Buying tea by the jin (斤)

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When buying tea in Taiwan, we had to use the traditional unit of measurement, the jin (斤) translated catty, which corresponds to 600g, instead of metric measurements which are widely used in Taiwan as well.

We may have used traditional units of measurement because we were in a rural area, dealing with an industry that was established before the introduction of the metric system, and has continued to be run on its own terms as most tea in Taiwan is sold domestically.

Apparently in town vegetable markets, traditional measurements are also used as well, which again suggests that where an industry is not international, the metric system is not used.

Incidentally, the quantity of 1斤 is different in different places, at around 605g in Hong Kong and 500g in Mainland China. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is 16两 (liang) to a 斤, but in Mainland China it is 10两 to a 斤. If you happen to buy directly from these three areas, please bear in mind that the weights are different.

Image: By Naval History & Heritage Command from Washington, DC, USA (2013.114.022 Scale, Pharmacy) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Gongfucha: How The Chinese Tea Ceremony became ceremonial

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A teapot, serving jug, aroma cup and drinking cup for gongfu cha.

The Chinese Tea Ceremony, or gongfu cha is often thought of as being an ancient ceremony, performed throughout China and then passed on to the West relatively recently. The truth is that it originated in the Chinese south-eastern province, Chaozhou, and it was relatively unknown outside this area even in the 1950s.

Gongfu cha was the most elaborate method of tea brewing in China, using more utensils and smaller utensils than tea brewing in other parts of China.

What made gongfu cha better known was its popularisation in Taiwanese tea houses during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Wistaria Tea House and the Lu Yu Tea Culture Institute both made important contributions to the popularisation of gongfu cha, as well as with standardising it and making it more elaborate. Zhou Yu, the founder of Wistaria Tea House is credited with having done research into historic tea brewing and contributed to gongfu cha combining Japanese, Korean and British traditions with the Chaozhounese brewing technique.

Taiwanese tea houses formed the Chinese Tea Art Friendship Association of Tea Houses in the late 1970s. In 1982, the Republic of China Tea Art Association was formed by the government in Taiwan, with the aim of promoting Chinese tea culture in Taiwan and abroad, and to educate about Chinese Tea Arts. There was a sense of responsibility in Taiwan to safeguard Chinese culture in the face of the Cultural Revolution.

As the tea bushes that began commercial tea cultivation in Taiwan came from Fujian province in south-eastern China, gongfu cha was also adopted as it came from the same sort of area, Chaozhou bordering Fujian.

All of these factors combined as well as the tea market beginning to sell domestically enabled gongfu cha to be widely practised in Taiwan, and certain additions were made: an aroma cup, to pour the tea into and smell the aromas from before drinking the tea from a second cup and a serving jug, to pour the tea from the teapot into, and from which the tea is poured into the cups. This jug ensures that the tea is of equal strength throughout the cups.

As well as a desire to preserve Chinese culture, tea houses wished to have a ceremony equal to that of Japan’s chanoyu matcha tea ceremony. Chanoyu has aesthetic elegance, Buddhist and philosophical ideas behind it and there is a strict set of rules that differ from one school to another in how each movement is performed and what role each person has to play in the ceremony. It is used to brew matcha, a powdered green tea. However it was another tea ceremony in Japan, called senchado that more directly influenced gongfu cha. Senchado is used to brew sencha, a loose leaf green tea. The teaware in senchado is Ming Chinese in origin, while Japanese aesthetics and philosophy underpin it. One impact of senchado on gongfu cha was the chaxi, an elegant and composed arrangement of teaware and decorations. As steps were added, some were for philosophical or aesthetic purposes, some for practical purposes, producing a ceremony more similar to senchado in its aims. An example of the former would be drinking the tea in three sips to represent heaven, man and earth. An example of the latter would be smelling the tea leaves and handing them around for observation. Although it is not necessary to do this, it does give some information on the tea to the person brewing and anyone drinking with them.

Tea brewing methods and ideas have been passed amongst Mainland China, Taiwan and Japan, adding to their history and making each ceremony or way of brewing more interesting along the way.

