A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from September 2009

Troubles with a bush

September 30, 2009 · 10 Comments

Recently there’s been some discussion of the nature of dancong online at various places, and one of the topics of discussion was the proper nomenclature of dancong itself.  I was not too convinced by what was being said, simply because some didn’t sound right, so I went and investigated.

The discussion centers around the word “cong” and which character should be used and what it should mean.  I first went to my trusted source, the Hanyu Da Cidian, which is a 12 volume monstrosity and is the Chinese equivalent of the OED.  I first looked up 叢.  Its basic meaning is “group”, and can also mean “a bunch of plants growing together”.  No surprise there.

Then I looked up 欉, which, to my surprise, is NOT in the Hanyu Da Cidian.

Now, of course, since 叢 simplifies into 丛, one would assume that 欉 simplifies into 枞, and it is extremely common to see 单枞 being used as the phrase for the tea we know as dancong.

However, there is a problem, because æžž is also (or perhaps, only) a simplification of the word 樅, which means fir.  When you search for æžž in the dictionary, you’re going to find the definition “fir”, but that’s because you’re actually looking up the word 樅, not 欉, which is what you should actually be looking for.  People write æžž for 欉 because they assume that’s what it is, and indeed it might, but they are two distinct characters and when you search for words using simplified characters, you always run the risk of it returning erronous results because there are multiple “source” words for one simplified character.

Since the Hanyu Da Cidian doesn’t have 欉, I thought I’d look up 單欉 or 單叢, but it seems like the editors of Hanyu Da Cidian are not tea drinkers, and they are not in the dictionary.

So I went to another useful resource for weird words — the Kangxi Zidian, which was edited in the 1710s.  Here, we do find a reference to 欉, and the definition given is quite simple — In Jiangdong (an area roughly corresponding to the region around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, etc), a group of plants growing together is called 欉.  The word, interestingly enough, is recorded as 4th tone in the Kangxi Zidian.  As for its definition for 叢, it is essentially the same as the Hanyu Da Cidian.  There’s no difference, basically.

I think what is clear is the following:

欉 has absolutely nothing to do with the fir tree.  We can strike that from the conversation.

欉 or 叢 have essentially the same meaning.  叢 has a wider range of meanings, but they are unrelated to plants.  For the definition that has anything to do with plants, they are synonyms.  In that sense, you can probably see 欉 as a variant of 叢.

There is absolutely nothing in the definition that implies anything growing from the same root or coming from the same plant.  The only definition given has to do with growth in groups and bunches.  One tree cannot be a 叢 because it is not part of a group, especially if it’s a taller tree that’s growing by itself.  It must be a number of plants, or a bush.

So to get back to our problem then — what exactly does dancong mean?  Aside from the very great possibility that it is simply some romantic, nice sounding name, as is so often the case in Chinese teas, we have the characters to work with.  “Dan” generally means lonesome, single, but can in some cases also mean thin.  Normally, we translate dancong to mean “single bush”.  Perhaps owing to the relatively rocky nature of the growing areas, dancong, as originally harvested, was indeed a collection of leaves from lonely bushes growing on their own.  That, to me, seems like a better explaination than some “single origin” theory, mostly because plants don’t work like that, nor do farmers who plant these crops.  So, instead of translating it as “single bush”, perhaps an alternative would be “lonely bush”, denoting the way the trees grow in the rocky setting.  Unlike tea farms in some other places, dancong trees don’t grow quite so closely and densely.

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Lotus flower tea

September 25, 2009 · 3 Comments

I think a lot of us “serious” teaheads tend to dismiss flower infused tea as inferior and bad, and for good reason.  For the most part, these flower infused tea (along with orange peel tea, etc) are made with relatively inferior tealeaves and generally are not very good.  These days they are also often infused with artificial or “natural” flavourings and that sort of thing, further compromising their value.

However, even in the Ming dynasty, people were already doing such things, except their procedures were much more elaborate and difficult, and certainly not meant for large scale commercial production.  Consider the following for a “Lotus flower tea”:

When the sun is not yet risen, open the lotus flowers that are only halfway to full bloom, and put a small amount of fine tea into the center of the flower, and tie the flower loosely with a little raw hemp, and leave it overnight.  Next morning, pluck the flower, pour out the leaves, and use paper to wrap it and roast it dry.  Using this process again, pour the leaves back into another flower, repeat this a few times, and then finally dry it and store it for use.  The fragrance is incomparable.

Try that at home.

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Boiling with charcoal, part 2

September 24, 2009 · 5 Comments

So here it is

My brazier with one of my tetsubins on top.  Ideally, I’d use a kama, but kamas are a pain, because then you need all the right tools to use it with — from the rings you need to lift the kama up, to the ladle, etc, and using a tetsubin is just so much easier.

Last time I tried boiling water with charcoal it took a long time — almost an hour.  One of the problems was that the charcoal was not hot enough.  I bought myself a charcoal starter chimney, and it worked like magic — the charcoal was red hot after a few minutes and was ready to go.  The water still took almost half an hour to boil, but not nearly as long as last time.  I could’ve probably made it even faster if I used more charcoal today, and next time I might do just that.

