Summer 2015 "Elevation" Large Leaf Red Tea
It’s that time of the year again: the only tea we repeat every year, the return of the classic Sun Moon Lake red tea we’ve come to call “Elevation”. The tea for this month is our all time favorite tea, and the one we send home with travelers who stop at our center! You could say it’s our signature tea: the one we use to introduce new tea wayfarers to the path—the first wayside sign on the road. It’s also one of the teas we like to serve when we set up our roadside huts, serving tea to passersby.
This amazing red tea is definitely a living tea, in all the ways we have been discussing in previous issues of these newsletters: It is seed-propagated, the trees have room and space to grow, there is a living relationship with the local ecology— undergrowth, plants, insects, animals, molds and bacteria—there are, of course, no chemicals used in its production and no irrigation either.
It shines with a bright and uplifting energy that makes it the perfect morning tea, radiating your day and filling it with “elevation”. It is simple and true, and you feel like you know it after your first bowl, as if a beloved friend from another lifetime has come back to you.
As you may remember, there are two main varietals of tea: small leaf and big leaf. Originally, all
tea comes from the forests in and around Southwest China: Yunnan, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and
Eastern India. The ancestor trees are single-trunked, with large wide crowns that can grow several meters in height. The roots are also deep, extending down into the Earth before branching. Then, as tea traveled north and east—naturally or by human hands—it adapted to colder, sometimes higher, climates and terroir.
These trees, called “small leaf ”, developed into several trunks, like a bush, with roots that extend outwards rather than down. The leaves got smaller and smaller as tea progressed north into colder climes, until they get so small in places like Japan that when they are rolled, they look like little needles (like sencha or gyokuro). Our tea of the month is a large leaf varietal, like puerh.
When the Japanese occupied Taiwan, they wanted to develop several long-term agricultural projects to help their economy. They brought many large leaf trees and saplings, as well as seeds, from Eastern India to make red tea plantations, choosing Sun Moon Lake for its accessibility and for the way the terroir was similar to the original home of these trees. Soon after, the Japanese were expelled and their gardens were abandoned. In the coming decades, these semi-wild gardens would grow up and also produce completely wild offspring, as well as adapting and relating to the local terroir in all the amazing ways a tea tree can— through the soil, the insects, rain and minerals, sun and rock. Our tea comes from one such small, organic and ecological garden consisting primarily of semi-wild trees with some wild ones scattered about.
The farmer, Mr. Shu, is an amazing man. Many of his nearby neighbors have utilized their gardens to create more industrial plantations and get rich. He says he only wants enough to provide for his family, and therefore keeps it simple and organic. He has even bought up some nearby property so that he can control the proximity his trees have to anything harmful others may be using. For that reason, the tea is incredibly clean and bright, speaking of its long heritage here in these mountains,
and beyond to the older forests its ancestors once lived in, at the foot of the great Himalayas.
Further proof of Mr. Shu's love for Tea is found in the way he dealt with the betel nut trees on the new land he purchased. Betel nut is a mild intoxicant sold throughout Asia. The tree is easy to grow, requiring little care; so many farmers plant it in and around their tea to supplement their income. This kind of palm is unhealthy and bad for the land, depleting the soil and causing landslides due to its root structure. It has a negative impact on the energy of the tea as well. Consequently, Mr. Shu has killed the betel trees that were on the land he bought. The dead trunks have been invaded by grubs that quickly consume the pith of the betel trees. When split open, this makes a nice fertilizer for
the tea trees.
In Harmony with Heaven
Mr. Shu is a second-generation farmer with an incredible attitude. While his neighbors constructed new-and-improved houses with satellite dishes, he stayed humble, simple and in love with his work and trees. Two years ago, there was a drought and bugs that decimated the area—insects that come only every decade or so. When we talked to him about it, he responded with great wisdom, proving that—like the ancient Daoist texts—even the simplest people can achieve harmony with the Dao, mastery of life and a great wisdom that we all can learn from. He said that at that time, he received less. If he were to stress about that, or worse yet, compromise his values and turn to pesticides for help, it would be like rejecting his destiny, arguing with Heaven. Furthermore, he said that it would show how ungrateful he was for what Nature had given him. “We should be grateful for what Nature provides and accept the times that Heaven takes from us— learning from times of having less, or even losing what we have, as much as in times of abundance. We all will face lack and loss sooner or later. If you resist, and argue with Heaven that your destiny is unfair, you don’t learn and there will be greater misfortune later. Better to accept whatever Nature gives us and be grateful for it. I have less this year, but it is okay because I saved when I had more last year; and maybe next year I will have more again.” There couldn’t be deeper life lessons than these!
Red Tea vs. Black Tea
Once again, it is important to understand that what most Westerners call “black tea” is actually “red tea”. Ordinarily, it doesn’t matter what something is called, but in this case there is actually a problem, because there is another kind of Chinese tea that is called “black tea” (characterized by it post-production, artificial fermentation). So if you call red tea “black tea,” then what do you call black tea? The reasons for this error are to do with the long distances the tea traveled in chests to Europe, and even more importantly with the general lack of information for the first few hundred years tea was traded. Europeans weren’t allowed inland in those days, and never saw the tea trees or the processing either (except some roasting). Buying through middlemen in broken pidgin, you could see how easy it would be to spread misinformation. We repeat this every timewe send a red tea, because it is an important mistake that we tea lovers have to correct in the world, so that the real black tea can have its name back!
