Category Archives: Tea

A Memory of Tea with Master Pu Yu

master pu yu smallPu Yu (普雨法師) was the 133rd head master of Yungquan (“Bubbling Spring”) Temple on Gu Shan (“Drum Mountain”) in Fuzhou, China. Established in the Tang dynasty, this monastery has over 1,200 years of history. I formally became his disciple in the late 1970s, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, due to the long suppression of religion in China, the temple had few monks and hardly any visitors. As a result, I was able to enjoy quite a bit of time with Master Pu Yu during my stay.

Once I visited him in his private room while he was making tea, and he handed me a cup of steaming brew. The cups in the monastery were bigger than the tea cups usually seen in homes. It was a Song dynasty design, with a soft celadon glaze. I bowed, accepted it with both hands, and carefully took the first sip.

This was a special oolong tea known as “rock tea,” which has a bittersweet taste but a robust aroma with a hint of smoke in its flavor. While we had tea, I asked, “Master, what exactly is Zen mind?”

He smiled, but went on talking about tea.

After a while, when I had nearly finished my cup, I was about to repeat my question. He looked at my nearly empty cup, looked at me directly, and said very quietly, “So, do you remember?”

I was puzzled.

After a short moment, I asked, “Remember? Remember what?”

“Didn’t you just ask me about Zen mind?” he replied.

I tried to figure out what he meant, but was still confused.

“Do you remember the very moment you took the first sip?” he asked, looking right into my eyes.

After pausing briefly, he continued, “Do you remember that moment? Before you could tell whether the tea was hot or warm? Before you could differentiate smell from taste? Before you could tell what kind of tea it was? Do you remember that moment?”

As soon as I heard Master Pu Yu’s words, I understood: that moment is the state of Zen mind.

I looked at him and smiled in silence. He nodded and smiled back. It was but a brief moment; yet I have retained this memory for decades.

The foundation of Zen teaching is this: no matter where we are or what we are doing, we must fully live at that moment.

So, do you remember?

Tea and Wine

tea and wineAt first glance, tea and wine seem very different. Wine is made and stored as a liquid; tea is made and stored in the form of dried leaves. Wine is best aged while tea can be drunk fresh. Wine is served cold or at room temperature in a glass; tea is usually served hot in a ceramic cup. The temperature at which wine served is critical; tea can be served over a great range of temperature without losing its flavor. However, if we look at the art of wine tasting and compare it to the art of tea tasting, there are interesting similarities.

Both tea and wine are judged by their appearance. In both, color and clarity are important. In both, the aroma is an important feature, as is the sensation that the liquid produces in the mouth. In wine, the final aspect of the flavor is called the “finish.” the quality that the wine leaves behind in the mouth. In tea, people pay attention to the “aftertaste,” the feeling and taste that may linger for hours after the last cup is finished.

Wine comes from the yeast fermentation of whole grapes. The result is a great richness and complexity, both of scent and taste. However, in the same bottle of wine, the taste hardly varies from beginning to end. Tea “fermentation” is the enzymatic oxidation of the leaves; even the most complex scents and flavors are simpler than those of wine. But these flavors change and develop from steeping to steeping, so that the experience of tea over time is much more complex.

Wine is assertive; it comes to you and presents itself. Tea is reserved; you have to cultivate its acquaintance to know it in depth. Wine leads to disinhibition, spontaneity, and drunkenness. Tea leads to clarity, mindfulness, and awakening.

Traditionally, tea can be enjoyed in solitude. Wine is enjoyed in company.

Tea plays an important part in Buddhism. It was used to help monks stay awake while meditating, and in turn monks became some of the most important cultivators of tea. Wine is associated with Mediterranean religions; Catholic monasteries were centers of grape growing and wine making. Wine leads to ecstasy; tea leads to awakening. Wine helps you escape the world while tea helps you awaken to it. When you drink too much wine, tea can help you recover.

Tea and wine appeal to different people in different ways and at different times. Both are gifts of nature that have been refined and transformed by human cultivation, and that have transformed the societies that cultivate them.

Excerpt from The Essence of Tea by Shan-Tung Hsu

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What is Your Cup of Tea? (4)

Pu-erh tea grows in China’s Yunnan province. Its history can be traced back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) but it became popular outside China only at the end of 20th century. Pu-erh tea is made from a large-leafed variety of tea. The buds and tender leaves are first converted to raw material called mao-cha (毛茶) by a process involving wilting, kneading, and drying in the sun. The mao-cha is then steamed and pressed into a compressed disk or brick form, then put in storage to allow a natural aging process to “mature” the tea.

Traditionally, tea from Yunnan was sold to Tibet and Southeast Asia regions. The tea was transported by tea-horse caravans or by tea porters over the treacherous Tea Horse Road, often in bad weather. During transportation, the tea went through a second phase of fermentation by microorganisms. This is why it has been classified as “post-fermented” tea. Slow oxidation and post-fermentation created a unique earthy, sweet taste and aroma, and a beautiful ruby red color. This traditional pu-erh tea is now called “green” or “raw” pu-erh. It ranges from the initial green state to partially fermented, and post fermented tea. In other words, it cut across all categories of the fermentation process.

