Friday, March 30, 2012

A Short History of Pu’er By Brendan Galipeau

I am sitting in Kunming City, the capital of the Yunnan Province in Southwest China, close to the home of the incredible pu’er teas found at J-Tea. Pu’er tea is unique in its brick and cake format, qualities attributed to a rich history of trade in this region of China. It has been grown for nearly 1,200 years in the tropics of southern Yunnan Province and the areas surrounding the region, aptly known as Pu’er.

Like the rest of Yunnan, this region is incredibly heterogeneous culturally; it’s inhabited by several ethnic minority groups, or what are known in China as nationalities, shaosu minzu (少数民族). The agriculture here is incredibly rich and intertwined with the local forests and ecosystems, including cultivated tea forests with tea trees planted several hundred years ago. Similarly, the different ethnic groups have each developed their own cultural uses of tea. For instance, the Bulang people, who live in the tea growing regions, actually roast and eat pu’er as a food item rather than drinking it. Perhaps the most famous cultural use of pu’er is not by local cultures, but by Tibetans in neighboring high mountain regions. In fact, this historical demand for tea in northern regions was the impetus for pu’er’s brick and cake like form.
Unloading a Tibetan mule caravan, much like those traditionally used to transport pu’er.

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡), on the upper Yangtze or Jinsha River, part of the route of the ancient Tea Horse Road.
The ancient Tea Horse Road, one of the oldest trade routes in all of Asia, originates in the subtropical lowlands of Yunnan and extends north to the highlands of the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans, who bred incredibly beautiful, strong, and valuable horses, desired Chinese tea from Yunnan and its neighboring regions to use in butter tea, which is a mixture of hot water, salt, butter, and pu’er or similar brick-like teas. The Tibetans traded horses and medicines for the tea, which was trekked and carried up and through Yunnan onto the Tibetan plateau by large mule caravans. Thus, packing the pu’er into bricks made it easier to load and carry over long distances.

In the cold mountains of Tibet, butter tea provides a great source of energy and warmth. Of course, pu’er tea in and of itself is quite an amazing treat, the flavor of which is actually more or less removed when it is used in Tibetan butter tea. Down in the lowlands of China, I certainly prefer my pu’er on its own, which allows full enjoyment of all its amazing qualities and rich taste.

To learn more about pu’er tea history and the ancient Tea Horse Road of Yunnan, check out the following two books:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Marketing Oolong in the U.S: Difficult But Not Impossible

Translating oolong tea’s long and storied culture in Taiwan and China into U.S. markets presents the issue of context. Bridging this gap of culture and context is difficult—though not impossible. First, the barriers: Several innate characteristics of American culture impede the widespread consumption of oolong tea and the appreciation for traditional culture. Generally, Americans tend to be more concerned with efficiency rather than appreciation of aesthetics hence the popularity of the teabag. Traditional tea culture often struggles to find a place in a society so focused on convenience.

In 1955, Richard L. Jenkins, M.D. made the following astute observations: In America, we are too formal to cultivate or develop the artistically patterned and highly formal grace of the Japanese tea ceremony. Probably our national temperament will not easily lend itself even to the leisurely and graceful patterning of the English tea custom. But even in our striving, restless, overtense pattern of living the American custom of iced tea on a summer afternoon adds something of what we need to maintain balance.”

An Oolong in Disguise. Categorially, the world of oolong is deep and varied, ranging from green to roasted to heavily oxidized teas. The lack of standardized naming system likely decreases recognition of an already foreign product in the American market, and steepens the learning curve for tea novices. For example, Dong Fong Mei Ren’s other monikers bear little resemblance to one another: Eastern and Oriental Beauty, Noble Concubine, Silver Tip Oolong, and Bai Hao Oolong. The use of multiple spellings further confuses neophytes. Consider the following: Dong Ding/Tung Ting, Wen Shan Bao Zhong/Pu Chong, and Oolong/Wulong.

Is it Organic? Is it Local? Strict locavores have trouble swallowing the ambiguity that comes with foreign-grown products like tea. In recent years, the growing market for locally grown and organic products has likely steered some consumers away from foreign-grown tea, and products that cannot be labeled definitively as 'organic' create hesitation.