Tea of the Month
Most red tea is processed in 3-4 phases: first it is picked and then it is withered, traditionally on bamboo trays stacked on shelves built to hold them. The withering of red tea is very long, usually from twelve to twenty-four hours. It is then rolled for an exceptionally long time, to continue the oxidation and break down the cells. It literally turns into a pasty mass in the process. Then it is dried, usually in an oven. Our tea, however, is completely different. The farmers think we are crazy, but we ask them to decrease the withering and the rolling period, leaving some green in the leaves, which you will see when you brew them (essentially, we’ve asked that the tea be less oxidized than that which is produced commercially). The reason for the heavy oxidation in normal red tea processing is to make the tea sweet and delicious. Nevertheless, we have found that such extreme processing removes some of the tea’s Qi, and distances it from the mountain and deep essence it touches. This is especially relevant when the tea leaves were plucked from old-growth, big leaf tea trees. The leaves of these large-leaf trees are often bitter and astringent, but we can accept a bit of that along with the sweetness, can’t we? And isn’t that a significant life lesson as well? In the end, we’d rather have a slightly less sweet tea with incredible and relaxing Qi thanthe other way around.
The old farmer smiles and says he likes our quirkiness. We hope you will understand why we make our red tea like this. We don’t produce it for sale, only for free. We only wish we could give it to you for less.
Like last year's, the tea this year was a bit more oxidized than usual, due to a lack of rainfall. Mr. Shu still decreased the withering and rolling for us, but not as much as in previous years. The raw tea leaves themselves were also more astringent, so a bit more oxidation was necessary.
Sun Moon Lake
By Lindsey Goodwin
The origin of this month’s tea is Taiwan’s famed Sun Moon Lake (日月潭 or Ri Yue Tan). It’s an idyllic area of Taiwan, and it has been designated a “National Scenic Area” (which is cooler than it sounds, because Taiwan is practically overrun with stunning nature sites, and there are thirteen places in the country with this designation).
These days, Sun Moon Lake is a major tourist destination, which has its pros (i.e., signs in English, good infrastructure and some great places to stay) and cons (i.e., traffic and crowds on the weekends). Most people consider Sun Moon Lake to be a romantic getaway spot. It’s a popular honeymoon destination, and during even a short visit there you’ll likely espy more than one couple getting their wedding photos shot on the lake’s shores, in a bamboo thicket or alongside tea plants with a backdrop of verdant mountains and clear waters...
But there are other types of tourists there as well: Cyclists love to loop the lake or meander past it while on a larger journey around Taiwan; religious pilgrims pay visits to several of the local temples, including one built by former president Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother (the one where Wu De proposed to Joyce); Chinese sightseers arrive by the bus-full to ride boats and snap pictures before being carted off to the next venue on the group tour’s checklist; Taiwanese families go there for boating as well, and for the fantastic local delicacies, which include bamboo shoots, edible ferns and tea-related dishes. (Although the Red Tea ice cream and sweet, Red Tea ‘egg roll’ pastries are popular, I find Sun Moon Lake’s version of tea eggs, seasoned with spices, Red Tea and local mushrooms, to be the most delicious of all the area’s tea cuisine.) And for tea people like us, the main draw to Sun Moon Lake is, of course, the tea itself. Sun Moon Lake is famous for its Red Teas. These
teas often have dark, wiry, twisted leaves and brilliant red liquor. They may have opulent notes of fruit, mint and spice, and overall they tend to lean toward the lighter end of the spectrum of Red Teas, much like a heavily oxidized oolong.
On the main drag of the town, tea is loudly peddled at all sorts of shops and casually poured at practically every restaurant and cafe. If you ever visit Sun Moon Lake, I advise skipping all that busy hawking and spilling. The tea tends to be (How to put this?) not the best quality and it is almost never organic, plus the atmosphere is touristy American tourist traps!). However, there are much better teas (and tea environs) to be found if you journey out from the town’s center a bit. If you bring your own tea or are able to source some organic Sun Moon Lake Red Tea while in the area, thereare countless spaces for outdoor tea sessions around the lake and in the nearby woods and mountains. You can rent a scooter and explore to find your own tea spots there, connecting with the land, the water, the lake
breeze and the mountains. (For better or worse, on the weekends, you can also connect with the scores of other tourists.)
During a visit to Sun Moon Lake earlier this year, I had a few beautiful Matcha sessions with Merlin,
each in a different setting around the lake. But there really is something to be said for drinking Sun Moon Lake tea around Sun Moon Lake, too. Luckily, this is easy for us. We here at the center are blessed with connections to two local tea producers in Sun Moon Lake. One tea producer specializes in organic Assamu (Assam varietal) Red Tea, and is the maker of this month’s tea. Although the family speaks little English, we are sometimes able to arrange visits to witness production firsthand at their small factory. You can learn more about this producer in the short article on this month’s tea. The second producer we know is larger, and they produce several types of Red Tea, including an Assamu, large-leaf tea like our Tea of the Month, the celebrated Ruby Red (Taiwan 18) and Rose Quartz (Taiwan 21), and even some small-leaf Red Tea made from Taiwanese varietals. They also have a “DIY” tea production area, in which you can roll your own red tea by hand. The company
handles the picking, oxidation, drying, packaging, etc., and you can watch some of these aspects of production, or you can sit and drink tea with the woman who runs the company (and her sister, who speaks English). But the real joy in visiting this factory is rolling the tea! If nothing else, rolling your own tea gives you a sense of the incredible skill held by tea masters. In my travels, I’ve had the chance to see many people try their hands at tea production for the first time. Almost every time I’ve witnessed this, a newbie exclaims something along the lines of, “This is much harder than I thought it would be! You really have to work to make tea.” (And most of the time, they weren’t even awake before dawn to harvest the leaves!) We all know in theory that making tea by hand is difficult, but (to state the obvious) we can’t know this experientially until we actually experience making tea for ourselves. This firsthand experience of working with tea leaves generates immense respect for the people who produce our tea, and for the tea itself.
