In my post on tea and travel, I mentioned that I didn’t need to pack any gongfucha essentials because if I needed my gongfucha “fix,” I could visit West China Tea House in Austin, run by the tea community great Sohan of the Tea House Ghost YouTube channel. Well, I didn’t just visit once, but twice! It’s a gorgeous space in an unassuming building off of I-35 and I had a blast.
The first visit was on a Wednesday evening, around 6pm, with a friend. We sat at the communal table, where you can have tea served by one of their tea-arts-trained staff for $5 a pot. We had Ben make us tea and he shared some of his favorites with us: the Sticky Rice Sheng Puer, the Haunted Plum 1992 Oolong, and the Ultra Violet Red Tea. The sense of community is palpable and my friend and I were able to both catch up with each other, as well as make new friends at the table. We met Sohan’s wife Lindsay and their baby, Lark, and just generally had a blast. Plus, I got to taste three new-to-me teas that I immediately turned around and ordered for my own collection so I could recreate my tea house session at home, at least in theory.
The communal tea table itself bears mentioning. It is a beautiful piece in dark wood, designed by a well-known tea practitioner in California and perfect for communal gongfucha. Despite practicing gongfucha for over five years, I feel like sitting at this table truly helped me understand the essential community aspect of tea. The semi-circular ledge of the table makes it easy for the host to reach all the guests from the central seat, creating a seamless tea experience that allowed the tea to be a centerpiece or an accompaniment to conversation as the session went on.
Of course, I did not get to meet Sohan that evening, as he was teaching a class the whole time. So I had to return. I went back on a Saturday afternoon, when the tea house was quiet and Sohan had just finished an Instagram Live. We immediately sat down and were able to converse like old friends, over copious rounds of teas, from oolongs to heicha. Every session was a revelation of the style of tea, and of course included stories from Sohan about sourcing each tea. I had mentioned that I had never had a truly memorable Dancong and of course was treated to an excellent one. I felt so special, treated to teas picked just for me from Sohan’s collection.
And of course, we talked. We talked about tea and tea houses. We talked about history and tea culture. We talked about our children and about life in general. We talked like it was college and we were staying up drinking until the wee hours of the morning. We spent three hours drinking tea and talking and I only left to make it back to my room before an event I had that evening. I could have easily spent all day at the shop drinking tea and talking with Sohan, Bernabe, and Montsho.
I will definitely be returning to West China Tea House the next time I visit Austin, but until then, I’ll be replenishing my own collection with teas from their site to help capture that thought and care Sohan puts into choosing his teas in my own personal practice.
Do you like my attempt at a clickbait title? Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your top three tips for new tea drinkers or people who are just discovering tea. Now, I’ve actually written a multi-part series on approaching tea from various points in your journey, but I like the idea of distilling my tea philosophy down into three top tips, particularly since my own philosophy and attitudes have changed in the nearly two years since I published my Tea Primer.
Step One: Be Very, Very Wary of Anyone Claiming to Be Teaching the “One True Way”
Like with anything, there will always be evangelists who want to convince you that the tea they sell or the way they brew tea is the best way or even the only way to brew tea to truly enjoy it. Or they will claim some ancient, unbroken lineage for their methods or traditions. No, we do not brew tea the way that Lu Yu, the “Sage of Tea,” author of the earliest known written work exclusively devoted to tea, did. Maybe some people do, and of course more people might try it once as a curiosity or an historical exercise, but for the most part, the Tang Dynasty method of tea is not the same as modern gongfucha or even very similar to the way most of us drink our daily tea, even without the salt.
One thing that studying the history of tea culture around the world has taught me is that tea is not monolithic, even within China, its birthplace (although that is up for debate, as there is evidence that tea plants evolved independently in other parts of south and southeast Asia). Tea was originally used as a medicinal plant; that’s why the most common story of its origins as a beverage involve the legendary founder of traditional Chinese medicine and its mention is traced to medical texts. While it eventually developed into a pleasure beverage and aesthetic pursuit, tea has always been considered for its health benefits, and it has always been drunk blended and flavored by many of those who use it. Flavoring teas is not a new phenomenon. Drinking tea for the benefits is not a new phenomenon. And what is now popularized as gongfucha is not an ancient secret, nor is it the only way tea is drunk by those who really appreciate it.
