Kintsugi and Tea Culture

The repair of ceramics using urushi lacquer and gold or silver, has an innate historical relationship to the Japanese tea ceremony, One story is that kintsugi originated when Japanese shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China for repairs in the late 15th century only to be unsatisfied with the outcome of the fix, prompting for more aesthetic methods of repair that later developed into what we recognise as kintsugi today. It is interesting to note that famous tea-ware such as Hagi-ware which is characterised by its cracks and imperfections in its glaze and structure also became popular at the similar time, indicating a cultural shift towards the more natural form of tea-ware both in origination and through its natural story of breakage and repair.

Kintsugi-bowl-honurushi-number-32

As a philosophy, kintsugi treats breakage and repair as part of the innate history of an object that reflects it use and its own individual story. Similiar to the principles of wabi-sabi, kintsugi embraces the imperfect. It is also intimately entwined with tea culture, Buddhism and Japanese lifestyles in that it resonates with concepts of non-attachment and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of moment through focused attention and observation.

Some scholars have pointed out that kintsugi represents a transformative repair process (Keulemans 2016) whereby repaired tea-ware would not only tell its story of use but trigger additional information in some form of gestalt process to the user. I think this would be difficult to argue and conclude as any tea-ware repaired or not invokes individual and subjective aesthetic sentiments.

Rather, I suggest that kintsugi occupies a unique niche in Japanese tea culture where the user, or rather tea drinker, is presented with the fragility of material objects and at the same time requested to pause and contemplate the vessel’s history. In this way tea-ware becomes more visible to the tea drinker and therefore the teas session or ceremony becomes more immersive and somewhat timeless.

Buetow & Wallis (2019) state that modern technologies sanction a new plasticity of physical form, in this sense therefore kintsugi is the antithesis of this. Rather kintsugi instead sanctions the finality of a physical form that retains it’s beauty not through plasticity but through repair, not necessary through transformation but through the highlighting of its fragility. In essence kintsugi requires the tea drinker to accept the innate fragility of existence itself where only the present matters and how we arrived there. In this way kintsugi adds a unique form of meditative medicine and contemplation to the tea session that brings us back to the moment of existence in the very present.

When we are brought into the present moment in such a way all our worries, fears and doubts dissolve, the mind becomes still.

Buetow S, Wallis K. The beauty in perfect imperfection. Journal of Medical Humanities. 2019 Sep 15;40(3):389-94.
Keulemans G. The geo-cultural conditions of kintsugi. The Journal of Modern Craft. 2016 Jan 2;9(1):15-34.
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Putting the “Hunan” into tea

Often when I taste through the variety of Hunanese tea productions, which is to be honest a vast range of different productions and tea material, I always detect something that tells me it is a Hunan tea.

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I have wondered what it is that is in Hunan tea that gives it this aspect of flavour, despite the range of productions and tea material.

Recent studies comparing Yunnan green tea and green tea produced from Hunan were able to identify distinct profiles based on area of production and chemical components to the tea (Xin et al 2018). This affirms the suggestion of a terroir or “Hunan” nature to teas produced in that province.

It is interesting when we talk about terroir in teas, the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s uniqueness, I find in Hunan teas this is something that stands out more than any other area, aside to Wuyi.

So what makes Hunan tea so Hunan?

This is the million dollar question and possibly an impossible question to answer.

Hunan province is located on the south bank of the great Yangtze river. It is a highly mountainous region with 80% of its geography being uplands and only 20% being lowlands. Hunan literally means “south of the lake”. The lake that is referred to is Dongting Lake which occupies a flood basin to the mighty Yangtze.

Hunan has a humid, subtropical climate. The monsoon rain falls mostly in April, May, and June. July and August are uncomfortably hot and humid. This makes it ideal for some varietals of Camellia Sinensis and its high altitude forests have perhaps led to the development of specific and unique varietals of tea.

Hunan has always be an important place of production for tea and still remains today one of the largest producers. If I had to list all the types of tea that herald from Hunan it would take me some time.

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Much of the tea grown in Hunan is in terraced gardens, not that dissimilar to Fujian. This method providing opportunity to maximise yield and space with some of Hunan’s steep and southern facing slopes.

None or all of this might lead to the suggestion of a terroir or distinct flavour to Hunan teas.

However, one suggestion I propose is to do with the soil. The soil being a chief component in supporting the fauna and flora of Hunan, including it’s tea gardens.

Hunan soil has been known for its mix of red clay and limestone with granite outcrops. There are many research studies that demonstrate the unique ability of tea plants absorbing flourine as well as other chemicals out of the substrata. Tea plants are typical flourine accumulators (Li et al 2017), concentration in mature tea leaves is several hundred times higher than that in normal field crops.

A study by Wang et al (2002) compared the levels of flourine in different soil samples across distinct provinces of China with the following results (soluble flourine = mg/l):

Guizhou Yellow earth 0.27
Hunan Red yellow earth 0.56
Red earth 0.37
Hubei Yellow earth 0.30
Yellow earth 0.17
Yellow earth 0.26
Henan Yellow brown earth
Beijing Drab soil 7.85
Drab soil 5.60
Xinjiang Salinized meadow soil 10.25
Gray brown desert soil 37.15
Neimonggu Dark meadow soil 6.25
Hebei Drab soil 1.85
Saline soil 11.90

It could be argued therefore that the soil has important contributions to the terroir and tea materiel used for Hunanese teas. Tea plants enrich a large amount of fluoride in mature leaves and yet we know it is not an essential element to plants with high-levels being phytotoxic to most plants. Why tea trees are so good at this requires a seperate explanation and recent studies have looked into the genetic need for this process. It is interesting to note that these figures will only be multiplied in the dry leaf as the tea plant accumulates through uptake, however varying levels of flourine may provide a base for detectable differences in origins of a brewed leaf. Certainly flourine does not exist as is based element in the soil but rather as minerals or salts, transport and formation of which is influenced by pH and the formation of predominantly aluminium and calcium complexes (i.e. soil composition).

