Voices from The Hut
by Kaelen Ohm @kaelenohm
Sun Moon Lake’s ‘Elevation’ Red was the first living red tea that graced me with Her presence. She joined the third Global Tea Hut magazine that I received in August 2015. My introduction to tea meditation and ceremony was through a few special sheng and shou puerh teas. I had never even heard of those teas before and I quickly labelled them as exotic beings that were the most meditative and most able to provide a transcendent experience. Such strong opinions for a new Chajin! Upon reading about this red tea in the issue “Fire, “The Teacher of Tea”” I learned that it was, after all, not black tea as I had known my whole life living in Canada. I opened the tin to a recognizable aroma, something that resembled a tea that would be mixed with milk and sugar and served with cookies at my grandmother’s house. I closed the tin and stored it away, deciding quickly that this tea was nowhere near as glamorous as the earthy, astringent and oily teas that I had experienced in my short time with the leaf.
One morning, many moons later, I was feeling particularly studious and decided to sit with this tea from Sun Moon Lake and see what She had to teach me. I referenced back to the magazine for some brewing tips, boiled the water as carefully as I could, set up my Chaxi with a side handle pot and bowl and opened my heart to give Her a chance to transcend my original judgments.
I was floored.
As for any life changing tea-ceremony it is often hard to find words, yet impossible to forget. I sat with Her again one year later to access that first experience. The memories flooded in, a story that I am so grateful to be able to share.
From the first sip, I felt all tension in my physical body sink like silt in a river. From my crown to the tips of my toes, the calm travelled, pausing at my heart centre and sending a strong, soothing Qi to all ends of my being. I really noticed this tea and all She was offering in those moments. It was the first time in my relationship with tea that I was truly present. I noticed the deep caramel elixir and the weight and density of the liquor. I noticed the feeling in my mouth, coated with a warm sweetness, coupled with a slight zest down the centre of my tongue and a very light astringency after each mouthful. The essence of roasted peaches and light, nutty, vanilla flavours swirled in my mouth. As I went deeper, bowl by bowl, the curling smoke of the burning Aloeswood, the steam from the kettle, the flutes through the speakers, the soft hiss of the fire heating the water and me, all became one. There was no separation. Nothing to be lost and nothing to be gained.
Needless to say, after many over-steeped pots, brewing tea that was beyond my experience level at that stage of my practice, this was a magical gift to receive. I sighed many audible sighs through that sit, tears of joy streaming down myface. Being one that has experienced a lot of anxiety in my life, this feeling was true bliss. I felt heard, I felt held. It may have been this tea that grounded me into this practice for the long term. “This is all for you”, She said. Yet, simultaneously all I wanted in that moment was to project love and gratitude for all I had experienced, particularly the hardships and the challenges. Suddenly I felt that I had a true Teacher, something that was greater than me and could educate me, but that was me. It was not something or someone that led by example and was to be attained to, though I do not discredit the importance of having a Master to follow in a life of practice. However, it was something I understood was there for me and seemingly could be accessed at any time and any place. So I bow with endless gratitude to Sun Moon Lake’s Elevation for not only humbling my shallow judgments, but opening up an opportunity for me to see my own potential in practice. I go back to this tea often, sprinkling a few leaves in a bowl, taking a deep breath and surrendering to the endless teachings and heavenly space She holds.
1) Tea of the Month, Issue 33, Oct. 2014, pp. 3-8
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 one of our all-time favorite teas, and the one we send home with every traveler who stops 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.
Since this month’s issue is all about Qi cultivation through a tea practice, this is the perfect tea. Elevation is full of a bright and radiant Qi that moves with verve, making it easy to begin experiencing this aspect of tea appreciation. Later on in this issue, we’ll discuss some things you can do to prepare for an experience of the Qi in tea and in yourself, connecting to a meditative mind through this month’s tea session. 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—and there are, of course, no chemicals used in its production.
The trees also have a healthy relationship with the people who care for them, achieving all five measures of Living Tea! (Check the box on the opposite page for the new sixth.) 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 returned.
