Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On my discovery of tea...

After a couple of years spent studying kung fu, Mark and I were now quite firmly fascinated by Qi and the many arts which held it as their guiding principle. It was perhaps inevitable then, that we should end up in a very special teashop in Miaoli County, Taiwan where, for a number of years, a group of artists and intellectuals of various disciplines had been gathering to drink strong tea and meditate on the effects it had on our respective consciousness’. A friend brought me there one afternoon, suggesting that if I were interested in Qi this place would likely be right up my alley. I remember asking, “So what’s tea really like?” To which I was told “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you - just come on and find out for yourself.”

This was the first real teashop I had ever really been into - apart from the English tea and cakes joints we have back in Victoria, BC. And while I still have affection for the Kipling Room and other such highly civilized institutions, this place was to be something else entirely. I still remember very clearly the first time I walked in the door - past the waterfall and through the doorway - over which hung calligraphy that read, “Only experts are permitted to know.” I couldn’t read this at the time, which is just as well as it wouldn’t have made any sense to me anyway.

On a hot summer’s day, lightly touched by the spray from the manmade waterfall, I walked in and it was as if I was being washed over by a wave of humidity mixed with the smell of fermenting teacakes. More than this, as I stood there trying to take it all in, my whole body began to tingle as if under a very mild electric current. I had felt similar things before while practicing Qi gong, and immediately took it as a sign that I had come to the right place. It was the feeling of discovery, of finding something that you didn’t even know you were looking for. The tea only went further in confirming this initial impression.

It was really quite magical when I realized for the first time that I had absolutely no idea what tea was. It was a wondrous realization to make this discovery; something akin to Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning and asking the young boy on the street “have I missed Christmas?” only to realize that the day is still very much before me. It was much the same for Mark as I recall, and we would often drink tea together in the evenings after work and simply laugh in amazement that this really could be true. Could tea really be this good? It was as it turns out - though at the time we were just beginning to understand how deep its currents ran. I am still in the process of discovery - the mysteries of tea ever unfolding.

Tea is a most remarkable nectar - somehow different with each steeping. Though the difference is perhaps not so much the tea changing, as we ourselves are changing a little bit through every interaction with good tea.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cloudwalker Teas: Beginnings

I first met Mark Chapeskie while practicing kung fu in a small town in northwestern Taiwan in 2004. We trained together most evenings in the home of the master, a very colorful man who had a private dojo on the top floor of an office building near the center of town. We began our study of the martial arts with the practice of qi gong – a meditative practice designed to stimulate and strengthen the network of energy channels that run through the body. Our experiences surrounding this were all very eye opening. As a result, our ears perked up anytime anyone would mention qi.

All of the traditional Chinese arts refer to qi when describing the process by which an art comes to be something more than simply the sum of its elements - when it becomes transcendent. The principle of qi in kung fu is the same as it is in calligraphy, medicine or even the arrangement of flowers. At first I didn’t appreciate this fully. I was respectfully curious about the other arts I encountered, though I wondered how they could ever live up to all the fuss made about them. Flower arranging is all well and good, but what do you do if a fight breaks out? This was more or less my opinion on the impractical arts as I saw them. Tea was certainly ahead of calligraphy and flower arranging on my list of hobbies to take up, though I must admit that initially I would have probably laughed if you told me there was more to it than improving one’s health.

I probably wouldn’t have had anymore than a passing interest in tea were I not fortunate enough to meet with a few exceptional people and a few special teas at the right time. Mark and I were most fortunate in this. We had our eyes opened wide with regard to the wonders of tea drinking. It boggles me to this day how much can be gained from such an apparently simple interaction of elements. Tea has become not so much a hobby as a journey of self-discovery, much like the martial arts, which at its highest level is not so much about learning how to fight as it is about learning who you truly are.

I had planned to write about something else in my first entry but, as I will be taking over the writing of the blog for a while, I will have other opportunities. I will try to relate some of my experiences of drinking tea in Asia in hopes that it is of interest to others who are following a similar path in other parts of the world.



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Friday, April 3, 2009

Tea in Liberia

I am posting this note from overseas, at last. I travelled to Liberia for work in the development field. But that is not why I am posting here. I am posting to state an observation I made recently, or perhaps more appropriately, rediscovered. Until very recently I found myself working too much to set aside the time to drink tea as I have over the course of the past several years. As I worked I found my energy flagging mid-morning and again mid-day, so I started drinking tea again, in a cannibalized version of the gong fu cha tradition. This of course means taking time out of the busy workday to meditate over cup after warm cup of sublime tea. But I immediately noticed a difference in my energy levels, and it's been progressive. Of course I knew this would occur, so it's hard to believe I'd forgotten, however, I've since made an additional re-discovery.

Every morning I used to wake and greet the day with a rare form of internal kung fu I was fortunate to learn while in Taiwan. Like any truly excellent Chinese martial art, it focuses on building one's chi energy, and over time this has a snowball effect on the body. Kung Fu is, I must confess, something else I had neglected of late. However, now that I've restarted kung fu and started drinking tea again my energy levels are soaring. Furthermore, my productivity has increased dramatically.

