Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Further Readings for August Global Tea Hut - Tea & Music

1)Balance In All Things 

By Brandon Boyd

Technology, like an exoskeleton, sits in plain view on our persons; an extension of ourselves, but varying in degrees of usefulness and or obsolescence depending on who's metaphorical horns we are talking about. I’ve spent most of my life juggling my relationship with Technology; both wary of it and grateful for it, a bit like a coin toss but wherein me, the user, can decide more often than not which side I’d like the shiny alloy to land. Do I take the antibiotic for this cough, or should I ride this one out and power up on the vitamin C and rest a lot? Should I turn on the air conditioning today or maybe just open the doors and let the outside in? Should I use my laser shooter to stop the two headed reptilian beast barreling towards me or just karate chop his ass and call it a day? Shall I check my phone to see what has appeared in my Instagram feed in the past twenty minutes or maybe read that book that’s been staring at me for the past six months? This last decision is perhaps one of the more perilous ones that we are faced with of late. Not in the specific case of that particular social media outlet, but when confronted by that two faced Janus we all both love to love and hasten to hate…the Internet. (Cue Darth Vadar’s ‘Imperial March’ music!)

The Internet has provided a new kind of dilemma when speaking on the notion of technology. This isn’t the first of it’s kind to rewire our brains, but it is the most convincing of its kind, as an “Intellectual Technology” and is pointing us due south into nothing short of addictive behaviors. Yep. Dammit.

The internet giveth and the internet taketh away.

I am the ripe age of 40; young enough to have processing space for tech developments, wherein I can embrace new shiny modes of transport, but old enough to recall a time when there was space to be bored. I feel almost blessed in a way to have lived half of my life unplugged and half (so far) with three prongs into the grid. In other words, I know what I am missing when I spend too much time on either end of the spectrum. Or to put it another way still, I like to strike a balance between being tuned in and knowingly tuned out. And I know you, reader, know where I am heading with this, being the tea faring crowd. But bear with me a touch longer, and I promise I’ll get to the leaf of the matter. If there is one…

“A lot is at stake in Attention. Where we put it is not only how we decide what we will learn, it is how we show what we value.”
     -Sherry Turkle (pg 160) ’Reclaiming Conversation’

Tea came into my life at an amazingly opportune moment, as I am sure it did for most of you. Like a gentle gust of serendipity, it’s simple yet sturdy song crept into my world right at a time when I had begun taking meditation more seriously. I had made the decision to do so because I was starting to get the sense that certain elements of my inner experience were beginning to (or perhaps I was just noticing them) fragment. For want of a better term. My attentions seemed to be starting to structure a little too much like the way the Internet was structured. Like a web, but not the kind we imagine right away, backlit in morning sun with supple drops of dew glistening on the silk. No, my attentions were more akin to the web you find behind the garage or under the house; erratic and formless, leaving one wondering if they'd even want to encounter who or what designed it.

Tea took its time to really penetrate my daily routine though. I would banter with it and enjoyed our talks and our silences, but I was slow to dive deeper. I felt like the extended family around me had that covered. The vast and swift enthusiasm for this new friend almost brought an inner contrarian out of me. Like the band that all your friends are raving about that you rolled your eyes at until the moment you got them to yourself on a long drive and finally “got it”, Tea eventually sang to me in a way that I desperately needed. And after years of enjoying the ritual, the fine craftsmanship, the history, the stories, the conversations, the silence, and yes, the divine flavors, I have come to realize this morning that Tea has almost proved itself a psychic avatar or sorts, arriving precisely at the moment when it was needed most. When I was alarmingly close to falling into that cob web, soon to be cocooned into an inescapable melange of blogs, opinions, weather reports, and cat videos. Though that last distraction, I’ll defend to the death.  Once Tea did have it’s soft claws in me though, I began noticing how my other friend, the Internet, kept tugging my attentions away from hot water and leaves. My want to check my phone became a little like a phantom menace of sorts. And I started to feel the way that friends who were trying to quit smoking had described to me. I was tethered in a sense, and the cord was widening, stronger with each tug. So, here was something quietly and successfully drawing neural maps alongside something that was gracefully and slowly making maps of its own. One leading me into presence and mindfulness, one fragmenting my attentions and making it harder and harder to remain present. But what does a lad do when the problem also offers so much hope of connectivity? Practice, young Jedi. Practice. Practice mindfulness, attention, presence. Practice using the technology more constructively and less as a mechanism for idling. For “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop…”, or so they say. I actually just chuckled at myself that a Bible verse crept its way into my spiel. But now that we are speaking about the Divine, I may as well mention that in my experience, Presence, Attentiveness, and Clarity are the closest I’ve felt to God. Or to my experience of It, I should say. I’m not a religious person and I’d even go as far as to say that my ideas of God don't fit neatly into any section of the bookshelf just yet. I’m inspired to draw my own maps herein, and practicing Presence and Attentiveness has been the best way for me to do so. Music is born of silence in my experience. Which has a pang of irony being that it requires so much noise to arrive at an end result with song craft. All that big said, I have had some of my proudest moments as a songwriter in the presence of Tea and Silence.