This maybe just one idea of how Hunan teas possess a distinct “Hunaness”to them and something to reflect upon more as we gain more knowledge.

Another theory I would like to float is going back to ideas around micro-flora.

Aspergillus egyptiacus  was first isolated from dark tea in the Hunan Provincial Key Lab of Dark Tea and Jin-hua, Yiyang, China. We know this genus of fungus is important on other Hei Cha and teas such as Puerh and Liu Bao. Aspergillus niger is claimed to be the dominant microorganism in puerh but we know that even in puerh tea there are different strains and species that are intimately involved in the post-production fermentation and storage development of terroir and flavour of such teas (Haas et al 2013). It is therefore possible that localised micro-flora predominantly populating the tea growing area of Hunan, due to its distinct environmental conditions could also contribute to the uniqueness of the tea from this region creating its terroir.

Whatever contributes to the “Hunaness” of Hunan teas, be them black, Hei Cha or green productions, it is something I feel I have developed not only a liking for but also a distinct ability to detect. I will endeavour to postulate on the reasons for this as I enjoy yet another cup of Hunan’s finest.

Haas D, Pfeifer B, Reiterich C, Partenheimer R, Reck B, Buzina W. Identification and quantification of fungi and mycotoxins from Pu-erh tea. International journal of food microbiology. 2013 Sep 2;166(2):316-22.
Li QS, Lin XM, Qiao RY, Zheng XQ, Lu JL, Ye JH, Liang YR. Effect of fluoride treatment on gene expression in tea plant (Camellia sinensis). Scientific reports. 2017 Aug 29;7(1):9847.
Wang W, Li R, Tan JA, Luo K, Yang L, Li H, Li Y. Adsorption and leaching of fluoride in soils of China. Fluoride. 2002 May 1;35(2):122-9.
Xin Z, Ma S, Ren D, Liu W, Han B, Zhang Y, Xiao J, Yi L, Deng B. UPLC–Orbitrap–MS/MS combined with chemometrics establishes variations in chemical components in green tea from Yunnan and Hunan origins. Food chemistry. 2018 Nov 15;266:534-44.

 

Why leaves not flowers?

Tea_flower

A recent research article demonstrated that extracts of tea flowers could induce anti-proliferative effect and cell cycle arrest in human cancer cells (Chen 2019) suggesting the benefits of tea extends way beyond its leaves.

People have been using leaves from tea plants to make tea for a long time. However, less attention has been paid to the flowers. Even in Traditional Chinese Medicine material medica texts mostly its the leaves that get all the praise. Yet flowers from a related species Camellia Japonica (Shan Cha Hua 山茶花) are considered virtuous in reducing blood stasis and reducing swelling, acting on the Liver, Lung and Large Intestine meridians.

In fact some of the same phytochemical and pharma that are found in the leaves of tea are also present in the flowers, albeit in different quantities.

It would therefore make us question why drinking tea flowers is not as popular as drinking leaves?

There are very few teas that combine flowers and leaves together in their production and it still feels very niche to come across them.

A few examples exist, such as the Ron-Zhen production of camellia flower and raw puerh tea that hails from Dadugang, Xishuangbanna.

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Another example is the Yi Shan white tea production pressed with camellia flowers:

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Both of the above highlighted teas are available from Yunnan Sourcing

My thoughts around why its been custom to put leaves before flowers is that it could purely be a phenomena of economics and supply and demand . Depending on climate and regional variation tea plants flower between March to May. The limitation and amount of material available for consumption is therefore limited compared to leaf. Leaf harvests mostly take place in Spring and Autumn providing for a vast amount of material for consumption.

Additionally, I feel that there is also an arboricultural factor involved as traditional tea gardens were often grown from seed. Harvesting of flowers may have been deselected somewhat by traditional tea culture to avoid any unnecessary pressure on future production or variance in the species. However since the application of asexual propagation to tea plants, tea flowers have become a “waste resource”, competing with tea leaves for water and nutrients and therefore I would expect that there would be some change in this culture leading to more teas with flowers or more availability of flowers for tea.

Another consideration why leaves are chosen over flowers for tea production is due to the stability of the chemicals and pharma in the leaf compared to flowers. The main chemical components in tea flowers i.e. catechins, are accumulated at each stage of tea flowering. Apart from the chemical epigallocatechin, contents of catechins differ significantly at different flowering stages (Sun et al 2019) suggesting inconsistency in outcomes in consumption of tea flower tea. This may have been discovered centuries ago simply by trial and error and comparative brewing with leaves.

A further consideration is the view by farmers that tea flowering in late autumn competes for a large amount of nitrogen and carbohydrates in the plant and therefore potentially negatively impacts upon the subsequent spring tea leaf yield and quality. This may have leant towards a practice of de-budding tea bushes which further reduces the value and availability of tea flowers as material for tea. A study by Fan et al 2019 demonstrated that the practice of de-budding increased levels of asparagine synthetase in the leaves of tea plants. Asparagine synthetase is vital to maintaining asparagine reserves in the plant required for plant growth and development, thereby suggesting de-budding promotes stronger and more successful plants in the following season.

