From the Well of the Dragon 龍井

13 12 2010

When I am in town, I brew cha at least once every day at the office. Our most usual morning cha is Longjing, Dragonwell, from the gardens of Tea Master Jason C.S. Chen, owner of C.C. Fine Tea. Authentic and traditional Longjing comes from Zhejiang province, China. There is well there with the very finest spring water and the well is said to be inhabited by a dragon.

C.C. Fine Tea’s Longjing is made up completely of buds and has 45,000 buds per pound. Picked early in the Spring, this cha brews to a lovely pale green color with a lingering sweetness on the palate.

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Tea by any other name…a rant.

9 08 2009

[This is a cross-post from www.moonlightcha.com]

 Tea refers to the agricultural products of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. “Tea” also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combination with hot or boiling water, and is the colloquial name for the Camellia sinensis plant itself.  After water, tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world. It has a cooling, slightly bitter,  flavour. Wikipedia

(Note: the sections following referring to brewing and enjoying tea apply to Chinese tea, meaning tea grown in China or Taiwan.)

Sniffing Cups

Sniffing Cups Photo: Craig Gibson

Of late, I have had a number of discussions on tea that did not include a discourse on variety and flavor. Sooner or later, in conversation, the fact arises that I am training with a Chinese Tea Master. Someone will say, “Oh, I had a lovely rooibos tea this morning.” I no longer argue. But, folks, if the beverage is not based on the plant camellia sinensis, it is not tea!

Blame the early importers of tea. Someone asked a Chinese local, “What do you call that stuff?” The reply, “Thé.” Welcome to the slippery slope. This was a local colloquial nickname for tea. The Chinese word for tea is “Cha.” 茶 The Japanese word for tea is “Cha.” Or if it is a particularly good tea, “O Cha.” But we had to go and screw things up and call it “tea.”

What about herbal teas? No, sorry, that is not a tea. Rooibos is not a tea. There is a nice French word for almost anything brewed in hot water: “Tisane.” You had a lovely rooibos tisane this morning. “How was your chamomile tisane?”

Listen, unless camellia sinensis is present, you are not drinking tea! Interestingly, when I have the audacity to correct slurpers of various concoctions, they either grow angry or refuse to hear me. I am not speaking ill of any of the beverages, I am merely giving them their correct names.

Cha

Cha

So, as of today, I am undertaking two missions. 1. I shall do my utmost to never ever remark on the name of someone’s drink. Don’t even get me started on Martinis and the sludge that bears that once noble name. 2. I am beginning a campaign to change the English language name for the camellia sinensis plant and any beverage brewed from it to “Cha.” Now wouldn’t that be simple? We give the tree and drink its true name back, and that leaves “tea” to everyone else in the world.

When I was little and sick I was given a beef “tea.” My organic gardening guru brews up all sorts of “teas” to encourage plant growth. Yes! Take it, take the word, keep it, call cats “tea” and dogs “coffee” for all I care. Just refer to the plant and drink as “Cha.” Isn’t that a nice sounding word?

While we’re at it. I no longer want to hear about any tea, any cha that anyone drinks and considers lovely that comes from a tea bag. Or any cha that is brewed in a tea ball. God save us from all of these devilish contraptions that get in the way of drinking a good cup of tea cha.

Silver Needle Single Bud, Awakened

Silver Needle Single Bud, Awakened Photo: Craig Gibson

Briefly, the cha ball, when used with loose leaf tea, usually stops the tea leaves from properly rehydrating because they cannot expand completely as they absorb the water.  The Chinese call this initial reabsorbtion of water, “Awakening the Dragon.” What a lovely image. But, if you cruelly imprison your dragon, it will never lift its head up and spread its wings (If you are imagining a Western dragon), or stretch out its powerful limbs and give you the utmost and best cup of Cha. Instead you get a wimpy little chihuahua of a dragon and a poor cup of cha.

Now, consider the tea bag. First the bag. They range from unbleached to bleached cotton, to silk,to plastic. Plastic? And the contents–in the tea industry, the designation for the camellia sinensis that goes into tea bags is FNG. So, what does “FNG” mean? It is an abbreviation that became a sort of acronym. It is far enough removed from its source that we forget the origin. It’s kind of like not seeing the pig slaughtered. FNG is an abbreviation for “fannings.”

