Thoughts upon Longevity and Tea

For centuries Tea has been associated with health, medicine and longevity. Both Buddhist and Taoist prescriptions include tea in their repertoire of medical herbs and longevity is not simply achieved by discovering some secret elixir to life but is pragmatically achieved by leading a healthy, happy and balanced life and avoiding harm.

I am still surprised that many Western views of tea as a stimulating beverage prevail over its benefits. Traditional tea cultures tend to use tea to relax and structure “time-out” not to achieve stimulation, a social drink that builds relationships and creates harmony. Use of tea to enhance meditation practice has often been mis-interpreted as relying on its stimulating effect, but these opinions ignore the Buddha’s teachings on avoiding stimulants and intoxicants. In reality tea use in Buddhism is far more complex than this and certainly the same is true of Taoist practice. Tea can be offering, food and  medicine and easily slips between such categories in various ritual and practice. Like other entheogens (any psychoactive substance that induces a spiritual experience and is aimed at spiritual development), tea is imbued not only with pharmaceutical value and properties but cultural properties that makes its use both potentially dynamic and adaptive to both individual and social environments. For example Tibetan butter tea is both a meal, a medicine and an offering to gods, Bodhisattvas and demons. It can be sustenance for long practices or act as mediator between sentient beings. Yaks can consecrated and blessed with tea and journeys both spiritual and physical can be supported by it and even promoted by it.

Therefore we can begin to appreciate that if longevity is the ability to live a long happy, healthy and balanced life then tea is intimately entwined. For a traditional tea culture tea becomes a way of sustaining this balance either through drinking, consuming, sharing or offering tea in many formats and upon many social or spiritual ritual platforms.

In earlier posts I have discussed about the medical value of tea and its pharmaceutical components but perhaps its true value as an elixir for longevity is its holistic value. I do sometimes wonder that when we start removing the pharmaceutical value away from its traditionally valued properties we start to lose its efficacy. The production and consumption of green tea extract in pills surely has less benefits from daily green tea drinking in a social setting in that the benefits of sharing and attention to the tea with all the senses (taste, scent, feeling, touch, sight etc.) is absent in popping a pill. Its akin to eating a hearty healthy meal in pill or powder format where all the nutrition and vitamins are still present but without the experience or even the time to enjoy it. Even when I undertake solo tea sessions the benefits of experiencing the tea and taking time to focus my attention on the act from leaf to cup to mouth is an incredibly enriching experience as well as providing a mindful act of meditation and relaxation from the daily cycles of life.

MarshalN touches upon this idea of drinking with your body as a concept of enjoying the tea as a total experience http://www.marshaln.com/2012/05/drinking-with-your-body/. By embracing the experience of tea in its total bodily sense we also achieve opportunity for the tea session to embed into our current state of being and into both a social and environmental locus. In doing this we allow the benefits of the tea medicine to maintain and balance not just our internal physiological self but our social, emotional and environmental well-being that therefore contributes to longevity.

We are perhaps already aware that the pursuit for longevity isn’t a new concept or endeavour. The 16th Century novel of Wu Cheng En tells includes the tale of the Monkey King and the peaches of immortality that confer 3,000 years of life whilst the practice of long-life deities such as Amitayus and White Tara have a long history in Tibetan Buddhism. In classical culture we hear tales of Greek ambrosia consumed by the gods that confer immortality and longevity.

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As technology advances our search for the recipe for longevity continues with more sophistication, equally as we see lifespans improve with better outcomes of disease we see an increased fear of longer life spent with decline in quality of well being. Dementia and Alzheimers being one of the most significant fears alongside cancer for the decline in quality of life. Aging of populations globally is perhaps the most powerful driver of age-related disease and risk of disease.

Recent research has shown the benefits of tea as an neuro-protective agent in
pathogenesis of brain aging and neuro-degenerative diseases (Gumay, Bakri & Utomo 2018). Outcomes from a recent systematic review by Panza et al (2015) further suggest that most studies show that tea may have a protective role on neuro-degeneration.

Perhaps, though, more importantly is the social ritual and benefits of consuming not just the pharmaceutical value of tea in regard to longevity but the social, emotional and environmental value. There is evidence that maintaining social ritual and activities, such as that that surrounds tea culture, into later life can lead to quality of life for dementia sufferers (Milte et al 2017). As previously mentioned in an earlier post the involvement of dementia sufferers in the delivery and design of traditional tea ceremony in Japan has demonstrated an improvement in well being (Doi et al 2015).

The point therefore is that increasing studies continue to expose the benefits of tea medicine on physiological long-term health , however it is the application of tea medicine in its holistic sense through social ritual and context that is likely to confer the most benefits.  I am reminded of the story of the Monkey King in which the immortality peach is not consumed in isolation but at a banquet with many guests, equally how it is written that the scent of the peach confers 360 years of life and 47,000 years upon eating. Hence it reminds us that perhaps longevity isn’t just embedded in consuming an object but is within its consumption within a social framework that enjoins multiple sense experiences.

