This and another post on plantation teas will be my last Ulumochi translations for a while. Original article here. It has been a pleasure discussing tea with him briefly, he has contributed much to the pu’er community in Taiwan, and is someone I believe Western audiences may benefit from as well.
In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, there is a scene where Master Li Mubai recounts to Yu Xiulian a session while training his Kungfu on Wudang mountain where he achieved a new realm of meditation. He says: “I once entered a deep settling silence. There was only light around me…time and space no longer existed. I believe I may have touched a place my master had never mentioned before.”
What kind of feeling is this “entering a situation of deep settling silence” Mubai mentioned? I’ve never studied traditional Wudang mental cultivation methods, so I’m not qualified to say, but through my 20 years of exposure using my heart and mind to experience pu’er tea, there have been several instances that both my body and mind have come faintly close to the mental state Mubai describes.
Pu’er tea is a profound type of tea. Many people say that the world of pu’er tea is “deep waters.” More often than not, people are unable to confidently grasp the good and bad, and important points involved…actually, I agree that pu’er is deep waters. The reason behind this is that the compositions and forms of this tea are so varied. There are new and old teas, raw and ripe, plantation and mature trees, region, wet and dry storages, blends and single origins. The average tea vendor, while trying to face the multiple changes in tea types, may very easily become lost in the fog, at the mercy of these daunting developments – now try to imagine your average tea drinker.
I am an occupational tea drinker, my now closing on 20 years of pu’er tea drinking started with drinking traditionally stored ripe teas (Cultural Revolution Bricks 文革磚), followed by drinking traditionally stored aged shengs (numbered factory productions/stamp-grade teas), then moved on to drinking semi-aged non-traditionally stored ripe and raw teas. Then approximately around 2001, I began to engage with what we call “big tree” teas, personally witnessing each different type of tea production’s initial immature crude forms put to market, followed by the step by step process of becoming more refined and complete. I feel that each different form of pu’er tea has its own special points to savor, as well as its own brewing style. It’s difficult to use the same set of standards to summarize each of the different styles of tea and their strengths and flaws. For example, the 88 Qing Bing is an example of an aged Menghai region plantation blend. Its special characteristic is having the strength of an aggressive tea (霸王般), its weakness is that its liquor leans towards being more coarse and bitter. It doesn’t lend well to slow carefree sipping and swallowing. On the other hand, the 73 Big Brick’s (厚磚) special fermentation production, combined with decades of pure Hong Kong style old storage, gives it smooth, thick soup and a dense ginseng medicinal fragrance as defining characteristics. Simultaneously like raw and ripe tea, with grace approaching that of haoji (號級茶) era teas*, its weakness is that the characteristics of the tea are lukewarm at best, and doesn’t spark noticeable passion. As for the blended plantation teas from around the reform era (2001-2005) from large and small factories**, there are still a small number of teas with decent prospects (many products from before this reform era can still reach quality close to the 88 Qing), but even with another twenty years under their belt, I don’t see anything that suggests they will get anywhere near surpassing the credentials and force of the 88 Qing; moreover, most teas on the market are sorry sequels to this masterpiece. Honestly, they’re better off being considered as fast moving consumer teas to be quickly pushed out of sight and mind.
To summarize, the only teas that have given me Mubai’s experience of “deep meditation of the soul” roughly can be summed up into two types: extremely well-stored haoji (號級茶) tea, and masterfully crafted high-quality big tree teas (優質大樹茶).
Regarding haoji teas and their taste, I don’t really want to waste more ink writing about them here; their extreme rarity and unimaginable price-range leave them elusive to the overwhelming majority of tea drinkers. As a result, there’s no real significance in discussing them. However, high quality finely crafted big tree productions still have some significance in discussing…If your regular tea consumer wishes to drink high-quality big tree productions, the threshold isn’t too high, all things considered. Furthermore, they are still considered to have some ties to haoji teas (because these teas all used big tree material in their productions); if you remove storage and age factors, the two types of tea are basically similar as far as standards go. Thus, in this article, I want to share the fruits of my near 20 years of work and study with everyone: what qualities and characteristics in big tree productions can make a tea “sip straight into the soul.”
I believe that the first element required for a cup of high-quality big tree tea to achieve what Mubai describes from his training as: “Entering a deep settling silence” is relaxation.
What is “relaxation?” This so-called relaxation can be described as when a tea stays for a long stretch of time in your mouth, if no oppressive characteristics are felt, there is no obvious or overpowering bitterness, no obviously overpowering astringency, and no obvious strength—-the tea is like a clear stream that flows over and coats all parts of the mouth, and doesn’t create any trace of inharmonious character, without stirring up too much overstimulation on the tongue or in the mouth – tasting this kind of tea is just like meditation. First from 『口鬆』mouth-relaxation, then expand the idea to 『身鬆』body-relaxation, then from that elevate to 『心鬆』mind-relaxation. Following this approximate order of events, a tea has the potential to reach “A deep settling silence.”
