Tea & COVID19

Recently the office of the 14th Dalai Lama had to officially redact a statement that had been circulated as “fake” news. The statement suggested that his holiness, the Dalai Lama had proclaimed the benefit of drinking black tea in combating the corona virus. The widely shared post exposed as fake claimed that the Tibetan spiritual leader was accumulating a special mantra and that consuming black tea (??hong cha) would treat infections of the novel corona-virus, which has become a pandemic, causing widespread disruption and panic around the world.

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At this current time, as we face an unprecedented pandemic, there are multitudes of “fake” news reports and statements on how to combat COVID19. What’s interesting about this one is that it should promote black tea, especially among the butter tea drinking Tibetan community.

There is no evidence that black tea has any special qualities to specifically target corona-virus, and I am not going to try and pull together some research to suggest such things, however surprisingly this bit of “fake” news might not be as bad as others I’ve encountered and drinking black tea at this time may not be a such a bad thing.

We know already that tea has a number of phyto-chemicals that help us to cope with stress and helps to make us feel “altogether better” about things. We also know that there is some substantial evidence that green tea and tea polyphenols have anti-viral properties. A study by Nakayama et al (1993) demonstrated that tea polyphenols bind to the haemagglutinin of influenza virus inhibiting its adsorption into cells, and thus blocking its infectivity.  Song, Lee & Seong (2005) suggested that the antiviral effect of tea catechins on influenza virus is a result of them altering the physical properties of the viral membrane, effectively acting by altering the physical integrity of virus particles or host membrane and modifying the viral infection cycle.

There is similar encouraging evidence around other human viral pathogens such as Hepatitis (Ciesek et al 2011) and research prevails on exploring the effects of tea on Dengue virus (Mahajan et al 2020). But as of today’s date no evidence has been circulated or published around its effect on corona-virus.

As a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioner of tea medicine we understand from traditional Chinese medical perspectives that communicable diseases such as influenza, SARS and indeed corona-virus are external pathogens of wind  and occur due to transition between the seasons, particularly in flu and corona-virus, between Winter and Spring. It is very important as prevention therefore to maintain our vital Qi (immunity) and avoid stagnation. One of the significant herbs in the repertoire of materia medica that helps to do this is Astragalus , but from a tea medicine perspective it is having more detail from the 5 element system or wuxing that may help.

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According to wuxing  the transition from Winter to Spring is the pattern of water creating wood, governed by metal and earth. To understand this better we can say that the ability for Spring to manifest in completeness is dependent on Winter to have occurred completely, but Autumn (metal) and late Summer (Earth) needed to have been also balanced. When Autumn and late Summer are disharmonious then Winter will not manifest properly leading to either an excess or deficit (yin or yang). Hence if we then understand the symptoms of corona-virus which manifests as a wind-cold external pathogen and that it impacts on the lungs (metal) we start to see a pattern of disharmony that allows us to either prevent or approach it through both TCM and tea medicine.

The pattern would suggest, as an overview, a deficit in metal and Autumn leading to a yin pathology. We would therefore approach supporting the lungs primarily and the kidney (Winter and Water) secondary. At the same time we may need to consider how we support the Liver (Wood) in flourishing and manifesting Spring fully, i.e. tonifying.

The tea medicine approach would therefore initially commence with:

  • Tonifying Qi
  • Increasing/supporting the Lung meridian
  • Support the Kidney meridian
  • Tonify the Liver

This may all seem abstract but from a TCM perspective it is more around the patterns of illness and concerns rather than an allopathic approach to a particular pathogen. We certainly know, based on current data, not everyone manifests the pathogen of corona-virus in the same way and to some extent children remain immune possibly due to their vital Qi reflecting a strong Spring, as opposed to the elderly.

