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.