Monday, December 21, 2009

Snowball Tea Jar By Shin Hyun Churl

This soft, hazy white, wood fired tea jar sits staunchly like a newly formed snowman. Its shape harmonizes nicely with its colour. Its texture is soft and smooth inside and out.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

2008 Lao Mountain Fair Trade Organic Phongsali 'Lao Mao Cha' ('Puerh Green Tea')

Picked this one up last year during ones journey in the Northern Laos Province of Phongsali. The producer, Lao Mountain, sells two types of tea- a 'Golden Green Tea' and 'Puerh Green Tea'.
One posted about the 'Golden Green Tea' from this company a while back and found it quite interesting. This one promises to be just as entertaining.

The dry leaf smell of faint fruity tones mingle with light,spicy raisin depth. These leaves are rinsed before the first infusion is prepared.

A sour, juicy, vegital tea with backnotes of something spicy is the first result. The mouthfeel fills the sides of the tongue and roof of the mouth.

In the next infusion those spicy tones dance within a slightly juicy, pungent, faintly fruity taste. The flavour evolves into a predominantly dry pungent taste that makes its way to ones breath.

The tea in the third infusion targets the front of the mouth leaving a fuzzy sensation behind. The flavour is much the same as before but slightly more pungent. The aftertaste remains dry. The orangy-yellow of the liquor watches that of the chrysanthemum that blooms behind it.
A sweet caramel tobacco creaminess starts to develop ever so slightly under the pungent notes that get deeper and deeper as the session progresses. The movement from infusion to infusion is quite notable and makes this tea fun to drink.

In later infusions, sour grainy tones start to appear first followed by the core pungent flavours. The almost malty caramel tones that are noticed suggest age.

The interplay between caramel and pungent notes continues from infusion to infusion until, later in the session, it waters out.

The chaqi is covert in nature. It sneaks around almost unnoticed until later in the session where it makes ones mind shine bright and clear.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Carbon Footprint of Tea: How Green is Green Tea?

In Asia drinking tea is often seen as a way to harmonize with nature. Drinking green tea in the spring and chrysanthemum in the fall is a way to harmonize your energies with the energies of nature. Often the tea that is the most popular in a particular region is the tea that grows nearby, or is at least produced in the same country. Drinking local teas that share the energies of that geographical area is not only more healthy for the individual but also more healthy for the environment. Drinking local tea creates less pollution because the tea isn't shipped long distances.

Tea drinking in the west is a different story.

Unlike most foods and beverages that one consumes, tea cannot be grown locally. Because tea can't be grown locally it must be shipped long distances. Shipping long distances displaces more pollutants into the atmosphere through longer transport. Longer shipping also requires extra packaging. As far as tea goes, excessive packaging seems to be the norm. The production of this packaging requires more energy and therefore more pollutants produced. When this packaging is disposed of it goes back to the earth. The shipping of tea pollutes the earth.

When drinking tea one never takes a sip for granted. The tea that touches ones lips, however minute, is at the cost of the earth. And as such, much reverence should be afforded to it.


Friday, December 11, 2009

A Winter Pot By Master Sel Young Jin

Sel Young Jin's works harmonize with winter.

This rustic pot exudes the feeling of early winter/ late fall- winter's first snowfall. Thick white glaze barely covering the rocky earth beneath. A light snowfall, a veil over the land. It hints at more snow to come.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

2009 Handong Green Tea- Picked In The Spring, Oxidized Through the Summer, Roasted In the Fall

This tea was shipped with others from Korea a few months ago. It gives no hints as to what kind of tea it is other than the generic 'Hadong Green Tea' package that is used by the producers in the area.

Tearing open the top of the bag then opening the zip lock reveals a surprise- the smell of roasted nutty chocolate and cherry notes that transform into a more common nutty cereal odour. This doesn't smell like your typical Handong green tea. Perhaps its a yellow tea, or an autumnal green, maybe a roasted green?