Step 2: Drink What You Like, How You Like It
Do you prefer your tea unsweetened and un-lightened so you can really taste the intricate flavor notes of the particular cultivar or processing style you’re enjoying? Great! Do you like a brew so strong you can stand the spoon up in it, sweetened within an inch of its life, and with enough milk to keep your mouth from turning inside out at the tannin? Also great!
Again, historically, the British did not invent putting milk in tea. Even the supposed tale of the British learning it from the French is likely not true. The truth is that the Qing Emperor who reigned during the early heyday of Western tea trade was a Manchurian who drank milk tea (much to the supposed dismay of the Han Chinese, who preferred their delicate green teas). Was this emperor a literal barbarian? Well, that term has all sorts of uncomfortable racial connotations, so perhaps it’s best to just let him have his milk tea, and let the rest of us add milk or not as we like.
Sugar is also a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicinal concoctions, with different sorts of sugars having different supposedly benefits for the body. Traditionally-prepared brown or unrefined sugar is supposed to have all sorts of lovely benefits for women, at least according to one of my favorite Chinese YouTubers. So, again, it is entirely possible that it was the Chinese who taught Westerners that sugar was a good thing to add to tea. So there is no historical basis for the tea purism that sometimes permeates modern tea communities and discourages new people from coming in and trying the tea, since they sometimes need a spoonful of sugar, at least at first.
(Please note, I am not going to get into it about anything to do with the healthfulness or unhealthfulness of sugar. Carbohydrates are a necessary macronutrient and that’s where this post ends on the matter. Ableist or fatphobic comments will not be entertained or approved.)
And I’ve already talked about how tea was originally blended. In my video on the earliest archaeological evidence of tea, I talked about how it seems likely from the chemical signatures found that the tea was blended with barley and other botanicals, possibly even the citrus peel, ginger, and scallions mentioned by Lu Yu (who was actually a bit of a tea snob, it seems). I’ve actually found that the combination of green tea, ginger, and orange peel (pictured above) has quickly become one of my favorite blends personally. Does it obscure some of the flavor notes in the tea that might come forward without the additions? Yes. But does it “ruin” it? Absolutely not. And, no, just because I don’t personally prefer most added artificial flavors doesn’t mean you should feel anything but enjoyment at your own favorite mocha-blueberry-s’mores-rooibos-puerh blend.
Step Three: Experiment and Explore
Now, that said, while you’re drinking what you like, you should never feel afraid to experiment. Yes, it can be scary to think about “ruining” a cup of tea by steeping it too hot or too long or with the wrong teaware, especially when you start getting into the realm of 20-year-old oolongs or puerhs from the year you were born that you can only afford 10g of at a time. But ultimately, it’s just tea. It’s an ephemeral pleasure, no matter how long you want to store and age it, it is ultimately meant to be consumed. Try to pay attention more to what you do enjoy and merely make a note of what you don’t like to try to avoid it in the future.
Once again returning to the blend in my photo, did I added citrus peel and ginger to the very last of my 2020 fresh all-bud expensive green tea from white2tea? Yes. Was it awesome? Also yes. No regrets.
If you’re 100% brand-new to tea, yes, it’s a good idea to look up some general guidelines or read the packet to get an idea of how to brew this tea. But “brewing instructions” are like the Pirate Code — they’re really more like guidelines. Don’t fully enjoy that tea made the way the instructions say to make it? Try something different with it! Try brewing at a different temperature or with a different amount of leaves or for a different amount of time. I’ve written in the past about how I “troubleshoot” a difficult tea, and that is a good place to start, but I also love Rie’s experiments at Tea Curious. If you have the time, try to catch one of her tea practice Live sessions on Instagram where she often performs experiments to see how different parameters really affect tea. I’ve even tried my hand at these experiments, by testing out whether a bamboo whisk is really the best way to make matcha, and I have more tests planned in the future.
