Additional content, like the Further Reading of the magazine…


Additional content, like the Further Reading of the magazine…

Living with Tea Medicine - The Ninth Session: Fire

15 Apr 2017 by

Having studied what composes the best leaves for brewing tea and what makes for the best water in brewing tea, now we turn our attention to the final basic ingredient for making the best tea: fire. And here is where I must humble myself before you and admit that, on my tea journey, I have not yet reached the pinnacle of this element in my own tea brewing: I have not yet had the chance to brew tea using a charcoal brazier of any kind. I can, however, vouch for the superiority of tea brewed with real fire from coals. Charcoal produces water that is somehow hotter and holds a very coherent structure when it hits the tongue. Tea melds right into this kind of water. The cups I have tasted brewed in this way are those that I myself seek to brew someday. Getting a chance to drink living tea steeped in Taiwanese mountain spring water boiled with charcoal heat by a tetsubin held by a hook hung over a brazier is one of the many profound reasons why one should pay a visit to the Tea Sage Hut sooner rather than later.
Yet instead of daydreaming about what tea could be somewhere far away and perfect, let's talk about what fire for tea has been, at least for me. My journey through various heat sources in my tea brewing improved over time as I learned the necessity of proper heat for various kinds of tea. I, like you perhaps, started with simple kitchen tea. For my first bowls of tea, I used my gas stove in the kitchen to boild water in glass kettle, heating filtered reverse osmosis water from my tap. Once I had heated the water on the stove to a full rolling boil, I moved the kettle over to my kitchen table and placed it on a trivet to sit. Drinking bowl tea, I let the heat dissipate bowl to bowl, the third bowl always being much cooler than the first. It took a while before I saw the many flaws of heating water in this way. I grew to love that very first bowl in lieu of the rest. In this way, my sessions always arced downwards on the scale of satisfaction.
Fortunately for me, after I graduated from three bowls of tea to start the day to longer sessions with better teas, I was forced to come up with a method of heating water where I sat. Running back and forth from my tea space to the kitchen quickly got old. I soon purchased an alcohol burner for use in my tea space. I started out optimistically, boiling my water from start to finish on the burner. Not knowing the proper use for these types of tools, which work primarily to keep water that has already been heated to a proper temperature continuously hot, I started every session with a 25 minute meditation as I waited no less than that for the water to finish boiling. This was good for my meditation and tea spirit, but not so good for my tea. My experience with water boiled slowly on a less than ideal heat source versus water boiled on a proper burner has shown that rapidly heated water wins out every time with better mouthfeel and qi. (Don't take my word for it! Do the experiment yourself!)
Months of heating my water in the kitchen while I sat mindfully in another room out of earshot of the kettle, guessing whether the water had finished boiling or not (and getting it wrong a lot once I bore witness to water gushing out all over the stove upon making it to the kitchen), grew laborious. On my first trip to Taiwan, I bought a electronically controlled infrared burner in Yingge, just like the one they use today in the kitchen at the Hut. It was the first thing I opened once I returned home, eager to start brewing tea with a proper initial heat source to compliment my alcohol burner. However, what I found was disappointing: the gurgle of the fish tanks at the Hut concealed a fatal flaw of this particular model of burner - a loud fan. I took it apart to tried to fix it, thinking I might replace the fan, but this proved beyond my skills. The whirling of the fan greatly detracted from my tea sessions. I quickly concluded that I needed a replacement.
My Tea brother Jasper (Jing Ren) had figured out how to incorporate a certain brand of off-the-shelf infrared burner into a wooden enclosure with a knob for temperature control, all with silent passive cooling; but alas, he was out of stock (and still is!). So I did some Amazon research and ended up with a nice Narita burner, all shiny and metal, perfect for a living tea aesthetic (not!). It annoyingly had a "feature" whereby it would turn off upon reaching a certain temperature in order to prevent the burning of food. My experience with the Yingge burner hadn't completely turned me off from opening the hood on these burners. This time, I was able to open the Narita unit and bypass this feature to obtain a steady constant high heat. I was left with a disabled temperature control knob and a voided warranty, but so far so good! It's been heating my water quickly and is as close as I can get to actual fire in my tea room as of right now. It's been going strong for over a year and I have no complaints. I think it makes good water for tea. I do hope Jing creates some more of his fine burners soon, though! Today, they use his burner at the Tea Sage Hut in the main tea room as a compliment to their charcoal braziers.
Let me describe in more detail the setup I now use and will continue to use until I graduate to charcoal. I have two clay kettles. If I am drinking tea by myself, one kettle is probably enough. In the event that I am serving tea, I will fill both before the start of the session. As I explained last post, I have a large water jar (complete with a taboo spout!) that sits next to where I serve tea in the tea room. Working alone, I can refill kettles if need be. The Narita burner quickly heats the water at the start of the session. After reaching its peak boil, I move it to an alcohol burner or directly to a trivet. I like the interim stage of setting the kettle on the alcohol burner, which give the tea some of the actual element of fire. During the session, I dance the kettle between the alcohol burner and the trivet, being mindful of maintaining consistent temperature and not allowing the water to overboil. This back-and-forth becomes a major part of my own practice while serving tea: having to manage water temperature keeps me alert and constantly aware of my surroundings. For me, it is a major element of "staying with the Tea", listening to what the tea needs at every steeping and being prepared as best as I can to respond to its needs. It is a great litmus test for my awareness, or lack thereof. As sessions draw to a close, caping off the alcohol burner with its metal burner cover is a sign that prepares my guests for the end of the session. The room grows quiets as the gentle hiss of the burner is silenced. Plain water is served. The fire is out.

A Life of Tea Practice: Fire

A 10 minute meditation on boiling water at the start of a tea session is one of the best ways to come into the tea space. This meditation requires one to become familiar with the stages heating water takes while on its journey towards a full boil. There are two means of determining boiling points: either with the eyes or with the ears. A glass kettle is very helpful when first learning about boiling points. Seeing the way bubbles form and at what rate they form is essential to gauging water temperature. At a later stage, you might find it more meditative to keep your eyes closed and instead listen for the sound of the water's various boiling points. Different burners and kettles, even different surrounding environments, have different acoustic properties. Start by getting used to the equipment you have and learning its patterns. I am now well aquainted with the sound of a Lin's kettle boiling on a Narita infrared burner. I listen for different stages of the kettle's whistle. It grows with intensity until a point at which it rapidly becomes nearly silent. This is "dragon water", as far as water will ever need to go for any tea we brew.
Of course, not all teas wish to be brewed with "dragon water". Every tea has different needs. Even different brewing methods have different needs. Becoming aquainted with what each moment of brewing tea needs is the path of a Chajin!

Ask Yourself: Am I grateful for the basic gifts of life, like heat for warmth and cooking, or do I take them for granted?

I am an American living in an affluent suburban neighborhood. Of course I take the basic gifts of life for granted! But I feel very fortunate that I am becoming more and more aware of the incredible clockwork required to sustain my wonderful life here. I am part of a vast integrated web of activity amongst animals, plants, human beings, corporations: life itself. I could spend the rest of my life comtemplating the components of this web. As it is infinite in its complexity, sometimes my only recourse to understanding is to light the fire on my burner and set the kettle on its way to Tea, resting in the gratitude of simplicity.

This post concludes Book I of Tea Medicine.

Living with Tea Medicine - The Eighth Session: Water

14 Mar 2017 by

Last post we started gathering the first of the three materials necessary for brewing healing, medicinal tea: leaves. Now let's turn our attention to the second: water. Like the sages of yore described in this chapter of Tea Medicine, "fulfilling the alchemy of Tea" with magical waters, gourds, and urns, we too are going to need our own toolkit. We can add as little or as much magic as we wish. I'll describe my own tools to start.
First things first, we are going to need to find a good, clean source of spring water. For many of us, this is simply unattainable around the geography in which we might find ourselves. For my part, I live in a suburban area within driving distance of mountains. Using resources online, albeit with some struggle, I have been able to find three sources so far, all a little under two hours away. Every experience I have had traveling to these places has been rewarding and challenging for me, but the spectacular difference these waters make on my tea brewing makes it worth it, and for some teas in my view, necessary. So with a map to the potential sources and a car with ample room for bottles, I at least know where I am going.
From a local water shop, I purchased as many 5 gallon water bottles as my car can transport. I opted for glass carboys, as I have found with all things Tea, hand-crafted tea stuffs (including tea, of course!) made from natural materials win out every time. Anytime I have the option to avoid plastic, I take it! My (gas guzzling, air polluting) SUV can fit 16 bottles, but driving up and down a mountain with that many unprotected glass bottles could be disastrous. I found a company online that makes padded covers for carboys of all sizes. On one water gathering trip, on the last turn on the way back home, one of the bottles smacked into another one, causing all the water to pour out all over the car. Not Zen! With the cover in place, at least glass didn't fly everywhere. I have learned since to pack blankets between the bottles for extra protection as well as using bungee cords to secure the water bottles from bumping into each other. I use plastic lids for the bottles while traveling. Once home, I switch over to corks so the water can "breathe". I store them away from light in my (less than ideal) garage.
In use, I fill up a glass dispenser in my tea room before each session. I find that I am often serving tea without the aid of another and so for my purposes, I do use a spout conveniently located next to me for filling kettles without having to get up and greatly disturb the session. Preferably, I would keep my water in a clay or stoneware vessel that does not allow light in. I would also employ a scoop and skim water from the top to fill the kettle. As it is, the water I use does not generally have too much time to settle before it is served to guests, so I don't mind this compromise so much.
Another tool I use in the gathering of mountain spring water is intention. I start my trips with the strong intention that the water I gather will be used to serve the best tea I can to my guests and that my effort will help them all find their way to Tea. Setting off in this way makes it easy to stay present and conscious of the reason for my mission, and less guilty for expending the energy of a polluting car to make the trip.
Gathering water from far away places can make for a long day, but I always try my best to have the energy to unload the car at the end of the trip and have a tea session with the newly retrieved water. These sessions are a great reward to cap off all the hard work of the journey.
There are certain teas that, when brewed with filtered tap water, have the tendency to make my guests and I nauseous. I found that once I switched to brewing these teas with spring water, the tendency towards nausea went away almost immediately. Teas that before made me sick now rest on shelves as potent tea medicine. Because of this experience, I view gathering mountain spring water as indispensable for brewing medicinal tea.

A Life of Tea Practice: Water

One of the marvels of water is its ability to transmit Nature to us. The art of brewing tea is a testament to this! But what about the effect of human energy on the water? Above all other factors surrounding making and serving tea, the one I am most in awe of is the effect of the brewer on the tea. That water, somehow, can contain that which the brewer contains and be able to transmit these contents to another... There are no words.
Here's another experiment to add to Wu De's homework in Tea Medicine. Take a few months to become acquainted with a given tea. Commune with this tea on a regular basis, maybe even daily. As we serve tea to ourselves, we will find ourselves in various states of mind. See if you can discern the effect the mind you are carrying has on the tea on any given day. Pay attention to the thoughts you carry into the session and then what you get out of the session through its duration. After many days of this, you should be able to understand the qualities that the tea leaves impart to the water and that which perhaps you yourself are adding through your participation. Then, find another tea person in your life that you can share this same tea with and have them brew it and serve it to you. You may know someone who exhibits a unique air of wisdom about them; in that case, have tea with this person. Otherwise, pick anyone! Whoever you find, I can almost guarantee you will be floored by what you find another human does to the same basic leaves and water you've grown accustomed to.

Ask Yourself: How do I relate to the water within me? And without myself? Are they the same?

Asking these questions to myself is a very sad exercise. We are living in a world where we can't drink the water readily available to us coming from the tap, or the river, or the lake. Ubiquitous access to potable tap water around the world is a marvel of human engineering, yet chemicals unsafe for human consumption abound in all of it. I personally have the luxury of employing advanced filtration systems to my tap in order to safely bathe and drink the water I have available to my family, but what I have purchased and installed is far beyond the capacity that most can afford. My personal commitment to making sure that the water I contain within and the water that surrounds me in my daily life is free from pollutants is very strong, so I felt utterly compelled to invest in cleaning my tap water after educating myself to the various dangers (horrors?) contained within the water provided to me through municipal systems. I am glad that there is no longer a noticeable chlorine smell in the water we bathe and brush our teeth with, for sure! But I certainly feel saddened about all the hoops I've had to jump through to protect my family and doubly sad about the number of people in this world who have no recourse to this kind of technology.
What humanity at large is doing to our water supply on Earth is a hellish version of the story of the Japanese chajin burying precious spring water at the source of the Yodo river for the benefit of all. The number of atrocities committed daily that pollute our water sources far outweigh, by a staggering magnitude, acts of kind protection such as these. I myself, a person committed to clean water, am complicit in this very act of water pollution just by owning and operating a car.
Even if there were to be a large shift in consciousness at the local level about our municipal water and a demand for change, the political will required to change our ecosystems back to a quality where the water that falls from the sky is the very same water that we can safely drink goes far beyond the level of a city. We can't separate water at the local level from the environment at the global level. The air above my town doesn't have a border protecting it from the millions of people in the surrounding area contributing to the air pollution that makes it way into the water supply. Water is an orchestra of factors that cannot be separated from one another. I can strive to keep the water within myself as clean as I can and it still can't ever be clean unless we all commit to being clean within and without across the planet. I don't see this happening in my lifetime.

March's Further Readings

7 Mar 2017 by

Liu An tea

By Luo Yingyin (羅英銀)

If you ask tea lovers what comes to mind when they think of Liu An tea, you’re likely to hear many different answers. Taiwanese people might answer that it’s a smooth, refined tea with a distinctive fragrance reminiscent of ginseng; a tea that brings a leisurely, unhurried feeling to the drinker. Other people might say that in Guangdong in years gone by, wealthy families would all be well stocked with An tea – the older and richer the tea, the more highly-prized it was. Still others may recall scenes from 1930s Cantonese movies where the characters would open bamboo baskets and brew some aged An tea. Some people know Liu An as the preferred drink of high-society people in Hong Kong as an accompaniment to smoking cigars—according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Liu An tea dispels the excess internal heat produced by cigar-smoking. Others may remember that in the past, the restaurants of Hong Kong mostly served two kinds of black tea—loose leaf Yunnanese puerh and Liu An.

Many Chajin in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan have a deep attachment to old Liu An tea, thanks to its delicate, sweet, smooth flavor and its fragrant steam that warms you all the way through.

Past meets future: the revival of Liu An
Liu An tea has several uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It used to be added to medicines as a “guiding herb” to enhance efficacy, as well as drunk for its intrinsic health effects. It’s considered a “cool-warm” food in TCM—this means that Liu An, particularly when aged, is good for dispelling dampness and excess internal heat. Because of this, it’s very popular with tea drinkers in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and South-East Asia. Like puerh, Liu An is best when aged; tea merchants and individual tea drinkers usually buy some Liu An and then store it away to age, so they are able to witness the tea’s aging process. In the past, Liu An was quite popular; however, during the Sino-Japanese war, traditional Liu An trade routes were interrupted—this, together with the chaos of wartime, meant that Luxi Village in Qimen was forced to stop producing Liu An tea in the mid 1930s. The last shipment of Liu An produced there was unable to be exported until 1947. It fetched a high price on the market when it was finally sold to Singapore tea merchants.

From that time on, Liu An tea was no longer produced in Qimen for over half a century. Many Chajin from the older generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan longed to rediscover its flavor. Around ten years ago, the second large-scale tea expo was held in Taiwan, and the organizers arranged to open a bamboo basket of “Three Labels” Sun Yishun (三張票孫義順), one of the most well-known original brands of Liu An. We went along to the tasting with the aim of exploring and reporting on Liu An’s fascinating journey through history, and recording the unique charm of this old tea. A few years earlier, in 1983, some representatives of the China Tea Fund in Hong Kong sent a basket of Liu An tea to the Anhui Province Tea Company, accompanied by a letter. In the letter they sent their greetings on behalf of all the old friends of Tea in southern China and South-East Asia who missed this special tea that had been gone for several decades, and expressed their hope that Liu An might be given a new beginning.    

There were quite a few twists and turns before production was finally re-established. Because the tea is named “Liu An”, the Anhui provincial government first thought that this tea variety was originally produced in Liu An City (also pronounced “Lu’an”), so the basket of tea took a wrong turn and ended up there. It wasn’t until further enquiry that they realized it actually originated in Luxi in Qimen, so finally, in 1984, the well-travelled basket of tea made it back to Qimen, and Liu An manufacturing began once more.  

The origins of Liu An: researching Sun Yishun
There were a number of people involved in researching the original manufacturing techniques used to produce that basket of Sun Yishun tea. Among them was Wang Shoukang (汪壽康), a descendant of the original tea merchant Sun Yishun who established the brand, as well as two staff from the Luxi Village administrative office, Wang Zhenxiang (汪鎮響) and Wang Shengping (汪昇平). These three, along with various representatives of the provincial and county-level tea businesses, formed a group of about seven or eight people in total. They all gave careful consideration to the manufacturing techniques, sending several batches of samples to Hong Kong for quality approval throughout the process. Finally, four years later in 1988, they were satisfied that the quality was consistent, and Hong Kong tea merchants came flocking to place orders for the newly available Liu An.

Riding on the success of this foray into Liu An manufacturing, the local Luxi Village government decided to open a tea factory to produce red tea, so they funded the establishment of the Jiangnan Spring (江南春) Tea Factory with Wang Zhenxiang as factory director. The next year, Wang Shengping contracted the factory to make Liu An tea. After some time the factory ceased production for several years due to unstable sales. A few years later, in 1997, the market for Liu An picked up again and Wang Shoukang, the descendant of Sun Yishun, invited Wang Zhenxiang to partner in opening a new Liu An tea factory, again with the investment of Luxi Village. They registered their business under the old Sun Yishun brand name, and so continued the legacy of Wang Shoukang’s forebears. Wang Shoukang himself passed away the following year, and since Wang Zhenxiang was a legally appointed representative, the company was able to keep operating under the Sun Yishun name—and so the name has survived to this day.  

Today in the Luxi Village area there are four main manufacturers producing Liu An tea. As well as Jiangnan Spring and Sun Yishun, another company was established in 2004 as an offshoot from the Sun Yishun tea factory, and called their brand “Luxi Sun Yishun—Lu An Tang” (蘆溪孫義順─蘆安堂). More recently, in 2015, Wang Guofeng (汪國峰), then-mayor of Luxi Village and former business partner of Wang Zhenxiang, established a fourth brand and named it the “Sun Yishun Tea Brand” (孫義順茶號). The combined output of these four Liu An manufacturers is modest in volume—they produce around eighty tons of Liu An per year. There are also a handful of other tea factories in Luxi that are officially listed but have either shut down or never started production in the first place.

You may be wondering: why do almost all of these factories in Luxi have the “Sun Yishun” name as part of their brands? In the early years of the Republic there were all sorts of Liu An brand names, including Zheng Ai Ji Yishun, Kangyang Chunzheng Yishun and Qimen Wang Bai Tang An Tea House, among others. But, because of the reputation of the Sun Yishun An tea brand at the time, there were many imitators. Later, Liu An production in Anhui Province was forcibly brought to a halt by political unrest, but this didn’t quell the demand for the tea. To satisfy this market demand, a new tea company named Can Zhao Sun Yishun set up in the relatively peaceful Hong Kong and Macau area and began to produce a tea called “Macau Bamboo Rain Hat Liu An.” This tea was supplied to the market in the neighboring regions and in nearby South-East Asia. So it was that the Sun Yishun name became synonymous with quality Liu An tea.

“Dispelling the clouds”: recreating the Liu An manufacturing process
How it is that the production of a certain tea variety can stop entirely for over half a century? Aside from the political and social background and the changing economy, it was largely because of the complex methods required to produce Liu An. The whole process takes over eight months and the leaves go through five stages of firing; on top of that, the finished tea must then be stored for three years before it’s ready to sell. So the first barrier that hindered the production of Liu An was the detailed knowledge needed to make it; the second barrier was the large amount of time and labor required; and the third was the cost involved in securing storage space for three whole years.