The leaves are scooped out and examined- small, faded, dusty brown leaves. The dry leaves look too dark to be a green tea yet too faded, dusty, and light to be a yellow. The leaves are rolled like a green tea, not tightly wound like a yellow. These clues and the predominately toasty cereal scent of the leaves suggests a roasted green tea. A tea not all that common in Korea.

These leaves are guided into the pot and after the water has cooled, it to is added. The tea pours out a turbid yellow-brown.

The first infusion carries a strong taste of hay, nuts, and strong cereal notes that almost drown out all of the sweetness and actual tea tastes. This first infusion is pondy and roasty. The lips numb, the tongue and mouth are sparsely coated. Its body is thin in the mouth.

The second infusion brings more of that hollow roasted cereal which is still felt mainly on the lips, tingling them. The flavour becomes more tart. Hay notes linger just a short while on the breath.

In the third infusion a rubbery mouthfeel and aftertaste develops. More hollow graininess. It doesn't move much from here. The later infusions are more of the same with the taste becoming thinner, lighter, and more grassy. In the end one attempts to over steep this tea, attempting to pull something interesting from it. One is only greeted with thin, bitter, astringent graininess.

The faint qi of this tea is quite mixed up and impure. It leaves one feeling somewhat more energetic but more hazy and lethargic than one should feel from a green tea. The overall presentation of this tea leads one to believe that it was improperly produced. The production did not harmonize with the tea resulting in a product that doesn't flow throughout the body and mind but instead clouds it.

When the wet leaves are examined there are little flecks of ash deposited in the small, still curled up, leaves. This could be evidence of a wood burning roast. Roasting tea using a wood burning method is much more difficult to achieve good results compared to the easily controlled setting of gas roasting.

One has learned from this tea. One hopes the producer learns from this tea too, correcting mistakes and improving production next year.

Note: The comments clear up which type of tea this is.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2009 Jookro Hwagae Valley Yellow Tea

Jookro is one of the oldest commercial tea companies in Korea and has been producing great wild, hand picked, Hwagae Valley tea since 1962. The Korean name of this tea 'Oo Re Cha' means 'Our Tea' and is a proud statement of confidence and pride for the often overlooked Korean teas which have historically had been influence by its tea superpower neighbours, Japan and China. This tea made using traditional methods, in an area from ansestors of 1000 year old trees, stands in oppostion to those who think that Korean teas are simply, more expensive or inferior Japanese or Chinese tea.
Despite having many small farm and monk-made yellow teas year in and year out, this offering from Jookro is always one of the best. Let's stuff the pot and see what makes this yellow tea so damn good...

The dry leaves, the dry leaves, the dry leaves.

Have you ever smelt better dry leaf smell? Honestly, these purplish-green tinged leaves smell like heaven- nutty and deep chocolate.

When warm water and tea merge it first leaves smooth-juicy, roasted- nutty chocolate tastes. The mouth follows suite with excessive salivation. A tasty undercurrent of sour citrus jazzes things up.

As more water meets leaves the mouthfeel becomes more obvious and starts to cover the mouth in roasted very nutty tones, strong nutty aftertaste, and strong chocolate aroma.

The next infusion brings a soft dry feeling in the mouth, the chocolate flavor is the strongest at this third infusion. One takes time with this infusion, enjoying every sip.

More water, more tea. Nutty tones predominate but a woodiness starts to lie underneath.

In this fifth infusion a spiciness develops. This time the flavour seems more chocolate and less nutty. Although all sessions with this tea are a bit different, they all seem to have one thing in common which is a sort of tug-a-war between nut and chocolate tones. One loves to sit back and let ones tastebuds enjoy the spectacle of this event.

The next few infusions becomes more woody and dry in the mouth. The initial flavours fade under a full dry wood coating. The qi at this point comforts and warms the stomach, a very good, pure, yellow tea feel.
The infusions go on for a while. Light, dry in the mouth- one sips at these flat wood tones and feels cozy and content.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yixing Zen: The Story of That Yixing Pot

Ten thousand Dharmas return to one.
What does one return to?

