Saturday, February 19, 2011

Down Nose

Tea roasting is an art form learned slowly over time. Master tea roasters have the ability to bring particular flavor ranges to our attention. In general, the level of roasting should correlate with the oxidation level of a tea. The more oxidized the tea, the heavier the roast it can handle. Roasting also helps the tea maintain its flavor over time. Part of the challenge of learning to roast tea is learning to set up the area and choosing the proper time—when the wind currents and humidity levels reach an ideal state. It's also important to simply take the leap. 下手Xia Shou literally means “down hand” or put the hands to task. We say “take the plunge” or “dive in.” The word “hand” implies that roasting tea is an art that depends somewhat on the hands. Because roasting is an art, feel often supersedes strictly following a scientific procedure. Feel is of course based on experience. When roasting tea, “feel” mostly refers to smell. The nose knows. Instead, maybe we should say 下鼻Xia Bi or “down nose.”
I first smelled the aroma of roasting oolong in Taiwan. I noticed that tea vendors would place a small roaster in their place of business so that the alluring tea fragrance would attract tea customers to come inside. The smell that fills the air is sweeter than anything I have ever smelled before. It was as if the rich cookie layered textures could lift us right out of our skin and take us far into the wonderful place where everything melts in your mouth and your skin is a mere sponge for cookie-infused air. In the roasting process, the initial pleasant aroma is often followed by a slightly less pleasant odor. After the less pleasant odor is roasted off, then once again, a pleasant odor will return. Roasting tea will bring some of the tea's hidden flavors to the surface. Often citric notes are revealed. The mouth feel will also change. One of my favorite aspects of master roasted oolongs is that it is as if the mouth has been coated with a powdery sweetness, as if a little fairy angel sprinkled it with magic dust. Whenever I come across this type of tea, I am compelled to buy it.
Traditionally, tea was roasting over a charcoal heat source. Now, most people use electric roasters due to the consistency in temperature and convenience. The one experience of roasting over charcoal was incredible. We used so much charcoal that it burned for five days consecutively. Over these five days, several batches of oolong were roasted, including J-TEA's Mt. Ah Li Mi Xiang Charcoal Baked.
I have learned to roast tea just like I have learned to brew tea. First, you learn the step-by- step procedure. Then you learn the parameters, like temperature and time. Finally, the teacher says, “You must pay attention.” When roasting tea, you pay attention to your nose. In the fall of 2009, I brought a tea roaster back to Eugene, Oregon. Since then I have roasted a few batches of tea. The most serious roast I did on my own was the transformation of a green oolong to a roasted oolong. This is a heavier roast process that takes more time. Fortunately, I was able to take the finished product to Taiwan, where I gave it to several roast masters for evaluation. Upon the next stretch of low humidity levels, I plan to fire up the roaster again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How to Fall Asleep after Drinking Oh-So-Much Tea

