Issue #9  June 2009

by Daniel Reid    danreid.org

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Welcome to Tea Tidings 9

          Greetings from Old Dali Town, where Snow and I have just finished running our second “Renew Your Lease on Life” integrated detox and regeneration program here in Dali for a group of clients who came from every corner of the globe to join us.

          Over half of them turned out to be intrepid Rats, like us, joining the growing ranks of our global “Rat Pack.”  We had a Rat biochemist from Bulgaria (pictured here with us the day he completed his seven-day fast),  an Australian Rat stockbroker from Hong Kong, and a bright young Rat from Norway---a professional bridge player who now enjoys  the “colonic edge” over his opponents when competing in international bridge tournaments.  An assortment of Oxen, Dogs, and Dragons also found their way to Dali  to renew their lease on life before it expires.  All of them have now become cha ren  (“tea people”) and joined our OolongOz High Mountain Tea fraternity.


Snow and Dan with a happy customer!

Tea Talk "From The Mail Room" Page Update

          Our Tea Talk "From The Mail Room" page on our website has just been updated with a great question from cha ren Alethea, answered by Daniel and Snow...  Click here to view...

New Tea Menu Item Now Available...  Bao Jung Cha

          We have just added a new varietal to our tea shop menu, after testing it for the past six months on all the tea friends who visit our tea table.   Everyone  gave it their  lip-smacking approval,
and some immediately designated this tea as their favorite leaf, and so, having passed the taste test, it is now available on our menu, click here if you would like to peruse it at our online tea shop.

          Known as “bao jung,” which means “paper wrapped variety,” this lightly oxidized oolong was first developed about 150 years ago in the famous Wu Yi Mountain tea growing region of Fujien province in central China.  Only young tender leaves are picked for this delicate varietal, and therefore this tea is fired, finished, and packed in loose leaf form,  like Oriental Beauty, rather than in tightly rolled pellets like most oolongs.   In order to prevent the subtle aromas of this new varietal  from dissipating  when the cream of the crop was shipped to Peking as  “tribute tea” (gung cha) for the emperor and his court, it was carefully wrapped in double layers of thick paper and  formed into small square packets for storage.   The Manchu emperor Guang Shu, upon receiving his first batch of this new tribute tea, named it Bao Jung Cha due to its distinctive wrapper.   Today, Bao Jung’s delicate flavor is protected in vacuum sealed packets like our other oolong varietals, so it is no longer “paper wrapped,”  although it still carries the original name.

          Bao Jung’s distinctive fragrance and flavor reflect the fundamental elements of nature that reside in tea and release their essence when properly prepared with good water.   In The Chinese Art of Tea, John Blofeld describes this delightful aromatic medley as the “taste of sunlight, wind, and clouds” and “the spirit of sparkling mountain springs” laced with “a pleasant earthy tang.”   The use of only the smallest, most delicate leaves, the  relatively brief period of oxidation (or “fermentation”), and the open-leaf form of processing and packing the tea allow these essential elements of nature to distinctly express themselves in the cup and on your palate.   Its unique bouquet  echos in your mouth with  sweet trills of wild mountain flowers mingled with the  fresh green tones of  newly mown grass, and  the color in the cup projects a rich golden-green hue.  Like all loose-leaf oolongs,  Bao Jung steeps more quickly than pellet-rolled leaf,  so you need to add enough dry leaf to fill the pot  about halfway.

          The best quality Bao Jung in Taiwan is produced in the Wen Shan (“Literary Mountain”) tea growing region south of Taipei,  in
the famous tea village of Ping Lin, and this is where we source our “Snowflake” selection.   Thanks to the personal relationship we have cultivated with the supplier,  we are pleased to offer this excellent Bao Jung (click to go to online tea shop) to our tea people at US$80 per 300-gram bag. We will send you a brief reminder once the tea is ready to go in our online shop, stay tuned!