So, Brandon, what’s your point? Well, whoever you are that just asked that question, I’m not sure I have one. Other than I find our plight technologically speaking quite fascinating as it pertains to our Culture. We seem to be at an interesting crossroads where that proverbial collective exoskeleton could engulf us completely, leaving us as something akin to a creature H.R. Giger might dream up. Perhaps worse, or maybe nothing that bad at all, just different than we know. Once again I don't know and won’t claim to. But I will say that much can be learned from the past. It seems almost axiomatic to assume that because something is new that it is better. I know the tendency to want to believe that as well as anyone. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes, echoes from the past arrive at wonderfully opportune moments in the most unexpected places to remind us of things worth remembering. In this case, Presence as a practice and true connectivity over the illusion thereof.

I don’t want this piece to be seen as a diatribe against technology. I am fascinated by technology and I believe in it. But something being mindful on occasion has taught me is that there is never JUST a good idea. There are always unintended consequences. Sometimes those are amazing and unexpected gifts and sometimes they look like nuclear meltdowns. But the acknowledgment of both sides of the coin before tossing it, while it’s spinning in the air and the moment before you read the outcome, is both wise and necessary. I’ll leave you with one more quote from Sherry Turkle’s book ‘Reclaiming Conversation. The Power of Talk in the Digital Age’. A read that drew me inexorably into the simple realization that, for me, Tea is the most effortless and graceful gift of our day and age.

“This is our paradox. When we are apart: hyper-vigilance. When we are together: inattention.”

Imagine all that we’ve learned from this millennia old ritual of leaves and water, silence and presence, and I challenge you to NOT agree with me, Tea Geeks, that Tea is the perfect medicine for the age of the Internet.

Thanks and Cheers,

Brandon Boyd

2) Tea with Music

By Qing Yu

For the musician, tea arrives in life as a godsend, a stillness in the noise, a craft to develop artistic control, an opportunity to create culture and express vision, an embrace of the enduring value of transitory beauty. For the tea person, music is the light that accents a dark room, the perfect touch and final punctuations of the tea ceremony, the extra dimension of color that brings tea to life, the fluid frame of a tea narrative, the cherry on top.  Most musicians are creative people who spend a lot of their lives in their imagination and work to bring their visions into the world. They seek perfection, innovation, expression and the pulse of culture, often understanding the deeper mythic movements of culture better than the culture itself. While they emerge from an inner place, many of these characteristics are outward manifestations. Most tea folks (cha ren) are attracted first to the archetype of the sage. They seek truth, freedom, wisdom, self-understanding and the meticulous study of detail. The sage studies life outwardly, yet ultimately wishes to find the truths within. They seek the creation or realization of understanding. The Artist and the Sage find their alliance in the alchemy of Tea.  And thus, these two extraordinary mediums of Music and Tea were born for eachother; Long lost unrequited lovers who find their consummation in the tea ceremony. Together, they allow the master of ceremony to pluck acoustic landscapes from different times and places, and set that landscape as the backdrop to the singular, momentary event of the tea ceremony. It is in this marriage that the fluid and static merge, that the moments of Presence expand into a symphony of sensorial immersion. They compliment one another perfectly, and when the selection of music aptly hems a tea ceremony, a prosaic meditative experience is elevated to a sublime artistic expression. 

            Music and Tea share an important characteristic. Neither of them is serious, yet
both should be approached with sincerity and thoughtfulness. From a utilitarian perspective, both crafts are fairly superfluous. And yet, nobody in their right mind would question the indispensability of music and tea to a life well-lived. They are important parts of our lives. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “life is far too important to be taken seriously.” And like the many rascals, merry pranksters, archetypal fools, wandering sages, and grinning bards of teas colorful history, so too must the selection of music for tea carry notes of combined levity and sincerity. For what is life but a wonderfully evanescent game? And in this game, the play of music and the performance of tea ceremony are certainly “play,” though neither trivial nor frivolous. To be of a higher expression, these mediums require sincerity, honesty, attention and perhaps most importantly, the ability to not take oneself too serious in identifying with the role of “tea master,” “tea person,” or “musician.” These roles are temporary facades used to explore a state of being, and a mode of service. As soon as they become crystallized, the spontaneity wherein shines the magic of tea and music, is lost. Music and tea that take themselves too seriously fail to fulfill their purpose.

            At this moment in history, humanity does not “need” more subjective expressions of abstract, conceptual or visual art. These modes are the business of museums and galleries. We need another kind of art that changes people and heals them through an intimate experience. We no longer need to pick apart, and deconstruct and interpret the world through our creative mediums. We need to construct a new world through a useful medium that represents not a revolution, but a transformation. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 
 At their higher levels, tea and music are expressive mediums that come from love, create space for love, embody nature’s love of man and the resonant rhythms that are central to the life of man. Thus, they broadcast a message of unity and wholeness without ulterior motives. When the details of the tea ceremony, including musical accompaniment, come from this place of wholeness and connection, the medium of tea as an art form reaches its zenith. Music crystallizes and catalyzes the inherent healing potential of tea as a moving meditation and living art.

