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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Zen Tea


It finally arrived! A big shipment of tea from my brother, including the type of green tea produced in my village, so that when I opened the package, my entire apartment smelled like my home town. What a sweet feeling! But the most special thing he sent might be the tea from a temple close to my home, which is produced in only extremely limited quantities and only locally made available. It's Chan Cha (禪茶) or "Zen Tea".

This is the tea produced and used by Zen monks during their monastic practice. It has a history that reaches back to the Tang dynasty, when tea first became widespread in China. It forms part of the heart of Chinese tea culture, but you can't buy it in a market. You have to go to a temple to get it.

Before telling you more, let me take a moment to get just a bit philosophical. We live in a world that we can never completely understand. We all go about our lives with only a partial understanding of, well, basically everything. This applies even to things we consider familiar.

For example, after having spent a few years in the United States, my experience here is that many people know the word "tea" without knowing very much about what it is. To them, tea is something that comes in a teabag, of which there are three kinds: black, green and herbal. Some even believe that black tea originally comes from England, and that green tea comes from Japan. (Of course, both green and black tea were originally produced in China, which is where tea culture began.)

Similarly, my experience here is that many people know and use the word "zen" without much understanding of what it means or where it comes from. For them, it represents a general sense of minimalism, stillness and tranquility somehow rooted in obscure East Asian traditions of mysticism. Those who know a bit more frequently believe it refers to a particular Buddhist movement that comes from Japan. They understand it also as a kind of quietude and austere beauty reflecting the essential character of the Japanese people, expressed in traditional Japanese arts such as calligraphy and ink painting, among others.

Like tea, Zen (Chan 禪) comes from China. It is something deeply Chinese that could not have developed anywhere else, and reached its maturity before spreading to Korea and Japan. (As it happens, East Asian calligraphy and ink painting also come from China. It's a country with a rich history.)


Zen Tea is a tea produced and used by monks as an aspect of their practice, which is also made available to members of the lay community when they visit the temple. Zen Tea is grown using methods that are 100% organic and environmentally friendly. This tea is planted by monks, weeded by monks, tilled by monks, pruned by monks, watered by monks, plucked by monks, and processed by monks. The limited quantity produced annually and special steps in its production make Zen Tea extremely precious and rare. The production process of Zen Tea involves not only the same rigorous standards of other famous traditional teas, but also requires that the tea be purified and blessed with a series of eloquent ceremonies intended to develop mindfulness and compassion. 

 Blessing ceremony before harvest time

Purity Blessing Ceremony (灑淨祈福儀式)

In winter there is a purity blessing ceremony (灑淨祈福儀式) which initiates an annual period when the tea garden is closed to visits from the public, so that the plants have a peaceful winter season to rest and develop their energy for more growth in spring. The ceremony itself reminds people to respect and protect the tea plants, as well as life in general. In addition, it expresses gratitude for the gifts of nature and asks that a large harvest might arrive in the coming year. 

In spring, another purity blessing ceremony is held just before the tea harvest. This is to appreciate and praise the sacrifice of the tea plants and the contribution they have made. It also asks that the plants recover quickly from any injury due to plucking and continue to grow in great health. Prior to the purification ceremony, the monks must meditate, light incense, sing, chant, and pray to the Buddha for the protection of all beings.

Buddhism includes the belief that there are numberless unseen beings connected to trees, flowers, grasses and plants such as tea. The monks believe that if they pick the tea heedlessly, it will interrupt or even destroy the lives of these beings. So they chant the Great Compassion Mantra (大悲咒) or other Buddhist mantras while the head monk sprinkles purified water over the area they will enter to pick tea. The head monk then leaves the area, only to walk back and spread water on it one more time. The first time is to inform the beings that the monks are coming so that they may move; the second is to ask forgiveness from the plants and everything alive and express appreciation to them.