“The Hermitage:”  Himalyan High Mountain Tea

          Last week a friend took me to visit the “High Mountain Tea Workshop,”  the tea factory and  tasting room of  “The Hermitage Tea Garden,”  a High Mountain Oolong Tea plantation  that carpets the alpine slopes of Wei Bao Mountain about three hours drive south of Dali.  Located on the Dali Plain midway  between the  east wall of  the Old Town and Erhai Lake,  the High Mountain Tea Workshop is where I met the owner of  The Hermitage,  Mr. Chiou Ji-chiang, an exuberant Taiwanese tea planter who came to Dali ten years ago to grow  his beloved High Mountain Oolong here in the Himalayan highlands.

           Mr. Chiou came to Dali with a few hundred live plants of  the best grade High Mountain Oolong Tea from Taiwan, and spent his first decade here getting the  plants rooted, cultivating them  to maturity,  familiarizing himself and his plants  with the unique growing conditions in western Yunnan,  and hosting an intimate circle of tea friends at his Workshop while he patiently nurtured his tea plants to perfection.   In addition to the main plantation at Wei Bao Mountain, he also planted a field of  High Mountain Oolong near the Workshop,  just outside the north gate of Old Dali Town, near the landmark Three Pagodas (see photo),  where visitors to the Workshop can stroll through the tea hedges and watch  local Bai women picking tea with their nimble fingertips.

          2009 marks a banner year for Mr. Chiou because, after ten years of honing himself and his plants to the local conditions in Dali, he is now ready to offer his High Mountain Oolong Tea for sale.   Sitting sipping tea at a table in the tasting room, you can gaze through a glass partition and watch workers sort freshly fermented tea from the racks outside, roll the loose tea into tightly balled pellets, and bake the pellets to perfection in rotating steel ovens that look like small cement mixers.   All the equipment used to process tea at The Hermitage is brought in from Taiwan, and the final product is vacuum sealed in air-tight packets made in Taiwan, exactly the same way it’s done over there.

          Debate continues to rage regarding the relative merits of High Mountain Oolong Tea grown from native Taiwan plants outside Taiwan, as compared with that grown within Taiwan.   Some fanatics, such as Snow, flatly refuse to drink any High Mountain Tea that is not home grown in Taiwan, declaring that the High Mountain Tea  grown outside Taiwan can never match the quality grown in Taiwan, but that’s an extreme position which I feel borders on “Tea Snobbery.”   It’s true, however, that very few plantations outside Taiwan manage to produce a High Mountain Tea that compares well with the Taiwan standard.

          Having tried all of the varietals currently produced by The Hermitage in Dali, I can state clearly and confidently that it’s by far the best High Mountain Oolong grown outside Taiwan that I have ever tasted, and it comes much closer to the Taiwan standard than any of the High Mountain Tea grown from Taiwan plants in tropical Southeast Asia.

          No doubt one reason for this excellence is the attitude and approach Mr. Chiou takes towards his vocation.   For him, growing High Mountain Tea is an  “art with a heart,”  and he approaches the whole thing with the same loving care and fond attention of a father raising his family.   Money is not his main motive, and quality is his primary concern.    In fact,  now that he is offering his tea for sale, his policy is to sell only those varieties and vintages which repeatedly pass the taste test among the tea friends at his tea table.

          But there are other, more tangible reasons that the High Mountain Oolong grown in and around Dali compares well with the Taiwan standard, and the most prominent factor is the altitude here.   Unlike coffee, which thrives in the shade (yin),  tea feeds on the yang energy of sunlight, and therefore the higher the mountain stands, the stronger the sun shines, and the better the high mountain tea grows.    At 2,200 meters, the Dali Plain stands higher than most of the high mountain tea plantations in Taiwan, which average around 1,500 to 2,000 meters, and at  The Hermitage’s plantation on Wei Bao Mountain, some of the tea hedges drink in the sunshine at over 3,000 meters above sea level.  The very name “High Mountain Tea” indicates that altitude is the single  most important factor in determining the unique qualities of these oolongs, and in this respect Dali has a clear advantage over the Southeast Asian plantations in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