 

Doi T, Kuwahara N, Morimoto K. Effective design of traditional Japanese tea ceremony in a group home for the elderly with dementia. International Conference on Digital Human Modeling and Applications in Health, Safety, Ergonomics and Risk Management 2015 Aug 2 (pp. 413-422). Springer, Cham.
Gumay AR, Bakri S, Utomo AW. The Effect of Green Tea Leaf Extract on Spatial Memory Function and Superoxyde Dismutase Enzyme Activity in Mice with D-galactose Induced Dimentia. Sains Medika. 2018 Jan 18;8(1):8-14.
Milte R, Shulver W, Killington M, Bradley C, Miller M, Crotty M. Struggling to maintain individuality–Describing the experience of food in nursing homes for people with dementia. Archives of gerontology and geriatrics. 2017 Sep 1;72:52-8.
Panza F, Solfrizzi V, Barulli MR, Bonfiglio C, Guerra V, Osella A, Seripa D, Sabba C, Pilotto A, Logroscino G. Coffee, tea, and caffeine consumption and prevention of late-life cognitive decline and dementia: a systematic review. The journal of nutrition, health & aging. 2015 Mar 1;19(3):313-28.
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Korean Tea: Beyond the 38th Parallel

There is a lot of false assumption that in North Korea there is no production of tea, I think because of current and recent politics this is because it is not so easy to come by. Some of these assumptions are further propped up by false ideology around views that tea doesn’t grow beyond certain latitudes ( i.e. 38 degrees ) but we know too well that tea grows successfully in Turkey, Azerbaijan and more recent times in the United Kingdom. In fact in 2002 Azerbaijani tea won a gold award under the black tea category at the International Tea Festival, Madrid.

Tea adapts well to most climates and conditions, hence its widespread production across 5 continents.The qualities of the finished tea can be profoundly influenced by climate conditions caused both by changes in chemical composition of the tea plant in response to different growing conditions and soils and to climate conditions during processing.

For most of history North and South Korea were not separate states and tea was widely drunk following its initial introduction via Buddhist culture around the 2nd Century CE into the Three Kingdoms of  Baekje , Silla  and Goguryeo.

Tea played an important role in Buddhist ritual and ceremony and at the height of Korean Buddhist culture in the unified state period of Silla (668-935 CE) it was a popular drink in households and monasteries alike. Some of the earliest Buddhist temples in Korea, such as Bulgapsa, Bulhoesa, and Hwaeomsa, claim to be the birthplace of Korean tea culture. Buddhism became the state religion up to 1392 when Neo-confucianism suppressed its practice. Despite this tea remained in the background culture with Buddhist hermits in mountain retreats being caretakers to the tradition of tea culture and small scale production. This may explain why places such as Hadong retain their wild tea culture as well as their Buddhist temples and culture.

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Most of the teas we know nowadays are from South Korea and grown as plantation tea, which is perhaps due to the politics of 20th and 21st century and the continued isolated state of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The most famous of these being Chaksol Cha or “Sparrow’s Tongue” a green tippy tea made from the very smallest plucked spring buds and resembling tiny bird tongues after processing. The processing involves repeated roasting over charcoal not unlike roasted wulong/oolong and similarly has a fragrant sweet aroma with smooth verdant flavour.

The influence of Japanese culture resulting from repeat invasions and colonisations since the 16th Century CE is evident in Korean tea culture, from the way tea is cultivated to the type of tea known as Jengjae-cha which is more alike Japanese sencha in both  taste, experience and processing. Equally, the Korean tea ceremony known as the Dar’ye (Cha Li 茶禮) is somewhat evocative of fomalised etiquette found in Japanese ceremony. However it is perhaps Hanjae Yi Mok 寒齋 李穆 (1471-1498)  who most famously brought back the value of tea in the Neo-confucianist period of Korea that led to the development of the Korean tea ceremony, stating in his treatise “Rhapsody to Tea“:

“I was not familiar with tea, but after reading Lu Yü’s Classic of Tea I discovered something of its true nature and came to value tea immensely.”

Red and black teas, although not as popular in Korea, do appear in Korean tea culture such as Jaekseol-cha  which is a traditional  Hong Cha from Hadong in South Gyeongsang Province and Borim-Cha, a post-fermented tea brick named after Borim temple in  Jangheung, South Jeolla Province, after all it was perhaps these types of teas that first came to Korea from China in cake or brick form.

Another famous place in the history and culture of Korean tea is Juje Island,  the largest island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, and the main island of Jeju Province of South Korea. Its moderate climate makes it ideal for tea production and boasts the largest tea garden in the whole of Korea. Jeju productions can feature a range of processing from green through to oxidized red tea or Hong Cha.

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It is interesting to note how such teas evoke memories of WuYi rock wulong/oolong as exposed in James and Denny review of tea from Jeju Island in their post https://teadb.org/teas-unique-jeju-island-black-tea/

But what about the North? Allegedly it is suggested that in more recent times the now deceased leader Kim Il Sung in 1982  proposed that the republic should produce its own tea. His successor Kim Jong Il continued to put the task on the agenda and ordered to further advance research in tea growing. Whether the current Kim Jong Un has similar aspirations is uncertain, but this seems to suggest that North Korean tea is a relatively new venture. Whether this is true or not is debateable as prior to the republic certainly tea would have travelled north from its southern plantations, post -republic tea would have travelled south from China and still does today, hence the need for self-production might have only been a small pressure until it became enrobed in national politics and pride.

