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WILD, OLD AND ANCIENT TEA TREES & "MU SHU" MOTHER TREES
There are at least 199 natural tea hybrid species identified in Yunnan Province alone. The indigenous Ye Sheng cha is an example known for its potent flavor and cha qi – or the energy the tea imparts to its drinker. " Mu Shu", “Lao Shu”, “Qiao Mu” or “Gu Shu”, also known as "Mother Tree", “Old Tree” “Old Arbor” or “Ancient Tree” teas are harvested from plants that can be 80-1000 years old. These ‘Hardened Warriors of the Forest” are thought to embody the spiritual qualities of strength, resilience, abundance and wisdom, having survived the ravages of time. "The older the tree, the deeper the root, the more flavor the tea."
MOTHER OF ALL TEA (Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica)
Yunnan is the Ancestral Land of all the tea in the world. The Assamica or Da Ye (“broad leaf”) varietal of tea grows wild with some tea trees up to 80 feet tall. There are also other more primeval varietals (Ye Sheng); all share a lineage that traces back to a broad leaf Magnolia species that grew 35 million years ago.
The effect of tea is cooling. As a drink, it suits very well persons of self-restraint and good conduct. When feeling hot, thirsty; depressed, suffering from headache, eye-ache, fatigue of the four limbs, or paints in the joints, One should drink tea only; four or five times.”
Lu Yu, Ch’a Ching, 780
Are you bored with that 2 year old box of tea that is taking up space in your cabinet? Have you ever thought, “my tea bag is only good for one predictable cup, if that” ? Or maybe, “I have never experienced multiple tea infusions but would like to some day!” I feel your pain as illustrated in the following true story.
Earlier this December, I met a friend for lunch at one of Seattle’s best known bistros. For a a couple weeks, I looked forward to catching up over some good, honest French soul food. The restaurant, I thought, was a perfect choice for celebrating a lovely, long-standing friendship.
I chose right. The salade vert was delish; a fork and knife affair of whole buttery bibb leaves and toasted du Chilly hazelnuts smartly dressed in a creamy herb vinaigrette. Every spoonful of the rich and satisfying soup d’onion gratinee hit the right sweet, salty and fat buttons in my brian, and the blood orange sorbet, flavorful if not uninspiring, did it’s job of rounding out the palate. I was humming from a good meal and great company and was ready for my cup of tea.
Still waxing nostalgic over the honeyed, chocolate-y, malty Yunnan Wu Liang Hong Mao Feng tea I ran out of at home a week prior, I zeroed in on the Chinese Breakfast Yunnan Black Tea on the menu from a hip, fair-trade tea company with fancy-pants packaging that runs from 6-9 bucks on the supermarket shelf. Ever optimistic in a hopeless cause (ask my friends), I opened the foil pouch and pulled out a thin tea bag with a puny half teaspoon of ground tea. Still thinking there was a small chance I could be surprised at how good this tea is, I placed the tea bag into a diner tea pot (another bummer) and waited on the steep.
First of all, nothing happened (well, I guess the water changed color a little).
Second of all, nothing cost $3.50 a pot.
Turns out I am not the only one that finds this First-World Problem a tragedy. Tea connoisseurs consider my experience the unfortunate result of Floor Sweep a.k.a. Tea Dust or Tea Fannings. Most of the boxed tea you will find literally comes from the old, left over bits that remain after all the tea grades are sorted. A majority of box tea companies buy fannings in bulk from a broker, then ship it to a tea-bagger, then to a boxer, then to a distributor who delivers it to your store shelf. If, and I say if, the tea buyer bought a quality tea to start with, the process of grinding it up to bag, destroys the quality and flavor within weeks, if not days. (Of course there are always some exceptions. Barnes and Watson does a decent job with tea bags but they also source a full leaf.)
So next time at the co-op or market, head over to the bulk tea section where tea lives happily in glass or tin canisters, awaiting your scoop. (Ironically, you may be paying less for it than boxed tea).
When it gets down to it, comparing bagged tea to premium tea is like comparing a Kobe NY strip to a BK hamburger, Norcia black truffles to canned mushrooms, creme chantilly to Cool Whip. There is a huge difference. Floor sweep might give you a strong, one dimensional cup of tea, but it has lost it’s soul for lack of love.
On the other hand, tea leaves, picked, sorted and rolled by hand, dried in the sun, slowly roasted or expertly fermented, yield multiple infusions of complex, layered flavors, aromas and nuance. When tea masters prepare tea they take great care to preserve the integrity of the leaf from acquisition to the final steep. For instance, there is a protocol for cracking a puerh bingcha (round compressed cake) so that the leaves are not broken and thus offended. This way, the Tea Spirit is pleased and bestows a great brew.
