Friday, May 26, 2017

The 2017 Chinese Porcelain Exhibition of the Tea Institute at Penn State. Day 1: Qinghua

Here is an account of this year's Exhibition. The subject is rather broad, Chinese porcelain, but it was further broken down into qinghua (blue on white), white Dehua, black glaze and celadon wares. Every day, Teaparker and I would present a different type ware.
Black glazed bowl, celadon vase, Dehua cup and qinghua jar
Before I go further, I should first clarify the concepts of earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.
Earthenware was invented first and was made of clay found directly in the earth and fired at low temperature (700 to 900 degrees Celsius). Its texture is rather rough and porous. The sound of the body is dull, its surface isn't translucent and it's difficult to clean.
Stoneware came next and uses finer clay that requires crushing, rinsing and kneading. It is fired at 1100 to 1300 degrees Celsius so that it becomes harder as its surface vitrifies. The color of the stoneware isn't white, but can be black or celadon.
Porcelain was invented last, but the first proto-porcelain (grey-white stoneware) already started to appear in the early Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) and matured during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD). Let's pause a moment to consider the fact that Europe only started to produce its own porcelain in 1710 in Meissen!!
Porcelain requires kaolin clay which contains a high proportion of aluminum oxide and silicon oxide. And it requires a high firing temperature above 1200 degrees Celsius. It is usually glazed so that it gets a beautiful white gloss and won't absorb water or any dirt particles.

Gongxian kiln, Henan province, Tang dynasty
The qinghua porcelain, aka underglaze blue porcelain dates back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). The pigment used to produce this blue color is cobalt. And this cobalt didn't come from China, but from the Abbasid empire (Iran/Irak area). This is evidence of one of the first international cooperation to make a product!

The dish on the left is part of the exhibition 'Secrets of the Sea: a Tang shipwreck' taking place at the Asia Society Museum (NYC) until June 4th. There are very few qinghua wares preserved from the Tang dynasty.

The most famous kilns for qinghua ware are those of Jingdezhen. This town was renamed in 1004 after a Sung emperor who loved its porcelain so much.
When we tested different qinghua cups with tea, it is this old double happiness cup that performed best and was the most fragrant. The reason is that it was made by traditional means with natural clay. Interestingly, the color of the qinghua porcelain isn't exactly white, but 'duck egg' (bluish) white.
Qinghua porcelain reached its high mark during the Chenghua reign (1465-1487) with the making of the chicken cups.
After the theory, the students of the Tea Institute also got to experience how qinghua cups impact the aromas of the tea. Thanks to their experience and training, they were quick to realize that even though porcelain is reputed to be neutral to the taste, there are variations from one cup to another. Differences in clay, glaze and shape explain these variations.
In the evening, after a day of lecture, we would still be brewing tea. This part was more relaxed and even more practical. After performing a Chaxi, I would let the students practice theirs. 
If my memory serves me well, I think we started with this fresh Alishan Jinxuan Oolong and continued with that complex and well structured winter Alishan Zhuo Yan Oolong on the first night.
Our brewer, Patrick, is an alumni of the Tea Institute. Thanks to his experience there, he landed a job at one of the biggest tea chains in the US! So, if most Americans drink better tea in department stores in the near future, it will be thanks to him! (If not, we'll blame his management!)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Celadon tea cups by Jacob Bodilly

Green and light blue celadon cups by Jacob Bodilly
I'm pleased to introduce 2 types of celadon cups made by a British ceramist artist, Jacob Bodilly. He's a good friend of Michel François who also made tea ware for me in the past (like the bowl next to the cups). Both have worked together at the (Bernard) Leach Pottery in Cornwall. Leach was is the godfather of pottery's renaissance in the West, thanks to his study of pottery in Asia and his friendship with Soetsu Yanagi, author of 'the unknown craftsman'. Jacob (like Michel) follows in these footsteps and produce tea ware that combine beauty and function. 
Jacob Bodilly is also a passionate tea drinker and therefore he was able to shape these cups with lightly flared rims that smoothen the contact between the cup and the lip. The glaze is very soft and tender to the touch.

They come in light blue
Or in green celadon:
By the way, I think today is an appropriate time to announce that I plan visiting London during the second week of July. I hope to combine this vacation with a chance to meet some of my British tea friends. Please let me know if you're interested in a tea brewing event with me (and if you have a suggestion where to organize such an event).