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 original trees were 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 to have 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 conquered 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 homes 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 throughout. The farmer, Mr. Shu, is an amazing man. Many of his neighbors have utilized their gardens to create more industrial tea 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 that others may be using. For that reason, the tea is incredibly clean and bright, speaking to 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.
new-and-improved houses with satellite dishes, he stayed humble, simple and in love with his work and trees. Last year, there was a drought compounded by pests 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!
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 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 tea once 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 nor the processing of the leaves. You could see how easy it would be to spread misinformation, buying tea through middlemen in broken pidgin. We repeat this every time we send a red tea, because it is an important mistake that we tea lovers have to correct, so that the real black tea can have its name back!
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 oxi- dized than that which is produced commercially). The reason for the complete 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 delicious tea with incredible and relaxing Qi than the other way around. Mr. Shu 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.
This year the tea 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. For these reasons, we stored the tea for a few months before sending it to you, allowing the flavors to mellow out and the Qi to become smoother and softer.
A Bowl of tea - Leaves and water
There are really as many ways to brew tea as there are tea lovers, steeping and pouring in general patterns more than a strictly defined methodology. A good master doesn’t ask that her students ape what she has collected, but respect it and learn from it. The ancient Daoist masters often admonished that the wise man reveres the ancients, applying their wisdom without mimicking it. Each and every tea journey gathers its own understanding and insight, tea and teaware, friends and teachers—a liquid metaphor of life itself.
Years ago, master Zhou Yu taught me one of the most powerful ways of brewing tea, which I also pass on to my students as they begin to explore the world of tea. When he taught it to me, he suggested it for beginners and masters alike. He said that he prefers to teach only that which can be continued throughout the journey. There are many convenient, simple and inexpensive ways to teach a beginner to brew tea, but many of them then need to be put aside as they progress in skill and develop a palate. Taking master Zhou Yu’s words to heart, I also never teach anything that will later be put aside. I think trust between teacher and student requires that we pass along only that which we would use ourselves.
Now, I thought I would pass on this wonderful brewing technique to you, and along with it explore some of the many ways that it is useful in your journey: There really isn’t much to it, you just put a few leaves of tea in a bowl and add hot water. Bowl, leaves and water. You want to use a bowl that is more open, wider and V-shaped, though any bowl will do. It is also nicer if the bowl is a special, handmade piece of pottery. We have found that tienmu (rabbit’s fur) bowls work the best for this. The beauty in their patterns, and the thickness of the glaze help bring out the best in tea brewed in this way. Zhou Yu, being a master, has gathered to him great teaware, handing you a Song Dynasty tienmu tea bowl when you drink such tea with him—slightly cracked and worn, the ancient bowl still sings with energy.
You don’t need much tea for this, just a few leaves. We have found that this is actually the best way to brew old-growth, newborn Puerh. Since newborn tea has not yet fermented, its nature is cold according to Chinese medicine. It can sometimes be harsh on the stomach. However, a few leaves in a bowl turns out lighter, smoother, less bitter and less harsh on the body. The result is much more fascinating and profound. We also drink old-growth Taiwanese oolong and red tea in this way, the latter of which is Taiwan’s only variety of camellia sinensis assamicas (large-leaf, tree variety like that used to make traditional Puerh tea), brought here by Japanese during the occupation. While these teas are ideal for this method, we’ve tried it with everything from greener oolongs to white tea to aged Puerh, and it’s all nice.
This type of brewing, like all tea, responds best to fresh and pure water, preferably from a mountain spring. The cleaner the water, the more the bowl will sing in your hands. Even after decades of tea, master Zhou Yu still continues to drink tea in this way at least once or twice a week—a tradition I have carried on in my own way. There are many reasons why drinking tea in a bowl is so beautiful, some of which we can discuss—some of which you’ll discover on your own—and some is left beyond the gate where words can never intrude. One of the most important is humility.