In 1973, a tea manufacturer in Yunnan invented a way to simulate the traditional process for aging mao-cha by using prolonged bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm and humid environment under controlled conditions for 30-40 days. The tea is then dried and compressed into a cake or brick form. This cake is then stored for a few months to allow cooked smell to dissipate before sending it to market. Pu-erh tea produced through this process is called “cooked” or “ripened “ pu-erh.

While green pu-erh takes years to reach a rich and mellow state, the cooked pu-erh takes only six months. People who first encounter pu-erh tea prefer cooked pu-erh, since it is mellow and sweet. However, experienced connoisseur may prefer aged green pu-erh, as it more alive and has more depth.

Unlike green tea, which ideally should be consumed soon after production, green pu-erh can be stored for many years. Pu-erh tea is often classified by years and region of production, much the way wine is classified.

If black tea can be compared with a vigorous, assertive gentleman, then the mellowness of pu-erh tea is rather like earthy, affectionate old grandparents. Good pu-erh can be steeped many times. It is very dependable and can be counted on, just like grandparents, who, seasoned by life’s lessons, can be relied upon for support and guidance.

While green tea is sharp and refreshing, pu-erh is sweet and soothing, with a hint of earthiness. Also with its beautiful ruby color, pu-erh has been described as “drinking a warm campfire”.

With green tea as an innocent teenager, oolong tea as a mature and sophisticated lady, black tea as a vigorous and assertive gentleman, and pu-erh tea as mellow and affectionate grandparents; all these makes up a nice and wholesome tea family. All has their uniqueness. Tea lovers embrace all teas; drinking green tea in the morning, Pu-erh in evening and oolong and black tea the whole day long.

Enjoy Tea, Enjoy life!

What is Your Cup of Tea? (3)

With green tea as an innocent, energetic teenager, and oolong tea as a sophisticated, mature lady, there must be a father figure in the tea family; it is an assertive gentleman– Black Tea.

Black tea, which the Chinese call “red tea” because of its rich red color when properly brewed, is a fully fermented tea.  With a strong full-bodied flavor and taste, black tea is the most consumed tea in the world.  It accounts for some 70% of all production and consumption.

The process of making black tea is similar to that of making oolong tea, except that the tea is fully “fermented” by allowing the oxidation process to continue until complete.  Originally, black tea was made only in China.  But after 1830, the British successfully grew Assam tea in India, which became the world’s largest tea producer of black tea.  Black tea cultivation has since spread to Africa, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and other parts of the world.

The most famous black in China are Lapsong Souchong , Keemun, and Dian Hong.  All Chinese black teas are enjoyed without adding milk or sugar, though many Westerners often do add them.   Others enjoy their black tea with honey and lemon.

Full-bodied black tea is assertive, like a successful, vigorous gentleman.  To brew it well, the water should be near boiling point.  Relating to a vigorous, assertive gentleman is very different from relating to a teenager. It’s not just that gentlemen are unafraid of challenges; they prefer challenges.  In the someway, black tea prefers water near the boiling point.  If the water is not hot enough, many qualities of the tea do not develop.  Like a vigorous, successful gentleman, black tea is straightforward and forthcoming. Unlike oolong, which can be steeped several times with increasing subtle difference, black tea does not gradually reveal different aspects with successive steepings.  Every steeping remains the same (though it may become weaker). It is what it is, and presents itself fully from the beginning.

While a youngster can quickly lose the energy of youth, a mature person has endurance.  In the same way, green tea may lose its freshness quickly, but black tea retains its flavor for years.

In the West, most black tea is sold in the form of tea blends, a combination of teas from different areas.  This allows tailoring the blend to many different customer tastes and creates a more uniform quality.  However, blending teas creates a loss of distinctiveness of teas produced at particular time in particular areas.

In a traditional family, in addition to parent and children, to have mellow and affectionate grandparents are an added blessing.  In the tea family, there is this added blessing –- Pu-erh Tea. To be continued…..

What is Your Cup of Tea? (2)

Oolong tea is a partially fermented tea.  The process of making oolong tea is consider being the most exquisite and refined tea-making technique.  Oolong tea combines the mellow sweetness of black tea and the fresh fragrance of green tea.  From the point of the Yin-Yang theory, green tea is more yin, black tea is more yang.  Oolong tea being in-between, is the most balance variety of tea, harmonizing both yin and yang qualities.

The oolong tea making process includes withering, fermenting, kill-green, kneading, and roasting.   This complicated process allows for the creation of a range of subtle, deep flavors and aromas.  The aromas can range from flowery to fruity, from nutty to woody, and even a honey quality.  It is possible to produce complex blends of bitterness, sweetness, and astringency, allowing for the creation of a great variety of tea. The most distinctive feature of oolong tea is the lingering aftertaste, which is less noticeable in either green tea or black tea. Thus, oolong tea is the favor of a true tea connoisseur.