After that, an offering of tea is made to heaven; the monks contemplate Buddha and read sutras. Finally, they change clothes to harvest the tea. The buds must be plucked without harming any other part of the tea plants or their environment. Every movement should be conscious, every step careful not to hurt or kill anything living on the ground. For the monks, the harvest forms part of their meditation. The entire process of tea production is structured to help develop patience, conscientiousness, empathy, purity and peace.

For me personally, the more I learn about tea, the more I find to appreciate. Particularly with Zen Tea, each sip, every breath becomes so important if we just pay attention to it. I'm very grateful to those who give their lives to this tradition, because its gift is to help make me aware of the endless beauty we live in.
The Classic of Tea (Chajing 茶经)

Tea has had an intimate connection with Zen for many generations. Every tea drinker has heard the name of Luyu (陆羽), also called "the Sage of Tea", who wrote The Classic of Tea (Chajing 茶经), the first definitive work on tea production, preparation and etiquette. He was abandoned as a baby and adopted by the abbot of a Zen temple. Luyu grew up in the temple, raised by the master, where he learned about tea and medicinal herbs and where he prepared tea for his master on a daily basis. Although he later left the temple, this experience stayed with him, and it is in large part due to this early training that he later became famous.

Of course, the relationship between tea and Zen did not begin with Luyu. Tea had been incorporated into Chinese Buddhist practice even preceding the development of Zen in the Tang Dynasty (about 1800 years ago). This means tea has had a connection to Zen since its beginning. In fact, when we see a temple in China, we assume it also has decent tea. There is an ancient saying: "Tea and Zen share the same flavor; tea and monks share the same fate; tea and temples share the same place." (“茶禪一味、茶僧一緣、茶寺一體.”)

In China we say: "Where there is a good mountain, there is a good temple; where there is a good temple, there is good tea." Monks typically live close to pristine nature: on a high mountain with mist and clouds, with rich soil and ancient trees, beautiful flowers and clean water. Making tea as a monk is not for business but as a part of practice and meditation. Now I understand why many of the most famous teas (e.g. Fo Cha "Buddha tea", Tie Guanyin "Iron Goddess", Da hong Pao "Big Red Robe", Longjing "Dragon Well" etc.) were originally developed by monks.

Monks have to sit hour after hour, day after day for meditation. Younger ones eventually fall asleep, older ones sooner or later lose energy; tea keeps them focused, helps them stay awake and gives them energy. For example, after eating, mental concentration drops as energy goes to digestion. It is a challenge to sit after a meal without just becoming a potato. Tea helps prevent the monks from becoming potatoes and supports both digestion and circulation.

Due to its many benefits, tea has remained in the temple for dynasty after dynasty. Today, tea is still integral to the rituals and practices with which monks develop themselves. It lends itself to etiquette, purifies the mind, lifts the spirit, improves general well-being, strengthens character, and helps to develop self-discipline, inspiration and finally enlightenment - or so I'm told, not having had this experience myself.

Zen Tea is separated into three grades: high grade, mid-grade and standard grade. Different grades serve different purposes. High grade tea is offered to heaven in ceremonies; mid-grade tea is served to members of the lay community, and standard grade tea is what the monks retain for themselves. In case this seems at all strange, let me say that considering others first is actually basic etiquette in China. We always serve tea to others first and ourselves last. For example, my parents always save the best tea they make themselves for their children, friends, relatives, or special guests - so what do they drink every day? Whatever is left that they don't want to throw away.

So, the package of tea from my family includes some of the best tea from my home town, and the best Zen Tea made available to the public. It isn't sold openly. Because my family has a connection to the temple close to my home, they were able to get some. Of course, they had to go to the temple to get it.