A recent Chinese study (Luo et al 2020) suggested a formula including;

  • Huang Qi (Milk Vetch) sweet, warm, supports the Spleen – tonifys the Qi
  • Gancao (Licorice) sweet, neutral supports the lung – harmonises other herbs and tonifys the Spleen
  • Fangfeng (Siler) acrid,warm, supports lung and liver – protects against wind pathogens
  • Jinyinhua (Honeysuckle)sweet, cold, supports the lungs – disperses wind
  • Lianqiao (Forsythia) bitter,cool, supports the lungs = clears heat and resolves fever

We can see some correspondences here both with the 5 element diagnostic above and with classic formulas such as Yupingfeng powder that fights off external pathogens and tonifys the Qi. There are both herbs to tonify the Qi and support the lungs, some of the herbs have secondary effects on liver meridian but primarily are aimed at a defensive position against the external pathogen by supporting the spleen (Earth, late summer). Therefore its approach, in regard to principles of wuxing and fang ( principles of energetics and flow as in Sheng Zhang Shou Cang –“generation, growth, contraction, storage” or Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is one of supporting and tonifying Summer to ensure a harmonious Autumn that leads to a complete Winter and harmonious Spring. It involves starting at the centre and working outwards.

To critically appraise Lui et al (2020) there is nothing wrong with this approach as a generic all-round panacea or formula for the population, however it would need to be modified with a patient or person who is not starting from Summer and is otherwise, for example starting from Autumn with for example weak lungs or Winter i.e. elderly in their years.

Therefore from a tea medicine perspective and to evaluate an approach, on the evidence currently available, we can continue to adopt a generic prescription that supports Summer through tea that is sweet and fragrant, supporting the Spleen. However as we get more prescriptive to the individual we need to consider moving towards supporting Autumn and Winter with teas such as hei cha that have both strong salty and sour profiles.

In summary, perhaps the “fake” news about black tea is not such a bad thing but from a tea medicine perspective perhaps hei cha would be a better translation to make this information more valuable and valid in the current pandemic. There is no evidence base for a particular allopathic panacea for COVID19 from either TCM or tea medicine, however there are some valuable research to suggest they both offer some hope in maintaining health in these times as well as offering a valuable and clinical reasoned approach in preventing and combating COVID19 infection.

Post-script

Over the last month I have been working alongside healthcare colleagues in the community on the front line and I have to say that we all adopt a variety of practices and methods alongside PPE to keep us safe and our patients safe. Not all of these practices are thoroughly evidence based but they all give us some form of hope or support us in carrying out, what at times, might feel both frustrating and futile work. I therefore will continue to evaluate any practice that helps us remain hopeful and makes us feel more secure in such insecure times and if they at least give us hope then we can continue to take steps forward!!

Ciesek S, von Hahn T, Colpitts CC, Schang LM, Friesland M, Steinmann J, Manns MP, Ott M, Wedemeyer H, Meuleman P, Pietschmann T. The green tea polyphenol, epigallocatechin‐3‐gallate, inhibits hepatitis C virus entry. Hepatology. 2011 Dec;54(6):1947-55.
Luo H, Tang QL, Shang YX, Liang SB, Yang M, Robinson N, Liu JP. Can Chinese medicine be used for prevention of corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? A review of historical classics, research evidence and current prevention programs. Chinese journal of integrative medicine. 2020 Feb 17:1-8.
Mahajan P, Tomar S, Kumar A, Yadav N, Arya A, Dwivedi VD. A multi-target approach for discovery of antiviral compounds against dengue virus from green tea. Network Modeling Analysis in Health Informatics and Bioinformatics. 2020 Dec;9(1):1-0.
Nakayama M, Suzuki K, Toda M, Okubo S, Hara Y, Shimamura T. Inhibition of the infectivity of influenza virus by tea polyphenols. Antiviral research. 1993 Aug 1;21(4):289-99.
Song JM, Lee KH, Seong BL. Antiviral effect of catechins in green tea on influenza virus. Antiviral research. 2005 Nov 1;68(2):66-74.

Tea & Incense

brand_ib1This is no doubt a huge topic, one that could occupy a whole subject or blog all to itself, so to touch upon it perhaps not to give it sufficient attention it deserves.

However, I feel I can introduce some  insight and dialogue because of a growing trend or exploration of incense practice alongside gong-fu tea practice.

