding of life's cycle, with something as simple as the knees of bees.
It starts with a giggle, gurgling warm until a full boiled laughter takes hold.

Until darkness peaks, and there is nothing else but... light.

Gettin' to Know Tea... With Anna V. by Anna V. Smith

J-TEA impacts people in a lot of different ways when first coming into the teahouse. Some are excited to find such a vast treasure trove of hard-to-find teas. Some are awed at the selection, and can't wait to explore each category. Others are overwhelmed by the choices, since they feel that they don't know "enough." I was certainly the latter, when I came into J-TEA a few years ago for the first time. I didn't know anything about tea, and had essentially nixed it off my list of beverages since all the teas I had drank thus far were either watery and tasteless, or too fruity or bitter.

The first time I came in, Josh gave me a puer to try and I was shocked at the fullness of flavor; it tasted like sweet soil and minerals, and made me think of a damp forest floor covered in pine needles, the scene of so many Willamette Valley hikes. I was surprised how a flavor I'd never tasted could so easily transport me to another place.

Since then, I've explored green oolongs, roasted oolongs, formosas and puers, though still shying away from the herbals and strong black teas like Lapsang Suchong. At this writing, a few of my favorites are the Bee's Knees Bird's Nest Puer, and the Dong Ding Triple Blossom Roasted Oolong. A big reason why I was overwhelmed when I first came in was a feeling of intimidation, and knowing that I had a big hole in the section of my brain marked "Tea Knowledge." The good news is that it's not hard to start learning about it, you just have to be willing to start drinking lots of cups tea, and have the patience to try, try again.

I also discovered that my initial disregard for tea was based off of generic low-grade teas; it wasn't that I didn't like tea overall, I just hadn't been exposed to the teas that I like. So, if you come in and have no idea where to start, Josh, Andrew and I will do our best to get you started on the path to finding right tea for you. It'll be fun, I promise!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Oolong Rise Up!

As you read this, I want you to imagine hundreds if not thousands of monks chanting: “Down with the term blue tea. Oolong rise up!” over and over again.

Chinese is a fun and interesting language, albeit a difficult language. What other language would call an airplane a flying machine, or a computer an electric brain, or a kind of tea, black dragon? One of the cool things about Chinese is that there are infinite possibilities for those who enjoy word play. But sometimes, even for those who have been studying Chinese for decades are taken aback by learning about just how much there is to know.

Just on this last trip to Taiwan, I learned a new word play joke, that I might have said before, but didn't grasp its full meaning until this trip. When people would ask me, “What are you doing in Taiwan?” and I would answer, “我來找茶” or “I came to look for tea.” One person with a good sense of humor thought I was saying “我來找碴” or “I come looking for trouble.” You see, 找茶 (look for tea) and 找碴 (to pick fault with/to nitpick/ to pick a quarrel) have the exact same pronunciation and the exact same tone. This joke evolved into the following sentence: 在台灣當時找茶,跟美國茶界找碴。“While I'm in Taiwan looking for tea, I find a fault with the U.S. tea world.” My quarrel is over the term blue tea. As I stated in my previous post “The Color of Oolong is Never Blue,” calling qing cha “blue tea” is a mistranslation. Qing cha is, in fact, a category of oolong tea that is less oxidized and closer to the green end of the oolong spectrum.

This term “blue tea” was really getting to me. It's as if one source started calling oolong blue, and everyone follows. Now it is as if everyone is copying everyone else. Oolong is not blue tea. Oolong has never been blue and it never will be. Given the difficulty of this beautiful language, it is no wonder that when presented with a word, like “qing,” that can be translated both as green and blue, there is some confusion. I knew that there was some confusion, so I decided to get to the bottom of it.

I asked a tea teacher in Taiwan, “What color is qing?” He showed me a color very close to the blue on this pouring pitcher shown above. My heart sank. Maybe they are right in translating qing cha as blue tea, I thought. He went on, “But when we are talking about tea, this is not the color. When we are talking about tea, qing cha is green. In fact it is supposed to be the color of a frog's back. It includes green, red, and even white. This is qing's color when it comes to tea.” In this case 青色 “qing se” or the color of qing, and 青蛙 “qing wa” or frog use the same first word, 青”qing.” Like I mentioned in my previous post, I think most Americans can learn to call oolong simply “oolong” and don't need to rely on an arbitrary color code.