Most oolong is produced in Taiwan, and the Fujian province in China. Da Hong Pao and Tie Guan Yinare the most well-known tea from Fujian province. The best oolong tea is produced in the high mountains of Taiwan. It includes: Day Yu Ling, Li Shan, Ali Shan, Shan Lin Xi, Dong Ding, and Bai Hao Oolong.

Oolong tea is like a sophisticated, mature lady: knowledgeable and strong, able to endure hardships and challenges.  In contrast to green tea, oolong tea can be brewed at temperature at 90-100 C (195-212 F) without making the tea too bitter. The first steeping reveals the light aroma and sweet taste.  With subsequent steeping, the aroma changes and the taste has more bite; the initial floral taste may become fruity or even nutty.  Good oolong tea can be steeped 5 to10 times or more, with subtle differences in each steeping. This discovery process is a distinctive aspect of good oolong tea; as with a sophisticated lady, every encounter reveals new discoveries and increasing depth.

With a teenager and a sophisticated and mature lady in a family, let’s get ready to introduce the father figure, the assertive gentleman—Black Tea.  To be continued…

What is Your Cup of Tea? (1)

There are over a couple hundred varieties of tea in China and there are many ways to classify them: by locality, by harvest season, by processing method, and by the form of the finished product. The varying characteristics of tea –color, aroma, taste, and form –are largely the result of enzymatic oxidation.  This process is traditionally called “fermentation,” even though it is not actually caused by yeast or other organisms.

The simplest and most rational way to classify tea is according to the degree of fermentation.  With this method, there are four types of tea:

  • Unfermented :  green tea
  • Partially fermented:  oolong tea, white tea, and yellow tea.
  • Fully fermented:  black tea
  • Post-fermented:  pu-erh tea

In this tea family classification green tea is like the innocent teenager: lively and full of energy, yet still a bit timid.  It retains the green color and natural fragrance of fresh tea leaves.   Without the interference of the fermentation process, green tea has a hint of the grassy taste of the fresh leaves, with a subtle sweetness.  This results in a very delicate flavor.

Good green tea is handpicked, and consists of only the new shoots and tender leaves.  Storing green tea in an airtight container is important because when it comes into contact with the air, the freshness of its color and taste can be easily lost –just as a teenagers’ enthusiasm is fragile and can change on the instant.  The freshness of green tea is very important. Green tea should be consumed within a year.

Making green tea is like dealing with a teenager: one must be gentle.  Green tea should be brewed at 80 C or 175F, lower temperature than other kinds of tea and steeped for only about two minutes.  If the temperature is too high, or if it is brewed too long, the tea will be bitter and astringent –just as treating a teenager too harshly or with too much pressure will lead to rebellion.

While other teas that can be steeped many times, even the highest quality green tea can only be steeped at most two or three times.  It is like talking with a teenager, who may be clever and interesting, but after an hour or so you know them well.  However, even a short moment of connection with that youthful energy can be very delightful.

Over the last few decades, the heath benefit of green tea has become the subject of many scientific and medical studies.  Green tea is rich in catechins, a group of powerful antioxidants, and there is evidence that green tea can help lower the risk of developing certain types of cancers.  This has created a great interest in drinking green tea in the health-conscious community.

Green tea, the younger teenager in the family member will eventually grow up to become a mature and sophisticated lady—Oolong Tea.

Shan-Tung Hsu
Author of “The Essence of Tea”

The Tao of Tea

“As a tea drinker, one comes not only to enjoy the beauty of tea drinking, but also to find that tea can be a path for self-cultivation and spirituality:
Through sharing: harmonizing relationships with people,
Through appreciation: inspiring self-improvement, balancing body and mind,
Through understanding: achieving harmony with nature.
Through tea, one can come to unify the subjective and the objective, matter and mind, self and other, humanity and nature.”

Excerpt from:  The Essence of Tea by Shan-Tung Hsu

Yes, The Essence of Tea is published! To view the trailer on YouTube:

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Half of China

teaThe last two months, I have had the rare luxury of not adding more frequent flyer miles to my account by staying in Seattle to diligently work on two books; Feng Shui:  Truths, Myths and Misconceptions and The Essence of Chinese Tea.

To give you a little taste of what’s to come, the story below is taken from my book The Essence of Chinese Tea. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Half of China

In 1972, President Nixon made his first visit to China, re-establishing diplomatic recognition between the United States and China.  Chairman Mao presented President Nixon with 200 grams of Wuyi Dahongpao tea as a gift.  Nixon was puzzled, and privately remarked that Chairman Mao’s gift seemed rather small for such a historical event.  When Premier Zhou En-Lai heard this, he privately explained to Nixon that this kind of tea came from very special tea trees that were hundreds of years old.   All six trees together produced only some 400 grams of tea per year.  “So you see” said Zhou En-Lai “Chairman Mao has already given you half of China.”