My Life With Tea, Part Two
Green tea is preferred to other beverages because of its subtlety. In order to appreciate it fully, the mind must be quiet and free from distracting thoughts.
~The Venerable Sonhae Sunim
My tea consumption is both formal and informal. Both have their rewards.
On the formal side, I have a bowl of matcha – made from powdered green tea that is the focus of the Japanese tea ceremony – every morning after breakfast. I certainly don’t conduct a true tea ceremony every morning, but I take some care to prepare and consume my matcha in accordance with tradition as I have learned it in Japan.
First, I take out a beautiful, traditional hand-thrown tea bowl (chawan). I put the bamboo tea whisk (chasen) into it and pour in some warm water to soften the whisk and warm the bowl. I pour out the water, dry the warmed bowl, and use a bamboo scoop (chashaku) to put three scoops of matcha into the bowl. Then I add about a quarter cup of water warmed to 180 degrees – hot, but not boiling.
Finally I whisk the mixture to achieve what the Japanese call, “the froth of green jade,” and to completely disperse the matcha. It does not take me long – perhaps 20 seconds – because I always pre-sift each new container of matcha upon opening to break up any lumps (I then store the matcha in my freezer to preserve freshness). Then I drink it, making audible slurps, as the Japanese do.
Tea does our fancy aid, repress those vapours which the head invade, and keeps that palace of the soul serene.
~Edmund Waller, “Of Tea”
I take the act of drinking matcha seriously – or perhaps I should say, I take the pleasure of drinking matcha seriously.
So when I have my morning matcha, I don’t simultaneously read the newspapers, surf the web, or even talk much with guests who may be present. The flavor of good matcha is subtle, nuanced, a harmony of gentle vegetal, floral, fruit and bitter notes that takes undivided attention to fully appreciate. There is a wonderful interplay here, because matcha contains psychoactive compounds – notably, caffeine and L-theanine – that promote calm, focused alertness, precisely the qualities required to appreciate the taste of good tea!
In the taste of a single cup of tea you will eventually discover the truth of all the ten thousand forms in the universe. It is difficult to put this taste into words, or even to catch a hint of it.
~The Venerable Kyongbong Sunim
When I drink green tea throughout the day, it is more informal. I usually have a good quality sencha – the daily, ordinary brewed green tea that is drunk throughout Japan – or gyokuru, a higher quality green tea that is shade-grown to both sweeten the taste and increase the L-theanine content. I also sometimes enjoy genmaicha, a combination of green tea and roasted, puffed brown rice that features a deeper, more earthy flavor. I brew these using loose tea, never bags, as I believe most teabags restrict some of the transfer of flavor and color. I variously use a small basket or a metal “tea ball” to hold the loose leaves. I drink these hot in the winter, and iced in the summer.
But I don’t drink green tea exclusively. I have been exploring the world of oolong tea, which most Americans know only from the little pots of low-quality stuff offered in Chinese restaurants. Representing an intermediate stage of oxidation between that of green and black teas, oolong has a mystique and culture in China that is as rich as that of green tea in Japan, and the better qualities are delicious. I find many people in this country cling to green tea exclusively because they believe it alone is healthful, but oolong has similar antioxidant properties.
More recently, I had the good fortune to visit southwestern China (in February of 2012), and had an extraordinary cup of “Moonlight White” tea, made of leaves harvested from a single mountain near China’s border with Burma. It was a pu-erh, which means its leaves had undergone a fermentation process after drying and rolling. Pu-erhs have a delightful, complex flavor, and aficionados are every bit as passionate and knowledgeable about various varieties as wine connoisseurs are about vintages. Pu-erhs are lower in antioxidants than fresh teas, but the Chinese believe fermentation imparts its own health benefits, which may well be true – more research is needed.
Tea is liquid wisdom.
I am often asked for specifics regarding the brands and types of the teas that I drink. This can be challenging, as I am by nature an experimenter and seldom stay with one drink – or food, for that matter – indefinitely. For that reason, I suggest exploring and tasting on your own. A particular aid in the quest for a personal favorite tea can be the tastings held periodically at quality-focused tea shops that are springing up in many American cities such as San Francisco’s Samovar Tea Lounges. Here is a “Tea Stories” video I did with Kevin Rose and Jesse Jacobs, founder of Samovar:
Having said that, here are some of my favorite types:
- Matcha: I like Zuisen No Shiro – the name means “Joyous Spring.”
For more information for tea neophytes, I recommend, tea expert Sebastian Beckwith’s book, A Little Tea Book. For more information about matcha, watch “How To Make Matcha Tea,” by integrative medicine physician and colleague, Dr. Jim Nicolai.
Above all, make your tea drinking a happy affair, not another opportunity for stress and worry about “getting it right.” Tea is a gentle, forgiving drink, adaptable to Zen monasteries and vending machines alike. Experiment, explore, enjoy!
Remember the tea kettle – it is always up to its neck in hot water, yet it still sings!