          Water is another key element in growing good tea, and here again Dali has a distinct advantage over plantations located  in tropical Southeast Asia, where water quality has deteriorated so badly that a cup of golden-green  High Mountain Tea left to stand overnight turns dirty brown by morning, due to contaminants in the water reacting with elements in the tea.    The water used to irrigate tea in Dali comes tumbling down eighteen streams from the steep green slopes of Tsang Shan, the magnificent mountain which towers over the western side of Dali.    Loaded with natural minerals and trace elements from the depths of the mountain, this water provides the tea plants with key elements that produce the distinctive taste of High Mountain Tea, just as the mountain water does in Taiwan.

          The high alpine air, rich in negative ions and permeated with the potent aromatic essence of vast pine forests, is another important contributing factor in the fine quality of the High Mountain Tea grown in Dali,  and the black, loamy soil provides
the full spectrum of vital nutrients required to nourish the tea plants to fruition.   And at these high altitudes, very few pests exist to harm the plants, eliminating the need for the excessive use of pesticides and fumigants which prevails at tea plantations in the tropical regions of Southeast Asia.

          One of the primary factors responsible for the unique flavor and fragrance of High Mountain Oolong Tea in Taiwan is the mist that rises from the surrounding ocean and drifts across the mountains, drenching the tea plants with moisture that carries sea minerals directly into the leaves.   This is a key factor missing at Southeast Asian tea  plantations, as well as in Dali.

          However, here in Dali,  we have Er Hai, one of the largest,  highest  lakes on earth,  lying serenely to the east of  Old Dali Town, with  a surface area of 250 square kilometers.   It’s so big that the local language refers to it as a “sea” (hai) rather than a  “lake” (hu).   And while Er Hai is a fresh water lake,  not  saline like a  sea,  it too produces vast volumes of mist that drift across the tea plantations, carrying all sorts of unknown aquatic factors into the tea leaves, just as the ocean mist does in Taiwan, and this no doubt contributes key elements to the unique qualities of High Mountain Oolong grown in and around Dali.

          As we continue to cultivate our relationship with Mr. Chiou and his tea friends at   The Hermitage,  and cultivate a taste for his teas, we will explore the possibility of supplying our OolongOz
tea people with a few of his best vintage varietals, but this must wait another year or two, until he produces something very special.

          Meanwhile, if you come to Dali and would like to visit The Hermitage Workshop and Tasting Room, the address is
#38 Yu Xiou Road,  about 1 km outside the east gate of Old Dali.

"The Nose Knows....."

          When it comes to "tasting" tea, the nose does most of the work, so when you're not sure if the taste on the tongue is true, you can always "tell by the smell," or as we used to say in the Late  Sixties, "When in doubt, use your snout!"   The sense of smell is far more sensitive than the sense of taste, and the nose is capable of distinguishing subtle variations in fragrance and delicate differences in flavor that are lost on the taste buds in the mouth.   Without the sense of smell to fine tune, sort,  and amplify the initial sensations of taste,  we would find very little sensory stimulation and aesthetic appreciation in the things we eat and drink.

          The borderline between fragrance (shiang) and flavor (wei) is almost impossible to define, but it's clear that we can "smell"  flavors much more clearly than we can "taste" them.   In Chinese tea talk, there's a special term used in reference to the taste of tea, a term that combines the two dimensions of sensory perception into one quality---shiang wei, literally "fragrance-flavor," the fusion of sensations that defines the essential taste of any tea.