There are many fascinating anecdotes involving Zen and tea, and I very much want to share some of my favorites with you, but right now, after having written this much, I'm ready to sit with a small pot of the tea sent from the temple, just to relax and refresh myself. It's very helpful just to have a short moment to remember what's most important. Just one cup of tea helps put everything in perspective. We have so much to be grateful for!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to store your puerh tea

I was so excited! One of my friends invited me to taste a puerh tea produced in the 1980s. The cake had just arrived from China, and in a week we would meet to share it together. This week seemed neverending. When the date we set finally arrived, I raced to his place for a taste of something genuinely special.

After eagerly opening the paper wrapper, I noticed some white spots spread unevenly over the surface of the tea. This elicited my first concern about its quality. Raising the cake for better inspection, my excitement was stifled by the odor of mold. This stink was immediate and conclusive proof that the tea had been tainted due to poor storage. I didn't want to disappoint my friend so quickly and kept my silence as I carefully separated the cake and prepared the tea. The liquor was dull and dark like ink. The flavor was muddy and moldy. It all confirmed my original suspicion that the tea had been contaminated.

How did this happen? The tea was stored in an overly warm and moist environment, either due to negligence or perhaps to hasten fermentation. As a result, the amount of moisture the tea absorbed rose over 10% of its total mass, creating felicitous conditions for growing mold. In China, it is not unusual to use warmth and moisture to mature puerh while it is in storage, although they are supposed to be controlled. We even have a professional term for this: "wet-stored" (shicang 湿仓) puerh. As one might suspect, the alternative is known as "dry-stored" (gancang 干仓) puerh.

Of course, it is both very disappointing and frustrating to age a cake for decades, only to grow mold, or produce what should have been a delicacy and is now only compost. So what are the significant points we should know to store our tea properly?

1. Air Circulation is necessary 

Don't store puerh in a plastic bag or airtight container, because the microbes that cause fermentation need to breathe. Constant and regular air circulation will help the tea develop and blow away odors. However, puerh should not be kept anywhere breezy (e.g. next to a window, doorway, or on a balcony), as the wind will carry its aroma and flavor away. In sum, moderate air flow is important, but drafts should be avoided.

2. Constant Temperature is necessary

The best temperature to store puerh is between 68-86°F (20-30° C). If the temperature is too high, it will affect the mouthfeel. The taste could become dull, flat or sour. In addition, raw (sheng 生) puerh will sometimes develop into cooked (shu 熟) puerh (this has been reported for tea stored in Hong Kong). This means a normal indoor temperature for us would be suitable for puerh as well.

3. Moderate Humidity is necessary 

As mentioned above, puerh is divided into two kinds according to storage method: "dry-stored" puerh (gancang puerh 干仓普洱) and "wet-stored" puerh (shicang puerh 湿仓普洱). The former refers to tea allowed to ferment naturally in an environment that is relatively dry, ventilated, and moderately hot; the latter refers to tea aged in an environment with low ventilation and high humidity in order to hasten development. This is done sometimes because the tea producer can make more profit on it. 

                                                                    "Dry stored" puerh

                                                                  "Wet-stored" puerh

If the environment is too dry, it will slow down the ageing process. So if conditions where you live and keep your tea are dry (e.g. maybe you live in a desert or alpine environment), you can put a glass of water next to your puerh, to increase the nearby humidity slightly. Alternately, if conditions are too humid, it will typically result in mold, as happened to the tea I tried at my friend's house.

4. Avoid any odor 

Tea is very good at absorbing any kind of odor. Not long ago, I bought a second-hand dress that had a strong unpleasant smell. I didn't want the stench to spread to the rest of my clothes, so I left some loose tea leaves in the dresser drawer. A few days later, the tea had the strong smell of the dress, which itself smelled better than before. My advice is that you should never store your tea, no matter what kind, in an environment that has any other scents whatsoever.

5. Material to wrap the tea

Imagine tea has a life like us and needs to breathe. Pack your tea in something made from a permeable material, such as organic nonwoven bags, kraft paper bags, paper towels, wooden or cardboard boxes, bamboo baskets or husks, clay or porcelain containers, and so on. I strongly recommend you do not put puerh tea in a plastic bag if you are planning to store your tea for years. Moreover, do not keep tea in a metal container. Remember that whatever packaging you choose should have no other smell.

