Drinking with your body

My friend L from Beijing has come and gone for a quick visit to Hong Kong. I took him around town to take a look at various older shops here, and drank some interesting things along the way, such as an aged baimudan that’s quite good and some 40+ years old tea seeds that have an interesting fragrance to them. If you look hard enough, you can find interesting things in all kinds of places.

L also brought some things himself, including a cake that he sells, made by the same people who were behind 12 Gentlemen cakes that I tried in 2006. They have now moved to a different philosophy of tea making, and L recently went on a trip in Yunnan with them, visiting their own maocha production facility (they only buy fresh leaves, not maocha) and talking to the producers. The idea behind the cakes is that the cakes are produced with the intent to minimize the aroma and fragrance. As L quotes the maker of the tea, “beginners drink tea with their nose, experienced drinkers drink with their mouth, and the connoisseurs drink with their body”. They’re taking it to the next level, so to speak, by trying to make teas that don’t possess fragrance or aroma, and in so doing taking out the distractions. More on their tea another day.

This is by no means a unique insight –  I have both heard similar things from others, and have also witnessed this myself. It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word because it means little to those who hasn’t experienced it, or you can call it energy, or whatever you fancy. Yes, every tea has qi of some sort, although I don’t think many will actually be strong enough for you to experience it. In fact, any time a vendor talks too much about qi it is probably a sign that s/he is up to no good, and the tea is really not very good at all, which is why I prefer not to use the word at all – it needlessly adds to the learning curve and there’s a high potential for the Emperor’s New Clothes here.

Yet it is true that beyond a certain point, what distinguishes between a good tea and a great tea is the energy the tea has. Fragrances can be manufactured – they’re mostly the product of the post-plucking processes and can be easily manipulated by the tea processor who’s skillful enough to do the deed. It is much harder to fake energy. The best teas will give you a sensation of a current running through your body, but not in a way that makes you nervous, jittery, or uncomfortable. The 1997 brick I tried recently that made everyone at the table feel jittery was not a good tea in that sense – it was not something I’d consider drinking any time soon, if ever. On the other hand, genuine, good old tree teas tend to provide that energetic sensation in a way that is pleasing and comfortable. It’s hard to describe it, but once you’ve tried it you won’t forget it.

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So with that in mind L brew me some tea. We tried a number of things over the course of two days – one of the produced cakes, some maocha they collected (with him seeing in person the entire process from plucking onward) and also a number of other things. The cake that they produced was, indeed, very bland in the “no fragrance, no taste” sort of way, but it does interestingly enough have some decent energy. He insists on drinking the tea quietly, without comments, which of course helps you focus on the tea in question, but once again, might cause an Emperor’s New Clothes problem.

I think in general this is a good idea – experimentation, even failed ones, are probably good for tea in general. Someone who has a new idea and who wants to produce a tea based on it, and actually having the ability and the skills to do so, should be encouraged to do his best. I still remain a bit skeptical of the end product, but I certainly applaud the general direction in which they’re going. I would also much prefer to drink their bland tea than a newly produced tea using boring old plantation leaves. Now, if someone can figure out how to satisfy all three parts, then you’ve got the perfect tea.


Comments

Drinking with your body — 17 Comments

  1. That…is interesting…

    I started out in puerh by focusing on body feel. I drink kava and coca tisanes and tulsi, and all sorts of other things that certainly changes how your body feels. And I valued puerh for what it does to my qi from the start. I didn’t pay *that* much attention to what it tastes like, and I certainly tolerated some pretty negative sourness, for example, in exchange for that feel. As my tea drinking as evolved, I valued certain aspects of fragrance and taste much more now than I did then, because the second true thing Puerh has to offer is dynamicism. It might even be the first thing! Qi that doesn’t move your meridians, so to speak, isn’t that interesting–best for relaxation rather than contemplation or entertainment. Tea that captures my interests do so because I can make a brew, sniff a forest of aromas, and in general, be that dog with the nose hanging out the car window. I can make a new brew, and sift out flavors that shimmer all over my mouthparts.