          There are basically five ways to detect and appreciate aroma in tea, and to savor its essential fragrance-flavor:


     *  Dry leaf in the caddy or canister:   This is the first sniff test for any tea, and it's always applied in a tea shop when you are considering the purchase of a particular tea.   When hosting friends at your tea table , you can  pass the tea caddy around and let your guests enjoy a sniff.   A good grade tea, particularly High Mountain Oolong varietals, will display a faintly floral, slightly sweet fragrance when smelled dry.   If the smell is sour, acrid, or moldy, then the tea is not good, and may even be spoiled from exposure to air, excessively long storage, heat, humidity, and other factors of carelessness in processing and handling.

     *  Dry leaf in a hot pot:  This is my favorite way of  savoring the fragrance-flavor of a good quality High Mountain Oolong Tea, especially hand-crafted High Mountain Oolongs from Taiwan.  First, pre-heat a tea pot  so that it's steaming hot inside, then add the dry tea, replace the lid, and let it stand for about one minute.   Bring the pot up to your nose, remove the lid, then flare your nostrils over the mouth of the pot and take in a few deep whiffs.  The best High Mountain Oolongs will release an intensely rich, dense, sweet aroma that reminds me for all the world of fresh sugar cane.  For me, that  sugar cane aroma is the gold standard of High Mountain Oolong Tea, the smell I always look for before buying a large amount of any particular vintage.

        Different varietals will produce different aromas when allowed to rest in a hot tea pot for a minute or two.  One of the most intense and beautiful is the aroma of Oriental Beauty, which releases a strong fruity bouquet laced with streaks of honey and spice.   Flower teas, such as our Jasmine Oolong, first unfurl a burst of floral essence released  from the added flower petals, followed by the more subtle tones of the tea leaf.

       If no aroma is released by the dry tea in a hot pot, or if the smell is stale, sour, or mildewed,  the tea is weak and insipid or spoiled, and you should immediately dump it into the trash and rinse your pot immediately with boiling water.

     *  Steeped tea steaming in the cup:  Immediately after pouring the first cup of tea into a cup, hold the steaming cup of tea up to your nose, or lean over the cup on the  tea tray, and whiff the vapor wafting up from the surface of the hot tea.   Good quality High Mountain Oolong will reveal  fleeting flashes of floral scent, or the sweet smell of fresh fruit, or a slightly spicey aroma.  Although these sensations technically belong to "smell" because they enter the nose, the fragrance travels down the sinus passage into the mouth, where it triggers the associated sensation of flavor and thus becomes a "taste" as well.   It's the smell that really reveals the essential nature of the taste.

      *  Sniffing the snifter cup:  The best way to savor and distinguish the most subtle shades of fragrance and flavor in good quality High Mountain Tea is to use the tall snifter cup for the first and second cups of tea.   Pour the tea directly into the snifter, filling it to the brim, let it stand for half a minute, then pour the tea from the snifter into the shorter, wider drinking cup.   Immediately sniff the vapors that rise within the hot empty snifter cup, then wait 20-30 seconds and sniff again, and then again after another pause.  Different tones of aroma and taste unfold as the cup cools, revealing the full spectrum of  constituent fragrance and flavor in the tea.  Oriental Beauty and Iron Goddess of Mercy  play a virtual symphony of olfactory sensation in your head when you use a snifter to sniff their essence.

     *  Aftertaste:   Some tea connoisseurs say that the true taste of a good High Mountain Oolong reveals itself most clearly in the aftertaste that rises up from the throat and echos on the palate and in the sinuses after swallowing a sip of fresh hot tea.   To catch it, you must pay close attention:  take a big sip of hot tea from the cup, let it flow across your tongue and gums, then swallow it in one
gulp.  Slightly part your lips after swallowing and take note of the subtle sensations that rise up to the top of the throat and up into the sinus passage.  The aftertaste usually has a "dry" and "hollow" tone that reveals aspects of fragrance and flavor that remain hidden when the tea is in the cup or mouth.  The best way to cultivate this method of savoring the fragrance-flavor in the aftertaste is to practice with tea steeped more strongly than usual.

