Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring greens and the honor of age

Spring is here.  Life is waking to the slowly gathering presence of warmth and sun.  Everywhere the catkins are opening and lengthening, relaxing from the tightened grip of winter.  This is the time of year when I find myself craving fresh green teas, counting the days until the first ones arrive.  The past couple weeks I've been in green tea heaven, thanks to Gingko at Life in Teacup.  This is my second year participating in their green tea pre-order arrangement.  Truly a great opportunity and one which I hope they continue to make available.  Although Long Jing will always have a special place in my heart, I'm finding so many new varieties to add to my list of favorites thanks to the diverse selection offered.  It would be easy for me to say they're *all* my favorites!
Today, though, was a blustery day out.  The trees are bending and swaying from their very trunks as strong winds blow through the Puget Sound.  A day for sitting quietly to take it all in and enjoy the show, better suited to the deep mellowness of a good aged puer than the exuberant fullness of the greens.  I chose a sheng from the 1970's that's a bit new to me.  I'm still getting to know it.  A nice gentle woodiness to this one, full of the feel and scent of age that I've come to love so well.  It delighted with surprising wafts of sweetness all around the tea table and plenty of nuance in the mouth and taste between sips.  But here's the thing.  I'm becoming reluctant anymore to write about tea brand X or Y, especially for teas such as this.  It's a bit of a conundrum because I wholeheartedly believe in supporting vendors and makers who actively practice quality and discernment.  If it were a newer sheng I were speaking of I'd be more inclined to disclose the 'what' and 'where' of it.  But teas like this require more than just a recommendation.  They require skill and devotion to the practice of tea.  They are a reward for extended dedication as well as patience.  Some would muse that teas like this somehow enter your life of their own volition, but really it's a matter of the level of involvement and awareness one has with puer I think.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A quintessential NW teahouse: Zen Dog's Tea House Gallery

the sign says it all

Here's a little treat for you -- a field trip to Zen Dog's Tea House Gallery, a beloved Seattle haven for tea lovers and community.  This place is special.  No doubt about it.  Zen Dog (or ZD as he likes to be called) has built a whole world of loveliness, a temple to tea.  Every nook and cranny, every turn and vista beckons the eye to admire, the body to relax and the heart to open.

main floor tea table and gathering area
ZD has some magic going on here.  You sense it the moment you approach the front gate, but it's when you step inside and are invited to sit for tea, often with several others already seated around the table, that you start to feel the draw of the place.  The conversation flows easily, buoyed by the good tea prepared gong fu style by ZD, or sometimes by other guests.  Before long you find yourself talking with strangers as though they were old friends.  The crowd is always delightfully diverse.  All ages, all backgrounds, tea lovers and tea novices, neighbors out for a walk and visitors from afar, all are welcomed and honored and made to feel at home.  As a result, the conversations at the tea table are engaging and full of interest.  While the tea is always good, I believe it's the spirit that ZD lives and manifests which is responsible for this very real sense of welcome and community.  In a world so full of rush and salesmanship where we all too often feel anonymous or preyed upon, the joyful, no-strings-attached hospitality at Zen Dog's is a rare oasis.  It's no wonder people seek this place out, tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood in the far NW of Seattle.

small Dragon tea table in the upstairs gallery
The tea menu here is just as diverse as the guests, with a large selection of all manner of teas, including puerhs.  There's an array of interesting blends available too, all of which were created by regulars to the tea house.  While I was asking ZD about a few of them (like the one with the can't-miss name "Folsom Prison") it became apparent that many of these blends were discovered at his tea table as guests would come to sit and share their favorite teas and tea stories.  The Folsom Prison blend was thanks to a tea friend who shared her favorite blend but didn't have a name for it.  When she pulled out her guitar and started playing Johnny Cash songs... well, there you have it...