    I’ve always considered the tasteless taste ethos to be an unbounded renounciant sentiment. Tasteless mysticism. Like all drugs, a tea that drink you, offers you a worldview, a sketch with the aid of your imagination. The easel and the oils on it, has to come from what a tea makes you feel, in order to give you a sense(nonsense) of otherness. Thus, to make you free as you will. Now, what puerh offers, in contrast to most other teas, is a sense of the unexpected, a chance for you to be other than where you’d thought you’d go. A mindset of tasteless taste is simply wishing that there was such a thing as supercheap old tea with naught but qi. That green tea and assams were more intense drugs. A complex desire for simplicity, which is a contradiction that leads to suffering, even for a non-buddhist like me. Work so hard, sift so long, to enact a perfect experience? Nah.

    I’m alright with low amounts of processing, if that is the idea. As an overall aesthetic across the riotous differences between various puerh leaves? I think it’s impractical. The task of letting puerh take you where you’re willing to go belongs to the drinker, not the crafter. The crafter’s task is selecting the leaves and presenting them as a coherent set of sensate ideas. To step beyond, belongs to you.

    • I hear you. I’m not endorsing this approach in any way, and have plenty of skepticism as to its viability in the long run, or even the short run, for that matter. What I do know is that these are serious tea people doing serious things with tea, whatever they may be. Not all of it is going to be successful – not by any stretch of the imagination. I do think that there’s something to the whole “drink with your body” idea – but not at the cost of everything else. That’s just snobbishness. Not doing it at all, however, also misses the point.

  2. I quite agree that puerh offers a sense of unexpected. When drinking wulongs, there are basically several families and the teas are much alike in these. But in puerh, the world seems (to me, at least) very large and diverse.

    Maybe starting with energy and moving to taste could be adjoint to drinking the other stuff which affects one’s state of mind (btw. I started drinking kava recently and it is a tremendous cure for my stomach/stress problems).

    I must admit that I started with feeling the taste too. Later came overal feeling and I hope that deeper understanding of qi will come (now I can perceive it, but not understand it much). Funny that other teas do not offer the latter two as much as puerh I think. Right now, I’m drinking a rather nice gyokuro (a short break from puerh sea), it tastes very nice and tender… but there is nothing more. Some wulongs have good mouthfeel sometimes, but I can not say it would be too frequent.

    Also the aroma of puerh may be very interesting. Other kinds of tea seem (smell) flatter to me (this may be just that I am more used to puerh though). Even not that good puerh may smell very nicely…

    My point is – puerh is great :)
    Jakub

    • The oolong world is also very diverse, but in a different way. Greens tend to be more boring, but a truly great oolong will have everything.

  3. Interesting post. I really like the idea of stripping tea down to how it feels and moving beyond things like Rou Kou and Hui Gan. Shah8 thinks this is tea mystycism, but I think I am alright with that. At the same time, I find that I can’t quite let go of responding to taste except with teas with the nicest Qi. I recently tried a Bing Dao tea that I once thought was tasteless crap, but as I move further on my tea journey I notice that the tea launches me onto outer space…and in a very nice, non-jittery way. I purchased some aged Da Hong
    Pao from the Mandarins tea room recently, packed maybe ten grams into a small teapot, and after the first sip was launched to the planet Zorf. I found that I could hardly respond to the flavor while drinking it– that just wasn’t the primary way my body was responding to the tea. I kind of wanted to reflect on the taste, but I don’t think that was what the tea was really all about. This morning I started my day with a decent commercial Yan Cha, and all I had was the taste– tried to feel the qi, which was present but rather boring, so it was all about the taste…

    • There’s a lot of room for tea mysticism, but at the end of the day, you feel what you feel. The body doesn’t lie, not really anyway. I think there are plenty of teas out there that offer more than taste, but oftentimes it takes a while before one realizes what it is.

  4. I agree with the idea of tea appreciation going from nose to mouth to body, but to make tea which only focuses on the energy… an experiment, but nothing more. Maybe a learning tool for beginners? If a tea doesn’t provide (to some worthy extent) the total package of all three, then I wouldn’t really waste my money on it in the first place. Just my humble opinion, of course!