We drink bowl tea to reduce all the human parts of tea brewing to almost nothing. There are no, or very few parameters: adjust the amount of leaves and water temperature—or don’t and enjoy the tea however it turns out. In this way, we let go of all pretensions. There is no longer any quality in the tea brewing, no comparative mind—no better or worse. A lot of skill and mastery often leads to snobbery. Then we miss the chance to connect with Nature, ourselves and each other through tea. In drinking bowl tea, and minimalizing the human role in tea, we can return to just leaves and water, where the true dialogue begins. Try drinking a bowl of leaves and water, simply and beyond all refinement. Returning to the simplest and oldest way of making tea is often very profound. Through drinking tea in this way you may awaken your own insights, beyond these few I hare freely now:
Putting a handful of leaves in a bowl and adding hot water is the oldest gong fu tea, dating back thousands and thousands of years. In antediluvian forests, pristine in verdure, sages exchanged wisdom over such steaming bowls. They would find wild tea trees and process the tea on the spot, withering, roasting and drying it as they talked or sat in silent meditation. No doubt they also had pouches and jars of aged teas lying around for special occasions, when distant masters chanced to visit; when certain astrological and cosmological conjunctions happened making the time ideal for powerful tea and deeper meditation; or even to celebrate seasonal changes.
Using crystal mountain water, boiled simply over charcoal, they would cover the leaves in water and in energy from their Qi Gong and meditation— passing more than just tea and water to the traveler or student, but a part of themselves. Tea has always been a communication of the Tao precisely because it goes beyond words and the concepts they engender, and there is a truer representation of my wisdom in the tea I serve you than in a thousand books or lectures. “The tea doesn’t lie”, as they say. You can’t make your gong fu any more than what it is with any amount of embellishment, fancy words and descriptions: the tea will tell the tale.
When you are drinking tea in this way, you continue this ancient tradition. Close your eyes and imagine the craggy folds of an ancient mountain chain, dancing like a saffroned scroll painting. In billowing silk robes you sit beneath a wizened old tea tree, by some rocks and a stream. You can hear the ‘wind sowing the pines’ as the kettle bowls away. The master sticks his hand into an old pouch, more cracked and worn than his hoary face. His gentle hands reach across and flutter the leaves into your bowl. He holds the kettle for a moment or two, until it whispers to hush, and then in slow, gentle circles covers your bowl in steam—swirling the leaves around in circles as they open…
It is important that we don’t get caught up in all the pretension that can accumulate as you learn about tea. Unfortunately, some people become snobby about their tea and lose the ability to enjoy the tea without all the perfect accouterments, expensive pots, kettles and jars. The Japanese tea ceremony was often criticized by monks and spiritualists alike, since many practitioners lost the true spirit of tea over time and turned it into a chauvinistic obsession based on collecting expensive teaware and tea and showing off to others. Rikyu tried to right this by incorporating local, simple raku pottery and natural decoration in a simple aesthetic. Today also many people use tea to promote themselves, and get lost knowing more or having more than others.
This isn’t the only way we brew tea, and it is great to explore all the nuances of different kinds of
teaware and gong fu methodology. But more important than any kind of teaware, pouring skill or brewing technique is respect—one of master Rikyu’s four essential ingredients in tea. Don’t lose yourself in connoisseurship, thinking you are better than others or know more about tea. I would much rather drink gas-station quality oolong with a humble monk in the mountains, pure of heart, than expensive tea with someone using his tea and knowledge to promote
By returning to the simplest of tea brewing parameters a few times a week, we can effectively wipe the slate clean. All of our affectation is gone. There are no better cups, jars or pots; no need to pour in certain directions or from certain heights, no better or worse—just leaves in water. The discriminating mind can often ruin tea, analyzing and criticizing what should be enjoyed, embraced and absorbed into the body and spirit. There is a time for working towards bringing the best out of teas through skill, and a time of returning to softness when the human element and all our posturing is put aside in favor of the simplicity of Nature, which since ancient times has attracted people of spirit to tea.
I have my students follow only this method for the first months that they are learning about tea, so that when they move on to learning about all the different kinds of teaware and tea, skills and techniques, they do so from a simple base. And returning to that foundation each week, they never forget their roots in the ‘beginner’s mind’, free of all the ego that ruins tea more than any bad water ever could.