 

Sources: A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts by Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), Gastronomica, Spring, 2016.
A Quintessential Invention: Genesis of a Cultural Orthodoxy in East Asian Tea Appreciation by Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang (Marshaln), China Heritage Quarterly, No. 29, March, 2012.

一期一会 “Once in a lifetime meeting”

The above phrase is in Japanese and can be translated in a variety of different ways. Literally the meaning is “one lifetime, one meeting”. It is pronounced ichi-go ichi-e. Japanese has a range of four character idiomatic phrases called yojijukugo  四字熟語, of which this is a famous one. It is closely connected to the Japanese tea ceremony, and it expresses the idea that every meeting amongst people is unique, and cannot really be repeated and therefore should be cherished.

This idea is what I want my company to be all about, appreciating each occasion that we receive to spend time meeting people for tea, which we will prepare as best as we can.

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Ichi-go ichi-e written on the wall in the guest room of a friend’s house, expressing the same feeling that every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime event and should be treasured.

Even though the same people can see each other again, the same meeting cannot really be repeated. The Japanese tea ceremony is therefore based on the idea of preparing for and enacting your role with great sincerity and care, in order to honour this unique meeting with your guests or host. Ichi-go ichi-e is connected to the Japanese appreciation of the sadness and beauty of impermanence.

However we consider it philosophically, gongfu cha is a longer process than drinking tea western style, so it encourages people to talk to each other, and enjoy the tea that they drink. It is also very often a novel activity, and a conversation starter. For people for whom gongfu cha is a novel activity, high quality tea is often a novel drink as well, so we can use it to form friendships, enjoy something nice and healthy together, and share an interest all at once.

 

Tea Tasting with a Wine Vocabulary

I have written before the similarities between wine and tea, but it is surprising how many words that we use to describe tea are borrowed from wine tasting, such as “softness” – low tannins in the case of wine, and no unwanted bitterness in tea.

Although this can be pretentious, this kind of terminology makes it easier to learn about indicators of quality and to learn to develop the palate to recognise different characteristics of wine and tea respectively and enjoy them more.

Tea tastings are quite similar to wine tastings, in that the aim is to observe the appearance, taste, aroma and finish.

The “finish” is the sensation that comes after swallowing. A good tea will make you salivate, returning a sweet flavour to the mouth, and will feel smooth on swallowing. I prefer teas that do not leave a sense of dryness when you drink them, although some people are not averse to that. “Complexity”, or exhibiting many different flavours is also desirable in both wines and teas. “Viscous” teas are often pleasant to drink and some teas have greater viscosity than others. This quality differs from tea to tea however, so a tea lacking viscosity is not necessarily bad.

In ageing tea as in wine, people will talk about particular years that produced good teas, and the characteristics of particular harvests, caused by the weather conditions of that season. Again, in a similar way to wine, you will hear people talking about how tea’s flavour and colour is affected by ageing. Tea gains complexity but also becomes more mellow.

A lot of individual flavour descriptors can also be the same such as “vegetal”: having flavours that resemble vegetables. “Floral” and “fruity” are terms that can be used in contrast.

Similarly, flavour wheels can be used with both wines and teas to try to describe flavours more precisely, from saying that a tea tastes floral, to saying that it tastes like jasmine.

This detailed way of describing teas derived from wine tasting does not seem to be so prevalent in East Asia, although our tea farmers will also describe teas as being too “rough”.

These terms can be fun to use, and useful in identifying flavours, if a little bit pompous. Ultimately, taste is quite subjective at the same time, so I would suggest not holding too tightly to flavour descriptors as being definitive.

Tang Dynasty Tea Poetry: Pagoda Poem by Yuan Zhen

茶。

Tea

香叶,嫩芽。

fragrant leaves, tender buds.

慕诗客,爱僧家。

The desire of poets, the love of monks.

碾雕白玉,罗织红纱。

Cut and ground white jade, red silk woven on a loom.