Furthermore, rolling your own tea can provide a much more direct, visceral and even spiritual connection with tea than you might imagine. The Ruby Red varietal is particularly suited for this kind of participation with the Leaf. During rolling, its thick cell walls rupture to ooze out a syrupy juice that smells of wintergreen, cinnamon and ripe fruit. As you work, gripping, rolling and releasing these increasingly sticky leaves over and over again, your hands are stained russet. You then lean forward repeatedly to put a little weight into the rolling, and your back and shoulders slowly begin to feel warm, then sore. You can feel the effort clearly. You can feel the rewards for your effort clearly. And if you pay close attention, you can feel something else happening: You can feel the tea interacting with you in a less physical, more spiritual, way.
Even more so than water, tea is a spectacular sender and receiver of energy. Many of you have felt this in your tea drinking and preparation, so you know of what I speak. Imagine feeling that same kind of communication, only with leaves that were plucked from trees that morning, and which are being shaped (by you) into leaves which will be infused and consumed (likely by you and people close to you)...
Although I didn’t do this the first couple times I rolled tea (I was too focused on getting the basic technique down!), now I like to roll tea with an intention to communicate Tea spirit through the leaves and to help people connect to Nature and themselves through tea. I like to put metta (loving-kindness) into the tea. I can’t say whether it helps the taste, but it certainly seems to help those who drink it, and that’s what really matters. There’s another way tea people like ourselves enjoy connecting with tea in Sun Moon Lake. This one involves old tea trees. Sun Moon Lake has a unique history of tea production dating back slightly under one hundred years. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the Japanese government tried to move Taiwanese farmers away from Oolong production. The Japanese tea company Nitton wanted to (and, for a time, did) fiercely compete with international Red Tea brands like Lipton; and the Japanese government wanted their newly acquired lands to produce a markedly different product from the Green Teas of Japanese make, a product which would create more profit for their empire. For this reason, they pushed Oolong producers into Red Tea production, and set up a tea research and production facility in Sun Moon Lake for making the Red Tea venture more prosperous. When the era of Japanese occupation ended, some farmers returned to Oolong production (and aren’t we glad they did!), while a few others stuck to Red Tea, generally in climates and elevations especially suited to it. The efforts to generate successful Taiwanese Red Teas were and continue to be part of what makes Taiwan’s tea production so special and unique. However, in Sun Moon Lake production was abandoned for several decades after the Japanese were expelled, and then restarted in modern times.
In the early days of Taiwanese Red Tea research and production, several large plots of sloped land near the lake were planted with tea seeds. Each seed was genetically distinct, and each of the many surviving plants has its own variances. During a stroll through the groves, you can easily see that some trees grow tall and lanky as though reaching for the sun and moon, while others spread gracefully upwards and outwards like a half-unfolded fan. And you may even glimpse ones that remain squat and stocky like a Hobbit nearing his 111th birthday, or rise thick and dense from the soil like a stone column from more ancient times. A closer look will show you that there are infinite other differences. One tree’s leaves are waxy and thick, with sawtoothed serrations along the edges and veins a few shades off from the deep, blue-green of their flesh; another’s leaves are a tinge more yellowy, smaller and completely smooth around the edges, with veins that bulge out rather than differentiate themselves by color. The density of the leaves changes completely from one tree to the next, as does the abundance (or lack) of flowers (which may, themselves, differ in size, shape, color, etc.). And the seed pods! Encasing one or more seeds, these pods: fuzzy and tawny, waxen and emerald, thick and parched like dried citrus peel, thin like soaked birch bark wrapped around pearls. They show such variance, perhaps hinting at the treasure troves of genetic material contained within.
A closer look reveals that these are not just surface differences: Just as processing and steeping the leaves of each of these plants would produce a vast assortment of tastes and aromas, stopping to get a sense of the plants themselves uncovers a very different sense of ‘Being’ from each plant. The spirit of Tea is clear as soon as you step onto the overgrown fields, but the spirits of the individual tea plants show themselves a little more slowly. If you take the time to do so, connecting with the plants in this way can be a profoundly meaningful experience, and a tremendous way to connect more deeply with Tea’s essential nature. If you have the chance to visit our center in Taiwan for more than a couple weeks, I highly recommend a two- or three-day trip to Sun Moon Lake while you’re in the area. In addition to being all-round awesome, it’s accessible by public transit (Three cheers for Taiwanese infrastructure!) and it’s very reasonably priced by Western standards. We can help you arrange a visit to see the old tea trees, set you up at an incredible guest house and organize an opportunity to do some tea rolling of your own.But that’s in another Now... For the time being, share this month’s gorgeous tea with someone who needs it!
The Seven Genres of Tea
Learning the seven genres of tea is the first map you'll need to start exploring the Tea world. Wu De clears up some of the misinformation about these basic categories, and leaves us with a basic understanding of each kind, so that we'll know where to head from here, and which maps we'll need along with us on our Tea Journey
Perhaps a friend brought you to tea, or you were passing by a tea shop on some trip and your eye was drawn to a certain pot or cup. Maybe the Eastern exoticism enticed you to Tea—the rich flavors, aromas and sensations. And nothing has been the same since that first sip. The doorway cracked and you saw open before you a vast and clear world waiting to be explored...
For thousands of years we’ve been ensorcelled by the Leaf: it has built and destroyed empires, been the currency of nations and wars, spanning the vast human spectrum from greed and selfishness to the highest of spiritual states. And when you include the hundreds of generations devoted to the farming and processing of tea, the creation of myriad teapots, cups, whisks and scoops, you can appreciate just how immeasurable the tea world is, as if looking into this new world you first only noticed that there were beautiful flowers and trees in the vicinity of the doorway, but later looked further and saw mountains and rivers, villages and cities beyond...