The Liu An manufacturing process is quite complex compared to other black teas. On top of this, certain steps must be carried out at particular times of year, measured by traditional Chinese solar terms. The tea picking occurs in Guyu, or “Grain Rain,” in late April to early May; and one of the final steps is leaving the tea leaves out overnight to absorb the dew during the Bailu, or “White Dew,” solar term. The main steps in the process occur in spring and include picking, spreading the tea leaves, pan-firing, rolling, and drying until the leaves are about 70% dry (as the tea is not dried completely, it’s sometimes called “soft stem” tea). After this, the tea leaves are piled into large bamboo baskets to a depth of around 10 centimeters, and undergo about an hour of “heaping” before being dried a second time. The leaves are then chopped, mixed, sifted and sorted into grades.

Once Liqiu, the “Start of Autumn” solar term, arrives in mid-August, it’s time to take out the tea leaves and arrange them ready for the next step. On a clear evening sometime in mid-September once Bailu or “White Dew” begins, the tea leaves are placed onto bamboo drying frames and baked briefly over a high flame to enhance the fragrance of the tea. The leaves are then arranged on a bamboo mat and placed outdoors ready for the most important step in the Liu An process: the “night dew” or yelu (夜露) step. The leaves mustn’t be spread too thickly, and should be turned over once or twice during the night to fully absorb the dew. When the small water droplets of the dew meet the tea leaves, the moisture causes the tea to oxidize further. One can well imagine that this contributes to Liu An tea’s refined, delicate, smooth flavor, with a fragrant note reminiscent of ginseng. This is also why old-time cigar smokers in Hong Kong liked to drink Liu An, as the cooling properties of the tea help dispel excess internal heat.
The next day, after being nourished by the night dew, the tea is prepared for compressing. A wooden frame is placed over a hot pan, and on top of that is laid a bamboo mat and then a cotton cloth. The tea is placed on top of this to steam for a few minutes, then, while the leaves are still hot from the steam, they are packed into small bamboo baskets lined with bamboo leaves.

The little baskets of tea are placed in pairs, then three pairs are strung together into a row with bamboo strips. Row upon row of baskets are placed neatly onto racks in a tall drying kiln and covered with a cotton quilt, then dried over wood charcoal that is laid at the bottom of the kiln. The purpose of the quilt is to absorb the steam from the tea leaves and to make the hot air in the kiln circulate. The leaves generally need to dry like this for about two days, until the quilt is warm and dry to the touch. This is the most crucial step in determining whether or not the batch of Liu An tea will turn out to be a success. 

From picking to drying, the whole process takes several months and involves five different firings: kill-green, drying, high-heat firing to enhance the fragrance, steaming and charcoal drying. The traditional “night dew” method is also an integral part of the process, and is known for its use in processing other food products too, such as old-style soy sauce. It plays an important role in preserving and flavoring the product.

Unravelling a mystery: where does the “An” name come from?
Nearly 30 years have passed since production of this tea was revived, and the market has gradually caught wind of its unique fragrance. But as for its name, many tea drinkers are still confused: An tea? Liu An tea? Lu’an tea? Is there a difference? For starters, the two spellings in English, “Lu’an” and “Liu An,” reflect two alternate pronunciations of the character in Chinese (which is the number six). In the case of 六安, the city in Anhui Province, it is traditionally pronounced lu, whereas the standard Mandarin pronunciation is liu. So you may see both versions used for the name of the tea.

So, pronunciation aside, where did this name come from? According to records, a tea variety by the name of Liu An had been produced in two parts of Anhui Province since the Han Dynasty, namely the Liu An (or Lu’an) prefecture, and Huoshan County. By the time of the Tang Dynasty this tea had gained some reputation, and was known by such names as Huo Tea, Xian Ya (“Immortal Buds”), and Rui Cao Kui. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that it began to be known as “Liu An”; at that time it was also classified as a “tribute” tea, that would be gifted to officials and the royal household. The Qing Dynasty Liu An Records contain the following passage: “In the whole realm there are ten provinces and counties that produce tea, but Lu’an is the only tea that often crosses the thresholds of government officials.” There’s also a line of a poem describing a bustling scene in the capital city that goes: “The shop fronts are decked out in splendorous gold; the merchants compete to see Lu’an tea sold.” Liu An tea also appears in Chapter 14 of the famous literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber. The Liu An tea that all of these examples refer to is in fact a green tea, which genuinely originated in Liu An itself.  

So, the Liu An tea we’ve just discussed in the previous paragraph is in fact a different variety from the Qimen An tea that is this month’s focus, and is distinct in terms of both origin and production methods. One is produced in Huoshan, the other in Qimen. One is a green tea, and one is a black tea. Their markets are different too: the first is supplied to the local market, whereas the second is shipped south to Guangzhou and supplied to Hong Kong, Macau and the overseas Chinese population.

How, then, did a black tea produced in Qimen’s Luxi Village come to be known as Liu An tea? Before Qimen red tea began to appear during the reign of the Qing emperor Guangxu, a variety called An tea was produced in great quantities throughout the whole of Qimen. By the early days of the Republic of China there were over 50 different tea producers in the area, and each company had their own tea label. In this case, the word “label” is used quite literally—each tea would have a small slip of paper inside the packaging much like the ones one finds in puerh tea today, explaining the origins of the tea and confirming its authenticity. The Sun Yishun brand that is still so well-known today was one of the biggest tea producers during the early Republic. Their tea labels from that era read as follows: “This tea is genuine Anhui Sun Yishun An brand tea; made with only the most delicate and tender spring buds, picked in Lu’an before the rains, carefully selected and processed, with no expense spared…” The Qimen Museum also has a tea label on display from the Hu Ju Chun brand—on the back, in small characters, it reads: “While fine tea is produced in many parts of China, this Anhui Sun Yishun An tea is truly one of a kind, with naturally unique qualities…” So, as more and more tea with labels such as these crossed oceans, it’s not hard to see how tea drinkers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia came to know An tea as “old Liu An.”

Where, then, does the “An” part of the name come from? The characterin Chinese means “peace” (as well as a few related meanings), and features in a number of place names. This has given rise to several theories as to how the tea got its name. The first theory is that, since it was largely sold in the southern province of Guangdong, the tea was simply named after Anhui Province where it was produced. As the labels in Sun Yishun put it, the tea was “shipped to Foshan Village and Guangfeng for sale…”. The second and more common theory is that it was named after the original Liu An tea, the green tea variety from Liu An that we discussed earlier. A third theory has to do with production methods. Hu Haochuan (胡浩川), who was head of the Qimen Tea Factory during the early Republic, writes in his Qimen Tea Manufacturing that the majority of tea produced in Qimen was red tea, though there was also a small amount of green tea being made. Because the production methods used imitated those of the original Liu An tea, it became known as An tea. Yet a fourth theory is based on one literal meaning of the character an (), “to calm or pacify”: the tea is known in Chinese medicine for its ability to soothe the organs of the body and balance the six different types of Qi.

So, whether it originally referred to a green tea from Anhui or the An tea that we know for its soothing properties, the mysterious Liu An name made a place for itself in the hearts of Chajin in Hong Kong and Taiwan, thanks to the tea labels that traveled with it across the seas. As it is picked and processed to the rhythm of the seasons, the fragrance of An tea has once again begun to waft out across the green forests and blue skies of Anhui’s Luxi Village. It’s a tea that has waited patiently over the years for its forgotten charm to be revived and once again carried on the wind to the tea drinkers of the world.

February's Further readings

1 Feb 2017 by

Meditation and Tea, developing a Beginners Mind

By Jing Ren

A cup full of expectationsFinally, after having been at the center in Taiwan for a couple of weeks during my first visit, it was time to drink Tea in the Gong Fu Tea room!
The next day our dear Tea brother Greg Went would have to head home, and to honor the occasion Wu De had asked Greg what Tea he would like to be served that night and Greg had said that he would love to drink some aged Yencha together.
In the weeks prior to the Gong Fu Tea session I had been walking past the Gong Fu Tea room already many times. And often, very curiously, I would peak through the window frame and imagine how it would be to drink Tea in that magical space. It looked so exquisite and beautiful! In it was a round glass table top, floating above a big round hollowed out stone, serving as a basin for a little fish pond. The table was surrounded by ancient looking stone stools. And all that seated on a little island surrounded by white pebbles all around. I wouldn’t have been able to count the times that I wondered: “when will we finally drink tea there?!” But this evening it was going to happen!
The charcoal was lighted up, the kettles were silently filled with spring water, an antique teapot was brought in along with some Ming dynasty cups. We sat down on the stone stools around the little table. The kettle was placed above the lively burning charcoal, and we sat silently awaiting the whispers of ‘the wind soughing through the pines’.
After the kettle came to a boil, the cups and pot were rinsed and the tea was gently placed in the teapot and rinsed afterwards. After the initial shower water flowed into the pot to start the first steeping while swirls of steam were rising up, filling the room with a heavenly scent already. After the second shower of the teapot, and the cups were emptied of the hot water, Wu De started to pour the first steeping. I almost couldn’t hold it any longer! Within a few seconds I was going to take the first sip. And I was certain that from that moment on I would find myself in a completely different world altogether. I was surely going to sour through the sky on the back of a dragon, through vast valleys and misty mountains, all the way up into the heavens, where I would be given the gift of eternal bliss.
The cups were served out, and my hands moved slowly towards it. Gently, but slightly nervous I lifted up the cup and brought it towards my lips. With eagerness, slight impatience and full of expectation I took the first sip. I waited… but nothing happened! I took a second sip… sip, sip, sip. The cup was empty, but no single dragon or misty mountain to be seen! Very soon thereafter the second round of cups was poured and served out. I lifted up the cup again and took a first sip, took a second sip… sip, sip, sip. The cup was once again empty and yet still no dragon!

Emptying the cupI thought: “Okey, I must be doing something wrong here! All right, let’s breathe… let’s breathe… What did Wu De say the other day about ‘beginner’s mind’ again? Off course! how will I ever experience something profound and true if I come in with these huge expectations… this is not what Tea is about! Tea is Tea, Truth is Truth. As it is, not as you would like it to be.” I breathed in deeply another time, closed my eyes, relaxed, and with all my heart tried to say to the Tea: “okey, I set down all my expectations, I am open, please teach me whatever you want me to be thought.”
The next cup came, I lifted it up again, but this time without any expectations, fully conscious I took the first sip. Straight away I felt the tea splashing up to my upper pallet like I never have felt before, I felt its aroma rising up into my nasal cavity and beyond, and a gentle wave of subtle sensations flowed down my body slowly. Right then and there I knew I had arrived! I didn’t arrive in the magical fairytale with dragons and misty mountains, but I arrived in the present… Which is, when we are able to embrace it, the best place to be after all!

A cup filled with Wisdom
I am still very grateful for having had that experience. Not because I reached some blissful state for a moment, but because I was able to set down my expectations and return to a beginner’s mind. To be open and receptive towards what was happening in that moment. And to be humble and ready to be taught. Tea has helped me very much with my meditation practice. But not only for the more obvious reasons such as that she wakes me up in the morning or makes me less sleepy during my meditations. Tea has also been a bridge for me, connecting my time at the cushion to my daily life. She has also helped me to create empty, tidy and clean spaces, which support me in keeping my mind clear as well and motivate me to use those space for where they are intended for: meditation, prayer and ceremony. Having a space fully dedicated to this truly has been of big support for me and my practice!
But perhaps most important of all, tea has helped me to develop, relearn and renew my capacity for sustaining a beginners mind. It is with this mind that can I experience every bowl, cup or breath like it’s the first and only one. And it actually is! Like these pages often remind us: there is ever only one bowl of tea like this one, and it will never be the same again.
But how did this experience, how does Tea help me in developing my capacity to manifest a beginners mind? Without a beginners mind, there is no Tea. There is no experience, no connection or communication possible with Her when we are not able to observe objectively what is going on inside and around. The Tea that I ‘experienced’ in the moments prior to the tea session, or during the first two cups was really only an idea, an illusion. It was a desire to experience something which was not there and will not ever be. Wanting such an experience is taking the Zen out of our Tea. Tea without Zen can still be enjoyable, and nice way to spend your time, but it does not lead to more freedom, it is not a path or spiritual practice. But when we come to her with an empty and open mind, we do have the opportunity to really meet, learn and grow. 

In that sense Tea and the whole practice surrounding it can be a helpful tool to gauge our capacity to be open and receptive. It is like a mudra that prevents us from falling asleep during our sitting meditation, she warns us when we lose ‘it’, and she rewards us when we are present. It comes back in all that we do surrounding Tea. Whether we light charcoal, fill up the kettle, setup Chaqi, or serve Tea. When we are not resting in a beginner mind it won’t be half as good as it would be when we do rest in the present. I invite you to observe the times when you feel that the Chaqi you just made or the Tea you just served was the best you ever did. In what space was your mind resting when you were doing this? How open and receptive were you really?
The capacity for manifesting a beginners mind doesn’t come naturally though! Our brains, minds and bodies are designed to react and respond faster than we can be aware of it. The first step in noticing that we react to anything, is to notice the reaction itself. And in the beginning we usually only notice it after most of the harm has already been done. That is why Dietists that incorporate mindfulness in their treatment usually advise patients to put that which they are craving for, outside of their direct reach. In the hope that by the time they reached their ‘fix’, they have ‘come to senses’ already and can stay away from it. When we stay away from it one time, it will be easier to stay away from it a second time and so on. The pathway that is literally wired inside our brain will start to weaken, until a whole new pathway will develop: that of our more wholesome response. 

This is what we do when we are practicing sitting meditation as well. Weather we focus on our breathing, sensations or on nothing at all, we train our mind to focus. We wander away, we notice we wandered away and we come back, and this a thousand times. Our capacity to concentrate will help us to notice our reactions. And we can start to learn how to react in a more skillful and appropriate way.

The Zen in our cup and the cup in our ZenThis is where all comes full circle: through meditation we learn our minds to concentrate and be present onto what IS, and we can utilize this concentration to serve Tea like we have never served before. When we are not concentrated and present She will tell us, as well as our charcoal arrangement and our Chaqi. She will help us to catch ourselves when we have turned on our ‘automatic pilot’, and in a kind and gentle way bring us back to the present. This capacity to ‘catch’ ourselves can than serve to be like a drop in a lake causing ripples of awareness to spread out further and further into other activities of our daily lives. And on the cushion we can recognize they ways of our reactive mind again and slowly unwind by not nourishing the tendency to react. In this way our meditation and tea practice strengthen each other to form an endless spiraling road upwards, helping us to be more free from our reactions, attachments, delusions and illusions. So that we have more time left to truly enjoy the cup were sipping. May we all learn to drink Tea with a beginners mind, and learn to love every sip like it’s our first, last and only one!

Five Basics of Tea Brewing

1. Separate The Table and Center Yourself

By Wu De

We’ve received some requests to return to the basics, exploring the foundations of all tea brewing from a practical level. Returning to the practical foundation of tea brewing is important for us all. Every now and again we have to renew our contract with the most essential principles in order to make sure that the ground on which we build our mastery is strong. Though these principles apply to bowl tea as well, they are primary in gongfu brewing. Over the next five issues, we plan to explore the Five Basics of Tea Brewing one by one, adding depth for the more experienced brewers and covering the foundations for those of you who are new to Tea.
At the center, we often teach that “repeat” is a dirty word. It is much better to say, “renew”. The Sanskrit word for wisdom is “prajna”. “Pra” means “before” and “jna” is “knowledge” so prajna is that which is before knowledge—the “beginner’s mind” as it is often translated. When we think we know something, we shoot ourselves in the feet, crippling our ability to learn from the lessons all around us. The enlightened mind is humble, open and receptive. There is an old Chinese saying that “everything which is not me is my master”. When we dismiss things as “basic” we interrupt our learning, our humility and heart growth. We get in our own way. Our heads prevent our hearts from being fully present, from realizing that this lesson that is returning in our lives is a chance to renew our contracts with positive support. We miss the chance to deepen and refine our relationship to the foundation of our art and practice. This applies to Tea as much as to life.
We also often have the bad habit of assuming that mastery is an extravagant, difficult skill. Real mastery is in the simple. Advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. In life, it matters little that we achieve exalted spiritual states if we cannot be happy in the simplest ways; if we cannot connect to this moment fully, it doesn’t matter what satori we had in the past. And if we cannot connect heart to heart with the people, places and things around us, all the wisdom cultivated in meditation or at seminars is lost on us. We must brew tea with heart to master this art!
There is a great Tea story that expresses this: A man once walked across Japan because he heard that the great Zen master Rikyu was accepting students. After some time, he was allowed to study tea with the old master. He worked hard and progressed. After about a year of study, he asked Rikyu: “Master, now that I have been here a year, would you initiate me into the essence of Cha Dao?” The master smiled, “Of course, I would have done that on the day you arrived… “The essence of Cha Dao is this: draw the water, lay the coals, boil the water and steep the tea!” The man scoffed, “That’s it! I could have realized that at home.” Rikyu looked at him in askance, shaking his finger. “The day you can do that, I will walk across Japan and lay my head at your feet and call you master!”
With the right spirit of heart—knowing that the path from the mind to the hand travels through the heart—and a beginners mind, let us then return to the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, starting with the first: Separate the tea space in half and do everything on the left side with the left hand, and everything on the right with that hand.
A lot of the basics of tea brewing arise out of the need for fluency and remaining centered while brewing tea. Lefties are usually more centered, having grown up in a right-handed world. The rest of us, however, are often off balance in our daily lives. Our right hand is usually much stronger than the left, and we go about our day as though the left hand is some kind of evolutionary vestige, like the tailbone.  Through Tea, we return to balance. We should be able to do every movement proficiently with both hands. This brings our whole body to the center, and the movements will then flow from our heart. We will be more present, more engaged and brew from the core of our being—the “dan tian”, as it is called in Chinese. This is the navel-point we breathe from when we are relaxed and focused. Using both hands will bring tea brewing to that space.
Being energetically and physically front and center to your tea and your guests promotes mindfulness. This simple aspect of tea brewing cannot be overestimated. There is a profound change in brewing with both hands, without swiveling from the center of your space. It changes the way you handle each implement, promotes dexterity and availability to your guests.
In Asia, it is rude to turn your back on your guests when brewing tea. When you reach over the center with either hand, you will invariably lose your center to your tea implements and turn your back on some of your guests. This is a minor reason for this principle, but it is important. By staying upright and facing the center, you will find concentration easier. You will also find it easier to connect to your guests, whether energetically if it is a silent tea session or in heartfelt conversation if you choose to have a discourse over your tea. Staying oriented towards the center honors your guests, showing that you are fully present to the moment.
The simple, most practical and maybe most important reason for dividing the table and doing all movements with the corresponding hand relates to protecting your teaware. In decades of tea brewing, the number one reason I have seen teapots, cups or other implements knocked over or broken (by beginners and advanced brewers alike) is reaching across the table with the opposite hand. If you reach over your pot and cups with the left hand to get something from the right side of the table, when you return to a centered position, the pot and all your teaware are now in a blind spot. Tea brewers are encouraged to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothes, and if your sleeves are long, it will be easy for you to catch them on your tea cloth, tea tray or even the pot and knock something over. It happens a lot! If you try reaching across in this manner, you will see just how blind you are to the placement of things on your tea table.
You will have to practice using both hands in tea brewing if you are to achieve gongfu, which you know by now means “mastery”. This will mean that many times you have to pass things from one hand to the other. Make a habit of this. It is always amazing to see this unfold in Japanese or Chinese tea ceremonies, as it inspires clarity, purity of movement and mindfulness/presence in host and guest alike. In Japanese tea rooms, for example, there is often a sliding door that the host goes in and out of to bring supplies from the back room. If you have the chance to attend a ceremony, or watch a video of one, you will notice that the host opens the door halfway with the left hand and then finishes opening it with the right. She then goes out and closes the door in the same way.

This month, try putting your hands together in a good Namaste over your heart. Then extend your hands together to the center of the table and commit to do everything left of that line with the left hand and everything on the right with the right hand. There are, of course, many deeper levels to this practice that we haven’t covered here (like the movement of Qi in the body). We encourage you to renew this practice even if you are a seasoned brewer! As always, we are excited to hear your insights.

