Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What is there to learn about tea?

Tea is not just a complex plant, camellia sinensis, that has hundreds of different cultivars and that can be processed into 6 ways (white, yellow, green, Oolong, red and black). Its taste will further vary with the season it is harvested, the way the leaves are picked, the soil the trees are grown on, how the plantations are managed... All this has an impact on the aromas of the leaves and the genius of Lu Yu  is that he already recognized most of this in his Book of Tea during the Tang dynasty (618-907). (Note: at his time only the green tea process had been invented).
 But the complexity of tea doesn't stop there. It's not just a product you need to study from a farmer's perspective. Equally important is to know how to store and prepare it yourself, because the leaves are a semi-finished product. The end product is the brew. And here we are adding again a lot of complexity with what is the right brewing vessel, the fitting cups, the water, the jar... After 1200 years of evolution since Lu Yu, new teas and new methods have been invented, some lost and a few preserved and reinvented. Different countries have added their contribution to how tea is made (India, Japan, England, North Africa...) so that tea has become a global drink prepared in countless ways.
In Taiwan, starting in the 1980s, the Cha Yi (tea art) movement has combined classic Qing dynasty Chaozhou gongfu cha with the elegance of Japanese (green) tea ceremonies (which have Chinese origins). Traditional gongfu cha was all about making the perfect cup of (roasted) Oolong while the Japanese ceremonies were pursuing more aesthetic and principled goals that are mostly remotely connected to tea . My understanding of this Taiwanese movement (according to my now 15 years of studies with Teaparker) is that making a Chaxi (a beautiful set up) is not about adding an additional layer of complexity to an already very complex product and process. The beauty we are trying to create should not be disconnected from the tea. It should go to the heart of the aromas we are trying to brew. It builds on the knowledge of the leaves, the knowledge of the brewing process and all this is integrated in the Chaxi with a touch of personal creativity and beauty. It is more about finding and restoring harmony between the leaves and the accessories than simply creating beauty per se.
In the above Chaxi, for instance, I brewed my 1980s Jingua Gongcha, a shu puerh from the Menghai Tea Factory. Gongcha means tea tribute, leaves that are offered to a higher authority. In the 1980s, this meant a higher quality grade of leaves than most cooked puerhs. Thanks to several decades of aging, this shu puerh has developed camphor and incense like fragrances that are similar to very old sheng puerh, but the taste is sweeter and smoother. The character of the tea is dark and has many layers. This is reflected in the dark quilt like Chabu I'm using. An Yixing jar is a fine storage accessory for shu puerh. Using a porcelain gaiwan helps me to have a very precise opinion about this tea's outstanding quality. (The gaiwan is from the same 80s era as the tea.) I find there are indeed many similarities in terms of scents with a real aged Tongqing Hao! The color of the brew becomes lighter after each brew. Ivory porcelain cups bring this color to shine brightly. And the copper chatuo shines like gold, just like this aged shu puerh could have passed as an even older sheng. (The reason we use copper instead of gold is the same: it's more affordable and looks pretty close!) 

I hope that this example clarifies what a Chaxi is all about. Everything is linked and the result will always depend on the strength of the weakest link. A bad tea, an accessory that doesn't fit the leaves, bad water, a messy setup... anything could mess up the beauty of taste, scent and sight of your Chaxi. And I haven't mentioned the brewing skills that require time and practice to pour well without making stains!

This is what I am aiming to achieve for myself. It's also what I'm trying to share, teach and inspire with this blog, my online tea boutique with its unique selection of outstanding teas and wares, my videos on Youtube and pictures on Instagram... With your orders, you're benefiting from my 15 years of tea experience and are helping me spread the complex Beauty of Tea around the world.

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