Amongst the many genres of tea, there is one called oolong. Continuing our metaphor of Tea as a land you’ve begun to explore, we might say oolong is a city in this foreign place. Oolong is a great and bustling city, one of the biggest in Tea. It is grown on several mountains, one of which is the famed Mt. Wuyi, in the province of Fujian, China. The oolong tea produced there is called “Cliff Tea” or “Rock Tea” and is one of the brightest and richest of all oolong teas. And there are hundreds of kinds of Cliff Tea, each with its own distinct bush, flavor, aroma, etc. The point being that one kind of tea, oolong, is grown on dozens of mountains, and that any one of those mountains produces a plethora of teas, each an adventure in and of itself... We discuss this only to demonstrate just how huge the tea world is, encouraging you to develop an appreciation for the rich history, culture and spirit in Tea, as well as a patience in your exploration, since there are lifetimes of tea to be drunk.
We know that many of you are just starting this journey into Tea and thought it might be helpful if you had a rough map of the terrain to help guide you. Before we give you that, though, we thought the more poetic description of Her grandeur would inspire you to travel on. It is also important to note that the map is not the terrain, and the categories of tea we are using here, and their descriptions, are only general overviews. You’ll need a more detailed map when you get to each of the Tea cities, in other words. Some teas rest near the borders of one category or another, whilst a few defy all categorization, especially with all the experimentation that goes on in modern tea production. Nevertheless, knowing the different tea processing methods and the basic categories of tea can help start you off in the right direction.
Throughout history, different tea scholars have categorized tea into different groups—some have five, some six and some seven. It isn’t important how many we use. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be discussing tea in seven main groups: white, green, yellow, red, oolong, black and puerh.
Especially in the West, we find that there is sometimes a slight confusion in written tea materials about the nature of these categories. It is often said that all tea is a single species, Camellia sinensis, and that the differences in the categories of tea are all to do with how the tea is processed. There is some truth in this, which is why it is so often published throughout the tea world, but it is also potentially misleading. Let’s clarify this before we map out each of the kinds of tea and their processing.
It can be confusing when tea people say that the categories of tea are strictly defined by processing methodology, because the seven kinds of tea weren’t invented at once, but rather evolved over time in response to the variations in the plant as it changed terroir. It is a very modern, and in many ways unhealthy practice to tell Nature what to do. Traditional farming was always about accepting the bounty of Nature with gratitude, rather than coercing Her to give certain kinds of foods in certain amounts. Consequently, ancient tea farmers were conversing with their trees and adapting their skills to suit the tea they plucked. Cliff Tea processing was developed in response to certain bushes, in other words. And while you could potentially process any tea in the world in the same way you process a Wuyi Cliff Tea—and some people are doing that very thing, even right outside Wuyi province—it will never be the same as genuine Wuyi Cliff Tea. So is Cliff Tea a kind of tree or a kind of processing? It’s hard to say, which is why the issue is complicated.
In this day and age, farmers are more and more trying to set themselves apart by processing tea in unique ways: taking tea from trees that have been used to make puerh for hundreds of years and processing the leaves like red tea, for example. And sometimes the results of these experiments are amazing— even beginning whole trends in the industry, like the movement towards greener Tie Guan Yin in Anxi province, as well as in Taiwan, over the last two decades. For the most part, however, these experimental teas rarely compete with the traditionally processed teas of a region. The fact is that the processing of each particular kind of tea evolved over hundreds of years by skilled craftsman who were conversing and listening to the local leaves and refining their skills to produce the tea in the way that best suits it. There are exceptions, however, and it is important for innovation to continue, especially when the adaptation occurs in the true spirit of Tea.
Before we begin exploring the different categories of tea, we need to clarify that Taiwan oolong tea, for example, is a kind of bush as well as a processing method (actually many kinds of bushes).
The seven kinds of tea we are discussing relate only to the processing methodology and therefore do not take into account all of the regional variations or the different kinds of trees there are in the world. We could easily have a hundred or more categories of tea, and this would then turn into a book. We think the analogy of a map is perfect here, as you can then think of this article as the most general of aerial views, showing only major mountains and big cities. As such, it is a good place to start if you are just getting to know the country, but eventually you will also want to get some more detailed maps that explore all the roads and lanes of all the big cities, and even the small hamlets as well.
THE SEVEN GENRES OF TEA
White tea is a simple kind of tea. The tea is picked, withered and dried. It is most often dried in a controlled way, though traditional white tea was sun-dried in the province of Fujian, where they say white tea began. Like green tea, the highest quality white teas are often all buds, while lower grades contain a mixture of buds and leaves. The tea is called “white” because the buds of certain tea varietals have white hairs on them, which lend the small buds a whitish-silver appearance. As there is no processing to break down the thick cell walls, the only way to get at the real juice of this tea would be to boil it, which no one does these days. Instead, we steep this tea at lower temperatures. This produces a light-yellow, golden to clear liquor that is often floral and fragrant. The Qi often enters the body through the aroma and/or mouth.
Green tea has a bit more processing than white tea. It is processed in many different ways depending on the region. Basically, though, it is picked and then goes through some form of heat to arrest oxidation. This could be steaming, baking or most commonly pan-firing. It is then dried. The best green teas are often only composed of buds. After firing, green tea is then rolled/shaped before drying. The rolling breaks down the cell walls and oxidizes the tea slightly. The rolling for a green tea will always be significantly less than for other teas. Sometimes the firing/ rolling will be repeated a few times until the desired shape/color is achieved. The liquor of green tea can be clear to yellow or even vibrant green, depending on local variations. The Qi often enters the body through the aroma and/or mouth.