Getting tea information and tea product out of North Korea is currently as difficult as smuggling state secrets, and in someway it is like this because of the nature in which tea production has become politicised in national and republic identity both within and outside the state. However there is certainly evidence of both green and Hong Cha production, whether the productions are from material that originate within the republic is uncertain, short of flying drones over prime arboreal locations, and frankly who wants to instigate an international crisis over tea? Equally the power of media has led to a lot of mis-information around tea in the secret state, not to lambaste any truth around the reportage about the conditions in North Korea, but it useful to remember that the majority appear framed within anti-North Korean rhetoric and hence we don’t necessarily get the true picture of affairs. There are certainly images of the state leader Kim Jong Un enjoying tea which would suggest that tea is part and parcel of North Korean identity.

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Tea itself has become a mediator in North and South relations, best exemplified in the creation of a tea room within the Joint Security Area (Lee 2017). Maybe it would be further possible that through tea we might see future warming of relations between North and South as the exchange of cups of warm liquor precede warm words between the nations.

Lee S.(2017) A Reconciliation between North and South Korea (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati).

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

I find it interesting that we often place the seasons in order by the calendar year which is evocative of the distance mainstream society has been removed from the more natural flow of agricultural and lunar year. We retain some of this in such celebrations as Easter, Chinese New Year and Harvest Festival that hark back to a time when the mainstream was much more tied in to traditional cycles of farming, trade winds and celestial events.

The Chinese calendar is a luni-solar calendar that begins with the dark moon near the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. Early Chinese calendars divided the year up into 5 sections with 5 seasons however interestingly there is also evidence of a balanced calendar, much like modern calendars, being used during the Shang period (1766 to 1122 BC) that split the year up, starting from Winter Solstice into even months of 29.5 days and seasons.

Drinking tea is not merely a matter of refreshment and companionship but the tea session provides us opportunity to reflect and appreciate Nature and seasons. Bringing Nature into our tea sessions or locating our tea sessions within Nature can lead to a heightened appreciation of the tea and help us expand our tea medicine practice outward into the world. As we take tea in we reflect outward, just like when we take a deep breath in we expel a deep breath out and so forth,  such that to create space for tea we have to prepare just like with our breathing by expanding outwards with our senses and consciousness.

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The practice of Ikebana in Japan is traced back to 7th Century, initially starting out as altar offerings then becoming an art for reflection and meditation itself. The first flower arrangements utilised a system known as shin-no-hana, meaning “central flower arrangement”. A huge branch of pine or similar stood in the middle, and around the tree were placed three or five seasonable flowers. Composition of such flower arrangements illustrate a cosmological symbol for reflection through its structure but also embellishes the principle of season and nature in its components. For example the vertical arrangement of flower/plant material symbolises alignment of Heaven in the strongest stem with a secondary stem symbolising culture or humankind and a tertiary horizontal or low placed stem or material symbolising the earth. Whilst the choice of material is both seasonal and symbolic in that in Winter we might see Pine or Cherry Blossom (late Winter) or in Summer Bamboo, alongside seasonal vegetation. We can appreciate this in the balance and elements of such compositions by the floral artist Hayato Nishiyama in the Autumn presentation above.

The value of incorporating Nature in tea sessions is perhaps best seen in a study undertaken by Doi et al (2015) where the participation in Ikebana as part of the design of tea ceremonies delivered to dementia patients that was rooted in seasonal changes and culture helped to reduce anxiety and instill group dignity.

The Japanese term Chabana denotes the specific use of Ikebana in the formalities of the Japanese tea ceremony. “Cha”, as we know means tea, such that it literally translates as “flowers for tea”. Chabana comes with minimal rules and appeals to those who prefer a simple, natural look in their creation. The arrangement is a seasonal expression of flowers placed in a simple vase or basket. It is intended to both heighten and deepen the atmosphere of the tea gathering as called for by the occasion but also embeds guests into the season with such display of available natural flora.

I feel, however , it is far better to appreciate tea with the seasons in Nature itself than bringing cut plant material into the home, I would advocate if you do decide to bring it to your tea room or your shrine you ensure its is collected respectively and from sustainable sources. Although I grow a lot of plant material for traditional herbal formulas and food I find there is even more delight in appreciating the plants growing in their nature habitat or within the framework of other flora and fauna.

Perhaps then the ideal image of the “mountain hermit’s” tea hut that is evoked in later Japanese tea garden designs aims to capture this, whereby guests are offered different vistas of a garden to accompany tea throughout the seasons.

Another way to capture and appreciate the seasons is drinking with the season. A rule of thumb generally exists within the variety of tea available, however this is not strictly adhered to when we consider the Japanese tea ceremony where the tea is the axis mundi in which the cycle of seasons and guests revolve. Generally speaking, however, dark thicker teas are more suitable for Winter, Autumn and Early Spring when nights are cold and the earth is wet and cold. There is an almost natural affinity of these teas such as ripe fermented Puerh or Dianhong Hongcha which capture both the scents and experiences of such seasons in their fruity and fermented textures. We appreciate and evoke the rich aromas and tastes of Nature , of harvested fruit and root vegetables in the the colder seasons which such teas communicate to us. In warmer seasons of Spring and Summer when the light breeze of Southerly winds are desired, green and fragrant tea capture such desires in their fresh green aromas such as  Tai Ping Hou Kui, or present their Spring blossom in teas such as Jasmine Pearl tea . As Summer reaches it peak and the qi flows strong we might find that we appreciate the strong cha qi of raw Puerh.