I cannot think of a culture where some form of incense or aromatic substance is not used to enhance a social or ritual experience. Therefore it would appear logical to have incense practice alongside tea practice, but there is also an argument of scents and aromatics overpowering the scent and fragrance of the tea. Certainly you could say in places such as Japan, the Kodo or incense ceremony has developed its own refined rules and etiquette outside and separate to the tea ceremony, but still it would not be unheard of incense and tea being consumed together.

Controversially, I feel I might fall into the puritan camp where tea and incense are kept separate, and their individual enjoyment should not be merged into a kinesthesic or sensory overloaded experience. However I am entirely open to the argument that when tea and scent, such as incense, are skillfully matched you can have an entirely different experience that only enhances your understanding of the tea. Iijima et al (2009) suggest that the odor of incense may enhance cortical activities, if this is the case then incense could lead us to a level of awareness that has a positive contribution to our experience and appreciation of tea.  MRI scans reveal that the orbitofrontal, piriform, and the superior temporal cortices of the brain process olfactory information, these areas are linked in with the limbic system and hence explains the power of scents on invoking memory and modulating mood. This is something that could, for all intent and purposes, layer our tea sessions with meaning.

To take a viewpoint from energetics, the burn or smolder of aromatics via incense is on a different level than the steamed fragrance of brewing tea. Simply put fumigation is not the same as aromatherapy. I wonder if this somewhat explains why in more coffee drinking cultures incense is heavy and smokey and other cultures, such as in Japan, it is more about the smolder to release a gentle waft of scent? I realise this is a gross over-statement but we can come to understand that the way we can treat aromatics alongside tea culture needs proper attention. Heavy scents and smokiness may overwhelm some tea sessions, whilst in others it becomes part of building a sensory field of experience. I have sat in tea houses in souks and drank sweet Iranian tea alongside the smell of streets and animal traffic only to be brought back to the present moment and the tea with the heavy burst of frankincense smoke from a censer brought upon the breeze. Equally I have sat in a heavy incense smoke filled tibetan gompa during hours long puja finding that in someway the strong butter tea cuts through and compliments the experience.

There are many components and ingredients to incense and yet one particular draws my attention, appreciated in both Western and Eastern cultures. Agarwood, aloeswood, eaglewood, or gharuwood is a fragrant dark resinous wood used in incense, perfume and may be more familiar to us as “Oud”.It is formed in the heartwood of aquilaria trees as part of a defence response to infection. The odour of agarwood is complex and pleasing, with few or no similar natural analogues.  The incense smoke is also characterized by a “sweet-balsamic” note and “shades of vanilla and musk” and amber. It is incorporated into incense in Japan and in the Arabic world as well as extending into orthodox Christianity and many cultures in-between.

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Similiar to what we know from the pharma of tea,  the aromatic qualities of agarwood are influenced by the species, geographic location, its branch, trunk and root origin, age, and methods of harvesting and processing. Equally similiar is the effects agarwood incense has on the human experience.

Benzylacetone is released by heated agarwood, when this is inhaled it has a potent effect on reducing the locomotor activity and producing sedative effects (Miyoshi et al 2013) not unlike the consumption of theobromine and theanine in tea.

This is perhaps why similar to tea, incense has been used both as focus of social ceremony as well as a form of medicine. In ceremony it can facilitate change and be a vehicle of transformation that heals on the psycho-somatic level. In consumption of scent it invokes memories or heals memories. In inhaling the pharma the phytochemicals bring about physiological change.

We may then start to understand that alongside “tea medicine” we have medicine in incense that goes beyond its pharma and encompasses a total experience. In this way I feel incense is valuable within the framework of “tea medicine”, to bring about a complete healing of a person, but as with all medicines we do need to be careful and skillful in its application.

Choice of incense alongside tea needs to be mindful and thought out. Application needs to be perhaps even more skillful.

Iijima M, Osawa M, Nishitani N, Iwata M. Effects of incense on brain function: evaluation using electroencephalograms and event-related potentials. Neuropsychobiology. 2009;59(2):80-6
Miyoshi T, Ito M, Kitayama T, Isomori S, Yamashita F. Sedative effects of inhaled benzylacetone and structural features contributing to its activity. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 2013 Sep 1;36(9):1474-81.