Yellow tea is only produced in a few places and is therefore one the rarest kinds of tea. It is almost always made of buds alone, requiring much more work than leaf and bud teas. It is processed a lot like green tea, with the added step of “sealing the fragrance”. This entails draping a wet cloth over the tea and steaming it. Tea is very sensitive to aromas around it, so the tea is in essence releasing and reabsorbing its own fragrance, or “sealing” it in if you wish. The liquor is golden and fragrant. Great yellow tea can be amazing. The Qi often enters the body through the aroma and/or mouth.
Oolong tea is the pinnacle of tea processing. It is the most involved of all the methodologies, and requires the greatest skill. Oolong is partially oxidized tea. As it requires the most complicated processing, there are also greater variations—minor and major—from region to region. Basically, oolong tea is picked and then goes through indoor and outdoor withering in order to dehydrate/soften the leaves and oxidize them. The most distinguishing feature of oolong occurs during the withering, in which the leaves are shaken in bamboo trays to bruise the edges. The best oolongs have a red ring around the edges of the leaves, as a result of masterful shaking. The shaking oxidizes the tea in a particular manner. The tea is then pan-fired to arrest oxidation and kill various green enzymes that make tea bitter. The fired tea is then immediately rolled to break down the cells and further oxidize the tea. Finally, traditional oolong is charcoal roasted, though there are many greener, less-roasted oolongs around these days, and often in electric roasters.
Oolong is either striped or balled. If it is balled oolong, it is rolled into tightened balls of three or more leaves using a cloth wound up into a tight, round shape. This tradition began in Anxi, Southern Fujian and then spread from there to Central Taiwan. If it is striped, the rolling occurs across ribbed bamboo mats, which creates long, twisted stripes of tea.
There are many levels of oxidation in oolong tea. It is a vast and populated city of Tea. There are so many varieties: from greener to traditionally roasted, striped to ball oolong, and even Oriental Beauty. Oolong is the most refined and elegant of teas, and best prepared gongfu style. It can be light or dark, and the Qi almost always flows through the aroma and mouth, rising upwards
Red tea is what people in the West mistakenly called “black tea”. Of course, names aren’t important. Tea is called many things in different languages—“a rose by any other name…” But, in this case, calling red tea “black tea” will cause you problems as you explore the world of tea, for as you can see below there is another genre of tea called “black tea.” And so if you call red tea “black tea” then what do you call black tea itself?
Some say that the reason for this error lies in the fact that Europeans carried the red tea back to Europe by ship, which took a long time and the environment in the cargo holds further oxidized, or even fermented the tea. Actually, the primary reason for the confusion comes from the fact that European traders were only allowed within two hundred meters of the dock during early trade with China. Consequently, they never saw the tea trees, processing, etc. and all they knew about tea came from the broken pidgin of the dock merchants that sold it to them. This, of course, caused all sorts of confusion.
Red tea is picked and then goes through pre-processing piling. The tea is withered in deep piles for anywhere between twelve and twenty-four hours. This greatly oxidizes the tea. Then the tea is rolled for a long time—up to ninety minutes—which produces a thick paste on and around the leaves, further oxidizing the tea. Sometimes the tea is re-piled at this point to ‘fully’ oxidize it (it is never 100% oxidized). Red tea can be oxidized to various degrees depending on the region, but it is almost always the most oxidized of all teas. There are other variations in some regions, like smoking the tea to add flavor.
Much of the red tea in India, Sri Lanka and other places outside China is processed by machine in what is called CTC (Cut Tear Curl). This low-quality tea is shredded up and oxidized in machines, primarily for use in tea bags which are meant to release all the tea has to offer in a single steeping. We wouldn’t recommend buying such tea, though. The long rolling really breaks down the cell walls, which means they can release more of their essence. This is why red tea is richer, darker and has a more full-bodied liquor. Because of this, red tea is often best drunk in the morning. The Qi is often more in the body.
Up until recently there weren’t many kinds of black tea left in the world, and only three famous ones: Liu Bao, Liu An and Hunnan “Thousand Tael” teas. Recently, however, a few older kinds of black tea processing from other regions have been revitalized. The main characteristic of black tea is a post-production piling. Unlike the pre-production piling of red tea, this is more like composting and involves bacteria. It is therefore “fermentation,” rather than “oxidation.” The tea is usually processed by picking, withering, pan-firing and rolling. The methods of piling vary in each of these teas, but all require moisture and temperature to facilitate bacterial growth. The liquor of black tea is dark and rich, with a warming Qi that spreads out from the chest.
Puerh tea is sometimes put into the black tea category, but it should actually have a category all its own. Traditional puerh is made from large-leaf, old-growth trees in Yunnan province, the birthplace of all Tea. The tea is picked and then withered to soften the leaves and oxidize them a bit. This withering can be done indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather. Then, tea is pan-fired to kill the green enzymes and arrest oxidation. It is next rolled to break down the cellular structure and shape it. Finally, traditional puerh tea is sun-dried. At this stage it is called “rough tea (mao cha).” Puerh tea is then often compressed into cakes, but can remain loose as is. The defining characteristics of puerh production are a shorter firing (sa qing) and sun-drying, both of which contribute to its fermentation.
Puerh tea is unique because the trees in the jungles of Southwestern China are covered in hundreds of species of molds and bacteria before the leaves are even picked. The relationship puerh tea has with these microbes is magical, allowing it to ferment over time as it ages. All tea can age and improve over time, but none like puerh. Puerh tea transforms completely over time, changing from a bitter, astringent liquor to a deep and dark brew that is full of more Qi than any other kind of tea. Nowadays, tea drinkers mostly feel that even twenty or thirty-year-old puerh is ancient. But there was a time, and not so long ago, when tea drinkers only drank puerh teas that were above seventy!