铫煎黄蕊色,碗转曲尘花。

Boiled in a pan – the colour of yellow pistils, swirled around in a bowl –

blossoms of yeast mould.

夜后邀陪明月,晨前独对朝霞。

At the end of the night it invites you to accompany the bright moon, before dawn

it makes you face the morning mist.

洗尽古今人不倦,将知醉后岂堪夸。

Washing it down, people of the past and present never tire. Who can make such a claim after getting drunk?

NB: This poem is difficult to translate to catch the delicacy and beauty of the original Chinese. The original uses more metaphors than literal descriptions, but these are lost in translation.

Tea Art Houses (茶藝館) in Taiwan. Part 2

Tea Art Houses, unlike their predecessors, old men rooms and tea houses, stress the importance of the art of tea making.

Here is a bit more of the context that led to their success.

In light of the Chinese civil war, and cultural revolution Taiwan considered itself responsible for preserving traditional Chinese culture, and as part of this, traditional tea arts.

In the 1970s, Taiwan’s economy improved a lot, leading to people having more disposable income. The tea industry was directed towards Taiwanese as opposed to foreign buyers. With wealthy buyers nearby, prices rose, competition was encouraged, and quality and creativity improved. Farmers also started to focus on high end teas, as opposed to low and medium quality, as they could not compete with the existing market in these areas.

Tea drinking became more refined. The Taiwanese brought the tea ceremony indoors to their houses and tea art houses. They also changed the tea ceremony and invented variations, and new ways of drinking tea.

I will go into some of the changes that Taiwan brought to ways of drinking tea, in later posts.

 

 

Tea Art Houses (茶藝館) in Taiwan. Part 1

When visiting Taiwan, a nice way to experience tea culture is to visit a tea art house. In these places, customers are treated to drinking tea gongfu style in a peaceful setting, and can learn more about tea and how to brew it. To create a “pop up tea art house” is basically our objective in events.

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The interior of a tea house

Tea art houses give an appearance of having always been part of Taiwanese culture, providing a glimpse into the past.

The surprising truth is that tea art houses have only been in Taiwan since the 1970s.

Before this, there were two types of tea houses. The first was ‘Old men rooms’, places for old men to socialise. These men were the Mainland Chinese who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek’s army. They were public officers and former soldiers, separated from their families.

There were also tea houses which employed hostesses and were associated prostitution. Consequently, tea houses were associated with the elderly or prostitution. Many Taiwanese were therefore not interested in them. Simultaneously, coke and coffee were seen as drinks for the elite, as they were symbols of ties to the US.

In this context, tea art houses were started by a small group of tea practitioners in Taipei. They emphasised high quality tea, and the art of making tea. Manuals explaining how to prepare tea gongfu style were published. Through efforts, tea art houses were accepted by the Taiwanese, and gained government recognition, in the forming of the Republic of China Tea Art Association.

Tea art houses are now established as good destinations to visit, and are even promoted to tourists. They are an opportunity to escape busy city life, spend time with friends drinking tea and probably also enjoy a meal.

Please join us at our events in the future for a similar break from a hectic lifestyle to experience the culture, tastes and aromas of Taiwanese tea.

Guest Post by Diary of a Northern Teaist

The Northern Teaist is a brilliant tea blogger, and he has kindly written a guest post on bowl brewing in Taiwan. Here it is:

I first encountered the bowl tea technique whilst doing some research into the ancient links between tea and Zen.

Intrigued by the elegant simplicity of this way of tea preparation, I did some further reading.

It seems as though bowl tea can trace its origins back to Taiwan’s rural past. In the days when nearly all journeys were undertaken on foot, farmers would often leave tea making provisions in small shelters by the roadside to assist weary travellers.

In modern times the tradition of serving bowl tea still exists, but these days it is most often used as a way of showing guests respect and hospitality.