Chen, Y.C., 2019. Chakasaponin I from tea (Camellia sinensis) flower induce anti-proliferative effect and apoptosis of cisplatin-resistant ovarian cancer cells.
Fan K, Zhang Q, Liu M, Ma L, Shi Y, Ruan J. Metabolomic and transcriptional analyses reveal the mechanism of C, N allocation from source leaf to flower in tea plant (Camellia sinensis. L). Journal of plant physiology. 2019 Jan 1;232:200-8.
Sun L, Wang Y, Ding Z, Liu F. The dynamic changes of catechins and related genes in tea (Camellia sinensis) flowers. Acta physiologiae plantarum. 2019 Feb 1;41(2):30.

Liu Bao versus Tian Jian

It would seem a highly subjective contest to compare Liu Bao to Tian Jian especially as these teas not only involve different processing techniques but also because regionally they have different variables that contribute towards their final outcomes in the cup.

They both do however fit into a very broad category of tea called Hei Cha 黑茶, the category of tea which also includes Puerh and is generally suggestive of a process that involves post-production fermentation.

Tian Jian heralds from Anhua County in Hunan province, its production process generally follows kill green, rolling, pilling, re-rolling, drying and then storage. Pilling tends to be short for about 12 -24 hours and drying tends to be done traditionally over stoves, sometimes imparting a slight smokey pine flavour. The tea is traditionally stored up to a year and more than often involves large bamboo baskets not that dissimilar to Liu Bao. It is partly the short pilling and long storage that contributes to Tian Jian’s post-production fermentation character.

Liu Bao is from Guangxi Province much further south than Hunan, but like Tian Jian fermented and dried in a long delicate process in preparation for further aging in large bamboo baskets.

PG242_LiuBaoHeiCha_600x

Apart from similarities around storage there are similarities around benefits and energetics in regard to traditional Chinese medical (TCM) practice. Teas that are stored in bamboo do energetically develop qualities related to the bamboo material itself, something that is not entirely exclusive to Liu bao and Tian Jian alone. Bamboo is known in traditional Chinese herbal medicine as being effective in clearing heat.

Both Liu Bao and Tian Jian are teas I would primarily utilise in tea medicine to balance and remove the effects of Summer Heat. But this is not just due to the qualities gained from bamboo storage, but it fairs well if you can brew some for the basket with the teas!!

Summer Heat in TCM is an external Yang pathogen that is due to excess exposure to heat or sun. It tends to lead to heat in the blood and symptoms that include diarrhea, shortness of breath and rapid pulse. The treatment for which involves cooling the body for which Liu Bao is well known in achieving.

Both Liu Bao and Tian Jian have a tonic effect on the stomach calming any imbalances from heat. Stomach is considered as a Yang organ which easily generates Heat, and pathogenic Heat easily accumulates here. Also as a Yang organ excess heat in the Stomach can easily result in a Yin deficiency from Summer Heat, leading to overheating the blood, Lungs and Heart. This leads in part to the symptoms mentioned above (rapid pulse, shortness of breath) along with red cracked tongue (a symptom of Heart fire).

The fermentation and piling of both teas adds additional qualities that do not over-cool the stomach but gently bring it back into harmony. Pungent, sweet and cold substances which can disperse the intensive Heat and direct it downwards are often chosen from the TCM cabinet of herbs, but specifically in Liu Bao and Tian Jian the pungent quality from fermentation and storage adds to their benefits, but equally their retained sweetness.

It has long been a practice among the Chinese Malay community that when children suffered from diarrhea from Summer Heat, they would place Liu Bao in cold water and an earthenware pot, slowly bringing it to boil over heat After cooling an
moderate amount of winter honey is added. This is interesting in regard to TCM as this folk cure reflects the need in tea medicine to consume sweet, pungent and cooling substances. Additionally the earthenware pot adds to the qualities around supporting the stomach as an Earth organ.

Both teas herald a different but similar process in their production, both teas are useful in tea medicine to address excess heat in regard TCM concepts around pathogenic causes. Tea medicine embraces these principles but if you really want to compare these teas as a consumer and drinker of Hei Cha then I suggest trying them both side by side. Tian Jian’s short piling perhaps makes it slightly more towards the bitter quality more able to direct heat downwards than Liu Bao, making it preferential for heat syndromes where the signs of ascending heat is more stated in the tongue and skin, whereas Liu Bao is slightly more preferential where the symptoms suggest Stomach yin deficiency.

Aside from their tea medicine qualities, the regional variables in production and leaf material, soil and location provide for a subjective and yet delightful difference in taste and experience.

Personally, I tend not to favour either tea, Tian Jian having more of a “Hunan” quality in taste and aroma that is similar to Fu Brick, whilst Liu Bao tending to lean towards an aged ripe Puerh.

Both are good to drink in the Summer, where often lighter and greener teas are chosen especially in those humid hot evenings.

 

Tea Bots. Will automation be the death of us?

Many of the traditional tea processes are now fully or at least partially automated.

Both consumer demand and productivity efficiencies drive the move towards more automated production methods.

Whilst many tea factories operate automatic production methods in part or in full, such as kill green, withering and rolling, our brewing methods remain somewhat resistant to automation.