 

Tea and the 5 Elements

Within Traditional Chinese Medicine and within Chinese philosophy we have the concept of the 5 elements (fire, water, earth, metal,wood).

This is known in Wuxing or 五行. which directly translates as “five rows” or the “row of fives”, however is often considered to indicate something that moves in sets of 5, indicating the transitory and “flow” of these elements.

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Within traditional formal tea ceremonies it has been discussed that these five elements are present in the formal arrangement of the tea master and the guests

Each tea setting is arranged and stands for the four directions with the tea master representing the 5th element. However in more informal occasions we can see their symbolic presence with tea sessions in the following

Earth,  土  – ceramic teaware
Wood, 木 – the tea leaves
Fire,  火 -the kettle stove
Metal, 金 -the tea kettle
Water, 水 -(speaks for itself!)

Of course this is just a suggestion as different tea settings, sessions and tables can be interpreted using the concept of wuxing in different ways. However it does suggest that to bring into our sessions some of that symbolic harmony we should consider how, even informally, we incorporate the 5 elements.

To a certain extent by incorporating the 5 elements we are bringing in a microcosmic balance and flow that represents a macrocosmic flow of life itself. What we play out in the tea session is representative of bigger things! Order and harmony is something we should strive for in our enjoyment of tea.

The Mawangdui silk texts describes the 5 elements as “virtues” and as such their symbolic inclusion into any tea session is only a positive.

To another extent the interaction of each of these elements symbolically enacts out cosmic energy that is the universe’s eternal flow, something embraced in Taoism. Take for example the relationship between the water and tea leaves. In wuxing theory water nourishes wood, wood overcomes earth, hence the ceramic teaware is overflowed with tea! Similarly metal collects and nourishes water as the kettle holds dearly our water for tea.

This all may seem conceptual and highly symbolic and open to multiple interpretations, however it can add another layer to or table when hosting a session. You may ask yourself where does my electric hotplate or kettle fit in or what does my glass teapot represent? These are all good questions as it makes us think in a different way and on a different level of how we can enjoy our tea experience.

For example, imagine a set up as follows:

bone china gaiwan and teaware, tea (of course!) and a metal flask of steaming water 

In the eyes of wuxing there may appear some deficits to the balance of such an arrangement. There is perhaps a lack of earth element despite the ceramic teaware as the gaiwan and cups may be delicate and don’t communicate the sufficient strength of earth. There is deficits in the fire element as there is no heat source and only stored heated water. Does the metal flask sufficiently represent the metal element?

How might we change this?

We might consider adding more earth through introducing this element through either changing our tea or service ware or even just adding stones or sculptural rocks to our tea table. We might consider bringing in colours that represent fire, changing our teaware to crimson bold cups or even a vase of flower symbolic of Summer, the season of fire e.g. bamboo or lotus.

What I am suggesting is not some Confucian notion of tight order or structure in how we enjoy our teas, but rather a way of seeing our tea sessions through wuxing  theory that adds not only a deeper level of enjoyment but also meaning. Even if I am out with gaiwan in nature and only have at hand what nature provides I can consider these elements in sitting down and enjoying a good tea experience through making small modifications of considerations.

I would therefore encourage both experimentation and exploration of this yourself and see if you enhance your tea experience with wuxing.

 

 

 

 

Traditional Unani medicine and tea

The term Unani or more so Yunani means “Greek”, and heralds back to a Perso-Arabic system of medicine that is  based on the teachings of the Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen. Arab and Persian elaborations upon the Greek system of medicine by figures like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Razi (Rhazes) influenced the early development of Unani.

The Hellenistic origin of Unani medicine is still visible in its being based on the classical four humours: phlegm (balgham), blood (dam), yellow bile (ṣafrā) and black bile (saudā’), but it has also been influenced by Indian and Chinese traditional systems predominantly via the culture of the great Silk Road.

It is easy to dismiss the influence of Unani medicine along the societies and cultures of the Silk Road by focussing upon the similarities and synchronisation of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its practices. On the outside practices such as cupping, herbal medicine and principles of balancing and observing more than just a patient’s symptoms appear akin to Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, however the catergorisation of illness and imbalance or disharmony around the humours makes it somewhat unique as a system practiced today.