Starting in the 60’s, and then officially in 1972, several puerh factories were working to try to speed up the fermentation of puerh artificially. Of course they weren’t successful. How could science ever create the magic of seventy or a hundred years? What they did do, however, was create a new kind of tea, called “ripe puerh (shou).” Ripe puerh is processed like traditional “raw puerh (sheng)” only with the added step of post-production piling. They moisten piles of rough tea (mao cha) and then cover the pile with a thermal blanket, trapping heat and moisture and speeding up the bacteria’s work. This is much like composting. This idea to artificially ferment the tea post-production came from the puerh factory owners’ and researchers’ trips to black tea factories. Because ripe puerh was developed out of black tea production, many authors put all puerh in the black tea category. The problem with this, however, is that it ignores all the raw puerh (sheng), which is nothing like black tea; and is furthermore the traditional, and by quantity and quality the greater kind of puerh tea as well. It is, therefore, much more logical to give this unique tea its own category altogether.
Oxidation & Fermentation
By Robert Heiss
The manufacture of tea is a series of integrated steps that starts with freshly-plucked leaves and ends
with what we in the trade refer to as ‘finished’, or ‘made’ tea. The seven classes of tea (green, yellow, white, oolong, red, black, and Puerh) have several steps in common (such as plucking, primary sorting, finishing, etc.) as well as other aspects that are unique to only one or several particular
finished tea(s). Oxidation is one of the latter, a chemical process that must occur in the manufacture of several of the classes of tea, and prevented in others. In fact, the world of tea has historically been divided into two broad categories based on whether or not a finished tea has been oxidized.
Oxidation in Tea
First, let’s define oxidation: Oxidation is a biochemical, enzymatic activity during which oxygen is
absorbed by and subsequently causes changes to the host physical matter. In the case of freshly plucked leaf for tea, this is plant matter. Oxidation can be spontaneous or controlled and cause positive or negative change. A familiar example of spontaneous negative oxidation is what happens when one cuts an apple or banana and leaves the cut side open to the air. The exposed cells absorb oxygen, soften and turn brown. This is a very simple form of oxidation that most people have witnessed. Left undisturbed, the fruit may simply air-dry or it may rot, depending on the atmospheric conditions present in the room. Similarly, cutting an apple into slices and drying these in a dehydrator is an example of controlled oxidation, occurring within the process of drying. The browning of the cut surfaces is not considered aesthetically pleasing in the marketplace, so sulfur compounds or citric acid are sometimes used to mitigate the color change, but oxidation occurs in this situation even without a visible change in color.
During the manufacture of tea, both spontaneous and controlled oxidation occurs. Spontaneous oxidation occurs during the withering phase of the manufacture of white, oolong, and red teas. An exacting phase of controlled oxidation is one of the most important components of the manufacture of both oolong and red teas. Green and yellow teas are prevented from oxidizing by meticulous drying and/or frying techniques.
Oxidation is a chemical process that requires an abundance of moist, oxygen-rich air. For red tea production, oxidation rooms (or chambers) must provide ample humidified air to guarantee complete oxidation. The polyphenols in the leaf (tea catechins) bond to oxygen molecules, particularly during the early stages of oxidation. Oxidation in tea manufacture officially begins during the withering stage as spontaneous oxidation, and then accelerates gradually during the subsequent steps necessary
to transform fresh leaf into finished red tea. After several preliminary steps, prepped leaf is ready for the controlled oxidation process that is often incorrectly referred to as ‘fermentation’. Several chemical reactions that together comprise oxidation take center stage now under the controlled environment of the ‘official’ oxidation phase in the manufacture of red tea. In traditional oxidation the sieved leaf is spread out in a thin layer (maximum 2 to 3 inches, or 5 to 8 centimeters) on the floor of the factory, on tables or perforated trays that are similar to the withering troughs used during the (earlier) withering stage. The oxygenation of the polyphenols stimulates them to start the series of chemical reactions that ultimately yield the flavor components and cup characteristics that we expect in red tea. During the first and most important period of the enzymic oxidations, the enzymes polyphenol oxidase and peroxidase act on other polyphenols to produce theaflavins. These red-orange compounds then react with more polyphenols to produce thearubigins, the chemicals responsible for changing the leaf ’s color from green to golden, coppery, or chocolate brown. The thearubigins, meanwhile, are also busy reacting with some of the amino acids and sugars in the leaf, creating the highly polymerized substances that develop into the various and distinctive flavor components that we expect in red tea.
In general, theaflavins contribute to the brisk and bright taste of red tea, while the thearubigins are what provide strength (depth or body) and color. If the temperature of the leaf is allowed to rise too high, the controlled oxidation will rage out of control; and if it falls too low, oxidation will cease.
At this point the oxidizing leaf takes on a new moniker in Indian/Western tea classification: “dhool”.
Oxidation requires two to twenty-four hours and is controlled by experience, not by science. Although theremay be technical markers for determining a prospective end to the process, so many variables come into play that the best method for concluding that the proper oxidation level of the leaf has been reached is to rely on the experienced nose and eye of the expert monitoring the
The tea producer must control the thickness and raking of the leaf, which determines the exposure of
the surface area of the dhool to the air; the ideal ambient temperature (85°F, or 29°C) and relative humidity (98 percent); and the ventilation (ten to twenty complete changes of air per hour). Also, the environment must be completely hygienic; bacteria must be prevented from ruining the dhool.