Tea processing is one of the major energy intensive food processing industries, from growing to plucking, all the way up to the cup. It makes sense therefore to make it less energy intensive and less reliant on inefficient processing.

Despite some resistance to automation, within the tea production industry many of the well known factories have been undertaking it for years without loss of quality or value of the final product.

It therefore makes me question why as tea drinkers should we resist automation within the tea consumption experience?

There are many reasons why tea consumers/drinkers may resist any form of automation, including the way it may remove the social ritual of tea or even reduce the tangible physical contact with the tea medicine and it processes.

Tea brewing stations or vending machines have been around for a number of years and have been designed to brew tea for commercial establishments such as restaurants and fast food outlets. Often the tea is pre-packaged or capsuled into single servings and designed to give a standard brew based on pre-programmed parameters.

In Japan and South Korea vending machines dispensing teas are very popular but often don’t involve any brewing process, rather reheating pre-brewed and pre-bottled tea. I shudder to think of the health implications of these in regard to concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine!!

Attempts to bring something similar into our home experience has been successful with coffee but remains less so with Tea. MarshalN’s blog post upon K-cups remains an interesting reflection, especially so in regard to cost and outcomes.

Less sophisticated attempts to automate our tea sessions include machines that brew raw leaf material based on pre-programmed parameters.

There are many of these type of machines around, often built more around aesthetics that process and technically they are not that more complex than the Teasmade my Dad had in the 1970s.

The Teasmade is essentially a machine for making tea automatically and generally includes an analogue alarm clock and designed to be used at the bedside enabling tea to be ready first thing in the morning or at a set time.

It includes a receptacle for boiling water that is pre-filled (AKA a kettle!!) and a receptacle pre-filled with tea for brewing (AKA a teapot!!)

Not dissimilar are contemporary automated tea stations for the home;

teaforia machine - eat love savor luxury lifestyle magazine

The above picture illustrating the Teaforia, which includes a water tank and heating element (AKA kettle), a brewing container (AKA teapot) and a serving receptacle (AKA cha hai).

There is something to be said in having all your significant artifacts for tea brewing contained in one place (i.e. kettle, teapot and cha hai) but does it really enhance or automate the process?

There is something unique in pressing a button, and seeing lights flashing with very other little involvement other than enjoying the end product. It is somewhat clean and clinical and itself imposes a design ethic that removes “fuss”/”mess”/”unevenesss” that perhaps our contemporary busy and  stressful lives demands.

Indeed the design of the automatic tea machines often incorporate smooth and neat lines, minimal and reductionist geometrical symmetry whilst boasting modern technological advances.

Aesthetic appeal resemble something out of a futuristic clean, clinical and zen like science fiction future devoid of wabi-sabi.

This makes me think that the aesthetics have to replace something lost in the automation.

Automatic brewing systems also tend to add additional value in their design that I feel somewhat is to disguise their simplicity and replace the value lost from old school brewing methods. these include wifi integration to your smart phone or special scan codes/labels that adjust your device according to the tea you are brewing.

Interestingly such automatic tea brewing devices still use  terms such as “ritual” to brand market themselves, suggesting that the key point in any tea consumption is not the process but the ritual. To have to add this in through brand marketing , suggests it ws never really there in the device in the first place.

Experiment: Machine vs Man

I though I would test my opinion by conducting a not so scientific but comment-able experiment.

I here compare my own gaiwan techniques to a machine.

As there is to some degree of bias inherent in using myself as experimenter and commentator I will not disclose the make or name of the machine used.

I however do disclose the following parameters to compare:

Tea type: Shu Puerh

Manufacturer: Chung Pu Nong Jia

Age/Production: 2014 Tributary Cake

Tea weight: 4.5g

Water:  90mls

 

I used rinse or refresh function on the machine to get the initial wash, discarding the water to keep it as close to the gaiwan as possible. In the gaiwan I did two washes.

The automatic brew is shown above and on the left of the picture.

The automatic brew was darker and more cloudier, with the gaiwan clearer and brighter.

This was also reflected in the taste in that the gaiwan brew was brighter and bolder in flavour and had more life to it than the automatic brew.

The automatic brew probably got to temperature but didn’t retain it as well or in the same way as a ceramic gaiwan, which may explain for it lacking clarity and life. The gaiwan technique was judged by feeling and connection to the brew rather than mechanical timed parameters giving it something extra that cannot be so easily defined or programmed into a machines parameters.

I also feel that perhaps in gaiwan technique there was more mixing of air and oxygen into the pour which gives it more life in the cup and agitates chemicals such as saponins. This does not occur as much in the automatic brew, leaving the brew flatter.

Its also arguable that there is more disruption of water structure in the automated machine that doesn’t occur in manual brewing.

Without pulling the machine a part, I understand that most work by passing water through or over a heated element, water tends to heat as it is pushed through. This is different than water heated and circulated by convection currents in a kettle then poured into a brewing vessel. Again this may subtly change the water structure.

Reassuringly, I don’t think automation will ever be the death of us. I don’t believe any machine will be able to modify or modulate brewing technique, time and other parameters to supersede the human senses, eyes and hands. We could talk about AI and #machinelearning but all enjoyment of the interaction between human, ceramic, water and leaf is removed.

Practically speaking I can take my gaiwan anywhere I go, even on long journeys. I can take it into the city or into the woods, somewhere machines can’t go. With this comes the experience of tea which is wider than drinking a cup of fluid. With this comes a bigger medicine.