            While there is no good or bad music for tea, there are certainly more appropriate musical selections. The “better” selection of music depends on the intentions and circumstances surrounding the ceremony. Here are some of the considerations in choosing musical accompaniment: time of day, weather, occasion, environment, guests, cha xi and of course, the tea. A Cha Jin or tea person looks for subtle communication and honoring of the guest in the Cha Xi, the ceremony and the attitude of the moment. Music is an important means of communication and exemplifies the cha jin’s understanding of the needs of this moment. Further, musical selection offers an opportunity to place personal preference aside in consideration of the guests and the circumstances of the tea session. Like so many things in a tea life, this process of letting go while paying attention to the moment allows for a doorway to open to deeper states of consciousness in the tea ceremony. The following categories offer a general outline of considerations in selecting music for tea. Again, these suggestions are general, and no list will ever supersede experience in the process of learning about tea.

Green Tea- (lu cha): 

           Evanescent aromas, flavors and Qi that come and go like a dream. The Zen aesthetic of Ichie Go Ichie or One Chance, One Encounter is beautifully epitomized by the subtle qualities of green tea. Japanese green teas are steamed and this process brings out the fresh grassiness, while Chinese teas are wok fried, which brings out a nuttier, more complex, toasted flavor. Green tea is fresh, slightly dry or astringent, toasted, clean, cooling and refreshing. Most people like it the most in the morning because it has the highest caffeine, which is balanced by the theanine, to feel relaxed and alert.

           In matching the delicacy of aroma, the gentle flavors, the historical relationship to Zen and Japanese Chanoyu, and the quality of evanescence, one can choose music that evokes similar qualities. Japanese Shakuhachi flute serves this purpose very well. Due to its unique ability to imitate more sounds from nature than any other instrument, the haunting beauty of Shukuhachi is embraced by Zen masters and nature-lovers alike. Some particularly gifted modern masters are: Stan Richardson, Goro Yamaguchi, and Kurahashi Yoshio. Some of John Cage’s pieces are subtle and wonderful with green tea, reminding us that creating music, as well as living life, are as much about listening as they are about making something.

White Tea- (bai cha):           
            A green tea leaf covered with a white, downy, hair-like fur, yielding a pale-green jade liquor. Usually air-dried in the sun. The leaves are picked very carefully so as not to bruise and oxidize the tea. The air/sun drying will naturally set the oxidation level at 5-10%. The flavor is light, elegant with slight nutty notes and floral fragrance. It is a very mild, gentle, meditative tea. For these reasons, we often enjoy white teas in the afternoon and early evening.

            Bai Cha is all about gentle opening, subtle details, and ethereal delicacy. Thus, the appropriate musical accompaniment shares these characteristics. Some artists worth exploring are Goldmund, Arvo Part, Johann Johannson, Max Richter, Nawang Kechog, Arms and Sleepers, and Evan Bartholemew. Many of these artists draw heavily from string instruments and piano, with distinctively sparse emphasis on individual notes and extensive use of silence. These qualities of space for silence and distinct notation allow room for perception of the subtle aspects of white tea’s flavor and Qi.

Oolong Tea:
            The most gloriously diverse tea with semi-oxidization ranging from 12-18% or 40-80%, depending on the style of Oolong, which yields many variations of gold, yellow and red in the liquor. The leaves are first dried slightly under the sun, then shaken or rolled to begin oxidation, then pan-fried, followed by rolling and further drying- all with significant variation depending on the style. Ball, striped and unprocessed Oolong are the most common. Generally we refer to light or dark Oolong depending on the oxidation levels. Light Oolongs focus more on floral, creamy notes while the darker Oolongs or more roasted, toasted, fruity and complex. The red corners of leaves come from the damage to the edges in the rolling process. The beauty of Oolong is maintaining the freshness of light teas while bringing out the complexity, sweetness, depth and body of the darker teas. Therefore, we have a tremendous variety of music that would accompany Oolong nicely.

            Many of the artists suggested for White Tea also work well for light oolongs. Some additional considerations are Maxence Cyrin, James Blackshaw, and Jami Sieber. For darker oolongs, we can explore bassier, more complex and layered music including acoustic and electronic instruments. Modern classical artists like F.S. Blumm, Peter Broderick and Anne Muller explore heavily atmospheric piano-centric pieces that carry the complexity and depth of Oolong. Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds are two of my favorites. Many of us in the Global Tea Hut community know of Jonsi’s tea-famous album Riceboy Sleeps, which is a beautiful example of music that carries the complexity, depth, atmosphere and impressions left by a traditionally processed Oolong.

Red Tea- (hong cha):
            Generally one bud and two leaves, processed (oxidized/fermented) into a dark colored tea-leaf, yielding a red beverage. Usually dry-fried or hot-air dried, fully oxidized and rolled to bruise significantly. Through oxidation, the tannins develop and the tea becomes richer, stronger, more robust and invigorating. Malty, dried fruit, spices, bittersweetness. The aroma is very comforting, as is the tea. Red tea is very satisfying and approachable to everyone.

