Perhaps the epitome of one’s tea journey is to have the experience to enjoy a good genuine old or antique tea. To savour a good and optimally brewed old tea is alluring. Not only one has the chance to experience its exotic and complex taste and flavours generated from years of aging, it is also an overwhelming experience to comprehend the history of the tea.
What is the notion of drinking old tea? There are too many variables out there but we can generally summarise them into four categories, in order of hierarchy, from the lowest to highest:
1. Ignorantly drinking a fake old tea which was thought or told to be genuine;
2. Drinking a genuine but badly stored old tea;
3. Drinking a genuine and well stored old tea;
4. Enjoying a genuine well stored old tea with the optimal and quintessential brewing method.
The first two categories of finding and drinking fake old or badly stored old tea, from what I overheard from some tea connoisseurs, is plausible delusional. There are so many incredible stories and bamboozle to entice one into these directions. The risk is not only in monetary loss but there are high chances that it is likely to be a health hazard as well.
The third category of drinking a genuine well stored old tea is what most proficient tea connoisseurs will go into. Due to their long experience and exposure in tea, their chances of finding good and well stored tea are better. By constant tasting over the years, they are most likely to narrow down their preference for this type of tea.
But a genuine well stored old tea is still so rare with limited quantity that most of them hardly have the chance to experiment with the brewing. Some of them might be lucky enough to find proper guidance from the real teamaster and with bold enough courage to buy those teas in larger quantities to learn and experiment. Then they move to the forth category.
At the forth category, with constant experiment and relentless pursuit in brewing these old well stored tea, they narrow down the margin to get it closer of brewing it right. At this stage, it is crucial to spend a lot of laborious time exploring traditional, conventional and unconventional ways of brewing tea to reinforce understanding of the tea. Then, the likelihood of brewing the tea optimally will progress further as time goes by. After mastering the brewing techniques, the old tea becomes really very enjoyable.
Imagine being able to coax decades old tea of its wisdom, vigour, vitality and dynamism and able to control and articulate all these attributes in the brew in any profile you desire …absolutely joyous.
To be at category 4 of enjoying a genuine well stored old tea with the optimal and quintessential brewing method is really a very hard and long journey. It is usually taken with very small steps and also determined by the blessing of fate. To chance upon a real old well stored tea and learn how to brew it optimally is definitely a rare fate and the epitome in any tea connoisseur’s tea journey.
However, in today’s context, the chance of finding a genuine well stored old tea with the proper guidance to brew the tea is extremely rare. For most tea connoisseurs, it would be more realistic to find the best new tea, which is suitable for aging, learn how to brew it and follow the journey as it ages. Learn about its’ character and grow along with it in its aging process. It is like following the journey of a growing child. This direction will be more achievable and as joyous too.
Ultimately, that said, everything is still a journey. There is no right or wrong, just our personal experience to reinforce our own understanding.
But the long journey, taken in the right context, is definitely… extremely joyful.
According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, this year, 2017, is the year of the Rooster. I can’t help myself thinking more about this tea call Bai Ji Guan. It is a rare tea and extremely hard to come by.
Bái Jī Guān, 白鸡冠, or White Cockscomb, is very lightly oxidised Wuyi oolong tea. It is one of the highly prized tea of the four famous Wuyi Cliff tea (Si Da Ming Cong 四大名欉). This tea originated from the bat cave area on Ying Ping peak in the Wuyi Mountains since the Ming Dynasty.
Bai Ji Guan is an extremely rare tea and is hardly available in the commercial market. The tea is not widely planted and requires a lot of traditional skill to process.There are many fake Bai Ji Guan tea out there. In fact, I was searching for a genuine Bai Ji Guan for some years and luckily managed to find a batch from a very reliable source.
Genuine Bai Ji Quan is very expensive and close to the famed good Da Hong Pao tea price. The genuine tea leaves are light yellow in color with fine hair and reddish/maroon edge. Fake ones are often greenish.
