tea book reading list #1

The response to the growing demand for information from eager English-speaking tea and coffee/ espresso connoisseurs in the U.S. inspires this post. Bon Teavant Market carries some great books, and there are some here that we do not carry because they may be out of print or very freely available elsewhere.  Regardless, here is a first-installment list of books that are well worth a read as well as a couple of books that will increase the depth of feeling and awareness of the tea and coffee connoisseur:

The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea  (Bret Hinsch) We believe this is possibly the best introductory book out on Chinese-style tea appreciation. Bret Hinsch is a Harvard-educated Asian Studies scholar who has lived and taught in Taiwan for more than fifteen years. Disappointed in what is available on Chinese tea in English, Hinsch researched Chinese teas and tea connoisseurship by surveying a vast amount of information written in Chinese. His book is already out of print, but you can find used copies or an e-book version. This book is so good, it is almost worth purchasing an e-book reader in order to absorb all the great, articulately written information on tea production, appreciation, brewing, and the like. We give it highest marks for both the content and the clarity of delivery. Thank you for your contribution, Bret!!
The Time of Tea (Dominique Pasqualini & Bruno Suet) This French author-photographer duo published a timeless two-volume set that is as beautiful to the eye and the touch as the content is fascinating. One volume is filled with rustically reproduced color photographs of tea culture around the world, and the other volume is a treatise on tea appreciation. This double-volume set is out of print, but there is talk of it being republished in the near future. There are only a handful of copies available…you know where. Get it while you can.
The Classic of Tea (Lu Yu) The first treatise on tea culture in China first published in the eighth century, this classic work informs tea lovers the world over how to consider and participate in tea ritual and practice.
Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West (Beatrice Hohenegger)
Steeped in History: The Art of Tea (Beatrice Hohenegger) These two books by Beatrice Hohenegger really compliment each other and should not be missed by the tea historian interested in how tea came to the West. Full of interesting facts, Liquid Jade reveals some of the darker secrets of tea’s history. Steeped in History is a companion volume to the exhibition curated by Hohenegger at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in late 2009 and includes discussion and images of fascinating artifacts from various Chinese dynasties and from Europe. Here is an interview with Hohenegger by Bon Teavant in 2009.
The Way of Tea (Aaron Fisher)- This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about tea appreciation from a more spiritual perspective. Written by Aaron Fisher (aka “Wu De”), a tea aficionado living in Miao Li, Taiwan.
The Book of Tea (Okakura Kakuzo) This 20th century classic on tea culture from a Japanese perspective is a gem that should not be missed. The content of this book has recently been re-packaged and published by Bruce Richardson and is available at Bon Teavant Market.
Culinary Tea (Cynthia Gold): What a fine collection of recipes and information on the historical and contemporary uses of tea as food. Cynthia Gold inspires not only the reader to try tea in new ways as an ingredient in dishes, but also invites chefs around the world to reignite the passion for tea as food and to take it in new directions.  As such, Cynthia contributes much to the growing information on tea and tea culture around the world. Here is a more in-dephth review of Culinary Tea by Bon Teavant.
The Tea Dictionary (James Norwood Pratt) This newly minted tea dictionary is a manageable volume of information provided as a quick reference to teas and terms used in the world of tea appreciation and industry. The hefty price suggests that you are receiving a distilled inventory of terms that require curation for the professional or avid tea lover. Signed copies are available from Bon Teavant Market’s tea books section. You can find a video interview of JNP here.
The Art of Tea (Magazine) Published by Wu Shing Press in Taiwan, this magazine, which is published at indiscriminate intervals, is well worth perusing for hours and hours. Back issues are available on a variety of topics, including puerh tea and yixing teaware–information that is not always so easy to find in English elsewhere (but can be found here).
Wabi-Sabi (Leonard Koren) This 1994 classic volume explains the complex concept of wabi or wabi sabi, which I will not try to distill on this page, other than to tell you that this is the concept that infuses Japanese tea culture and frankly, all tea culture to some degree. To understand wabi is to absorb and digest the art of fine tea and the duality inherent in life itself.
 
The Secret Life of Plants (Peter Tomkins & Christopher Bird) This book is not specifically about tea but about the way plants interact with humans, and should not be missed by those who want to increase their enjoyment of Camellia sinensis on a new level. Scientific studies illuminate the powerful ways in which plants respond to human thought, intention, and actions. This book is revelatory for any lover of plants, and tea is certainly our favorite…
There are so many more tea books that deserve attention, and you can consider this a first installment to our growing bibliography of tea books that we love and want to share. We want to shout out to some of the best tea authors (and their books) of our times and of times past. You may also visit the tea books area of Bon Teavant Market to find books that we believe are worth reading (and re-reading).

how to use different kinds of tea ware

teawarecomposite.jpg Some people want to explore the world of connoisseur tea, but are not comfortable with the idea of brewing teas that do not come in tea bags.  Let’s demystify the options here and save the planet, friends (for more, see my entry on “Tea’s Carbon Footprint”).

