Issue #4   January/February 2008

by Daniel Reid    danreid.org

Brought to you by Oolong-Tea.Org

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Welcome to Tea Tidings 4:

Chinese New Year's Special Edition

     We'd like to open this issue of Tea Tidings by wishing all of our
far-flung flock of tea people best wishes for health, happiness, and the very best High Mountain Oolong in your tea pots in the coming Chinese New Year, the Year of the Earth Rat, which commences on February 7.  For me, this is a very special year, the completion of my first sixty-year cycle in this life, returning me to the year of my birth, which always represents an opportunity for a "rebirth."

I see a radiant year ahead for Oolong-Tea.Org and OolongOz...


Cha-dzui:  "Tea-Tippled"

     It's been raining continuously here in Byron Bay for nearly a month, so we've been spending most of our time out on our tea terrace, where we  sit at our tea table, sheltered from the weather,  with no walls to block the sights and sounds of nature,  watching the clouds and rain dancing across the valley down to the Pacific coast, while we sit drinking pot upon pot, cup after cup, of our best High Mountain Teas.
 
     When tea friends come to visit, we sometimes spend entire afternoons tippling tea.  During these long, spirited tea soirees,  some of our tea friends, sensing sudden shifts in their internal terrain, have asked,  "Is it possible to drink too much High Mountain Oolong?"   Therapeutically, the answer is "no:"  the more you drink, the more you benefit from it.  However, when you drink very good grade, chemical-free, organically grown High Mountain Oolong continuously all day long, as we often do, you may sometimes experience a  state of "tea inebriation"  known in Chinese  tea lore  as cha-dzui,  literally "tea-drunk," although it is nothing at all like alcohol or drug intoxication.  We call it  "tea-tippled."

     Please note that this is not the same phenomenon as the sudden sweat, shakey fingers, and queasy gut that people whose tissues are full of toxins and acid waste often experience when they first try our High Mountain Tea.  That is a detox reaction  produced by the tea's powerful alkalizing and detoxifying properties, and this effect diminishes as the tea drinker's bloodstream and tissues become progressively more alkaline and detoxified.

     Cha-dzui usually happens to tea people who have already ascended  through the detox stage of their tea journey, and have reached a comfortable  cruising altitude in their daily consumption.
It usually occurs when you are drinking very high grade oolong with a few good friends,  conversation is flowing freely,  spirits soar, and you just keep drinking countless pots of tea, perhaps preparing it  a bit more on the strong side, as I always do.

     Suddenly you're there:  afloat in the  Great Sea of Tea, your mind clear as a bell, your body feeling like a separate appendage to your mind, a sort of ball-and-chain holding your spirit from flying free . 
For me, the rock lyric that best describes the experience of entering the realm of cha-dzui  is Jim Morrison's exclamation:

 "Break on through to the other side!"

Cha-dzui is the "other side" of tea, where you go when you wish to travel beyond the tea leaves and tea  pots, the bamboo trays and tea scoops,  and all the other exquisite material treasures of the art,  to a place beyond food and sleep, where your attention shifts instead to  the essential energy and intelligence which the tea has  alchemized and released within you.  This is  the internal terrain of High Mountain Tea, and it produces a state that is highly conducive to contemplation, which is why it has always been favored by monks, hermits, and home practitioners of still sitting meditation.

     In this state, you see how your mind thinks when your brain is in a more alkaline condition, how your body feels when a big load of toxins has been flushed out  of your tissues,  how you experience the world when the cobwebs have been swept from your senses.  The art of tea itself is always the portal to this pleasant and often insightful state, which seems to come and go on its own whim after abundant drinking of the finest tea,  properly prepared,  and appreciated in the right setting, alone or in the congenial company of tea friends.

     We suggest waiting until you have been drinking High Mountain Oolong daily for about six months, before you begin exploring the frontiers of  cha-dzui.   This gives your body a chance to detoxify slowly and grow accustomed to the more "heightened" alkaline state
which this tea engenders when you drink it daily,  sort of like acclimitiazing yourself for a journey to the high mountains of  Tibet
by ascending to those altitudes gradually, so that  you don't get dizzy.