Friday, May 19, 2017

Spring 2017 Wenshan Baozhong

This year's spring harvests were delayed by roughly 2 weeks due to the late end of winter. But the wait is finally over and I am glad to announce that I have completed my spring selection of Wenshan Baozhongs!

Subtropical forest Baozhong
This calls for a celebration and a special Spring 2017 Wenshan Baozhong Chaxi on a pavilion surrounded by tea plantations near Pinglin.

I chose my lowest priced Baozhong, the 'subtropical forest' Baozhong made of qingxin Oolong because this year's version exceeded my expectations and its scents are so similar to those of these surroundings.

This Chaxi is composed of:

- an Yixing zhuni Xishi teapot,
- 3 light celadon singing cups,
- 3 glass flower chatuo,
- a qinghua porcelain jar,
- a small Qing dynasty qinghua dish for the dry leaves,
- a medium Qing dynasty qinghua tea boat for the teapot,
- a celadon Jianshui (waste water container)
- a Green spring flowers chabu and a long bamboo mat below.

The celadon wares and green Chabu gives this Chaxi a fresh spring mood. The celadon cups also enhance the pale hue of the brew.

The ancient wares are also a reminder that Baozhong's tradition in northern Taiwan dates back to the end of the 19th century.
What confuses people most about Baozhong are cultivars. In Nantou county, in the center of Taiwan, the teas are mostly named after their cultivar: a Jinxuan, a SiJiChun, a Jade Oolong... But in the north, the name Baozhong doesn't refer to a cultivar, but simply how it used to be wrapped in paper in the past. This means that Baozhong can be made with just any type of cultivar. This makes it very important to get the information about the cultivar used in your Baozhong. There are big differences in quality and price from one cultivar to an other.
Qingxin Oolong remains the traditional top choice for Wenshan Baozhong. Besides this subtropical forest Baozhong, you also find it in my '3G' Baozhong. The Yingzhi Hongxin is a lesser known cultivar that provides an zesty variation or a more flowery profile when low oxidized. This year, I was able to get put my hands on a new cultivar, Ying Xiang (TTES No 20) that has been developed to suit Baozhong tea in 2004. The result is very powerful.
Open leaves of Subtropical forest Baozhong, spring 2017
Enter the Wenshan forest with a cup of Wenshan Baozhong!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Oded Tzur - Translator's Note

I'm glad to announce that my friend Oded Tzur's latest CD has been released worldwide today. It's even available on my online tea boutique!

He's a saxophone player using a very peculiar Indian sounding technique -raga- and applies it to jazz! The result is some kind of fusion that can be very relaxed and meditative or flamboyant and extatic at times.

I had the honor of spending a day with Oded during my trip to the US a month ago. We had  a great time drinking tea and listening to his music together. We even composed this Chaxi together.
On his first album, Oded has a song titled "the song of the silent Dragon". This mystic animal is a often source of inspiration for his music (and not just because he's also a fan of Oolong, black dragon!) The dragon has a very long body. It's like the notes that he plays, long and powerful. And this is similar to the aftertaste of great tea: it goes on for a long time, ever changing and playing with our senses!
We found many parallels between his music and my puerhs and roasted Oolongs' lingering aftertaste.
In the evening, I did an Oolong demonstration and introduction for several of Oded's friends.
I remember we had my Alishan winter zhuoyan (insect bitten) and everybody was amazed by the tea's complexity, depth and length.
I taught everybody how to pour from a tiny Yixing teapot into small porcelain cups without using a pitcher. The trick is to do a back and forth between all the cups in order to get an even concentration and volume of tea in each cup. It's not easy and it requires concentration. But this is always the case when you want to do something well in life...
It's OK to use both hands if your index can't touch the knob on the lid.
I was glad to see that everybody was willing and happy to practice. They all displayed focus and quick learning skills. You need those if you want to live and succeed in NYC, a very fast paced city that strives for excellence. And at the same time it was nice and cozy to be part of such group of talented international people in one of the most cosmopolitan city on earth! Tea and music connect so well. You almost don't need a translator...