The Japanese tea aesthetic was long ago called “wabi”, which in part means the simplicity we discussed above. Wabi is also about enhancing and then rejoicing in the imperfection of true life. It means that the moon partially covered by clouds offers more to the imagination than the radiant full moon, and more adequately represents the formless and form as one. As poet Leonard Cohen put it, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Wabi is a difficult aesthetic to master, as it is hard to contrive imperfection that is natural. It has to be spontaneous and flow out of Nature, which is also often so beautiful precisely because it is illogical and disorderly, and the mind cannot organize it. It is no wonder that such a rational society as ours would prefer the ordered, hedged garden to the forest the sages of old rejoiced in.
Of course, you can find a tea bowl made with wabi aesthetic and this may enhance your experience. There is nothing like holding a mastercrafted bowl of tea, exploring all the nuances created by the kiln and seemingly or truly unintended by the artist. Also, there is often a clearer representation
of a tea’s quality brewing it this way, and it may involvea fault of some kind. Rather than criticizing or even accepting the issues, why not embrace them as an aspect of the tea before you—this very moment of your life as it is, and as it ever shall be. There is an even more profound relaxation and a deeper, more rewarding attitude towards life when you can step beyond mere acceptance of the imperfect moment to an actual participation and enjoyment in the experience, despite whatever perceived defects youmay notice.
“The dialogue between man and nature is needed more than all else”, master Zhou Yu often reprovingly yet gently warns. All of our personal and social problems stem, in essence, from the fact that we have ignored this conversation—a subtle whisper still heard if you quiet the mind or walk in the forest where the noise of the city is far away and the river’s voice more audible. Over centuries, our analytic, rational mind has been developed to an extraordinary degree, bringing with it such wonderful advancements in technology and science, like this very computer I now type on. But this exclusive focus on the rational mind has also meant the loss of another, more ancient kind of intelligence: the feeling of being a part of this world.
from each other, Nature and the world. An intelligence and wisdom born of a connection with Nature was self-evident to ancient peoples. Through this connection, they understood inarticulate aspects of Nature that are completely lost today —the stars and seasons, rivers and mountains. And in our solipsism, ignoring Nature to explore our own desires and satisfaction, we have polluted the earth; and only now that the warning voice has reached a cataclysmic volume is mankind once again beginning to hear and understand what has been sacrificed in the name of technological development.
Obviously our social problems aren’t about a lack of science or information. We have so much information that huge computers can’t store it all, and you couldn’t learn even a fraction of it in a lifetime. Wisdom is what is needed. It isn’t new technology or information, but the proper application of the sciences and awakened, aware living that is the key to our prosperity, both personally and as a species. When you drink tea from a bowl, there is an even greater connection to the Nature within the leaves. Lighter brews often reveal the deepest qualities of tea, connecting you to the sun, moon and mountain that all worked in conjunction to form these leaves. When you then cover them in mountain spring water, the effect is powerful indeed. If you stop all other activity and focus on the bowl before you, the voice of Nature often returns, louder than ever before. You find yourself connected and complete, a part of the process that began with a seedling gathering sun, water and mountain to it as it grew into a tree, sprouted a crown of glorious leaves, which are now culminating in this very warmth and energy coursing through you as you drink.
Brewing tea simply in a bowl allows for a kind of clarity of the senses. Between sips, you can hold the bowl and close your eyes allowing the warmth to flow through your arms, just as the inner warmth spreads through your chest. With all the room in the world the leaves open up gloriously in the bowl and are a delight to behold, which is one more reason why this method works so well with
connecting the tea more clearly to the room and people around it. This connection, more than anything else, is why my first such session with master Zhou Yu will remain one of the most memorable tea sessions of my entire life, even though we drank only a few leaves of a simple green tea at the time. When you drink tea this way there is no question of quality, or evaluation of any kind. There is no need to record your impressions internally or communicate them externally. The tea ceremony is stripped down to its most basic elements: leaves and water, self and no-self.