Shop News

     We have recently expanded the selection of teas and tea utensils on our Online Tea Shop (click to visit) and we will continue to increase and diversify our offerings according to the tastes of our tea people, so don't hesitate to let us know what you want.

     We have also decided to include a free gift sample of one of our best teas with every order that totals US$800 or more, as a small gesture of our appreciation for your support.

     *IMPORTANT* Our Taipeii Office will be closed for Chinese New Year Holidays from February 2nd through till the 11th of February. You are still welcome to order during this period, but we will not be able to process the orders until after the Vacation.

"Oriental Beauty"

     Oriental Beauty is regarded by some tea people as the holy grail of High Mountain Tea.    Chinese tea lore informs us that the English name for this legendary varietal,  "Oriental Beauty," was given by Queen Victoria, who prefered it above all other teas on earth.   She liked to steep her tea slowly in a tall clear glass of hot water, and watch the delicate leaves unfurl slowly before her eyes, which she said looked like "Oriental Beauties" dancing gracefully in the water, swirling their robes.   So this tea became known in Chinese by the name its most famous foreign devotee gave it:  Dung-fang Mei-ren, "Oriental Beauty."

     Be that as it may (or may not be), the original Chinese name for this tea was Bai Hao Oolong ("White Fur Oolong") in reference to the fuzzy white collar of  fur that clings to the edges of the leaves.  This white residue is produced by an enzymatic reaction between some of the oils in the tea leaves and the saliva of a small green insect which flies over to visit the tea bushes when the leaves are still young and tender.  This cute little critter slowly nibbles its way around the edges of the leaves, helping itself to something it likes,  without doing any damage whatsover to the plant, then it flies away, leaving a distinctive white collar of fur to crystalize around the rim of the tea leaves.  This friendly bug's visit is also the best guarantee, with or without a certificate,  that all genuine Oriental Beauty is 100% organically grown, , because if any noxious chemicals are used on the plants, the "precious guest" (gui-bin)  will bug off  and fly elsewhere for lunch.

     The compounds produced by the natural reaction between the oils in the tea leaves and the insect's saliva  condense into the   white fur collar and constitute the  elements that create the unique taste and distinctive aroma of Oriental Beauty.   The quality of Oriental Beauty tea is determined entirely by the degree to which the leaves have been exposed to this insect's saliva, and how much residue that contact produces on the leaves.  In Chinese tea terminology, this quality is known as ju yen,  literally "exposure to saliva."

     After the bug has deposited its precious treasure of enzymes on the edges of the leaves, the leaves continue to grow, but they are smaller and darker than other oolongs.   When harvested, only the  smallest leaf clusters, consisting  of two new leaves plus one leaf still in bud, are hand picked for Oriental Beauty.   Other oolongs  use larger clusters of two mature leaves plus one new leaf.  Therefore, while it takes about 1,000-2,000 leaf clusters of an oolong such as Golden Lily or Tender Heart to produce one catty (600 g) of tea, it takes 3,000-4,000 leaf clusters to make a catty of Oriental Beauty.   As a result,  the cost of production for Oriental Beauty is  always much higher than for other oolong teas, and the supply is always scarce, not least of all because the bug can be fickle and sometimes boycotts an entire growing region for years.   Genuine, high-grade Oriental Beauty thus falls into a category of rare teas known in the Chinese tea trade as liang shao, jia gao, which means "scarce in supply, high in price,"  i.e. it's always hard to find the real thing, and when you do, it's always expensive.