So there you have it — my top three tips for new tea drinkers. We were all new to this once, and honestly, the best thing I’ve brought to my tea practice is the concept of “beginner’s mind.” Always be learning, never consider yourself finished or an expert. There is always something new to explore and always someone who can teach you. Happy sipping!
I’m back with another update from social distancing. It’s been almost eight weeks of our new normal and we’re definitely starting to get into some new routines. I think we’ve almost completely figured out the whole getting food thing, grocery shopping once every other week and getting weekly contact-free deliveries of fresh vegetables, with the occasional contact-free delivery of beer and wine, plus picking up flour as we run out (we’re about to run out again). We’ve cooked everything at home since we started staying home since my health complications make me nervous about more contact with delivery people, but we do rely frequently on frozen prepared foods to keep it simple during the day when I’m working and Dan watches Elliot.
But I’ve baked a lot of bread and sweets and I’ve gotten back into the habit of making homemade bone broth when we eat a roasted chicken. We’re definitely moving towards all of our food being produced locally, simply because it’s becoming easier to rely on local foods in a lot of ways. The other week, I made a meal of local lamb chops, with a salad of local pea shoots, radishes, and mint, and pretzels made from local flour and local milk. And I’ve joined the ranks of sourdough bakers and turned out the most amazing boule this weekend after maturing my starter last week. I must say, using really good bread flour makes a huge difference. My first loaf was almost too light and fluffy and I’m considering adding rye flour to my next batch just to make it denser!
I’ve had less success in the growing-my-own-food arena. My two planters are still pretty sparse since the squirrels keep digging things up. The basil we planted seems to have died and the parsley looks unhappy, plus the kale is hanging on, but just barely. A few of my chard and collard seeds have sprouted, but I tried to start a new batch inside, and it looks like the soil might have mold on it. I’m not entirely sure what to do about that. I’m going to replace the basil with more scallions because we have tons of scallions in our vegetable box this week, and if I could have a perpetual source of scallions to make scallion pancakes, I’d probably be happy. I’m less concerned about vegetables anyway, since the Number 1 Sons vegetable deliveries have been such a success. In addition to just getting us more fresh veggies, it’s also introduced us to new things like ramps and sunchokes, and also made me realize that I actually do like salad, but only if it’s very fresh.
But beyond our physical needs, we’ve had to work on fulfilling our emotional needs as much as possible. Besides just feeling a bit lonely and isolated, we’re also dealing with varying levels of anxiety. For me, the two biggest things that help are spending some time outside and my tea practice. Well, over the last few weeks, I’ve been taking more time to make my tea practices really beautiful and meaningful, when I have the energy to do so. And this has been helped by Rie at Tea Curious, who has started her Cha Xi Challenge. Cha xi is something I first encountered listening to Ken Cohen’s Talking Tea podcast when he interviewed Stephane Erler of Tea Masters and it is something I play with on occasion, but the combination of new flowers blooming, lots of time inside, and Rie’s challenge has made me revisit it in a more focused way, albeit with my own flair.
So taking a few minutes to put together a beautiful and cohesive tea session, where teaware, tea, and accompaniments all have particular significance and harmony, helps bring brightness to some otherwise rather dim days. And it helps me bring some of the outside world into my house, which is particularly nice on days when I don’t get out.
Speaking of getting out, the other thing that has helped lately is that, in addition to my morning yoga practice, today I was able to get out for an early morning walk around the neighborhood. My neighbors have been pretty dismal at heeding social distancing guidelines, so, with my health issue, I haven’t felt very comfortable going beyond my own fenced yard, particularly later in the days when everyone is out. But this morning, I managed to get up early enough to go out just after sunrise and walk around for twenty minutes in the quiet of the morning. It’s been over a month since I’ve just gone for a walk, and it was unimaginably wonderful. And all my neighbors’ flowers are blooming, too!
So that has been the last couple of weeks here. We’re still keeping on keeping on and staying as safe as we can. How has life been treating everyone else?