Tips for having a good tea session

Concerning the body, just let it go with the flow. Concerning feelings, let them follow their course. If you go with the flow, you avoid separation. If you follow the course of feelings, you avoid exhaustion.

Chuang Tzu

So you like tea. If you like tea, you probably want to get the most out of each tea session. You may have some special expensive tea that you’ve been saving for the right moment… but how do you make sure you get your money’s worth?

Focus on what you can control, let go of what you can’t

It’s okay to have high expectations, but don’t let them get in the way and throw everything off. The fear of making a wrong choice at the tea table is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s easy to overcompensate for the fear of failure by trying to make the perfect tea session guaranteed. Here’s an alternative strategy. If you’ve had a good tea session recently with a less expensive, but similar tea, use the same water and teaware as that session, but substitute in the precious tea. This gives you a very good chance of having a good session, with the added bonus of familiarity.

Another thing you can control is your mental state. Don’t be afraid to take a walk in nature before your session, or meditate if that’s something you do. Tea is meditative, but it’s easy to get caught up and to lose focus if you’re not reasonably grounded and receptive to start.

Stay focused, even if you feel like the session has totally gone south. Tea can surprise you. Imagine you’ve used distilled water for an aged puer in a very porous pot, and there’s almost no taste. You could switch water, but you could instead just notice what’s missing, and appreciate what’s not missing. This will make your future tea sessions more rewarding and will make you smarter. You will at least enjoy using your teaware and being calm and quiet for a half hour.

One recommendation is to put your phone away. Take pictures on airplane mode and play music, but tea is a good opportunity to get some space from the internet. Make posts and discussions later, or save them for more casual daily sessions. I really enjoy reading a book or e-reader while drinking tea.

I don’t recommend trying a new water with a special tea session. Have a couple sessions with daily drinkers that you know and love to calibrate how the water behaves, and decide if you like it. Fancier water does not equal better tea.

Don’t burn your mouth. You may be really excited, but take your time. As the little cards that come with white2tea orders say, steep slow and be patient! If you rush the session, you’ll burn your taste buds and won’t be able to taste very well.

For me, the best tea sessions feel effortless. If you go with the flow, suddenly it can feel like you’re watching the tea session – rather than “making tea” you are experiencing yourself making tea. Then feelings come, and you really start to “vibe.”

Engage your five senses! Even if nothing seems to be happening, or you’re waiting for the water to heat up, there’s plenty to see, hear, smell, feel. You can touch the teaware, but also tune in to your body and feel what’s going on there. And remember to taste even when there’s no tea in your mouth! Aftertaste is one of the nicest parts of a tea session and can keep you very engaged.

If you’re bored, or the tea seems boring, there’s not much you can do. Try it again sometime with whatever different teaware or water you feel like, and see if it was just a bad session or not your favorite tea. If you don’t like it so much, you can use it for a quick mug in the mornings to wake up.

Err on the side of underthinking. Tea is not a problem to solve.

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Opportuni-tea

Why do I keep drinking tea?

Sometimes there are tea sessions that just aren’t good. People don’t talk about them usually because they just aren’t notable or interesting – they are moments of failure. Usually, the explanation for these sessions is “I just wasn’t in the zone.”

During tonight’s ripe session, after a full day of water research (yes, I’m diving deep into water for tea), I was kind of bouncing back and forth between the computer and the tea table, sort of half focused. Suddenly, a song came on: Mind Mischief (The Field Remix) by Tame Impala. I have been listening to both Tame Impala and The Field for years, but didn’t discover this song until I heard it repeatedly on White2Tea’s Instagram and Snapchat stories. When I kept hearing it there, I started to wonder, “yeah, it’s a cool song, but what does Paul see in it that makes him listen again and again?

This is a pattern of thinking that I believe is central to modern tea culture. What do people see in Yang Qing Hao that makes them buy it by the tong? What do people see in old Yixing teapots that make them obsessed? What makes people buy those $130 samples of old Liu Bao from Essence of Tea? And on and on.