First, the only thing you really need in order to brew loose leaf tea is a device to strain the tea or rather separate the infused tea liquid from its leaves. There are several methods to choose from:

1. Porcelain cup with filter: For many people new to loose leaf tea, this is the most comfortable and familiar method of brewing tea.  You simply put tea leaves in the filter, place the fitted filter in the cup, then pour in hot water.  Steep for the allotted time, then remove filter (with leaves), and your tea cup will be filled with a lovely tea infusion. You can put the filter, with the used tealeaves, aside, and steep it again when you are ready. If your cup does not come with a filter, you can use a small strainer, found in almost any cooking store or even the supermarket. Easy peezey.

Thumbnail image for yixingpot2jpg.jpg 2. Tea pot (with its proprietary strainer or with a filter): The next most familiar method is the trusty tea pot.  You will find many choices, but optimally, you would use a glass, porcelain or ceramic teapot to brew white and green teas and porcelain, ceramic or yixing for oolongs, blacks and puerhs. Many tea pots have a built-in filter or some type of internal system at the interior base of the spout that will prevent tea leaves from escaping the tea pot.  If you have a tea pot that has no such filtering device, simply use a filter or strainer over your cup or serving vessel. You can find some very nice strainers made of bamboo and other non-metal materials (which is preferred).

Red Blossom408.JPG 3. Gaiwan:  Ahhhh, the gaiwan…. For those who are new to tea, the gaiwan can be either  enchanting or perplexing.  Once you learn how to use a gaiwan, you might never want to use a filtered tea cup or tea pot again.  The gaiwan comes from China, and comprises a saucer, a cup, and a lid.  In fact, it means “covered bowl” in Chinese.  Regardless, the lid of the gaiwan is used to cover the tea as it steeps, smell the tea, and also prevent the leaves from escaping the cup when the infusion is sipped or poured into a serving vessel.  To use a gaiwan is simple: put tea in the gaiwan.  Rinse the tea for 1 second with hot water, and pour off.  Pour hot water on the leaves and cover with the gaiwan lid.  You can also use the lid as a kind of paddle to nudge the tea leaves awake while the tea is brewing.

Then either pour the infusion into a serving vessel or drink the leaves directly from the cup of the gaiwan, using the lid to hold back the leaves. I brought a gaiwan with me on a family trip, and my father blanched and asked “WHAT is THAT??.  Alas, the gaiwan is not for everyone.

Thumbnail image for bamboo whisk for matcha copy.jpg 4. Japanese tea bowl & whisk (for matcha): Tea has been prepared from ground green tea for more than a thousand years.  In China, it was whisked in a bowl. In Japan, it became the primary object of contemplation and practice in the famed Japanese tea ceremony, but you can lose the kimono if you wish, and simply whisk up some tea to elevate your mood. The bright green froth of a matcha brings great solace and energy to those who love this kind of tea.  To use this method: put a few small scoops (2-3 teasppons) of matcha powder in a ceramic tea bowl.  Pour hot water into the powder and whisk briskly (while you say “whisk briskly” briskly three times :>D ) with a bamboo whisk.  Stay tuned for more information on different kinds of matcha and different Japanese tea ceremonies (hint; there is a sencha ceremony as well).

In all, tea brewing can be taken very seriously and require a number of traditional tools, but it can also be extremely simple and require nothing more than a cup and a filter.  This is the beauty of tea.

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new explorations in tea

Many tea masters and farmers have very stringent parameters as to how, when and where certain teas should be grown, harvested, processed, brewed, and enjoyed.  But others like to play with these variables and have fun experimenting.

While I like to know and enjoy excellent teas that are processed at the place of origin and by traditional methods, it is also an adventure to try teas that are “disrupters” in some way while sitting on one of my modern bar stools.  Some interesting opportunities in exploring tea include unconventionally processed teas.  For example, Ti Kuan Yin oolong finds its origin in China, but Taiwan produces some very good Ti Kuan Yins as well. While this tea is traditionally rolled, some Taiwnese farmers process it as a twisted leaf oolong, which changes the taste and overall character of the tea.
BiLuoComparison3.jpg I also like the Phoenix Collection Golden Bi Luo, which is essentially a tea that is usually processed as a green tea, but in this case, is processed as an oolong. Our competition grade Bi Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring) is traditionally processed as a very delicate, highly prized grassy green tea with a buttery mouth feel. The Golden Bi Luo is a well oxidized, rolled oolong that tastes much like a light black tea with honey notes.

