Tea time Taoism

In Taoism, human beings come from nature and we must follow nature’s path. In nature there is no preference only balance, yet to maintain balance there is a constant flux of movement, balancing and re-balancing.

It is something that we can embrace with out tea practice in simple ways. For example in Winter we can drink richer, thicker tea such as ripe Puerh, in Spring we can drink more lighter vibrant teas. In Winter we can drink deeper into the evening, in Spring we can drink earlier into the morning.

If we become too formulaic in this, however, we impose a false and restrictive guideline that does not liberate the fullest experience. For example, one day we might use more tea in a brew because we feel that the final outcome will be more pleasing but if we were to repeat it another day we might find the experience is different. The point is that we should follow our intuition and adjust and balance our tea sessions to our tastes and needs. Its no different in regard to gong fu brewing techniques as the nature of the tea changes with subsequent brews we adjust the length of the brew and the water accordingly. It is as simple as that!

The ecological ethics of harmony in nature is an irresistible historical trend in Taoist philosophy ( Ding 2018). The idea of ​​promoting the harmonious development of humans and nature is perpetuated in Taoist thought, however it is more than just nature being a separate entity that we have to learn to live with in harmony, it is that we should embed nature and become it rather than impose upon it.

In regard to Taoist ethics we can embed this idea in our tea practice through making it natural. One of my earliest teachers, a painter, Taoist and master of neigong used to give this simple advice, the more you practice something the more natural it becomes. In fact it is something that the philosopher Martin Heidegger also spoke of in regard to “being” in the world.

When we do something, at first it feels awkward, but with physical repetition we develop our experiential and physical learning, we have to think less about performing it and we make less errors. We develop fluidity and finesse. Hence to bring harmony into our tea practice we just have to practice tea!

Taoism would regard this mastery through practice as the real gong fu or a skill achieved through hard work and practice embracing the true meaning of gong 功(work) and fu 夫(achievement) and not an imposed or overlaid ritualistic structure.

Gong Fu therefore can be achieved in any setting with any implements, it is less about artifact and more about artifice. The technology of gong fu is embedded in the mastery of natural harmony in practicing tea not the implements. The implements will help you master it but once you have mastered they are no longer needed.

There are, dotted around, anecdotal stories of tea masters destroying their teaware, but these are few and far between, perhaps because there are very few true masters of Tea. This shouldn’t dishearten us but encourage us to continue to practice and loosen ourselves from the constraints we impose on enjoying tea, as after all the more we practice the more natural it becomes, embracing Tao and returning to the source , which is no more than nature itself

Ding C. 试论道教中和之道与生态和谐 On Taoist Principal of Moderation and Ecological Harmony. Journal of Sinological Studies 漢學研究學刊. 2018 Jun 30;9(1):103-31
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在背心喝熟茶只適合傻瓜或沒有衣服的人!

“Drinking cooked tea in a vest is only suitable for fools or people without clothes!”

The language of tea culture is often ignored in writing and publications. There is focus on the artifacts and technology more than anything else, so sometimes we miss the subtlety.

Language however is as much of a technology as any artifact, I am sure Noam Chomksy will tell you this much. Whilst the innateness of language is not to be discussed in this article, we can understand the subtle difference between knowing terminology and knowing how to embed language into experience. I talk as much about this in my article about  “Shu or Shou”.

Language helps us to open up an experience into something that terminology does not always achieve on its own. The core of language is open up an array of possibility in expressing meaning and value that terminology does not, language can make errors but still express meaning, it is flexible and reflective, something that terminology is not capable of achieving alone. Therefore I am always happy to come across language and phrases that give value and meaning to both tea culture and experience.

My favourite this year so far is the one I have quoted above. It not only captures the idea of drinking habits linked to seasons but also the idea of being in touch with tea through both the body and nature’s elements. I also feel that it makes a bit of a cunning mocking of an imagery of members of the Society of the Heaven and the Earth sitting around drinking expensive ripe Puerh tea in vests in Hong Kong, are they fools? I hope I have not over-read this into the quote and caused offence, but it shows how language can conjure up images and ideas that simple tea terminology does not.

The Japanese perhaps took this to its limit and high expression in their tea culture, whereby language was embedded in poetry which was recited during their tea gatherings, especially so in the Heian period of Japan where displays of kanji visually incorporated both language, art and tea.