Many of those who have had the fortune of experiencing haoji teas have this shared experience. They say things along the lines of: “When you drink properly aged teas you feel sleepy, that’s because, after so many years of aging, the bitter contents of the tea’s liquor have already been reduced by oxidation. There is a reduction of irritation, and it makes drinkers enter a “relaxed” state. Similarly, so long as high-quality big tree teas have gone through a few short years of maturation, they will make people experience this relaxed flavor; looking back on 80s era factory teas (plantation blends) their specialty was that they were energetic, lively, and very salivating, it is still difficult to achieve that relaxed state.”
In my opinion, there is a significant contrast between the two types of teas: high-quality teas produced by large factories (blended plantation teas) exhibit bold/strong characteristics that are akin to the powerful, external style of Shaolin’s Iron Palm technique (大力金剛掌), which can pulverize metal and stone. As for the nature of high-quality big tree teas, they are akin to Wudang Sect’s Cotton Palm technique (綿掌) and Taichi (太极拳); the appreciation of such teas focuses on the gentle, contemplative/meditative, and the internal aspects of the drinker’s body and mind (they promote intense relaxation). The two aforementioned types of tea have their own unique sets of merits and strengths.
A quality big tree tea with only “relaxation” is still far from fulfilling the characteristics we seek. After all, drinking tea isn’t like drinking water. If drinking tea were to only emphasize “relaxation” well then we might as well just drink water. So here I want to talk about our second characteristic: aroma.
Some people might think that on this point I am trying to pull random concepts out of my ass: of course tea is going to have an aroma, it’s tea! The kind of aroma being discussed here is that which is produced from the liquid at the surface of the tea. When you’ve finished the tea in your cup, most people are also familiar with the habit of smelling the empty cup. These two aromas are early stages of aroma. For those who really understand tea, particular attention is paid to the fragrance within the tea.
This “inner fragrance” refers to the fragrance one experiences while breathing with tea still in the mouth. If you wish to smell the fragrance within the tea, it requires some drinking technique (we often see experienced tea drinkers take a breath while drinking tea creating a hissing sound. This is a commonly seen technique for savoring the scents within a tea’s liquor). Inner aroma isn’t necessarily present in all teas, and there are varying degrees of strength or weakness. For more subtle levels of fragrance, it may only be detected through breathing (slurping) as you drink. As for quality productions of big tree teas, this technique is not required to detect inner aroma as it will be clearly present between breaths.
“Aroma within the tea liquid” is a special characteristic of high-quality teas due to the fact that it isn’t so easily present in many cases. Your average secondary level teas rarely have this aroma. It is also important to note that the aroma’s layers represented by this quality are much different than those of the aroma’s of the tea’s surface, and of the cup. Surface aroma comes from scent inhaled through the nose, the path of the scent starts externally and then is internalized. The inner scent of quality teas comes from the liquor in your mouth. The aroma comes from the throat and bounces into the nasal cavity, going from internal sensation to external. It is much like smoking, the aromas first enter deeply into the body, and are then escaped through the nose. The experiences and delights of surface aroma and the aroma within the tea cannot be measured on equal terms.
The third characteristic for recognizing quality big tree teas is “oil.” Oil refers to a tea’s smooth oiliness and thickness. When you’ve taken a sip of big tree tea into your mouth, don’t be too hasty to swallow. Try and let the tea slowly flow, you will feel a silky smoothness, like a bite of rich oily chocolate that won’t quickly wash away. Additionally, in a quality big tree tea’s thickness, you will notice a retention in flow rate, much like a stewed congee’s glutinous quality. These characteristics, “oiliness” and “glutinousness,” both represent the phenomenon of rich abundance in a tea’s quality. It is also a quality that must be present in an old tree tea; oppositely, in secondary quality teas, this oily presence is difficult to find in the mouth. What it is replaced by is a thin, watery sharpness, an astringency that scrapes the tongue, and a bitterness that pressures the throat.
The above-mentioned qualities: “relaxation,” “aroma,” and “oil” are the foundations for recognizing a quality big tree tea. That said, please note: if a tea wishes to achieve recognition for its quality, these three requirements are not enough. These three requirements can be covered easily by the characteristics of a quality ripe tea (Relaxation, Aroma, and Oil may be difficult to find perfect examples of in the circle of raw teas, however, it is not difficult to find examples that achieve these goals easily in ripe teas).
Because of this, our forth requirement is “liveliness” or “vividness.”