A couple of years ago, a Korean teamaster had brought back three pots that were almost identical. All three pots had an image of bamboo grass on the side. One of the three which had “Tea and Zen are not two but one” inscribed on the other side in classical Chinese calligraphy broke during use. One of the pots which had some famous Taoist saying inscribed on it is still in use by the teamaster. The last was gifted as one was about to depart from Korea, it is the pot pictured in this blog.

This pot is a real piece of Zen. It was produced a few years ago by a popular yixing company called “Gum Sa Do Yae”. In 2007 the company stopped production after two of its now-famous potters, Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup, left to open their own kilns. Since that time both of these artists have gained fame and notoriety for their marvelous yixing pots produced from their independent kilns. Their works are stunning in their simplicity and wondrous in their form. They often fetch prices in the thousands of dollar range.

Undoubtedly, these potters have skill. Some, such as the teamaster who gave one this pot, attributes their abilities to their indirect training in Zen.

When Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup were working for Gum Sa Do Yae they were hand-making hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of pots. These pots were virtually all the same and looked almost identical as the one pictured above. They were pumping out so many of the same pots day in and day out that they developed a sort of mindlessness, a true spontaneity about it. This repetitious, joyfully mindless state of work is said to embody the precepts of zen.

This is the way of tea, the way that Korean potters mindlessly toiled hundreds of years before in the mountain kilns- alone with the rhythms of nature and an abundance of repetitious work. As a result of such conditions, works that were detached from conceptual deliberate thought were produced- pieces of zen.

Often the pottery created in this state was finished in a flash of zen, a gye yal (Eng:brushmark, Jap: Hakeme) or spontaneous calligraphy quoting a famous Zen phrase or Taoist quote. When the Japanese first caught sight of the work of these Korean potters they attempted to re-create their style, but were unsuccessful because their actions were too deliberate and steeped in conceptual thought. As a result they kidnapped many of these Korean potters and forced them to produce such works in Japan.
Just like the Koreans hundreds of years before, Yu Ji Mung & Yang Lim Beup also left a spontaneous mark on their Gum Sa Do Yae pots. On the side of the pot that faced the guest an image of bamboo was engraved. On the side that faced the tea maker was a spontaneous quote, likely just whatever came to mind, their empty mind, when finishing the pot.
This pot is a wonderful example of such zen...

Its size, like all of its identical siblings, is medium-largish for a yixing but can still fit in ones palm nicely. Although a touch large, it stands staunch and strong, as if in seating mediation.

The layout of its calligraphy attempts of minimize its enormity and harmonizes the piece. The calligraphy and engraving stretches the pot horizontally. The engraving of bamboo is centered more towards the spout. It looks as if it is blowing slowly in the wind and fills up as it moves more toward the short spout- creating a perfect balance with the handle on the opposite side. The placement of the calligraphy on the other side is placed closer to the handle side. It still manages to harmonize with the handle though by the use of vertical calligraphy near the spout side- absolutely brilliant. The placement of the engraving and calligraphy suggest that these pots should be placed with the spout at 10-11 o'clock. This is part of common tea etiquette as a spout pointed directly at the guest is seen as a rude act. Besides this, the natural placement of the pot at 10-11 o'clock reduces the length of this pot went viewed from directly in front or behind, adding even more balance.

The bamboo engraving is natural and beautiful. Bamboo often represents simplicity. Besides that, it is so common, it bears neither fruit not flower yet stands strong due to its empty form inside. In this way bamboo represents the zen mind- strong in its emptiness and simplicity.

The calligraphy on the other side is read right to left. The larger horizontal section translates to “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one”. Where “ten thousand” refers to an infinite number, “Dharmas” refer to all phenomena or all things, and “one” refers to the nature of all things.

The whole phrase is a famous Zen Koan from case 45 of the Blue Cliff Record . This record chronicles seemlying nonsensical dialogues and exchanges among famous Chan monks that often starled zen practitioners into achieving enlightenment- breaking thought their meditation and attaining “no-mind'.

The vertical calligraphy is the date this pot was made using the traditional Chinese astrological calendar. A statement on presence. A mark of spontaneity. (If anyone can translate the date, please let us know).