As with the somewhat similar “Grandpa” style, bowl tea reduces tea infusion down to its absolute basics – tea leaves, hot water, and a receptacle in which the two may meet.

bowl_tea_1 There is a subtle difference, however – whereas Grandpa style is great for an on-going, casual tea session in the middle of a busy day whilst attending to other matters, bowl tea is at its best when used to create an oasis of calm, with the focus on just the tea itself.

I like to think of the bowl tea approach as Grandpa style with the ceremonial and meditative aspects of gong-fu methodology layered on top of it. Although the idea is the same – to treat the leaves with reverence and by doing so extract the best out of them, without the more complex details of gong-fu sitting between the tea and those drinking it, I find myself able to concentrate more on the tea,
rather than how it is made.

Most aspects of bowl tea are open to individual interpretations and preferences.

The water temperature depends of course of the class of tea being used. I find that this method works best with strip Oolongs and loose-leaf sheng Pu-erhs, so that means water close to or at 100 degrees C.

I like to use a bowl with a capacity of about 300 ml. After warming / rinsing the bowl with a little hot water, I then drop in about a pinch and a bit’s worth of tea leaves, which is usually in the vicinity of 1 – 1½ grams. Generally speaking, the leaves will probably be in contact with the water for longer than they would when steeping gong-fu style, so it’s best to err on the light side to avoid over-steeping.

Don’t overthink the correct way to hold the bowl when it’s holding hot tea liquor. Your hands will soon fall into the right position for that bowl, although thumb and index finger from each hand along the rim of the bowl, and the middle finger of the right hand supporting the bowl on its underside works well for me.

Because tea in a bowl has a larger surface area, I find it a great way to experience the full-on aroma of a tea. I love to hold the bowl close to my face for a few seconds and inhale deeply before tasting the tea.

Short of using glass teaware, this is one of the best infusion methods you can use if you want to see the leaves stretch and unfurl.

As far as steeping times go, it’s ready when you think it is.

Top up the water level in the bowl as and when.

So grab a bowl, a few fine leaves, and some hot water, disconnect from the everyday, and lose yourself for a while..

Taiwanese Culture 3

People will often ask you personal questions, sometimes one after another, probably when they have just met you. These questions can be how many people are in your family, how old are you, are you married, do you have children, and how many, how much do you earn, what do you do for a living, etc.

If you can skilfully dodge them, and get the person to start talking about themselves for example, then do so. This practice of asking questions not badly meant, although everything that you tell them should be considered public knowledge, as the news will most likely be passed on…

Picture of Taipei City Nanyang Street 20130127.jpg: By Solomon203 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons File url: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Taipei_City_Nanyang_Street_20130127.jpg

 

 

 

Taiwanese Culture Part 2

Some further observations that we made about Taiwan’s culture whilst we were sourcing tea.

Regard for other people is shown much more in actions than in words. This is quite a striking difference from Western cultures when you encounter it.

Taiwanese culture is quite group orientated, and people like to do things in large gatherings.

At the same time, ostentatious behaviour and showing off is not seen well, even though Taiwanese can be extravagant hosts taking you out to restaurants. At the same time, they do not expect you to reciprocate at all, but to accept it and thoroughly enjoy it.

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The traffic is very hectic, even though it has improved over the past few years. As a pedestrian, you are more or less expected to take responsibility for your own safety. In the tea mountains, it’s much more the terror of driving very fast past sheer precipices.

The next time we go on a sourcing trip, I am hoping to make some videos to show you where your tea comes from, and the mountain driving to get there.

In people’s houses, you will be expected to take off your shoes, and put on slippers. There may also be separate slippers for the bathroom, in which case you can change to these as you go through the door.

There is often not a clear change between working life and home life. Working hours can be long, and there are many people who are entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur naturally blurs the line between working and leisure hours. Our green tea supplier, who is also a good friend of the Chessers Tea team, virtually “lives” in her cafe, and sometimes spontaneously asked me to help out with serving food, which is something that would basically never happen in Britain.

Life goes at a faster pace, and you are treated to many wonderful and unique experiences that will not be replicated anywhere else (one of mine is playing arcade games with soldiers to cheer me on in a night market).