I challenge any machine to replace this, to deliver something the human soul requires through the ritual of tea. I also challenge any machine to be able to match even the poorest of tea brewing skills of a human and still deliver that rich experience when manual techniques are enrobed with human spirit.

Maybe this is me throwing a gauntlet down to tea machine manufacturers, maybe its a comment or even a warning about our future pathways in tea culture. But I’d rather like it to be a call out to encourage the physical and social contact with tea that you can only be rewarded through manual brewing techniques.

Pao Zhi 炮制 AKA “processing” and the way of Tea Medicine

I always find it somewhat an oddity that the concept of Pao Zhi 炮制 is rarely discussed in Traditional Chinese Medicine and equally in tea.

There is such a variety in tea and tea experience that directly results from the way it is processed.

The same leaf material can be processed in many different ways such that we get both a different experience and a different feeling in our body from having drunk it.

If we consider Pao Zhi in regard to tea we start to unlock the ideas that different teas can have different tea medicine.

Pao Zhi is the technique of altering the properties of herbal medicines by processing techniques that utilise heat and combining plant material with various substances much like a kind of alchemical approach to preparation. The different processing technique either nullify, concentrate or transform certain biochemical and pharma in the plant material.

Similarly, with tea the processing techniques will alter the specific chemicals and pharma in the final leaf product.

With this in mind we can start to appreciate how different teas might influence different physiological effects despite being from the same source material. This maybe somethign that contributes to the Cha Qi of different teas.

Therefore we can also exploit the different processing and consequential physiological effects to enact tea medicine.

Tea medicine, therefore is not some mythological concept but can be rationally understood and accepted based on traditional notions of Pao Zhi.

In regard to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) this is not even questioned!

When we look at TCM concepts of the organs and harmony in the body we start to look at tea medicine more closely.

TCM outlines the qualities of the major Zang 脏 organs in regard to tastes. Each organ works in harmony with each other to confer health through balance. They are Yin in nature and have a corresponding Yang or Fu 腑 organ that support the function of healthy balance. Without going into to much detail about TCM, it should be noted that each Zang organ is described by its qualities and function. This is based somewhat on Wu Xing 五行 , or 5 element theory , which is interesting also to note is present in the arrangements of the tea ceremony.

The Heart is the main governing Zang organ and opens into the tongue, such that both health can be governed through taste as well as traditional tongue diagnosis. This idea is fundamental to the practice of Chinese Dietary Therapy or shiliao 食療 as a branch of TCM that uses food as preventative and curative medicineThe quality and energy to food and drink, and its subsequent influence on the organs can be identified through taste. It is within this branch of study the Tea Medicine emerges.

For instance a bitter tea will have more influence and effect on the Heart. A tea that is savoury such a Puerh processed with Nuo Mi Xiang 糯米香 , that gives it a glutinous rice savoury salty taste will influence the Kidney. Whilst a sweet tea will influence the Spleen.

This is even before we consider the pharmalogical effects that have been modified by processing.

A simplified overview can be seen below:

Organ (Zang) Corresponding organ (Fu) Taste
Kidneys Urinary Bladder salty
Liver Gall Bladder sour
Heart Small Intestine bitter
Spleen Stomach sweet
Lungs Large intestine pungent

Using such knowledge and combining it with tea experience makes for good tea medicine prescription. It also might explain somewhat why one tea might be preferred by one person but not by another.

Equally it is considered that when certain tastes are overly dominant they can un-balance health. Too much of one thing can be a bad thing!!

Tea and TCM is much more complex than this, teas can be both sweet and bitter, sour and sweet for example. But this is a good starting point to consider Tea Medicine and understand how processing can alter a Tea to suit its health needs. Equally it can help us be more mindful of out Tea needs and brewing techniques as process or Pao Zhi, that can make  sweet tea bitter if too much heat or steeping occurs.

Finally, as side observation, it is interesting that we can start to see patterns of tea culture emerge in relation to this. In the harsh climates of Tibet, the salted and fatty tea consumption supports the Kidneys and Lungs which are prone to cold syndromes associated with the environment. Whilst is such teas as Liu Bao are popular in Malaysia, the sourness supporting health by protecting the Liver from toxic damp heat conditions that it is prone to.

A small and pleasant journey into some Visual Tea culture

In the rise of visual social media such as Twitter and Instagram, visual culture can have significant influence on behaviours and attitudes.

I take a very small glance at the visual culture of tea from as far back as the 1700s and compare it to modern tea culture portrayed in visual media.

Social networking sites are important platforms for visual self-presentation online (Baker & Walsh 2018). Equally the commissioning of portraiture in the 18th Century was an equivalent way of promoting self and ideas of social status. The rise of romanticism in western art put emphasis on emotion and individualism, such that visual culture turned itself towards the person and promoting ideals.

In this 1720 painting, by Dutch artist Matthijs Naiveu, we see some familiar artefacts of Chinese tea drinking. There is an iron kettle, clay teapot and ceramic celadon teaware.

Both tea and Chinese ceramics were conspicuous components in the emergence of consumer societies in Europe during the eighteenth century. The painting therefore exhibits an exuberance of individual status much like celebrity consumer branding on social media today.

Here tea culture is reflected to display material culture and opulence demonstrating the role tea played in reflecting European empire building in the mid 18th century.

In contrast, what I find on Instagram and Twitter is that there are far more “posed” photos of tea and far less images of tea drinking.