Hm-m-m. That’s a curious word. Why would that word be applied to tea? I’ll tell you why. Originally, the loose leaf tea, the good stuff, was fanned with a…well with a fan. And the dust that blew off, probably onto the floor, this dust was swept up and put in tea bags for the rubes. Yum!

Now, modern tea bags do not contain floor sweepings, I hope. In fact, some “premium”–I put premium in quotes because any tea bag tea being premium is doubtful, in my deranged mind–some premium tea bags contain high quality tea. During tea production a certain amount of the good stuff, the loose leaf tea, some of those leaves get too broken to sell as loose leaf and these get turned into FNG.

I occasionally drink tea bag tea. In the airport, what other choice is there? Tazo makes good tea bag tea and so does Stash. But at home? No thank you. Depending on the brand, you can wind up with more stems than leaves and no buds whatsoever. 

On the road, and I travel a lot–on the road I bring along my own loose leaf tea and some contraption or other for brewing it. I like the TeaMaster Brew-cup. It’s portable, easy to clean, has enough room for the Dragon to awaken, and makes a darned good cup of tea. That said, I use a polycarbonate cup. My family doctor, a fellow Tea-head, will only use the glass version.

West Lake Dragonwell Dry, Note: All buds

West Lake Dragonwell Dry, Note: All buds Photo: Craig Gibson

Strange interlude: And what makes a good, dare I say “great” loose leaf tea cha? 1. Lineage. What varietal did the leaves come from? In what region of China is it grown? 2. Process. Organic or “Organic Process” preferred. Good soil. Now the nitty gritty–3. Leaf style. Part of this is determined by the type of tea. Compare Mao Feng green with Dragonwell (Longjing) green. The best tea is all buds. In my opinion, the finest tea in the world is Yin Zhen Bai Hao from C.C. Fine Tea. This is usually called Silver Needle or Silver Needle white, and it is all buds. Oolong tea is traditionally one bud two leaves. Good to great tea is either all buds, one bud one leaf, one bud two leaves…and one bud three leaves is debatable. Anything past that: Phooey! 4. Freshness, includes storage methods.

So, in bagged tea you don’t know what you are getting. It may even be adulterated, cut with some kind of filler.

As to freshness, smell it. If it smells lovely and fragrant it will probably taste that way too. Which means you should purchase tea someplace that allows you to smell what you are buying. This eliminates the supermarket. I have seen tea shops that sold very nice high quality loose leaf tea, except they didn’t turn it fast enough and it became old and stale. It oxidized. It became dry and crumbly. No aroma, no Qi. 氣 Smell it. And if you buy it from a nice tea shop, you can probably buy a cup of it first and taste it.

To finish this rant, I recently heard “I drink a lot of tea every day. I can’t afford to buy good tea.” Westerners tend to brew their tea once, let the tea sit in the water forever until it is strong enough to repel sharks, and then discard the leaves. Proper Chinese brewing puts the water on the leaves for the minimum time required to extract that flavorful goodness (Awakening the Dragon can be used to get the leaves in the right mood to be drunk.). A good Chinese tea cha may be infused anywhere from 4-7 times. Notice and enjoy the differences each infusion offers. A GOOD Chinese Cha will still offer flavor even after the color of the liquor begins to fade.

My Favorite Yixing Pot

My Favorite Yixing Pot

The easiest way to brew a good cup is with a French Press. Tea Masters often use a traditional Gaiwan for themselves. The Chinese Gongfu (Kungfu) method using an unglazed clay pot (Yixing Clay only! Otherwise beware of possible lead contamination in the clay.) may ultimately be the most satisfying. I have a tiny pot about the size of my fist. Two grams of cha suffice to provide me with a satisfying experience. There is available a porcelain brewer called the TeaMaster Automatic Tea Brewer, that emulates the Gongfu method and is a good way to start enjoying Chinese tea.