The Tea House hosts many organized gatherings, as well.  There are monthly lunar celebrations at the tea house, and while I have yet to attend one I hear they're full of great music and poetry along with good tea and good people and community.  Another gathering that's been on the calendar recently are the "Tea and Chocolate Pairing" events with local chocolatier Aaron Barthel of Intrigue Chocolates.  Barthel and ZD have even teamed up to produce a special tea-and-chocolate truffle bar (available at ZD's place), aptly named "Zen Dog Bark" (and yes, it's yummy!).  Another frequent guest speaker here is Harrison Moretz of the Taoist Studies Institute in Seattle.  Also, about once a month the tea house is host to talks from the Venerable Tulku Yeshi Rinpoche of the nearby Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, and occasionally teachers from another local Buddhist group, the Blue Heron Zen Community, will come to give talks.  Although ZD himself will tell you he ascribes no labels to himself when it comes to spiritual paths and that his spiritual practice is simply tea, it's not surprising that many in the local contemplative communities have found a kindred spirit at his tea table.

upstairs tea table and gathering area
Shall I tell you about the artwork and calligraphy covering the walls?  The beautiful antique furniture filling the rooms?  The abundance of comfortable seating of all kinds, inviting you to sit and hang out for awhile?  The sparkling cut-glass jars that fill the countertops and which store many of the dried flower buds and teas?  The enormous yixing canisters storing loose leaf puerhs and the smaller ones full of cakes?  I haven't even touched on the beauty found outside in the gardens, the koi pond and the lovely outdoor tea pagoda built just last year, thanks to the hands and help of many tea friends.  So much to take in and appreciate here.  The pictures below will offer a few more glimpses of the wonders of this place.  At ZD's it's not so much a matter of "If you build it, they will come," although he's clearly built a place of beauty.  Rather, in ZD's case it's "If you be it, they will come," because all you see and experience here is a reflection of the man himself.  It's his home and his life, and the community that has blossomed here has it's roots deeply planted and nurtured in ZD's heartfelt embodiment of the spirit and essence of Cha Dao.

Tea as a Way of Life.

another view of the main floor gallery
view to the gardens
koi pond and meditation rock
wonderful tea friends, Zen Dog and Stephen Bonnell
ZD's always-present footwear of choice :)

Monday, April 16, 2012

1997 Aged Shui Xian brick

Something a little different, and completely delightful today -- a gift from a friend of an unusual pressed brick of Shui Xian (or Shui Hsien, Shui Sen) oolong from 1997.  I've never seen or heard of anything like it, pressed into a brick in this way, although Shui Xian is one of my favorite oolong varieties.  It made for a beautiful and enjoyable tea session this morning, opening with notes of dark bittersweet chocolate and a hint of raisins, even straight out of the wrapper and still in dry brick form.  In fact, the aroma and taste was so reminiscent of bittersweet chocolate I ended up pairing it this morning with a few precious cacao beans from Claudio Corallo's heirloom cacao plantations on Sao Tome and Principe Islands, west of Africa.  Corallo is to chocolate as the finest artisan puer makers are to tea.  It was as if the tea was the absolute clear liquid expression of the bite and solidity of the sweet cacao beans.  Pure bliss..

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sky-gazing with tea

"Do you remember when we were kids how we used to lie on the ground and look up at the sky and watch the clouds and all the shapes they formed? (Maybe not just when we were kids.) 'This one's a duck. Now it is a swan, no, it's a monster.' Remember how they transformed and dissipated, and new forms appeared? And how we sometimes made up stories? We didn't call it cloud-gazing. We didn't call it anything. It just happened and we were just watching. Maybe nowadays we might see a Buddha, an OM or a dakini, perhaps even drawing some significance.

But what happens when we shift our gaze from the clouds to the sky? Just the sky itself ... leaving aside its condensations. They arise, they abide and they dissolve, and still the sky remains.

Here's what the Vijnana Bhairava, that 10th century Kashmiri text, says about it:

Unblinking, one's whole being immobile, if one beholds the pure sky,
at that very moment, the Inexpressible reveals itself.

And perhaps now we live in a city or our usual visual field is the computer screen rather than nature. Perhaps now our ever-transforming experience from monster to swan is from drama to comedy, or the inverse. Maybe the images that arise, abide and dissolve are body sensations or emotions, jobs or relationships. We still make up stories. But the sky of awareness from which they condense remains, even as its condensations metamorphose: in sky-gazing, we are neither perturbed nor enchanted by the cloud formations.

Just sky-gazing."

