Tea and mediation

I grew up in China with tea being a food and a way of life. There is even a term for it: 口粮茶 – staple tea.

I have however often wondered as why tea is associated with meditation and other spiritual practices, in the past and today, China and abroad. After some reading recently, the connection is clear.

Tea and Buddhist diet

tea and buddha monkBuddhism was first introduced to China during the Han Dynasty and meditation was part of the core practice. Buddhist monks mediated for long periods day and night. Their diet was constituted of vegetarian and none-alcoholic ingredients. Tea was considered to be an essential for the purpose of enhancing the alertness during the meditation, health and well being and even long longevity by many Buddhist monks.

High mountain green teas

After the Buddhism was first introduced to China, the religion was flourishing and many temples were built on remote high mountains as a way of 'entering' an elevated spiritual space. The monks would immediately clear the land around the temples and start cultivating to generate the means for survival in such remote places. Tea was one of the essentials.

For example:

Lu Shan (Mt Lu) of the Jiang-Xi Province was once a major Buddhist centre. The famous Chinese green tea Lu Shan Yun Wu (Mt Lu misty green) is believed to be a speciality of a temple in Mt Lu, where the famous Buddhist monk Hui-Yuan lived for 30 years.

Tea’s other connections to Buddhism and Buddhist activities

  1. The most known tea legend Lu Yu was raised in a temple as an orphan since he was 3 years old
  2. The green tea seeds were first brought to Japan in 805 AD by a Japanese monk Zui-Cheng upon his return from a visit to the Chinese tramples. This marked the beginning of the Japanese green teas

Tea is truly a fascinating product. Its historical significance is far beyond a merely daily beverage.

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A comparison study of consumer’s ripened Pu-erh preferences against two differing temperature and humidity storage conditions

Overview:

The implication of Pu-erh tea’s storage on it’s aging has gone through intense debate during recently years, largely by two camps of tea dealers and consumers: 1/ the traditional cool and dry storage camp, represented by the conventional Kun-Ming storage 2/ south eastern Asia semi wet storage (natural and artificial) camp represented by HK storage.


With all the opinions and arguments in the community and industry, we would like to find out what the consumers, especially those outside of the conventional Pu-erh consumption areas ( ie with no or limited pre-conditioning to one type or the other) , think.

The result was a surprise, with preferences split down the middle and summed up neatly as “One’s cup of tea might not be the next person’s”, indicative of tea consumption across the wider tea industry.

Background

Conventional wisdom would indicate that the best storage conditions for loose leaf Chinese teas (green tea, white tea, Oolong tea or black tea) involve environments that are dry, cool and lack moisture and foreign odours.

This does not necessarily apply fully to Pu-erh tea however, which, due to its leaves being harvested from arbour tea trees instead of tea bushes, is a unique class of Chinese tea. When raw and fresh, Pu-erh teas can be rough, bitter with plenty of astringency and could be harsh on digestive system. As such these teas need to be “softened” to improve and become more mellow, smooth and richer in aroma and flavour.

The conventional way of ‘softening’ Pu-erh tea is via natural aging which involves three forms of oxidisation and fermentation:

  1. simple chemical oxidisation.
  2. enzyme mediated oxidisation.
  3. micro-organism involved fermentation.

Differing climate conditions require different storage times to achieve similar results for Pu-erh tea, but with subtle quality trade-offs. ie

  • 10 years storage in Beijing is equivalent to 4 years storage in GuangZhou.
  • Slower aging retains more botanic aroma and mellow aftertaste, but at the cost of retaining greater astringency.

Two main traditional regions have an association with Pu-erh tea consumption under differing storage conditions:

  1. The south-west and north-west regions of China (including Tibet) have a long association with aged Pu-erh teas stored under cooler and drier conditions.
  2. South-east Asia is another market with a solid foothold.
    • Pu-erh consumers here discovered that the Pu-erh teas stored under certain tropical or sub-tropical climates (typically higher temperature and humidity level) such as HK and Malaysia go through a faster post-fermentation to reach a state that is categorically different from the same age Pu-erh tea from the south-west and north-west of China.
    • The market then started differentiating Pu-erh teas by storage types, in addition to other crucial elements such as areas and year of production and raw or ripened: HK storage, Malaysia storage, Taiwan storage and Kun-Ming storage etc.

Test to compare the differences between Pu-erh from these regions

We wanted to find out how consumers respond to differences in storage, so invited a small group of volunteers from a Pu-erh discussion group for a blinded test.

Study design:

ripenedpuerhstudysamplesaged ripened pu-erh teaWe sent out two samples of ripened Pu-erh without identifying the region of storage as follows:

  1. One of Kun-Ming storage Xia Guan TuoCha (dry and cool storage).
  2. One of HK storage (semi-wet storage, completed Jin-Cang 进仓 and Tui-Cang 退仓 – please see footnote for explanation). The tea had been stored in HK for 10 year under classic HK storage before bing compressed into cakes in 2017. 

The samples were marked as #1 and #2, and we invite the volunteers to send back their response on the following aspects: aroma, flavour, texture, aftertaste and overall comments. We publish the full results as follow.

Results

General demographic details:

  • Sample size: 12
  • Gender: Male -6 Female-6
  • Country of residence: Australia, USA, Canada, Germany, Mexico and UK

In summary there was a 50/50 split with regard to the tea preferred.

Result in details:

 

Gender Preferred tea

Xia Guan Tuo Cha (XG) –
Kun-Ming dry storage

Hong Kong -
Semi wet storge

Preferred Xia Guan (dry storage) over Hong Kong storage
 M XG  Bright over all flavor, Woodsy & Uplifting. *hints of old wet compost and fish? Musty, swampy.