I closed my eyes as the song played and suddenly I was lulled into a sense of happy peaceful nostalgia (yes this reads like a bad college admissions essay but it’s the truth) where my old neighborhood flashed before my eyes, the cul-de-sac with its fresh mulch, the happy feelings of freedom so different from what I find most of the time in my young adult life.

When I opened my eyes, I saw everything with startling clarity – I mean to say that colors were more vivid, details were more pronounced. The texture of the modern zhuni teapot contrasted against the plate, the whiteness of the porcelain, the waste bowl, the chabu (tea mat), everything. I suddenly felt like I was capable of greater things, to transcend my everyday life.

When you invest time and or money into tea and or teaware, you are buying opportunity for moments like this. It’s not about always having the best tea session; that can be taken away, but nothing can take away the opportunity for an incredible, eye-opening experience.

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Beginners and Experts

In the world of tea, what do we gain with experience?

What’s the difference between an experienced tea drinker and a relative novice? I’m not an expert, but I’m closer to being an expert than I used to be. I’ve also interacted with many people I would consider to be experts, especially in certain areas. Here are a few things people seem to collect along the way.

Tea and teaware

I’ve not met any tea enthusiast who does not have a sizable collection. From people with over 100 teapots to those with entire rooms full of tea, there exist tea-fans so obsessed that they have gone beyond practicality. The more you learn about tea, and the more tea you learn about, the more temptation there is to buy it. Marketing is getting better and better, limited releases are everywhere (white2tea, pu-erh.sk, others), and the selection of teaware is unbelievable. It is very difficult to purposefully reduce the size of your tea/teaware stash over time, and the best way is a sale or swap.

The ability to relax and enjoy

In order to fully enjoy tea, one must drop everything else (aside from possibly a good book or album). I mean to say that worry and tea don’t go well together, especially not worry about tea. I see most (not all) beginners quite concerned about if they are making the tea “right.” Eventually, an expert learns to let the tea make itself. This is done partially through development of personal style and habit, and otherwise learning how to relax and make tea at the same time.

The ability to make good tea

Of the ten thousand ways to make tea, not all are good. Making good tea is about maximizing good qualities and minimizing bad ones. It is an iterative process that comes from many attempts. The more pots one has, the longer it takes to learn their nuances, and the worse the available water is, well, you gotta figure out a solution. The better the water is, the easier it is to make good tea. The point is, people usually get better with experience, or at least develop some character and style in their resulting tea.

Positive memories

Some tea sessions stick out over others for various reasons. With experience, the list of memorable tea sessions lengthens. That time I had HK Henry after a long, stressful day. The outdoor session at the pond in the woods. That six-tea marathon session. The tea masterclass where the puers just got older and older. That time the tea made me tear up (it happens to more people than you think!) That first bitter-turning-to sweet taste of raw puer. And the list goes on.

Friendship

I’ve met some people online and offline in the tea community. Some of these friendships go beyond tea, but it’s perfectly possible and okay to have deep friendships entirely about tea. There are one-sided relationships too – some people serve as the experts and others as the novices. The best way to put your own tea journey in context is to show others what you are doing and compare with what they do. This is not to say that people with more experience are necessarily correct, but that they may have reasons for what they do that you can think about as you decide what to incorporate in different ways.

Personal opinions / the (dis)respect of others

The tea culture is a generally polite place full of different opinions. Most tea-learning is confirmed by experience, and people don’t easily let go of that which they’ve learned from experience. There are usually reasons for differing opinions but they are not easy to figure out. So, there are commonly long arguments about, for example, tea storage, unglazed vs. glazed clay, vendor choices, whether a tea is good or bad, and water (this one seems especially contentious). This is what makes tea so exciting to an expert, especially one who is willing to change their mind.

Appreciation of non-tea

The more one learns to enjoy tea, the more that enjoyment spills over into non-tea elements. Whether it’s the world of alcoholic beverages, from single malts to wine to beer to eaux-de-vie, or just appreciation of nature, tea is about exploring the richness of the world to the fullest extent. Eventually, one learns to enjoy simply living and breathing.

