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Myths & Legends At Last!

Myths & Legends Header Since I first announced I was working on a book called Myths & Legends of Tea, a lot has happened. For one thing, the project got delayed, interrupted, and re-prioritized for almost two years. For another, it was broken into four volumes. I am pleased to announce, however, that Volume 1 is done! The Amazon Kindle edition and the Apple iBook edition are available now. I’ll be posting some free excerpts and news about the book over the next week, interspersed with all of my World Tea Expo posts. This first volume in the series features six stories, each accompanied by a profile of the tea featured in the story, and a prologue that sets the stage. The stories are:

Prologue: The Origin of Tea

China, 2737 BC One of the most-recited myths in the tea world is that of Shennong, the legendary Chinese emperor who introduced agriculture to China, worked extensively with herbs to create the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, and invented acupuncture. In working with herbs, Shennong discovered that boiling water somehow made even “bad” water healthy to drink. One day, Shennong settles under a tree to relax with a cup of hot water. As he rests and waits for the water to cool, leaves from the tree blow unnoticed into his cup. After a while, he notices a heavenly aroma. He raises the cup to his lips and becomes the first man to enjoy what is now the world’s most popular drink.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea, Serenity & Death

Japan, 1591 It is never wise to offend a daimyo, as Tea Master Sen no Rikyū discovers when his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi commands Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Rikyū, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, asks Hideyoshi for permission to conduct one last ceremony. Rikyū shares his philosophy, his poetry, and the beauty and serenity of the tea ceremony with four of his disciples. Each is given a gift and all but one of his disciples, Zen priest Nanpō Sōkei, leave the tearoom. Rikyū hands him a sword. It is time.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy

China, 1761 During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, a poor farmer by the name of Wei is walking to market. He notices a crumbling abandoned temple of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Every time he passes the temple, Wei stops for a while to fix it up. He works on the pathway, the gates, the temple building, and the statue of the goddess. When he finishes, the goddess appears to him in a dream and gives him a reward: the tea plant that becomes the heart of one of the greatest oolong teas.

Earl Grey: This Water Sucks!

England, 1806 Lord Charles, soon to become the second Earl Grey, is content at his home in Howick Hall, save one unhappy thing: the water is terrible, and it produces quite an inferior cup of tea. He and Lady Grey have experimented to no avail, and they finally turn to a tea expert for help. Chen shows up at Howick with a huge chest of tea and a virtual mobile laboratory of bottles and vials containing everything from essential oils to ground herbs. We know the rest. Even though Charles goes on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his own fame will be eclipsed by the tea that bears his name.

Teatime in Georgia: The Birth of Southern Sweet Tea

United States, 1870 One oft-repeated story is that iced tea was invented in 1904 by a vendor named Richard Blechynden at the St. Louis World’s Fair. He was having little luck selling hot tea, says the story, and dropped ice cubes in the tea, creating the first iced tea. Nice story, but it doesn’t account for the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which includes a recipe for iced Southern sweet tea. Where did iced tea really come from? Our version of the legend is set in Georgia, where a lady named Harriet Suggett is struggling to come up with an alternative to the popular alcoholic tea punches of the day for an event that includes members of the rapidly-growing temperance societies.

Oriental Beauty: The Braggart’s Tea

Taiwan, 1931 Huang is very good at keeping his head down. He comes from a prominent family that has been farming in Beipu for many generations, but since his father and brother were killed in the uprising almost 25 years ago, Huang has tried not to draw too much attention to himself. When his tea crop is destroyed by leafhopper insects, he is near despair. That field of tea is all that he and his mother, Lin, have to live on. The leaves are chewed, the tips have gone white, and his neighbors have already given up. But Huang doesn’t give up so easily!