2. Circle Towards The Center


Last month we began a new series of articles on the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, remembering that the simple and the advanced are just spirals on the same circle. Advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. There is never a time when we graduate from the basics or leave them behind. They are always the foundation of our practice, and it is therefore important to return to them every now and again to renew and refine our understanding. Only in continually checking that the foundation is secure can we safely add another story to the building. In fact, it is smart to thoroughly check the groundwork every time one considers adding another floor— to make sure the structure is sound and can hold the added weight! More often than not, the best tea sessions are held on the ground floor anyway. Though these five pillars of tea brewing are applicable to all tea practices and brewing methods, they are paramount to gongfu tea. The only difference is that other brewing styles, like leaves in a bowl, end at the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, while gongfu tea, on the other hand, builds on them—exploring more refined techniques and sensitivity as well. Still, they are as important for a gongfu practice as for any tea practice. 

Last month we explored the need to separate the tea space down the middle and do everything on the right side with the right hand, and everything on the left with that hand. This keeps us centered to our guests and to the tea space. It also promotes a more balanced tea brewing, involving both hands and arms, and stemming from the core. Breathing in and out from the center of our being and bringing the tea movements from that space adds a lot of dimension to all tea, most especially gongfu tea, where the movements are more involved and refined. There is a kind of Qi Gong to tea brewing, and bringing the energy up the legs and out through the arms via our center is important to the alchemy of tea brewing, especially as spiritual cultivation. We also talked about not turning our backs to our guests, as well as the practicality of protecting our teaware by not reaching across the table with the opposite hand, thereby putting our teapot in our blind spot when we come back to front and center. That is the most common way I have seen teapots get knocked over these many years! Now we can begin to explore the second basic, which is very much based on the first. A lot of movements in tea brewing are circular— not all, but definitely the majority, especially in gongfu tea. The second Basic of Tea Brewing is: in circular movements, all movements of the left hand are clockwise and all movements of the right hand are counter-clockwise. 

This aspect of tea brewing is almost completely to do with the ergonomics of our bodies. Another, perhaps simpler way of remembering how to do circular movements with each hand is towards the center. We move our hands in circles towards the center because it is smoother, cleaner and much more comfortable. When we move either of the arms in outward circles our elbows clack against our bodies and the circular motions become awkward and forced. It is very difficult to move in this way, uncomfortable and far less fluent then spinning towards the center. The second, deeper reason for moving towards the center when making circular motions pertains to energy (Qi). When we move in this way, the Qi in our bodies flows differently—from the center (dan tian) towards the kettle or pot. If you are more sensitive, you will feel this just by sitting in a chair and spinning your hands in circles towards the center. The difference in energy flow is obvious. Try placing your elbows out and holding something as heavy as a kettle and/or pot in each hand (it’s not a good idea to practice fast with teaware, especially at first). Next, spin your hands in outward circles and then switch to circles that come in towards the center—clockwise for the left hand and counter-clockwise for the right. Do you notice the difference in smoothness on a gross level? And can you feel the energetic difference? Does the energy from your breath, from your core, move out your arms in a different way? Is it any wonder that movements in Qi Gong and Tai Chi also often follow this pattern?

The next experiment is, of course, to see what effects this has on your gongfu brewing. We suggest an experiment with just two cups and a kettle. Bring the water to a boil and lay out two identical gongfu cups. For this experiment, some wider, more open cups may be better. They will make pouring easier, and the water will also cool down quicker. Since it is coming right from the kettle, the water may be hotter than you are used to. Like with most gongfu tea experiments, it is best to use simple porcelain cups—plain white if possible… Hold the kettle in your off-hand. Hold it with your index finger running down the handle, which offers more control and guidance. Using the index finger as a guide—gently pointing down towards the spout-facing curve of the handle— will allow for more support and precision in pouring. Remember what we have discussed in previous issues about placing the water as opposed to pouring it into the cups. That will be especially important in this experiment. Place the water into the first cup in gentle circles that spin outwards, away from the center. Then, place the water in the second cup in circular motions that move in the correct direction according to the Five Basics of Tea Brewing— towards the center. Try to only pour on the walls of the cup, so that the water flows gently down into each cup.

Even if your cups are wider, and therefore cool down faster, you still may need to wait a bit for them to cool down if you are sensitive to hot water. Otherwise, you might burn your mouth. It is actually never a good idea to blow on tea, as it distorts the energy, flavor and aroma. For the purpose of this experiment, that is especially important. When the water is cool enough, hold each cup in one hand and try drinking from each one in turn. Do you notice a difference in the smoothness and consistency of the water? Is one more or less structured? No matter what your results with the water experiment, you can try practicing gongfu tea by pouring water from the kettle or tea from the teapot in outward and inward-facing circles. See which direction feels more natural and fluent, and what, if any, effect it has on your tea. In fact, you can repeat the above experiment with tea, pouring from the teapot into two cups—one for each direction of circular motion. If you do so, be sure to use your elbow more, allowing the circular movement, and thus the pouring, to come from there.

3. Kettle in the Off-hand

Over the last two months we have been discussing the Five Basics of Tea Brewing. Strengthening the roots of any practice helps strengthen the tree. The deeper the roots are, the richer the nutrients and the more lush the crown. It is therefore important to return now and again to our beginnings and refine our foundation. This also helps to keep us humble, so that we remember where we’ve come from and how much we’ve grown. Often times, when you look back at the basics from years of practice, you find that you see so many new facets to them that you hadn’t noticed when you first started. With an open, beginner’s mind we can continue to grow and expand our gongfu, no matter how far we’ve come in our Tea journey. 

Though these Five Basics of Tea Brewing are applicable to all tea practices and brewing methods, they are paramount to gongfu tea. The only difference is that other brewing styles, like leaves in a bowl, end at the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, while gongfu tea, on the other hand, builds on them—exploring more refined techniques and sensitivity as well. Still, they are as important for a gongfu practice as for any tea practice.

So far, we’ve talked about separating the tea table down the middle and doing everything on the right side with the right hand and vice versa. This helps us stay balanced, front and center, which is very important energetically. It is also rude in Asian cultures to turn one’s back on guests. The most important aspect of this principle, though, is that it protects our teaware. In decades of tea brewing, the number one reason I have seen for teaware getting knocked over and/or broken is due to reaching across the table with the opposite hand, which leaves the teapot in a blind spot that you can easily hit when you return to an upright posture.

Then, last month we talked about all the circular movements in tea brewing, and there are many, like filling the pot with water or pouring the tea into the cups, etc. All of the circular movements done with the left hand should be clockwise, and with the right hand, counter-clockwise. An easier way to remember this is that the circular movements are towards the center. This is to do with the ergonomics of our body and the natural energy flow from our center to our wrists/hands. Hopefully you tried the experiment last month and are ready to move on to the third basic.

The third Basic of Tea Brewing is to do with the kettle: always put the kettle on the off-hand side and use the off-hand to handle the kettle. This means that if you are right-handed, the kettle should be on your left side, and that you should always use your left hand to pour water. If you are left-handed, then the kettle goes on the right side. There are many reasons why this is an important basic of all tea brewing. If you have made a habit of picking up the kettle with the strong hand, you will want to break it as soon as possible.

The first practical reason why we hold the kettle in our off-hand is something we talked about briefly when we discussed the first Basic of Tea Brewing, which is that it is important that our tea brewing be balanced. Studies have shown that people are often much more efficient and stronger with the hand they use more often, especially right-handed people (lefties are more ambidextrous). In fact, many of us live life as though our off-hand were some kind of evolutionary vestige like the tail bone, rarely using it to do anything at all. Occasionally our off-hand lends a bit of support to our activities, but rarely do we choose to balance our day-to-day actions in a centered way that is in harmony with the activity itself. One insightful practice you might try is to spend a Saturday doing everything with two hands, seeing what understanding arises as a result. Some students have tried spending a whole day doing every little thing with two hands, and have realized how mindlessly many activities are done, and just how off-keel their bodies are, along with many other insights…

Brewing tea should be balanced from the center of the body, the “dan tian, 丹田”. When we breathe and move from our core, the energy comes form our heart-center and changes the whole way we relate to the tea-brewing process. By using our off-hand to manipulate the heaviest object in brewing, we help strengthen it and bring more balance to both sides of our body. In that way, energy (Qi) begins to flow evenly through both arms and the brewing is motivated differently

The most important reason for using the off-hand to hold the kettle, though, has to do with fluency. Smoothness and fluency in brewing are the most relevant factors of gongfu tea, which is why this basic is the one that is most applicable to a gongfu brewing methodology. The others relate equally to all types of tea brewing. But as you progress in gongfu tea, you find that smoothness and fluency really influence the quality of the cup. Remember our discussions of the poem, which preserves the methodology of this tradition? The final line of the poem is “everything is finished in one breath.” If you recall, this is the most difficult line to translate because it literally translates to “everything is finished in one Qi.” While this line does relate to breath, it also refers to the fact that everything should be done in one energy—in one movement, without hesitation or discord. Everything should flow smoothly, in other words.

Almost everyone inherently knows that the pot should be in the strong hand—even if it is an Yixing pot which can be used by either hand. This is energetically important. If you also put the kettle in the strong hand, the brewing itself becomes clunky, with many stops and starts. To brew in this way, you have to pick the kettle up and fill the pot, set the kettle down and then pick up the pot with that same hand. There is an awkward pause between each movement, and the left side of the body is uninvolved (or the right side for lefties). When you use the off-hand to handle the kettle there is much greater fluency. You can pick up the kettle with the off-hand and remove the lid from the pot with the strong hand. Then you fill the pot and at the instant the off-hand is returning the kettle, the strong hand has already lifted the pot to start pouring into the cups. This is much smoother and without hesitation. It is all one movement, in other words. The real importance of this basic is based in such smooth, graceful fluency: If fluency in tea brewing matters to you, then the kettle should be held by the off-hand.

Whether you have been using the off-hand or not, this month’s experiment involves using both. Try using two identical cups and do two different steepings back to back: one in which the kettle is in the off-hand and another holding it in the strong hand. Steep the tea quickly both times so that both cups are relatively the same temperature. Try to notice the difference in the smoothness and fluency of the process itself. Then, after the two steepings, try the two cups of tea side by side. Are they different? Is one smoother? Can you recognize the difference in them? 

4. Settle the Heart First 

In the last three issues we’ve discussed the Five Basics of Tea Brewing. We keep returning to our foundation, no matter how far we have traveled, checking its strength and refining its power and beauty. Remember, advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. The basics are like your shoes: they always travel with you, and no matter how far you hike, you have to keep them in good condition. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or a seasoned hiker; well-maintained shoes are your best friends, preventing injury and, as any hiker knows, are the difference between a pleasant and unpleasant journey. Just as a wise hiker always takes great care of their shoes, so too a Chajin always hones her basics, knowing that Cha Dao is founded on simplicity. The beginning of the enso is also its end... 

So far, we’ve talked about separating the tea table down the middle and doing everything on the right side with the right hand and vice versa. This helps us stay balanced, front and center, which is very important energetically. It is also rude in Asian cultures to turn one’s back on guests. The most important aspect of this principle, though, is that it protects our teaware. Then we talked about all the circular movements in tea brewing, and there are many, like filling the pot with water or pouring the tea into the cups, etc. All of the circular movements done with the left hand should be clockwise, and with the right hand, counter-clockwise. This is to do with the ergonomics of our body and the natural energy flow from our center to our wrists/hands. 

The third Basic of Tea Brewing is to do with the kettle: always put the kettle on the off-hand side and use the off-hand to handle the kettle. There are many reasons why this is an important basic of all tea brewing. The first practical reason why we hold the kettle in our off-hand is that it is important that our tea brewing be balanced. But the most important reason for using the off-hand to hold the kettle, though, has to do with fluency. Smoothness and fluency in brewing are the most relevant factors of gongfu tea, which is why this basic is the one that is most applicable to a gongfu brewing methodology. When you use the off-hand to handle the kettle there is much greater fluency. You can pick up the kettle with the off-hand and remove the lid from the pot with the strong hand. Then you fill the pot and at the instant the off-hand is returning the kettle, the strong hand has already lifted the pot to start pouring into the cups. This is much smoother and without hesitation. It is all one movement, in other words. 

This month we turn to the fourth Basic of Tea Brewing, and in doing so take our list inwards: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pick up the kettle until your heart is still. (That’s right, ten ‘evers’!) The time it takes the water to boil has always been a time for meditation. In traditional times, Chajin called the sound boiling water makes “the wind soughing the pines”. If you use a metal kettle, you may also share in this sentiment. There are Zen poems that sentimentalize this meditation, saying “the wind in the pines summoned me back from my meditation.” Nothing will improve your tea brewing more than a still heart, a heart free from obstructions. The path from the mind to the hand is through the heart. And if you are talking, out loud or in your mind, nothing with mastery, quietude or grace will follow. Instead, you may leave a trail of broken teaware behind you. In order to achieve mastery of gongfu tea, concentration and focus will be needed.

There is a tradition dating back hundreds of years in China that one shouldn’t talk while pouring the tea, lest the words pollute the tea. The pours have always been an opportunity for pauses, even in business meetings or casual conversations over tea. In that way, both the host and the guest gather themselves and reflect on the discussion, weighing their responses properly. Then we speak from the heart, and we learn the art of listening well. 

There is no more important advice than to take the time to center yourself before you start each brew. Clear your heart and mind. This could happen through meditation, breathing, a prayer or my favorite, which is to connect the kettle to the pot—with one in each hand—while breathing deeply to calm the mind and center one’s energy in the heart. As I do this, I can feel when the connection between the water and Tea is clear, through my heart. When the line is clear and the connection is strong and without any interference or static—only then do I raise the kettle. This requires some patience. But remember that there is no hurry. Tea is always about slowing down! There is never any reason to rush, and nothing good will come from it (and talking while you pour, whether outside or in the form of internal dialogue, also results in more broken teaware over time). If you are to prepare tea masterfully, it must be from the place in you that meets the Universe. 

When you are resting deep and centered, the tea brewing happens all its own—in a wu wei, to use a pun… Therefore, the more you cultivate yourself, through meditation and other practices, the better tea you’ll make. Tea brewing is not something you do, in other words, but rather something you are. 
This month, try to make a greater effort to take a pause before each brew to clear your heart. Live without walls of the mind for a second and put yourself into the tea brewing process, as opposed to standing outside and “doing” it. Connect the kettle’s handle to the button of your pot and see if you can feel the flow of energy and communication between the tea and the water/heat. It will be easier to feel after the first steeping, as they have already met—there is water in the leaves and pot, in other words. See if you can recognize when the connection is not clear—when it is bumpy/static as opposed to a smooth flow. What happens when you brew tea with your mind? If you find clarity within and pour from there, how is the tea different? What is the difference in the preparation itself? Where do the guiding principles come from when you aren’t there? When there is no sense of ‘I’ as subject who is ‘preparing tea’ as verb, who/what is preparing the tea? Where do the movements come from? And where do they go when they are done? 

5. Stay with The Tea

Over the last four issues, we’ve discussed the Five Basics of Tea Brewing in great detail, renewing parts of them each issue to keep them fresh, and to continue practicing them. Remember, advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. We can’t repeat that enough. It is a mistake to think that the master has grown out of the basics. Many people think that the amazing concert pianist just showed up and performed, living the easy life. But most master musicians practice hours a day, and often scales are included in that practice. Without strong roots, a tree will never grow tall. In this final month of the basics, review each one and take note of the ways you’ve grown over time, as well as the areas you could still improve.

So far, we’ve talked about separating the tea table down the middle and doing everything on the right side with the right hand and vice versa. This helps us stay balanced, front and center, which is very important energetically. It is also rude in Asian cultures to turn one’s back on guests. The most important aspect of this principle, though, is that it protects our teaware. In decades of tea brewing, the number one reason I have seen for teaware getting knocked over and/or broken is due to reaching across the table with the opposite hand, which leaves the teapot in a blind spot that you can easily hit when you return to an upright posture.

Then we talked about all the circular movements in tea brewing, and there are many, like filling the pot with water or pouring the tea into the cups, etc. All of the circular movements done with the left hand should be clockwise, and with the right hand, counter-clockwise. An easier way to remember this is that the circular movements are towards the center. This is to do with the ergonomics of our body and the natural energy flow from our center to our wrists/hands.

The third Basic of Tea Brewing is to do with the kettle: always put the kettle on the off-hand side and use the off-hand to handle the kettle. This means that if you are righthanded, the kettle should be on your left side, and that you should always use your left hand to pour water. If you are left-handed, then the kettle goes on the other side. There are many reasons why this is an important basic of all tea brewing. The most important reason for using the off-hand to hold the kettle, though, has to do with fluency. Smoothness and fluency in brewing are the most relevant factors of gongfu tea, which is why this basic is the one that is most applicable to a gongfu brewing methodology. When you use the off-hand to handle the kettle there is much greater fluency. You can pick up the kettle with the off-hand and remove the lid from the pot with the strong hand. Then you fill the pot and at the instant the off-hand is returning the kettle, the strong hand has already lifted the pot to start pouring into the cups. This is much smoother and without hesitation. It is all one movement, in other words.

Last month we turned to the fourth Basic of Tea Brewing, and in doing so took our list inwards: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pick up the kettle until your heart is still. (That’s right, ten ‘evers’!) The time it takes the water to boil has always been a time for meditation. In traditional times, Chajin called the sound boiling water makes “the wind soughing the pines”. If you use a metal kettle, you may also share in this sentiment. Nothing will improve your tea brewing more than a still heart, a heart free from obstructions. And if you are talking, out loud or in your mind, nothing with mastery, quietude or grace will follow. Instead, you may leave a trail of broken teaware behind you. In order to achieve mastery of gongfu tea, concentration and focus will be needed.

This month we turn to the last of the Five Basics of Tea Brewing: Stay with the tea. Quieting the mind while the water is boiling, and finding the Stillness within before raising the kettle and initiating the brewing process is important, but it would all be lost if you start chatting immediately after picking the kettle up. This last principal is about putting all your attention, concentration and one-pointedness of mind (samadhi) into the brewing process. All your attention, heart and focus should be on the pouring, steeping, decanting and serving the tea to the guests. Not a drop of attention should be spilled—by distracting thoughts, conversations, etc. Traditionally, it was thought to be rude in Chinese culture to talk while pouring the tea, as the mind of those words would then be in the cup. Even businessmen discussing deals or scholar-artists debating the merits of a particular poem would pause in their conversations to pour their tea. This also inspires better listening, which means better conversations.

Only when the cups or bowls have been handed out to all your guests can you withdraw your attention from the process. The master brewer becomes the brewing, as with any other art. In order to become the process, you will have to completely immerse yourself in it. The shogun Hideyoshi complimented the great tea master Rikyu, saying that when he prepared tea he was like the greatest of samurai warriors in a martial contest: there is nowhere to penetrate. His concentration was so complete, in other words, that there was no possibility of disturbance. I have seen a fly land on a master while brewing, and watched with amazement as the process went on totally undisturbed. My favorite picture of my master shows him at peace while some tea steeps, though he is surrounded by dozens of noisy guests taking photos and talking. Stay with the tea.

For some time, this will mean that you can’t talk during the actual brewing. This doesn’t matter in a silent session. (Or does it? What about internal dialogue?) But in those where we are connecting to others through heartfelt conversation, relaxed dialogue, etc. you will find that over time these pauses are not awkward, but desirable. If the conversation drifts into topics that promote a loss of presence, you, as the host, can change the topic back to awakening things. And you always have the perfect subject to discuss: the tea! Bring the guests back to the tea. Ask them about its flavor or aroma. Ask them about the bowl or cup. Invite them to notice the simple wonders in this moment, here and now. Invite them to be present. 

To be with the tea from the raising of the kettle to the distribution of the cups or bowls, completely focused and absorbed in what you are doing will improve your tea, not to mention bring a mindfulness to the art of tea that promotes cultivation, discipline—gongfu! 