Patience and its rewards

Patience is a virtue, and tea requires patience. Waiting for the water to boil takes patience. Waiting for the hot tea to cool a bit takes patience. Waiting for those loooong steeps at the end of a session takes patience. And all that patience is rewarded with a slow, steady adventure. It’s quite uncomfortable to wait so long doing nothing when you are a tea novice, but eventually it becomes clear that doing nothing is the gateway to a clear experience of reality, or something like that.

Learning from mistakes / Beginner’s mind

It’s easy to mess up a session, or brew a tea for a significant other that evokes the reaction of disgust, or spill tea all over your pants. It’s also incredibly common to have your most expensive tea with your favorite teaware and be completely let down by the result. This is learning, and why the best approach to tea is not as an expert, but as a beginner, open to whatever may happen in the current circumstance. The tea experts I respect the most don’t have any pretentious attitude, but simply know how to enjoy and share tea in their own way, and especially are good at listening to experts and beginners alike.

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at puerh brooklyn

P.S. I’m doing a lot of hard, time-consuming, mildly expensive work with water, and plan to share it with the world around March 2020. Sorry for the wait, but distilling water takes many hours, and my glass lab equipment is in customs. Thanks for reading!

One week without tea

If you’re getting tired in the evenings, consider how much tea you drink. I just did one week with no caffeine, when usually I would have around 9 grams of tea per day. Now, with only two grams of gyokuro I can reach my caffeine limit, where I have a sufficient buzz and my heart tells me “no more, that’s enough.” I noticed that now when I have my sessions, since I am more sensitive I am enjoying the sessions so much more. When tea is not necessary in an addictive sense, it is much more of a joy.

Today I had YS 8891 red label in a YS Hei Jin Gang clay yixing. I used to think the pot was terrible (too porous, no flavor) but actually it makes the tea so soft, the notes that are left over are very enjoyable and on average the tea is thicker than in porcelain. Speaking of porcelain, look forward to a post on comparing different porcelain cups.

Since I am so sensitive, I just ordered a 45ml (tiny) yixing so I can enjoy a strong, yet tiny session with only 2.5g of sheng. I have a 50 ml shibo from stefan andersson but it burns a bit when holding it and I’m beginning to see the deep benefits of yixing.

I have yixing pots and european clay pots and it will be interesting to note the similarities and differences. Overall, to refresh your tea experience, go a week without it. It’s the best thing you can do.

Taste as Meditation

A lot of people make a separation between those who “nerd out” about tea and those who are spiritually connected to the tea. The zen people say “don’t think about the taste of the tea just make it and drink it” and the tea nerds say “don’t worry about stories about zen monks and health benefits just make it and drink it.” The “just make it and drink it” is common to both approaches, of course.

For a very long time, I have been just making and drinking my tea, with a sort of soft focus and presence: I pay attention and relax. But recently, I have been consciously analyzing my tea as I drink it, like some kind of sommelier searching for flavor notes. Now why would I do such a thing?

The level of focus required in order to determine what kinds of flavors are present in the tea is surprisingly deep. The fact that taste is subjective doesn’t change the fact that the tastes are there waiting to be uncovered. Perhaps they don’t need to be labeled, especially because I can’t tell my longans from my gardenias, but at least you can group your raw tea-drinking sensation into different dimensions of flavor. For example, low notes vs high notes: you can think “this taste, although I haven’t a clue what it resembles, is low.” Also, does it last a long time? When does it arrive, and when does it leave? Do the successions of notes have a rhythm?

Yun

Yun is a term that, according to chinese tea lexicon Babelcarp, means “literally Rhyme, but in a tea context, Aftertaste, or more generally, the elusive essence of experiencing a given tea.” It’s used as Yan Yun when it refers to a Wuyi rock oolong’s “rocky” taste/aftertaste. Now why would it be called rhyme?