     Another distinctive characteristic of Oriental Beauty is that the leaves are fermented significantly longer than younger oolongs such as the Three Daughters of  Taiwan (Golden Lily, Kingfisher Jade, & Four Seasons Spring).  While the latter are fermented only 30-40% (on a scale where 0% is green tea and 100% is black tea), Oriental Beauty is allowed to ferment up to 60-80%.  This produces a rich red color and a stronger, sweeter flavor.   The fragrance is often described as "fruity" and the flavor is compared to  "flowers and honey."  For me, the taste is somewhat reminiscent of the rare, expensive "First Flush Golden Tips" Darjeeling tea we found during a two-month sojourn in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Darjeeling.   While this is technically a fully fermented black tea, only the tenderest tips are hand-picked  for this grade, and when we steeped it  the High Mountain way in our Chinese tea pot, it rendered a brew quite simiar to Oriental Beauty, though not as refined in taste.

     Because the leaf clusters picked for this tea are so young and tender, they are far too delicate to roll into tight pellets prior to firing, as most other oolongs are.  Instead, they are fired  and dried unfurled, and packed loose-leaf in sealed bags.  The bags, however, are not vacuum-sealed, as pellet-rolled teas are, because the pressure from the vacuum shrinkage would damage the leaves.

     Note that because Oriental Beauty is loose leaf rather than rolled pellets, you need to put more dry tea in the pot.   Using a medium size pot, we suggest adding enough leaf to fill the pot halfway.  Steeping time is a bit less than for other oolong teas, and you'll be happy to hear that genuine, high-grade Oriental Beauty has great steeping stamina:  most tea people get at least ten infusions from each batch of leaves.

     Our team in Taiwan is currently tracking down a reliable source of  tip-top quality Oriental Beauty, and she will soon  join the other elegant ladies on our Tea Menu.


Establishing the Right Setting


     In Tea Tidings 3, we consulted a couplet printed on the Cedar Lake tea label, regarding the Chinese Art of Tea, the second line of
which reads:

The beauty of tasting tea lies in the person,
in the foundation, in the knowledge, in the setting

     Although it takes a few years to cultivate true tea personhood, complete with  a firm foundation in practice and sufficient knowledge of  tea and tea lore, you can start immediately to hone your skills in establishing the right setting for tasting tea.   This is an art in itself, and the bottom line in this art is always beauty, for in  beauty we find truth, if  we learn  to pay attention.  One of the great English poets, perhaps it was Keats or Shelley, said something like,  "Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, and that is all we need to know."    In the Art of Tea, the beauty of the setting creates a framework and an ambiance through which the the true beauty of tasting tea manifests itself naturally.

     In addition to the tea itself, the pots and cups, and the various utensils used to prepare tea,  other arts and crafts may also be adapted to enhance the full appreciation of the Art of Tea.  The specific items chosen to establish such a setting are a matter of personal taste.   For music, we like the traditional Chinese tunes composed for this purpose, particularly those performed on  classical Chinese stringed instruments....

.... such as the Chinese lute (gu-chin), mandolin (pi-pa), and zither (gu-jeng), but it could just as well be Mozart or Beethoven,  sitar or flute, whatever calms your mind and pleases your spirit  most.  For incense,  we prefer,  and highly recommend, the purest quality sandalwood,  although other subtle aromas may also be used, as long as they are not too sweet and  cloying.   In flowers,  I like the  rich flamboyance and bright color of hibiscus on my tea table (or the pink brilliance of a fresh lotus, when available), but you may prefer the more restrained elegance of a single red rose, or the white velvet petals and jade green leaves  on a sprig of fresh gardenia.   To each his own way, but all of our ways should always conform to the universal principles of the Great Way, the essence of which may be summarized in two words:   balance and harmony.