Images of “posed” tea stations or tables are absent of human interaction, presenting an empty and zen like image which is peaceful and aesthetic. Similar to 18th Century paintings of tea culture in Europe, they reflect a form of idealism and individualism, you could almost say these are a new form of romanticism. They too are displays of materialism, but unlike 18th century European depictions of tea culture, modern social media images demonstrate something more existential. Something I would describe as “spiritual materialism”, where the opulence is translated more through experiences and ideals rather than accumulated artefacts or items.

In contrast the actual experience of tea sessions in the Spring in Menghai city is nothing like these “posed” zen-like sessions and looks more like Las Vegas than some type of ancient tea temple often portrayed on social media platforms.

Equally lush green country scenes of individuals picking tea or next to old arbor trees present a rural ideal or “back to nature” imagery, a romanticized branding of human and environmental harmony. We don’t however otherwise appreciate the long back breaking and subsistence existence many small farmers undergo in the production of tea. Additionally, images of “old tea gardens” are often shown as manicured and neat islands of lush green, where in my experience are often roamed by pigs and overgrown with other plant species.

What slowly becomes clear it that the visual culture of tea on social media platforms are staged and appear like a glossy edition of the latest Elle Decoration, manipulated to solicit appeal and interest. Almost a form of individual and personal branding of ideas and ideals.

Instagram has the ability to transform images into visually appealing content through the use of ‘filters’ so even with the most representative images of tea culture it can be generously sprinkled with visual appeal. This is literally “tea pornography

In slight contrast, Youtube videos tend to represent something less staged and more representative of current tea culture. In the video image there is less ease of manipulation to some ideal or intention. This perhaps leads it to being the platform of visual culture where you will find more representations of consumption of tea and more representations of the production of tea.

I also think on platforms such a Vimeo and Youtube, as consumers of visual culture, we become more focused on the foreground of the image, whats going on rather than where it is happening. This is possibly because our eyes and mind have less time processing the image to make up the story behind it and instead more passively absorb the visual culture.

The promotion and propaganda of romanticised depictions and ideals of tea culture is perhaps less so in the moving image and more so in a static image.

This hasn’t always been the case, the BFI (British Film Institute) as part of the “Tea Revives You” campaign produced a propaganda film on how to store and prepare tea as part of promoting tea as way of boosting homeland morale during the war years, drawing on symbols ad language around national identity and social cohesion.

Tea Making Tips (1941)

This film demonstrates how tea imagery can be filtered through visual culture to influence behaviours and attitudes way before social media platforms.

Context and background are decisive parts of influencing and motivating consumer behaviour through Instagram images (Eriksson & Frohm 2018) hence on Instagram and Twitter images of tea culture are more manipulated to serve a particular aim. In this respect Instagram and Twitter are more similar to our elaborate 18th century paintings of tea culture, motivating a form of consumerism and celebration of material culture, albeit existential and experiential.

In contrast, during the 18th century in China, although individualist painters included Bada Shanren (1626–1705) and Shitao (1641–1707) drew more upon revolutionary ideas of transcending tradition to achieve original individualistic styles, depictions of tea culture were less about an ideal and more about reaffirming ideas of no boundary between internal self and external world (Zito & Barlow 1994). It is less about portraying the individual or ideals but portraying a distinct reality that people and self were not separate from the wider world or nature.

the-qianlong-emperor-in-his-study-painting-by-giuseppe-castiglione-18th-century1

The famous painting of the Qianlong Emperor, although not displaying artifacts of tea culture depicts this style of 18th Century Chinese art, where unlike visual culture on social media platforms or in European 18th Century art, the artifacts and person are almost arranged like some pseudo-anatomical poster representing the whole person. Similarly styled depictions of tea culture in 18th century Chinese art are about depicting a fundamental Chinese ontological concept. This being that the human self and nature are non-separate.

Context is also important when we try to analyse or dissect visual culture.

There can be a world of difference between posting images of tea being consumed, shown in images of broken open bings or leaves spilling from a Puerh wrapper and an image of the latest Menghai factory production or for example a Mengku “Wild Arbor King” strategically placed next to an earthenware tea bowl.

Whatever the reason behind the visual image, tea has been propelled and extolled through visual culture.

I just hope we enjoy the consumption with our mouths as much as our eyes and allow the tea to tell its own story, not a story where tea is a mere vehicle.

Baker SA, Walsh MJ. ‘Good Morning Fitfam’: Top posts, hashtags and gender display on Instagram. New Media & Society. 2018 Dec;20(12):4553-70
Eriksson T, Frohm P. More than what meets the eye: an exploratory study of what image attributes influence consumer behaviour on Instagram.2018
Zito A, Barlow TE, editors. Body, subject, and power in China. University of Chicago Press; 1994 May 16.

White tea

Having recently enjoyed some Jasmine Silver Needle tea from Fujian and having some great discussions with white tea ambassador Liu Meng Yun (@white_tea_88 on Instagram), I am inspired to give some attention to white tea.

I remember first encountering white tea in the early 1990’s when it was introduced to me due to its great health benefits. It almost faded in popularity in the West as soon as I had experienced it, yet it was perhaps the first type of tea to have come to Europe and perhaps the first way in which tea was produced, being the least processed of any type of tea.

White tea as such does not have any general accepted definition internationally. Traditionally, in China, white tea is defined by it’s sub-species and manufactured from Camellia sin\nensis var. khenghe bai hao and Camellia sinensis var. fudin bai hao found only in Fujian province and with minimal processing, following traditional guide-lines. Yet white tea also is recognised in being grown in other tea producing areas such as Yunnan.