                  Two qualities that we rely on when considering musical pairing with red tea are accessibility and movement. Generally, anyone beginning their journey into the world of Living Teas will start with red tea because it is approachable, frank, robust and easy to brew. Thus, this category of tea music is broad and open. Generally, we drink red tea in the morning or earlier in the day when the yang energies are rising and we are waking up. I personally prefer music that is more moving, invigorating and awakening to match the time of day and the energies of the tea. If tea is part of one’s morning meditation, they might listen to kirtan or mantra such as Krishna Das, Choying Drolma, Lama Gyurme,  or Yungchen Lhamo. I often listen to uplifting music from different parts of the world including African artists Samite, Ayub Ogada, Toumani Diabate, Boubacar Traore and Baaba Maal. One of my all-time favorite West African musicians is Ali Farka Toure, whose low-pitched vocals, midtempo rhythms and often minimal accompaniment make him a good candidate for a good morning red tea session. His respective collaborations with Toumani Diabate, Ry Cooder and Idan Raichel just might change your life. Red tea is often served as a bowl tea, which is all about letting go of mental constructs, meticulous brewing methodology and heady tea. Bowl tea is about returning to what is essential in tea: leaves and water and the simple joy of being. Therefore, my suggestion for music is to do the same. Go with what you love to listen to in the morning, what speaks to you, what connects you to the joy of life, tea and music.

Puerh Tea:
            Puerh is good for a life-long obsession because there is incredible variation in processing, aging, region of origin and brewing. Thus, one can draw from a vast palette of music depending on what fits the occasion and tea.  Puerh is a dark, oxidized tea that is picked, withered (to oxidize and dehydrate the tea), fried (to kill green enzymes that make tea bitter and arrest oxidation), rolled (to break down the cells and expose the inner essence of the tea), and finally sun-dried. If the tea is then left to ferment naturally, in conjunction with the endless microbes in it, we call it “sheng” or “raw” Puerh. If the tea is then piled and sprayed with water, covered with thermal blankets and turned, in order to artificially ferment it, we call it “shou” or “ripe puerh,” which can be ready to drink within two months. The cultivars are wild or semi-wild large, old-growth trees. The flavor is very earthy with qualities of dark, wet, loamy soil, fresh leaves and undergrowth. Puerh microbes help with digestion and lend their mysterious power to the strong Qi of Puerh.  

            Within Puerh tea, there exists too vast a world of flavor, aroma, sensation and impression to easily match it with specific genres of music. Therefore, these are some general suggestions. For dark, earthy, grounding ripe Puerh teas (often consumed in the afternoon or evening), one might enjoy more meditative, deeper music. Some artists worth exploring are: Armenian master of the duduk Djivan Gasparayan (album From the Soil), Lisa Gerrard, Sangeeta Shankar, Loscil, Arms and Sleepers, Benjy Wertheimer and Tim Hecker. Sheng puerh varies considerably depending on many factors, most notably the age of the tea. Generally, for aged Puerh, the Qi is deep and strong. Thus more grounding, deeper music typically more appropriate. Whereas, the “youthfulness” of young Puerh tea is most evident in the strong, enlivening Qi that fills the body and uplifts the spirit, while also carrying the distinct characteristics of the trees and land. For younger puerh, I often like to explore artists with combined depth and energy like Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi, Gujin master Li Xiangting, Jami Sieber, or Brian Eno. You might also explore modern artists whose music goes well with tea. For example, consider songs like The Trapeze Artist by Iron and Wine, Cicadas and Gulls by Feist, Yawny at the Apocalypse by Andrew Bird, Rolling on the Sea by Taj Mahal, the Ballad of Keenan Milton by Devendra Banhart, or Matters Most by Tim Reynolds. Again, these are all just suggestions or perspectives on an incredibly intimate, personal topic. The music that you discover and use to accent your teas sessions is a unique expression of your understanding of what the moment calls for. Just as it requires personal experience with your teas to know the best way to brew and when to serve a particular tea, so too must you explore the infinite worlds and genres of music to find the best music for a tea session.  While it exceeds the scope of this exploration, when choosing music for a tea session you will also want to consider the season, the weather, the environment where the session takes place, the occasion and the cha xi. By harmonizing the music with all of these elements, you weave an acoustic fabric through the experience that heightens the senses and deepens the “listening.” Finally, when drinking tea alone you might not know what’s best in terms of music. When in doubt, just put on the Blues or sit in silence.

            Music modernizes because it speaks a timeless language of the heart. So much of tea’s healing power is in its ability to remind people of their true history, their true selves. This self-reflective quality also exists in the cathartic power of music. The trees in Yunnan were thousands of years old before China discovered them. People chewed and ate the leaves for strength and vigor and other medicinal qualities. Music is as old as the first hide pulled tight between an encircled piece of thick bark. It calls to what is essential in us, to the heartbeat of humanity. And, by carefully combining these two forms, we remind participants in the tea ceremony who and what we are. We remember that which is essential to the human experience. We remember our humanity. A cha jin’s role in hosting tea is to create a space within which the guests can remember the simple joy of living, remember who they are, connect with their interior lives, connect with one another and find right relationship to their lives. May your journey in these two magnificent mediums of connection deepen as your life of tea unfolds.

3) Tea Music I, Issue 34, Nov. 2014, pp. 31-32

By Mike Baas
Being a musician for nearly all of my life, I have had a long and intimate relationship with the art of music. I started playing the piano by ear as a very young boy. I picked up string instruments once my hands were big enough to handle them. My impulse towards music shined through improvisation, writing songs on the fly, getting wrapped up in the moment of the music and letting it speak through my hands and my voice. Yet when Tea found me a year ago, it was during a time where I had taken a long hiatus from music. I had effectively replaced music with meditation. I rarely played and barely even listened to music. I felt like it was a distraction from the deep work I was doing daily on myself. 