Tea and meditation as Tools

By Andrus

10 days.  At the very end, 24 straight hours without a pause.  I had finally given myself over completely to meditation.  I didn't deviate even a fraction from the timetable.  Of course, I thought I was going to lose it in there, more than a few times.  In a certain sense, I did lose it; how much was hardly a foregone conclusion.  But now in a few moments, I'd be talking amongst my brothers and sisters, certainly finding some time for tea and bringing everything back down to normal.  As that time arrived, normal was a little harder to find than I expected.  Tears poured from my eyes over insignificant details, confusion about what had transpired in my private cell continued to arise and pass.  When the chance for tea appeared, a pure and beautiful synchronicity that felt like a reward after such a long journey, it simply reminded me that the consequence for working that hard as a meditator meant that tea would hardly alter the landscape.  Far from normalizing me, far from giving me the effect I thought was appropriate for this day, tea amplified the fact that I wasn't going to be able to stop the awareness of a meditator anytime soon.  Normal wasn't coming.  Certainly tea was still being gentle to me, as it always is, but gentle in the sense that it wasn't going to do anything at all to bother what was already clearly the case.  Its assistance to me was no assistance.  It would not leave me with more, or less.  It was not inert, nor active.  That's when things started to get unpleasant.  I started to experience the kind of physical symptoms one might get if they drank strong tea on an empty stomach.  Yet this sensation started a little too deep in the guts to be the result of a couple of small, half-filled mugs worth.  As the nausea built itself up over a number of hours, unrelenting regardless of my attempts to manage it, I knew it was about something significant.  But what?  I wouldn't get a chance to pinpoint the what, not that day anyway.  And in the two weeks that have passed since the retreat, still no definitive answer.  Something about holding two opposites together at once, maybe.

I can't even remember the trigger that stopped it, but as if a magician waved his wand over my face and teleported me to another dimension: there I was, without stomach pain, everything completely normal and yet very very not ok at the exact same time, hunky-dory and yet absolutely meaningless.  In this new world, I tried to find my trusty toolkit of meditative techniques but it was no where to be found.  As I walked around, lay down, used the restroom, talked to people, sat with crossed or stretched out legs, I observed my body and found nothing unusual whatsoever going on.  Nothing pleasant, nothing painful, and yet some kind of dreadful void extending infinitely far into the distance from me was present.  I observed my mind, throwing things into this void that might bounce back to me with a label of "meaningful", but nothing would.  Anything at all I thought about would vanish into this black hole.  Knowing concurrently that everything was fine and also that somehow this mental and physical horror show would last forever, I decided it was time to have an interview with the teacher.

I will spare you the details of this private encounter with my preceptor.  We both recognized that I had gone all in, something very deep had come up from way down within, and now I was in the midst of a nightmare of sorts.  What a strange nightmare!  To be aware that one is having a nightmare while awake and yet to be perfectly ok with it...  I acted so strangely in front of this man to whom, during the retreat, I had shown such dutiful respect.  Leaving his physical presence and walking out the door into the late night with the horrifying prospect of laying in bed surely unable to sleep mirrored back to me where I was on the path: gone.

I had planted a seed of sanity before the retreat began.  Fortuitously, I had gifted my preceptor a bowl and a bag of Sun Moon Lake upon his doorstep before I headed over to the meditation hall for roll call.  He had said he wanted an alternative to coffee and I could think of no better substitute.  And so I had left these tools for him with instructions and gone into the retreat, wondering if this kindness would come back to me cleanly.  Laying down in my bed, tossing and turning, resisting anything resembling meditation, I recalled that during our strange discombobulated late night interview, he suggested that I stop by his residence in the morning before leaving.  As I struggled again and again to face the void head on, the hope of morning tea kept me sane.  Once the sun appeared in the sky and I walked through his door to find the simple chaxi of two placemats on the dining table, I wondered if the peak of the nightmare had now passed. 

The teacher, filled with enthusiasm, certainly remembering the night before and surely aware that I might have had a long night, asked if it would be ok to ask me questions about tea.  I told him with absolute certainty that day or night, rain or shine, whatever the circumstances might be, I would love to talk about tea.  As I spoke these familiar words, the meaningless void still present for me, I wondered if the old me, the guy before this confounding retreat began, was the one answering.  Luckily, the guy who could recognize normal let me know that I did still love tea!  He had so many questions!  How much tea, what temperature water, how many steepings, how to hold the bowl, what to do while drinking it - beginner's mind hard and fast at work!  In the midst of all this, he took a moment to thank me, a deep bow of thanks, for introducing him to something so obvious he would have never come up with it himself: leaves in a bowl.  He said that he knew the first second the bowl hit his hand that this was how tea should be!  Leaves in a bowl!  He couldn't believe it!  And somehow, neither could I!  The same miracle had happened to me, of course.  And so the session was: questions about tea, me giving my expert opinion about the question, concurrently thinking that I had gone mad, me asking a meditation question trying to find my way back home, getting an expert answer that didn't quite satisfy me, and then onto another wide-eyed question about tea.  After this sequence played out a few times, I noticed my anxiety calming down in stages.  Each question and answer period seemed another notch down in intensity.  Let it be known that I walked into that session certain that I wouldn't be able to drive home to my family that day.  Slowly and surely, that fear dissipated.  Some bowls in, I recognized that the tea was so good, so healing, so important, so real.  And about that same time, I saw that my teacher's questions were the same: so good, so healing, so important, so real.

There's one question in particular that has stuck with me that I would like to share with you, one that has become quite serious for me.  In the middle of the session, after we had drunk a few bowls, my teacher noticed that we only had 5 more minutes before he had to conduct that morning's group sit.  He gave me the option of attending and I said, without outer but filled with inner trepidation, that I would like to attend.  Because we were mid-session, he asked what would be the best option for putting the session on hold.  Would we take the time to clean everything up, dump out the tea leaves, and start again when we returned?  Or would we leave the bowls as they are and refresh the leaves with water to continue where we left off?  Both options had merit, but the one I chose was a fusion of the two, of sorts.  Instead of leaving the bowls willy-nilly on the table, I put them together in the center and explained that this simple symbolic gesture was our way of cleaning up without cleaning up, which would allow us to start again without starting again.  (To be honest, those are my words now, after much reflection on this special moment that this special time for healing gave me.)  And with that, we left tea to meditate.

The moment I sat down on my cushion in the hall, away from the tea bowls and the immediate presence of my preceptor, the nightmare re-awoke in full force!  Again, I will spare you the personal details.  You can trust that the inner storm was fierce!  Yet once the long hour was over, I walked back to my teacher's residence and straight away we were back to beginner's mind tea questions, again with the backdrop of "I am permanently crazy and there's no way out of here yet I am totally normal" - a tea session of a lifetime.  And then, it was over.  Before I knew it, I'd be taking a few deep breaths and be on my way back to my family for Christmas.  A road trip to end all road trips, to be sure!

So here I am, at home.  I am having my epic New Year's Eve tea session, as usual.  Except somehow, this time, no one is here.  My wife and kids are asleep, my friends and family all but non-existent.  Still, I grab a tea from the top shelf just for this occasion.  Man, the chaxi is too nice for just me!  I am drinking the last of the '77 shou, the year I was born, and the bowl is packed stout.  Three bowls in, I remember my preceptor's question again: do we leave the tea there while we meditate or ....  Hey, that's not what he asked, was it?  The truth of the scripture is in the words used to write the sutras and at the same time, it is not there.  I leave the cup on the coaster, the shakuhachi music playing from the stereo, the kettle firmly on the alcohol burner and close my eyes.  I find myself craving silence.  The deep-in-the-guts nausea appears.  I feel the spark of a fire on my big toe and some tingling at the top of my head.  Is tea the truth?  Is tea meaningless?  Is tea real?  Is tea meditation?  Is meditation tea?

I will end with the following commentary:

A marathon cannot be completed without a pace.
Continuity of practice is the secret of success.
The simple only appears when the complex is exhausted.
Tea and meditation are tools.  Maybe someday you'll find a use for them.  

Tea and Meditation

Well over a year ago, in early September 2015, I listened to an episode of the Rich Roll podcast and was quickly drawn into the conversation. The guest was a man named Wu De. I was captivated by the simplicity, vulnerability, humor, calmness and the earthy wisdom in their conversation. My favorite quote of Wu De’s from that podcast is: “If you don’t have the ability to celebrate what you have now, nothing you get—and I mean nothing; nothing material, nothing experiential, no amount information, no amount of experience, no amount of material possessions—is going to teach you how to celebrate.”

That podcast was one of the top podcasts of 2015 for me. At the time, I was a novice to the art of tea, though tea would soon become a daily sacred moment and a way to cultivate empty space through the ancient ritualistic way of preparing, serving and drinking the simple plant for me. Two friends and co-workers, who had already been involved in the Tea and Zen world in greater depth, introduced me to tea ceremonies and the power of drinking living tea at work during a break. I really enjoyed the mindfulness part of the tea ceremonies, from the serving process to emptying the bowl/cup sip by sip, whenever I took part of one in the events hosted by people who had studied with Wu De. It was an extension of and a new perspective into my mediation practice, reminding me of a great quote by Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “To be mindful is to be fully present with whatever we are doing. If you are drinking tea, just drink your tea. Do not drink your worries, your projects, your regrets. When you hold your cup, you may like to breathe in, to bring your mind back to your body, stop your thinking, and become fully present. In that moment, you become real and the cup of tea becomes real. In this state of true presence and freedom you enjoy simply drinking your tea.”

When my friend Rivo walked into work in early spring of this year and announced, “Hey, you know this Wu De guy from the Rich Roll podcast last year is coming to Europe for a retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees in October and we should go,” I did not have to think for too long. I was all in! I paid the reservation and before I knew it, it was October and we were on our way from Tallinn to Barcelona, and from there a 300 km Taxi ride to Casa Cuadrau in the small village of Vió to drink tea, meditate, hike in the mountains and just be.
I have been on a fair share of different retreats over the years and this was one of the first ones I signed up for with very little expectations. Rivo and Signe took care of all the flight planning, hotel bookings, etc. I was simply curious to see and hear the man from that podcast a year earlier, create space in my mind and see the Spanish mountains. I never expected when signing up for it that I really needed a break! With work and my son Tristan’s new school routine, life had just gotten a little too busy, and this was the perfect opportunity to cultivate more space between my thoughts.
The retreat itself drew people from all over the world, from Panama to Canada. And they were amazing people. I am so grateful for the chance to have shared these seven days with them! Our days were quite simple: We got up before six in the morning and went to bed after nine in the evening. There were five to seven meditation sessions, tea sessions, bowl tea brewing classes and also evening discourses, where Wu De shared his knowledge related to tea and Zen, answered questions shared his life wisdom, which has comes through perspectives from different walks of life.
Through my yoga practice, I have met “mystic” yogis, who at times give the impression that they have all the answers and are somewhat superhuman. What impressed me about Wu De is his humanity. He struck me as a human who is not trying to be some overly spiritual being from out of the world that the rest of us operate in daily. He was clear about his knowledge and sincerely honest, also admitting when he didn’t have answers. The experience reminded me of an Alan Watts lecture where he described his first encounter with Zen masters in Japan and was surprised to find that they were as human as he was, with their up and down moments.
I am clearly not the right person to discuss the philosophy of Zen. All the books I have read and lectures I have heard on it have only allowed me to scratch the surface. Zen is something that you cannot put into words anyway. It is not a dogma, religion or a set of beliefs, rather it is something you have to experience. It is about the transformation of consciousness, the way you experience your own existence. Wu De said: “Zen means that if you are looking about for certain states of mind or miraculous teachers, take a break and have some tea.”
Over the years, I have learned that no retreat, course or training offers true value or growth if you do not make changes after getting back into your daily routine. All the high spirits and awe fade and without new habits and an adapted mindset, nothing but the memory remains.
The retreat reminded me that there is great power in daily sacred moments. And we can choose to notice these moments or not. We can also cultivate an ability to recognize these moments as part of our daily routines. It is now close to two months since the trip to Spain, so it is a good time to look back and see what I still find important, sharing my thoughts from the perspective of some distance. Here are some of the key ideas from the retreat that I’ve taken to heart:

Creating space: I keep realizing that creating space is one of the most important things in my life. I usually rediscover it, when there is not a lot of space—neither in my mind nor in my physical world. When we create space in our mind, we create peace and balance. Also when we create space in our physical world, there is more space in our mind. Creating space also creates freedom. Retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink once said that discipline is freedom. Real freedom comes in the form of discipline. I’m beginning to understand this more and more. Having no discipline is not freedom. Having discipline allows for freedom, creating space, and with that, we open doors to the beneficial experiences we don’t even know about yet.

Being mindful: It really surprised me when Wu De said that mindfulness is not the most important aspect of self-cultivation. It is respect, or a better word for it is “reverence.” If we have respect, then we are also mindful of the people around us, events, places and even things. Simply put, this is about honoring and respecting the guest and the occasion. If we do that, then we are also mindful. Mindfulness, respect and reverence tie into one of the fundamental understandings of Zen: Doing things for the good of all beings. After long conversations, Wu De would often say: “Do the right thing. Don’t be a jerk.” That hit me very hard at times, and I acknowledged my own jerk-like behavior in certain situations in life.

No Big Deal Me: It is a short phrase that I heard many times during the retreat. It is about becoming aware that there is more than the “I” and the “self.” Life is not always and only about you! Often our internal dialogue takes us down that road. We all do the self-talk, but it is really not healthy. I used to do it and still do at times (about myself and others), and I have been with people who continuously do it. Tune it down! Stop it altogether! A complaining mind is a draining mind.
Same goes for frozen or rigid opinions. Drop them and have no expectations. I know it is hard, but we focus on being open instead. Be present. With too much “I” in the picture, you cannot be at peace. Less self, more happiness! That does not mean you should not take care of yourself. You are the change. Your habits and actions make the change and these should be more about the greater good, not entirely your own well being.

Growth: Growth is in the valleys, not the peaks. Suffering is productive and discomfort is always there—embrace it. As a Zen saying goes: “The obstacle is the path.” I have it on my door, clearly visible when leaving the house in the morning, to remind me that obstacle is the source for growth. Don’t orientate towards your comfort zone! Obstacles, discomfort and suffering build wisdom, empathy, understanding, compassion and knowledge. Staying in the comfort zone for too long is nothing but stagnation. Face what is coming with courage, take risks and don’t choose what is easy. Be ready to make sacrifices. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—have faith!

Creating your life: Look at life as it is, not how you want it to be (remember: expectations). That does not mean passiveness, accepting everything or doing nothing. How you relate to issues that life puts in front of you is the only issue. You can always change your perspective. Embrace life and cultivate a beginner’s mind! Kids are masters at this. Be curious. Don’t stop wondering. Learn, always. “Advanced skills are basic skills mastered.” Is another thing Wu De told us more than once.
All too often we are tempted to linger in the past, reliving old experiences. Experience is happening now! Too much rumination and you will miss it! If you want change, then you need to change. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Walk with a light step and start simple. Don’t take life too seriously. Life is not something you have to figure out, it is a big paradox. Meaning can be found in every action without always seeing the full picture. Stop living in delusion! Live so you have no regrets— time is precious!

Being in the present moment: This is simple, you either are in the present moment or you are not. Simple but difficult!

January's Further Readings

12 Jan 2017 by

Ten Qualities of a Fine Tea

Long-term Storage of Puerh Tea 

By Wu De

There is always a commotion in the world of puerh concerning the proper way to store tea and create fine vintages—a teahouse bustling with friendly discussions, arguments, laughter and wisdom in both English and Chinese alike. Like so many topics floating around the global teahouse, there are a lot of rumors, conjecture and even misinformation offered up between sips. And like most things, mastery only comes with experience. In the meantime, we have to seek out as many trustworthy sources as we can, and rely on a rational comparison of them all based on whatever experience we have acquired—although sometimes common sense and even intuition can lead us to teachers with a better, deeper understanding of these matters.

One problem we find is that, especially in the English-speaking tea world, there are too few people with real, lasting experience aging puerh. We are, of course, indebted to the few Chinese who have braved the topic in English, but otherwise most of what you read is not based on any real foundation—it’s teahouse rumors and conjecture. It seems obvious that someone who has only been storing tea for a couple of years cannot have anything of substance to say about long-term storage. We have been storing puerh for fifteen years, and yet we still would rather go to masters like Zhou Yu or Paul Lin, who have been watching tea change for more than thirty years, seeking any information on the transformation of puerh over long periods, as well as how to make sure such teas reach their highest potential. I trust their wisdom not just for its profundity and breadth alone—they have been teaching tea almost as long as I have been alive, after all—but also because I have tasted many of the teas they have aged into maturity and found them all exquisite.

Even more problematic is the idea that you can learn about aging and aged tea by drinking new tea. The tea room now is a bit rowdy with the opinions of people who have drunk little to no aged puerh. You can’t sample a few different kinds of tea from any genre and expect to have any kind of grasp on its flavor profile. I drank aged puerh from the Qing Dynasty, Antique, Masterpiece and Qi Zi eras almost daily for five years, sampling every vintage, and many of them several times, before I felt even a little confident when commenting on the characteristics of the genre itself. I really don’t mean to come off snobby or elitist in saying this. Almost all the great teas I drank weren’t ones I myself owned. I was just really fortunate to meet some of the great masters, and through no worth of my own to be given wisdom and steeped teas I often felt and/or was undeserving of. Anyway, for much of the time that I have been drinking vintage puerh it wasn’t as special or rare an experience as it is today. As I said, I don’t mean to boast; I made this point merely to express the common sense that without a lot of experience, one really should do more listening than talking. You wouldn’t expect someone to write a substantial, meaningful article on oolong tea, for example, if they hadn’t tried hundreds of kinds—enough times to develop an experiential wisdom worth listening to. Similarly, a handful of sessions with a few aged teas is not enough for one to understand the genre. And one thing all masters I’ve ever met have concordantly exclaimed is that when it comes to storing puerh tea for a long time, the only way to really understand which new teas are ideal, and how to store them properly, is to drink a whole lot of well-aged puerh. 

The need for a substantial experiential foundation in the genre of vintage puerh in order to really explore proper storage seems rather obvious to me. The problem, however, is that the growth of the puerh industry has led to dramatic price increases of vintage puerh—to levels that are often well beyond any realistic value. Those of us who were lucky enough to drink and collect all the great vintages did so at a time when they were much cheaper than now. I paid 300 USD for my first cake of Hong Yin (Red Mark). Now they are often sold for more than $70,000. I would, of course, never pay that price even if I could afford it. This incredible price increase has effectively pushed the enjoyment of vintage puerh into the hands of the few wealthy tea lovers who can manage to pay for it. Unfortunately, the Chinese saying “those without grapes call the wine sour” all too often applies to many of the conversations one can hear as one strolls around the teahouse: some people dismissing this or that vintage more out of such jealousy than a real understanding of its nature.

Leaning heavily on the wisdom of my masters, as well as my experience drinking a whole lot of vintage teas these years, I would like to explore the controversial topic of puerh storage. Much of the topic is unknown and mysterious; but some predominant truths became clear as I had many, many conversations about storing puerh with people like Zhou Yu, Lin Ping Xiang, Chen Zhi Tong and other tea teachers, as well as various biology and agricultural professors at universities in Taiwan and in Yunnan, and even some of the old timers in Hong Kong. While we do have a decent-sized collection of old tea at the center, and I have drunk my way through all the old vintages, I still feel that these are the men we all need to be listening to, rather than the teahouse rumors that all too often lead back to urban legends, insubstantial conjecture, and worse yet, even back to vendors who are merely marketing their own products.

Wet versus Dry 

Traditionally, all puerh tea was aged “wet”, and for that reason Chinese people often call wet storage, “traditional storage.” There are some well-aged teas that were dry stored, but most of them were accidental, like the famous 88 Qing Bing which was kept on a floating shelf near the ceiling due to a lack of storage space. The whole concept of intentionally dry storing puerh is therefore a relatively recent development, especially when you consider that people have been aging puerh tea for millenia.

It is important to understand the difference between oxidation and fermentation—often confused by the fact that there is but one Chinese term for both: “fa xiao (發酵).” While fermentation also utilizes oxygen, it relates more to cellular breakdown caused by the presence of bacteria. Puerh tea is unique in that it is covered in bacteria: the jungle trees themselves are teeming with it, as are the villages where the tea is processed. When the cakes are steamed and compressed, more bacteria and other microorganisms make their home in the cakes. As a result, puerh cakes are truly alive—packed with colonies of fungi, bacteria and mold. Penicillium chrysogenum, Rhizopus chinensis and Aspergillus clavatus are just a few examples of mold colonies natural to puerh tea. All puerh tea is moldy, in other words. Puerh tea has always been fermented, and throughout history many ways of going about this have been developed, though storage for long periods is the oldest and best method.