The typical taste of this tea is extremely sweet with complex fruity fragrance and dry and crisp in the mouth. The type of fruity profile can be different, depending on the batches. Some has apricot and some has lychee taste profile. The taste profile and character of this tea is very distinctive and memorable. Once you have tasted a genuine Bai Ji Guan, it is very easy to spot the fake.
This batch (2014) that I have found has complex fruity taste and aroma with an interesting subtle taste of ginseng tail. The tea is also extremely creamy and at the same time crisp and dry in the mouth. It is a very unique batch.
I really enjoy this tea especially in the year of the Rooster. According to legend, this tea was named by a monk in memorial of a courageous rooster that sacrifice its life while protecting his young chicks. The rooster was incarnated to the highest honour of being a tea tree.
This is the year of the Rooster. It is a good year to drink the Bai Ji Guan tea and pay tribute to the courageous rooster.
A few days ago, I discovered the joy of posting in Instagram. It allows me to share more ad hoc musing.
I usually carry 2 Midori traveller notebooks and pen my thoughts and ideas in them. There are lots of good materials in the notebooks but lately I am extremely busy to put them in writing and post them in my blog.
So, this could be a good platform to fill in the gap until I settled down to write in my blog later. I am not sure this will be a permanent direction but it certainly fits into the current agenda. The main theme is still on tea with occasional refresher posting on my other hobbies topic.
One of the most exhilarating Japanese tea I enjoy is Gyokuro which is also known as Jade Dew. I discovered the joy of this tea in the early 1990s when I was under the informal tutelage of a local teamaster who specialises in Japanese and Taiwanese tea.
Gyokuro is often considered as one of the highest grade of Japanese teas. Its tea leaves are normally covered with shade 2-3 weeks before harvesting, preventing L-Theanine from converting to polyphenols (catechin), which cause astringency and bitterness in tea. L-Theanine, a natural flavourful compound, has the intensity of seaweed or unami taste. This is what makes the tea so delicious and enjoyable. Without astringency and bitterness, the tea is extremely sweet and full bodied with delectable aftertaste.
I usually like to brew gyokoru with a flat teapot. The tea leaves are laid to cover the bottom of the teapot with just enough hot water to cover over the tea leaves. Like in most teas brewing techniques, there is no fixed parameter, but constant calibrations to achieve the brew we look for.
A general guide to brew Gyokuro would be, enough hot water (from 40-60 degree Celsius) to cover over the tea leaves for about 90-120 seconds. Occasionally, I flash brew Gyokuro at 100 degrees Celcius to explore a different dimension of taste profile of the tea. Gyokuro also excel in cold brewing method. It is certainly an interesting exploration and can be applied to other types of green tea too.
The process of brewing Gyokuro is meditative and contemplating. There are generous amount of time to relax while waiting for the water temperature to cool down. Slow brewing creates a quiet and relax atmosphere. Our awareness and sense of being in tea is heighten by its subtle and delicate brewing.
The tea is best drunk in small sips with a drifting mind and thoughtful observation, to enjoy its sweet and exquisite flavour and mesmerising aroma. The aftertaste lingers on and on, reminiscing its charm and elegance.
Gyokuro is certainly one of the very enjoyable and exhilarating tea.
Some teapot has nickname after we developed a relationship with the pot. Most often, it has become our magic pot, which we can control and perfect all our regular brews.
This is one of such teapot. The firing is lower, which allow it to cushion the edges of some rougher tea. Its density and clay characters enhance the aroma and aftertaste of many teas. The flow is incredibly fast due to its short spout, which is perfectly aligned to allow precise control over the pour.
This teapot is also very easy to nurture and shine incredibly fast after a few brews. Based on its clay characters and ease of control, it is very easy to achieve a good brew with this teapot.
This is definitely one of my favourite teapot a.k.a. Shine
Pu’er tea is generally a compressed tea that comes in many different shapes and sizes. They are also available in dry leaves loose form called maocha. The compression and shapes are for ease of transportation in the past, when teas were carried by mule caravan from Yunnan to Tibet through the famous Ancient Tea Horse Road 茶馬道.