When I took up Wu De’s encouragement to drink Tea every day for a week, I found myself strongly resisting “adding” a new element to my life throughout that week (although I enjoyed it very much!). I had constructed my life around the idea that I needed as bare of an experience of the present moment as I could get in order to progress properly, which meant no “enhancements” of any kind: incense, flowers, gods and goddesses, music or Tea.

It took a few months to give myself full permission to drink Tea and to understand it as an important tool that I could use to benefit and deepen my meditation practice. Restricting myself to an unadulterated present, my heart was in the right place, but it was still very hard. Tea quickly began to open my hardened heart. My inability to practice loving-kindness meditation (metta) was solved. I eventually found the right proportion of Tea and meditation in my life and as I mellowed out and balanced myself, I found my way back to the joy of music.

Tea consumed in an environment conducive to cultivating mindfulness will invariably enhance one’s sensory experience quite strongly. I am not qualified to present an explanation of how Tea’s alchemical magic does this exactly. My experience, however, is that as Tea quickens my tie to the present, my senses follow suit and wake up. I become aware of momentary sensory information much more dramatically than I do without Tea. When we participate in a Tea ceremony, we consume the elements of the Tea stage (chaxi) in addition to Tea itself, delighting in the presented objects that serve to imbue reverence, presence and calm awakening to our senses.

In the process of participating with Tea, I am drawn into the chaxi—the sight of the flowers, teaware and table setting, the smell of the incense and the brewing Tea. When I pick up my bowl, I feel the heat of the water in the bowl touching my hands. As I lift the bowl to my mouth, the profound smell of Tea hits my nose. It alerts my Qi to an imminent change and as the Tea hits my tongue, the Qi moves in whatever way Tea decides it should in that moment. All the better, though, if this experience includes the ears! 

The choice of sound in one’s Tea stage, whether one chooses the sound of music or the sound of silence, can distinctly set the course for emotional reward. Living Tea does not directly provide the hearing sense with information, imparting itself only to the other four senses, yet it yields a sense of hearing that acts in accordance with Nature itself, actual hearing. Tea activates hearing.

When we introduce music to Tea-soaked ears, we will invariably find it speaking to us in a deep, authentic way. In the practice of Tea Dao, one can leave the interaction with the steeping cup behind and simply listen, perhaps as we never have before. Following the momentto-moment movement of music in a meditative Tea-infused state, I have experienced profound insight into the nature of Reality, equivalent to that generated by purely observing sensation (vedana) in a Vipassana meditation session. These moments of insight, coupled with the opening of my heart through Tea, were the validation I needed to fully embrace the Way of Tea. 

It became clear that music could act as a friend on the path of Dhamma just as well as Tea could. Both music and Tea soften the blade on the razor’s edge of a life of meditation. Gratefully, my heart is now open enough to allow them the space to soften me. My meditations have deepened as a result. Although any and all music can be experienced along with Tea, the contemplative spirit of a Tea ceremony awakens through more subtle frequencies. In musical terms, this means sound without constant, sharp dynamics.

I have compiled some of my favorite Tea music below that fits this description:

1) Kifu Mitsuhashi, The Art of the Shakuhachi, Vol. 1 
In the hands of a skilled player, the humble bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, produces nearly quintessential Tea music. The shakuhachi is capable of producing sound ranging from beautifully soothing and droning sustain to spontaneous, surprising inflections of the human breath flowing through its wooden hollowness. The instrument has a fascinating history wrapped up in stories of mendicants traveling around Japan, blowing the flute as a means of achieving enlightenment through its sound. Here, Kifu Mitsuhashi plays a selection of traditional shakuhachi compositions in the spirit of these wandering monks that will surely set an introspective tone for a Tea ceremony.

2) Nanae Yoshimura, The Art of the Koto, Vol. 1 
This album is a perfect, lighter companion to “The Art of the Shakuhachi”. In these traditional songs for the koto, a plucked zither, you can hear the footsteps of the shakuhachi monks wandering around the Japanese countryside, perhaps stopping from time to time to prepare a bowl of Tea. I often choose to play this album when having Tea with someone for the first time. 

3) Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports 
Brian Eno, the father of “ambient music”, designed this album to be continuously looped as a sound installation, specifically to alleviate the anxiety of traveling passengers in an airport terminal. The first track “1/1”, in a Zen fashion, was crafted from a performance of two musicians completely unaware of one another’s performance, captured in a few synchronous moments of time, slowed down and looped in various ways. The end result yields a track filled with soft textures and deep silences, beautiful and optimistic, perfect for drinking cup after cup, morning or night. 

4) Eliane Radigue, Trilogie de la Mort 
Composed over a period of eight years, three songs each one hour in length comprise Eliane Radigue’s masterpiece. Written on a single analog synthesizer, the ARP 2500, these slowly moving, infinitesimally changing sounds at first appear like a kind of background music, yet quickly you will find that they demand, like the best Tea ceremonies, your undivided attention. These challenging pieces offer the best opportunity for musical enlightenment!