So, a note for those whom think that drinking tea is simply about flavours and aromas: it's not. Consuming tea means to consume chi, which builds one's own inner chi. And if one practices chi kong (qi kong) or a martial art to build chi as well, the effects on the mind and body are nothing short of miraculous. Don't believe me? Try it for yourself. A note of caution though, unless you've been building your energy for some time I do not recommend pairing qi kong with tea drinking back to back, particularly vintage pu erh teas. The effects can be unpredictable on the body, and if you don't know what you're doing, potentially downright dangerous.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tea and its chemical composition

I drink tea because I like the diversity of flavours, aroma and energy each tea has to offer. There is such an array! However, I am repeatedly asked to describe the caffeine content of an average cup of tea. There is no sure answer to this question. The reason is that each tea is different from the next with regard to its chemical components. The kind of tea, processing methods, growing region, soil type, climate conditions, even the time of year the tea is harvested could have an impact on any given tea. All I can say is that there is significantly less caffeine in the average cup of tea than there is in the average cup of coffee (by the way, it is also difficult to determine an exact amount in a cup of coffee for the same reasons!).

There is one exception to this rule (and a rather nebulous rule it is!). Good, vintage, aged, sheng pu erh tea apparently has no caffeine in it. Studies in the UK have determined this to be the case. Some people suggest it has something to do with the fermentation process the tea goes through, but a fully fermented tea (i.e. black tea) still has caffeine, so this theory doesn't hold water for me.

A note on anti-oxidents. Yes, tea is high in antioxidents. All tea of the camellia sinensis tea family (basically all tea except rooibus and herbal teas) is jam packed with these little goodies. Antioxidents are excellent for maintaining good health and more and more studies indicate there are more and more health benefits to ingesting antioxidents. That said, we cannot get caught up on the nutrient/chemical composition of the tea.

So the general rule? Enjoy your tea as the Chinese enjoy it. For the whole tea. Not just for its chemical composition and nutritional value. Yes, it's healthy for us, yes, there is some caffeine in most of it, but as with most things in life, it's better to enjoy the tea for what it is than overanalyze its individual components. Smell, drink, feel. That is the essence of good tea enjoyment.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Living in Ottawa

Check out Cloudwalker Specialty Teas on CBC Television for several days on Oct. 7th at 3PM or online at A great way to get an introduction to pouring Chinese tea in the gong fu cha method while describing pu erh.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tea Appreciation

The following narrative has been excerpted from Cha Dao (The Way of Tea), which is currently being co-translated by Cloudwalker Teas co-owner Erick Smithe. This excerpt comes from Chapter One: Tea Tasting - Come and Sample the Expert 12 Level Teas

Tea Appreciation and the Qi of Tea

Tasting and Tea as a Priority

Utility Tea, Tea Appreciation and Research Tea

“Utility tea” is good for any time and is prepared casually. All that matters is quenching one's thirst and clearing one's head. Tea appreciation requires leisure time and a calm, peaceful mind set. It places its focus on quality over quantity and for each pot only 3-5 cups are necessary. Once we have ascertained the quality of the tea then it may be put away.

“Research tea” on the other hand must be steeped all the way to the end and for a good tea this means at least ten cups before stopping. Only in this way can one thoroughly get to know the inner qualities of each tea. As far as entertaining guests is concerned, in order not to commit offence, one may choose which of the three styles of Tea is most appropriate given the situation and the shallowness or depth of one's relationship with the party being entertained.

The “way of tea” is primarily concerned with "tasting tea," and the teas we taste can of course only be categorized as excellent. The teas we review must meet a minimum basic standard. The minimum standard for a good tea is two-fold: the first requirement is cleanliness, the second is the Chi energy of the tea. An old tea should meet the standard of Bliss or Romance within the Expert 12 levels. With regard to new teas, there are no shortage of new teas possessing qualities of cleanliness and vitality. Teas with strong Chi and have very fine vibrational frequencies include "Cing Xan Lyu Xu" (pale light blue Mountain and green water), "Hong Lao Yin" (sacred red eagle), "Song Zhen" (pine needles), "Mung Ding Gan Lu" (nectar), "Bai Ji Guan" (White cockscomb); they are all clean and possess very subtle and fine vibrational frequencies. These teas also have excellent flavours. There are many more teas not listed here at this level or thereabouts.

Only a good tea leaf can be the object of a tea tasting and only a good tea can make the connection for entering the Tao through tea.

The Chinese character Pin meaning "to taste," "to sample," "to ascertain the quality of" consists of three mouths; this means that even if we are only using a small cup, it must be tasted and sipped three times and not in one gulp. With the first sip, one's mouth may not be fully clean, only with the second sip does the tea begin to reveal its true character; the third sip confirms the impression of the second sip and can simply be enjoyed.

To calm one's heart, close one's eyes and fix one's attention when tasting tea will help one notice the subtle variations in the tea and will facilitate entrance into the inner realm.