Gaiwan Photo: SJS Chen/Wikipedia

Gaiwan Photo: SJS Chen/Wikipedia

Name it right, brew it right, and as my Cha Shifu (Tea Master) says, “Tea makes a Happy Day.”

Rant addendum: 99% of all white tea sold in the US is not. At best it is green.

The following video advertising Japanese tea is hilarious, but note that they are only picking leaves, no buds. Third rate tea. It should be left to the bugs.

 





Tea from Heaven

15 02 2009

 

Bai Hao Silver Needle Photo By Craig Gibson

Bai Hao Silver Needle Photo By Craig Gibson

My favorite tea is Yin Zhen Bai Hao, White Hair Silver Needle-Bai Hao means White Hair. This is a white tea from north and east Fujian province. It is all buds and processed in the oolong manner using sunshine withering. The best I have ever had comes from Tea Master Jason C.S. Chen at C.C. Fine Tea in Seattle. Master Chen’s Silver Needle is both authentic and traditional. Historically, real white tea was very difficult to find, even in China. In his remarkable book on Chinese tea, John Blofeld laments never having tasted real white tea in his life. Today, the American airwaves are full of commercials for “white tea” yet the tea they are promoting is really just another green tea. There is also a low-chlorophyll green tea that is sold as white because it is lacking in color. Phooey!

Thanks to changes in policy in China, in recent years, real white tea is available, but you have to know where to look. The two most available types are White Peony—Bai Mu Dan—which is two leaves, one bud, and sunshine withered, and…Bai Hao Silver Needle. Ah, if I could write poetry in Chinese, I would write love songs to this tea. According to Tea Master Chen, three steps are necessary to produce a true white tea: “1. Outdoor Withering (also called sunshine withering) 2. Indoor withering  3. Very light fire drying (long and gentle and with care so the white bud is still white). These three extra steps allow traditional white tea (Bai Hao Silver Needle and White Peony) to retain more medicinal benefits and still have a special flavor and fragrance.”(1) 

Silver Needle brews to a beautiful golden color with lingering flavors of bamboo and orchid. My western palate translates orchid into vanilla—and, vanilla is a member of the orchid family. But this orchid flavor is very subtle. In an otherwise very fine book on Chinese tea, I must take exception to one sentence from Master Lam Kam Cheun: “When you drink white tea, it seems quite tasteless—as if you were drinking hot water with a slightly milder and more subtle taste than normal.”(2) Granted, he goes on to extol the virtues of white tea, but I believe he must be getting inferior white tea in England. Perhaps it is too old.

One of the many virtues of white tea is the lingering flavor. All good teas linger in the mouth. It is a godsend, I suppose, that bad tea does not linger. Every time I raise a cup to my mouth and take one sip of Silver Needle, I think this is all I need, one sip and the lingering. But, I am greedy, and the first sip is followed by a second, on to the Seventh Cup. And if any tea could transport one to the Sacred Island of Horaisan, it would be Yin Zhen Bai Hao. I feel “the breath of cool wind”(3) rising in my sleeves just thinking about this superb tea.

On their deathbeds, great Zen Masters are often said to end their lives with a poem, the last line being a shout. I am not a Zen Master but I feel my life will be complete if I can end it with one last sip of Silver Needle, uttering an “Ah” as I leave this world. 

A golden cup of Silver Needle Photo by Craig Gibson

A golden cup of Silver Needle Photo by Craig Gibson

Okakura Kakuzo

Okakura Kakuzo

 



 1. Tea from China by Master Jason C.S. Chen 2006

 2. The Way of Tea by Master Lam Kam Cheun with Lam Kai Sin and Lam Tin Yu 2002

3.  The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo 1906





Tea Girl's Lament

25 01 2009
 Traditionally, the best tea was picked by young girls in the very early morning. John Blofeld writes:

The ideal time of day for picking is during the hours before sunrise, when the natural fragrance is at its height. The tea girls have to leave their warm beds at two or three in the morning and brave the chill mountain winds, to say nothing of risking encounters with poisonous snakes and insects; so they sing as they climb, to keep up their spirits. That their simple pleasant songs are not without charm can be judged from the following lament of a girl roused from sleep in the cold wee hours:

 

 

Early in the night,

I dreamt of being married

–Oh, how kind my lover,

Oh how much we loved,

Clinging to each other!