A pot of this size must be sturdy and solid. This is achieved by wonderful, thick clay that shines with the essence of tea in its pores. It is fairly sturdy when pouring and pours fast and strong.

Its flat lid, like the layout of the engraving, attempts of minimize its enormity. Lifting it off the top one can sense its sturdiness.

The chops on the underside of the pot, lid and handle also nicely balance this pot.

When steam rises from this pot one is at peace.

A novice monk asked Zen Master Zhao Zhou, “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one. What does one return to?”

Zhao Zhou immediately responds, “I was once in Qing Province and made a piece of clothing: a hemp jacket weighing seven pounds.”


Sunday, November 22, 2009

2009 Fall (mid Sept) Teamasters Luanze Oolong, Feng Huang, Taiwan

If this tea sample didn't say “Fall (mid Sept)” on its wrapper one would swear it a Spring oolong.

The dry leaves smell a faint, sweet raspberry muddled in soft, creamy deep mountain tones. One meditates deeply on the smell and can sense the mountain air where these leaves must have lavished in.

These leaves unfurl in yixing with the urging of slightly cooled hot water.

The first infusion reveals the typical milky, creamy sweetness of Taiwanese oolong. This one is nice and sweet accompanied with a bland taste which thinly coats the mouth and covers the lips. A ghostly, juicy raspberry taste adds additional freshness.

The second infusion has more bitter notes which play well with bland and sweet. Milky, fresh, light, slightly fruity, berry sweetness is divided by bitter notes. A flowery summer and roasted almond scent adds to the light, spring feel of this oolong.

In the third infusion, hidden within the wonderful depth of this tea, the flowery notes blossom in the mouth. This taste climbs into the sinuses where it lingers for quite sometime, a nice reminder of what was, what still is.

The fourth brings sweet, light,grainy, fruity honey notes. It has a bitter sharpness about it that keeps the lighter flavours in check. The aftertaste is more cereal-honey.

The next few infusions the flavour shortens, thins, as it is backed by bitter and bland. The aftertaste is a faint floral reminder of what it once was. The chaqi is a touch warming, bright, clean, clear.

The last infusions last hours not minutes and still manage to push out sweet, thick-honey taste with hints of creamy floral over a nice viscus mouthfeel. This thick, buttery floral honey taste is enjoyed all day long.
Stephane are you sure you didn't put some spring oolong in this fall package?


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Three Levels of Tea Drinking: The Flavour Level, The Sense Level, and The Qi Level

There are three different levels of drinking and appreciating tea.

The most superficial and probably the most common way of drinking tea is by simply enjoying the taste of tea. Tea is a beverage, people drink beverages for their taste. This level can be enjoyed without too much thought or energy- tea for what it is, a delicious beverage. Thousands of people around the world enjoy tea in this way everyday without much thought. This is the first level of tea- the enjoyment of its taste.

The secondary level of drinking and appreciating tea is through the use of all senses. At this level people rely on their sense of smell more robustly. They also rely on their sense of hearing, seeing, touch, and of course taste, to enhance their experience with tea. Tea is enjoyed as a result of the interplay of all these senses. Besides the taste of the tea, those who drink tea with all their senses generally value the smell of the dry leaves, the smell of the liquor, the smell left behind in the cup (or the aroma cup), the mouthfeel of the tea, the look of the dry leaf, the colour of the liquor, the look of the wet leaves, and, although not directly connected with the tea itself- the sound of the boiling water, and the pouring of tea and water. Those who drink tea at this sensory level often wish to enhance their sensory experience with the use of specific teaware and techniques which allow for the honing of the full sensory experience with tea. This is the way that most bloggers, connoisseurs, and experts of tea drink it. This is the second level of tea appreciation, the sum of our sensory experience with it.

The deepest and least common way of drinking tea is by sensing its energetic qi level. At this level people go beyond their five senses and touch the deep level of the tea's qi, the chaqi. At this level tea is enjoyed as a result of its vibration within the body and mind, and the affects it imposes on them. Those who drink tea at this level often meditate with it to better sense its nature, movement, and affect on the body and mind. Because not everyone has sharpened such abilities, most people don't drink tea at this level, but everyone is capable at doing so.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

2009 Fall (mid Sept) Teamasters Hung Shui Oolong, Feng Huang, Taiwan

Stephane kindly sent this sample, this wonderful sample...