My personal view on Yun is that it occurs when the succession of flavors has a rhythm. In poetry, a rhyme only happens with a rhyme scheme, which is essentially rhythmic:

I drank my tea alone today

It seemed to me sublime

For when I focused deep within,

I found a splendid rhyme.

The rhyming words go in a specific place rhythmically: if they were anywhere else in the poem, it would feel different, and probably not rhyme at all.

I sipped a tea with a friend

She hated it because

It didn’t have a rhyme at all,

It wasn’t a very good time.

See, that’s awkward and bad. So, when a tea has Yun, or rhyme, it is because the interplay of flavors over time is rhythmically structured. By focusing and bringing these flavors to consciousness in real time, you can experience the essence of the tea as if it were a poem and a song. This strikes a perfect balance between the meditative and the enthusiast approaches to tea, which usually oppose each other. I used to look for qi more than yun, but perhaps they are two sides of the same thing!

Making Tea Sing

Is tea something to consume, or are you trying to make it sing?

When you sit at your tea table, is it like sitting at the bar, or at the piano?

Are you distracted or do you focus deeply?

Does tea get in the way, or does it enhance your day?

Does tea isolate you, or bring you closer to people?

Do you drink your tea fast, or do you savor it?

Do you buy more tea than you can ever drink, or do you buy just enough?

Is your tea space messy or clean?

Do you taste what the vendor says you should taste, or what you taste?

Does tea make you anxious or calm?

Is tea boring or exciting?

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Raw Puer and Clay

I like young raw puer in unglazed clay. Specifically, I like it in jianshui clay because it brings out the sweetness. But ever more special to me is this european clay from teaware made by Jiri Lang.

I actually broke my pot recently, but I had a shibo from the same clay laying around so now I use that. The downside of this shibo is that it is very easy to burn your fingers on it. Here’s a picture.

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Here’s another picture:

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So what does it do to the tea that gaiwans don’t, or for that matter, yixing? Well, look at the inside clay. How does it look to you? Now how do you think it would affect the taste and texture and feeling of the tea? It makes the puer rocky, not by applying a rock taste, but by filtering the taste of the tea through microscopic pores in the clay to its own unique effect. I get a lot of throatiness from tea made in this shibo. But furthermore, it gives the session a different feeling emotionally. I like young raw puerh because there’s something tough and natural about drinking it; it’s strong stuff. My jianshui pot is very fun and cute, but this one is something else, almost reducing sweetness to bring out other subtleties.

With a gaiwan, you get the pure taste of the tea, but you miss out on this dimension.

Happy New Year!

 

Deciding What to Drink

Deciding what tea to drink can be very simple or extremely complicated. In the evenings, when it’s too late to drink tea, I often spend time thinking about what tea I would drink if I could, and that ends up being the tea I have the next morning. But then, I try to dismiss that idea, thinking that if tomorrow I just make the decision in the moment, it would be a better choice.

So we need to decide how to decide what tea to drink. There are many factors that influence the decision: for example, is there a new pot you want to try out, do you want something intense or more relaxing, do you want something you haven’t tried before or would you rather drink something you are familiar with, do you want to try a familiar tea with a different pot than usual?

When do you drink your daily drinkers and when do you drink your special occasion tea? What constitutes a special occasion? Is your Japanese green tea going to go bad if you don’t drink it today?

It becomes much harder when you are going to have tea with someone. How many teas to bring to their place? How many teas can you handle in one sitting? What is a good order? Young to aged, or old to young, or mellow to strong, or strong to mellow? What will they like? What do you want them to like?

When you start thinking like this, it is easy to enter a state of paralysis. This is because they are verbal thoughts that come from the ego. Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Watts. But what is the alternative to this? How will you decide what to drink without thinking verbally?

Here’s a little technique I like to call “consulting the void.” Basically, without thinking, just choose a tea with your eyes and hands. This works because there is no wrong decision unless you make it a wrong decision. If the tea you choose doesn’t taste good or feel right, that doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice. Without bad tea sessions, there can be no good tea sessions. If you are trying to make all your tea sessions perfect and amazing, you will be disappointed. However, if you have an open and quiet mind, your tea sessions can be much more fulfilling and harmonious.