Suddenly awakened,

My spirit in a tizz,

I found my dream love gone!

Searching through my dreams,

I ordered that young man

By all means to await me

In my dreams to come.

 John Blofeld © 1985





Give me a pot of Big Mouth, please.

18 01 2009
Bai Hao--two leaves one bud

Bai Hao--two leaves one bud Photo by Craig Gibson

I just acquired some very fresh Bai Hao Oolong tea from the Fujian gardens of my Tea Master, Jason C.S. Chen. Very fresh! Bai Hao is usually known in the west as Oriental Beauty, although its original name was Big Mouth tea. Bai Hao is one of the most oxidized of the oolongs giving it that western comfort feel of a black tea whilst retaining the honey sweetness of an oolong. This is one great tea, especially when it is so fresh. Bai Hao means “white hair.” The finest camellia sinensis has white hair on the buds. This is an oolong so it is picked two leaves, one bud. Oh, and the sweetest thing about it, literally, is when bugs chew on the plant, it produces sugars as a defense. Sweet, indeed. [Photo by Craig Gibson]

 Coming Soon…Bai Hao Silver Needle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, have a cuppa on me:

 





The Seventh Cup, Indeed!

14 01 2009

cha5The purpose of this site is to discuss and praise fine tea, mostly fine Chinese tea. Please bring your tea stories here. Tell us about the lovely teas you have found, help us taste them with you. [Please, no offense intended, but this site is for the praise of Camellia sinesis–tea–no herbals, please. Those are “tisanes.”]

 

There follows perhaps the most famous poem ever written about tea. We usually only see the last two parts.

 

 

Translator John Blofeld says about this poem,“Unable to translate it in a manner that does it real justice, I can but offer a semi-metric rendering.”

 

The Song of Tea

(Thanks to Imperial Censor Mêng for his Gift of Freshly Picked Tea)

by Lu T’ung (The Tea Doter)

 

1

I was lying lost in slumber as the morning sun climbed high,

When my dreams were shattered by a thunderous knocking at the door.

An officer had brought a letter from the imperial censor,

Its three great seals slanting across the white silk cover.

Opening it, I read some words that brought him vividly to mind.

He wrote that he was sending three hundred catties of moon-shaped cakes of tea,

For a road had been cut at the year’s beginning to a special tea garden.

Such tea! And plucked so early in the year, when insects had scarcely begun their chatter,

When spring breezes had just begun to blow

And spring flowers dared not open,

As the emperor still awaited

The annual toll of Yang-hsien tea!

 

2

Ah, how wonderful that tea, plucked ere the kindly breeze

Had swept away the pearling frost upon its leaves

And the tiny leaf-buds shone like gold!

Being packed when fresh and redolent of firing,

Its essential goodness had been cherished, instead of wasted.

Such tea was intended for the court and high nobility;

How had it reached the hut of a humble mountain-dweller?

 

3

To honour the tea, I shut my brushwood gate,

Lest common folk intrude,

And donned my gauze cap

To brew and taste it on my own.

 

4

The first bowl sleekly moistened throat and lips,

The second banished all my loneliness,

The third expelled the dullness from my mind,

Sharpening inspiration gained from all the books I’ve read.

The fourth brought forth light perspiration,

Dispersing a lifetime’s troubles through my pores.

The fifth bowl cleansed ev’ry atom of my being.

The sixth has made me kin to the Immortals.

The seventh is the utmost I can drink—

A light breeze issues from my armpits.

 

5

Where are those Isles of Immortals whither I am bound?

I, Master Jade Spring, will ride upon this breeze

To the place where the Immortals alight upon the earth,

Guarded by their divinity from wind and rain.

How can I bear the fate of countless beings

Born to bitter toil amid the towering peaks?

I must ask Censor Mêng if he can tell

Whether those beings will ever be allowed to rest.

 

Translation © John Blofeld 1985

p1010162_0056_55

Photo by Jason C.S. Chen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know the following video is Japanese, not Chinese, but it is so cute!