Learning to appreciate tea with each season undoubtedly creates a cycle of tea practice and embeds it in the world with benefits received both from Nature and from the tea itself. Our natural rhythms have been somewhat eroded or superseded by modern lifestyles such that by allowing ourselves to reconnect with Nature through tea can only be a good thing.

Doi T, Kuwahara N, Morimoto K. Effective design of traditional Japanese tea ceremony in a group home for the elderly with dementia. International Conference on Digital Human Modeling and Applications in Health, Safety, Ergonomics and Risk Management 2015 Aug 2 (pp. 413-422). Springer, Cham.

“Terroir” : Comparing two teas

As discussed in previous posts “Terroir” is not just about location, location , location but about the people and processing in individual teas as well as all the unique interactions that occur between the tea tree growing the leaf and the final product that continually contributes to the final experience at any moment in time.

By definition “Terroir” is the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat as well as the impact of other species of micro and macro fauna/flora. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to have a character; “Terroir” also refers to this character.

I thought it would be interesting to share how “Terroir” in tea leads to different experience and tea medicine.

Carefully choosing two wild arbor teas from Yunnan I have opted for the following comparison:

Tea #1 – Yi Wu Mountain Wild Arbor Assamica Hong Cha Spring 2017

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Yi Wu tea growing area is located in Mengla County. The greater Yi Wu region encompasses Mansa, Mahei, Yitian and Manluo, and is historically associated with the Bulang people who were the primary growers of tea.  Today the Yi Wu tea growing areas are approximately 10 square kilometres in size and produce approximately 600 tons of tea per year. They lie between 820 and 2000m in elevation and have a very marked topography. Annual rainfall is between 100 and 180cm and a relative humidity of 80%. The weather is warm and humid all year around with little or no frost.

Tea #2 – Jingmai Mountain Wild Arbor Hong Cha of Spring 2017

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Jingmai  is located in the Puerh Prefecture, Lancang County township of Huimin. It borders Menghai County in Xishuangbanna. The Jingmai tea growing area covers the Lancang County villages of Jingmai and Mangjing. This stretch of 7square kilometres has a long history of tea production and possibly the  first area cultivated, over 1200 years by the Bulang people. Within the ancient tea forest, tea trees are mixed in with the rest of the forest. This has created a fine natural ecology, which is a good example of an ecological tea garden. It was deemed as a site of such historic and cultural importance that the Chinese government placed an application for UNESCO heritage status in 2013, a copy of the application can be seen on the following site:

http://whc.unesco.org/fr/listesindicatives/5810/ 

Both teas are from naturally occurring tea trees in managed but uncultivated zones harvested by local villagers in Spring 2017 and processed in traditional Hong Cha methods. Both teas are available from www.yunnansourcing.com

Initial impressions are with sight and smell. Smell is an important sense in regard to engaging with tea medicine and indeed herbal medicine in Traditional Chinese medical practice as it is through the nose that the in-breath is taken, enriching the Heart and Lungs with its qi. Therefore the qualities of scent or aroma from any tea material should be appreciated first as at this moment the tea has already started to deliver it medicine. Typically, in a tea gathering or session I would offer the dried leaf material to any guests to have a deep in-breath of aroma then followed again by offering of the same leaf after its initial wash of steeping water. The contrast between initial aromas and then wet steamed aromas is always a delight and a surprise, as sometimes bright fresh green material can deliver deep contrasts of leather scent and sandalwood.

In individual solo sessions I often go from tea to tea taking in each aroma in turn before deciding which tea I will choose for that session, it is arguable that by getting into this practice not only do you notice the subtle aroma differences of each individual tea but you start to align the qi and qualities of each tea with both your own mood and needs at that time.

It is also important to recognise that in traditional Chinese medical diagnostic practices the way a patient smells is paramount to diagnosis with different odors attributable to different organ energetics, therefore by tuning in and taking time to experience the aroma of tea we are not only enjoying it on a different level but also getting the benefits. The commonly used character for aroma or scent of tea is Xiangqi 香氣 which is made up of the characters “fragrant”香  and the familiar character qi 氣 which I feel sufficiently explains what is going on when you take in the aroma of tea. I feel this is something that could have whole treatise written upon it so I will halt there and proceed with the comparison.

The Yi Wu leaf is looser rolled in the processing and larger in size, even before brewing you begin to feel that this tea is going to unfold more in the gaiwan. The Yi Wu is also somewhat greener in shades, whilst both teas are relatively young I suspect the Yi Wu will have lighter brighter notes in the taste. Aroma of the dried leaf is somewhat similar in that the typical Hong Cha fruity scent is shared by both of these teas, however the Yi Wu is much richer with scents of sticky ripe mango. The Jingmai, however is reminiscent of something much greener and verdant, like the smell of freshly picked blackcurrants and blackcurrant leaves.