Also worth exploring are aged oolongs.  While aged oolongs are becoming de riguer in the tea world, most of these teas are simply older teas that were not sold years ago, and which the farmer or wholesaler held onto rather than discarding the tea and its potential profits. Good aged oolongs have a depth of character that is remarkable in flavor as well as in the feelings the tea elicits. In other words, these teas, like some good friends or interesting new friends, are incredibly wonderful to spend an afternoon or morning with. Each offers a very unique expression that I believe is unrepeatable.

Speaking of aged teas, when I first started buying tea for Bon Teavant Market, I wanted to buy only in-season teas (except for puerhs). It was Josh Chamberlain from J-Tea who admonished me not to miss some excellent teas by holding to this standard.  Josh wrote, “In my experience, roasted oolongs are sometimes better after one or two years. Sometimes with a heavy roast, time is needed for some of the fire in the tea to dissipate. Eastern Beauties also improve for about a five-year window after production. This improvement, I believe, is due to the tea settling into its self. There are a lot of  things going on with an Eastern Beauty, and like a freshly cooked stew it is often better with a little time.”

“Next, Iron Goddess,” Josh wrote. “As long as they are well oxidized and baked to match the changes that this group of teas go through, [they] are 100% splendiferous, meaning that three years after production, these teas are just as, if not more, amazing than at the time of harvest/production. Black tea is another tea that does remarkable things over time…..I fear that if you only buy tea made in the current year, you could be missing out on some great tea.”

(Point well taken! As a result, you will find teas from the previous year or two’s harvest in the Bon Teavant Market.)

Over time, I’ll try to share my new discoveries with you all and hope that you will do the same.

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tuo cha

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Tuo cha are small pressed, nuggets of puerh tea, which are grown, harvested, and processed in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. “Tuo cha” translates as “bowl-shaped tea”, and these little bowls are the size of bon bons. They often come individually wrapped in white or decorative paper, making them fun gifts or stocking stuffers for the holidays.

What’s great about these little tea nuggets?  First, they are naturally single-serving and easy to take with you on the go, whether to work for the day or on a long trip.  In fact, they are made for travel.

Chinese tea producers first began pressing teas into cakes, bricks and tiny bowls with the specific goal of making them easier to transport long distances and through difficult mountain terrain.  It has worked for them for hundreds of years, and if tuo cha could make it into the mountains of Nepal and Tibet by horse and yak from southern China, they are sure to make it from your house to work by bicycle or, better yet, on a fun road trip to, say, The Grand Canyon, including a mule trip to bottom of the Canyon and camping by the Colorado River.  They are that sturdy!

Second, you will get at least half a dozen, if not a dozen, steepings from one good tuo cha button. This means you will be able to enjoy tea all day long from something the size of a small chestnut. Just put one in a teapot with very hot water, steep after a minute (less after the first steeping), and sip. And there is no tea bag to discard–tuo cha are self-contained and naturally biodegradable. Just put the leaves in the compost when you are finished with them.

Third, these little puerh tea buttons have the same health benefits as other puerh teas, including my favorite–the mitigation of fat and cholesterol in the diet. During this holiday season, who can resist this benefit?  As well, some tuo cha, like the ones we carry, are blended with chrysanthemum, which is said  to further assist the body in the digestion of heavy meals while adding a delicate floral fragrance.

Take a handful with you to Aunt Martha’s for Christmas.  Use them as stocking stuffers for your favorite tea lovers…..that will work like a charm, and you’ll be thanked, profusely, after dinner.

tea as a healing agent

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The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has long been considered a healing agent, from Asia to Europe to the U.S.. Many claims have been made about its antioxidants, polyphenols, and even EGCG, the catechin said to combat leukemia, HIV, and other illnesses.

But there is a deeper healer in tea, one that scientists in laboratories cannot find through their dissection of the components of tea.  This element is what traditional healers would recognize as the spiritual aspect of the tea plant.