Directing them into yixing, the dry leaves smell a roasted sweet grain- first suggestion of roasting. Boiling water is left to cool just for a bit before it awakens these roasted pearls.

The first infusion is a touch chalky with notes of light creamy hay sweetness- honey sweetness. Immediately this first light brew feels very harmonious in the mouth, in the soul.

The second infusion brings with it bitter but smooth flavours of roasted honey with the softest faint fleeting floral taste that brightens the nose.

The roast of this tea is what harmonizes it, makes it feel so whole, so complete. It brings out the flavour without drawing attention to its 'roasted' character.

The third infusion has a smooth un-offending bland nuance to it which plays with sweet tones of sweet grainy honey. Soft roasted barley lingers on the breath.

The cha qi is warm and soothing as it reassures ones active mind. The roasting of autumnal oolong does much to harmonize its energy. If an optimal roast is achieved, this tea being a prime example, the energy of the tea becomes more complete. Ascending and descending energies complement not only the flavour but also the qi.
In the fourth infusion this tea's flavour starts to become sneakier, its thick, viscus feel in the mouth is still quite satisfying.

The fifth and sixth infusion bring only grainy, rough, earthy tones with very little sweet notes to be found. A few faint, gritty honey tastes break through.

The seventh infusion is left overnight. One awakes to thick, oily, yummy, honey water. An earthy floral taste makes its last attempt in this cool cup of tea.

One enjoys the cool tea in this way, admiring the brilliantly roasted wet leaves so early in the morning.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Crane Ib Hak Style Tea Bowl: An Example By Kim Jeong Oak

The crane is an auspicious bird. The crane is a symbol of immortality. Taoists believe that cranes are the vehicles that morals take to heaven, transporting them to the realm of immortality.

The characteristics that make up Ib Hak style bowls capture and transform this feeling into clay.
Into a bowl for which tea is drank.
Into a feeling of ascending into heaven.
Into the crane.

The most obvious features of these bowls is the image of a crane found on the side wall. The cranes on Ib Hak style bowls all look extremely familiar- white tip beak, black neck and head, white body and legs, black tail feathers, black feet.

The less obvious imagery of the crane is found in other characteristics of Ib Hak style bowls. If we look at the 'tong hyeong' style body of the bowl it too, represents the crane.

The bottom of the bowl bulges out a bit. This bulge is found in many bowls as the inside bulges outward conforming to the bulbous shape of the tea whisks fine bamboo thines. This shape is said to be conducive to making the best matcha as it allows for the smooth motion of the whisk when the tea is whipped up. It causes the tea to be exposed to the right amount of oxygen as it splashes up against the lower sides of the bowl.

Besides this of topic technical aspect, the bottom bulge looks like the body of the crane, the concave sides resemble the crane's neck, and the 'eui ban' style protruding lip looks like the crane's beak.

If we turn a Ib Hak style bowl over we can see its 'ja ren' style foot. This foot has 3 wide protrusions (the number 3 is also auspicious) that give the feeling of hooking in and anchoring down. A crane's foot has three pronounced toes. When hunting and walking the crane stands on only one foot, yet is completely in balance. In this way the foot of Ib Hak style bowls is the foot of the crane standing in balance.

Overall, the shape of bowl exudes a feeling of upward movement or ascending. Specifically how the sides of the bowl curve out ascending gently towards the 'eui ban' style lip which gracefully slopes toward the heavens.

Unlike most styles of Korean tea bowls, it stands quite tall. The height of the bowls 'tong hyeong' shape creates a feeling of ascending, of swooping upwards- a crane in flight.

This bowl is the crane.
As frothy matcha slopes over the lip sliding tea over our tongue, we too, perhaps just for a while, are carried away to a heavenly place.
Transcending time, transcending mortality.