    As a side note, I find myself paying less attention to flavors and aromas lately when drinking alone, but I’m not sure if it’s due to progress in my tea appreciation, or just laziness! I think I need to slow down at any rate.

  5. As I have moved further and further in to tea I have come to see a this gradual development, not as moving from one stage to the next and replacing the focus point as I go along, but rather as adding layers over layers of sensitivity, creating something larger and more intricate with every layer. I also think they all come out most favourably when working together.

    In a perhaps fitting analogy a melody played by a solo guitarist can, skilfully executed, be a work of art (think really good green tea), but adding piano and vocals to expand on the harmony (high quality green-style oolong or perhaps shu pu erh) and also some drums and bass for background (top shelf sheng pu erh, yancha or dan cong), all instruments supplementing each other, and you’ll have something both more demanding and rewarding to explore than what only one instrument can achieve; although, I should say, I would rather think of tea as jazz or classical music than rock for some reason.

    I would also like to add that there is, in my opinion, yet another layer of sensitivity besides fragrance, taste and “energy” that you as a tea drinker starts to appreciate gradually and only after a while: a composite of aspects that you experience with your mouth but wouldn’t naturally associate with taste, like texture, dryness or where in the mouth the tea is “felt” etc.

    Even if it was fragrance and aroma that brought me to tea in the first place this gradual expansion of ones consciousness is at least one of the foremost reasons I have for staying with it.

    Thanks for a great post

  6. I would really appreciate if you recommend me a few of the ‘older’ tea shops you patronize in Hong Kong. I would be visiting Hong Kong in mid June and and would like to visit these tea shops and if possible, meet up with you for a cup of tea. Thank you.

    • Care to let me know more about who you are, etc? Being a blog writer, I have an asymmetric relationship with my readers – you know, roughly, who I am, but I know nothing about you. Feel free to email me using mail at marshaln.com

  7. I’m rather cheered by your post since the blunt fact of aging dictates that most of us will lose much of the keen powers of our olfactory system and tastebuds will invariably degrade. Hopefully the body can still receive the force of a pu-erh even when other sensitive components are worn out.

    hster

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  10. This reminds me of a recent tea experience. I sampled two teas over a couple weeks: an aged oolong and an aged black tea. The aged black tea was, I think, terribly stored. It was very nasty in that it smelled and tasted much like dank mulch from the yard; it had an aggressive bite to it. However, I’m more stubborn and curious than most people (just like other “teaheads” and connoisseurs probably are), and this tea, still, overall felt like an okay tea and was interesting, even if some of that interest came from the disagreeable flavor. I kept it going for a good amount of infusions and was able to look past the taste and aroma. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but I knew I could get some level of satisfaction from it. On the other hand, the aged oolong tasted fine and smelled inoffensive, but there was nothing to it at all. As a result it left me questioning tea and my skills as an appreciator and brewer of tea. It legitimately left me disappointed, which no tea, even generic bagged tea, had ever done before. I experimented with it quite a bit and I never wanted more than a few infusions. It was the worst tea I’ve had to date, and I previously thought that all tea would still, on some level, feel like tea and be enjoyable in some regard. Now I’m not so sure. Grandpa style it was drinkable, however. Mindless and weak, but at the very least drinkable. It didn’t upset me when brewed that way, which was more than it seemed to offer. There is definitely a lot that goes into tea other than what one would be quick to assume; tea is a very temperamental thing.

    On that note, I think tea and the mind go hand in hand. In certain mindsets, I find the energy of a single tea can either relax me or make me uncomfortable, or that I will notice different things about the same tea. Tea to me appears to be a balancing act, much like I believe life in general to be. Mental state appears to be just as important as the brewing parameters and qualities of the tea. For me, I find that, past the flavor, aroma, and mouth sensations, even if not initially in the best of moods, a good tea leaves me with a feeling of clarity and content. If I am not feeling in balance, I feel that an enjoyable tea puts me in the proper mindset for itself, and for living.

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