*in my imagination it seemed like maybe it was kept in a damp basement

 F XG  heavily favoured #1 (Xia Guan) * did not like #2 (HK) at all

* did not stick with sample HK for multiple brews as was put off by it

M

XG

tasted very well from the first steep. No bitterness, slight astringency, Huigan came at steep 3. is not bad, no bitterness, no astringency. But my even after the 6th infusion i tasted no Huigan. All in all very weak.
 F XG  Smooth, forest floor, clean, strong huigan (or lingering in the throat area). This tea became a little astringent by brew 4 Just a tad gritty; musky, no lingering in the throat; comforting, mellow on first infusion. This tea became bitter by infusion #4. Although I liked the first infusion of this puer better, I did not like subsequent infusions.
 F XG *very nice taste, aftertaste is very nice, it's not drying at all.

* nice and dark color. Still has a pleasant earthy taste.

 *wet leaf smell

* very dark color. For me it's a bit too woody/earthy for a 1st infusion. It has a dry aftertaste for me

 F  XG  had a bolder, more woody/earthy taste and the texture was beautiful.  
Preferred Hong Kong storage over Xia Guan (dry storage)
 M HK   taste was heavy and overall astringent, had a mineral/chalk/smoked taste since the beginning but did not evolved well over several brews, it kept much of its initial flavor over the infusions until about the 7th infusion it started to smooth and acquire an earthy flavoring. had a nicer aroma from the beginning. Ample, bold and full bodied, it evolved very well over several infusions from smoked/woody/dry wood to a earthy/mild/smooth brew.
 M  HK  no comment    no comment
 F HK   no comment   my answer to all questions was #2(HK). I would add that in the initial steeps I leant towards #1( XG), but after the first couple then #2(HK) was much better
 F  HK  no comment    I really enjoyed both, but the little bit of sweetness in #2(HK) made it my favorite
 M HK  - the colour was dark (coffee like) with a hint of red along the edges, the aroma and taste was very mild with some earthy tones. There was no real after taste. * my preferred Pu-Erh, more red in colour

* with a more familiar flavour and intensity. I was able to brew more cups from Sample #2(HK)
*the aftertaste was silky.

 M  HK tasted somewhat leathery to me which I find to be an off taste. I prefer raw over ripe anyway but 2 had more going for it between the two ripe.  I found it more complex and aromatic.

Main findings:

  • It is clear that even after the completion of the Tui-Cang 退仓, the ‘damp’ taste as the direct result of the HK Pu-erh storage (Jin-Cang 进仓) is sensed and tasted by tea drinkers, mostly describing it as a major putting off factor.
  • By comparison, the dry storage Pu-erh is described by those who preferred it as bright, clean, bold, with good woody/earthy taste.
  • It is a common consent that HK storage Pu-erh is darker in colour with a smooth texture. 
  • The main surprise to me: for those who preferred the more heavily ‘storage fermented’ HK Pu-erh, there is no report of the ‘damp’ sensation at all, which is quite prominent in the other group. 

Acknowledgement:

We would like to thank you all for those who participated in the taste test and sent back you valuable feedback. 

Footnote:

  • Jin-Cang 进仓 (Entering the storage): storing Pu-erh teas under artificial conditions that are classically higher humidity and temperature, and low air flow to speed up the ‘post fermentation’. Various HK storages apply different conditions. The teas after Jin-Cang 进仓 often have some level of mouldy smell/flavour and cloudy tea brew.
  • Tui-Cang 退仓 (retreating from the storage): removing the teas from the initial storage and store in close to classic dry storage conditions (cool, dry and high air flow) for up to 2 years to remove (although not fully) the dump and mould flavour, and restore the initial Pu-erh's the bright and clear tea brew.
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A Cool Summer Evening with Pu-erh Tuocha

A Cool Summer’s Evening…

By my way of thinking, the sweltering inferno that is often Sydney summer, does not call for abstinence from the joy of a nice cup of tea, but rather an opportunity to sample the more refreshing brews in our stores. Besides the fact that research has suggested that a hot cuppa can actually help to cool you down in the heat (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-hot-drink-on-a-hot-day-can-cool-you-down-1338875/), it is just so delicious that I couldn’t bear the thought of giving it up over something so trivial as a hot day. It’s going to take a lot more than that to drag me away from my tea.

 Jelena and Pu-erh tea

So, after the brutal heat of late which had kept me sipping on my invigorating Dragon Well and Bi Lo Chun, a slight cool change gave me the excuse to (literally) dig into a beautiful ripened pu-erh Toucha. Before settling into this warm and cosy cuppa however, I got to try my hand at one of our new bamboo trays!

Chinese Pu-erh tea

 

Usually, I would just use my cake knife and gather the tea on a piece of paper- putting the leftover leaves in a paper bag to keep them fresh for next time. Although this method works just fine and won’t affect the quality of your tea, the convenience of these trays really does speak for itself. While their dimensions mean that you do not have to constantly worry about your tea flying off into the sunset when you break it, they also have a small gap in the corner where you can easily empty the contents into a mug, or Gaiwan as I did. When combined with a fitted bamboo drawer, you can easily store the inevitable leftovers in a box that will simultaneously make a complimentary feature in any kitchen or living room. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, your leaves will be kept in a well ventilated space where they are protected from being crushed by the copious domestic forces which threaten their fragile peace.


While using the Gaiwan does involve a little more effort than say a mug, the small serving size makes for a much richer experience.


The tea is brewed to perfection as it is not stewing in a large body of water for extended periods of time, and the small mouthfuls provide a more acute conception of the delicious flavour.

The rich, woody flavours gained from its fermentation provided exactly the wholesome warmth I had missed for so long (despite loving my summer teas, a change is always welcome).

 

Indulging in some shortbread on the side, it was this tea that made my cool summer’s evening into brewed perfection

 

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