The Jingmai material is a degree tighter and smaller, golder in texture as an out come of both leaf type and processing. The Jingmai leaf type is a specific assamica varietal that is naturally hybridized and smaller in scale than pure assamica that is present in the Yi Wu material.

As part of the the oxidisation process of Hong Cha both teas have been subject to traditional methods of rolling 揉捻 despite the use of rolling machines being more common due to traditional methods being both back-breaking and time consuming. Hong Cha production involves much more rolling揉捻 than Puerh production and hand rolling can be laborious, such that use of feet may also be involved and can take up to several hours compared to minutes. Although I have no information to verify this and whilst not necessarily discernible in the end product, I feel that it is far more likely that the Jingmai material may have had some foot rolling due to the uniformity and tightness of the leaves compared with the Yi Wu, from experience I find that those teas which have had some foot rolling, come out closer to machine rolled material in regard to texture and shape. A good way of understanding this knowledge is comparing traditional Wulong/Oolong teas from Fujian, where foot rolling is more common, comparing the subtle differences between hand, foot and machine processing in the end product. It is also interesting to note that the literal Chinese for this step of the process is made up of the characters 揉 “rub” and 捻”twist” which perfectly describes the actions.

Old tree and wild arbor tea material is more often than not treated to traditional hand rolling or foot rolling which as a whole both leads to a high quality product and less breakage but also means that when you infuse such teas you are also infusing this work and attention within it and therefore equally should you give it the appropriate respect and attention in its enjoyment. Sometimes labels such as “traditional process” will indicate this level of attention given with hand or foot rolling, but as there are many traditions it is best to rely on your own judgement on the leaf and knowledge gained from experience for as we know with other such labels (i.e. Ancient, Wild etc) they can mean a wide range of things and can be misleading.

Weidao 味道 often translates as “taste” . I use the term Weidao as one of many ways to judge a tea. As elucidated in previous articles taste has been a definitive way of traditional cultures identifying medicinal value of plant material,  taste receptors in the oral cavity serve as sensors for various beneficial compounds as they are expressed in numerous extra-oral tissues throughout the body. A study by Behrans et al (2018) identified six receptors activated by in total 17 different compounds and suggest that these receptors play dominant roles in the evaluation and perhaps physiological activities of herbal medicine, in this way taste becomes a significant sensory process in not only discerning beneficial qualities of teas but also initiating physiological benefits of tea. The Chinese character Wei味 translates as taste on its own but we should reflect that the addition of Dao 道 which is often understood as “road” or “way” together encompasses the notion that to taste is not only a method or “way” but perhaps a “journey”.

After a very brief wash and rinse of material to waken the leaves and remove any debris or fannings we can continue to compare with our sights and smells but enjoin this with out third friend on the “journey” (道) that being taste (wei味). In comparison the aromas have now changed from having heat and water, the Jingmai delivering more peppery scent and the Yi Wu retaining its fruitiness but with rounded scents of lychee.

There are also subtle differences in colour of the tea soup, albeit difficult to capture by camera alone. The Yi Wu tea is slightly paler with a tinge of green (right in picture), whilst the Jingmai is richer and more golden (left in picture) which reflects in someway the dry tea material. There is also a discernible thickness to the Jingmai soup that is less present in the Yi Wu tea.

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In enjoining the sense of taste we begin to notice the differences between these two teas. The Yi Wu is powerful and punchy in taste with rich malty fruity mineral tones and slight returning metallic flavour of oxidation felt at the back of the mouth. The Jingmai, however is much more malty less fruity but sweet at the front of the mouth.

Hui Gan can be an elusive term, in essence it describes the tea memory after drinking a tea but when rendered in Chinese as 回甘 it literally means “back to sweet”. I have also seen it written, perhaps more correctly as 回感 which means literally “returning sense” as after all the memory of the tea is something that is felt in the throat , the mouth and the nose so its all these senses returning to focus on the tea in its absence, such you commonly acquire feelings of coolness, dryness, perhaps menthol, or perhaps betal nut (as in Liu Bao) as well as a range of other flavours, aromas and scents. Sometimes the Hui Gan can be subtle or strong, simple or complex. The Jingmai tea delivers a milk chocolate Hui Gan almost reminiscent of old style cocoa and not incompatible with the opening flavours of malty sweetness. The Yi Wu, however delivers more of a bread sourdough Hui Gan that balances the fruit richness like the sweetness of marmalade on toast.

In summary, there are a lot of similarities between these two teas and distinct individual differences. I would go so far as say the similarities are more directly due to the oxidation and processing and the differences are individual contextual characteristics distinct and specific to each that we can call “Terroir”.

Behrens M, Gu M, Fan S, Huang C, Meyerhof W. Bitter substances from plants used in traditional Chinese medicine exert biased activation of human bitter taste receptors. Chemical biology & drug design. 2018 Feb 1;91(2):422-33.

Global Tea Market, Prices or “What a difference a year makes”

Tea, like other commodities is subject to global fluctuations and influence of global markets. Fluctuations in production, market growth and annual yield are but a few factors that affect retail values.