Of course tea poetry is so much older in China, with famous poems originating from the period of the Song and Tang dynasties. Whilst these may not at the time have been discussed or recited in tea sessions, it has become popular now to do this, only adding further to any experience by articulating the physical with a imagery of the individual into the hyper-real.

I will therefore finish by quoting one of my favourites and seasonally appropriate:

Lu Yu Visits a Tea Water Well

On a cold winter night
A friend dropped by.
We did not drink wine
But instead drank tea.
The kettle bubbled,
The coals glowed,
The bright moon shone
Outside my window.
The moon itself
Was nothing special –
But, oh, the plum-tree blossoms!

Tu Hsiao Shan
(Song Dynasty)

 

 

Research Update: Puerh Health Benefits and Health sovereignty

As we globally experience a polarisation of society, where views and opinions become amalgamated at each end of a spectrum it is always refreshing that within the tea community we can have open discussions and value each other’s contributions.

One of the ongoing concerns, however, is the continued health benefits cited for Puerh tea. As this gets increasingly capitalised I fear that both the value of enjoying tea for its experience is lost and with such strong opinions from certain sections of global tea trade there is this creep into polarised opinion around health.

From my own perspective, as a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine as well having one foot firmly planted in Western academic enquiry, I extol the medicinal value of Tea, however it comes from an Eastern tradition of medicine which is much more expansive and less reductionist.

What I am essentially stating is that whether we recognise the health benefits of Puerh or not the true value is in the experience.

A recent systematic review however has highlighted that studies on Puerh generally support that a number of ingredients extracted from Puerh have the health benefit of lowering blood sugar, with a few studies conducting experiments and validating the argument that drinking Puerh tea can help regulate and maintain adequate level of blood sugar. Unfortunately, none of those articles have identified specific ingredient(s) responsible for lowering hyperglycaemia and their actual mechanism(s) (Lin et al 2018).

The problem we see is that many studies demonstrate incongruity between extraction methods and dosage when performing experimentation and observation of effects of Puerh. Additionally, many studies use animal models and/or variable criteria for subject selection. Hence, comparing results and studies remain difficult.

What we have to consider is what drives these studies? As tea drinkers we may not be that interested in whether Puerh helps out blood sugar or protects us from disease, that is surely secondary to the experience. However we are all subject to disease and whilst we might not consider it in our love of tea, we all want to remain healthy. Hence the drive for global health continues to drive research on tea.

From a clinical perspective, I remain interested in the fact that it informs what I feel I already know, however if it was solely governing or determining my consumption habits, much like how green tea powder has become a trend in  health “smoothie” recipes, I not only allow “expert opinion” become sovereign over my own decision making but I become subject to science led consumption habits. After all I have not the time or capacity to repeat these experiments myself to decide whether the results and opinions are true or not.

Upon reflection, we can remain balanced and have a healthy respect to research upon tea without polarisation or strong opinion. For example , as a tea drinker when I feel under the weather or accumulated with winter congestion, whilst my first line in treatment might not be reaching for the Puerh I will instinctively know that a hot bowl of ripe Puerh will make me feel better. Studies that show that  bio-active chemicals such as strictnin, that is active against influenza is found in Puerh extracts only serve to reassure my own instincts and experience rather than govern it.

Lin HC, Lee CT, Yen YY, Chu CL, Hsieh YP, Yang CS, Lan SJ. Systematic review and meta‐analysis of anti‐hyperglycaemic effects of Pu‐erh tea. International Journal of Food Science & Technology. 2018 Oct 25.
Chen TY, Wang MM, Hsieh SK, Hsieh MH, Chen WY, Tzen JT. Pancreatic lipase inhibition of strictinin isolated from Pu’er tea (Cammelia sinensis) and its anti-obesity effects in C57BL6 mice. Journal of Functional Foods. 2018 Sep 30;48:1-8.

 

The Osmanthus Effect

There is a tradition in some areas of China and particularly Taiwan of adding Osmanthus to your brew when the tea starts to fade a little. It is suggested that it revitalises the liquor and reinvigorates the brew.