Once you understand puerh as having a life just like us, it becomes easier to see how to keep it alive. It should have a comfortable place to stay; somewhere not too fancy or complicated. There is no need for refrigeration (remember I am talking about puerh, not green tea), no need to seal it in an airtight container, no special equipment and no direct sunlight. You can store it in your study room where there are no other smells and some air moves through. If the room is too dry or humid, it is better to open the window once in a while. In Pacific Northwest weather or during a monsoon, the tea has a greater chance of growing moldy, so remember to examine it occasionally. Finally, I want to remind you yet again that you should never keep your tea in an area with other smells, such as a bathroom, kitchen, new cabinet, drawer holding soap, incense, etc. Moreover, you should understand that puerh cakes from the same production line will have different aromas and tastes because they have been aged in different conditions. Decades after they are made, one from Yunnan will never be the same as one from Hong Kong, Taiwan or the USA.

One final aside is that you should not store cooked and raw puerh together.

I am sure if you follow these rules to store your puerh tea, the tea will be safe and develop well. Enjoy it, and don't forget to invite me by for a sip! :)

Friday, January 28, 2011

How to identify the differences between raw puerh and cooked puerh

It makes me very glad to meet more and more people in the USA who enjoy drinking ripe/cooked (shu 熟) puerh. However, it seems to me that many people still fail to appreciate the depth and value of raw/uncooked (sheng 生) puerh. Moreover, many people are unable to distinguish cooked and raw puer. This confusion has prompted me to write about the differences between these two teas.

Raw puerh is also called "naturally fermented" (天然发酵) puerh and utilizes entirely traditional production techniques dating back at least to the Tang Dynasty. Cooked puerh involves induced fermentation - also called "artificial fermentation" (人工发酵) - a new technology invented in 1973 by scientists at the Kunming Tea Factory (昆明茶厂). This means that if someone tries to sell you a cooked puerh tea cake purported to be more than 38 years old, you might consider finding an excuse to remove yourself from this person as soon as possible, because it is a pure lie. There was absolutely no cooked puerh tea produced before 1973.

But what if the sales staff in a teashop serve you a cup of puerh? Will you recognize what kind it is? If you can display some understanding, it might inspire the sales staff to bring out superior teas they don't bother to offer to the general public. Really, it's true. In general, if you want a high-quality product in a Chinese shop, you have to show your knowledge - or at least taste - before the staff will give you anything special. Although it's not polite to show off, it's important to have at least a basic knowledge of what you'd like to buy, because it demonstrates respect. Without that, the staff won't waste their time (or tea, in this instance). With it, they'll generally be happy not only to help you, but to participate in your education. In the case of tea, this often involves sharing something rare, made in only a certain place, for only a limited time, perhaps only by a certain person. This indicates how important it is to show basic respect - not just for people, but knowledge itself. Now, back to the question that began this paragraph:

To determine whether you are drinking a raw or cooked puerh, you can use a number of methods to recognize the differences between them:
                                      the top row shows raw puerh, the bottom cooked puerh

1. Differences in Processing:
Raw puerh: Fresh tea leaves (in many cases from special varieties of tea grown only in Yunnan) are plucked, spread on mesh screens and air-dried, tumbled, kneaded, sifted and then sun-dried, to become loose raw puerh tea (普洱散生茶), which is then steamed at a high temperature and compressed into different shapes. After compressing, the tea is allowed to naturally ferment. It takes at least 15 to 20 years for a raw tea cake to age into a vintage raw puerh.

Cooked puerh: The loose raw puerh tea leaves are spread on the floor of an enclosure with strictly controlled temperature and humidity, where water and micro-organisms are added to induce fermentation (wodui 渥堆). Both the speed and ultimate result of this process (in terms of its effect of the character of the tea) depend on the maturity of the initial tea leaves. Overall, this process reduces astringency and mellows the taste of the tea, which is then steamed and compressed. 