You can extend this technique to choosing your teaware. Just choose without choosing. It works very well and you will grow as a tea drinker this way. I am trying to “consult the void” more and plan my tea drinking less.

Today’s choices. I cannot say why I chose them, but I also cannot say that they were randomly chosen.

Oh, and if your Japanese green teas go stale, that’s just the way it turned out. Use them to absorb odors in your shoes, make a smoothie, cook something with them, or let them age until you run out of tea and it’s the only thing you have left. If it’s not going to make you happy, you can also throw it away or give it away.

Do you have trouble deciding what to drink? How do you decide? Leave a comment if you want.

Puerh is Momentary

If you’ve ever left a cup of puerh tea out for a couple days, or tried putting some in a thermos, you know that once it’s a liquid, it changes very rapidly. A young puerh will quickly turn from yellow to orange within about ten minutes if it’s particularly active. This probably has something to do with the microbes in the tea, although I don’t get how they could possibly be alive after being hit with boiling water multiple times. Perhaps it’s some form of oxidation, but that doesn’t really happen to green teas, so I don’t know. Maybe you do?

Puerh is a complex chemical soup that takes about five seconds to make. What other soup is that instant? Ramen? Once it’s made, you have to let it cool down for a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on your tolerance to heat. It depends on the airflow in the room how fast everything cools. If you set up a fan a few feet away and turn it on low, or open a window to bring in a gentle breeze, it can speed up a session drastically by lowering cooling time. However, I don’t really like to do that, because once the fan is on, all I can think about is that there’s a fan blowing wind across my tea table, and it becomes a fan session, not a tea session. A breeze from a window makes more sense, but it depends on the season if you can do that. I do enjoy some breezy tea. It’ll cool you off if the tea makes you too warm.

Apparently certain teas will warm different parts of your body, but I never know if it’s actually because there’s sun coming through the window. I need to drink more tea in the dark to figure out really what’s happening to my body as I drink my puerh soup. I have read that young puerh is by nature cooling, but it can also cause your ears to feel like they are on fire while your toes are going to freeze off. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s something to think about, or feel about, while drinking your tea: how does the tea make my body feel? You can do one of those body scans where you start at your toes and go up all the way to your head, stopping at each part of your body. Of course, you might want to do this with no tea in your system first, so you can notice the changes. Then, you can ask yourself if those sensations are pleasant or unpleasant, and it can help evaluate a tea and add dimension to a deep session.

Of course, all of these phenomena are happening whether you pay attention to them or not. One of the benefits of gongfucha is you get plenty of cups and sips, but every single one of them is slightly different. You get to experience your tea from many angles and you get many moments to focus on different areas, if you want. But it is also fun to think about nothing and let yourself drink.

HK-Stored 2004 Red Dayi Raw via Liquid Proust

Tracking and Aging

Tracking

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What actually happened that week?

Aging

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What’s actually happening in there?

I’m starting to think it’s best to not think about your tea: basically, to forget about it until it arrives at your door or at your tea table. “But Tea Secrets, what about mold?” Finding mold on your cakes is like finding that your package has been sent to the wrong post office, or that it’s been taken into customs, or it’s been sent back to the vendor for no reason (all of which has happened to me and probably some of you). If there’s mold in your storage, or your tea is stuck somewhere, it’s not necessary to know right when it happens. Eventually you’ll smell something funny, or remember “hey, I feel like my tea was supposed to arrive sometime this week.” Constantly checking your cakes or refreshing 17Track is only going to bring a lot of anxiety into your relationship with tea.

Aging young tea is like ordering aged puerh 10 years in advance. As you try the aging tea, it tells you a bit about where it’s at, kind of like how postal tracking tells you a little bit about where your parcel is. You never REALLY know when it’s going to arrive. But then, eventually, it does arrive.