4) The Production & Processing of Puerh Tea, Issue 32, Sept. 2014, pp. 15-24

Puerh is unique amongst all the genres of tea because the importance of the raw material far outweighs any processing skill. The quality of most oolongs, for example, is determined as much by the source of the leaves as by the skill of the one processing the tea. The value of puerh, on the other hand, is ninety percent in the trees. There are many kinds of tea trees in Yunnan and the source determines the value of the tea. What village a tea comes from and which trees will decide its value, in other words. Of course, there is also plenty of dishonesty in the puerh world: material picked in one region and then taken to a more expensive one to be sold as native tea, young trees sold as old trees, etc. This means producers and consumers have to be able to distinguish the differences between regions and types of leaves. 

Puerh trees can roughly be divided into two main categories, though it is useful to understand some of the subdivisions as well: old-growth (gu shu, 古樹) and plantation tea (tai di cha, 台地茶). Old growth tea is by far the better of these two. This refers to older trees. There is some debate about what constitutes “old-growth” since tea trees in Yunnan can range from dozens to thousands of years old. Arbitrarily, we think that when a tea tree becomes a centenarian (100 years), it can rightly be called “old-growth”. Old-growth tea can then be subdivided into trees that are wild or those that were planted by people. Though planted by man, the latter are often indistinguishable from the former as they are both found in small gardens in the heart of the forest. In fact, you would have difficulty picking the trees out from their surroundings without the help of a guide. Another subdivision could be called “ecologically-farmed old-growth”, which refers to old trees planted in gardens closer to villages and/or homesteads. Some people also like to have a category for 1,000+yearold trees as well, calling them by that name or maybe “ancient trees”. Plantation puerh (tai di cha) is far inferior and often not organic. The trees there might even be several decades old, but they aren’t Living Tea, and lack many of the qualities that make puerh so special, as we discussed in our article about this month’s tea.

Rough Tea (Mao Cha 毛茶) 

All puerh tea begins with mao cha (毛茶), which translates as “rough tea”. Mao cha refers to the finished leaf as it leaves the farm to be sold directly to factories small and large, or independently at market. Tea at this stage has been plucked by hand, wilted, fried to remove the raw flavor (called “sa chin” 殺青), kneaded (ro nien, 揉捻), and dried. These processes need to occur almost immediately after the tea has been plucked, which is why they are done directly at the farm rather than at the factory. 

Most varieties of tea include all the same stages of processing as puerh, though unlike puerh, the final processing often ends there and the loose-leaf tea is then packaged right at the farm. (Some oolongs were traditionally finished at shops, as well. The shop owners would do the final roasting to suit their tastes.) Puerh, on the other hand, often travels to a factory for final processing: compression into cakes if it is raw, sheng puerh or piling and then compression if it is ripe, shou puerh. 

Some varieties of puerh are also destined to become loose leaf. At the start, that means that they remain “mao cha”, but once they are aged, they are technically no longer “rough tea”. So an aged, loose-leaf puerh shouldn’t really be called “mao cha”. 

Traditionally, these loose teas were the ones that were grown at smaller farms that didn’t have contracts with any factory—often from so-called “Border Regions” where Yunnan borders Laos, Vietnam or Myanmar. Such teas were then sold at market, traded between farmers or bought and stored by collectors. You can’t be certain, however, that a loose-leaf puerh is a Border Tea, as the big factories also packaged and sold some of their teas loose, though not as much as compressed tea. Although some of the tea that was sold loose was fine quality, most of it was considered inferior. 

We have a huge collection of loose-leaf puerh tea here. In fact, we have so much that we have also become collectors of rare antique jars to store it all in. Loose-leaf puerh, no matter how old, is always cheaper than puerh compressed into cakes. One reason for this is that the cakes have an easily-verified vintage. Though there are fakes, experts have developed systems of identifying them, using a combination of factors from a kind of “wrapperology”, which identifies characteristic marks, color changes, etc., in the printing of the wrappers to the cake itself—its shape, leaf color or size, compression, etc. On the other hand, very few aged loose-leaf teas are pure. Most of them are blends. Some were blended during production, though more often, tea was added later on to increase the quantity of an aged tea. Sometimes blends of wet and drierstored teas, or even sheng and shou are mixed to make a tea seem older than it is. When drinking aged loose-leaf puerh, it is a good idea to only rank them relative to other loose-leaf puerhs, rather than believing in the date the merchant has given. While some loose-leaf puerhs do have a distinct vintage, most are blends. Looking at the wet leaves after steeping will also verify this.

Beyond that, cakes have been found to have more Qi than loose leaf puerh, so that if the same tea were left loose and processed into a discus (bing, 餅), for example, and then aged for thirty years, the cake would have more Qi than the loose leaf. Having done several experiments where we stored the same exact tea from the same farm in both loose leaf and cake form, we can say for sure that the compressed teas age better, and not just in terms of Qi. They are better in every way: flavor, aroma, etc. They also age faster and more evenly. One possible reason for this is that the steam used to compress the cakes seals the bacteria in, and the inner moisture creates a better environment for them to do their work. Still, despite the fact that cakes are better, loose-leaf teas are often great deals since they are much cheaper than cakes of the same age. It’s like choosing a more affordable antique teapot with a chip under the lid versus a perfect, very expensive one. Depending on your budget, the former may be the better choice.