The largest constraint today was the number of chasen available — one.  I only brought four bowls with me today, because I decided that with one chasen, it doesn’t really matter how many bowls there are out there.  With fourteen students, it turns out four bowls was plenty — by the time the first person was done drinking, the fourth person isn’t even starting to whisk yet.  Some students are quite good at the whisking, while others are learning the difficulties — creating foam, getting rid of lumps, etc.  With usucha, it’s not so hard to get rid of lumps, and I’d imagine with koicha it could be much more of a problem.  We’re not even going there.

Obviously, it is quite impossible to follow any protocol or rules when you have a group of students making matcha for the very first time (except one or two with previous experience).  Then again, they do experience the one thing that definitely happens when you drink tea in a group — you start talking, excitedly.  The caffeine, especially in the powdered form of matcha, can do wonders.

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Charcoal boiling

September 22, 2009 · 7 Comments

I tried out my brazier today, outdoors, with charcoal.  The result, I must say, is mixed.  It took a long time for the water to boil.  I think at first I didn’t add enough charcoal.  Then, it was the relatively cool temperature keeping things slow.  Then, there’s the issue of making sure the heat is funneling up to the kettle and not dispersing on to the sides, since I have a large-ish brazier.  Originally, I wanted to use it to boil water for a class on Thursday, but perhaps, I would have to resort to using an electric kettle to boil the water and then just use the charcoal to keep the water warm…..

Sigh, compromises.  I think the cold air really makes a huge difference to how long it takes to boil.  I remember even using my heating plate outside, it takes a lot longer to boil a kettle than inside.  These are the little things that reminds you how making tea in the old days took considerably more effort than it does today.

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Small bowl, big bowl

September 16, 2009 · 1 Comment

Well, one of the students volunteered to try making whisked Song dynasty tea in class today.  The student has, as far as I know, no prior experience with making whisked tea, and we tried to follow the orders of Cai Xiang and Song Huizong to see if we can get something going.

The problem is, these manuals, if they are treated as such, as really bad manuals.  They are for people who already know quite a bit, and are really not useful for those who don’t know anything to start.  For example, they never mention how much tea to how much water.  How much is appropriate?  It’s not obvious.  Of course, we know, because we’ve done it by experience, but if you are starting out cold, it’s tough.

The whisking also gets difficult, and in Song Huizong’s case, very cumbersome.  Adding water in seven steps means that each individual step of water is really quite small.  It’s not an easy feat to control such pouring, because for the most part, we are not practiced in such things.

We did try our best though, but the student reported that the tea didn’t taste like much — slightly grassy hot water, I think.  The issue, of course, is that there wasn’t enough tea for the water used.  It still begs the question of how much water is really used, and consequently, how much tea.  Enough, of course, to make it frothy, but not too much so it’s too thick.  It’s a fine balance.

Next week we’ll try making tea with a brazier outdoors, and I hope everybody can make a bowl for themselves.  That should be interesting.

Categories: Objects · Old Xanga posts

Tasting blind

September 13, 2009 · 7 Comments

Felix Salmon is a great finance blogger, and I’ve been reading him for a while now.  He also writes about other things from time to time, and his latest entry, on tasting wine blind, is quite insightful.

He describes, with pinpoint accuracy, the problem with tasting things blind — you’re always trying to guess what it is, you always wonder what’s going on, and you always gravitate towards the few (usually not very subtle) clues and use that for guidance in the guessing game.  I think in addition to the problems he already presented, there’s another issue at hand with puerh (where much of the blind tasting occurs) as well — unlike wine, many of which were made to be drunk within a few years, relatively fewer people are buying puerh for immediate consumption.  Even for those who enjoy the taste of a new puerh cake, the assumption and expectation is that the cake will age, and hopefully, age well.

This presents a problem, because most people have no clue how a tea will age in five, ten, or twenty years’ time.  If there’s any doubt, one could turn to the “expert panels” that are sometimes assembled by various shops or magazines who review a number of teas — the differing opinions on teas among them will tell you right away that there is simply no agreement as to what is or is not good.

What has happened in the past few years is an increasing number of cakes that seem to be geared to the “drink it now” community, and much like the lament in Salmon’s blog entry, among aficianados of puerh we often hear the same thing, that so many cakes are now made for drinking now, rather than age later.  Immediate pleasure becomes more important than longevity, and depth sacrificed for ease.

To the extent that this is simply an individual choice, it does not really matter.  If you knowingly buy teas for a “drink it now” purpose, then there is no problem at all.  Just like people who buy Beaujolais Nouveau expect to drink it fresh, there are many out there who buy their puerh fresh and drink it fresh.  The only issue happens when you buy it fresh and expect it to be great in ten years.  In my experience that has generally not been the case for many teas of recent vintages.  Rather than turning better, many simply become flat, or worse.