In order for the bacteria to do their work, puerh needs a humid environment, some oxygen and heat. One of the reasons puerh was always stored in Southeast China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia is the seasonal fluctuation of these variables. In the spring, the humidity goes up and the tea absorbs more moisture. The heat of summer then encourages the fermentation process (filling the whole center with the strong fragrance of tea); the Autumn acts as a kind of buffer, as the humidity and heat decrease slowly; and then the tea “rests” in the winter, when the humidity and heat are much lower. Much more goes into storing puerh than just the humidity level, in other words. It does indeed need moisture and heat, though you might say that in order to remain healthy, the bacteria and other microorganisms in and on the tea, which cause the very fermentation that results in the magical transformation of puerh tea over time, need oxygen, humidity and heat. And that’s the tripod that supports the aging of all puerh tea. The seasonal variations only complicate the process and show with greater clarity the beauty and dexterity with which Nature wields her creative powers.

Teas that are too dry will die. And you must view your cakes as living things. A friend recently visited us from London. Since we are both lovers of Zhou Yu’s teas, we drank some nice 2005 and 2006 cakes. He was shocked. By the end of his trip, after visiting Zhou Yu and trying some of these teas again, he said he realized that his teas were in fact dying in the part of England he lives in, as the humidity is too low and/or the seasonal fluctuations in temperature/moisture/oxygen aren’t suitable. We’ve had similar results comparing the same tea stored here and in Russia. 

Today, when we say that one should “dry store” one’s high-quality teas, this means in a place where the humidity is neither too high nor too low; a place that obeys the seasonal fluctuations that makes puerh healthy, which is why I actually prefer the term “well stored” to calling such tea “dry stored”. Given the choice, though, I would take a tea that was too wet over a tea that was too dry any day of the week. We’ll get into why in a minute. 

Traditionally, teahouses and collectors kept tea in basements and beneath hills to speed up the aging process. This is called “wet storage.” Most experts agree that a relative humidity of around 70% is ideal for puerh, though it may go higher seasonally and still be “dry.” Longer exposure to higher levels of humidity will speed up the fermentation and make it a “wet” tea. Wet stored tea has always been subdivided into mild, medium and heavy wet. Even those who prefer wet stored tea will agree that the first two are almost always the best, though I have seen rare examples of heavy wet teas that were excellent. 

Sometimes, tea and fruit in this part of the world develop a seasonal, white mold. Finding this on vintage puerh is very common, and while it does usually signify the tea was wet stored for at least some time, depending upon the amount of mold, it is not necessarily an indication of its overall character. A short period of wet storage followed by a couple decades of drier storage might create a tea that still bears some white flakes from its period in wet storage, even though it has an overall dry profile. Unless the cake is very seriously wet, these conditions can be overcome with time, and often only affect the surface of the cake, depending on the degree of mold and how tight the compression is. I have little experience drinking any of the other kinds of mold—red, green, yellow, black, etc.—but I have heard from several different teachers that all of them are potentially unhealthy and to be avoided. We have, however, drunk gallons of the white mold— and eaten it on fruit—and so have teachers of mine for decades, without any harmful side effects. Moreover, scientists studying aged puerh in Taiwan concluded that all mold is killed in waters of eighty degrees. Anyway, if the idea of drinking bacteria, fungi or mold makes you squeamish you should get out of the puerh (and cheese) genre categorically. Even newborn, raw (sheng) puerh is covered in bacteria, and often fungi and mold as well.

Actually, ripe (shou) tea is the wettest of the wet, as it is covered in mist, raked into piles and left to ferment under thermal blankets— and sometimes in unhygienic conditions (though that has improved a bit recently), far more so than any traditional wet storage warehouse. And that’s why you have to be careful purchasing shou puerh, being sure to buy from reputable sources.

Amongst those who haven’t really drunk a lot of vintage puerh, there exists this idea that wet stored tea is bad; and you’ll even hear lots of people who reject vintage puerh because of this, claiming that wet stored teas are all scams: “terrible tea”, “not worth the money”, etc. However—and that’s a big fat “however”—you never hear this from people who have been drinking vintage puerh for many years. People who love aged puerh, living in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia are all quite accustomed to drinking wet stored puerh and do not consider it to be a scam, or in any other way unworthy of attention. The fact is, since wet stored tea represents the majority of vintage tea, you might consider it a genre in and of itself— and within that genre there are both excellent and poor quality examples, exquisite wonders and garbage. Furthermore, as I said, there is a huge range of wetness, from mild to heavy. And I have never, ever been to a shop, throughout all my tea travels, with any amount of aged puerh or expertise therein that did not carry some amount of wet stored, primarily loose-leaf puerh. Never!

While most of us who have tried dry stored teas agree that they are indeed better, this doesn’t mean we don’t like wet stored tea or that we store all of our own tea in that way. Of course, people like Zhou Yu dry store all their best teas (or “store well”). No one is disputing that at all. However, we can do nothing to drastically change the state of all of the vintage teas that are in existence now; and therefore learning to enjoy them is, in part, learning about wet stored teas. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, every lover of aged puerh I have ever met drinks wet stored teas. Since so many vintages are wet stored to some degree or another, how could they not? There is an article that we published in The Leaf Magazine written by a British traveler to China and Hong Kong in the nineteenth century, and he also describes the “mustiness” of the puerh the locals know and love.

Furthermore, not every newborn tea warrants the care and attention needed to properly store a tea. Most of the collectors I know still keep some loose teas or cakes in wet storage to speed up the process and make the tea ready for enjoyment sooner. This is not to say they dump a bucket of water on it. Who would want to ruin their tea like that? It just means the tea is put in a more humid part of the warehouse or room and left alone for longer.

One thing that I think many people with little experience drinking vintage tea sometimes don’t understand is that 99% of the people you meet who drink old tea do so for its Qi. Zhou Yu has said to me dozens of times that you’d have to be a fool to spend thousands of dollars on a flavor. You could buy a plane ticket to Switzerland and eat some of the best, fresh and warm chocolate on earth for that price! I would have to agree. If you are just after a flavorful tea, there are other, more rewarding and cheaper genres, like oolong for example. And this is what I was hinting at earlier when I mentioned that I would take a tea that was too wet over one that was too dry: Teas that are stored in places that are too dry in a sense die, losing most if not all their Qi. On the other hand, I have had plenty of wet stored teas that don’t taste great but have awesome Qi— leaving the whole body enveloped in warm, comfortable vibrations of bliss. This is not to say there aren’t incredibly delicious flavors to be had in the world of puerh: there are, and I’ve had plenty of delicious wet stored teas as well. Still, no flavor is worth spending such amounts. And when Qi becomes the predominant criteria for evaluating a tea—which it is for almost every drinker of vintage puerh I have ever met—then we often forgive some bit of mustiness, or other problems with the flavor.

No matter how careful you are, it isn’t easy to store anything well for fifty years! And many experts argue that puerh only reaches excellence at around seventy or more years, though it may be “drinkable”—well-fermented, in other words—in as little as 20-30 years, depending on how it is stored. Still, keeping anything in mint condition for decades is not easy, as any collector of antiques can testify. Just as we must forgive a dent or scratch in a hundred-year-old kettle or teapot, we must also excuse some slight misfortunes in equally-aged puerh, especially when the price candidly reflects these issues, which it does in any honest shop. If you collect vintage teapots, for example, you are of course thrilled to find a Qing pot in mint condition (though your wallet will not be as happy) but equally excited at the prospect of another specimen that costs a third of the price because there’s a chip on the inside of the lid—especially if, like us, you’re a collector that actually uses his/her pots. The same argument applies to buying vintage puerh— vintage anything—and always has!

Most of the mustiness in wet stored puerh tea rinses off quickly. “Last thing in is the first thing out” as Master Lin always says. A longer rinse usually takes care of it, and there are also some other brewing techniques to minimize or completely eradicate the musty flavor should you dislike it: using extra leaves is one; using charcoal and an iron tetsubin to get deeper heat that penetrates the leaves is another. There are still others… However, I have met several people around Asia who actually like that flavor. I myself prefer the taste of “well stored” teas—meaning properly stored as discussed above—and store the center’s own high quality teas in that way. Still, I cannot wave a wand over all the vintage tea out there and change it. As I drank my way through all the vintages and tons of loose-leaf teas as well, I came to appreciate that wet stored tea represents a huge category of tea, and I have had really, really wet teas that turned out to be awesome and dry ones that were not so good, and vice versa.

We recently found a big jar of early 80’s tuocha, for example, that were very heavily wet. This is always a good thing, because the extremely tight compression of tuochas renders their fermentation unbearably slow. We brushed the cakes off with a toothbrush and left them in the sun for an afternoon. Then, we brought them in and broke them up completely. After that, we returned them to the sun the next day for a couple hours. When they cooled, we tightly sealed them in a large, glazed pot that was completely free of odors and left them for around six months. We also added some white charcoal to help purify and absorb unwanted odors. When we opened the pot, we covered the mouth with cloth and let them sit, exposed to air, for another two weeks. Then? The tea was amazing! All the worst parts of the wet storage (the musty flavor and smell) had gone and what was left was a clear, bright tea that tasted so much older than it was—with strong Qi to boot! This is just one example of many of the awesome wet stored vintages I have had. Also, this is not the only method of “cleaning” and “revitalizing” wet stored puerh. There are others.

If we were going to spend a few thousand dollars on a well-aged cake of tea, we would of course find the cleanest, best-stored cake we could find. Nonetheless, reading or hearing such evident truths has led some people to the mistaken notion that all wet stored tea is therefore bad. If you hand me a cheap wet stored, loose-leaf tea of 50 years with awesome Qi I would be just as thrilled as with an expensive, well stored cake. And accordingly, in all my years in Asia, I’ve never met a long-term lover of vintage puerh without some wet stored teas in his or her collection. This cannot be overstated.

We must all, therefore, make a very real distinction between the way we wish to store our tea from here on out and the way in which we evaluate vintage teas that are already old. They are completely different areas of study, though you can’t have true knowledge of the one without understanding the other. We will store our newborn teas properly, which for the most part means “drier” than they were “traditionally” stored, and care for them more thoroughly—especially since newborn tea costs many times more than what it once did when most vintage teas were stored— but this does not mean that we should evaluate all vintage tea using these same criteria, or that some of those “wet stored” gems of yesteryear did not in fact turn out way better than our “dry stored” cakes ever will! Also, if you are storing your teas naturally, which, as we’ll discuss a bit further on, is really the only way, it is nigh impossible to store puerh tea in any real amount without some percentage of it getting at least mildly wet. The only environments that could truly prevent this are too dry for puerh and would cause it to die.
The saddest thing about dismissing wet stored tea entirely is that you are missing out on all the vintages of old puerh that are actually affordable, even today. I know a vendor in the West who has access to a wide variety of cheap, wet stored puerh and knowledge thereof, who told me anonymously: “I can’t sell it in the West, at least not online. Too many people would ask for a refund. They’ve been misinformed and I wouldn’t know how to combat that. It would seem, sometimes at least, that some of my customers don’t really like aged puerh, as they were very critical of teas that were only very, very mildly wet and easily corrected. Still, things are getting better. I keep such tea in the shop, and when people come in, I show them how to brew it properly and explain aged tea and Qi. Then, they get along fine.” I have heard tons of similar testimony from people who have traveled to Taiwan, tasting properly brewed wet stored tea, and learning about Cha Qi for the first time. 

We paid only roughly 30 USD per tuocha for the heavy wet cakes we mentioned earlier, buying the whole jar’s worth, and the tea turned out way better than a dry stored Xiaguan tuocha we have from the same period that costs 100 USD. While there are poor wet stored teas, there also dry stored teas that aren’t very good, either. Doesn’t this hold true for any genre of tea? The first, last and only question of relevance is not whether the tea is wet or dry stored, but in fact, whether it is good tea or not!

What do we really know? 

The problem with over-analyzing the storage of puerh tea, trying to seek the right parameters that can lead invariably to “well stored” tea, is that this tacitly assumes that the transformation of puerh tea over time is somehow controlled, or potentially controllable, by human beings. In fact, so many of our modern social and environmental crises revolve around similar delusions. The way that puerh tea changes from cold to warm in nature, from astringent and acidic to smooth and creamy, gathering Qi until it is aged to the point that it causes one to fall head over heels into a state of bliss—all that happens due to a completely natural process. Humans are involved; I’m not arguing that they aren’t. The center of the character for tea has the radical for Man. But when I ask all the old timers how they created these incredible “well stored” vintages of tea, they invariably exclaim “create!”—mocking my choice of words—“I didn’t do it. I just put the tea on a shelf and left it alone for fifty years.” Zhou Yu then added, “This is just one of the treasures of Nature, and no amount of explanation can make it any less mystical!” I’d have to agree: like any of you, I am anxious for more scientific research into puerh tea, and will read about the results with as much excitement as any tea lover; but there’s no explanation that can make these changes any less awe-inspiring in my view—just as no meteorological elucidation could deflate the power of the experience I had in Tibet seeing colored lights off the cliffside of a temple there!
Most of the old timers in Hong Kong, as well as Zhou Yu, Master Lin and others I have a more personal relationship with, have all showed me their warehouses and storage “techniques”. The fact is that there isn’t much method to it at all. They simply check on the tea now and again. If it smells too wet, they move it to a higher shelf. Teas they want to let age a bit slower, more “drily”, they encase in cardboard boxes, usually with a slight cutout to admit oxygen (of course, they are produced from recycled, odorless cardboard). Some, and we follow this method, even put tong-sized boxes within larger boxes, doubling the protection. For most warehouses, most of the time, the bamboo wrapping used to package seven cakes (tong) is protection enough. Still, if a tea is moldy, they brush it off and move it. Thus, checking to make sure the tea isn’t too wet or moldy is really all that goes into their “storage methodology”. Beyond that, they come into the warehouse once or twice a year and clean. Nature does the rest.

So what, then, do we really know about producing “well stored” puerh tea? Puerh needs humidity, heat and a bit of oxygen. It is best kept away from light, and of course it should not be near any kinds of odors, as it is very absorbent. Sheng and shou teas should be separated. Sometimes different vintages are separated as well, usually by age rather than kind. At times, however, it is good to have old tea with new as it helps it to age. (Maybe the bacteria and other microbes move from the well-aged tea to the newer cakes.) Check the teas now and again and move them to less humid places if they become too wet. Those teas we wish to slow down, we put in odorless cardboard. Those we wish to speed up, we put in unglazed pots on the floor with cloth over the opening, or simply keep lower down where the humidity is higher (a lower floor, lower shelf, etc.). When the tea is fermented to the desired degree, most collectors will also break it up and let it breathe in an unglazed clay jar before drinking, to expose the inner parts of the cake to more oxygen and allow the Qi to begin moving. And yet all of this assumes something implicitly: location!

The fact is that all we really know about well-aged, “well stored” teas is that they can achieve that quality in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia and to a lesser extent in a few other places. Some masters argue that many factors beyond climate are relevant to this, arguing that Feng Shui (Daoist geomancy) and other mystical forces play a part in the transformation of tea. Whether you regard any of that as important or not doesn’t matter. The fact is that all our great vintage teas at this point were stored in these places. The best ones were stored carefully, and the lower quality, often “wetter” ones weren’t— it’s really that simple. This should, in fact, come as no surprise, since there are several varieties of wine, beer and cheese that also must be fermented in special locations—not to speak of the location the grapes or other products are grown—just where the fermentation takes place. I once even read of a Belgian ale that ferments in open vats, without any additives, because of natural yeast only found in that place. Could puerh be the same?

I do think there is something to the idea of letting the fermentation happen naturally. There was an article in a Chinese magazine with a detailed comparison of some semi-aged teas. One batch had been watched carefully in the natural environs of Hong Kong and the other had been stored in a small room with an expensive machine that controlled the humidity and temperature day and night. The author argued that the natural cakes were much better than the ones stored in an “artificial” way. It makes sense to me that too much machinery, humidifiers and de-humidifiers, Storage of Puerh Tea /56 this-and-that-conditioners, would harm the tea—and definitely dampen the amount of Qi it would accumulate. No man-made anything ever compares to the creations of Nature. Furthermore, can you imagine the cost of such machinery? And the electricity bill for maintaining the perfect humidity and temperature in a room for fifty years! If you think vintage puerh is expensive now, what do you think the cost of tea stored in that way would be? Wouldn’t it have to reflect the atrocious cost of the machinery, electricity and/or maintenance over such a long period?

Does this mean that all tea stored outside Southeast Asia will be lower quality? I don’t know. No one does. We won’t know for a few decades. The fact is that the puerh boom has taken this backwater tea from Yunnan all around the globe; to places it never dreamt of going before. Furthermore, the gardens being utilized for production, the processing methods—the amazing variety of raw material (mao cha) used—all have added innumerable facets to the world of puerh that weren’t pertinent when all the current vintage puerh was produced or aged. Will these new kinds of tea age the way the great vintages did? Will they be better? Can puerh tea be aged in France? In Canada? Who knows! Many of the legendary teas, like Hong Yin for example, were notoriously disgusting when young, only to be transmuted in the cauldron of time, fueled by the fire of Nature herself. Will your teas similarly transform? I guess if you’re willing to help participate in this global experiment, then keep some tea and make sure to share your experience. But as of now, the only conclusive, factual results we have all come from Southeast Asia, so if you want to be really, completely sure, I’d just buy vintage tea stored there. I always use the analogy of stock investments: if you are only going to invest a little, then some risk is fine. But if you are going to invest a larger amount of money, you should be careful and invest in stocks that have proven their worth over time. Similarly, a few cakes here and there may be worthwhile to store wherever you are, even if the conditions seem unsuitable, just to see what happens. But if you plan on investing in larger quantities of puerh, you should really store it in Southeast Asia. Unlike any newer puerh cakes stored in other places, the vintage teas floating around are the only proven ones; and the differences in their value are relative to the original quality of the tea and the care with which they were stored in such an environment, rather than differences in the environment itself.

Above all, we need to continue sharing our experiences, and in that way grow as the world of puerh itself has done. Let us then steep another pot, call for more water; and after a few more bright cups, a smile and a laugh, fill the teahouse with more conversation, dialogue and wisdom... 

The production & Processing of Puerh Tea

Puerh is unique amongst all the genres of tea because the importance of the raw material far outweighs any processing skill. The quality of most oolongs, for example, is determined as much by the source of the leaves as by the skill of the one processing the tea. The value of puerh, on the other hand, is ninety percent in the trees. There are many kinds of tea trees in Yunnan and the source determines the value of the tea. What village a tea comes from and which trees will decide its value, in other words. Of course, there is also plenty of dishonesty in the puerh world: material picked in one region and then taken to a more expensive one to be sold as native tea, young trees sold as old trees, etc. This means producers and consumers have to be able to distinguish the differences between regions and types of leaves. 

Puerh trees can roughly be divided into two main categories, though it is useful to understand some of the subdivisions as well: old-growth (gu shu, 古樹) and plantation tea (tai di cha, 台地茶). Old growth tea is by far the better of these two. This refers to older trees. There is some debate about what constitutes “old-growth” since tea trees in Yunnan can range from dozens to thousands of years old. Arbitrarily, we think that when a tea tree becomes a centenarian (100 years), it can rightly be called “old-growth”. Old-growth tea can then be subdivided into trees that are wild or those that were planted by people. Though planted by man, the latter are often indistinguishable from the former as they are both found in small gardens in the heart of the forest. In fact, you would have difficulty picking the trees out from their surroundings without the help of a guide. Another subdivision could be called “ecologically-farmed old-growth”, which refers to old trees planted in gardens closer to villages and/or homesteads. Some people also like to have a category for 1,000+yearold trees as well, calling them by that name or maybe “ancient trees”. Plantation puerh (tai di cha) is far inferior and often not organic. The trees there might even be several decades old, but they aren’t Living Tea, and lack many of the qualities that make puerh so special, as we discussed in our article about this month’s tea.