          In order to get maximum sensitivity from your "sniffer," it's important to keep your nose clean, particularly the sinus passage that connects to the upper throat, where tea vapors rise from mouth to nose.   The best way to do this is to use the "Neti" nasal douche once or twice a week.  This is a simple but very effective way to flush debris from the nasal passages, wash out oily deposits and pollutants, and refresh the receptors which transmit aromatic essences to the olfactory nerves.   Either buy a special Neti pot, or use an ordinary medium size tea pot, with about 1/2 tsp of good quality sea salt in pure water slightly above body temperature.

          As a final note of interest on this topic,  the common vernacular Chinese word for the verb "to smell" is  wen,  which in classical literary Chinese means "to hear."   The  written character contains the root symbol for  "ear,"  clearly indicating that the original meaning of this ideogram is related to the ears and sense of hearing.     Nevertheless,  when a Chinese today says, "This tea smells good,"  he's also saying, according to the original definition of the word,  "This tea sounds good."   So try "listening" to the smell of the tea in your cup and "see" if you can "hear" its aroma and thereby "smell" its  taste.

New Tea Book

          Browsing through the Mandarin Bookshop in Dali a few weeks ago, I noticed a title that immediately caught my eye: The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea, by Bret Hinsch.   Most books that claim to guide the reader through the wonderful world of Chinese tea not only fail to provide any useful guidance, but also further add to the reader's confusion.  But this book has a photo of a classical  "purple sand" (dze sha) yishing style tea pot on the cover, and I happen to have one exactly the same size, shape, and color in my own tea pot collection, so I took that as a good omen and bought the book.

          The author is a sinologist and tea person who has lived for the past 15 years in Taiwan, where he teaches history and drinks vast quantities of good tea.   His book reflects the depths of both his scholarship and his tea connoisseurship,  and is chock full of interesting information that can help novice Western tea drinkers find their way through the labyrinth of Chinese tea culture and become bonafide cha ren (tea people).   The chapters on how to properly prepare and appreciate Chinese tea are particularly useful for Western people who have recently entered the Way of Tea but  still don't have any well seasoned tea friends to coach them.

          Publication details and link to amazon.com are given on the "Tea Books" page: http://oolong-tea.org/teaBooks.htm

Tea Therapy

          When tea was first discovered in China thousands of years ago, it was designated as a medicinal herb and used for mainly therapeutic purposes.   Not until the Tang Dynasty (608-906 AD) did tea become a common household beverage in China and take its place as an indispensable icon of Chinese culture.

          During the Ming Dynasty, the great Chinese physician Dr. Li Shih-jen (1517-1593 AD) composed his great masterpiece,  The Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Herbs, a task that took him 27 years to complete.   It lists 1,892 medicinal herbs, with detailed, accurate information on each herb's medicinal properties,  botanical nature,
and therapeutic applications.   Not only did this book immediately become the cornerstone for the study and practice of herbal medicine in China,  it was soon translated into Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, English, French, German, and Russian, providing the foundation for herbal medicine in those countries as well,  and its highly scientific way of categorizing and describing plants influenced the research and theoretical framework of Charles Darwin's work.

          So let's see what Dr. Li had to say about tea.  In the entry on tea as a medicinal herb, we find the following statement:

          "Tea is essentially 'bitter' and basically 'cold.'  As one
          of the most  yin  among all yin herbs, it is very
          effective for quelling 'fire' in the body. "Fire" is the root
          cause of myriad ailments.   Tea also clears the negative
          emotions and eliminates the fiery moods caused by excess                'fire' in the human system."

          Now let's analyze this statement and find out what it means in medical parlance.  "Bitter" refers not to the taste of tea but rather to its essential energetic nature as medicine, based on the Five Elemental Energies (wu shing), which correspond to the Five Elemental Flavors (wu wei).  Bitter herbs are known for their detoxification and anti-inflammatory properties.