In such a space, you are free to be your self. Many times the conversation naturally winds down
and master Zhou Yu and I smile at each other one last time, before drifting off into our own contention, contemplation or meditation. This quietude is paramount in living a healthy life in accord with the Dao, balancing stillness and activity and acting from depth and with meaning, when the time is right.
After all, what is important cannot be expressed as well in words as it can in the direct transmission of something so intimate as liquor we ingest into our bodies, prepared by the hands of the master—the true master behind your face.
The essence of a tea is beyond its stronger flavor or aroma to the Qi deep within the veins of the leaf, just as the essence of the tea ceremony is beyond the tea or teaware. Master Rikyu once told a student, “imagine your life without tea and if it is any different than it is now, you have yet to truly
understand Cha Dao.” If tea becomes pretentious and snobby, the essence is lost. Anyone can learn about tea, reading and traveling to tea-growing regions. It is the Dao that is the more powerful and lasting part of a tea session, not the tea. The tea bowl before you is a gateway to yourself, and beyond that the Nature and the flow of energy through this universe. And it is often easier to transcend the tea when the process is simpler and close to the essential Nature that produced the tea in the first place. “Man follows the Earth; the Earth follows the universe; the universe follows the Dao. The Dao follows only itself.”
Sun Moon Lake
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!
You may be surprised to know that red tea is the most popular type of tea in the West. How is it that most Westerners drink red tea without ever having heard of red tea? Simple. It just isn’t usually known by That name in the West.
In China, where red tea originated, it was (and is) known as Hong Cha (literally, ‘red tea’), after the reddish color of its infusions. However, early in the tea trade to the West, very little information was exchanged when the tea was handed over for silver. Even things like teas’ names could be (and often were) terribly misunderstood or mangled in those days. And so it came to be that the name red tea was dropped in favor of ‘black tea’, which referred to the dark, withered leaves of the
tea. (After all, these already dark leaves were likely made even darker by the long and salty boat journey from China to Europe and to America.) Therefore, a large part of the confusion came from the fact that the Chinese tended to differentiate tea based on the liquor, whereas Westerners looked at the leaf itself. The name “black tea” stuck in the West, but in recent years there has been a shift toward more tea awareness and the spread of the term ‘red tea’.
What is Red Tea?
Unlike other tea types, red tea typically has leaves that dwell in the red-to-black range of the color spectrum. This includes the muted orange of Dian Hong, the deep rust of Assam Second Flush, the greenish-black of Darjeeling First Flush and the blue-blacks of many Keemun and Ceylon teas. Regardless of the color of the leaves, though, the infusion is typically dark and warm in color, i.e. deep tan, rust red or espresso brown. The colors of red tea infusions and leaves (which resulted in the names ‘red tea’ and ‘black tea,’ respectively) are both primarily the results of tea processing. As we’ve explained in previous issues, different tea types are processed differently. While processing is not the sole differentiating factor, (Indeed, varietals, terroir, harvest seasons and many other factors
can make substantial differences!), processing often makes the most profound difference in how a given leaf ’s liquor will look, taste and feel by the time it reaches your teapot or bowl.
Oftentimes, Western authors mislead us by saying that all tea is the same plant and only differs in processing. Actually, of the seven genres of tea, this is really only true of red tea, which happens to be the most consumed tea in the West, which helps explain some of the confusion. The other six genres of tea are as much a varietal as they are a processing methodology. But you can process any tea as a red tea, and usually with nice results. Long ago, all semi-oxidized tea was called “red tea.” There really wasn’t a demarcation between oolong and red tea, and Chajin used the terms interchangeably. Red tea was just the final stop on the semi-oxidized line. Though red tea is sometimes called “fully oxidized,” that really isn’t possible; but it is more heavily oxidized than any other genre of tea. Because it has more processing and more oxidation, red tea is stronger. The leaf has had more of its essence opened up. Even chemically, it has more tannins and caffeine, and is therefore more brisk and uplifting than all the other six genres of tea.