Rough Tea (Mao Cha 毛茶) 

All puerh tea begins with mao cha (毛茶), which translates as “rough tea”. Mao cha refers to the finished leaf as it leaves the farm to be sold directly to factories small and large, or independently at market. Tea at this stage has been plucked by hand, wilted, fried to remove the raw flavor (called “sa chin” 殺青), kneaded (ro nien, 揉捻), and dried. These processes need to occur almost immediately after the tea has been plucked, which is why they are done directly at the farm rather than at the factory. 

Most varieties of tea include all the same stages of processing as puerh, though unlike puerh, the final processing often ends there and the loose-leaf tea is then packaged right at the farm. (Some oolongs were traditionally finished at shops, as well. The shop owners would do the final roasting to suit their tastes.) Puerh, on the other hand, often travels to a factory for final processing: compression into cakes if it is raw, sheng puerh or piling and then compression if it is ripe, shou puerh. 

Some varieties of puerh are also destined to become loose leaf. At the start, that means that they remain “mao cha”, but once they are aged, they are technically no longer “rough tea”. So an aged, loose-leaf puerh shouldn’t really be called “mao cha”. 

Traditionally, these loose teas were the ones that were grown at smaller farms that didn’t have contracts with any factory—often from so-called “Border Regions” where Yunnan borders Laos, Vietnam or Myanmar. Such teas were then sold at market, traded between farmers or bought and stored by collectors. You can’t be certain, however, that a loose-leaf puerh is a Border Tea, as the big factories also packaged and sold some of their teas loose, though not as much as compressed tea. Although some of the tea that was sold loose was fine quality, most of it was considered inferior. 

We have a huge collection of loose-leaf puerh tea here. In fact, we have so much that we have also become collectors of rare antique jars to store it all in. Loose-leaf puerh, no matter how old, is always cheaper than puerh compressed into cakes. One reason for this is that the cakes have an easily-verified vintage. Though there are fakes, experts have developed systems of identifying them, using a combination of factors from a kind of “wrapperology”, which identifies characteristic marks, color changes, etc., in the printing of the wrappers to the cake itself—its shape, leaf color or size, compression, etc. On the other hand, very few aged loose-leaf teas are pure. Most of them are blends. Some were blended during production, though more often, tea was added later on to increase the quantity of an aged tea. Sometimes blends of wet and drierstored teas, or even sheng and shou are mixed to make a tea seem older than it is. When drinking aged loose-leaf puerh, it is a good idea to only rank them relative to other loose-leaf puerhs, rather than believing in the date the merchant has given. While some loose-leaf puerhs do have a distinct vintage, most are blends. Looking at the wet leaves after steeping will also verify this.

Beyond that, cakes have been found to have more Qi than loose leaf puerh, so that if the same tea were left loose and processed into a discus (bing, 餅), for example, and then aged for thirty years, the cake would have more Qi than the loose leaf. Having done several experiments where we stored the same exact tea from the same farm in both loose leaf and cake form, we can say for sure that the compressed teas age better, and not just in terms of Qi. They are better in every way: flavor, aroma, etc. They also age faster and more evenly. One possible reason for this is that the steam used to compress the cakes seals the bacteria in, and the inner moisture creates a better environment for them to do their work. Still, despite the fact that cakes are better, loose-leaf teas are often great deals since they are much cheaper than cakes of the same age. It’s like choosing a more affordable antique teapot with a chip under the lid versus a perfect, very expensive one. Depending on your budget, the former may be the better choice.


The freshly plucked leaves are carried back to the house or village and gently spread out on bamboo mats to be slightly wilted before they are heated to remove the raw flavor. The purpose of wilting the leaves is to slightly reduce the moisture content in the leaves so that they will be more pliable and less likely to be damaged when they are heated. This process must be watched carefully so that the leaves do not oxidize more than is absolutely necessary. For that reason, wilting typically takes place outdoors and indoors. The tea is withered outdoors for some time and then placed in a well-ventilated room, often shared by members of a particular farming village.

The heating process/firing (sa chin) is literally performed to remove the raw flavor of the tea leaf. This occurs in the production of most all kinds of tea (except white tea, which categorically skips this process). In Yunnan, the heating process is still often done by hand in large woodfired woks. The temperature must remain constant and the leaves have to be continuously turned to prevent any singeing. In larger farms, though not often in Yunnan, this is done in large barrel-like machines that spin around like a clothes drier. With puerh, however, the firing is still done by hand, once again lending tradition and wisdom to the puerh process. Workers sift the leaves around in circular motions ensuring that they never touch the wok for longer than a blink. Through generations of experience the farmers can tell by appearance and feel when the leaves are sufficiently cooked, and their timing is as impeccable as any time/temperature-controlled machine elsewhere. Scientifically, the process is removing certain green enzymes within the leaf that lend it the raw flavor, which in some varieties is too bitter to be drunk. As we’ll discuss later, the sa chin of puerh is less-pronounced than in many other kinds of teas.

After the leaves are fried they are kneaded (ro nien). This process also occurs by hand on most puerh farms or villages near old trees. A special technique is used to knead the leaves like dough. This bruises the leaves and breaks apart their cellular structure to encourage oxidation, and later fermentation (fa xiao, 發酵), which will occur through the various methods (explained in the box about sheng and shou puerh on the opposit page). It takes skill and method to achieve a gentle bruising without tearing the leaves. We have personally tried this in Yunnan and Taiwan, and found it is very difficult to achieve. We invariably tore up the leaves. The farmers, however, can go through the movements with surprising speed.

Finally, after the mao cha has been kneaded and bruised it is left to dry in the sun. Once again this process must be monitored carefully to prevent any unwanted oxidation or fermentation from occurring. Usually, the leaves are dried in the early morning and late evening sun, as midday is too hot. They will move the leaves into the same well-ventilated room used earlier for wilting during the hot hours of the day. The leaves will be inspected hourly and when they have dried sufficiently, they will be bagged and taken to the factory to be processed, or to market to be sold as loose leaf.

The two most distinguishing aspects of puerh production are the sa chin and the sun drying. The firing of puerh tea does arrest oxidation, as in all tea, but it is usually less pronounced than other kinds of tea, leaving some of the enzymes in the tea alive, as they help promote fermentation. Then, after firing and rolling, puerh is sun dried. This gives it a certain flavor, texture and aroma and helps further the natural vibrations present in the tea. Not all puerh is processed in this way, especially with all the innovation and change in the modern industry—though, ideally, we want tea made in traditional ways.

Once the leaves are processed, they will often go through their first sorting (fan ji). A second sorting will occur later at the factory itself. This sorting is to remove unwanted, ripped or torn leaves, as well as the leaves that weren’t fired or rolled properly. At this stage, the factory/ producer may ask the farmer to sort the leaves according to size, called “grade”. This practice is becoming rarer, however, as the prices of oldgrowth puerh increase. Nowadays, farmers sell most everything. Sometimes, they don’t even sort out the broken or mis-processed leaves.

 At the Factory

Upon arrival to the factory, the mao cha goes through its second sorting (fan ji). This is often done by hand even at the larger factories, though some have large winnowing machines. And most have strict rules controlling the diet of the sorters. Tea is an extremely absorbent leaf and will be altered by any impurities. Sorters therefore shouldn’t eat chili, garlic or onions. Nor can they drink alcohol the night before a sort, as it will be secreted through their skin and contaminate the leaves. The sorting that occurred on the farm was more cursory and based solely on leaf size or “grade”. This second sorting is more detailed and thorough. The leaves are distinguished not only by their size, but also by their quality, type (old or young growth, which mountain they came from, etc.), and other criteria that are constantly changing. Larger factories often have mao cha arriving from all over Yunnan and therefore employ experts to monitor all sorts of conditions to determine which leaf size, which locations, etc., will have a good harvest that year. More and more, factories are targeting collectors by creating limited edition sets, with cakes from certain mountains, for example.

There is a lot of discussion nowadays about the differences between single-region and blended puerhs. For the last fifty years, most all puerhs were blends. The factories would collect the mao cha from various regions and then blend them in ways they thought improved the tea: choosing strength and Qi from one region, blended with sweetness and flavor from another, etc. In this way, cakes would be more balanced. In the last fifteen years, there has been a trend towards single-region cakes, and with it the idea that such tea is more pure. It should be remembered that all old-growth puerh is actually a blend, since no two trees are the same. So even tea from a single mountain will be a blend of different teas. If you are sensitive enough, you can even distinguish the leaves from the eastern and western side of a single tree, since they receive different sunlight. There are merits to both kinds of cakes, and it seems pointless to say that one is better than the other in general. It would be better to talk about specific teas, as a certain blended cake may be better than a given single-region cake or vice versa.

The trend towards boutique, private and single-region cakes has also changed the way that puerh is produced. For example, some cakes are made on site and completely processed by the farmers themselves. Most tea, however, still travels to factories for sorting (blending) and compression. What was once one of the simplest teas, at least as far as processing goes, has now become complicated by the vast industry that has grown up around it.

Mao cha can sit in a factory for a long or short time, depending on many factors. In doing so, it technically ceases to be “rough tea”. Sometimes tea is aged for a while and then piled to produce a nice, mellower shou tea than a new tea could produce. Other times the tea that was inferior and didn’t make it into a cake, is then sold loose leaf later, and labeled “aged” to help market it.

Once ready, the leaves are carefully weighed and placed into cloth compression bags or metal pans. The texture of these bags can be seen imprinted on puerh tea if one looks closely. They are not used to package the tea, only in the compression process itself. They are made from special cross-woven cotton. Strangely, even the larger factories that we’ve visited still use antique-looking scales to do their weighing. Along with human error, this explains why even new cakes are often incorrect in either direction by a decimal of a gram (of course in aged tea this is usually due to pieces breaking off).

Steam is used to prepare the tea for compression. The steam is carefully controlled—mostly automatous in the larger factories—to ensure the leaves are soft and pliable, but not cooked or oxidized in any way. It is basically a process of slight rehydration. The steam softens the tea and the cloth in preparation for compression. Sometimes the steaming takes place before the tea is placed into the cloth, using metal pans instead. In a non-mechanized factory a wooden table is placed over a heated wok full of water. The steam rises through a small hole in the center. This is far more difficult than the automatic steam generators at larger factories because the temperature control is lacking and the leaves can end up being burnt. It requires the skill of generations to successfully steam the tea this way.

The compression process was traditionally done with stone block molds. The tea is placed in the cloth, which is then turned and shaped into a ball. The nei fei is added at this time—an “inner trademark ticket” compressed into the tea to establish branding. The cloth is then twisted shut and covered with a stone mold block. The producer would then physically stand on the stone block and use his or her weight to compress the cake. In some of the smaller family-run factories, puerh cakes are still created using this method. On our recent visit to Yunnan, we had the chance to make our cakes by dancing around on the stone molds, to the delight of the Chinese audience present. Larger factories often have machines for compressing their cakes, though some still produce some of their cakes in the traditional way. Some are hand-operated presses that require the operator to pull down a lever and press the cake into shape; others are automatic and occur with the press of a button. We even saw one machine that was capable of compressing twelve bings simultaneously.

After compression, the cakes are taken out of the compression cloths and placed on wooden shelves to dry. They are still slightly damp from the steam at this stage. Many larger factories have a separate room with tons of shelves lined with drying cakes. The cakes are monitored and often even stored on particular shelves that are numbered according to their processing time. Different types of puerh leaves and different shapes or levels of compression will affect the amount of time that is needed to dry the cakes, from hours to days and sometimes even up to a week. Some big factories use ventilation systems and/or fans to speed up the process.

When they are finished drying, the cakes are taken off the shelves to be packaged. Each generation of cakes has its own unique characteristics with regards to the wrapping paper, printing, style of Chinese characters, nei fei, etc. As we discussed earlier, there is a whole science of “wrapperology”. Each decade brought revolutions in the printing process worldwide, so it seems obvious that the larger factories would change their printing methods. Also, the wrapping paper in particular is handmade, and a lot can be discerned via fibers, texture, and the appearance of the paper as well as the ink color. It is impossible to forge many of these paper and ink combinations and make them appear aged. 

Discus-shaped cakes, called “bingchas” are individually wrapped in handmade paper and then bundled in groups of seven (qi zi, 七子) called tongs (桶). Each tong is wrapped in Bamboo bark (tsu tze ka, 竹子殼). Sometimes English articles mistakenly assume that these are bamboo leaves. Actually, bamboo trees shed their skin whenever they get bigger or sprout new stems. You can see this material covering the floor of any bamboo forest. The Bamboo bark conserves the freshness of the tea and makes packaging easier. Twelve tongs are then further wrapped using Bamboo, into a jian (件), which is twelve tongs of seven, so eighty-four bings in all. Other shapes of compression include bricks (zhuan), mushrooms (which look like hearts to the Tibetans they were primarily exported to, and thus named “jing cha”), bowl or nest shapes (tuocha), and sometimes melons. We have found that the discus-shaped cakes (bings) age the best.

Puerh production may seem complicated at first, but it really isn’t that difficult to understand. We hope that the basics we’ve covered in this article, along with the accompanying charts, will help simplify the process for you and increase your understanding of the more linear aspects of puerh tea. By including other articles about the energetics of puerh in this issue, as well as past and future issues, we hope to fulfill you in a more balanced way. Thus, our understanding of puerh will be more holistic, including its history, production methodologies and other informative approaches along with a spiritual and vibrational understanding of this amazing tea.


December's Further Readings

27 Dec 2016 by

History of Liu Bao 

Liu Bao tea is renowned both in China and abroad for its rich history. It got its name from the place it was originally produced: Liu Bao Village (六堡鎮) in Cangwu County, in the Wuzhou City area of Guangxi province (“Liu Bao” means “Six Castles” or “Six Forts”). The mountainous region of Liu Bao is located near the Tropic of Cancer and has a unique natural environment with strong sunlightwild tea plants have grown there for a very long time and were recognized and used by the early inhabitants of the region. A well-known tea expert from mainland China, the late Professor Zhuang Wanfang (莊晚芳), has determined that the history of Liu Bao tea production can be traced back more than 1500 years, based on studies of historical texts including the Tong Jun Records from the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Born in the embrace of Liu Bao Village’s beautiful mountains and rivers and destined to become prized around the world, Liu Bao tea was created through a union of nature and human culture.

The Cangwu County Records, published in 1697, the 36th year of the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s reign, contain the following excerpt: “The Liu Bao tea produced in Duoxian Village in Cangwu has a rich flavor that does not change even when left overnight; the color and fragrance are excellent.” During the reign of the Qing Emperor Jiaqing (1796–1820), Liu Bao was classified as one of China’s 24 famous teas of that period, owing to its unique betel nut aroma. The following record appears in the Guangxi Tongzhi, a geographical reference book: “The production of Liu Bao tea is flourishing in Cangwu; especially the Six Castles (Liu Bao) and Five Castles (Wu Bao) teas from Duoxian Village. Liu Bao tea is particularly famous, and is selling in great quantities at ports in Guangzhou, Fujian, Hong Kong, and Macau.” Liu Bao tea was traditionally compressed into tea bricks using bamboo baskets, and the most highly regarded teas were produced in Gongzhou Village and Heishi Village within the Liu Bao township.

There’s a poem by famous scholar Cheng Yuandao (程遠道) from the late Qing Dynasty that goes: “The mountains are piled high with Liu Bao tea; it regulates digestion wonderfully. Drink a cup tonight while entertaining a lord; tomorrow the scent will linger on your teeth and cheeks.” In the past, since land transportation routes were not yet very developed, Liu Bao tea had to be transported to Guangzhou via waterways. During the late Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Republic, Liu Bao Village was also producing bamboo, wood, and charcoal in addition to tea, and trade was flourishing. Guangdong tea merchants set up on Liu Bao Village’s Hekou Street to purchase Liu Bao maochaunprocessed tea leaves—and then steam them in baskets to compress the tea. They used small boats to transport the tea leaves from the dock at Hekou to Cangwu County’s Li port, then packed them onto large wooden galleys to Fengkai County. From there the tea was taken on motorboats along the Xijiang River to Guangzhou, and finally exported to places like Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. This route became known as the “Ancient Tea-Boat Road.”

After 1951, when large-scale land reforms came along, farmers found themselves in possession of land. At this time, many farmers started planting tea bushes again, and the area of the tea plantations grew rapidly. By 1953, Wuzhou had more than ten privately-owned tea enterprises, large and small, with Liu Bao tea as their main product. For a long time these were mostly family-run tea processing workshops, which limited the growth of the Liu Bao tea industry. In 1954, the state began rapidly expanding the tea production industry and started to prohibit privately-owned tea businesses from purchasing the raw tea leaves. The state began to regulate the grade and sale price of the tea leaves and the Supply and Marketing Department was in charge of purchasing the raw maocha, which was all shipped to the Wuzhou Tea Factory for final processing. So it was that the production methods of Liu Bao tea in Wuzhou shifted from the traditional hand-processing that had been the norm for a long time to large-scale industrialized production.

The characteristic steps in traditional Liu Bao tea production are “heaping” (a process known as wodui 渥堆 which involves fermenting in moist piles), compression by steaming, and agingthe longer the tea is aged, the better the quality. Liu Bao is widely described using a well-known set of words: “red, rich, aged, and mellow” (hong, nong, chen, hou紅、濃、陳、醇). The traditional manufacturing process consists of the following steps: raw leaves sifting to separate heaping initial steaming steaming in piles breaking up the piles spreading out the leaves to cool second steaming packing into bamboo baskets aging in storage. The finished Liu Bao tea is divided into grades from one to five. The required qualities for a first-grade Liu Bao tea are as follows: the tea leaves should be tightly twisted and of even size and shape, of a blackish-brown color with a glossy appearance. The flavor of the tea should be mellow and rich with a betel nut taste, the liquor bright red, and the brewed leaves tender and evenly sized.

In recent years, Chinese black teas (as distinct from red teas) have become popular throughout the world and are increasingly sold overseas. Liu Bao tea has earned the esteem of many a tea lover thanks to its health benefits and distinctive character. The well-known general director of the Guangxi Tea Institute, Mr. Liang Yongliang (梁永良), compares Liu Bao tea to “black gold, with many health benefits.” The people of Wuzhou have a particularly high regard for aged Liu Bao, and have expressed their admiration with this verse: “When it touches your mouth you’ll have worries no more, when it lands in your stomach your spirit will soar.” With the enthusiastic support of both the Guangxi Autonomous Region and the Wuzhou City governments, the Liu Bao tea industry developed quite rapidly, and this ancient tea once again began to glow with youthful vigor.

In 2009, the Wuzhou municipal committee and city government published a document entitled Decisions on promoting the industrial development of Liu Bao tea production, which marked the beginning of a favorable period of rapid development for the industry. The consumer market expanded from the original two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi to include more than ten provinces, cities and regions throughout China, including major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xi’an. Both Liu Bao tea and some travel destinations connected to Liu Bao production were selected as part of Wuzhou City’s “Top ten fine foods and beautiful landscapes,” and the Wuzhou Tea Factory’s “Three Cranes” trademark was officially recognized as one of Guangxi’s famous trademarks. This treasured black tea from Guangxi has travelled a long path throughout history’s many seasons, and it seems Liu Bao tea is now welcoming a flourishing spring!