          "Cold" is not a reference to ice tea, but rather another therapeutic classifier of herbal energetic properties.  Cold herbs tend to calm the human system, cool excess heat in the vital organs, balance over-stimulated nerves,  and counteract the effects of overly "hot" foods (e.g. meats, sweets, spices, etc) and beverages (e.g. liquor) in the digestive system.  That's why Chinese tea is always served at Chinese meals.

          Yin  is the opposite of yang in the Great Principle of Yin and Yang that lies at the heart of all Chinese philosophy and science.  Among the many polar properties to which yin and yang refer, such as hot and cold, light and dark, robust and weak,  in Chinese medicine yin  also means "alkalizing" and yang means "acidifying."  Therefore, Dr. Li is telling us that tea is one of the most alkalizing among all the alkalizing herbs, which today is one of the best reasons of all for drinking Chinese tea the Chinese way, because everyone today consumes far too much acid-forming foods and beverages,  and  thus carries far too much acid waste in the blood and cellular fluids.  High Mountain Oolong Tea in particular is one of the most potent alkalizers on earth for the human body.

          Quelling "fire" means reducing excess heat in the body, but more importantly today,  it also means reducing inflammation in the tissues.   Inflammation in the tissues is often associated with excess acid waste, such as, for example, the inflammation associated with arthritis, which is caused by acid wastes stored in the joints as crystal spurs.  Inflammation is also the primary cause of chronic pain in the body, so anything that reduces inflammation also helps alleviate chronic aches and pains.   Inflammation in the brain is a contributing cause in Alzheimer and other forms of senile dementia,  inflamed lungs cause serious respiratory disease, inflamed joints cause crippling arthritis,  liver inflammation in heavy drinkers leads to cirrhosis and hepatitis,  and tissue inflammation in general is the root cause of  many other "myriad ailments" .     Tea is therefore the great  "fire extinquisher" for excess heat and inflammation in the human body,  the soothing yin elixir that rescues us from our excessively yang habits.

          Excess "fire" (yang, heat,  acid, over-stimulation, inflammation, etc) also has a direct  inflammatory effect on the human mind and emotions.  The explosive temper of the intemperate drinker,  the bad moods of a person with chronic liver inflammation,  the depression of someone with too much acid waste in the brain, the melancholy mood associated with clogged bowels and dirty blood, all of these supposed  "psychological problems" are in fact nothing more than mental symptoms associated with fundamental physiological imbalance in the body, particularly the condition known as "acidosis" (excess acid waste in the tissues).   Tea therefore serves an an effective way to rebalance emotional response and restore mental equilibrium in a disordered system.

          Now you know why even beggars in China usually carry an old battered plastic bottle with a handful of tea leaves stuffed inside, to which they continuously add water.  They know something that  Western doctors don't know:  tea is one of the best medicines on earth for the most basic chronic ailments which all humans experience in the course of life, and it works very well.


Tail Piece

          The great Sung Dynasty poet Su Tung-po, who was a dedicated practicioner of Zen Buddhism as well as a famous connoisseur of  Chinese  tea  and thus understood the  meaning of the phrase "Tea and Zen are one taste,"  is often quoted in Chinese literature as an authority on the true spirit and essential nature of  tea.   Being a poet, and poets being who they are, Su saw a lot more than esoteric Zen teachings in his tea.  Sipping a particularly beautiful tea in a particularly beautiful garden with a few intimate friends one afternoon,  he suddenly put down his tea cup, picked up his writing brush, and dashed off a seven-character line that has become a favorite quote about tea  among Chinese tea people, and it appears frequently inscribed on tea pots, tea caddies, tea trays, and tea scrolls:

tsung lai jia ming seh jia ren

"Always and in all
ways, a beautiful tea
is just like a beautiful woman."

          That means beautiful tea always looks good, smells good, tastes good, feels good, and is good for you.   It might also mean it can be fickle, requires special attention to bring out its best,  needs to be waited for before it's ready, and may have some traits that defy logical explanation.  We'll leave further comparisons to your own imagination.......

         

 

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