During oxidation the dhool goes through a predictable series of flavor profiles: brisk, high color, and overall strength. The tea maker can direct the dhool into a particular style by adjusting the length of time allowed in oxidation in combination with regulating the temperature/humidity of the oxidation chamber. Most tea is manufactured to yield a balanced cup showing bright liquor, good intensity in the aroma, and a solid full body. When the tea maker has determined that the dhool is oxidized to the desired level (‘fully oxidized’ is a degree, notan absolute) the critical phase of controlled oxidation is halted by the final process of red tea manufacture: drying.
Fermentation in Tea
Fermentation is an important component in the fabrication of Puerh and other aged teas like Liu An,
Liu Bao, some Oolongs, etc. Therefore, any discussion of fermentation in tea manufacture ideally focuses on— and is well illustrated by—the manufacture of Puerh. So let’s examine what fermentation is and why careful, expert fermentation is so integral to the manufacture of traditional, high-quality Puerh. While it is one of the oldest and simplest forms of tea production, the world of Puerh is complex and exacting, to the extent that volumes have been written on the subject by Asian tea experts. However, we will not examine the specific complexities of the different types of Puerh manufacture here, as this article seeks only to offer a more general description of fermentation and oxidation.
Fermentation is microbial activity involving one or more types of bacteria, molds and yeasts. By definition, fermentation occurs most readily in the absence of oxygen, though exposure to some is ideal for aging Raw (Sheng) Puerh. The leaf that is being transformed into Puerh must be exposed to bacteria (or have bacteria present inherently) in order for fermentation to occur.
As is the case with the fabrication of traditional ‘hard’ cider or Roquefort cheese, the bacteria necessary for microbial activity to commence is present naturally, in the atmosphere and/or on the interior surface(s) of the chamber in which the fermentation occurs (the cider-house or cheese-curing cave). In the case of Puerh, the bacteria required to both initiate and maintain fermentation are potentially present during several aspects of its production:
- On the surfaces of the leaf of the old-growth plants themselves in the primordial forest where the large leaf tea trees grow—most famously in the mountains of the Xishuangbanna district of southwestern Yunnan Province, China.
- In the controlled environment of the teaproduction rooms in which the ‘Raw’ (Sheng) ‘ma cha’ is temporarily stored as it awaits compression; in the piles of mao cha during the artificial fermentation of Ripe (Shou) Puerh; and finally in the humid steam-enriched environment in which the cakes are compressed.
- To a lesser degree, in the monitored curing rooms where Sheng Puerh cakes are stored during postfermentation and aging.
During the fermentation phase of Puerh manufacture, several important factors must coalesce.
Following the harvest of the appropriate leaf, there should be ‘wild’ bacteria available on the leaf itself. This will range from ‘very little’ to ‘an abundance’ (#1
above). Leaf destined to become Puerh (‘mao cha’: withered, fried in a ‘kill-green’ (sa qing), kneaded (ro nian), and then partially-dried leaf) is bagged and stacked to await compression in bacteria-friendly steam; or in the case of Ripe tea (Shou), piled in a room whose exposure to the elements is traditionally controllable (#2 above). Unlike the shallow, porous piles of leaf created for oxidation, the mounds of mao cha that encourage the artificial fermentation of Shou Puerh are stacked thickly, densely and with minimal surface area exposed. The critical bacterial activity being encouraged at this point requires some oxygen replenishment but, as with a mulch pile for a vegetable garden, the mao cha pile is stirred infrequently, allowed to rest and generate the heat desired to encourage the multiplication of microbes and the paced decomposition of the leaf. Thermal blankets are often used to cover the surface and further encourage the process. Careful and methodical stirring periodically
maintains the proper surface area exposure, temperature and minimal oxygenation of the tea in the pile.
It is somewhat understandable to imagine the early confusion regarding withering, oxidation and
fermentation. Seeing piles of leaf on the floor being stirred and piles of leaf in troughs or on slats being turned, early tea traders may have been easily confused as to what processes were occurring during the rudimentary, artisan tea manufacture they were viewing (compounded of course by the reluctance of the Chinese to explain their 'secrets’). However, over the last 75 years much has been
written, and definition has been accomplished as to the clear differences between these processes.
An Introduction to Chaxi
By Shen Su
Along with last month's beginning to a new series on Chabana, we are renewing a regular series on arranging your space for tea. A lot of you contact us often with questions about chaxi, and it has been a while, so we thought we would start with an introductory article, traveling deeper in the coming months. Shen explores the philosophy of chaxi and some essentials to get you started as well.
If we want to invite more Tea into our lives, we need to expand our definition of what Tea is, rather than just increasing the frequency of doing one particular activity. Though in one practical sense, the practice of chaxi is done directly on the tea table, it requires us to consider many factors outside the tea space, even at the rudimentary level.
Let us broadly consider the term “chaxi”, as it literally translates: “tea stage.” Like in all tea practices, working with your tea stage is an expression of your state of mind, not to be confused with an expression of your self. Though an aspect of yourself will inevitably come through in the final expression, it is not the goal of a chaxi to express the self. We might simply say the goal of a chaxi is to create a harmonious setting that honors the communion between guest, host, and Nature in a chance encounter over tea.
A practical approach to chaxi
First and foremost, we must create space! This is the first thing anyone must do in order to invite Tea into their lives. The type of Tea that finds Her way into your life will be directly related to the space in which you create for Her. So, if our tea stage is to honor our self, our guest, Great Nature, and in fact all our brothers and sisters in Tea, as well as all the saints and sages of the past, present, and future, it must first be cleared and cleaned! On the surface level, this means cleaned of any dust and debris. In other words, physically cleaned. On the inner level, this means cleared energetically, from all past tea sessions that might cause us to forget that this tea session right here and now is both our first and last. It is our demonstration to the Universe that we acknowledge the uniqueness of this time together. It is a cleaning off of the dust of the world and worldly matters, purifying ourselves in preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Nothing is more important! It might sound cheeky, but another very good introductory article on tea could cover the art of cleaning and tidying. And let us remember that one of the Eight Bowls of a Life of Tea in this tradition directly addresses cleanliness and purity.