Betel nut: the unique fragrance of Liu Bao

Article by Wu Ping (吳平)
Liu Bao tea is set apart from other teas by its most unique feature: a fragrance and flavor reminiscent of the betel nut, known in Chinese as binglang (檳榔). As the interest in drinking Liu Bao tea has grown, more and more people are discussing this betel nut aroma. “Betel” nut is actually the berry-like fruit of the areca palm, rather than a true nut, and has a mild stimulant effect when chewed. Chewing areca nut is a long-seated tradition throughout various parts of China and elsewhere in Asia and Oceania, with many cultural associations. It is often chewed in combination with betel leaf, which is how the two became commonly referred to by the same name in English, when in fact the leaf is from a different plant and has a distinct name in Chinese: louye (蔞葉).
Those familiar with betel nut often think that the “betel nut aroma” of Liu Bao tea refers to the smoky flavor of pickled betel nut husks, since these days the pickled kind is the most commonly encountered form or betel nut. This has also led to various other misconceptions about the scent: some people think that it’s simply a pine-smoke flavor, or a flavor that evolves from pine-smoke with aging, or an herbal smell reminiscent of Chinese medicine, or the scent of wild ginseng, among others.
So when we refer to the “betel nut aroma” of Liu Bao tea, just exactly what form of betel nut are we talking about? What distinguishes this particular scent and taste? There aren’t really any written records defining this aspect of Liu Bao, so opinions are quite divided. So, in this article we will investigate the origins of Liu Bao tea’s famed betel nut aroma and identify what was originally meant when people likened the scent and flavor of Liu Bao tea to those of the betel nut.
The earliest written record of Liu Bao tea’s betel nut aroma appears in 1801, during the reign of the Qing Emperor Jiaqing, when Liu Bao was announced as part of a list of China’s 24 most famous teas on account of its unique betel nut flavor. Mentions of this appear in documents such as the Cangwu County Records and the Records of China’s Famous Teas. It’s clear that the Liu Bao tea produced in Cangwu County became famous largely because of this distinct fragranceso it’s not too surprising that so many modern tea lovers are willing to blindly part with exorbitant amounts of money in pursuit of this highly-prized aroma!
Betel nut tasting experiments
The mature fruit of the areca palm has various parts that can be consumed in different forms. These include  the fresh betel seed (the “fruit” part inside the husk that starts off soft and hardens as the fruit ripens), fresh husks, dried seed (sometimes in thin slices), scorched betel nut, dried husk (referred in Chinese medicine as Dafupi大腹皮), and smoke-cured or pickled betel husk. Different parts of China have different traditional ways of eating betel nuts, so the scent and flavor varies too. Scorched betel nut refers to a method of preparation where slices of betel nut are pan-fired until they are a charred yellow-brown in color.
In the name of research, the author got together with a group of good friends and we bought a few different kinds of betel nut so we could hold a tasting and compare the differences in scent and flavor. We chose some ripe, yellow raw betel (areca) nuts, betel leaves, and betel husk paste from Hainan; we bought slices of dried betel seed from a Chinese medicine shop, made some homemade dried betel husks and scorched betel nuts, and brought some pickled betel husks from a food store. The conclusion of this experiment was that no matter what form of betel nut we tried, be it fresh or dried, seed or husk, the same set of flavors and sensations would emerge: astringent, fruity, and bitter, with a numbing, tingling sensation and a sweet aftertaste. Of these, three flavors came through particularly strongly: bitterness, astringency, and a pungent, grassy scent.
The following records note our impressions of the tastes and sensations associated with each type of betel product. As betel nut is chewed and discarded rather than eaten, we recorded the evolving flavors and sensations at a few points throughout the tasting, including the scent before tasting, the initial taste when first chewed; then after spitting out any excess saliva; while continuing to chew; after chewing; and finally the aftertaste after spitting out and discarding the leftover fibrous parts.
Tasting records

1. Fresh betel leaf (1 leafaround 1 gram)
Smell:    Faint grassy scent
Taste:    Grassy, sweet, spicy
Grassy, bitter, spicy, astringent, numbing, sweet
Bitter, spicy, astringent, numbing, with a sweetness that slowly fades into a lingering sweet aftertaste

2. Areca husk paste (0.5 grams)
Smell:    Almost no fragrance
Taste:    Sweet
Bitter, astringent, numbing
After the bitter, astringent flavors and numbing sensation fade, the sweetness re-emerges

3. Fresh areca seed slices (0.3 grams)
Smell:    Very faint grassy scent
Taste:    Strong bitter, astringent taste which fades and then grows even stronger
Numbing sensation accompanied by a swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
After this sensation wears off, there’s an astringent taste and then a faint fruitiness and slightly sweet aftertaste

4. Fresh areca nut husk (2 grams)
Smell:    Strong, pungent grassy smell
Taste:    Grassy, sweet
Grassy with stinging and numbing sensations; astringent, with a growing feeling of swelling
These tastes and sensations continue, the swelling feeling subsides and gives way to a slightly sweet aftertaste

5. Slices of fresh areca seed, wrapped in betel leaf with areca husk paste added (12 grams of each)
Scent:    Grassy, sweet
Taste:    Grassy, bitter, astringent
Grassy, bitter and astringent flavors diminish
Grassy, bitter, astringent, sweet
Numbing, stinging, astringent, sweet
Numbing, stinging, astringent sensations fade, and the sweetness becomes more noticeable

6. Fresh areca nut husk with betel leaf and areca nut paste (around 1 gram of each)
Smell:    Obvious grassy scent
Taste:    Grassy, bitter, spicy, sweet
Grassy, bitter and spicy flavors fade, sweetness remains
Stinging, numbing, astringent, bitter, grassy, sweet, spicy
Astringent, stinging, grassy, numbing
Astringent, stinging, grassy, numbing sensations fade, sweetness returns

7. Dried mature areca seeds, whole or in slices (0.4 grams)
Smell:    A faint irritating and faintly fruity scent
Taste:    A subtle fruity and woody flavor
Astringent, bitter, numbing, faintly fruity, woody
Astringent, bitter and fruity flavors grow stronger, numbing, with a noticeable swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
Those sensations and flavors fade, giving way to a slightly sweet aftertaste

8. Dried areca husk or Dafupi (0.2 grams)
Smell:                 Faint sun-baked scent
Taste:    Non-descript taste
Numbing, grassy, slightly astringent
Numbing, grassy, slightly astringent with swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
Those sensations fade, and the aftertaste is slightly sweet

9. Smoke-cured and pickled areca husk (1.5 grams)
Smell:    Slightly sweet and smoky scent
Taste:    Sweet, smoky, cooling
Those give way to numbing, astringent sensations with swelling in the throat and difficulty swallowing saliva
Cooling, sweet, numbing, astringent, with persistent swelling and difficulty swallowing
Flavors and sensations gradually fade

10. Scorched areca nut
Smell:    Charred, tarry scent
Taste:    Tarry, scorched, woody fragrance
Tarry, scorched, woody fragrance, astringent, bitter, numbing, fruity
A swelling feeling develops
Flavors, sensations, and swelling feeling fade

Some historical inferences about Liu Bao tea’s betel nut aroma
Like most people in the regions of Guangdong and Guangxi, the people of Wuzhou’s Cangwu County were heavily influenced by the traditional practice of chewing betel nut. Whenever people would entertain visitors from afar or celebrate important occasions, friends and guests would often be offered areca nut to chew. It’s a custom with a long history that has continued to modern times.
There are historical records of betel nuts being produced in Guangxi province, though according to the Collected Resources on Medicinal Ingredients, they were only produced in Bobai County. Cangwu County is situated near the Tropic of Cancer and has frosts in the winter, so the climate isn’t suited to growing areca palms. Bobai County, the nearest betel-producing area to Cangwu, was still more than 250 kilometers awaywhich didn’t exactly count as nearby for people living two hundred years ago. So up until twenty-odd years ago, people in Cangwu would rarely come across fresh betel nut. These days, the most commonly consumed form of betel nut in Cangwu County is still the dried mature seed, either whole or sliced into discs. As well as chewing betel nut, it’s also customary to offer it as a gift. For those accustomed to chewing it, slowly savoring the flavor of the betel nut brings a pleasant feeling of festivity, ceremony, and hospitality. This type of betel nut tends to have a simple and elegant fruity flavor with a sweet aftertaste and subtle woody and astringent notes, accompanied by slight numbing and swelling sensations.
Liu Bao tea has been long famed for its “betel nut” fragranceso when the people of Cangwu two hundred years ago described this scent, what type of betel nut did they mean? Since they seldom had any opportunity to taste fresh betel nut, the person writing the Cangwu County Records would hardly be likely to describe the taste of the local tea by comparing it to a flavor so unfamiliar to the locals as to even be considered disgusting. So the betel nut flavor of Liu Bao tea was not that of fresh betel, with its strong grassy, bitter, astringent and numbing characteristics. Likewise, the people of two hundred years ago didn’t use additives and other ingredients to pickle betel husks as we do today, so the sweetness of pickled betel is not likely what they were referring to, either.
Similarly, scorched betel was not common back then, as it can’t be stored for long periods. So the Liu Bao tea of two hundred years ago didn’t display charred or tarry flavors. Dried betel seed has been used in Chinese medicine for a very long time, and the process used to make it wouldn’t likely cause a burnt taste, though occasionally might produce a smoky flavor. Even then, this smoky aroma wasn’t intrinsic to the betel nut itself.
So if the people of Cangwu County two hundred years ago were not familiar with all those kinds of betel nut, which kind were they accustomed to? The most commonly found variety at the time was a dried form of the mature areca seed, often sliced into discs. People in the surrounding areas were very familiar with the flavor and scent of this type of betel nut – so it was very natural for the Cangwu people to proudly describe the aroma of their local tea with this vivid comparison. The description also called to mind betel nut’s association with festivities and hospitality, so that anyone enjoying a cup of Liu Bao tea at a friend’s invitation would feel they were truly being treated as honored guests.
So, then, this historical description likening Liu Bao tea’s fragrance and flavor to that of betel nut refers to the qualities of the dried mature areca seed: a simple, elegant fruitiness with a slightly sweet aftertaste, and very faint hints of woody, astringent, numbing, and bitter tastes and sensations.
The betel nut fragrance of traditionally manufactured Liu Bao
During the Sixties and Seventies, the former head of the Wuzhou Tea Factory, Guo Weishen (郭維深), and the deputy head, Liao Qingmei (廖慶梅), often used to visit the Liu Bao commune (which later became Liu Bao Village) in the spring and fall. They would head to the fortified village where Liu Bao tea was produced to buy the raw maocha and supervise its production. Each time they visited, they would spend time with each of the tea production teams, including the Lichong, Siliu, Tangping, and Buyi brigades, chatting and drinking tea with the farmers. To entertain the visitors, the tea farmers would often take out their own special Liu Bao tea that they’d kept in storage for many years, hand-made using traditional methods from locally grown tea leaves.
According to their memories of those visits, the Liu Bao tea they drank was most often loose leaf tea harvested in spring before the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Festival, or compressed tea cakes that the farmers had made themselves. When brewed it had a light, elegant fruitiness, and a refreshing sweet, mellow flavor with a subtly sweet, lingering aftertaste and sometimes a hint of smokiness. Occasionally they would also taste the freshly produced unprocessed maocha, though this was quite a different tea: the liquor had a duller, reddish-brown color and an obvious raw, astringent taste, often with a heavy pine-smoke flavor and no discernible fruitiness. The two factory heads considered the comparison between the flavor of traditionally produced Liu Bao tea with the taste and aroma of dried betel seed, particularly the liquid that is produced from steeping the betel nut in water, to be very accurate. The notable characteristics shared by the two include their subtle, elegant fruitiness, faint hints of astringency and numbing sensations, and a noticeable sweet aftertaste.
Before 1958, the Wuzhou tea factory produced Liu Bao tea only using raw tea leaves produced in Liu Bao itself, and refined the tea according to the traditional processing method, whose main characteristics included steaming the leaves before “heaping” them for 78 days to ferment. After the finished tea is matured sufficiently, the dry tea leaves take on a sort of aged aroma, and when brewed the liquor is a deep red with a rich, mature flavor and an elegant light fruitinessthe astringency is much subtler than with new tea. It becomes wonderfully refreshing with a sweet aftertaste and the famed betel nut aroma, which grows richer the longer the tea is aged.
Between 2003 and 2006, Mr. Liao Qingmei was the proprietor of two tea shops in Guangxi’s Liuzhou: the Tianzheng Tea Shop and the Lingding Tea Shop. At these establishments, tea drinkers had a chance to try an aged Liu Bao that Mr. Liao had carefully stored away for more than 20 yearsit was produced at the Wuzhou Tea Factory in 1982, according to traditional methods. He held some special tastings where he would first serve the Liu Bao tea so the customers could appreciate its color, aroma and taste, and then he would slice up some dried mature betel seeds from the local medicine shop for everyone to smell. All agreed that the similarity in fragrance was remarkable. The only difference lay in the taste: aged Liu Bao has a gentle, smooth, refreshing mouthfeel, without the slightly bitter and astringent flavor of the betel seed.
The betel nut fragrance in modern Liu Bao
From 1958 onwards, the Wuzhou Tea Factory and the Wuzhou Tea Import and Export Corporation Tea Processing Plant have largely followed modern methods when refining Liu Bao, namely pouring cold water on the tea leaves rather than steaming them before heaping for fermentation, with the heaping process usually taking 1520 days. One of Liu Bao tea’s notable characteristics is that it improves with age—the maturation of the flavor is gradual and nuanced, so it’s hard for modern Liu Bao teas to achieve a fully developed, well-rounded betel nut aroma in a short space of time. Usually newer Liu Bao teas have less of a fruit flavor, and the bitter and astringent notes are more pronounced, with a sweet aftertaste. With Liu Bao that has been aged for several years in suitable conditions, the fragrant, fruity flavor is stronger, and the bitter and astringent aspects fade a lot, to the point of disappearing. The sweet aftertaste becomes even more gentle, smooth and refreshing.
How to taste Liu Bao’s betel nut aroma
Whether the Liu Bao that you choose was produced using the traditional or modern method, the betel nut aroma can be easily appreciated simply by brewing the tea however you usually would. In each cup you’ll be able to distinguish the fruity, sweet, woody and astringent notes and subtle numbing sensation of the areca nut. If you allow the tea to cool down to near body temperature, the flavors become even more pronounced. However, if you brew the tea in the traditional way, steeping the leaves for around 10 seconds each time, you’ll notice the fruity flavor and sweet aftertaste grow more distinct after steeping a few times. Keep steeping a few more times, then let the brewed tea cool to body temperature, and you’ll notice that the numbing, tingling sensation becomes more obvious and lasts longer, too.
So, while the betel nut aroma of Liu Bao tea clearly bears a lot of similarity to the fragrance and flavor of dried areca seed, it’s certainly not a direct replica in terms of fullness and intensity. Hence, as long as Liu Bao has a light fruitiness, sweet aftertaste, and hints of the aforementioned characteristic flavors, it is said to display this betel nut fragrance.
In a nutshell, the nature of this betel nut fragrance can be summed up by the definition provided in Guangxi’s Liu Bao Tea standard, which the author helped to draft. The standard defines it thus: the “betel nut” fragrance and flavor of Liu Bao tea refers to that of the dried form of the mature areca seed; this taste and aroma are normally more prominent in aged Liu Bao.
Examining the history of Liu Bao and betel nut in Guangxi has allowed us to trace the origin of this vivid comparison which helps bring to life the distinctive flavors of Liu Bao: elegantly fruity with subtle woody, astringent, and bitter notes; a faint numbing sensation; and a lingering sweet aftertaste.

Expansion Pack

Want to Try some rare, aged Liu Bao? Don't forget our Expansion Packs!
Every few months, we plan to offer a limited number of expansions to the topic we are covering in detail any given month. These extras will be rarer and/or important to your journey exploring the kind/genre of tea discussed in that month’s issue. We hope to offer three or four such expansions next year as well. Each expansion pack will be exclusively for Global Tea Hut members. We will keep the expansions transparent, letting you know our cost for the tea, shipping and how much we think is a fair minimum donation. Like with all our work, you will be able to choose the amount you donate based on the cost of the tea and the minimum suggested donation, which will not be much more than what we have paid. The expansion packs will be limited, and distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis. If we find that demand for them is high, and that they are really helping you to explore different teas and learn more, then we will try to make more next time. 

Exploring Rare Vintages of Liu Bao Black Tea

Liu Bao is a very rich genre of tea, with a lot to learn. One of the reasons we have included so many articles on the history of this magical tea is that Liu Bao is an aged tea, like puerh, so its history has much more bearing on the genre, since we often find ourselves drinking teas that were processed very differently than farmers do today. In other words, a trip to Liu Bao is not necessarily going to help you understand how the aged Liu Bao you are drinking was made. For that, you will have to research historical records, talk to old-timers and drink the different vintages yourself. Some of you who have been around here for a while will remember the other two Liu Bao teas we have sent out (a year 2000 Liu Bao and Old Grove, which was from 2008), but for some of you this will be your first exposure to Liu Bao (and maybe even black tea as a genre). For our first expansion pack, we wanted to offer you the opportunity to try two older, rarer vintages of Liu Bao, in the hopes that they would help you further understand the articles in this issue, as well as develop a greater appreciation for this wonderful genre of tea. So, here’s this month’s expansion pack:
  1. 20 grams of 1970s SSHC Liu Bao (Shuang Xing Hao Yin, 双星号印)
  2. 20 grams of 1980s Eight Directions Liu Bao (Ba Zhong Liu Bao, 八中六堡)

These two teas are wonderful examples of vintage Liu Bao and amongst the best you can find without getting into the older and much more expensive baskets. They also will allow you to taste the changes in processing over time, as we have discussed in these pages, since the piling methods changed in the 1980s. Both were stored in Malaysia until now. 
Our cost for these two teas, including shipping to Taiwan and packaging, is just under 40$. For this first experimental foray into offering expansion packs, we only produced 50 sets and we are going to ask for a suggested minimum donation of 50$ plus shipping, which Shen thinks will be 15$ or less to most places in the world. You can donate anything you want above that. All proceeds will support our free Center. 

November's Further Readings

6 Nov 2016 by

Through the Eyes of the Ancients: Glimpses of Tea and Incense in Classical Chinese Literature
Original Chinese article by Wang Lihong王麗紅

The evenings are growing crisp, and the Mid-Autumn Festival has already been celebrated, bringing with it the taste of moon cakes and the warmth of family reunions. Throughout history, incense has often played an important part in celebrating Chinese festivals; one traditional custom around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival involves making offerings to the moon, often including fruit, snacks and incense.

Herbs and incense are also important to another major celebration: the Dragon Boat Festival. Many traditions surround this festival, including eating zongzi, a type of sticky rice dumpling, and drinking xionghuangjiurice wine made with realgarto ward off illness. To ward off evil and bad luck, people also wear perfume sachets and hang fragrant herbs like mugwort, calamus, and banyan twigs in their doorways. What, then, is the significance of these three herbs?
Mugwort, or wormwood, known in Chinese as “aicao (艾草),” is a medicinal herb, so hanging it on your front door represents a wish for good health and favorable fortune. It has a long history of use in moxibustion treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The mugwort is burned near various pressure points on the body, to stimulate circulation and the flow of Qi.
Calamus is also known as sweet flag and by many other names; in Mandarin it is “changpu (菖蒲).” The long, thin leaves of calamus are shaped a bit like swords have come to symbolize protection against evil spirits when the herb is hung in a doorway. The third common component of these talismans is twigs from the banyan tree, or “rongshu (榕樹),” a species of Ficus. According to folklore, banyan twigs will make a person robust and healthy.
As well as the importance of these fragrant herbs to celebrating festivals, incense and tea have long played a role in people’s everyday lives. From ancient scholars to today’s tea drinkers, we can trace the journey of incense and tea across the centuries in a series of quiet, personal moments. Let’s delve into some translated excerpts from classical Chinese writings on the topics of tea and incenseperhaps we can capture a little of this history to add to the fragrance of our next cup of tea.
The refined studies of a hermit do not require the drinking of tea or the burning of incense; the virtue of a scholar lies not in the lifting of a brush or the writing of a verse.
This passage emphasizes the spirit behind tea, incense, and literary pursuits. For those who spend time in tranquil solitude, any simple action can become a peaceful experience. Even when tea and incense are not physically present, we can carry over the peace they embody into our everyday lives.

A few bright windows, a painted scroll, a qin, a crane, a bowl of tea, a burner of incense, and a book of Buddhist scripture; a winding path in a secluded courtyard, a few patches of flowers, a few flocks of birds, a few pavilions, a few rocks, a few clear ponds, and a few floating clouds.
Though this verse is written in quite plain and simple language, in just a few words it paints a very vivid picture of a well-arranged study and the peaceful scene outside its windows. You can almost feel the scents, sights, and sounds; there’s a sense of both movement and stillness. It truly is a lively and exquisite scene.