The freshly plucked leaves are carried back to the house or village and gently spread out on bamboo mats to be slightly wilted before they are heated to remove the raw flavor. The purpose of wilting the leaves is to slightly reduce the moisture content in the leaves so that they will be more pliable and less likely to be damaged when they are heated. This process must be watched carefully so that the leaves do not oxidize more than is absolutely necessary. For that reason, wilting typically takes place outdoors and indoors. The tea is withered outdoors for some time and then placed in a well-ventilated room, often shared by members of a particular farming village.

The heating process/firing (sa chin) is literally performed to remove the raw flavor of the tea leaf. This occurs in the production of most all kinds of tea (except white tea, which categorically skips this process). In Yunnan, the heating process is still often done by hand in large woodfired woks. The temperature must remain constant and the leaves have to be continuously turned to prevent any singeing. In larger farms, though not often in Yunnan, this is done in large barrel-like machines that spin around like a clothes drier. With puerh, however, the firing is still done by hand, once again lending tradition and wisdom to the puerh process. Workers sift the leaves around in circular motions ensuring that they never touch the wok for longer than a blink. Through generations of experience the farmers can tell by appearance and feel when the leaves are sufficiently cooked, and their timing is as impeccable as any time/temperature-controlled machine elsewhere. Scientifically, the process is removing certain green enzymes within the leaf that lend it the raw flavor, which in some varieties is too bitter to be drunk. As we’ll discuss later, the sa chin of puerh is less-pronounced than in many other kinds of teas.

After the leaves are fried they are kneaded (ro nien). This process also occurs by hand on most puerh farms or villages near old trees. A special technique is used to knead the leaves like dough. This bruises the leaves and breaks apart their cellular structure to encourage oxidation, and later fermentation (fa xiao, 發酵), which will occur through the various methods (explained in the box about sheng and shou puerh on the opposit page). It takes skill and method to achieve a gentle bruising without tearing the leaves. We have personally tried this in Yunnan and Taiwan, and found it is very difficult to achieve. We invariably tore up the leaves. The farmers, however, can go through the movements with surprising speed.

Finally, after the mao cha has been kneaded and bruised it is left to dry in the sun. Once again this process must be monitored carefully to prevent any unwanted oxidation or fermentation from occurring. Usually, the leaves are dried in the early morning and late evening sun, as midday is too hot. They will move the leaves into the same well-ventilated room used earlier for wilting during the hot hours of the day. The leaves will be inspected hourly and when they have dried sufficiently, they will be bagged and taken to the factory to be processed, or to market to be sold as loose leaf.

The two most distinguishing aspects of puerh production are the sa chin and the sun drying. The firing of puerh tea does arrest oxidation, as in all tea, but it is usually less pronounced than other kinds of tea, leaving some of the enzymes in the tea alive, as they help promote fermentation. Then, after firing and rolling, puerh is sun dried. This gives it a certain flavor, texture and aroma and helps further the natural vibrations present in the tea. Not all puerh is processed in this way, especially with all the innovation and change in the modern industry—though, ideally, we want tea made in traditional ways.

Once the leaves are processed, they will often go through their first sorting (fan ji). A second sorting will occur later at the factory itself. This sorting is to remove unwanted, ripped or torn leaves, as well as the leaves that weren’t fired or rolled properly. At this stage, the factory/ producer may ask the farmer to sort the leaves according to size, called “grade”. This practice is becoming rarer, however, as the prices of oldgrowth puerh increase. Nowadays, farmers sell most everything. Sometimes, they don’t even sort out the broken or mis-processed leaves.

 At the Factory

Upon arrival to the factory, the mao cha goes through its second sorting (fan ji). This is often done by hand even at the larger factories, though some have large winnowing machines. And most have strict rules controlling the diet of the sorters. Tea is an extremely absorbent leaf and will be altered by any impurities. Sorters therefore shouldn’t eat chili, garlic or onions. Nor can they drink alcohol the night before a sort, as it will be secreted through their skin and contaminate the leaves. The sorting that occurred on the farm was more cursory and based solely on leaf size or “grade”. This second sorting is more detailed and thorough. The leaves are distinguished not only by their size, but also by their quality, type (old or young growth, which mountain they came from, etc.), and other criteria that are constantly changing. Larger factories often have mao cha arriving from all over Yunnan and therefore employ experts to monitor all sorts of conditions to determine which leaf size, which locations, etc., will have a good harvest that year. More and more, factories are targeting collectors by creating limited edition sets, with cakes from certain mountains, for example.

There is a lot of discussion nowadays about the differences between single-region and blended puerhs. For the last fifty years, most all puerhs were blends. The factories would collect the mao cha from various regions and then blend them in ways they thought improved the tea: choosing strength and Qi from one region, blended with sweetness and flavor from another, etc. In this way, cakes would be more balanced. In the last fifteen years, there has been a trend towards single-region cakes, and with it the idea that such tea is more pure. It should be remembered that all old-growth puerh is actually a blend, since no two trees are the same. So even tea from a single mountain will be a blend of different teas. If you are sensitive enough, you can even distinguish the leaves from the eastern and western side of a single tree, since they receive different sunlight. There are merits to both kinds of cakes, and it seems pointless to say that one is better than the other in general. It would be better to talk about specific teas, as a certain blended cake may be better than a given single-region cake or vice versa.