It is interesting to suppose that whilst there has been hundreds of years of cultural dialogue with trade and medicine along the Silk Road we would also expect the value of tea as a medicine to also have traveled too. Certainly the practice of tea has.

Namita et al (2012) suggest that green tea has been incorporated into the materia medica of Unani medicine for a significant period of time.

Chaey or tea is listed as one of the important plants in the pharmacopoeia used in Unani medicine in India today (Kumar 2014)

It is understood that tea  increases the body’s “warmness” (Kabir 2002), and anecdotally I have spoken to people of the tribal regions bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, who practice unani, that tea wards off the invasion of “coldness” in the body. It was interesting for me to note that one day, observing children devour ice cream on the streets of Peshawar on a hot dry afternoon, that their seniors warned them not to eat too much as they would get a cold. Within that week two of the children were suffering from sniffles and sneezes, only to swiftly being prescribed steaming hot cups of strong green tea!!

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It is possible to understand the tea medicine from a Unani perspective in the diagram above. Coldness causes imbalances of the bile and phlegm which manifests in symptoms of congestion, oedema, poor circulation and lacking in energy or weight gain. There is strong correlation with tea research that tea can combat weight gain (e.g. Snoussi et al 2014) as well as benefits associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors and improved circulation (Woodward et al 2018), the dietary flavonoids, such as those present in tea are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

It is no surprise that other systems of traditional medicine, such as Unani, that would have had hundreds of years of contact with tea as a materia medica have incorporated it into their treatment formulas, especially given the modern mass of tea research accumulating.

I think it is useful to appraise not only recent research but a variety of these traditional systems to gain a deeper understanding of tea medicine and its culture.

Kabir H. Introduction to Ilmul advia. Shamsher Publisher and Distributors; 2002.
Kumar N. Some plants used in Ayurvedic and Unani systems of Medicine, Tehsil Joginder Nagar, district mandi, HP, India. International Journal of Food, Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences. 2014;4(1):73-80.
Namita P, Mukesh R, Vijay KJ. Camellia sinensis (green tea): A review. Global journal of pharmacology. 2012;6(2):52-9.
Snoussi C, Ducroc R, Hamdaoui MH, Dhaouadi K, Abaidi H, Cluzeaud F, Nazaret C, Le Gall M, Bado A. Green tea decoction improves glucose tolerance and reduces weight gain of rats fed normal and high-fat diet. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry. 2014 May 1;25(5):557-64.
Woodward KA, Hopkins ND, Draijer R, de Graaf Y, Low DA, Thijssen DH. Acute black tea consumption improves cutaneous vascular function in healthy middle-aged humans. Clinical Nutrition. 2018 Feb 1;37(1):242-9.

 

Jiangsu – a taste of terroir

Jiangsu is perhaps one of the more eastern tea growing provinces in China, sitting on the same longitude meridian (120° East) as Fujian.

location of Jiangsu province

Jiangsu lies a transition zone between the more northern temperate climates and the subtropical climates of the south. This makes for an interesting zone that supports the growth of tea varietals that share close genetic identity to tea from Zhejiang and
Anhui (Fang et al 2014) and distinctively having different genetic backgrounds from those from Fujian Province in China (Fang et al 2016).

Jiangsu is the origin of bi luo chun which originally heralds from the Dongting mountain region near Lake Tai in Suzhou, Jiangsu. Bi luo chun literally translates as “green snail spring” which can be appreciated when the leaves glisten in the gaiwan like the soft dewy trails of Spring.

Jiangsu is also known for the development of “black vinegar”. Chinkiang  or Zhenjiang vinegar, which originated in the city of Zhenjiang  in the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu, is considered the best of the black rice vinegars and used widely in Chinese cultural cuisine. Production of Zhenjiang vinegar begins when a vinegar pei mixture (wheat bran, rice hull, alcohol obtained from saccharification of glutinous rice and a vinegar mother) is poured into an urn until the urn is half-full. The mixture is kept warm for up to 3 days in summer and 6 days in winter. At that point, rice hull is added and mixed in once per day until the urn is full. Salt is added and the urn is stored for up to 3 months during which it undergoes an aging process. The vinegar is then leached and the soaking liquid from water-soaked, parched rice is added as to enhance the final product.