Before my study grows a winding border of flowers; a square pond catches the moonlight; fish swim in flowing water. Beneath my small window I burn sweet incense while I read, a guqin on the table beside me. I pull aside the curtain to gaze at a crane; then make my way up to the tall pavilion for some wine. Drowsy from the liquor, I water the flowers and plant some bamboo; I listen to the guqin and admire the cranes, burn incense and brew some tea. I gaze upon the mountains from my small boat; or ponder the complexities of chess. Though perhaps there are grander joys in life than these, I shall not change my ways.
This passage gives a wonderful picture of a life spent in peaceful contemplation and evokes the elegant details of a traditional Chinese garden, seen through the eyes of the scholar looking out from his study. The Chinese word used here for “study” is closer in meaning to “reading nook”: unlike nowadays, in classical times people would seldom dedicate an entire room to their literary and musical pursuits. Every activity described seems to evoke a feeling of peace, from hours spent in quiet meditation accompanied by tea and incense, to tipsily watering the flowers or playing a round of Chinese chess. One cannot help but agree with the writer – who would exchange such a peaceful life?

The clouds are in the heavens; the moonlight on the earth. While incense burns and tea steeps, I leaf through the holy scriptures; all earthly cares are abandoned, all mundane thoughts forgotten.
These lines bring to mind a crisp, clear, autumn evening. As the author absorbs the wisdom of Buddhist writings, wrapped in the fragrance of sweet incense and steaming tea, all day-to-day cares and distractions are cast aside, allowing the mind a moment of pure, uninterrupted presence.

Life’s troubles and sorrows visit every household; only in humble farmhouses and simple pavilions is a different tale told. With incense and tea, we raise a toast with lively verse; all life’s ice and embers are cast out from our hearts.
At heart, this passage is an ode to a simple life, lived well. Even the wealthiest of households have their fair share of trials and tribulations; sanctuary can be found in peaceful surroundings and the pleasure of good company, with incense, tea and wine adding to the warmth and harmony of the gathering. The reference to “ice and coals” serves as a poetic metaphor for the highs and lows of human emotions.

Once, I cleaned a room, and placed there a long table, arranged with some carefree books and a sheet of old-style calligraphy. I set down an ancient ding and lit some incense, then swept away the dust. When I grew tired, I rested on the bamboo couch. At midday I rose and sipped some bitter tea, penned a few simple lines, and admired some old paintings.
Here, again, we see tea and incense as a feature of the quiet, personal moments. One can picture the table laid out with its “carefree” books of light-hearted writings and sheet of calligraphythe writer is likely referring to a copy of a work from an old master, as a means of studying his style. The ding () that the writer uses is an ancient style of three-legged bronze cauldron, often beautifully decorated and made in many different sizes for varying purposesa small one makes a perfect incense burner.

A hut with three rooms, a wooden couch with one pillow, a lit stick of incense, a cup of bitter tea, and a book to read; a nap beneath a tall pine tree; a bareheaded wander, humming a tune.
A delightful continuation on the theme of simplicity. Tea and incense feature once again as instruments for enjoying the moment and appreciating the beauty in your surroundings, however humble.

In the third month, tender tea shoots flourish, unspoilt by the plum winds; in the ninth month, watershield and perch are at their prime, and new sorghum wine is rich with fragrance; with clear skies outside our windows, friends gather: with incense lit, we admire ancient scrolls and paintings. Nothing compares to days like these.
In March, the new tea shoots have endured the elements of the “plum rain”, or monsoon season, and have emerged fresh and green, with no damage. In the course of our journey across the seasons to September we hear of an abundant variety of harvests; watershield is a type of edible aquatic plant, known in Mandarin as chuncai () and a variety of other names.

On a moonlit night, I sit in the courtyard; a stick of incense alight in my heart, I keep company with the moon.
This poignant image of a person sitting simply on the ground, alone with the moonlight, gives us an insight into the spirit that incense inspires.

Spring evenings are suited to chanting, lighting incense and reading, listening to the teachings of a venerable monk, and quieting a myriad of thoughts. Summer evenings are suited to leisurely conversation, sitting overlooking the water, listening to the singing of the pines, and cleansing the mind of worries. Autumn evenings are suited to roaming the land, paying visits to forthright scholars, to rigorous conversation and dispelling melancholy. Winter nights are suited to tasting tea, pouring wine, and discussing the classics: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and The Plum in the Golden Vase; to dining on meat, and chasing away loneliness.
In this ode to the seasons we’re taken on a journey through a year of changing human emotions, from restlessness to melancholy. No matter the malady, nature always provides the perfect remedy. This passage contains some beautiful imagerythe sound of pine trees, in particular, is often vividly described in classical literature. Pine needles make a distinctive whispering sound in the wind, which is quite different from the rustling of ordinary leaves. Tea features once again as an essential ingredient of a cozy gathering of good friends, lively tales, and spirited conversation.

Deep in the mountains, incense is a necessity. Gather the roots, twigs and needles of the ancient pine and cypress, grind them together, mix in the wind and the dawn light; burning a ball of such incense lends a brightness to humble surroundings.
In this poetic piece, incense appears as the very essence of nature, allowing the writer to take pleasure in simplicity.

Burning incense and sipping tea is a natural habit of people in Wuzhong; an idle afternoon beneath a rain-spattered window would not be the same without it.
I couldn’t agree more with the people of Wuzhong, a district to the south of Suzhou city in Jiangsu Province.

Tea should be fine in both color and fragrance; true experts abhor a bitter taste. Incense should be subtle and elegant; those who love peace and solitude abstain from thick, heavily-perfumed smoke.
Simplicity and elegance are at the heart of things in this passage—the mind reflects the environment.

Buddhist scripture says: “Burn incense slowly, no flame must be seen.” This is the samādhi of incense.
One must approach burning incense with a sense of calm and a low flameif the fire burns too wildly, it will parch the incense. Incense provides an apt symbol for samādhi, a state of complete stillness and presence. In Mandarin, this word of Sanskrit origin is rendered as sanwei (三昧). The type of incense referred to in this proverb is chenshui incense (沉水香), which is made from tree resin.

Good incense can cultivate virtue; good paper can make words last lifetimes; a good brushstroke can give life to flowers; good ink can make colors glow; good tea can wash away vexation; good wine can dissolve all sorrows.
The fact that we can read these wisdoms today certainly proves that “good paper can make words last lifetimes;” lovers of tea and art will surely feel the truth in the rest of these words, too!

Incense is meant to waft afar; tea is meant to be swirled and steeped; mountains are meant for climbing in the autumn.
This passage is very evocative of the sensual qualities of tea and incense; the gentle fragrance and curling patterns of the smoke echoed by the swirling of the water to cool it down before adding the tea leaves. Autumn, I suppose, is the best season for climbing mountains, with its crisp, clear weather perfect for lifting the spirits.

I sat alone in the Taoist temple, mind clear and still. I brewed a pot of tea, lit a stick of incense, and contemplated a painting of the Bodhidharma facing a wall. I closed my eyes for a moment, and unconsciously my mind grew still and my spirit clear, my breath became slow and steady. I hazily entered an altered state, and I thought I found myself bowing to the Bodhidharma himself, and we boarded a bamboo raft to visit the immortal Magu.
In this excerpt, tea and incense help bridge the gap between the realms of the physical and spiritual. The room or temple that the writer sits in is a danfang (丹房); a place where Taoist alchemists would attempt to create the legendary pill of immortality. This theme is continued with the appearance of the Bodhidharma, who is said to have once spent nine years gazing at a wall in silence. In the writer’s vision, they visit the spirit maiden Magu (麻姑), who is associated with longevity and immortality in the Taoist tradition. Her name roughly translates to “hemp maiden.”

On a moonlit night, the old Paulownia tree sways thrice; all cares are forgotten; all delusions cease. I contemplate: what is the fragrance of the incense, and what color is the smoke? What shadows appear in the light from the window? What sound do my fingers make as they move? What is this feeling of tranquil joy, of leisurely unconsciousness? What is this state of unthinking stillness?
Anyone who has a certain amount of experience with meditation will likely feel a sense of recognition in reading these words; in just a few simple phrases the writer really manages to capture the essence of the state of “emptiness”, and leave an echo of stillness in one’s memory.

Collectively, the scenes brought to life in this selection of classical excerpts really give a sense of the deep association of tea and incense with all things literary, natural, and spiritual. Time and time again we see them accompany books and scripture, and all the symbols of natural beauty that are familiar in classical Chinese art and literature: mountains and lakes; delicate flowers and twisting pines; elegant cranes and moonlit nights. In descriptions of the environment in which the act of drinking tea and lighting incense is set, we often see a focus on the natural elegance of simple, and sometimes even sparse, surroundings. The emphasis is on an atmosphere of calm and meditationit’s a far cry from our modern times, where we sometimes find ourselves swept up in the desire to follow trends and outfit our tea tables and abodes with fancy, beautiful things. Perhaps, then, we can distil some wisdom from these writers’ musings: for ancient Chinese people, incense and tea were not simply objects of enjoymentthey represented a path to connecting with the inner self.

The Silver Leaf that Separates Ash from Heat, Creating Fragrance

Text & Picture而富居主

High-grade incense is generally not burned, but rather heated by charcoal embedded under a layer of ash. This method, which spread to Japan during the Song Dynasty (AD 920 – 1279), later became known as the “Japanese-style incense ceremony.” When heating incense, many tools are needed to assist you in smelling the beautiful nuances of Aloeswood. In addition to a high-quality piece of Aloeswood, you’ll need a censure, incense charcoal, incense ash and a mica disk (also known as the “Silver Leaf”). If your method and utensils are not commensurate with the quality of your incense, you will be unable to bring out the best of the incense, and that would be a pity, indeed. This would be akin to having delicious tea leaves rendered undrinkable due to deficient brewing methods or teaware— what a waste of a good cup of tea!

The majority of our readers are tea connoisseurs, so please permit the use of a tea brewing metaphor to help describe the heating of incense wood. The incense burner is akin to the tea kettle, and thus, once the incense wood begins to produce an aroma, you need to take the burner and the wood and smell it as you would remove the kettle from the flame to brew a pot of tea. In both tea and incense, charcoal is the best heat source. But, in modern times, charcoal, in incense and tea, has been replaced by electric heaters. As for the silver leaf, it is akin to the teapot or teacup the tea is brewed in. The most important elements for brewing tea are the water and the teapot. Teapots made of different quality materials such as stone, gold, silver, porcelain or Yixing will produce distinctly different cups, even when brewing the exact same tea leaves. For the same reason, the small, thin silver leaf, mica disc is just as important to the incense process as the teapot is to the tea brewing process!

An Introduction to the Silver Leaf

Quality: When heated, the best quality silver leaf will take some time to heat up, maintain its temperature, evenly distribute warmth to the incense wood, and cool slowly. A second-rate silver leaf is one that can both be quickly heated and cooled.

Shape: The finest silver leaves are concave-shaped, like a plate. Inferior silver leaves provide only a simple, flat surface for the incense wood.

Exterior: The silver leaf is best when it has a glazed exterior, an unglazed silver leaf can be heated but is substandard.

Appearance: The best quality silver leaf is hand-crafted with simple elegance; complicated workmanship makes for a more deficient product.

The silver leaf lies between the incense wood and the live coal buried in the incense burner ash. As the silver leaf is heated by the incense coal, its heat is transferred to the incense wood. The silver leaf can be made from many different materials which retain and transmit heat through varying processes and speeds. All of these factors directly influence the development of the incense wood’s aroma. According to the incense experience of Master Ju, the higher the grade of the incense wood, the clearer the effect the silver leaf has on its fragrance development. This is particularly true when low heat is used to elicit fragrance from the multi-variant Aloeswood. Thus, if our readers understand how incense develops and its rich history, they can skillfully employ incense burning even if their incense wood quality is not as good as that of others. With good utensils and a clever mind, our readers will have the ability to emit the perfect incense fragrance – many times more beautiful than that of even higher-grade wood.

During the Song Dynasty, poet Yang Tingxiu wrote “Incense Poem.”

Cut porcelain using a cauldron of green jade made from water,
Pared silver into leaves as light as paper.
No culture, and no evenly-distributed fire-power
Can close your majesty’s curtain when the wind does not blow.

According to the Incense Table recorded in The History of Incense: Burning Incense, “Atop the fire, arrange silver leaves or mica fashioned into the shape of a disc as lining for the incense wood. The wood should not touch the fire and the incense should develop naturally and slowly, without withering or parching the timber.” According to this record, the Japanese who practiced incense burning used mica and silver leaves interchangeably, disseminating a practice that has carried on for a thousand years and up to this day.

In the early years of the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644), the Emaciated Immortal (臞仙) mentions in his book The Seven Demands of Incense Burning, “Choose the incense fragrance, but do not choose whether it will emit smoke. If the incense smoke is intense, but the fragrance is unrestricted, then immediately extinguish the wood. If you want the incense fragrance to remain undispersed for a long period of time, you must partition the incense wood from the fire. There exist silver-colored translucent tiles (明瓦), but they are course, poor and get extremely hot; they are not good for fire partitions. Jade tiles are only useful for their beauty, and the bottom of ceramic pots from the capital are also prone to breaking under the stress of heat. Use exquisite, polished discs that are a bit thick to separate incense wood from the fire.” (This is also included in the 15th scroll of Gaoxian Ming’s “Xun Sheng Ba Jian.”)

So, what kind of person was the Emaciated Immortal? According to the traditional Chinese version of Wikipedia, his real name was Quan Zhu (朱權) (AD 1378-1448). He was the 17th son of Emperor Ming Hongwu, the crown Prince of Ning, and highly influential in earlier generation’s study of incense. From childhood, Zhu spent his time in the Imperial Palace being educated in language and cultural arts. Among music, poetry, tea, and incense, there was not a skill in which he was considered unrefined. Of his many literary accomplishments, The Seven Demands of Incense Burning is considered his first work, profoundly influencing later generations of incense burners. His book was the second in history to advocate for improvements to the silver leaf. Breaking away from the use of mica and silver to separate the incense wood from ash and heat, he advocated for the use of polished pottery plates instead. His book states that “the sand at the bottom of the incense burner” is there due to the high temperature which would otherwise heat the bottom of the pottery until it was broken. Denser pottery sinters at a higher degree - the imprecise density, “A Bit Thick” (厚半分) used today is approximately 0.15cm thick. Regarding the use of translucent tiles in the place of low-temperature fired pottery (around 800°C), the degree of sintering is low which means the material can easily mix with other material upon heating. This influences the quality of the incense wood’s development, and thus should not be used.

The New Appearance of the Silver Leaf

Xiang Cai, a famous calligrapher during the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – 1279) and author of The Record of Tea (茶錄), once stated, “Tea is of light color and looks best in black cups. The cups made at Jianyang (建安)are dark purple in color, marked like the fur of a hare. Being of a rather thick material, they retain heat so that once warmed through they cool very slowly and are additionally valued on this account.” Just as the discourses of Cai and Zhu influenced earlier generations, they also allowed Master Ju the inspiration to create his plate-shaped pottery discs for lining incense wood.

In 2011, a special study of Jian ware (dark glaze) kiln firing was undertaken using the tea and incense kiln of the upstanding Teacher Lin (林老師). Jian ware teacup clay was fired at approximately 1300°C (close to or exceeding the above-mentioned temperature that broke the bottom of earthenware pots) and resulted in a small, thin disc that was slightly concave in the center. High-grade incense wood requires access to a relatively stable, low-temperature heat source, making the Jian ware disc more effective than the average Japanese-style mica discs in heating, developing, diffusing and containing the incense. The Jian ware’s ability to be directly fired into a disc shape, eliminating the polishing process, is more suitable for a variety of powdered or shaved incense woods, making its performance difficult for mica to match. Jian ware is also suitable for traditional incense burning with a hot charcoal and ash as well as for modern electric incense burners – greatly increasing its convenience.
Upon investigation of ancient texts and modern books, Master Ju came to believe that this research represented the third study in history to recommend improvements to the incense mica disc. However, it actually represents the first time in incense history that a material not made of mica or silver was recognized for its impact on the incense process. The material was re-named Incense Bearer (香承). Readers, do not look down on this small, thin disk. Out of the several hundred years Chinese people have chased after incense knowledge, it brought about the topic’s first specific publication. However, after repeated daily use, it was discovered that if the incense wood accidently came into contact with the incense burner, the wood’s resin was difficult to clean off if the silver leaf was made of unglazed ceramic material. Therefore, after discussions with Master Lin, it was decided that the ceramic silver leaf’s surface should be glazed. Later that same year, the ceramic silver leaves were kiln fired at the same 1300°C temperature as before, and given a dark purple-gold glaze. However, it was not only the ceramic silver leaf’s outward appearance that received an upgrade during this process. The glaze allowed the incense wood to develop more effectively, and for the wood’s sticky resin to be more easily removed.   
After discussion with Master Lin, we decided to give this kind of high temperature ceramic Incense Bearer the name “Good Will.” With Master Lin’s approval, the details of the product’s manufacturing methods, temperature, etc will be made public and production can be determined. Our two principle hopes are as follows: First, that future producers will rely on the text instructions to produce similar incense tools, unless their changes will benefit the study of incense. Second, if our readers are able to continue the traditions of incense with this tool and afterward gain a bit of life tranquility, we hope they can share this good feeling with others. If so, this is a worthwhile message. 

The Distinguishing Features of the Incense Bearer’s Materials

Traditional Japanese mica disc: Inexpensive and appropriately thin. The disc is penetrated by the heat of the burning charcoal beneath, but the incense wood’s temperature cannot easily be controlled. Incense wood resin left on the desk is relatively difficult to remove.

Iron and other metals of gold and silver: Transmits heat relatively quickly. The nuances of the incense wood fragrance change with the warming process, so this material is suitable for high temperature pan-frying. Then, and only then, can these materials properly develop the fragrance of incense wood.

Jade: Can be used, but is expensive. After repeatedly heating and cooling jade, its structure and density can be negatively influenced and the product may become unstable.

High temperature glazed ceramic discs: Slow and uniform heat conduction, this product holds temperature beautifully. As such, it allows incense wood to develop for a relatively longer period and performs best at low to medium temperatures; this product is especially suitable for use with the Agarwood.

Porcelain: Conducts heat rather quickly. Though this product is liable to crack under heat, its ability to maintain heat is second only to ceramic discs.

Translucent Tile (明瓦): This ceramic disc is fired at a low-temperature and easily absorbs other smells, and because this material is often dug from the earth, it produces incense mixed with smells of mildew.

Shale sheet: If this product comes into contact with Agarwood resin during heating, it will easily absorb the resin, making the shale difficult to clean. Shale also easily produces mixed fragrances and, if exposed to high heat for long periods, risks being cracked or ruptured.

In summary, each of these materials can be used as an Incense Bearer all have their own unique qualities. When preparing to burn incense, our readers do not need to give unequal emphasis to these differences – all of these products are ok to use! When using incense, different situations will arise depending on your mindset, location, quality of incense wood, and the material used for the Incense Bearer. Though there are many different product choices when it comes to practicing incense, there are just as many different personal preferences!

When focusing on Chinese Englewood and top-notch Agarwood, we suggest remembering the following “three no’s”:  When heating incense, no producing smoke, no emitting resin, and no changing color. When none of these situations are present, that is when Agarwood incense is most beautiful and lasts the longest amount of time. However, some local varieties of Agarwood must produce smoke and emit resin before they will develop their best fragrance; but, that is beyond the scope of this discussion. The reason smoke should not be produced is because when there is smoke, the incense wood is too dry. As for the other “two no’s,” with a bit of personal experience and consideration the reasons will be revealed to our readers in the future.

From sipping tea and sampling incense, Master Ju gained the following insight: Tea can bring you closer to the gods, but incense reaches your spirit. Loving incense follows from the refined pool of elegance from which tea flows, and loving tea follows naturally from loving incense. And thus, together they may attain what the individual has never before reached; the hidden place where your spirit roams. To those lovers of tea and incense who are reading this text: through the wonders of tea and incense, all who have a quiet heart may reach this beautiful place.

In 2013, we studied the ancient use of and thought surrounding incense; its beauty and its flaws, finding beauty in flaws that correspond with current situations. We dedicated ourselves to developing incense knowledge and awareness, as well as the thoughts and methods surrounding the art of incense, and creating a model for spreading love and incense into the future. Love and incense are brought together by fate and, in the modern era, the two must forge ahead simultaneously. Perhaps you will be able to practice incense as the ancients did, treating the future with happiness, good intention, and transcendence.