A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2009

The true taste of tea

November 27, 2009 · 4 Comments

My regular tea menu includes basically three kinds of teas these days.  Aged oolongs are the ones I drink the most often, followed by youngish puerh (youngish means nothing from the past two years, generally speaking).  Then I throw in some occasional aged puerh of one type or another.  I drink almost nothing else these days, despite having large amounts of yancha and some less aged oolong sitting around.  A friend recently asked to be served green tea, and I must say I don’t really have any fresh green tea to speak of at all, since I never finish them and it ends up being a waste of money.  I used to drink almost only green tea, but those were the days.

I can say though, that there is something universal about tea, no matter the type, that trascends the differing tastes that one gets from them.  I think it is quite a normal progression for many tea drinkers to first be attracted to the higher aromatics from a green or a light oolong tea, then getting more interested in teas that are of a deeper, darker nature.  Of course, that’s only speaking from the point of view of those who are interested in Chinese teas; black tea drinkers, for example, may have different experiences.  Nevertheless, I find that after all these years of drinking tea, that they all share a common “tea” taste.  Sometimes this “tea taste” is well hidden behind the aromatics, but always discernable.  I often find that the best way to taste them is when the tea gets cold, or at least cooled.  Then, drinking it in larger sips, you can taste that universal “tea” taste that you will find no matter what kind of tea it is, and no matter how old it is.  It has a distinctive feeling on the tongue, and a certain amount of aftertaste.  It tastes leafy, but not entirely so, and is not necessarily bitter or anything like that.  Very often, it is only apparent after a number of infusions — after all the easily soluable compounds are gone, I suppose.

I sometimes wonder if this is what separates good from bad tea, and that after long exposure to teas, we learn how to distinguish the good from the bad with these “deeper” taste.  After all, the fleeting, first-infusion tastes are easily discernable, but also very momentary.  On the other hand, some teas, generally the better ones, tend to go on, and on, and on, without giving up no matter how many infusions you put it through.  This applies to not only puerh, but also oolongs.  Greens are less tenacious, but it probably has as much to do with the fact that they are greener shoots than anything else.  Rare are the teas that are great that don’t last very long.

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Sprayed glaze pot

November 23, 2009 · 3 Comments

I have lots of these oddities, here’s one that I unpacked recently from my boxes.

This is a pretty standard julunzhu pot, with a straight and short spout and somewhat rounded shape.  These were popular export items for Japan.  If you look closely, especially on the other side….

It looks a bit pock-marked.  These are glaze spots.  Now, people will tell you that older pots were fired along with glazed ware, and in the kiln, because they were uncovered, they would get sprayed by glaze coming off these other glazed wares.  I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but supposedly, this is a sign of old age.  As with all such signs, however, such as the whole “single hole” thing or “joint line” thing:

You can perhaps rule out pots that are “newer” because they don’t have any of those signs of older methods of construction, but just because a pot has them, it doesn’t really mean anything.  I often see some who say “oh, this pot is xxx and has xxx, therefore it must be old”.  No, it does not, because a new fake can easily reproduce the same.  This one looks old, feels old, and may very well be old.  I am never quite sure, however.  It’s much easier ruling out the new.

It is a curious little thing though, down to the chop mark at the bottom.

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The book of tea

November 17, 2009 · 1 Comment

Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, published in 1906 in New York, is still a book that many read when they are looking for something on tea consumption, especially with regards to Japanese tea.  It still floats around in the coffee/tea section of bookstores, and I’ve read it before, very quickly, without thinking much about it.  I just assigned my students that book and we discussed it today.  Having re-read it again, it struck me as not really being about tea at all.  Nor is it really about “zennism” or “daoism”.  It’s about Japan, East Asia, and how Japan is the rightful leader of that part of the world.

His ideas about tea, while not all wrong, are not all quite right either.  It’s too bad that this book probably still wields more influence in terms of common perception of the Japanese tea tradition than almost anything else written on the subject.  It’s amazing what starting earlier gets you.

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More teaware

November 12, 2009 · 8 Comments

More teaware

This is a chaozhou teapot, uncharacteristically large for something of this type.  It’s a typical 300-400ml size.  I’ve never seen one that big before.  It’s supposedly from turn of the century — bought from someone who claimed it was a grandma’s leftover.  It looks the part though, as it has an older feel and look.  Only lightly used.  The chawan is there for size comparison.

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Tenmoku chawan

November 4, 2009 · 6 Comments

Haven’t posted any teaware porn for a while, so here goes

I love this bowl.  The only flaw is that the brown colour on the exterior is probably a tad bit too much.  These bowls are great for matcha, because their dark colour provides a sharp relief for the lightness of the tea.  The Japanese then adopted it wholesale and kept using them, while Chinese moved on from these to lighter coloured bowls because taste in tea changed over time.  They won’t be any good making tea that is brewed, because the colours won’t show properly, but when whisked, that’s a totally different story.

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Gendered consumption of tea

November 1, 2009 · 19 Comments

One of the topics that came up a week ago in class was the gendered consumption of tea, and the perception in different places of tea’s proper role.  It’s an interesting subject that I notice sometimes in my own drinking as well.

In Japan, for example, the tea ceremony now is almost entirely practiced by women, with some men involved.  For the most part, it’s seen as a girly thing to do, along with ikebana and other womanly arts.  When I visited Japan and had tea in any setting, I have never had a man prepare tea for me.  This was obviously not the case a few hundred years ago, when tea was reserved for samurai.  Anybody else practicing it was seen as intruding on an exclusive territory, and women were certainly not welcomed at least until the Tokugawa period.  Something happened in the next three hundred years so that now, we have the complete opposite of what used to be.

I think a similar thing can be observed in China, although with a twist.  If you go to public places, you’re more likely to find women in shops and stores to be preparing tea for you.  However, among tea fanatics I’ve met in China, almost all were male.  I’d say only about 10% of the true tea enthusiast in China are female.

What’s more interesting is that among Westerners I know, a similar ratio exists.  There are, relatively speaking, fewer serious tea drinkers who are female than those who are male.  Yet, in common perception, tea is seen as a drink that is more feminine, whereas coffee takes the masculine role.  Whenever I go out to a restaurant with my wife and we both order something at the end of the meal, I sometimes get the coffee and she gets the tea, even though our preferences are the exact opposite.  Waiters who don’t know often would assume that I am the coffee drinker, usually based purely on my gender.

I can’t quite explain why it is that the tea enthusiasts I know tend to be all male.  I’m pretty indiscriminate in meeting people who are fans of tea, but the ratio of tea drinkers seem to hold up even if I account for people who I only know by reputation or online presence.  I also wonder if the general perception that tea is “weak” or “feminine” has any real impact on its consumption and acceptance in the general public.  I would imagine it must, but how that actually takes place is very complex and difficult to pin down.  At any rate, it’s an observation that I’ve long held, and until now anyway, it still seems to hold up quite well.

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