Some areas of the Tea market remain pretty stable such as Puerh tea, individual enthusiasts and connoisseur consumers tends to keep the prices afloat and the continued growth of interest in these teas from the Western consumers helps to maintain its liveliness much like marketing and re-marketing campaigns do for individual products.

At this time of year however many of us long term and enthusiastic drinkers of Puerh start to get little pings of anxiety around prices. As it gets closer to Spring picking at the beginning of April after moving through Chinese New Year the sudden excitement and activity of production lends itself to a seasonal bump in Puerh prices. As we don’t yet know what Spring 2018 will yield in respect to crop quality and quantity such nervousness may lend itself to large fluctuations in the cost of tea. Equally as small producers try to make a push to clear some of their storehouses of older productions different behaviors such as the pressing of mao cha from last years harvest and the release of older productions into the market might leads to some lumps and bumps. Finally as we technically tip over Chinese New Year older productions already on the market are likely to attract higher prices.

A lot of this is unpredictable at this present time and some settling occurs after the Spring production has commenced once it is clear what the Winter and previous years has brought us in yield and how previous years mao cha has faired in storage. However given the relative stability in the long term it is somewhat predictable that old cakes and pressings are likely to only increase in value, this is something that some of the smaller and even larger producers bank on in that by holding back some productions for later release there is opportunity to balance the unpredictability of the future, give or take some subtraction of the costs of storage.

Therefore it is interesting to explore some of this by looking at the retail cost changes (in US dollars) with a small selection of teas between 2017 and the current year.

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I have to confess my selection is purely random and is only a very very small % of the market therefore any assumption made on such comparisons is just that. Equally it does not take into account some of the more casual vending that occurs on places such as AliExpress where I am unable to necessarily authenticate the products and thereby prices may appear lower in comparison but material may not be genuine. However it does make us think about the market in some interesting ways and helps generate hypotheses that we can test in our way and experience.

I wasn’t surprised to find that out of my small random selection that the biggest increase was an old raw production as I think it is somewhat accepted as “de facto” that these teas are going to continue to increase in price with age. I was surprised at the rate in increase and wonder whether market concerns with availability has mediated this in that limited availability often leads to hikes in price.

I think also popularity and demand raises prices which somewhat explains why the ripe productions fetch higher prices. I call this the “V93 phenomena” as way back in 2006 Menghai Dayi produced a ripe and raw version of the “V93” 100g Tuo Cha. The ripe version soon commanded very high prices due to the fact that it became one of the most sought after ripe teas in China, and even today the ripe version exceeds the raw version which already weighs in at around $60 a piece. That is to say that retail demands for particular productions can upset the market and push prices up for particular productions that go against normal market logic. Its likely this is what is happening to some degree also with the  Yi Pin Tang and Xiguan productions in my sample. One of the biggest drivers for this in the early ripe V93 productions was that it was gold medal winner of the 13th Shanghai international tea cultural gathering, demonstrating that an award culture can have significant affects on commodity value. This is not that different from the same phenomena surrounding “boutique teas” where the value of the product exceeds the product value because it confers additional values to consumer.

The Menghai Dayi production in the sample is a raw production and could be easily explained by views that the larger more famous brands always attract more attention, hence accumulating price hikes annually as both demand as well as the fact that this is a raw production raises it price above any predictable increase.

I would argue that Nan Jian Tu Lin 701 production shows a typical annual increase for most productions between 10 and 15% albeit slightly high for a ripe production which again might be explained by demand due to popularity.

I was surprised that there didn’t appear to be any changes in the Changtai branded tea despite the brand being well known for sought after teas and that it is already clocking up 11 years of aging.  I suspect, as with the other two teas, that showed no increase in my sample, this picture may change come post-spring 2018 as a clearer picture is obtained around future productions and the yields.

What I have not discussed in how newer market demands such as single origin and organic status affects such increases. Neither have I talked about the impact of labels such as “old arbor” or “ancient” which I have discussed in earlier posts. I suspect that older teas that are unable to cope with these demands may start to see a plateau in their retail prices as the market changes. However we can generate and test the following assumptions:

  • Older raw Puerh productions are likely to demonstrate higher increases in price over time more  than younger productions.
  • More established famous brands of Puerh show predictable increases in price over time. Classic Menghai Dayi recipes such as the 7572 will no doubt always have a following as it has a long establishment in China and as such will also always fetch a reasonable price outside any market fluctuations
  • Demand and value cultures surrounding certain productions over-inflate price increases over time as do limited availability in a similar way through conferring additional value to individual items i.e. “the V93 phenomena” as well as ” the get it why you can” value.
  • Future demands from the market such as  organic or boutique teas may start to influence big factory productions or prices

James and Denny at https://teadb.org/ have undertaken their own analysis and discussion around some of these issues and its worth a read, especially the comments with contributions from the tea world.

 

Tea Focus: Tian Jian Hei Cha

Tian Jian or 天尖 composed of the characters for “Heaven” (天) and “tip” (尖) is commonly translated as “Heavenly tips” suggesting something special and unique and reverently prized. All this is true and then some more, originating from An Hua, Hunan province, China, Tian Jian is a special kind of Hei Cha (black tea) that like other Hei Cha such as Puerh, Liu Bao or Liu An has undergone post-production fermentation.