What makes a tea “good?” From a subjective point of view: if you yourself like it, then it is a good tea regardless of tea type, production method or vintage. However, this type of subjective favouritism will affect one's ability to appreciate and experience new tea and stunt one's development within the art of tea drinking.

There is a slightly more objective method of tea appreciation, based upon five criteria: colour, fragrance, flavour, shape, and moistness or smoothness (feeling in the mouth); one can analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a given tea, and determine its relative superiority or inferiority. However, such "sensory appraisal," relies upon one's personal knowledge and experience, thus it is still somewhat subjective (more or less). This method is only a slightly more clear and rational approach to evaluating and understanding any given tea.

The "scientific testing method" is one alternative, which makes use of specialized equipment and techniques, to determine a tea’s material elements, its ratio of elements and its molecular composition, all of which become part of the artist’s chemical schematic. This is a highly objective method, but it is time consuming, tiring, expensive, and fundamentally too slow. It also requires controls for special conditions and access to various specialized measurement instruments. Furthermore, even if numerical data obtained from such a test appeared to indicate the ideal tea, that doesn't necessarily mean that the measured tea will taste particularly good.

The human body is perhaps the most sophisticated instrument of all, and it serves very well as a testing instrument. If one can fully utilize its inherent potential, sometimes the human senses can accurately measure and record the characteristics of something far more quickly and reliably than any created machine instrument. Therefore, one must train, develop and enhance this sensitivity to tea, ultimately learning to trust in one's own feelings. The one who drinks tea after all is a person, not a machine.

There is one universal prerequisite for a good tea and that is cleanliness. At all stages the cleanliness must be maintained: the environment in which the tea grew, the picking and production, as well as the storage methods. Any tea that has been exposed to pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, acid rain, paint or any other method of adulteration, has been contaminated and naturally does not qualify as good tea. If there is any pollution or contamination where the tea is grown, harvested, or stored, it will surely show in the tea soup, colour and aroma. Such teas will be unnaturally bitter, caustic, astringent, un-focused, too mild and will contain strange odours. Drinking such teas, or inhaling their aromas will leave bitterness in one's mouth. The lips will be puckered with astringency, the tongue can be left numb, the throat could constrict and the drinker of such tea will feel nausea and other unpleasant sensations. The experience of drinking such teas will simply leave one feeling unwell both physically and emotionally.

Rather than drink such an unclean tea, it is better to drink a clean tea with clean water, which would be easier, less time-consuming and, more economical in terms of effort and money, and would also be better for ones health.

We don't necessarily have to drink expensive tea, but we must drink clean tea. A clean tea will most certainly be smooth to the taste and non-repulsive. We can nourish our health with clean tea, entertain guests with a clean tea, and honey the growth of our body, heart and spirit with clean tea. Therefore, tea farms and tea merchants have an obligation to produce and sell clean tea. Teahouses and tea retailers have a duty to sell clean teas as well as to educate their consumers how to tell the difference. Tea guests and Tea people also have the right or duty to buy clean teas as well as to disseminate the correct knowledge concerning these teas.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The tea

As I become ever more engrossed in the gong fu cha ceremony, I sometimes forget about the importance of the tea itself. Whether it is a freshly picked and packaged oolong from one of the revered mountains in Taiwan, or a well-aged loose leaf sheng pu erh from Yunnan in China, good teas can, in and of themselves, bring about a state of meditation, inner warmth, calm and peace. There is just something about this age old beverage that comforts the soul, and the Chinese have been coming up with methods ever since tea's discovery several thousand years ago to enhance this overall feeling. Gong fu cha is one of those methods, but it means nothing if one does not honour the tea for what it is: a means by which to communicate with the divine, a path to enlightenment, a taste of nirvana. As my good friend Erick recently reminded me however, tea is merely a means by which to reach the door to enlightenment; it is up to us to open the door and move 'beyond.' Do you have the strength?

It pays to remember that each tea has this inner quality inherent within it, but that we ourselves cannot be lazy, that we must work with the tea if we wish to achieve ultimate nirvana. All tea is not created equal however (as many of us are well aware). I'm not talking about the pre-packaged teabag (though even those have a limited comfort factor when steeped in hot water); i'm talking about fine loose leaf and cake teas. If you are fortunate enough to come across a particularly powerful tea, respect it, work with it, and then release it. I am of the firm belief that good tea was made to be appreciated and consumed, not stared at in a museum or collection (I like that: the consummation of the tea. It has a nice ring to it). Perhaps my personal bias comes from Master He Zai Bing, whom first introduced me to tea and would happily pour a vintage, endangered pu erh as he would a more recent variety. For him, the greatest honour is found in drinking the teas and not only in possessing them. Perhaps this is one of the greatest tests for all of us: to best honour the greatest of teas is to drink them and appreciate them until they are no more, and we must in the end, let them go. But the memory, ah the memory of that moment shared with the tea, is oh-so-sweet.