Competing with the Familiar. Oolong tea competes with many well-established replacement goods in the American beverage market, such as wine, beer, soda, coffee, and more familiar teas: green, black, white, Yerba Mate, herbal, and scented tea. Further, lack of knowledge and tools for brewing tea in more traditional ways impedes widespread loose-leaf tea consumption.

Who is Drinking Loose-Leaf in the U.S.? It’s an eclectic crowd comprised of those seeking an alternative to coffee, people looking for an affordable luxury, individuals motivated by health concerns, as well as hobbyists and devotees who dedicate time to study tea. The growing interest in high-end tea is also fueled by broader trends in food culture towards high-quality specialty foods and beverages and the preservation of traditional culture. Tea also attracts people who are looking for a deeper connection and way to slow down in a fast-paced world.
Hand picked leaves during Spring harvest on Dong Ding Mountain
And, the popularity of traditional Chinese and Taiwanese style gong fu tea brew ceremonies has surged recently thanks to new and old generations of tea enthusiasts. Using social media as a vehicle for sharing gong fu tea brewing techniques, students of brew are spreading traditional tea culture one pot at a time.

Source: Jenkins, R. L. (1955). Psychological Effects of Tea Drinking. Tea: A Symposium on the Pharmacology and the Physiologic and Psychologic Effects of Tea (H.J. Klaunberg, Ed.) Presented at a conference of the New York Academy of Sciences, May 16, 1955.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Up All Night

Famous tea house in Jiu Fen 九份茶館
Tea had me up writing the other night, and I was reminded of an earlier post, “How to Fall Asleep after Drinking Oh-So-Much tea.”  After re-reading the earlier post, I noticed that both mention the effects of L-Theanine and how not sleeping while under the influence of tea is “the best part.” Such is the paradoxical nature of Taiwanese culture, and at the root of this tea paradox is L-Theanine.
Tea is fighting the good fight for us with a little help from its secret ingredient, L-Theanine. We can think of L-Theanine, an amino acid, as the catalyst that gives us tea-induced super powers. It is the component of tea that makes us feel blissful. L-Theanine can be purchased as a health supplement, but we best absorb it through tea. On many occasions, I've turned to tea when I wanted to make myself feel better. Let’s face it: some tea can truly make a person feel high. After drinking tea with so many different people, I know that many others agree. Also, while conducting several tea tasting experiments, others have shared with me their experience of expanded awareness after drinking tea.
It’s no wonder that tea is the number two beverage consumed in the world, second only to water. And, it’s not surprising that many view tea as a spiritual conduit. Tea opens a door to the inner-self. Tea stills the waters for self reflection. It cools the spirit and smooths the internal waters so that we can look at the calm surface and feel reassured. This reassurance allows us to probe deeper and to attain greater understanding. Perhaps we are contemplating a reflection created in this moment as the clear surface allows us to enter the calm depths of awareness. Late at night, sipping tea...If you cannot sleep, just remember: that’s the best part.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Closer Look at Tea: Caffeine, L-Theanine and Ritual by Jonathan Manley

Typically, we grab coffee while on the go, late for work or for whatever task we are rushing around to get done. We rarely take the time to enjoy it. In my opinion, coffee does not aid in calming self-reflection. Tea, however, is quite different. At the center of tea culture is ritual. If one brews in a yi xing teapot it demands that you stop what you are doing and focus on the process. The water must be boiled, the pot and vessels pre-heated, and each of the several infusions must be attended to carefully. This process coaxes one to relax, be calm and fully engage in the present moment.

Two leaves and a bud...
It’s not only the ritual of tea that aids in the centering process. Tea and coffee are very different by their nature. (I often joke that tea is the marijauna of the drug world and that coffee is the heroin, or should I say cocaine?) When I drink tea I notice an immediate effect quite different from coffee. Tea mildly lifts my spirits without making me jittery or spacey. I feel a sense of calm and focus. One obvious explanation is that the caffeine content of tea is significantly less than coffee cup for cup. The average cup of coffee has 100 to 200 mg of caffeine. Tea on the other hand can be as low as 10 mg but is often in the 20-60 mg range. But caffeine is not the only chemical factor play.
Tea contains an amino acid called L-Theanine. It has the rare ability to cross the blood brain barrier and thus has mild psychoactive properties. Scientific studies indicate that L-Theanine produces a sense of well being, relaxation, and focus. It can also increase the release of dopamine and alpha brain waves, which are associated with the state of being alert but not stressed.