I love tea. And I love to drink tea just before going to bed. Tea relaxes me. It makes me feel good and there is something special about the solitude of having a late night tea. It seems to reset my clock and clear my mind of the day’s happenings. Inevitably, the tea makes me relax and feel ready for sleep. Nowadays, this will not influence my ability to fall asleep except on rare occasions. It didn’t always used to be this way. When I first started getting into tea, I remember lying down to sleep only to find my mind racing as I recounted every caffeinated beverage consumed throughout the day: “One cup of coffee, two full gung fu pots of cooked puer, and one full gung fu pot of high mountain green oolong.” A full gung fu pot would usually consist of six to ten infusions. I remember many restless nights when I would lie awake until three in the morning before reaching sleep.
Really, this would have been okay with me. However, at the time, I was very focused on Chinese medicine and adhering to the body’s natural rhythms. I learned from an old recluse known as Teacher Lee, or “Li Lao Shi,” that in order for the liver to rest, we have to be in bed lying down and preferably asleep between the hours of 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Not sleeping during this time is one of the big no-no’s in liver maintenance. It is also important for the kidneys as well. Spending a great deal of time with Teacher Lee, an acupuncturist/fortune teller, I was completely obsessed with learning the Chinese secrets of health preservation (保護養生). Though this was important to me, I wasn’t going to let not sleeping stop my tea drinking. Virgos like myself have been noted to be very concerned with physical state of health while having an affinity for mild mind altering substances such as tea. The caffeine combined with the l-theanine found in tea, is a healthy choice that satisfies the desired outcome of imbibing a substance that both expands and massages the mind.
Also, Teacher Lee was no help when it came to this subject. I visited him regularly in the evenings. We would sit in his living room talking late into the night. I often didn’t head home until after midnight. More often than not, about halfway through the visit, he would stand up and clap his hands together and ask, “Want to drink some tea?” Teacher Lee always had good tea on hand, and he was a brew expert. So this was not the time to exercise what little self control I have. I would accept the offer for some expertly made tea. He would get excited and take the opportunity to share many brew tips with me. He would talk about various positive attributes of the tea, indicating what was special about the pot he was using and why he was holding the pot a specific distance from the kettle. “At this distance, the water cools a degree or two as it passes through the air into the pot.” Eventually, after a very sleepless night, I had to refuse Teacher Lee’s offer. “I want to, but if I do, I wont be able to fall asleep." To which he replied, “That's the best part!” What? What is this old man talking about and why the mixed messages?
Ah, life in Taiwan is so full of seeming contradictions and mystery. This is not just because I was an outsider. One can hardly speak of Taiwan culture if they are not willing to speak of ghosts. Nonetheless, I would have to go elsewhere, if I were to remedy my sleep disorder. I don’t remember who first told me, though I am pretty sure it was tea people, or closely related to those living in the tea industry, either as farmers, producers, vendors, roasters or artisans.

Eat Sugar and Talk to Yourself:
First, I was advised to “eat sugar.” I don’t think I really believed it the first time I heard it. But then I heard it again, from another source. “How do I eat sugar?” I asked, feeling stupid. “Put a little spoonful of sugar under your tongue and let it dissolve.” Even though this seemed counterintuitive, in the land of seeming contradiction, why not give it a try? I ran some tests. The first time, it worked pretty well, then not so well and then really well. The effectiveness depended on two things. If I placed the small spoonful under my tongue and then went right to bed without delay, it worked well. I could effectively drown out the noise in my head. If I delayed and let my mind fill with detailed and colorful information, the effect was significantly lessened. Anyway, there has to be a better way. I am rotting my teeth out.
The second answer I heard was from a fellow tea enthusiast who described another process: “I give myself a talk.” That was many years ago and I forget how the talk went, but here is what might have been said. “I tell myself that I have consumed a natural substance and that it is natural and good for me. I tell myself about the natural effects that this substance has on my body and its rhythms. I explain how it might seem overly exciting, but given its organic nature, I can just float in its pools and tides and eddies as it squirts me out to sea once again. Nothing bad will happen. Enjoy the sensation and feel the ride.” This talk, or some variation of this talk, was what I remember giving myself. Perhaps I reprogrammed my brain, or maybe it’s just a temporal state, but now I seem to be able to enjoy a nice gung fu tea session just before lying down to sleep—which is a most enjoyable experience.  

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tea Ware and Brewing Styles: Cultural Considerations

Cup size tremendously influences temperature of the tea. In the US, loose-leaf tea is often brewed in a basket or strainer and served in mugs. From a functional standpoint, mugs are less effective. As soon as the tea is ready, it is too hot to drink. Then, near the end of the mug, the tea is cool. This wide range in temperature combined with the volume of tea results in a very narrow window in which tea stays at the ideal temperature for consumption. This problem is particularly exaggerated with using large mugs. There’s simply too much tea to drink when it reaches its ideal temperature. At my teashop, I typically serve tea in small (7 oz.) mugs. I view this as a necessary—and temporary—compromise.
What is the mug alternative? Kung fu brew (also called gung fu cha). Small teapots (100 to 200 ml) or guy wans are used to brew several infusions. The tea is poured into small cups after each infusion. As a result, tea is consistently consumed at its ideal temperature and the drinker gains a better sense of the individual tea by tasting it over the course of multiple infusions. The amount of tea that is produced from each infusion varies, depending on the size of the teapot. In general, it is enough to fill two to four of the small cups. The tea is very hot when poured, but due to the small cup size, it quickly reaches a drinkable temperature. After about three to five sips, the tea is gone. With this smaller amount of tea, it more likely that the tea is consumed at the ideal temperature. When in need of another round, simply re-infuse the leaves and you have hot tea all over again.
I love to brew kung fu style for my customers, and ultimately, I hope to educate my customers on how brew kung fu style. Many Westerners have not been exposed to this style of brewing and, at times, find it intimidating. I plan to add more specialty tea service as it is feasible for the business.  