-- Joan Ruvinsky

Thursday, April 5, 2012

1983 Xiaguan Xiao Fa Tuocha

I guess it's about time I write about tea again :)   This morning's session was with one of my favorites, a 1980's issue of the Xiaguan 'Xiao Fa' tuo.  Today I had the one that's currently offered at Best Tea House in Canada (100g size and said to be from 1983), but Essence of Tea also has these for sale (the larger 250g size, noted as "1980's").  I've tried both of these teas side by side and they're very similar.  I find the smaller 100g tuo is a bit more rich and intense than the 250g one, which I think might be due to the size/mass difference of the tuos.  Or maybe the 250g tuo is as much as 6 or 7 years younger?  I can't say for sure, but both are very enjoyable and favorites of mine.  This tea is said to be a lightly fermented shu, and it's fantastic.  It really shows the best of both worlds (shu/sheng).  Suits my taste and preferences very well.  I've never had a session with it that was anything less than wonderful.

On the shu side of things, the Xiao Fa is full of sweet richness, with plenty of complexity to keep you on your toes through the first 6 or 7 infusions.  At times it shows cinnamon and spice.  Other times I'll find soft chocolate notes in the nose, with rich sweet wood carrying it at the base.  Now and then I'll get flashes of a sheng-like fruitiness, which always surprises me.  Toward later infusions the taste and aroma will lose some dimensionality but is still very enjoyable, increasing in sweetness and settling into a deep-wood-with-hazelnuts yumminess.  But it plays out very nicely this way since the qi of this one builds to a wonderful state of contemplative calm, so by the time the aromas are settling I'm very much in a place that welcomes steadiness and calm.

Sheng-wise?  No, this isn't a sheng but I'm guessing that the more lightly fermented leaves are what's responsible for the activity and complexity found in this tea.  The tea soup is lusciously silky, coating the mouth in a soft and gentle way.  The aromas and flavors are multi-layered and changing throughout the earlier infusions.  Every time I drink this tea the word 'elegant' comes to mind.  Best of all, it shows a great deal of activity throughout the body.  It definitely has my kind of qi going on, melting all the edges of experience and settling me into a warm pool of "aahhhh..."  

Speaking of warmth, this tea has a way of bringing a surprising degree of perspiration to the skin.  Definitely warming in that way.  But what's most interesting is that while I feel heat to my skin, there is a contrasting sense of coolness in the throat and core of the body.  This morning as I was trying to find words to articulate this I kept coming up with "cool breeze through the central core of the body."  That's kind of what it feels like.

I really love this tea and almost hate to blog about it because I'd like to hoard it all for myself :)

I also want to point out a new cup in the photo above.  Another Petr Novak beauty, this is one of his porcelain celadon-glazed cups.  Like the antique cups I mentioned in a recent post, the shape of these enhances the gold ring effect of certain teas (like this Xiao Fa), and also seems to encourage the pattern play of steam and mist (cloud feet) more so than cups of other shapes.  I've really been enjoying getting to know these cups.  A big thank you to Petr for blessing me with them :)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tetsubin adventures

You knew it would happen eventually.  At some point along the way the quest for the quintessential puerh experience leads one into all sorts of mischief with new tea gadgetry.  Today was my first try with a tetsubin.

I'm a sucker for stories of how older, well-used teaware contribute something special to a tea session. I can't say for sure if this is really quantifiably true, but certainly for me it has an affect on awareness.  Knowing I'm using something that was either made during a time when mass-production was small scale compared to today's standards, or was well-used by a previous tea lover, somehow assures me.  But the case of this particular tetsubin has been a real test of my preferences.  It's one thing to sip tea from an old porcelain teacup, and quite another to use water from a rusty old kettle!  I don't know how old it is.  The guy who sold it to me said it was made pre-1900 but I take that with a very big grain of salt.  Regardless of it's true age though, it's clearly been well-used as evidenced by the very thick layer of mineral deposits on the interior.

And yes, lots of rust.  No doubt far more degraded than anyone in their right mind would ever think to use (I'm expecting commentary like "What the *!&$! were you thinking?" and "No way I'd have gone for that one").  But I was intrigued by the thick layer of mineral deposits, curious to know if and how it would affect the water (though the real test of this will be to compare it side by side with a new tetsubin, which I'll get to eventually).  It's thanks to articles like this one from The Leaf that got me curious about crusty old tetsubin, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding.  No way to tell if this is a good or bad thing until I try it out.

But let me tell you, it wasn't just the crusted interior that set me back, but even more so the smell coming from inside.  It smelled like an old railway station from the industrial age.  Off-putting to say the least. There was no way I was going to drink anything from it smelling like that.  Thus began several weeks of just boiling water in it, again and again.  Fill with water, boil, pour down the drain, repeat-repeat-repeat.  Before pouring the water down the drain I'd pour it into a large white ceramic bowl so I could see the color of the water and also check for what kinds of bits and pieces might be coming out.