Recent research suggests that traditionally produced Zhenjiang vinegar has bioactive properties much like other traditional vinegars (e.g. cider vinegar) that have attracted a health status and value in recent years. Its anti-oxidant potential to scavenge free-radicals has been thoroughly documented (Zonghua 2005). In traditional Chinese medicine vinegar has a bitter, warm and sour property that helps to circulate the blood and regulate Qi.

I was fortunate to be gifted some bi luo chun and black vinegar from Jiangsu is one of my staple kitchen store items.

I was therefore interested to explore ideas, often thrown about in wine circle discussions, that a terroir of a region (i.e. the unique set of environmental factors that effects and reflects in a product) is expressed across a range of produce from a distinct area. Often there is talk of complimenting wine grown in the same region with cheese or other produce as the distinct elements of the terroir are amplified or complimented.

Therefore it may seem a little odd to undertake comparative taste test between tea and vinegar but I was keen to discover if there was some shared experiences that reflects a  Jiangsu terroir.

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Initial aromas of the black vinegar are of over-ripe apples and pears, which is carried through to the top note of flavour on initial tasting. There is this slight taste of soft apple and pears when their flesh has oxidised and turned brownish quickly followed by the flavour of rice wine and slight taste of alcohol. Some have described this vineger as having a slightly smokey background but I would rather describe this as a hint of wooden casks, much like you get in old whiskey or sherry.

tea

The bi luo chun also has a fruity profile but its initial aroma was peaches rather than apples. I was tasting a mildly aged tea so this could have softened the fruity punch that you got with the vinegar, however there was somewhat a similar woody profile of wooden casks remaining. Bi luo chun is typically categorized as a green tea and its not without its “back of the teeth” astringent notes and drying mouth-feel. Surprisingly, however this is not typically felt in the taste of the black vinegar.

It is difficult to say whether truly I could detect any terroir  that I could ascribe as “Jiangsu-ness”, by contrasting and comparing these two products. However I feel both the tea and vinegar did compliment each other and would not jar taken together in a meal of steamed dumplings (dipping the dumplings in the vinegar, not the tea of course!!!).

As this wasn’t a blind testing of both tea and vinegar, without any control or contrasting teas, it wasn’t therefore scientific, yet there is something to be said of tasting and exploring teas with matching flavours of other produce as I feel it allows something in the tea to come out that you may not have noticed before.

I will end with reminding us of the story of the “Vinegar tasters” that depicts the three founders of China’s major religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  The story involves Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, respectively. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his philosophy: Confucius tasted the vinegar and announced it to taste sour, seeing life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people. The Buddha tasted the vinegar and announced it as bitter, seeing life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering. Whilst Lao Tzu tasted the vinegar and announced it as “vinegar”, seeing life as fundamentally perfect in its natural state. By openly experiencing vinegar as vinegar, Lao Tzu acknowledges and participates in the harmony of nature.

On moral of this story is that we should appreciate the flavour and experience of tea, whatever its flavour; bitter, sweet or astringent, whatever its origins and whatever company we drink by.

Fang WP, Meinhardt LW, Tan HW, Zhou L, Mischke S, Zhang D. Varietal identification of tea (Camellia sinensis) using nanofluidic array of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers. Horticulture research. 2014 Jul 30;1:14035.
Fang W, Meinhardt LW, Tan H, Zhou L, Mischke S, Wang X, Zhang D. Identification of the varietal origin of processed loose-leaf tea based on analysis of a single leaf by SNP nanofluidic array. The Crop Journal. 2016 Aug 1;4(4):304-12.
Zonghua XQ. Analysis of the Source of Antioxidant Compounds in Zhenjiang Vinegar [J]. Food and Fermentation Industries. 2005;3.

 

Tea Drones

Modern advances in tea farming has not been exempt from the parallel developments in other areas of agriculture and production.

