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.



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

Subtle Essenses

18 08 2008

“…close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.” Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

 The Chinese word Qi represents a concept essential to understanding Chinese culture. Here is the traditional character: . Qi might be translated as “life force” or “energy.” The character depicts a stove with rice at the center. On top of the stove is a pot and the lid of the pot is being raised by an invisible force (steam). Many years ago, a Chinese tai chi teacher with whom I was studying, asked me to prepare a single sheet describing Qi for a handout to my fellow Caucasian instructor-candidates. As a Chinese joke, I illustrated the page with a photo of a giant bowl of rice. My teacher thought it was hilarious. My fellow students were not amused. Trying to explain rice as a central object in Chinese life and the equation of consuming rice to having Qi kind of killed the joke. “No rice, no Qi! No Qi, you dead.”

I once had a dog, Pretty Maggie, by name, who was the light of my life. At the age of 16, it seemed that her time had come. However, the  veterinarian suggested acupuncture as a last resort. The acupuncturist came in and needled dear Maggie. The needles just barely hung in Maggie’s body, ready to fall out. “I think your dog is a goner,” said the acupuncture doctor with not much bedside manner. “Look, ” she said. “When the body dies, the acupuncture points let go and the needles can even fall out.” Stricken, I stared at the flaccid needles. But, Maggie did not die and the acupuncture brought her along enough for more acupuncture, and the needles began to stand up, and she lived another two years, even sporting like a pup, occasionally. The point being, “No Qi, you dead.” 

Which brings us to tea. “Huh?” You say. Well, tea is brewed with hot water and the heating of the water produces steam, emblematic of Qi. And I really wanted to talk about tea, especially my favorite, Yin Zhen Bai Hao. Also called Silver Needle. The Chinese “Bai Hao” means white hair. The very finest tea, when you look closely at the buds, you see what appears to be a very fine white down, white hair. Yin Zhen Bai Hao is all buds, and these exquisite tea buds, with their coating of white hair, look like little silver needles. So “White Hair Silver Needle.”

This is an authentic and traditional white tea. Snapple runs a TV commercial wherein some young American fool is on an airplane wondering where the white tea he is drinking comes from. He is suddenly transported to a field of tea, probably somewhere in Indonesia where Sir Thomas Lipton and other purveyors of inferior tea chose to grow the sacred plant. Then a wizened Asian man says something about the buds on the top of the plant and “we pick it!” Very cute. But he is really describing green tea. Most tea sold in the United States as white tea is really green. Phooey! Real, traditional white tea is processed in the oolong manner and includes sunshine withering. There are only a handful of, or less, authentic and traditional Chinese white teas, and, for my money, Yin Zhen Bai Hao is the very best! The Indians are now marketing something they call white tea. Tastes like dish water to me. I will stick to Silver Needle and another white tea, White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), thank you very much.

Which brings us to the Chabon quote. This was not referring to white tea, but it should. Yin Zhen Bai Hao, the real stuff, as grown and purveyed by my Chinese Tea Master, from his gardens in Fujian province, is so-o-o-o good, that one sip is all you need. One sip of this tea reaffirms all that is right in life. On my death bed, I want my last memory to be a sip of Yin Zhen Bai Hao.

The Chinese have descriptive words for the flavors of fine tea. Note, I said fine tea, nu, nu? You will not find fine tea in any supermarket, or even in most tea shops. The Chinese keep the good stuff for themselves. Shoot, even a well-respected Chinese Qigong Master in England, says white tea tastes like hot water. Either his palate is over-rated or he never had good Silver Needle.

So, Yin Zhen Bai Hao may be described with words like “bamboo” and “orchid.” I like “orchid.” The first time I tasted Yin Zhen Bai Hao from the gardens of my Cha Shifu, my Tea Master, I got a hint of what I called vanilla. My palate was not ready for such a great tea, but I got a glimpse, like seeing a beautiful woman in the periphery of your vision. You know something fantastic just went by, but what in the heck was it? Of course, vanilla is a member of the orchid family, so I was not that far off.

This tea is so-o-o-o-o good…wait, I already said that. Each time I brew this tea, the first sip confirms my previous opinion and I could just stop right there. One sip, that’s all. You don’t need to stare at paradise, just seeing it once is good enough. Well, maybe two sips…or three. This tea is so fine you can keep on brewing it and even after you think you’ve used up every tiny little bit of tea-ie goodness, you find that you have not. A coffee expert friend of mine, Christophe, a Frenchman, sat with me one day and we drank and drank and drank until we gurgled like a tea pot and there was still that sweetness that comes from oolong processing and from the beauty of a true white tea. So we just stopped. It was either that or drown.

Which brings us back around to Qi. The good things, the great things, the fine things in life all have a whole lot of Qi. “It’s hard to keep a good man down.” It’s hard to find a good tea, but when you do, hang onto it by the ears because you are in for one heck of a ride!

Part of enjoying tea is looking at the leaves, smelling them, viewing the color of the brew and sucking it back along the tongue and feeling the Qi tumble down your throat. But there are other pleasures, too. The Chinese and other cultures have long valued the viewing of the moon. That most Yin of planets, glowing with the reflection of the sun in the coolness of the night. When better to enjoy a cup of Silver Needle than by the silver light? Like invisible Qi, inhale the aromas of a pot of Yin Zhen Bai Hao, gaze at the moon, and understand that all that is good is not visible, but, nevertheless, it is there.

And so this blog will attempt to explore the little-seen, the hidden pleasures…the little pleasures of life, be it a good book, a fine meal, or a simple cup of tea.     


Courtesy www.freedigitalphotos.net