Start with emptiness
"Without anxious thought, doing comes from being." -Wu De
Once you have a clean stage upon which to practice, the next most important step is the same as with chabana, being before doing. Remember, this is both the ending of the last tea session and the beginning of the next. Expand your definition of the tea ceremony. You are always drinking tea. By being present, you prepare yourself for the next moment and honor the last.
How you act now will play a very influential role in the unfolding of the tea ceremony. What you lay out on the table will be a demonstration manifest of your state of mind.
This might sound a little extreme, but really, it’s a matter of heart. If we are to live a true life of Tea and Zen we must fervently seek the balance that strives towards perfection, and yet rains compassionately on all shortcomings. Life is fleeting, and this expression of beauty and art on the table could very well be the last mark you make on this Earth… Take a few breaths, quiet the mind, and envision your chaxi.
Arranging a chaxi
"Instead of thinking through the question that life is confronting you with, sit quietly and let your thoughts settle down. Allow the answer to emerge spontaneously from your intuition without unnecessary deliberation. Go straight to the solution." -Wu De
As with choosing a suitable tea for each ceremony, the design of our chaxi should strike a balance between certain practical factors and our intuition. It is always helpful to consider details, such as the time of day, the weather, the season, the number of guests, bowl tea or gongfu tea, etc In fact, in the beginning, most of us will lean towards using these details to design our tea stage. But it’s just as important to begin an internal dialogue between your, the space, the accoutrements to be used for the occasion, and the spirit of the Leaf. There is then less “me” in the design and more tea spirit, as it should be.
Though you may think yourself limited by having a small selection of tea stage elements, this is actually a good place to start. Having less to work with is actually an advantage in the beginning, just as it is advantageous to start with bowl tea, requiring only leaves and hot water in a bowl. With less parameters to consider, we can more easily connect to the spirit of what we are doing, and also as with bowl tea, the spirit of chaxi lies in simplicity and balance. With this as our foundation, it will be easier to work towards more elegant and refined chaxi layouts in the future, just as we progress to the more refined and complex brewing method of gongfu tea after first brewing bowl tea for a long time. As we so often say around here, advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered!
There are many chaxi elements to choose from and countless combinations to create. Luckily, many of your Global Tea Hut gifts can be put to use here! But as I said, you will want to start simple and work with less in the beginning, challenging yourself to be as creative as possible to suit each occasion. Not that elegance and aesthetics are forbidden from the tea stage, but in the beginning we must first “forget the bowl and remember the soul.” A stage with too many fancy items, items used out of harmony, or items that seem forced will yield a disharmonious or distracting feeling at the table. Like with chabana, utilization of space is not easy and also very important. Deciding to fill an open space or not can make or break a chaxi. Therefore, working on a smaller stage with simple elements is easier.
Ironically, some of the chaxi layouts that I have received the most praise for from friends are the ones that my teacher scolds me for the most. This is not to say my friends have poor taste, but rather, highlights the fact that what my chaxi did was excite the mind rather than draw it inward for silent contemplation. Simplicity is so important in the beginning! I have seen too many stages for tea (including many of my own) that were overly concerned with color combinations, elegant items, and sentimentality, which more than likely stemmed from an unconscious desire to seek attention. Walking this path of tea is not about being at the center of the stage but creating it for a higher purpose. It is about service, transformation and connection, and all ultimately for the benefit of others. We are not here to receive praise for our efforts but to honor the occasion. That is why stepping out of the way and purifying the self is so important, as the chaxi can then come through us rather than from us.
There are no set rules to laying out elements on your tea stage. After sitting quietly, I often start by choosing a runner in harmony with my chosen theme and all of the aforementioned factors. I usually use a cloth or bamboo runner or perhaps a wooden board suitable for tea. At this point, everything depends! You must choose wisely between tea boats, scoops and sticks, lid rests, miniature statues, bonsai, leaves and petals, water features, flowers, rocks, etc. Of these, maybe the most important item to work with is some sort of centerpiece to highlight your tea pot and bring focus and symmetry to the center of the stage, reminding us why we’re all here! That might be a low and rustic plate, or the more elegant rattan we sent out last month, among many other options.
During this process, I always sit down a number of times and get a feel for how everything is unfolding. I put myself in the guest’s position and contemplate how they might experience this chaxi. There comes a point at which you either feel satisfied or not. Feeling satisfied is easy to understand, just as when you level a scroll or hang a picture in the perfect spot—everything just clicks into place and you know it’s in harmony. This happens when you are calm, respectful, and heartfelt. When you feel unsatisfied, however, you can take something away, add something, or change everything! More often than not, when my teacher corrects and adjusts my chaxi, he takes something away or has me start over.
Finish your chaxi in a timely, calm fashion. Obviously, do not rush such an endeavor, but also don’t get caught up thinking too much. Stay centered, find your breath throughout, and work single-mindedly. When the tea begins, everything is perfect just as it is. But each time, ask yourself, is this your best effort?
How you finish anything is how you start the next thing. Just as we started by cleaning our stage, so too we end by cleaning. Gratefully, clear everything away. Do yourself and your guests a favor and make a new chaxi for every occasion! Be diligent! In doing so, you will notice the stagnation that sets in even after using the same chaxi only twice, and furthermore, your actions will be in harmony with the fact that this very encounter will only happen but once in our lives. And so, to honor this significant occasion, we arrange our chaxi.