The trend towards boutique, private and single-region cakes has also changed the way that puerh is produced. For example, some cakes are made on site and completely processed by the farmers themselves. Most tea, however, still travels to factories for sorting (blending) and compression. What was once one of the simplest teas, at least as far as processing goes, has now become complicated by the vast industry that has grown up around it.

Mao cha can sit in a factory for a long or short time, depending on many factors. In doing so, it technically ceases to be “rough tea”. Sometimes tea is aged for a while and then piled to produce a nice, mellower shou tea than a new tea could produce. Other times the tea that was inferior and didn’t make it into a cake, is then sold loose leaf later, and labeled “aged” to help market it.

Once ready, the leaves are carefully weighed and placed into cloth compression bags or metal pans. The texture of these bags can be seen imprinted on puerh tea if one looks closely. They are not used to package the tea, only in the compression process itself. They are made from special cross-woven cotton. Strangely, even the larger factories that we’ve visited still use antique-looking scales to do their weighing. Along with human error, this explains why even new cakes are often incorrect in either direction by a decimal of a gram (of course in aged tea this is usually due to pieces breaking off).

Steam is used to prepare the tea for compression. The steam is carefully controlled—mostly automatous in the larger factories—to ensure the leaves are soft and pliable, but not cooked or oxidized in any way. It is basically a process of slight rehydration. The steam softens the tea and the cloth in preparation for compression. Sometimes the steaming takes place before the tea is placed into the cloth, using metal pans instead. In a non-mechanized factory a wooden table is placed over a heated wok full of water. The steam rises through a small hole in the center. This is far more difficult than the automatic steam generators at larger factories because the temperature control is lacking and the leaves can end up being burnt. It requires the skill of generations to successfully steam the tea this way.

The compression process was traditionally done with stone block molds. The tea is placed in the cloth, which is then turned and shaped into a ball. The nei fei is added at this time—an “inner trademark ticket” compressed into the tea to establish branding. The cloth is then twisted shut and covered with a stone mold block. The producer would then physically stand on the stone block and use his or her weight to compress the cake. In some of the smaller family-run factories, puerh cakes are still created using this method. On our recent visit to Yunnan, we had the chance to make our cakes by dancing around on the stone molds, to the delight of the Chinese audience present. Larger factories often have machines for compressing their cakes, though some still produce some of their cakes in the traditional way. Some are hand-operated presses that require the operator to pull down a lever and press the cake into shape; others are automatic and occur with the press of a button. We even saw one machine that was capable of compressing twelve bings simultaneously.

After compression, the cakes are taken out of the compression cloths and placed on wooden shelves to dry. They are still slightly damp from the steam at this stage. Many larger factories have a separate room with tons of shelves lined with drying cakes. The cakes are monitored and often even stored on particular shelves that are numbered according to their processing time. Different types of puerh leaves and different shapes or levels of compression will affect the amount of time that is needed to dry the cakes, from hours to days and sometimes even up to a week. Some big factories use ventilation systems and/or fans to speed up the process.

When they are finished drying, the cakes are taken off the shelves to be packaged. Each generation of cakes has its own unique characteristics with regards to the wrapping paper, printing, style of Chinese characters, nei fei, etc. As we discussed earlier, there is a whole science of “wrapperology”. Each decade brought revolutions in the printing process worldwide, so it seems obvious that the larger factories would change their printing methods. Also, the wrapping paper in particular is handmade, and a lot can be discerned via fibers, texture, and the appearance of the paper as well as the ink color. It is impossible to forge many of these paper and ink combinations and make them appear aged. 

Discus-shaped cakes, called “bingchas” are individually wrapped in handmade paper and then bundled in groups of seven (qi zi, 七子) called tongs (桶). Each tong is wrapped in Bamboo bark (tsu tze ka, 竹子殼). Sometimes English articles mistakenly assume that these are bamboo leaves. Actually, bamboo trees shed their skin whenever they get bigger or sprout new stems. You can see this material covering the floor of any bamboo forest. The Bamboo bark conserves the freshness of the tea and makes packaging easier. Twelve tongs are then further wrapped using Bamboo, into a jian (件), which is twelve tongs of seven, so eighty-four bings in all. Other shapes of compression include bricks (zhuan), mushrooms (which look like hearts to the Tibetans they were primarily exported to, and thus named “jing cha”), bowl or nest shapes (tuocha), and sometimes melons. We have found that the discus-shaped cakes (bings) age the best.

Puerh production may seem complicated at first, but it really isn’t that difficult to understand. We hope that the basics we’ve covered in this article, along with the accompanying charts, will help simplify the process for you and increase your understanding of the more linear aspects of puerh tea. By including other articles about the energetics of puerh in this issue, as well as past and future issues, we hope to fulfill you in a more balanced way. Thus, our understanding of puerh will be more holistic, including its history, production methodologies and other informative approaches along with a spiritual and vibrational understanding of this amazing tea.

No comments:

Post a Comment