Although the water poured colorless, there were initially lots of those bits and pieces.  These were from a few areas where the layer of mineral deposits had separated from the wall of the tetsubin.  Initially, I heeded the cautions I'd read online, telling you not to disturb the mineral layer.  But as I boiled the water I noticed that these separated areas would cause the boiling water to get particularly agitated, which caused chunks to break free.  Also, after pouring the water out and leaving the kettle to dry, those pockets were always the last to dry out.  It seemed to me these separated areas were only causing more degradation and rust, so I went ahead and pulled off the deposit layer where I could.  Interestingly, there were only a few places I could do this.  For the most part, the mineral layer seemed to be virtually cemented-on and an integral outgrowth of the walls of the tetsubin.  There was no way I could have pulled it all off even if I'd wanted to (short of using a jackhammer).  The one big chunk below (shown front and back) is from the area shown in the photo directly above.  Interesting to observe the rusted iron layer on the back which seems to lend credence to the idea that these deposits eventually become enmeshed with the iron, especially as the iron rusts and degrades --

After a full week of just boiling water in it, it still had an unpleasant old train station smell.  I was starting to think this would be one of those tetsubin that either needs to be seriously scrubbed out, reconditioned or just plain tossed, but went looking online for ideas.  I found a Japanese website that suggested boiling a piece of ginger in the tetsubin to get rid of off-smells.  It worked like a charm!  The railway smell disappeared.  Happily, it didn't smell like ginger either.  It just smelled like what you'd expect an iron kettle to smell like.  I did a second boiling with a piece of ginger a few days later just to make sure, but really didn't need to.  One of the interesting effects of boiling the ginger was that when the water was poured out it was a brownish yellow color (versus colorless water every other time I boiled in it).  I don't know if the color was just from the ginger, or if it was evidence that the ginger was somehow pulling dirt and impurities from the walls of the tetsubin.  Perhaps a little of both.

I've smelled a few different used tetsubin now and have been surprised to learn that each has it's own aromatic character.  The one this post is about has a mellowed old iron smell to it, but I have another who's smell is sharper, more pungent.  I'll be interested to compare these to the new one I'll be getting eventually.

I finally decided to give this tetsubin a go this morning and brew some tea with it.  Being the first time I've used a tetsubin I also boiled water in my stand-by electric stainless steel kettle so I could do a side-by-side comparison.  I chose one of my daily-drinker puers that I know well so I could concentrate more on the effects on the water.  But first I just tasted the water from each kettle.  No tea.  Side by side the SS water was definitely brighter and "ping-ier" with a slightly metallic taste to it.  The water from the tetsubin was sweet in comparison with a bit more smoothness in the mouth.  When I say it was sweet, I don't mean it had an obviously sweet taste.  If I hadn't tasted the two waters side by side I probably wouldn't have described the tetsubin water as sweet.  But tasting them one after the other, the water from the tetsubin clearly had a softer, pleasant, sweet-in-comparison taste to it.  Best of all, I didn't taste anything yukky or 'off' in the tetsubin water.  No hint of any 'old train station' in the taste.

SS tea on the top, tetsubin on the bottom, very slight color difference
I brewed several side-by-side infusions and clearly (no news to many of you) there was a difference in the taste of the tea.  In general, the tea brewed with water from the SS kettle tasted flatter, with less coherence and mouth activity, and a persistent metallic ping-iness that I'd never been able to detect before.  The tea with the tetsubin water was, like the plain water itself, somehow 'sweeter', with more dimensionality in the taste and more activity felt in the mouth and throat.  The various flavors and elements seemed more integrated, too.  For instance, the tea I chose today has a bitter (ku wei) element to it which is subtle but enjoyable.  When made with the tetsubin water the ku wei would emerge from a smooth beginning and grow throughout the sip, while in the tea from the SS water it appeared immediately on the tongue and felt more like a separate, distinct element in the mouth.  A good analogy is like making soup.  The first day you can taste all the ingredients separately as each makes it's presence known in the flavor, but on the second day the different flavors have somehow merged and integrated, so instead of acting on the palate with their own separate hits, they've "married" and move together in a flow of flavor.

hmmmm maybe I should have titled this post "Scary tetsubin adventures?"  :)   I'll keep you posted if I end up in the hospital with high levels of strange and dangerous minerals in my body..