Thank you for everything you've shared with me Oded!
Here a glimpse of his talent and 1 song from his new CD:

Saturday, May 13, 2017

La douceur des gestes de la production du thé

En haute montagne, toutes les plantations ne sont pas sur des pentes escarpées. On en trouve souvent sur des petits plateaux de plusieurs dizaines de mètres de largeur et une bonne centaine de mètres de longueur. On pourrait y réaliser des récoltes mécaniques comme en plaine. Mais les producteurs préfèrent recourir au travail manuel car une feuille récoltées à la main donne un goût plus doux et moins astringent que lorsqu'elle est cueillie à la machine. C'est tellement vrai que l'on récolte parfois à la main en plaine, même si cela y a pour conséquence de doubler voire tripler le coût final du thé! Je pense que le fait que ce soit des femmes qui font ce travail contribue aussi à plus de douceur car leurs gestes utilisent moins la force brute que ceux des hommes.

Flétrissage à l'extérieur
Cette attention au geste juste et doux ne concerne pas que la récolte. Il concerne aussi la phase du flétrissage à l'extérieur (et à l'intérieur). Ainsi, j'ai pu entendre les conseils de mon fermiers à un groupe de jeunes apprentis. Il leur dit de prendre exemple sur ce contre-maitre ci-dessus. Quand il répand les feuilles récoltées sur le sol, il le fait avec des gestes tendres. Il porte les feuilles comme un nouveau-né et les secoue doucement pour les faire tomber sur le sol de manière harmonieuse. Les apprentis, eux, n'avaient pas des gestes aussi délicats et jettaient presque leurs feuilles pour certains. Or, si le producteur leur demandait d'être plus respecteux des feuilles, ce n'était pas pour leur inculquer de la discipline. Sa raison était bien plus simple: le thé aura meilleur goût si on utilise de la douceur lors de du flétrissage. C'est quelque chose qu'il arrive à ressentir lorsqu'il goûte le thé!

Tous les producteurs ne font pas ce lien, de même que tous les amateurs de thé ne sont pas sensibles au fait que la douceur (ou non) des gestes de leur préparation du thé a un impact sur l'infusion. Mais c'est à ce genre de détails qu'on reconnait les bons producteurs.
Nouvelle plantation à Ali Shan

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Tea Institute at Penn State's tea exhibitions from the past

Before I write an article about this year's fantastic Chinese ceramics exhibition at the Tea Institute at Penn State, let me show you some pictures from the past so that we can see the evolution and importance of these events.

The Tea Institute had been founded by Jason Cohen in the fall of 2010 and in spring 2011, it was already organizing its very first event titled "Come Talk Tea With a Taiwanese Teamaster."

Jason was a reader of my blog and managed to persuade me to ask Teaparker if he would be interested in going to the US to teach American students about tea. Teaparker would give lectures that I would translate and I would also share my own experience during our interactive lectures. 
Above is a rare picture of what the Tea Instute's tea room looked like in spring 2011 before the bamboo sticks and paper had to be removed from the ceiling (on order of the fire dept).
The main event of this event was a tea serving during the presentation of the 2011 International Taiwan Watercolor exhibition at PSU's Robeson Gallery. 
After a couple of days of training, this is what the student's chaxi looked like. We had been able to make them switch from clay teapots to porcelain gaiwan in order to better taste the true flavors of the tea.
Above is my Chaxi. It tries to connect Taiwan's watercolors and tea on a more aesthetic level.
Things were very different in 2011: Jason was wearing a formal suit and tie for his trademark speech! I think Patrick P. once said to me: "Life is like a Jason Cohen speech. You know when it starts, but you never know how it will finish!"

Teaparker's Chaxi featured an ancient Dehua teapot, a Ming dynasty qinghua jar, Qing dynasty chatuo and modern Dehua cups. His brilliant Chaxi brought the connections between art and tea to a new level.
Back in the tea room of the Institute, the classes focused on 2 subjects: Oolong tea tasting.
and Chaxi compositions.
Then came the last brew of a tea that made everybody speechless and happy: a brick of shu puerh 7638. A new ritual was born with this tea. The Tea Institute members brew it every semester as they accept the new members who have passed the test.
The taste of this tea must have impressed the Tea Institute a lot, because it invited Tea Parker and me for a Pu'er Tea Exhibition in April 2013!

From a general tea talk, the 4 days events are now focused on a single tea family that is very little know in the West: Yunnan puerh, which is part of the hei cha, black (fermented) tea family.