My advice for anyone who is trying to become more health conscious or more mindful is to consider the possibility of tea. In life, there are no quick fixes to achieving peace and health.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More Images of the Tea Sealing Event - Taken by Andrew Hess

Hand made wine jugs loaded in the truck getting ready for the event

Cups all around

Signing the seal label

Signatures and pictures are added to the sealing labels

Local potter Jayme Allen tells about his work

Filling the large clay vessels

How much tea does it take to fill the vessel?

Full and ready to adhere label 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Americans Love Tea

Truth be told, we Americans love tea. Tracing the roots of America's tea culture, inevitably leads to the Boston Tea Party. At various times throughout American tea history consumption shifted from green to black tea due to the evolution of processing methods, variations in quality, significant marketing campaigns, and wartime embargoes. Tea culture in America has evolved considerably since the colonial and wartime eras and now embraces a wide spectrum of cultural traditions, including those of Taiwan and China.
How do the characteristics of American culture interface with traditional tea? Generally, Americans enjoy variety, novelty, and engaging in new and interesting experiences. This engagement of diversity, which is an element of the American spirit, creates a window though which we can enjoy traditional tea culture. Ultimately tea traditions from various cultures are integrated and co-exist to create America’s unique tea culture.
In the United States, the popular press frequently disseminates the results of scientific studies, particularly those related to health. Medical studies touting tea’s health properties for various conditions including eczema, hypertension, cancer, and depression/anxiety have motivated some Americans to seek out tea. The reputed high levels of antioxidants and lower levels of caffeine (compared to coffee) also attract new tea drinkers.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Put that Tea Away - Photos Andrew Hess and Josh Chamberlain

Photo - Andrew Hess

We sealed several jars full of tea at our inaugural Tea Sealing Event in February, including two mammoth jars for the tea shop that we're planning to open in 19 years, 11 months, 337 days, and counting.  Those in attendance included two pottery teachers, this blog’s editor, several tea aficionados, one father-son pair, local activity supporters, art-full collectors, two well-mannered children, a nutty tea proprietor, a supportive tea crew, several kernels of oolong, and the like.

Though it wasn't required, each of the guests sealed their own jar of tea. There were many jars to choose from, including some from local potter, Jaime Allen. J-TEA provided two teas for the jars' contents.

Time goes by and tea changes. These are two things that we cannot stop, no matter how hard people in the tea industry might try. Several packaging innovations have worked to slow down the changes that occur as a result of time, including vacuum seal machines, multi-layer bags with a strong oxygen barrier, and refrigeration, which lowers the temperature and humidity in which the tea is stored. When these elements are combined, shelf life and stability of the greener teas is prolonged. The tea maintains its fresh flavor longer. Change is not stopped, just slowed.

Greener oolong teas offer perhaps the most room for dramatic changes over time. We chose two green teas for this occasion: a twisted leaf oolong and a tightly rolled oolong. Over time, these teas will likely develop a rich and earthy character, much like an aged puer, or sometimes a cooked puer. Though we cannot really know for sure until the time arrives and the jars are opened.

The twisted leaf oolong is light and fluffy and the tightly rolled oolong is denser and heavier. This will provide us with some great material for comparison. We filled the first jar with 11 and some odd pounds of twisted leaf oolong. The second jar contains a composite of tightly rolled teas. We started with a few pounds of mismatched high mountain oolong scraps, including some high quality, high mountain tea. We finished it off with our house green oolong, a Four Seasons from Ming Jian in Nantou, Taiwan. Ming Jian is famous for its Four Seasons Green Oolong. It’s light and floral with a bit of depth and sweet undertones. The second jar was filled with thirty plus pounds of tea.

Guru Hari Khalsa from Yogi Tea signs the seal - Andrew Hess

Photo - Andrew Hess

The tea seal - Andrew Hess

John Arndt with his sealed jar

Full tea capsule - Andrew Hess

Capsule number two filled - Andrew

Guru Hari and Narsingh

Kelly, with her stylish tea capsule 

Doug Blandy of China Vine and University of Oregon with his filled capsule