In Yunnan, Chang Ye Bai Hao varietal sinensis produces a variety of white teas as well. Pure assamica leaf materiel, typically reserved for Puerh, also produces a variety of white tea due to the way it is plucked and processed. Popular types of tea, such a Jasmine Silver Needle, originating from Fujian, are now produced in the hills of Simao. Yunnan tea materiel that is plucked in the Spring and processed in similar ways to Fujian Bai Mu Dan provides for similar experiences to Fujian origin tea. There are even white teas made in Yunnan from Camellia Taliensis varietal!!

Other producing countries, outside China, define white tea by plucking standard i.e. only the bud or first leaves that are plucked and dried with minimal processing (Hilal & Engelhardt 2007). It is this that perhaps has allowed the loss of characteristics of white tea that perhaps were previously extolled in its traditional Fujian origins.

Additionally green tea is a richer source of phenolics than white tea (Rusak et al 2008) which may have led to the fact that green tea has had more of a international profile due to health promotion than white tea.

Despite this, I would like to think there is a renaissance of white tea as popularity and health benefits of tea continue to be explored and researched and as more opportunity to experience Fujian origin white tea emerges.

Also despite white tea being less studied for its health properties, it’s flavour is more approachable and pleasant. Its manufacturing process is minimal compared to production processes used for other types of tea and as such is perhaps more refreshing than other tea. When treated right it is less astringent than greener teas and calmer on the stomach and spleen.

Green tea and white tea show similar inhibitions of several microorganisms as well as anti-oxidant activity (Almajano et al 2008). So similarly white tea has been shown to be as effective in counteracting free radicals produced in cell metabolism.

These free radicals have potential damaging effects on DNA, structural proteins and cell walls, Oxidative damage caused by free radicals has been linked to the development of several human diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus, chronic inflammation, neuro-degenerative disorders and certain types of cancer. Several clinical trials with white tea have demonstrated that a single dose improves plasma antioxidant capacity of healthy adults within 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion (Dias 2013)

Compared to green tea, ingestion of white tea has been shown to increase the antioxidant capacity of heart cells (Koutelidakis et al 2009) and whilst this should not be our sole reason to enjoy a cup of the delicately flavoured brew we can appreciate the famous Chinese phrase that relates to white tea;

一年茶、三年药、七年宝 –

First Year it’s Tea, In the Third Year it’s Medicine, after Seven Years it’s Treasure!

In my store I have some old white tea cakes as well as younger leaf material that I hope to roll out and share the experience with you all soon.

I am particularly enjoying at the moment an aged Jasmine Silver Needle tea which I will no doubt talk more about soon.

There is more to white tea than I can expand on in this post, both in experience, history and culture, however it is nice to touch upon its virtues and hopeful inspire others to explore it too.

Almajano MP, Carbo R, Jim énez JA, Gordon MH. Antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of tea infusions. Food chemistry. 2008 May 1;108(1):55-63.
Dias TR. White Tea (Camellia sinensis (L.)): An-tioxidant Properties and beneficial Health Effects. International Journal of Food Science and Nutritional Diet. 2013 Feb 26;2(2):19-26.
Y, Engelhardt U. Characterisation of white tea–Comparison to green and black tea. Journal für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit. 2007 Nov 1;2(4):414-21.
Koutelidakis AE, Argiri K, Serafini M, Proestos C, Komaitis M, Pecorari M, Kapsokefalou M. Green tea, white tea, and Pelargonium purpureum increase the antioxidant capacity of plasma and some organs in mice. Nutrition. 2009 Apr 1;25(4):453-8.
Rusak G, Komes D, Likić S, Horžić D, Kovač M. Phenolic content and antioxidative capacity of green and white tea extracts depending on extraction conditions and the solvent used. Food Chemistry. 2008 Oct 15;110(4):852-8.

Back in time for some more Menghai 7562

Following my review of the 2013 Menghai 7562 Da Yi classic I thought I would travel back further through the Shu store to experience a bamboo wrapped 2008 production of the 7562 recipe. This is not necessarily a Da Yi production but made following the classic recipe.

The tea has undergone traditional, but towards dry storage, fairly recently in Zhejiang, considered a more temperate than the wetter storage operated in Guangdong

I suspect also that whilst aesthetically pleasing the bamboo wrapping modifies somewhat its aging process compared to the 2013’s paper and card wrapper.

In comparison I found the 2008 aroma of the dry material was more subtle and subdued, like the scent of terrocotta pots, yet a faint sweet distinctive odor you get with other more recent 7562 productions was still detectable.

The dry storage has left this brick a touch flaky. On breaking into it, the material made it a bit tricky to get a clean steep for my default gaiwan brewing methods. I would in future perhaps opt for more tea in my canon yixing pot or use a sieve.

Two rinses were necessary due to its age despite its dryer storage.

Its brewed aroma appeared more typical of a Hunan fu brick, whether there had been some coincidental inoculation of golden flowers at some point during storage is uncertain.

The flavour was almost purely of Chinese medicine, a common occurrence in old Shu, but not overly pungent or bitter. In the background was a similar sourness that I adore in Liu bao but less of the cereal notes and uniquely quite minerally.

The huigan was quite tofu like, maybe even a hint at the broad bean taste you get in some older CNNP productions. I would not be surprised if this was actually a CNNP production of the 7562 recipe given some of its more familiar CNNP characters, and  I could not be certain that it came out the Da Yi factory as many productions have been styled in the 7562 recipe.