Post-apocalyptic Earl Grey

Australia, 20 years from now The zombie apocalypse has spread mercilessly across the country. Only small pockets of the uninfected remain. Sam’s band of survivors is a small one, and they have resigned themselves to a long and difficult road ahead. It will be a much easier road, though, if they can only lay their hands on some tea. Earl Grey, perhaps. Little do they know how much that tea will change their lives… I am particularly excited about the cover of the book, which uses a photograph by Nicholas Han of the sunset over a tea plantation in Taiwan. Myths and Legends of Tea cover

Matcha at World Tea Expo 2014

WTE2014 Matcha header

Last week at World Tea Expo 2014, most of my time was focused on finding new things. I tasted new tea blends and fresh varietals, while browsing through billions of new gadgets, accessories, and tea-related products. I did try to make time to visit with our existing vendors and friends, and when we stopped at AOI, the company we buy our matcha from, I found something old rather than something new.

Have you ever looked at matcha powder and wondered how it’s made? Oh, it sounds very simple: take some high quality Japanese steamed green tea and powder it. But how do you powder it? Today, there are high-volume machines for absolutely everything, but matcha has been around for a very long time (see my posts about matcha and the Japanese tea ceremony for more information). How did they make matcha before the advent of machines?

AOI had the answer in their booth: a hand-carved millstone designed for tea leaves.

matcha mill

The upper stone has a hole in the top where dried tea leaves are inserted, and a vertical wooden shaft in the lower stone keeps it centered. There are grooves that move the ground-up leaves out to the lower stone’s dish. Of course, I had to try it, and then I made a short video of my son using the mill:

I saw a lot of cool gadgets, but this is the one I’d like to have sitting next to my desk at home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for sale…

Japan – Bancha to Matcha: Stop 4 on the World Tea Tasting Tour

In 1191, a Buddhist monk named Eisai brought tea to Japan, and the tea world has never been the same. In Japan, when you say “tea,” you mean “green tea,” and that’s what we focused on. Japan is known for its grassy steamed teas, so we started this event there. We went on to some of Japan’s lesser-known specialty teas, and wrapped up with matcha, the powdered tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony, which we import directly from Japan.

Japan title slide

We’re very excited to be working with resident artist Karin Solberg from the Red Lodge Clay Center, and we are featuring some of her matcha bowls in the store, and she came in to talk about them at this stop in the tour.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Organic Sencha
  • Gyokuro
  • Organic Houjicha (roasted green tea)
  • Organic Genmaicha (toasted rice tea)
  • Organic Matcha
Japan is the world’s 8th largest producer of tea, with about 119,000 acres cultivated and an annual production of 101,500 tons. These numbers are from before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which has shut down some of Japan’s tea production. The overwhelming majority of Japanese tea is consumed domestically, with only 2,105 tons exported, or about 2% of production. The country that purchases the most Japanese tea is the United States.
We discussed the Fukushima Daiichi disaster at some length, but instead of including that information here, I’m going to write a full blog post about its effect on Japan’s tea industry when I have a chance.
There are four base grades of tea in Japan:
  • Kukicha   (“twig tea”)
  • Bancha   (“coarse sencha”)
  • Sencha   (“decocted tea”)
  • Gyokuro   (“jade dew”)
We did not taste kukicha or bancha, proceeding instead to the two higher grades.
Not all organic tea from Japan will carry the USDA Organic seal. Many Japanese tea farmers prefer to work with their own country’s organization and carry the JAS (Japan Agriculture Standard) Organic seal instead.
Note the short steep times and cool water used for these teas. Recommendations for the top grades of Gyokuro go down as far as 40 degrees C (104 F).
After tasting the two more mainstream Japanese green teas, we went on two a couple of their wonderful specialty blends: Houjicha and Genmaicha.
We wrapped up the tasting with Japan’s famous powdered green tea: matcha. We tasted a USDA organic matcha from Aoi, prepared in a traditional chawan, or matcha bowl. Then we made matcha lattes using a sweetened matcha powder with frothed milk.
We are lucky to have Karin Solberg, a local artist who works in pottery, producing matcha bowls for us. She talked about the traditions of the bowls, how they are made, and why they are designed as they are. All of the bowls in the picture below are Karin’s.
Matcha Equipment
In part two of this article, I’ll talk more about Karin and about the Japanese tea ceremony and the Way of Tea.
If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).
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