Humans and plants have responded in congruence for thousands of years. Since the beginning of human history, plants have served not only as our food but as our medicine. Traditional healers around the world agree that the plant world is suffused with spirit and personality, and each plant species has its own unique gifts to share.  Whether you agree with this premise or not, the tea plant will freely offer its medicine to you.  Here are some of the ways in which the spirit of tea acts as a healing agent:

Tea Inspires Intimacy & Compassion:  In nearly every culture of the world in which tea plays a dominant role, tea is the centerpiece of any gathering, whether a neighbor-to-neighbor afternoon chat or the celebration of an arriving dignitary. Tea acts as a social tranquilizer, providing a feeling of harmony and safety which inspires openness and sharing.  Heads of state in Asia often offer tea to their counterparts in other countries, as Chairman Mao did to Richard Nixon in 1972. Through the expression of goodwill and the sharing of  life stories and experience, the healing power of mutuality and compassion can occur, providing deeper connections between individuals, and even governments.

Tea Inspires Presence: Tea’s origin is found in China, and for several thousand years, remained in China alone. When Buddhist monks arrived from Japan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) to study with Chan Chinese monks, they discovered an amazing plant that assisted their colleagues in meditation and helped lead them to clarity and wisdom.

Some people say that “tea is liquid wisdom.” Tea heals by providing a state of restful, relaxed awareness.  And it is this state of mind that practitioners of meditation in any tradition–whether Christian, Buddhist or otherwise– seek to attain. It is also only in this state of mind, Presence, that people can achieve revelation and epiphany. Anyone who has had a definitive moment of realization in his or her life will attest to the healing nature of such an event.

Tea Offers Relief:  The consumption of tea offers a feeling of relief and well being. This is why we are instinctively inspired to put on the tea kettle when a friend comes over to share a problem, or someone we care for is in a state of grief.  We innately understand that tea is an agent of healing through the quality of relief that it provides, even in the most dire circumstances.  Tea was thought to be indispensable in war for European as well as Asian armies. On the deepest level, leaders know the power of this plant to heal and revitalize anyone suffering from fatigue, grief, or lack of morale.

These are just three of the ways in which the tea plant acts as a healing agent. While scientists may offer a wry smile in response to these words, they too will reach for their stash of tea when their heart pounds or aches with grief.

rethinking the steep

This morning I did a sampling of 2006 Rice Pollen Green Puerh from Pure Puer Tea. Using very hot water for the first couple of infusions for a minute or more produced a very bitter, almost undrinkable tea. But the lovely, smokey aroma wafting off the lid of the gaiwan suggested that I had erred, and there was something good to be found in this tea.

According to Roy Fong in his book, The Great Teas of China, “Younger, less fermented puerh can easily become bitter, so try about 2 tsp in medium-hot water with a 1-3 minute steep time.” I’ve noticed that Roy likes his tea “thick” (heavily infused), so even the 1-3 minute steep time might still be too long for some teas for another palate.

So I started completely over with a new serving of leaves, and this time brewed only one teaspoon in 185-190ºF water for only 5-10 seconds (similar to brewing specs at Pure Puer Tea). Nice!

I had a very similar experience with David Hoffman’s Bamboo Fragrance Puerh, which when steeped for 90 seconds was undrinkable.  Taking it down several notches made the magic happen. Brewed in 195ºF water for about 15 seconds created a really fine and unique brew, offering a kind of smokey, exotic taste that made me feel as if I were sitting by an open fire with the tribe that had picked and processed the tea.

So, the next time you find an “undrinkable” tea, try steeping it very differently.  Hotter or cooler water, more or less leaf, different tea ware, or a change in steeping duration (or a combination of some of these variables) can make all the difference.

Then again, some teas ARE undrinkable.  In such a case, toss it in the garden, and find a new tea.

the great teas of china

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In Roy Fong’s new book, The Great Teas of China, Roy shares his 30+ years of knowledge and experience with tea, and distills it into a slim volume that is direct, concise, and elegantly written. You would be hard pressed to find a better book with which to begin your tea adventures, and it will serve for years to come as a reference guide.

In broad, clean strokes, Roy shares information about each of the ten teas he features, including its history, lore, processing techniques, and region of origin (including a map).  He also provides color-correct and proportional images of the teas before steeping and as a liquor in the cup, so readers have a good reference for selecting and brewing each tea.

All the elements of this book come together to teach tea.  Roy takes this opportunity to reach out to anyone who cares to learn a lot about tea.  With this book, you have a tea master’s training in your hands, and someone to whom you can turn with questions.

Each time you scan this book, you will learn something new or be reminded of a different facet of the relationship between tea, its origins, and the tea drinker.  You will feel as though you were being tutored by Roy directly, and hearing his tea stories first hand, as if walking through China together as he teaches you the most important things he has learned about each tea, and how he learned it.

Very simply, Roy is a great tea man.  If you want to be trained by a master, this is your book.