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Tea Temperature:

I remember my first trip up into the Ah Li Shan mountain range located in central Taiwan. I passed through a place called Xi Ding where I met Lai Wen Zheng 賴文政at an elevation of 1,100 meters. I remember distinctly on either the first or second time visiting him, he explained to me the importance of the temperature at which tea is consumed. He then proceeded to torture me by brewing up some of his choice High Mountain Mt Ah Li Oolong and then making me wait a full five minutes before drinking it. Before brewing the tea, he made sure that all of the tea ware was extremely hot. Once the tea had finished steeping he said, “Now we must wait. It is important to taste tea at the right temperature so that we can experience all of the flavors that are in the tea.” He picked up a digital timer and set the minutes for five. Silence filled the air as we waited and he explained once again why it was important to wait. It was cold at this elevation and the hot tea seamed to be playing tricks on my mind. I had traveled so far for this cup of tea and now it was sitting there in front of me, steaming, fresh, and bright. I tried to wait patiently. Mr. Lai could tell it was difficult for me, so he explained again that waiting was important if we were going to truly taste all that the tea has to offer. Sipping the tea, it was interesting to notice the greater mouthfeel present at this temperature, which was neither hot or cool.

What is the ideal temperature for the body to absorb the tea and create the most positive impact? The reason that tea is so terrific is that it adjusts to what you need and you are the alchemist charged with concocting your own brew. This is an idea that relates to the way tea enters the stomach. I have noticed, more with some teas than others that it really seems to matter at which temperature the tea enters the stomach. What does this mean? I am trying to describe the way that the stomach takes the tea. Does it open receptively? Does it close up and resist so that the tea seems only to bounce off and roll down the sides of the stomach or does it open too fully and not absorb?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Practice of Brewing: Gung Fu Cha

Tea is simple. This is partly because learning about tea is fun and rewarding. One of the great things about brewing loose leaf tea for yourself is that you get to know each tea so well. As the water comes to a boil, we pull some leaves from the tin. Holding them up to the light, we see the brightness, the consistency in shape and color of the leaf. Hot water is poured, filling the teapot to warm the teaware. Feel the weight of the tea in your hand. We are assured of the quality upon noticing its relative weight. It seems heavy for its mass.

Gong Fu Cha requires an yi xing pot or a lidded cup known as a guy wan. There is no reason why we could not make an American version of the gung fu cha method. In fact, this is encouraged in Taiwan tea culture, as part of the practice of gung fu cha is thoughtful self expression. Keep in mind that function outweighs form 6 billion to 1 when adding high-end oolongs to the mix. Also, the fact that yi xing tea ware evolved as tea culture evolved, I would be surprised if there is anything better to use for steeping oolong and puer tea than an yi xing teapot.

Both the guy wan and the yi xing teapot can be used to brew gung fu cha. This means tea prepared through great practice (cha is the Chinese word for tea). Does making tea require such practice? No, that is why teabags are so popular. For some, it is merely a warm and stimulating beverage. Outsiders to the tea world do not always understand how the act of preparing tea can be done with such practice. Even for practitioners, the subtleties of the practice are only revealed over time. At times, tea trickles down into an individual, elevating their awareness and surrounding the mundane with an electric glow—this often indicates a meaningful experience. However, this type of experience, though pleasant, might be tossed aside for those who are results oriented.

When using whole leaf oolong tea in a small clay teapot, the volume of leaf used expands to lightly fill the teapot by the end of the third infusion. Keep in mind that tightly rolled oolong has a tendency to expand to four times its size. With light and fluffy twisted leaf oolong, it will look like you are using more initially, but this tea will not expand as much in the brew process. With twisted leaf oolong, it might be your preference that the pot is only two thirds to three quarters full after several infusions.