One of compressed tea shape is the brick Pu’er tea. They are dried tea leaves that were pressed into brick shapes since the ancient times. Brick shaped Puer were explored more widely in the 1960s with the first prototype, Jinggu test brick tea. It was subsequently developed into the tea brick that was popularly known as Cultural Revolution brick tea 文革砖茶.
Perhaps the more sought after ones are those done in early 1970s. Some of them have wonderful jujube and ginseng taste. During that period, there were many research and experiments done on fermenting tea to create shou cha. Some of these brick Pu’er tea has the combination of shou and sheng cha, the 30/70 seems to be popular during the 1970s and 1980s.
Brick shape Pu’er tea comes in many sizes and weight. The usual Cultural Revolution brick tea weight is 250grams. There are also some other sizes like 1kg and 500g.
In early 1990s, there was an unusual batch of brick Pu’er tea which was done in 300g size. This tea is unique because it was over compressed. The tea was very hard and dense. It was not known whether the over compression was intentionally done or not. Although the weight is higher, the 300g brick is much smaller in size than the standard 250g brick size. New wrapper has to be printed for this tea, a smaller wrapper with higher weight indication.
The picture below shows a comparison of size between the 300g and 250g brick tea of almost the same era. The heavier 300g brick tea is obviously much smaller than the 250g tea.
The notion of over compression tea is very interesting from the storage and aging point of view. With higher density and compression, the teas are less susceptible to external environment. It will oxidize rather than ferment in its aging process. From tasting experience, an aged well compressed tea seems to retain a lot of its intrinsic quality and also free from external odours and taste character.
This is one of the many observations and experiences which sets the foundation of my understanding for storing and aging Pu’er tea. There are many ways to store and aged Pu’er tea. All methods have their followers and critics and the topic is fiercely debated often. Eventually, there are too many variables and it is up to each individual to choose their own method of storing and aging their Pu’er teas.
Personally for me, keeping tea away from external environment is important, as I store and age them in warm and humid environment. This is done by sealing all the Pu’er tea. Sealing prevent external odour from affecting the tea. It also prevents the high external moisture from inducing fermentation process whilst allowing the desirable oxidation process to take place.
This 300g brick tea is a wonderfully aged Pu’er tea. Due to its high compression, the aging process is slow and steady. It retains all the character and goodness of the tea. The tea quality was excellent when it was freshly made. With good foundation and proper aging process for more than two decades, it has developed into a very clean, smooth and full bodied with fruity character tea. This is certainly one of my favourite Pu’er tea.
A masterpiece Japanese kyushu teapot with rice grain size calligraphy of 36 poems by Gisui (Kondo Yoshikazu). He is one of the famous teapot artist based in Tokoname, Japan. He is born in 1947 and has recently retired from making teapot. He has won many awards for his works and held many prestigious exhibitions.
This teapot is a great legacy of the past. It was done before 1980s on unknown year. The pot was held on by Gisui all these years until it came to my collection by the kind blessing of fate.
The pot is engraved by late Ms. Matsuda Shidu who was a calligraphy teacher. Apart from her work as a calligraphy teacher, she also engraved large brazier and teapots. Her excellent calligraphy technique is reflected in the engraving. The carvings are impossibly smaller than rice grain size ; delicate and gentle yet fluid and enchanting. I can almost hear the whisper of the poems.
The subject of the calligraphy carved on this teapot is based on the poems composed by a group of poets. The Thirty-six Immortals of Poetry (三十六歌仙 Sanjūrokkasen) are a group of Japanese poets of the Nara, Asuka and Heian periods selected by Fujiwara no Kintō as exemplars of Japanese poetic ability. There are five female poets among them.
Many thanks to Mr Toru Yoshikawa for his assistance to write the poems in Japanese and translate it. According to him, some of the calligraphy is done in ancient character and cannot be presented digitally. I guess we have to fill that gap with a nice pot of tea.
The 36 immortal poets with their poems are:
1. Kakinomoto no Hitomaro 柿本人麿
ほのぼのと あかしのうらの あさぎりに しまがくれゆく ふねをしぞおもふ
As the sky slowly lightens, my heart boards that ship
disappearing into the shadow of the island enshrouded in the morning mist.