Osmanthus is a shrubby bush that produces sweet and fragrant flowers that not only smell fruity but taste fruity. In Traditional Chinese medicine Osmanthus is understood to improve the complexion and helps rid the body of excess metabolites and has been
in use as a medicinal plant for thousands of years, possessing a broad spectrum of biological effects (Li et al 2017). Extracts of Osmanthus flowers are well-characterized as being rich in phenylethanoid glycoside, which has been used as a natural anti-oxidant, suggesting some significant health benefits (Lu et al 2016)

Known as guìhuā 桂花 its name suggests some association to cinnamon (桂皮 guìpí) which can lead to it being translated, perhaps inappropriately, as cinnamon flower. More appropriately is the fact that it has a fragrance, not at all similar to cinnamon, but equally strong and sweet scented. Etymologically speaking, I suggest that the compound characters for cinnamon comes from the suggestion of “fragrant leather or bark” such that Osmanthus more simply is understood as “fragrant blossom” similar to other fragrant blossoms like Rose which is called mei gui hua 玫瑰花 . Not only is this suggestive of the long history of this plant in Chinese Medicine and culture (along with cinnamon) but that  it really does have fragrant potency in its simplicity obtained from it’s significant aromatic phenolic content.

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The Experiment

To test the taste and cultural opinion of Osmanthus as an additive to tea I chose a wheat grain size 2008 ripe Cha Tou Puerh that had been brewed 5 times previously in a 120ml gaiwan. Its not a bold tea and I felt the Cha Tou format would allow it to continue to emerge in subsequent steeps. Additionally it has somewhat a fragrant flavour that I felt might have married well with the floral tones of Osmanthus.

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Weight to Weight ratios were approximately 1:1 Osmanthus to tea.

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The colour and taste was heavily influenced by the Osmanthus, with a “peachy” and fruity aroma and taste on the first dual-brew.

Later brews were less “peachy” and the Puerh came up to level again in the bowl.

The Verdict

The initial brew was very floral and peachy and the Osmanthus dominated. Over successive brews there was a point where there was a balance achieved between the Puerh and the Osmanthus.

It is difficult not to get some escaping blossom in gaiwan brewing, with some florets entering the bowl. Whilst this does not distract from the brew too much it might just increase the weight of Osmanthus aroma in the experience. I would therefore suggest using a strainer if perfecting this for any gong fu session with friends.

Personally I feel that Osmanthus would work better with hongcha which are generally much more aligned in flavour to the fruity fragrance of Osmanthus and likely to extend the session with more harmony and symmetry to the tea. It might not be somethign to be repeated with prized Puerhs as the boldness of the Osmanthus might just be too much to be appreciated in a long session with nuanced boutique tea.

However, if you do want to extend the tea session it is well worth keeping a small jar of Osmanthus in handy reach of the Chapan, trust me your guest will have no complaints.

Li HL, Chai Z, Shen GX, Li CY. Polyphenol profiles and antioxidant properties of ethanol extracts from Osmanthus fragrans (Thunb.) Lour. flowers. Polish Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences. 2017 Dec 1;67(4):317-26.
Lu B, Li M, Zhou F, Huang W, Jiang Y, Mao S, Zhao Y, Lou T. The Osmanthus fragrans flower phenylethanoid glycoside-rich extract: Acute and subchronic toxicity studies. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2016 Jul 1;187:205-12.

5 years: a good age for Ripe Puerh

It is often said that a good age for Shu, or ripe Puerh is after the 5 year mark.

In essence this gives it time to rest and continue some of the fermentation that had been kick started by the wet piling process. It could also be said that it allows some of the wet pile taste (wo dui 渥堆) to dissipate, which, to be honest, probably depends more on the storage than the age.

I have roughly 30/70 ripe to raw Puerh in my collection and I always get a mild panic when I realise I have been chipping away at the older ripe teas that I have not enough younger cakes to replace the vacuum created.

This is partly due to tea drinking habits whereby often I will enjoy the older raw Puerh first, thus allowing time for the younger productions to come up to age. However, with my ripe collection its far less systematic and more erratic. I guess this is inevitable as some really good Menghai ripe productions can be enjoyed within the first year of production, and if you really enjoy drinking tea then why wait?

However, if you can afford to have the patience its well worth exploring the +5 year threshold.

On this occasion, and to exemplify, I have chosen a 2013 ripe production from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing. This is entirely Nan Nuo mountain material.

When initially released , Scott described it as,

“Sweet, pungent and slight bitterness all rolled into one tea.  Light-Medium fermentation gives this a subtle cha qi and mouth-watering effect making this a good bet for long-term aging!”

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I utilised a borsiliscate glass teapot to ensure a level of neutrality in brewing with approximately 120ml to a good 8 grams of leaf.

Two customary rinses were given and the initial aroma gave me memories of dry Autumn beech woodlands, not overly composty, damp or earthy but woody and fresh.