It is best to brew your loose premium tea in a pot, portable glass tea infuser or, if absolutely necessary, from a tea pouch. Do not be dismayed if a tea leaf or two escapes into your cup – it won’t bite or pull out your tongue, I promise! Give your tea leaves room and freedom to unfurl and express themselves. They have a lot to share with you.
What to do with all your boxed tea bags? Refresh your tired eyes, marinate your meat, make a dream pillow, dye your hair, use it to ‘age’ paper for an art project, or my favorite – make Kombucha Tea!
There are many reasons I have become a tea monk but ultimately, it just seems to be what I am at heart.
I do have a mad, wild passion for authentic, artisan tea for its myriad of flavors and aromas, its aesthetic and Qi, and because I have seen it literally transform folks within a span of a few cups. Tea creates friendship with self and other by means so astoundingly simple, it's elegant (or vice versa). Tea has been both my stalwart mast in turbulent waters and sun-warmed canoe down lazy rivers of life. I don't know of any substance in the world that I feel more akin to. Tea is good medicine.
My default plan since I was 6 has been to join an ashram/monastery/church. In reality, I am probably too socially orientated and unpredictably creative for the cloistered, contemplative lifestyle. Yet I am a seeker of peace and a quiet revolutionary - not in a political sense but in the most fundamental way of becoming one's Self. When I discovered tea ceremony about 7 years ago, I felt that it was integral to my journey of knowing thyself. It therefore made sense when I learned that tea has been a monks friend for over 5000 years.
And of course, along with many others, I am totally disillusioned with 21st century Western culture. For most of my life I have struggled to find my basic values reflected in the cake-face-glamour/consumer driven culture we live in. There are, however, more and more rays of light streaming forth from the cracks in The Wall these days and it's exciting. I am finding in riding the rays, we can find ways to live authentically, humanely, and joyously. Being a tea monk is my way-ray and I am having fun sharing it with other people. Tea is teaching me about simplicity, optimism, tranquility, harmony, compassion and gratitude. Tea or bust, man.
But, with everything said, I sense that there is something more at work here that I am not aware of, a deeper mystery that I have given myself to that some call the Way of Tea, and I feel it's intrinsically connected to the Tao/Source of Everything that is Beyond my Comprehension. To be honest, I am not sure what it is or what it means. I am not a tea-hipster nor is this a PR - identity, I actually want to live it out and see where it takes me spiritually and in service to others. So I surrender to the Guru's feet in the form of the Tea Ancestor as the provider for all my experiences from the people I meet to the food I eat. I have tried the '9 to 5' for decades and found it to be anti-Self; I think this is as worthy of a human experiment, if not a whole lot kinder.
I am a puerh freak. Puerh tea is a magical brew, thick and rich, full of chi and friend to the soul. I first discovered it in Seattle’s International District while on a culinary expedition 15 years ago. It’s odd flavor of wet dirt and fish intrigued me and yet, foreign to my flavor lexicon, it took a while to stick. Like radicchio, I knew it was good for me and waited for the ‘acquired taste’ to kick in (it took several years – I think mostly until I started drinking better quality puerh!). Somewhere along the line I became a tea stalker, obsessed and relentless in my devotion to this beautiful brew.
Puerh (“poo-errr”) is actually the name of a Chinese city that was the epicenter of the tea trade centuries ago. It was from here that the tea from seven famous Yunnan mountains were compressed into bricks and loaded into saddle bags for overland travel to Mongolia, Tibet and farther West. Traders found the longer tea travelled, the better it tasted due to natural fermentation. Thus, tea from Puerh became famous.
High quality puerh is made from the leaves of old tea trees that have grown wild in the high mountains of Yunnan Province, China – far away from the bustle of industry (and pollution) of the cities. Tended by tribal peoples over the centuries, some trees are as old as 500 years and over 60 feet tall. It is thought that the older and the wilder, the more energy or life force it imparts to the drinker.
There are two types: green (‘sheng’), and ripe (‘shou)’. While the exact means of production are kept secret, we know that puerh is made from leaves that are dried, steamed and pressed (green), or piled high and turned (almost like compost) to expedite fermentation (ripe) before being pressed into tight round cakes, bricks or bowl shapes. Over a span of time, bacteria inherent in the tea slowly work to change it’s character, making peurh a collectable item as varied and complex as fine wine- replete with terroir and ever evolving .
While I enjoy green puerh for its vibrance and vitality, I am, as of late, obsessed with ripe puerh with it’s sweet, dark, earthy goodness. The old fishy taste is less common as the industry has matured; nowadays, adept tea masters skillfully coax flavors and aromas such as jujube, camphor, dark chocolate, creamy wood, mushroom and/or honey from the leaf. Thankfully, much of the caffeine and tannins are metabolized through this process, making it a suitable beverage for drinking all day (in fact, it puerh tea is known for inducing a feeling of relaxation and happiness). The ‘yin’ quality of ripe puerh draws me into my center, fortifying my spirit with each sip, creating new earth.