2. Ki no Tsurayuki 紀貫之
The wind under the tree where cherry blossoms flutter is not cold, and the sky is unware of the falling snow.
3. Oushikouchi no Mitsune 凡河内躬恒
Spring has come to many a place but snow still falls on the mountains of Yoshino.
4. Ise 伊勢
みわのやま いかにまちみむ としふとも たづぬるひとも あらじとおもへば
I beg thee Mikuni, God of my hometown, tell me how I can bear this wait for the one I love. Many years may pass and still she will not come…
5. Ootomo no Yakamochi 大伴家持
In Spring the pheasant scrabbling for food in the field sings a love song to his mate and alerts us of his presence.
6. Yamabe no Akahito 山部赤人
High tide at Waka Bay
The stork abandons the receding sands and calls out as he flies off in search of food on the grassy coastal plains.
7. Ariwara no Narihira 在原業平
Our hearts would rest easier in Spring if such a phenomenom as cherry blossom did not exist.
8. Bishop Henjou (Henjou Soujou 遍照僧正)
Had I known that such a thing would happen to my mother, I would not have stroked her black hair so hard as a child.
9. The priest Sosei (Sosei Houshi 素性法師)
Seen from here, the green of the willows and the pink of the cherry blossoms make the capital seem part of a splendid brocade
10. Ki no Tomonori 紀友則
ゆうされば ほのかわらのかわきりに ともまよわせるちどりなくなり
As evening approaches on the riverbank, the haunting cry of the assembled Plovers penetrates through the mist.
11. Sarumaru Dayuu 猿丸太夫
Lost in the mountains, the plaintive cry of the plover haunts my soul.
12. Ono no Komachi 小野小町
The feelings in our hearts and minds change as frequently as flowers fade and wilt.
13. Fujiwara no Kanesuke 藤原兼輔
As the hour grows later, the deepening chords of the koto reminds me of wind whistling through the pines on the Peak of Takasago.
14. Fujiwara no Asatada 藤原朝忠
あふことの たえてしなくは なかなかに ひとをもみをも うらみざらまし
Had I never met you, my life would not have been filled with such sorrow.
15. Fujiwara no Atsutada 藤原敦忠
Should I go searching, what unusual shells would the wide sands of Ise yield?
(Written as a reference to his love, who was placed in the Emperor’s household and therefore far out of his reach)
16. Fujiwara no Takamitsu 藤原高光
Reflecting on my life’s daily struggles, how envious I feel of the shimmering moon rising in the clear night sky.
17. Minamoto no Kintada 源公忠
The cry of cuckoo wrapped me in nostalgia and left me hungry for more.
Stranded on the mountain path until twilight, unable to reach my goal.
18. Mibu no Tadamine 壬生忠岑
Children uproot pine saplings praying for longevity.
Without the saplings, what would we use to measure our existence?
19. Saiguu no Nyougo 斎宮女御
Where did they come from and how did they meet?
The strains of the koto and the wind in the pines.
20. Ounakatomi no Yorimoto 大中臣頼基
The Emperor’s walking stick wears down with time
But his life will stretch eternally as each section represents a thousand years.
21. Fujiwara no Toshiyuki 藤原敏行
I could not see the arrival of Autumn but my ears signaled its approach.
22. Minamoto no Shigeyuki 源重之
かぜをいたみ いわうつなみの おのれのみ くだけてものを おもふころかな
My heart is as troubled as rocks pounded by stormy waves, while yours is calm.
Still I cannot stop thinking of you…
23. Minamoto no Muneyuki 源宗于
In Spring, even the evergreen pine’s foliage seems a deeper shade.
24. Minamoto no Saneakira 源信明
Your feelings do not reflect mine, but tonight we are looking at the same moon.
25. Fujiwara no Kiyotada 藤原清忠
あまつかぜ ふけいのうらに いるたつの なとかくもいに かへらさるへき
Who says that the crane buffeted by the wind in Fukei Bay can never return home?