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The overwhelming flavour notes coming through were of  sour cherry, that slight familiar cherry-stone flavour you get with many aged ripes was more rounded than expected giving a richer fruity note.

The mouthfeel was not overly thick and slightly drying perhaps retaining some of the effects of Kunming storage.

The huigan was the most surprising element as it delivered both woody and peppery after tastes. This was a delight as a half expected typical camphor flavours.

At 5+ years, there were still some bitterness, as Scott originally described, but I feel this has softened and become en-robed in the sour cherry notes.

I suspect the light fermentation has allowed the tea to develop further in storage, although perhaps more gracefully due to more dryer conditions. This perhaps gives the tea more time to develop over a further few years and encorages me to put more age on it still.

I feel I could have upped the ratio of leaf to water (maybe 10 grams!?), giving a bolder outcome in the cup but I may have lost some of the more subtle level of tastes to the tea.

In conclusion, at +5 years, this ripe performs very well and should encourage more of us to store ripe productions for longer. I am perhaps slightly disappointed to not have had this tea back in 2013 to see how it developed so I also suggest that if you plan to set out to store some ripe productions for middle to long term aging that you at least get a few cakes per production so you can enjoy the wealth that comes through time.

Tea fasting

Over the last week I have fasted off tea. It is that time of year when the seasons change and not only is it a good time to check our tea drinking habits but also  we await the bounties of Autumn tea harvests.

Recent celebrations of China’s National Day at the beginning October gives us the opportunity to drink and enjoy lots of tea among family, friends and even new acquaintances. However it maybe surprising that wine is perhaps the most preferred and consumed drink of the festival, China being the biggest producer!

During this time I find it its a good time to take stock of my tea stores and collection and establish some teas to take me through the Winter. Therefore having a fast from tea drinking, albeit for a few days, can also help us to refresh our minds and re-experience some of our favourite teas and even new ones with “beginners senses”. Enjoying well known experiences and feelings with a sense of renewal.

Autumn is therefore not an end of something but the beginning of a new season and with this I always find a small fast from tea helps to transition into this with renewal.

In approaching days I plan therefore not only set up some Winter teas but initiate the new seasons ahead with some Autumn tea.

1990’s Lao Cha Tou

In my previous post on Cha Tou I stated that the best Cha Tou are ones that are smaller in size, however it is not unusual to get some the size of large marbles. I therefore thought it would be good to review some bigger “marble sized” Cha Tou.

Because the larger Cha Tou takes longer to age I have specifically selected an older tea for this review.

The Cha Tou are from the ripening process of a Xiaguan production from the 90’s that have had some storage in Shanghai for at least 10 years.

The Cha Tou are typically the size of small Chinese dates (2-3cm in length) but vary in size as well as compression, as to be expected from this type of material.

All-focus

As you can appreciate from the photos the Cha Tou don’t have a uniform shape but I suspect they were picked out and graded by size so they all have roughly the same size and weight and all have some evidence of spores from storage which may make a welcome contribution to the final brew.

All-focus

I did the customary two rinses, followed by a good 10 second steep in the gaiwan.

All-focus

Despite fairly tight compression the nugget did show signs of opening up, this was somewhat assisted however by ensuring the water was as close to boiling I could achieve between kettle and gaiwan.

In the brew I used borehole water which is softer than most tap waters and free of chlorination. This yielded the taste of traditionally stored Puerh well without any undue “funky” flavours. The initial aromas were delicately of damp wood.

All-focus

In later steepings the colour of the brew deepened, likely due to the nugget opening up further, however there were still some compact leaves in the gaiwan that benefited from being teased out.

Overall brews 1-6 were fairly consistent with some loss of profile beyond brew #7. There was no astringency when pushed a little harder and longer in the gaiwan and quite light in delivery with the woody and camphor notes that is not also unlike an aged Liu Bao.

Having read Varat’s review of a 1990’s Xiaguan ripe brick production I can certainly detect some similarities as well as that typical Xiaguan smokiness.

Despite being fairly large in size for Cha Tou I was still able to enjoy and get a fairly decent brew. I think there is a balance between size of Cha Tou and the age of the material, it would be interesting to undertake some comparison testing, comparing age and size and brew effect. I suspect there is some middle ground to be have with Cha Tou whereby the size and the age mediate the taste.

My theory would be the older the Cha Tou the better but size having a negative effect on this, such that +10 year old Cha Tou material would be definitely worth sampling, but keep it below the size of a finger nail as a rule of thumb.