An Hua is located in the north of Hunan, and despite being significantly east of Yunnan it has important historic links to the tea horse road especially with neighbouring provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi (both equally historically associated with tea). Routes through Hunan from Guangdong that ultimately connect up with the North East spur of the tea horse road in Sichaun are documented.

An Hua is home to one of the three ancestral cultures of China, namely the Meishan, and as such, opinion suggests that An Hua’s unique tea culture and processes go back a long way in history  as well as being home to some of Hunan’s most remote and wild tea gardens. Some of the tea varietals are thought to have been growing in this mountainous area for centuries.

The landscape of An Hua includes altitudes in excess of 1200m above sea level and terracing is common and historically established for much of the agriculture, not that dissimilar to Fujian terrace gardens only much steeper! (see my early post on Jasmine Tea https://teamedicineblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/jasmine-tea/ )

Climate of An Hua is considered warm and temperate with average temperatures around 16 degrees and rainfall around 981mm, subject to the influence of local mountain climatic changes. Although subzero temperatures are rare, records report -12 degrees in January of 2011, although recent year lows have offered only -2 degrees. Temperature highs are more consistently between 26-28 degrees in the summer with a humidity between 67-81%, perhaps making it also a good place for long term storage of Hei Cha.

An Hua city is located on the Zishui or Zi river which runs through the heart of the county and joins up with the mighty Yangtze also providing important and historic trade routes towards the coast and Shanghai and perhaps keeping the ancient tea houses of the city well supplied throughout the centuries.

The two critical production steps for making Tian Jian Tea are the drying of the leaves over pine wood and pile-fermenting.  The pile-fermenting is milder than for ripe Puerh and is created through a special fermentation process that takes longer than black tea but considerably less time than ripe pu-erh.  The tea is then roasted over pine fire by hand to dry, which is common to all varieties of Anhua Hei Cha but imparts some pine and smokey tastes to the tea upon consumption.

Pine trees are indigenous to most provinces of China and are both celebrated in art and culture with them supplying sources of firewood, paper and construction as well as a symbol of longevity and a source for contemplation. In ancient China there was a tradition of Taoists consuming pine tree resin, hoping thereby to prolong life. The Shouxing, Chinese god of longevity (寿星), is usually represented standing at the foot of a pine, while a fairy crane perches on a branch of the tree as a traditional symbol of happiness, honor and longevity.  A number species of pine may end up in the fires of Hunan tea processing however the most common is Pinus massoniana or Chinese Red Pine , which is most famously used to flavour Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong tea aka Lapsang Souchong.

Compression is also involved as part of the processing of Tian Jian. Among all types of compressed teas, Tian Jian is perhaps the most loosely compressed.  The leaves are steamed and pressed into woven bamboo baskets similar to Liu Bao which often weigh in at 1-5kgs. Tian Jian is equally similar to the level of compression of Liu Bao tea with the individual leaves being easily parted. Light compression allows for good aging and  creates an airy environment for naturally occurring micro-organisms to develop and add their own contribution to the tea medicine in both flavour and health during post-production fermentation. Whilst the large baskets are perhaps historic remnants of the days horses would transport the tea northward towards the tea markets of Tibet.

Cliff trail

 

Like other Hei Cha, although I am unable to find any specific reference in any materia medica,  Tian Jian has found its way into prescriptions of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine. The gentle and slow processing of drying, steaming and smoking perhaps imparts similar properties that holds Liu Bao in high esteem. I find it particularly difficult to “over-steep” Tian Jian to astringency  and therefore it is very a forgiving tea and gentle on the body. Whilst astringency often holds a particular medicinal value, like Liu Bao and traditionally ripened Puerh there is some warmth and digestive benefits experienced from Tian Jian.

2014_yuntaiwuhan_750g_basket_4_grande

Recent studies suggest that other types of Hunan Hei Cha could promote digestive health as the tea poly-saccharides are capable of passing through to the large intestine without being broken down and thereby having an influence on the gut microbiota (Chen et al 2018). Studies also demonstrate that different tea varietals are shown to have different contents of tea poly-saccharides (Du et al 2016) such that what maybe common in transferable benefits of  other Hunan Hei Cha, that are also present in Tian Jian, is entirely due to the varietal with some similarities in processing techniques that preserves them. Equally, harking back to Taoist ideas of longevity, perhaps there is something to be gleaned that the release of pine oil and pine wood jing 精 into the tea that provides for such opinions on its health benefits. Although not as “piney” as some teas there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that there maybe chemicals released from the pine wood that could be retained by the tea that makes such teas additionally beneficial to lowering cholesterol and hence leading to longevity. A recent study has identified that pine has some interesting properties to this effect (Nakayama et al 2015) alongside studies suggesting that ingestion of pine has positive effect on intestinal flora (Lopez-Nicolas 2014)

The actual experience of tasting Tian Jian, like Puerh and other Hei Cha varies between productions, however a common theme is the surprisingly light and refreshing fruity taste it delivers in the bowl.