26. Minamoto no Shitagou 源順
Counting the moonlight’s ripples on the water, I recogniｚe the Autumn full moon.
27. Fujiwara no Okikaze 藤原興風
たれをかも しるひとにせむ たかさごの まつもむかしの ともならなくに
How long do I have to know you before I can count you as a true friend? Not even the oldest pine tree has the answer.
28. Kiyohara no Motosuke 清原元輔
How I wish I could take the deer’s song back with me, along with this Bush clover brocade.
29. Sakanoue no Korenori 坂上是則
みよしのの やまのしらゆき つもるらし ふるさとさむく なりまさるなり
The old capital of Nara grows colder as the snow on the Yoshino mountains grows deeper by the day
30. Fujiwara no Motozane 藤原元真
The Deutzia flowers bloom on the mountains of my hometown even though snow still clings to the clifftop.
31. Kodai no Kimi 小大君
いわはしのよるのちきりもたえぬへし あくるわひしき かつらきのかみ
Like the God of the stone bridge, I show my face only at night.
If you should see my face in the morning, I fear that you would never return.
32. Fujiwara no Nakafumi 藤原仲文
While waiting for the dawn, the night draws to a close. (Waiting for success, life comes to an end)
33. Oonakatomi no Yoshinobu 大中臣能宣
Just as the child is said to attain longevity by uprooting a pine sapling, so will this pine tree live ten thousand years by sharing in your glory (written for the Emperor’s son)
34. Mibu no Tadami 壬生忠見
Do not burn the land to get grass to grow. Leave it to the Spring sunlight.
35. Taira no Kanemori 平兼盛
As Autumn fades I find not frost upon my head but white hair.
36. Nakatsukasa 中務
うぐいすの こえなかりせば ゆききえぬ やまざといかて はるをしらまし
On the mountainside where snow still remains, only the song of the nightingale heralds the coming of Spring.
Historically, in Chinese Art, including Yixing teapot, producing a replica or copying is a part of the learning process. The Yixing teapot culture has a few hundred years history. The height of the Yixing teapot culture was during Qianlong period in Qing dynasty. From that era until the 20th century, many teapot artists learn by replicating teapot from the past or same era. Antique and grandmasters teapots are often used as a model for the apprentice to learn and copy. Even grandmasters copy each others’ teapot to capture the details and increase their understanding. Most of the replica teapots in those eras were still handmade, using real Yixing clay and fired in dragon kiln.
From the 1960s, mould and modern oven or kiln are used to intensify the production of Yixing teapots, especially during the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1976. With the new technical knowhow, replica teapots productions were also intensified. One of the most rampant eras in producing replica teapots was in the 1990s where many Cultural Revolution, older and grandmaster replica teapots were produced to meet the huge demand by the Taiwan market. The clays of these batches are manipulated, but generally still made of real Yixing clay. Many of them have additives to enhance the color and appearance of the pot and also to alter the physical character of the pot for successful firing in the modern oven.
With the recent vast and wide availability of information and technologies applied on the productions, the recent replica teapots can be as close as 99% lookalike of the real thing. Many seasoned collectors struggled to authenticate the recent replica teapots. Unless one has seen and has the experience and guidance to physically examine a real piece, it is very difficult to authenticate a Yixing teapot.
Generally, there are many different levels in replicating Yixing teapots. Many collectors can still accept a replica teapot, if it was made known, priced accordingly and done in real Yixing clay. This type of replica teapots can still be collectable and used for appreciation purpose and sought after by many collectors. The main criteria for considering a replica teapot is the clay and the price; and of course, the fact that it is identified as a replica teapot. Buying a replica as a genuine Yixing teapot is definitely what most collectors try to avoid but inevitably, that happened very often.
The real Yixing clay supply was exhausted since 1990s and the older authentic Yixing teapot are hardly available. With the great demand from modern China and broadening of the Chinese tea culture worldwide, replica teapots conveniently fill in the gap to satisfy the huge market demand. New collectors are lured into collection with replica tea pots from different eras, masters and styles. The stories to support these replica teapots are also incredible. A real pot can be bought and cloned into thousands with uncanny level of similarities and details that even the expert takes a lot of effort and experience to authenticate any teapot.
