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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

The Dream and the Dancer


Dream and the Dancer header

Yeah, that’s me in the picture. You have a problem with that?

I stepped away from the horse and let the saddle fall in the mud. The old Arab mare looked dejected, embarrassed. As well she should be. Anger still flashing in my steely eyes, I reached for my teddy bear cup on the post by the barn door. I needed the warm, soothing taste of a good first-flush Darjeeling. Despite the cold, a bead of sweat ran down my temple as I lifted the cup to my lips. Tepid. Of course. Just like the horse’s performance when we rounded up the bulls.

Oh, wait. Robert Godden asked for a non-fiction blog post. He and two other studly tea bloggers have a blog called “Beasts of Brewdom: The Men of Tea. Huzzah!” Yes, it appears that while biting the top off of a whisky bottle and wiping the excess testosterone from his eyes, Godden decided to use the word “huzzah” in the name of a tea blog for men. Strange creature, this Godden.

Then, to make things even manlier, he decreed that challenges would be issued to grizzled specimens of manhood such as myself, and that the title of the blog post must be the title of a romance novel from some British publisher called Mills & Boon. Somehow, I was lucky enough to draw the title, The Dream and the Dancer.

I lowered the cup and glanced to the house. Lo, what vision of loveliness to my virile eyes did appear? My wife, Kathryn, dancing in the living room as she did her dusting (don’t look at me like that — everyone’s wife dances while she dusts, right?). I took another sip of the lukewarm Darjeeling and set the cup down on the post. I hefted a pair of 12-pound double-bit axes to my shoulder and set out to the shed. I had three cords of wood to split before I could go inside to my wife and the delicate new Taiwanese oolong we had just purchased. The splitting would go faster if I used an axe in each hand.

Tea is oft considered a woman’s domain. We muscular paragons of manhood are expected to go more for coffee sludge that’s been boiling over a buffalo chip campfire for the last 12 hours. Or perhaps a pint of Jack Daniels downed in a single long draught. But tea should not be the demesne of the ladies. Was the Emperor Shennong (who reputedly discovered tea five millennia ago) a woman? Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey, for whom is named perhaps the best-known tea in the western world? Sen no Rikyu, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony? Of course not! They were men!

I have a dream.

I dream of men realizing that there’s nothing feminine about a hot steaming cup of smoky lapsang souchong!

I dream of women saying, “Look at that sexy studmuffin over there drinking pu-erh tea. He must be a staunch fellow, indeed!”

I dream of sweaty rugby players saying, “Put away that girly java and get me a proper cup of sencha.”

The chores done for the day, I headed back to the house. I stretched my aching muscles as I strode up the front walk, and looked at the window to see if I could catch another glimpse of my wife dancing through the living room. That’s when the mountain lion appeared. He stepped out from behind the tractor, muscles rippling under his thick pelt, and stopped in the middle of the walk, his yellow eyes flashing at me. I continued walking toward him, our eyes locked. We both tensed as the distance between us closed. “I want tea and you’re in my way,” I growled at him. The lion looked down and slunk away, recognizing that I was in no mood to deal with him. I stretched my sore shoulders and continued to the house, where Kathryn met me at the door. With a smile, she held out a hot, fresh cup of jade oolong. I held it to my nose, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply. “You might want to shower before dinner,” she said softly.

Yes, we are men. We can use our rippling muscles to stack ten tons of hay, and then relax with a delicate cup of tea. We can sip an Earl Grey with our friends while debating whether that noise coming from the Camaro is a tappet problem, or just a loose fan belt. We can drink half a glass of iced tea, and then pour the rest over our heads to cool down after setting a new obstacle course record. We can share a pot of tea with a friend after beating each other bloody in a boxing ring.

Tea has been the drink of manly men for over 100 generations. So, gentlemen, the question isn’t whether tea is manly enough for you — the question is whether you are manly enough for tea.

(Caution: Just in case the title of this video doesn’t give it away, it does contain some foul language)

Chanoyu: The Way of Tea


This is part two of my article on the Japanese stop of our World Tea Tasting Tour. Part one was posted a few days ago.

The Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony has been around for a very long time, but it was solidified into its current form in the 1500s by a man named Sen no Rikyū. He was an adherent of a philosophy called wabi-sabi, which honors and treasures simplicity, transience, asymmetry, and finding the beauty in imperfection. Rikyū applied this to the tea ceremony, developing what became known as chanoyu: the Way of Tea.

He removed unnecessary ornamentation from tearooms, typically reducing the decor to a single scroll on the wall and a flower arrangement designed to harmonize with the garden outside. Everything else in the room was functional. Chanoyu teaches four fundamental principles known as wa kei sei jaku, intended to be not only the core of the tea ceremony, but a representation of the principles to incorporate into daily life.

wa kei sei jaku

Wa (harmony) was his ultimate ideal. From harmony comes peace. Guest and host should be in harmony and man should strive for harmony with nature, rather than attempting to dominate nature.

Kei (respect) allows people to accept and understand others even when you do not agree with them. In a tea ceremony the guest must respect the host and the host must respect the guest, making them equals. The simplest vase should be treated as well as the most expensive, and the same politeness and purity of heart should be extended to your servant as to your master.

Sei (purity) is a part of the ritual of the tea ceremony, cleaning everything beforehand and wiping each vessel with a special cloth before using it. But that is only an outward reflection of the purity of the heart and soul that brings the harmony and respect. In accordance with wabi-cha, imperfection was to be prized here as well. To Rikyū, the ultimate expression of purity was the garden after he spent hours grooming it and several leaves settled randomly on the assiduously manicured walkway.

Finally, Jaku (tranquility) is the ultimate goal of enlightenment and selflessness. It is also the fresh beginning as you go back with fresh perspective to examine the way you have chosen to implement harmony, respect, and purity into your life.

Chawan, Chashaku, Chasen, Chaki

There is a long list of implements that are used in the preparation of matcha, which is the powdered tea used in the tea ceremony. The four that I concentrated on in this class were the bowl, scoop, whisk, and caddy. It could be argued that others are as important, or even more important, but I chose to focus on the ones that are used at home when you make matcha, even if you are not participating in a tea ceremony. The link in the slide above is a great place to learn all about the ceremony itself, and the site contains a detailed list of chanoyu utensils.

In preparing matcha, the bamboo scoop is used to take tea powder and place it in the bowl. After adding water, the whisk is used not only to mix the powder, but to aerate the mixture, leaving it slightly frothy.

Of all of the tools of chanoyu, the bowl is probably the most personal.

Chawan

We were lucky enough to have Karin Solberg, who created the matcha bowls we sell at our store, talk about the process of creating and decorating the bowls. Karin has done some lovely work, and we enjoyed learning from her. There is a picture showing some of her bowls in part 1 of this article.

I have said many times before that tea is a very personal thing. Nobody can tell you what tastes good to you. The “right” way for me to enjoy a particular tea could be quite different than the “right” way for you to enjoy that same tea. To Rikyū, however, the tea ceremony was not about what made your matcha taste the best. It was all about using the ritual to clear your mind and help you to see things more clearly. It was about achieving harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Outside of the ceremony, however, I would argue that your way of relaxing is the right way of relaxing, whether it means sitting on your front porch with a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey, preparing a delicate silver needle tea to enjoy with a friend, or laying back in the bathtub with a fragrant jasmine green tea. Tea should be a pleasure, not a chore, and the ceremony is about sharing that pleasure with your friends and guests.

Meditative Ritual

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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