The China Daily first reported the use of aerial drones in the harvesting of Longjing tea way back in March 2018, however it is yet to really become a widespread technological advancement.

The remoteness of some tea gardens potentially allow the use of drones to become a breakthrough technology in ensuring quality of tea and timely delivery of leaf material. Drones can access mountain gardens easier than other farming technology and create time savings and economic benefits of workers having to load or transport large harvests down from steep and challenging slopes, freeing up more time for pickers to pick leaves allowing for quicker harvests and potential high profits at market.

Drones also have a potential to allow big growers to monitor their crop better with remote viewing technology. Even small growers can take advantage of remote viewing of tea gardens , potentially spotting risks of pest and disease earlier and making timely decisions about when to start picking.

Daly & Paul (2019) point out that drones have far-reaching applications, equipping drones with chemical and biological sensors can assist in monitoring environments. This not only helps protect valuable resources such as tea gardens but could potentially aid further tea research in more remote growing areas.

The most sophisticated sensors can measure the height of plants in real-time and precisely define land masses and elevation changes. They can alert growers to issues around drainage and soil erosion, track pest swarming, and disease spreading and build 3D representations. Drone-based remote sensing has a great potential for spatial diagnostics of crops and soils in the information-based agricultural management (Inoue & Yokoyama 2019)

We have seen some of the impact of climate change already on growing environments and other cash crops. Drone technology could potentially allow for early response to change and open up new data sets to understand the effects of global climate change on tea.

Further, development of patents for plant growth prediction platforms that include aerial drone technology are steadily becoming big business (Fox & Caruana 2018) with the potential to support growers and help establish security in crop prediction and market value economies.

Perhaps we may even see “drone picked tea”  rather than “monkey picked tea” (AKA Ma Liu Mie) in the future!!

 

Daly K, Paul P. The Use of Drones in Environmental Compliance. Natural Resources & Environment. 2019 Apr 1;33(4):59-63.
Fox AJ, Caruana M, inventors; Hana Resources Inc, assignee. Organism growth prediction system using drone-captured images. United States patent application US 15/963,783. 2018 Dec 6.
Y, Yokoyama M. Drone-Based Optical, Thermal, and 3d Sensing for Diagnostic Information in Smart Farming–Systems and Algorithms–. InIGARSS 2019-2019 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium 2019 Jul 28 (pp. 7266-7269). IEEE.

How the Fu gets into Fu Brick Tea?

The word Fu (福) is most often heard to mean good luck or good fortune in Chinese and is a symbol most often adorning entrances to households and shrines.

fubrick

Whereas Fu Brick tea derives it’s name from the word Fuzhuan, where zhuan (砖) literally means “brick” the Fu often remains untranslated.

This may make you think that the “Fu” relates to the historic use of  this tea as a currency, hence leading to notions of it being a “fortune brick” denoting its value as coin. It could also lead to us thinking that the “Fu” denotes the symbolic association of the golden flowers found in this tea with tiny little nuggets of gold or fortune. Other thoughts might occupy us of the “luck” or “Fu” denoting the playful symbolism of yellow and red that the tea permeates when its golden flowers merge into red liquor upon brewing. The yellow microbes symbolically portraying the “luck” associated with this colour in Chinese culture, the red tea liquor like the redness of “happiness” found printed on red packets of Chinese New Year wishes.

However the “Fu” in Fuzhuan tea is actually written as 茯, such that you may see on some tea productions the letters 茯磚茶.

Fu brick tea was once known as Hu Cha because it was produced in Hunan . It was later given the name Fu brick Tea because traditionally the tea makers specially selected the Fu-day (伏天) to process the tea. A Fu-day is the hottest day in summer there being only 3  in every lunar year.  The heat of these days perhaps helping to ferment and dry out the tea post-production. Interestingly it is also the days which the Fu Yang festival is held.

There is some forensic evidence to suggest this maybe true in that more modern methods of Fuzhaun production involves high temperatures of around 37 degrees celsius.

The Fu Yang festival (伏羊节) is traditionally celebrated around mid-July on the hottest days of the calendar and has been in existence for thousands of years, significantly contributing to the local culture. It may have provided opportunity to also employ a local workforce solely for the production of tea that would have otherwise traditionally been engaged with other activities of agriculture.