Liveliness refers to a tea that, after meeting the requirements of relaxation, aroma, and oiliness, also possess liveliness or vividness. This is also simply known as a tea’s substance or quality (茶質) (In my book, I separate a tea’s tastes into two layers: tea substance/character 茶質, and tea characteristics 茶性, but since these are two aspects complex enough to deserve more time, I will not bring them up in further depth in this post).
『活』(Huo) This character can be described or explained as liveliness. This contains a tea’s sweetness, salivation, returning sweetness (回甘), astringency, roughness, bitterness, and their combined display. In my understanding, a good cup of tea is not “floral and sweet with no bitterness or astringency.” That’s called sugar water, not tea. Good tea contains all of these characteristics in equal part – because light bitterness will create returning sweetness, and light astringency will create salivation. The pleasure found in the balance of a bitterness and astringency that is suppressed by sweetness and oiliness is exactly the quality a good tea must demonstrate. To put it another way, bitterness/astringency and salivation/returning sweetness are like the system of life in which all things counterbalance each other (相生相剋). Missing any given one of these factors would put the tea in imbalance.
The last characteristic to look for in a quality big tree tea is its finish. Finish refers to its “lingering charm.” This lingering finish starts after the tea has been swallowed, and ends when the next cup is drunk. It is the layered mouthfeel and body sensations that the tea offers during this time.
I see many people drink tea cup after cup. This is also known as “Ox Drinking” (牛飲/Drinking like a fish), which is unsuitable for trying to savor high-quality teas. Because a quality tea’s most important display is in its finish and too much tea in a short time overstimulates the senses. This type of behavior is more suited to secondary quality teas. Conversely, the pleasure in tasting a high-quality tea starts the instant it is swallowed. As it is swallowed, you will begin to experience elegant sweetness, starting from the tip of the tongue slowly moving back, at which point you will experience a slow, lubricating salivation in the cheeks and surface of the tongue (I emphasize here that it is a gradual sensation rather than powerful one). Following this, you will experience a slow well of returning sweetness from the throat…thus the sweetness persists from the front of the mouth to the back, lubrication comes from the cheeks to the tongue and sweetness returns from the back to the front. Each type of pleasurable experience is like a gushing spring that envelopes all parts of the mouth – abundant and engulfing. This is mouthfeel’s share. As for body sensation, this portion follows the experience of the tea’s mouthfeel. You may notice that parts of you have broken into a light sweat, or that the throat and chest have a slight cooling feeling. If the body is tense it will slowly relax, and the whole body experiences a serene and pleasant state. Most commonly, after drinking the next cup of a quality tea, its lingering finish seems to last approximately three to ten minutes. In some cases, it may even last up to 30 minutes (this depends on different people’s body types and sensitivities and requires repetition, practice, and attention given to one’s senses).
Experiencing and savoring a quality tea made from big tree material is much like swordsman Li Mubai’s meditation story. If a cup of tea only possesses relaxation, aroma, and oil character, then meditation becomes more like dozing off. Only after these have been met, and liveliness and finish have been tacked on, can a tea meet the description delivered by our hero in the movie: in a deep, still silence, suddenly producing a field of divine light, experiencing the delightful feeling of “drinker and tea becoming one (人茶合一).
Of course, a tea of this caliber is no easy find, and at the same time requires a drinker with skills and perhaps a little luck. Tea is not just a skill one’s mouth alone can capture; rather, it requires a type of long-term practice of the body and mind. As a finishing word, I wish everyone may find tea’s enlightenment.
*號級茶 Haoji tea, also known as “antique tea,” refers to teas from the late Qing to the 50s (China’s liberation era)
These teas are from privately owned labels. Generally, the tea’s label (號) was marked on its bamboo tong. Song Pin Hao is an example of a haoji category tea. Often, these cakes were naked and only had a small ticket with the producer’s name on them.
The following era of teas is the 印級茶 “mark” teas. which is between the 50s and 60s when public-private partnerships began. Apparently, even in the 40s there were some mark teas. Mark teas are probably most famously known by their classically popular paperless red mark. The teas are recognized by having 茶 stamped in the middle of the wrapper or ticket.
The next era, the era that we are currently living in, is the 七子餅 Qizi Bing Era. This era began in the 70s. It’s hard to mention this tea group without mentioning Dayi. Classic cakes such as the 7542 and 7572 are benchmarks of this period.
**The reformation period of tea factories is, of course, again easiest to describe from the perspective of large factories like Dayi and Xiaguan. Increased production led to what many tea enthusiasts say carried a negative impact on the quality of recipes produced. Reduced quality of material would have a negative effect on all blended materials since all material is processed and separated by grade before being pressed, the effect on products would reach many different teas. Ownership of some factories also changed hands in this era, and there may have been other financial influences that have been noted in tea communities as a decidedly negative trend in production quality.