To consider purchasing a teapot for decoration purpose, the criterion lies with each collector. Any form, style and design and stories that fit in the collectors’ ears and pocket can be considered. But, to consider purchasing a replica teapot for brewing tea, it is a totally different matter. The main criteria should be the authenticity of the clay. Many modern replica teapot use modern unknown clay with additives and they may be harmful when used to brew tea for consumption. They are always attractive and furthermore, the stories and price always fit. It may be prudent to use a porcelain or glass tea brewing vessel e.g. gaiwan etc. to brew tea for drinking instead.
The two teapots above is a replica of each other. They are made at least 50 years apart. Not many collectors can tell the difference, even when they have the chance to physically examine both teapots. It is even more difficult to authenticate a teapot if the person has not physically view an authentic piece before. There are way too many replica teapots online and some even in books, so it is really a tough journey to take.
Replica Yixing teapots, although was a learning tool of the past, has gone beyond its real meaning. With the new technology and technical knowhow , teapots can be replicated in large scale for commercial gain to meet the huge market demand. Maybe in near future, we can order a Yixing teapot online and 3D-print it with clay ink….!!
This century could potentially be remembered as the Renaissance of Replica of Yixing teapots.
In the early 90s, the Yixing teapots industry has moved into a new phase. The state owned factories which produced mass market teapots were winding down, paving way for private factories. At that same time, many new teapot artists emerged with the passions and skills to push the Yixing teapot design and craftsmanship to a new artistic frontier.
Although my Yixing teapot collections focus mainly on Cultural Revolution period or earlier teapots, the newer artist teapots of late 80s to early 2000 attracted my interest due to their high quality of workmanship and artistic pursuit. Most of the artists’ teapots of that period are done in good Yixing clay and personally crafted by the artist.
One of my favourite Yixing teapot artists of that period is Xia Yimin (夏逸民). He was born in 1962, a native from Jiangsu province. Xia Yimin specialises in bamboo theme teapots. The clay he uses is Yixing clay (宜兴泥), consisting mainly of Duanni (鍛泥), Hongni (红泥 ) and Zisha (紫砂 ).
Although his rank is merely Assistant Craft Artist (助理工艺美术师), his level of craftsmanship exceeded many senior artists’ or even masters’ works. Xia Yimin has held many exhibitions internationally and won several awards.
His teapots are currently sought after by many Yixing teapots collectors from all over the world based on its high level of artistic pursuit. Due to the intensive works required to put into the high level of craftsmanship and astounding level of detailing, his teapots are rarely available. I acquired some of his teapots when I was travelling in Hong Kong and China, which I will post separately in future.
The photos in this article show the teapot bought in Singapore during his solo exhibition in 2006.
One of the most advance tea brewing technique is the Chaozhou Gongfu tea brewing style. There are many variations to it, adapted over the years but the basics and goals are generally the same. Chaozhou tea brewing style typically involved using a small Yixing or Chaozhou Teapot to brew tea.
Whilst its basic principles and philosophies can be explained in minutes, it takes decades to understand and master it. The brewing process looks fast and simple but everything happen in nanoseconds and it require a very high level of skills, habits and profound understanding to move that fast in the correct sequence and order without hesitation. A slightest hint of doubt or hesitation will affect the outcome of the brew tremendously.
In Chaozhou tea brewing, there many advance techniques. Micro vibration is one of them. I often refer to this advance technique as “Vibro”. There are also many other advance techniques and they are often just whispered away as a subtle hint during tea sessions. Beginner may not take these technique seriously and often dismiss them as a passing remark in tea conversation.
Vibro can be done in many ways. A common way is to place the base of the teapot on the rim of the tea boat, tray or plate before dispensing out the brew. The teapot is then dragged along the side of the rim, with its base grinding on the rim thus creating micro vibration in the teapot. The purpose of creating the micro vibration is to further brew the tea at microscopic level. Continue reading Vibro→
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