The Tea Institute is a pioneer in the study of tea on American campuses. We've heard of no similar group or association in any Western university. Being a pioneer means taking a lot of risks and sometimes failing. The outdoor tea scheduled on a chilly mid April morning is probably one of the rare fails we experienced.
We were able to get the water to boil and brew tea (after a good hour in the Pennsylvanian wind), but the tiny cups cooled down too soon and didn't make us feel warm. But we felt happy nevertheless, because this was a gathering of people dedicated to a same passion for tea. The Tea Institute learned that mistakes are part of the tea learning process and never scheduled another tea brewing outdoors in April at State College!
And from the above Chaxi, we can see that the students at the Tea Institute are smart and quick learners! That's what makes teaching them so gratifying...

The best way to learn tea is not through long theoretical classes, but by mixing tea knowledge and top grade leaves. Here, above, Jason is slowly opening a brick of an original 1975 '7562' brick! His kind and wonderful parents are standing next to him as they have come all the way from Florida to all our events! (Thanks so much for your support).
We brewed it in a zhuni shuiping teapot and everybody who had this tea still remembers it today! What a powerful, clean and refined Chaqi!
But even though this event was about puerh, Teaparker made the students smell and taste how different cups, teapots... had an impact on the flavors of the tea! And very often the differences are so obvious that almost everybody can smell them!
There's so much one can learn about tea...
...which is why the Tea Institute invited us again in late April 2014 for a Regional Tea Ceremony Exhibition centered on Chaozhou Gongfucha. This Qing dynasty Chinese tea ceremony practiced in the Chaozhou/Chaoshan area is the ancestor of today's gongfu tea brewing.

We can see from this poster that the subjects of the 4 day event are getting very specific. The students at the Tea Institute don't rehash the past, but dig deeper and deeper.

The right time had come to go back in time with this subject and the tea wares Tea Parker and I brought to Penn State.

This tea set is composed of a white Nifenglu, a zhuni chuanxin diao (the kettle), a zhuni teapot and 3 qinghua porcelain Ruoshen cup. These are the main accessories, considered treasures, for the Chaozhou gongfucha.

This set would have its place in a museum. That's why Tea Parker introduced each accessory during an event at Penn State's Palmer Museum:
Each item is exquisite. The pewter chatuo with petals like waves, the pewter Jianshui with its ancient coin design, the lacquered tray with a dragon painted on it, the tiny but efficient bamboo fan...
Before we transferred this set to the Tea Institute, we had the students practice Gongfucha brewing with less precious modern wares!
They practiced tirelessly day and night, literally!
We also got to taste some amazing Wuyi Yancha teas that left us quite amazed during this event. Wuyi teas were the preferred teas for Chaozhou gongfucha in the early days. It's because they were already so expensive back then that the teapots and cups tended to be very small.
The attendance of the events was growing and we were honored to have M. and Ms. Koike among us. This Japanese couple living in NYC is also very knowledgeable and passionate about tea. They were very touched to see that a new generation of students giving a "renaissance", a new birth, to tea brewing by going back to the roots of tea. This is the best and fastest way to learn.
In 2015, we were back at Penn State for the Yixing Teapot Exhibition. Since we had already taught Oolongs, Puerhs and the Chaozhou Gongfucha brewing, the Tea Institute chose an even more precise subject: Yixing teapots.

We started with the fundamentals: the various clays. This was a pretty unique opportunity to see and touch the actual stones that are used to make real Yixing teapots. And what is very interesting is that the Penn State students were able to do chemical analysis of these clays in the laboratories of the university. This means that our teachings start to bear some new knowledge!
The fun part of such studies is that they are not purely intellectual. The ultimate goal of tea is enjoyment. And the more you understand it, the better you are able to brew your tea!
This pictures shows that the attendance continued to rise. Everyone wanted a cup of aged Oolong from Da Yu Ling brewed in an antique duanni Ju Lun Zhu!
Stillness and calm are necessary to feel the tiny differences in flavors from one brew to an other.
There's no rush. Good tea in a good teapot will feel more intense if it's allowed to be brewed slowly.
I apologize for the length of this article, but I think it's important to remember all these past events before discussing this year's. Students graduate in the span of 4 years and today's students were not there for the first 2 exhibitions. Therefore, it's important to point out that this year's event builds on the experience accumulated since 2011. Nevertheless, even I was amazed by the level of expertise reached by the students at the Tea Institute this year. Jason, Ryan, Jeff and Sam you have done a very good job!