You may have noticed that three of the eight steps above involve oxidation. Heavy oxidation is the main differentiating factor between red tea processing and other types of tea processing. It is what brings out the deep colors and the aromas and flavors of fruit, malt and tobacco leaf in red tea. It’s also a factor in red tea’s relatively long shelf life. There is some overlap between tea types with regard to oxidation. For example, a heavily-oxidized oolong such as a traditional Wuyi Cliff Tea may be considered to be an oolong in China and a red tea (‘black tea’) in the West, while a lighter oxidation red tea from Darjeeling or Nepal’s first flush (spring harvest) may be thought of as akin to an oolong. However, oolong tea entails several steps that are not
utilized in red tea production, like shaking to bruise the edges of the leaves for example, differentiating it from red tea despite the occasional similarity in oxidation levels. Therefore, while oxidation is a key difference between red tea and other tea types, it is not the sole difference.
Red Tea’s History
The Ming Dynasty saw manydevelopments in tea processing,including oolong Tea, Flower-Scented Tea and red tea. Later, in the Qing Dynasty, many of the teas developed during this age of innovation were evolved further. As with any timeline detailing groundbreaking developments, there is some controversy over when the ‘first’ red tea appears. Accordingly, there are several origin stories about red tea. Some claim that the appearance of Wuyi Cliff Tea (also known as “Congou black tea” in the West, and as we discussed above not really a red tea at all) in the 15th or 16th century heralded the age of red tea, while others credit it to the appearance of Xiao Zhong (‘Souchong black tea’) in Fujian around 1730 or to various red teas that were developed in Qimen in the 1700s. Later, around 1875, the technique for making Gong Fu Hong Cha was introduced to the Anhui region, a major producer of Qimen (Keemun) red tea to this day.
Ultimately, which tea was the ‘first’ red tea didn’t matter much to the local tea drinkers of the time— in general, red tea wasn’t very popular with them. However, starting in the early 1800s the export markets in Europe, the American colonies and the Middle East couldn’t get enough red tea. Some attribute the international popularity of red tea in particular to red tea’s shelf stability (a necessity in long ocean journeys),
while others say that it has more to do with the compatibility of the bold flavor profiles of red teas with the cuisines of Germany, England, France and other nations where red tea has become the default tea type. It was this popularity that led to large scale production of red tea in China, and to the eventual theft of tea seeds, tea plants and tea production techniques, which were taken by Scottish and English adventurer- entrepreneurs and transplanted to India and other colonial territories (such as modern day Sri Lanka
and Kenya). These entrepreneurs took their limited knowledge of tea production and used it to fashion machines that replace the handmade aspects of tea processing. The availability of cheap red tea fueled its popularity as a tea type further, making it the most popular category of tea in the West to this day.
Today, red tea is produced using this machine-driven approach in many countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. More recently, machine-made red teas have appeared in Japan (where they are called Wakocha or ‘Japanese red tea’), and machine-made red tea has even made its way back to China. Meanwhile, green tea and oolong remain the most popular types of tea amongst tea drinkers in China. However, in recent years the interest in handmade and more traditionally made red tea has seen a resurgence in China, Taiwan and elsewhere, resulting in a wider availability of handmade red teas from China and Taiwan (including our tea of the month). For this and other reasons, the characteristics that red tea drinkers in China and Taiwan prefer tend to be different from the typical tea drinker in the West. Instead of looking for a dark color in the infusion or boiled liquor and a bold flavor that can handle milk and sugar, these tea lovers seek out beautifully shaped leaves and infusions that are best savored without any additives. Also, while most red tea drinkers steep their leaves only once, those opting for more traditionally made red teas prefer to let the leaves open up gradually with many short infusions, savoring their tea patience and their inner spirit rather than gulping them from a to-go cup while eating a pastry on the way to the office.
Fortunately, this newfound appreciation for more traditional red teas is spreading beyond China and Taiwan. It is our hope that you will be able to further your own growing appreciation of red tea with this month’s Ruby Red, and to perhaps even spread the love for red tea ingeneral.