     Here are some of the things we do at home to establish the right setting of balance and harmony at our tea table:


Incense (siang)

     There are several varieties of high-grade Chinese sandalwood incense produced in Taiwan which release a subtle woody aroma that doesn't  overwhelm the setting.  Our favorite is  chen-siang,  literally "sinking incense,"  a reference to the type of sandalwood it comes from, a wood so hard and dense that it sinks rather than floats in water.    The name is also a reference to the effect this type of incense has on the human energy system:  the essential energy of the sandalwood, released into the air with the aroma, tends  to "sink" or settle internal energy (chi)  down in the lower abdomen, where it belongs.  Sandalwood  is also known in traditional  Chinese medicine for its calming effects on the nervous system.  The  settling, calming influence of fine sandalwood incense  clears the head and relaxes the nerves, leaving the mind free to observe the present setting and contemplate its subtle beauties.   That's  why chen-siang is also very popular as a temple incense in Chinese monasteries:  it helps produce and support a contemplative state of mind.   At the tea table, the sense of serenity which the natural aromatic elements in  chen-siang and other fine sandalwood incense produce are very conducive to cultivating the Art of  Tea,  while the subtle scent itself uplifts the sensory beauty of the setting.   At traditional Chinese tea tables, an elegantly wrought incense burner has always been an integral part of the art.

     As with the tea itself, it's important to use only the purest, best quality incense made with the highest grade sandalwood.   Using a cheap incense made with fillers, artificial fragrances, and glue only degrades the atmosphere  and spoils the natural harmony of the setting.   The incense we will soon offer on our online shop will only be the  purest, highest quality incense hand-crafted in Taiwan.  Like Oriental Beauty, this sort of product is always  liang shao, jia gao,  "scarce in supply, high in price."    If you wish to add this element to your own tea setting, we suggest you order just one box to start, use it sparingly, not every day, and see how you like it.  Then you can decide whether to establish it as part of your tea setting and order more incense as well as a fine bronze incense burner.

Incense Burner (siang-lu)


     Just as you wouldn't want to steep a fine High Mountain Tea in a tin tea pot, so you wouldn't wish to burn a coil of fine sandalwood incense in an ashtray.   The right tool for the job here is a Chinese incense burner cast  from bronze or brass, elegantly shaped, beautifully crafted with traditional designs, inscribed with mantras, sutras, and  auspicious poetic couplets.   A good incense burner can be expensive,  just like a good tea pot, but you only need one, and unlike tea pots,  you never have to worry about breaking  a bronze incense burner, so it will literally last you a lifetime.

     The art and craft of making incense burners is one of the oldest in China, going back at least 3,000 years, and good ones are regarded as fine works of art in themselves.   So even  on days when  you decide not to light incense, or when you run out of supply, the presence of a beautifully crafted incense burner still graces the visual setting of tea  with its traditional Chinese charm,  enhancing the "view"  of the "landscape" on your tea table with its attractive shape and elegant design, which harmonize very well with the shape and design of the tea pots and other tea utensils arrayed before you.

Tea Music (yin yue)

     Music has always been a popular accompaniment to the Chinese Art of Tea, and in tradtional times, tea houses usually provided live music, while wealthy households often invited professional musicians to perform in the privacy of their own tea rooms and tea gardens.   Today, with the convenience and clarity of modern recording technology,  such as CDs,  music is even more easily integrated as an aesthetic element in the art of tasting tea.

     My personal favorite tea music is the beguiling, deeply resonant sound of the gu-chin, or "Ancient Lute," one of the China's  oldest, most venerable instruments of music.   The great sinologist Robert van Gulik, who was a devoted tea person as well as a connoisseur of the lute, wrote a beautiful, brilliant account of this elegant instrument and the captivating  music it produces in a book entitled The Lore of the Chinese Lute (Tokyo, Sophia University, 1940).

     The rhythmic vibrations and soft melodious sound of good tea music penetrate and soothe all of the "Three  Treasures" of life--body, energy, and mind--helping to establish the right inner setting for conducting the Art of Tea.   We generally avoid vocal music, because the language of lyrcs tends to distract attention away from  the pure sensory appreciation of the tunes. Instead, we select traditional, unadorned instrumental music, especially strings and flute.