IMG_20180124_182952

You can see from the colour of the tea soup it is almost reminiscent of raw Puerh or lightly roasted WuYi oolong. Interestingly enough it is somewhere in between the two on flavour. With such lightness and fresh notes it isn’t a tea you might associate with the Winter months when we desire something thick and rich in flavour, however drinking it in the cold months of January does not appear to limit its enjoyment. There is definitely something quite special and almost mysterious about this tea that is uplifting in a gentle way like the breeze and freshness of a sunny morning which we all enjoy whether Winter or Summer. I am hoping to enjoy some more of this tea and taste the range of productions over the next few months as we gently move towards Spring.

Chen G, Xie M, Wan P, Chen D, Ye H, Chen L, Zeng X, Liu Z. Digestion under saliva, simulated gastric and small intestinal conditions and fermentation in vitro by human intestinal microbiota of polysaccharides from Fuzhuan brick tea. Food Chemistry. 2018 Apr 1;244:331-9.
Du LL, Fu QY, Xiang LP, Zheng XQ, Lu JL, Ye JH, Li QS, Polito CA, Liang YR. Tea Polysaccharides and Their Bioactivities. Molecules. 2016 Oct 30;21(11):1449.
López-Nicolás R, González-Bermúdez CA, Ros-Berruezo G, Frontela-Saseta C. Influence of in vitro gastrointestinal digestion of fruit juices enriched with pine bark extract on intestinal microflora. Food chemistry. 2014 Aug 15;157:14-9.
Nakayama S, Kishimoto Y, Saita E, Sugihara N, Toyozaki M, Taguchi C, Tani M, Kamiya T, Kondo K. Pine bark extract prevents low-density lipoprotein oxidation and regulates monocytic expression of antioxidant enzymes. Nutrition research. 2015 Jan 31;35(1):56-64.

 

 

Clay and Teaware

Selecting the right teaware for the tea can be an important point and perhaps nowhere is this expressed more than in the views and opinions surrounding clay teapots for use with different teas.  You only have to mention the word “yixing” in certain circles before there is a plethora of opinion and advice around this issue.

I have previously posted about teaware but even if I devoted the whole blog to it I would not be able to significantly capture opinion, history or culture.

As we began our tea journeys we start to explore different traditions and different teas and find that cultural differences in teaware often follow both fashion and culture but also taste. If we are to remove some of the layers of aesthetics and culture we start to see that certain teaware are more appropriate for certain teas, which therefore can become a simple guide to the beginner.

As a general guide I have the following “rule of thumb”-

  • For ripe Puerh – I use a bell style (Zhong 鐘) red Yixing with cannon spout

qing_shui_ni_de_zhong_hu_1_grande

 

  • For raw Puerh – I use a round (Xi Shi 西施) purple clay Yixing

xishi

  • For greens and oolongs as well as specimen Hei Cha I use glass
  • For any of the above I may brew “grandpa” style in large yixing or porcelain tea bowls
  • For any of the above I may brew in porcelain Gaiwan
  • For blended material such as snow chrysanthemum tea brick or more medicinal formula blends I reserve an “ancient” or “antique” style (Fang Gu仿古) Qin Zhou clay pot

Best-Yixing-Teapot-Di-Cao-Qing-Clay-Fang-Gu-200ml-Online-b0

My choices are because of my experience and experiments with certain teas, the Xi Shi yixing teapot , for example, allows for shorter steeps and quicker pours such that I don’t risk over-steeping raw Puerh into bitter notes. Whilst glass and porcelain offer a neutral contribution and don’t hold the heat as well as clay so are gentler on the tea for those teas that may require specialist attention. As stated previously, generally Yixing is preferred for aged compressed teas as the higher heat these teas can take and the ability of the clay to help tease out the compression works well. For an extensive view of a yixing pottery collection I would recommend http://www.marshaln.com/   I have only a small collection of well loved pots but some would advocate only using one pot per each individual varietal or production of tea so there is always the incentive to widen one’s collection!!

I am not advocating a right or a wrong , just that you experiment and find your own preferences. However it might be best to illustrate the point that different teaware results in different experience even when the same tea is used, I cite the following results to illustrate:-

teatasting

What you will see is that there are differences that the vessel has on the brew. Some of this can be hypothesised in that the clay vessels retain more heat and the thermal effects upon the tea medicine as catalyst to changing the  chemical composition of the soup. Other possible explanations is that the clay itself adds a layer of flavour or taste. It is entirely possible that the absorption of particulates and components from previous brews are re-released into future brews adding to the experience. Some people have also hypothesised that the pH properties of clay vessels also has an effect on the outcome in that the water is modified, there is equally a similar argument around clay vessels ability to attract some of the heavier solutes in the water thereby effecting the outcome (see my earlier post on water).

The point I make is that with some teas clay and especially Yixing pottery adds to the experience, however with others it doesn’t necessary lead to additional positive contributions. Take the Liu Bao, for example in the table above, my experience in clay was flatter and more umami, I lost the typical sour cereal notes that is so enjoyable to this category of tea. Similarly, there are other teas I have noted similar effects with use of clay vessels, therefore it comes down to trial and error and experiences. As I started out at the top of this post, sometimes traditional and popular teaware has developed alongside the teas themselves and I suspect some of the reasons for this is that years of experience has informed people that certain teas taste better with certain teaware. This is before we even consider the powerful effects of the visual and design that also adds to the tea medicine, that is encapsulated in fashion and cultural trends.