There are many examples where stages of tea production has traditionally occurred when calendar festivals allowed people to step out their daily tasks and come together for another purpose such as processing tea.

The Bulang similarly celebrate the Shankang festival, only in mid-April, that coincides with the first harvest of tea in Jingmai mountain area of Yunnan. Interestingly this is also the festival in which the Bulang make offering to the “tea ancestor”.

So it would suggest that what puts the Fu in Fu Brick tea is traditional methods of production involved a mid-summer processing method utilizing the benefits of the hottest days of the year. In more recent times Fu brick tea is factory made and is not as dependent on natural patterns of weather and labour. Industrially controlled fermentation means that it can be produced all year around.

Perhaps Fuzhuan tea should indeed be re-branded in modern times to Fu (福) as in “fortune” given that its lost its tradition associated to a natural pattern of processing and instead given over to something far more productive and bountiful.

This then leaves us with an entirely different question of “How the Fu got out of Fu Brick Tea?”

 

Mystery Sheng and “Blind Tasting”

It’s always wise and prudent to know what you are buying in regard to tea, especially Puerh. Not all Puerh is born equal!

When I first seriously started drinking Puerh back in the late 1980’s people were less concerned about origin, brand or manufacturer. Those were the times before the Puerh bubble burst and farmers and manufacturers were still somewhat recovering from the agricultural policies of the 1950’s and 60’s that did not favour the market. Only in the mid to late 80’s did individual factories start to break away from the generic CNNP banner and forge new economic and trade developments in the market. However, still when I was drinking into the beginning of the 90’s the tea material remained generic and it’s exact origins often concealed behind poor quality packaging and brand. This led me to an adventure of Puerh, exploring different teas almost blindly.

Today we are far more discerning, and for good reason, the value of both brand, origin and factory confidence in the tea market makes us consumers want something of an equally valuable experience.

Occasionally, however I have opportunity to experience those early days of Puerh and go back to the enjoyment of both blind tasting and experiencing a tea without all the layers that inform our experience (i.e. marketing). Therefore it was a welcomed opportunity to be gifted a complete mystery sheng Puerh to try from Tedor Tea.

The only information I had was that it was from 2015.

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The packet contained a nice chunk of a bing which is always a good thing for a blind test as sometimes its difficult to know, if its been broken up, the type of compression the tea has undergone before storage. Tighter compressions tend to make the tea age slower leading to more retention of that young sheng bitter astringency.

The compression was somewhere in the middle to light range, so for this 4 year old sheng I was confident I would not be hit with a powerful bitter note on brewing that I might have got from an equivalent iron cake pressing.

First dry aromas were good, sweet grassy and fragrant. This reproduced itself further in the brew with some lovely honey sweet notes.

The brew and huigan were gentle and fragrant with a slight underlying oak wood temperament, but not smokey or tobacco like.

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I pushed it to its limits on the 4th brew and, as expected for a relatively young sheng, it delivered bitterness to the back of my teeth but still remained palatable and fragrant.

Overall the mystery tea had a soft and gentle experience that I would place in a mid morning tea session as the Cha Qi was also gentle and not overwhelming but enough to bring a level of focus and attention. I would hazard a guess at it being of Mengku due to its aromatic profile without the harshness of other similar regions. Perhaps I will never know but that’s somewhat the fun of blind tasting.

Blind tasting is something I would recommend even though as tea consumers it is something we often choose not to undertake. Blind tasting is something that is incorporated into other practices, such as in the world of wine , but also in coffee as well as in tea competitions. Blind tasting is also a good way to hone our palate on different teas in an impartial way, without the influence of other factors such as brand or origin.

There are a few Western facing vendors that now offer a “blind tasting” or “mystery” tea experience. I was fortunate to get a blind sample but you could always check out the blind taster sets at Yunnan Sourcing. 

I would encourage a blind tasting session once in a while as a both a fun session and an interesting way to sharpen your senses so that you connect more deeply with tea.

 

 

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.

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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.

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.