2. The Color of the Made Tea (Final Product): 
Raw puerh:
The overall color should be a dark or blackish green, while the color of the buds is white.

Cooked puerh:
The major hue should be black or a reddish brown, while the buds are a dark golden color

3. The Color of the Tea Liquor
Raw puerh: For tea from a young raw teacake, the liquor should be clear and bright, with a yellowish green color. If the tea has been aged over 5 years, the color should be more golden or orange like a half-oxidized oolong tea. As the tea ages, the color of the infusion will become increasingly reddish or reddish brown.

Cooked puerh: The infusion will generally range from a reddish brown matte to a dark red. Some are dark like black coffee.

4. The Aroma of the Tea Liquor
Raw puer: Younger ones have fresh, floral, fruity notes in their aromas, much like a green tea. As the tea ages, its fragrance takes on suggestions of lotus, orchid, honey and other delicate scents, as well as a rich woody, earthy, rainforest character.

Cooked puerh: Typical aromatic suggestions are those of wood, mushroom, jujube (Chinese dates), earth, forest or even beets.

5. The Taste of the Tea Liquor
Raw puerh: This depends greatly on the age of the tea. Younger teas are generally intense with pronounced bitterness and astringency but a rather strong sweet aftertaste. As time goes by, the flavor becomes more and more mellow, smooth, crisp, substantial and highly structured. The mouthfeel of a genuine well-aged puerh gently caresses your whole mouth like drinking soft silk, with a mellow but vivid living quality and long sweet finish.

Cooked puerh: The flavor never gets bitter and is gentle, rich, mellow and complex (although less so than a mature raw puerh). This depends on the fermentation as well. Teas of below-average quality sometimes leave a little tingling and dryness on the velar (back) part of the tongue. If the tea is made of leaves from an ancient tea tree, the sweet aftertaste will be longer.

6. Appearance of the Infused Leaves
Raw puerh: The leaves should be yellowish green or dark green in color, soft, plump and flexible. In general, it should be easy to find well-formed whole leaves.

Cooked puerh: The color of the brewed leaves typically ranges from reddish brown to dark brown. Cakes contain few complete leaves. The leaf pieces they do contain are generally rough, irregular and easy to break.

7. Price
Because a raw puerh tea cake must be aged for 10-20 years to attain a basic level of maturity (when it begins to exhibit its celebrated vivid, rich, supple and complex taste), whereas the flavor of a cooked tea cake (its richness and lack of both bitterness and astringency) does not develop considerably even with further storage, a well-aged raw puerh tea cake is often twice as expensive as a cooked puer cake, even if they share the same production year.

This is due to the fact that induced fermentation affects the process of natural fermentation: while it accelerates many chemical changes,it also arrests other more subtle changes that occur during natural fermentation, such that a cooked tea cake never develops the highly structured complexity of a properly aged raw tea cake. That's why it is not worthwhile to age cooked puerh teas over 2 or 3 decades, whereas people in China even invest in raw puerh for their children's future. The best raw puerh brick teas can be valued by connoisseurs for prices as high as thousands of dollars.

After all that, I should probably mention that the single factor that perhaps most profoundly effects the taste of puerh tea is whether or not it is stored properly. Some teas aged over 2 decades nevertheless taste terribly moldy, muddy and dull. Anyone willing to invest hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars in puerh tea might be well advised to learn how to provide an environment appropriate for storage. Those of you holding your precious tea cakes in your hand as you read this will just have to wait for next post for more information. :D

About Me

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Seattle, WA, United States
I grew up with tea, and it continues to fill my life with so much beauty and discovery, pleasure, peace and friends. It is always leading me toward a greater understanding of culture, nature, myself and others. It is my hope to use this space to share the joy of tea and tea culture with you.