Oolong Qing Cha is the color of a frog's back. Frog's Back Oolong... An oolong by any other name would taste as sweet. Let's just not call it blue.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Oolong Curiosity

As we get to know oolong tea, curiosity is a great mindset to have. This mindset of experimentation allows us to be open to all of the flavors that oolong has to offer. Brewing oolong is a constant experience in trial and error. In the beginning, it is common to brew the tea too weak or too strong. If the tea is too strong, the tea is bitter. But with high quality tea, even bitter tea has something to offer. This bitter flavor is less familiar to the American palate, but in Asia, bitter is a flavor that is also appreciated. Bitter flavor has the ability to remove heat from the liver. The heat of summer is the best time of year to go for bitter. When high quality tea brewed too strong, a string of deep rich floral and fruit undertones delightful to the senses can follow the initial bitter flavor. A pleasant surprise.

Industry practice for comparing tea:

When we compare two teas it is important to use the exact same standards for each tea. To compare teas fairly, it is important to use the same amount of tea. Often professional tasters will use 3g or 5g of tea. The same temperature water. For most oolong teas, tea masters in Taiwan will use water that has just boiled. Use multiple sets of the same tea ware. This way, differences in tea ware will not cause any unfair advantage to either of the teas. My favorite tea ware for comparing teas is the Jian Ding Bei, or professional tea tasting set. By using the same tea ware, it is easier to use the same amount of water. This is important, because the tea-to-water ratio should be the same for each tea. Finally, brew each tea for the same amount of time. Often, professionals will brew multiple teas at the same time. This is tricky at first, but gets easier with practice. This is a good practice because it is also important to taste the teas side by side at similar temperatures. Our senses are always in flux. Slurping is a technique used to enjoy a tea's entire breadth, as well as replace what was previously on the palate. By slurping the tea deep into the sinuses, through the roof of the palate it is possible to go through a line of several teas and make decisions and not become overwhelmed or confused about the flavors.  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Color of Oolong is Never Blue

The first time I heard the term “blue tea”, I thought it was totally bogus. A UO professor asked me if I'd ever heard of this kind of tea before. When I said that I hadn't, he offered to bring me a copy of a book that he had just brought back from Mainland China. Flipping through the book, I was shocked to see that the tea the author classified as blue tea was oolong. I dismissed it as a fluke and hoped I would never come across the term again. If only I had been so lucky...

I have one request of the tea world. Let's agree not to call oolong blue tea. More and more, I see books and magazine articles referring to oolong as blue tea. We have to put a stop to this. I am slightly color blind, and maybe for that reason, I want things that are called blue to really be blue, or sad, and oolong is neither of the two. 青 or “qing” is one type of oolong. Qing can be translated as either green or blue. This category of oolong is what we at J-TEA refer to as “green oolong.” We call it green oolong, well, because it is green. But maybe, because qing can be translated as either green or blue, then maybe it could be called blue tea. But in my mind, for the reason stated above, and because qing is only one type of oolong, it should not be called blue. To leap from this one mistranslation, to calling the entire category of oolong “blue tea” is absurd.
An example of qing oolong tea

When I was trying to make sense of this nonsense, I reached out to the online tea community. “Tea enthusiasts, what is this nonsense about calling oolong blue tea?” It was here that I learned that there was some genius who thought, because other tea categories were named by color, that all teas should be named by color. This makes sense right? I mean white tea is not white, and black tea is not black, unless it is Lipton, which uses food coloring, so why can't oolong be blue? I guess we could if we really want it to be.

But do we? Do we want to be this lazy in our approach to classifying tea? Are we really going to call roasted oolongs, amber in color, the traditional color of oolong, are we going to call this blue? Formosa oolong's or eastern beauties; intoxicatingly translucent red, are we going to call this blue? Traditional iron goddess of mercy, a dark rich ruby red, should we call this blue? I must protest. I must find a way to put a stop to this. There is such a wide range of oolong teas, and it makes no sense to give them the color code blue. Classifying all oolong as blue is too lazy, and classifying qing as blue is a mistranslation. So it looks as though I have another fight with the tea world's status quo. Let it be known that I am fighting for transparency, not obfuscation. We can all say oolong, weather you spell it oolong or wu long. So say oolong like you mean it, like you are proud, and it won't be too long before everyone knows this amazing category of tea by its proper name.  

Aged 1986 Dong Ding Oolong, looking anything but blue.