The question of how to spot such things is a constant struggle, and one that I’ve yet to come up with a good solution.  What I do know is that price and make have basically nothing whatsoever to do with ageability.  What I also know is that I trust the opinion of those who have tasted, say, Yellow Label or Red Label while they were younger teas much more than the others, oftentimes newcomers to the tea-making scene.  The almost unanimous opinion of those teas, when they were younger, is that they were harsh, strong, bitter, had depth, and were hardly a pleasure to drink.  It’s hard to find such things on the market these days.

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Remaking powdered tea

September 11, 2009 · 5 Comments

How do you keep adding water to powdered tea?

That’s my question when I read Daguan Chalun, because Song Huizong seems to think you can.  In fact, he mentioned adding water seven times.

Because of this description, I’m not entirely certain what he’s talking about.  If it’s anything like today’s matcha, then… adding water in seven steps without adding tea seems strange… after all, the tea will just get really, really thin.  This is, in some ways, more mysterious than Lu Yu’s boiling, which is actually relatively straightforward.

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Making Tang tea

September 11, 2009 · 7 Comments

So, we did it today in class, making Tang dynasty tea as best as modern, inferior equipment will do.

What you see here are the remnants, having already finished.  I first asked them to work out from the Chajing what procedures we should follow.  The served as our discussion, mostly.

We ground the dok cha up (thanks Corax and Maitre_Tea for the reminder of using dok cha), using what I estimate to be about 5g of tea in a big pot of water.  The cheap Walmart bought mortar and pestle grounds it surprisingly well.  Despite the fact that it’s not a Famen Temple silver grinder, it does the job.  It’s certainly not as fine as, say, modern day matcha, but I don’t think it was supposed to be nearly as fine.  We did roast the tea a little bit, but I’m confused about Lu Yu’s suggestion that it should be roasted so that the leaves are tender — I’m not sure how that’s possible without steam.  Dry roasting will only make the tea drier, whereas if it’s tender, then the tea will be mushy and won’t ground well at all.  Unless, of course, that’s the idea, but that creates all sorts of problems…. and would fundamentally change the way its taste.

We did skip the salt (I forgot to bring it, but probably a good choice anyway) and threw the tea in right after the fish eye stage.  At this point, something rather interesting happened — the tea immediately formed a foam, a fairly thick one at that, which was unexpected.  I turned off the heat, but allowed the pot to stay on the stove, as it’s going to be kept warm for a while.  Students lined up to use the spoon to pour tea into the cups, which might be a little bit of a health hazard now that I think about it, swine flu and all (it’s going around).  The tea is interesting in taste — greenish, not nearly as sweet as matcha, but definitely sweet.  As I sort of expected, my students find it a lot more bitter than I did, which is normal.  I think us teaheads have no idea what bitter means anymore, at least when it comes to tea.

You can see the tea is darkish.  There’s plenty of huigan.  Can’t say much about the qi.  Drinking with or without foam made little difference.  Some students went for seconds, as our cups were quite small.  I think I ended up having about four to five cups (some while cleaning after class — didn’t want it to go to waste, after all).

You can see the grounds — pretty roughed up.

Was it a success?  I suppose in the sense that we did something, and it turned out better than I imagined, yes, it was.  Pedagogically, I thought doing something like this will highlight the differences in how you make something so long ago that can’t really be explained by words alone.  I do wonder, though, about how interesting this actually is.  I am a teahead, and if you’re reading, chances are you are as well, so naturally, this stuff excites you.  Lu Yu was also writing for fellow teaheads, I think, and also trying to gain converts, if there were any.  For students, especially first years, I can’t tell how much of this is actually interesting, and how much of it is just stuff.

Of course, there are all sorts of problems, chiefly is Lu Yu’s rather spare instructions — we really have no idea exactly how much tea for the water, how long to boil, etc.  He’s not very clear, and rightly so — he was writing for people who knew these things, much like I never talk about how much tea to put when brewing puerh, or oolong, or whatever, because I assume my readers know.

Whatever it is though, I think, as I’ve said before, that Lu Yu, while great and historical, is really irrelevant as a source of tea wisdom.  The tea he drank was too different, too remote.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Tang dynasty tea

September 8, 2009 · 5 Comments

The rather relentless schedule of a new semester is making it hard to drink much tea, much less talk about it.

For class this Thursday, we’re talking about Tang dynasty tea, which means that I will at least give it an honest try to make it in class.  I’ve never done it before, nor has anybody else I know.  It’s a bit complicated, because if you read Lu Yu’s (sparse) instructions, there isn’t much to go on.  There are a lot of problems.  First is selection — what tea to use?  Nothing we have nowadays approximate what was produced back then.  The closest might be some sort of poorly sha-qinged green puerh.  Then, the roasting, which should be done on the spot but is again a difficult thing to negotiate.  After you roast, there is the mashing/grinding.  Obviously, I don’t have the proper grinder for tea — I need to find some silversmith to make me one, some day, somehow.

Even thinking about this, not to mention the salt that I might add to the water, really makes you appreciate how truly different tea was back in the day.  We’ve come a long, long way from Lu Yu.

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