     On the Tea Culture page of our Oolong-Tea.Org site, we have recently added a "Tea Tunes" feature, wherein we offer  you two sample tunes of traditional Chinese tea music from a CD called, appropriately, Listening to Tea Pots.   My favorite is "World of Transparence," in which we hear the high-pitched staccato strum of the pi-pa (a sort of Chinese mandolin with a large pear-shaped sound box) engaged in a delicate duet with the deep rich vibrato thrum of the alluring gu-jeng (Ancient Zither).   In "The Gnarled Pot," another ancient Chinese stringed instrument called the gu-chin (Chinese Lute) weaves a meandering tea tune with two types of Chinese flute, a bamboo siao and a ceramic suan.

     Naturally, the best tea music of all is the sound of nature, and when circumstances permit, or if your tea table is located outdoors, the elemental sounds of nature compose the most sublime tea tunes.  Our tea table is located on a roofed terrace, protected from the weather but wide open to outdoor nature, so this is the sort of music we listen to most while drinking tea:  the wind whispering in the trees, rain pitter-pattering on the leaves,  copper chimes jingle-jangling in the breeze, the whir and warble of the birds and the bees.  This is why the Chinese have always been so fond of drinking tea outdoors--in gardens, on terraces, beneath the curving eaves of elegant tea pavilions.

Flowers (hua)

     Early in the morning, after the first few cups of tea are glowing in my belly, I like to wander into the garden and pick a few fresh flowers in full bloom to place on our tea table for the day.  This brings "Flower Power" into the Chinese Art of Tea, with its bright color and suggestive  beauty, its natural fragrance  and  feminine allure.   It's interesting to note that Chinese word for "color" (seh) can also mean "sex," while  the word for "flower" (hua) can be used to mean "promiscuous," and as a poetic image for the alluring beauty of women.

     Snow planted a variety of my favorite  exotic hibiscus in our garden for this purpose, but sometimes they're not in bloom and I pick whatever else may happen to be in blossom that morning, such as a spray of orchid or sprig of gardenia.  This morning we enjoyed a rare treat:  a radiant pink lotus from our pond, from which what I regard to be the purest,   most beautiful  floral fragrance on earth wafted gently around our tea table.   And just as the presence of just one beautiful woman can totally transform a room  and command the attention of everyone in it, so just one beautiful blossom has the power to brighten  up any tea table and delight the eyes of everyone present.

"Select Snowflake"

     We're working on a label and logo design for our line of fine High Mountain Oolong Tea, to serve as a trade name for our selection of teas as well as a label for our products.  So far, we've come up with the following wording, and a bit of graphic design :

 


     "OolongOz" is the name of our company and of our envisioned plantation project in Australia.   "Select Snowflake" is the name I came up with to denote our line of teas, specially selected from the cream of the crop of teas in Taiwan by our resident  tea master,  Snow.   I'd like to get the name "Snow" into the trade name,  because Snow  is the one who decides which teas pass muster for inclusion on our menu:   if a particular tea does not please her palate,  it stands no chance of being offered on Oolong-Tea.Org

     Like a snowflake, each nugget of our High Mountain Tea is uniquely shaped  and beautiful to behold (try looking at a rolled pellet of one of our fine High Mountain Teas under a magnifying glass).   And like a snowflake, every sip of tea melts in your mouth to release its fragrant bouquet onto your palate,  fleeting flakes of flavor renewed with every sip.

     We welcome input from our tea friends regarding the choice of "Select Snowflake" as a trade name for the line of High Mountain Teas Snow selects for inclusion on our menu, and we are open to any suggestions you may have.

Tailpiece

     Way back in the great Tang Dynasty (618-906 ce),  there lived an old monk who had long passed his 100th birthday.  When he turned the age of 130 years, he was asked to record his thoughts on health and longevity.   Among his brief remarks were the following words of wisdom, forged from his own experience:

 

Without tea,  I fall ill.

With tea, I find peace.



        Amen!

 

by Daniel Reid    danreid.org

 

a recent shot of Daniel and Snow...

 

Brought to you by Oolong-Tea.Org

 

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