It goes to say that you may not be able to tell that it’s the same recipe as the previously tested 2013 brick. The two are quite different ends of the experience spectrum. I put this down to both the wrappings and the storage conditions and of course the age. Whilst also possibly a different factory fermentation.

For Shu Puerh 5 years can make quite a difference in taste!

This 2008 production of the 7562 recipe is definitely more challenging and would not be to everyone’s taste, whereas the 2013 still remains an easy drinker.

By steep number 3 the tea did round off into something more familiar but retained its existing profile.

Personally, I feel that a wetter stored version, whilst still challenging would have provided more balance to the strong medicine tastes. It would be interesting to try this out if I am able to source another wetter stored brick, as my own storage conditions are unlikely to produce anything like this.

I did not detect any wo dui flavour in its profile, suggesting its 10+ age had settled any fermentation out, but it certainly had a profile that reflected its age.

Often younger Shu have a more “cheerful” profile that make them great for daily drinking, if you like a bit of fermentation taste this isn’t a bad thing. Many suggest a 5 year mark for Shu allows enough of the wo dui to settle to start to experience the uniqueness of a tea, beyond this I suggest teas start to get into a territory where you should expect to be challenged. This is also not a bad thing and if you like the medicine taste profiles of aged Shu it’s worth investing in older Shu or making space to stash a few bings, only to be discovered and enjoyed in years to come.

T-shirts & Tea culture

In the post-modern world of both social media and online promotion we fail to recognize sometimes the culture around this and its context within the history of tea culture. Similar to how Japanese culture is often portrayed as something “Zen like” and minimal, devoid of the fact that many Japanese people live an existence of over-crowded urban space, we often portray modern tea culture as outside and ahistoric to some mythologized past.

We ignore the almost post-90’s pop-art culture of tea wrapper design as something genuine or important to tea, seeing as an almost inauthentic westernized development.

The truth is something different, however.

Take for example the Xiaguan 2013 Love Forever wrapper design:

IMG_3718_16ba2ed9-03b4-43e6-8523-6a55940a0bd0_2048x

Embedded in this is something less than traditional but screams of modern China, its attitudes to modern urban relationships and its playfulness with global imagery whilst retaining its own cultural integrity..

It is true that maybe there was some influence on modern tea culture by the growing Western market for tea in the late 1990’s, but it would be ahistoric to suggest that in places such as China there hasn’t been internal drivers towards modern reflections and developments. China whilst electively embracing many components of Western brand consumer culture has also successfully developed its own (Sethi 2019)

There is also the “value addition” argument where its suggested that branding and consumer product design has led to this modern aspect of tea culture, but equally arguable is the idea that Song dynasty poems upon tea are also a form of “value addition” and branding.

I love the fact that tea has become something that can now be seen on a t-shirt. Big vendors and small boutique sellers promoting themselves in such branded products. It is representative of a developing global tea culture that places brand at the heart of both consumer behavior and individual enjoyment.

I even had a go at designing one myself :

Tshirt

Whilst brand statements can reflect and communicate additional value through peripheral products such as t-shirts, bags and other items, these items equally remain reliant upon the central product and culture within tea.

The truth is that modern tea culture, extolled by branding reinforces and emphasises a wealth of symbolic resources from a whole history of tea. Equally it re-positions tea culture into a modern vernacular.

Brand marketing aims at experience-building, focusing on the creation of an experience whilst marketing concepts. We are therefore not just consuming tea through brand culture, we are consuming a story and ideas. Is this not the same as when we consume tea in some ritualized session? Hence branding could be seen as form of modern folklore that tells a story and re-imagines the consumer into a cultural dialogue and history of tea.

Whilst the tea orthodoxy may frown upon this as something distinct from tea culture and disingenuous we cannot deny that brand marketing is part of contemporary tea culture.

Tea horse road tourism has been a successful outcome of tea branding such that we cannot now extract the role of tourism and branding from the production of boutique and small farm teas. The market impetus generated from the branding of Yunnan tourism with tea and stories from the Tea horse road has in someway supported the investment and growth in small farm production (Bhutia 2019).

T-shirts and tea are likely to remain part of modern tea culture, creating a consumer dialogue around tea that revitalises a past tea history. At its best branding will protect tea culture from its own threats where through branding we have an opportunity to direct value and dialogue to positive aims such as promoting unique and boutique small farm productions or raising the awareness of the intimacy of tea culture with current climatic concerns.

I personally don’t see anything wrong with T-shirts and tea as an aspect of modern tea culture. With the current social media phenomena of hashtags the use of slogans that are in themselves a form of branding continues to be a way that the tea community engages or directs dialogue towards certain teas or certain aspects of tea culture e.g. #rawpuerh or #xiaguan. Like brand slogans (Tong 2018),  hashtags consist of short phrases  primarily use is to cue brand recall, recognition and engagement. Whether it is visual T-shirt designs, stunning artistic tea wrappers or social media posts if we understand that Tea is the brand we also accept that all this phenomena is tea culture.

NB: If you would like to inquire more about my T-shirt design just drop us a line
Bhutia KD, Holmes-Tagchungdarpa A. Tea as a fuel for connectivity in Himalayan Buddhist cultures. Objects and Frontiers in Modern Asia: Between the Mekong and the Indus. 2019 May 6.
Sethi,A. Branding in China. InChinese Consumers 2019 (pp. 149-163). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.
Tong X, Su J. Exploring T-shirt Slogans by Content Analysis.2018