Seasonal Tea Club
With this season’s offering, we conclude our fifth year of the tea club. We have two common sayings in our tea tradition that seem particularly apt this season. The first is “1 to 10, 10 to 1.” This simply means that when learning anything, whether it be a highly technical discipline, an art form, or even our personal, internal development as human beings, we work in iterative steps, which then circle back on each other. When asked how he developed such an accurate and powerful serve, the tennis player Rafael Nadal, who was number 1 in the world for 209 weeks, explained that he made tiny refinements over many years, returning consistently to the basics, until his serve became utterly natural. In an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, it can become difficult to return to the basics of a situation, an endeavor, or a developing skill. Yet the ability to simplify down to essence is fundamental to mastery, or in the words of the second saying in our tradition: “Advanced techniques are basics techniques mastered.” Ultimately, the study of tea is a study of the self. As we advance in technical skill, we also advance in the development of common sense, integrity, character, mindfulness, and self-confidence. The development of a skillful tea practice requires that a person become the tea practice. As the 16th century Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu pointed out, if your life were any different without tea, then you are yet to understand it.
According to Taoist Five Element Theory, Autumn is the time of the metal element. The quintessential metal tool is the knife, which is used for cutting away what is not needed from what is required: the essence. The knife is the most essential tool for survival, and the theme of survival is central to the Autumn harvest and Winter preparations. Hunters use a hunting knife; soldiers use the combat knife; scouts and campers use a pocket knife; kitchen knives are used for preparing food, peeling vegetables, and scaling fish; wood carvers use knives for whittling.
We use terms such as budget cuts, tax cuts, and spending cuts. Doctors use scalpels to cut away necrotic tissue in surgery. All of these actions indicate reduction: the elimination of something in order to preserve what is essential to life. Precious metals, gems, crystals, and minerals remain stored deep in the earth, treasured for their rarity and utility. In terms of the study of tea, the metal season is the time to focus on method: the breaking down of tea brewing, processing, and enjoyment to its component parts. To that end, we will discuss the primary differences between bowl tea and gongfu cha, and how they relate to different seasons and situations. We’ll delve into these methods in depth during our September retreat in Telluride, Colorado. First, however, let’s explore the metal element, the metal personality type, and their relevance to Autumn.
Autumn and the Metal Element
Just as leaves fall from the trees in Autumn, the metal element represents the downward descent of Yin energy. Psycho-emotionally, this movement represents the descent into the underworld or shadow realm of our being. Beneath the superficial levels of identity, persona, ego, and outward achievement, we cut through delusion and access our true nature. Our true value exists in our essential nature, and shines like a precious, hidden treasure at the fundamental level of being. Contained within the falling fruit of trees is the seed, which ensures the continuation of a species and holds the blueprint of the entire organism. Autumn is a time of colder weather and ethereal light. Similarly, people with a strong metal element in their constitutional makeup can seem cold, distant, aloof, methodical, orderly, and stoic. In seeking the essence of themselves and life in general, they often have a strong spiritual sensitivity and clear values.
Metal personality types feel comfortable letting go and detaching, releasing and allowing relationships to end. They have little energy for drama, needy people, and material attachments. With their high standards, dry demeanor, strict discipline, composure, and inflexibility, metal types often find themselves without companions and long-term relationships. Graceful, reverent, elegant, and orderly, metals understand the value of everything in their lives, and thus a healthy metal element allows one to also acknowledge the value of their friendships and to inspire the best in others.
In Autumn, plants decay, the sun is weaker, trees and animals are preparing to hibernate for Winter. We let go of the high energy and jubilance of summer. The grief associated with letting go and release is a common manifestation of metal energy, and thus many metal-types may seem withdrawn, cold, and disconnected. In the pursuit of some form of enlightenment, metal types often seem disinterested in worldly matters and other people’s feelings. However, release and surrender require softening and becoming more porous to life. For many metal types, a major breakthrough in their growth occurs when they learn to live with grief and to embrace it. Grief and love are the same thing: they acknowledge the value of something important. If you love, you grieve. The quest to escape suffering is one of the deepest causes of suffering. We soften by allowing ourselves to acknowledge, accept, become, and allow pain the room to be when it arises. Through this softening, we develop empathy and compassion for all suffering and grief, as well as a deep reverence for the preciousness of human life. For a metal type, this moment marks a profound opportunity. They let go of clinging so tightly to the Self, and become open to the experience of others, engaging with others, and seeing how their actions affect others. This process of breaking down our habits, false walls, and delusions brings warmth to the critical coldness of metal types. By connecting with people, joy and laughter bring the real connection with a higher power that is essential to an enlightened life. Through them, the mind remains flexible, able to penetrate without cutting, able to elevate while remaining compassionate and sensitive.
Many Methods, One Path
While a precise description of each step of our brewing methods exceeds the scope of this booklet, it’s perhaps more important to understand the context of the brewing methods. Each of the methods serves a specific purpose, occasion, and intention. Each contains its own magic. As we evolve in our life of tea, we develop greater sensitivity; we begin to understand subtleties between the different brewing methods, when to employ them, and what teas are best suited for each method. In truth, bowl tea includes all of the first three methods: Leaves in a Bowl, Sidehandle Bowl Tea, and Boiled Tea. We tend to drink a lot of Leaves in a Bowl in Autumn, metal season, because it matches the energy of the season perfectly. The qualities that bring season and method together are simplicity, space, the bare essentials and letting go. Leaves in a Bowl epitomizes the essence of tea as a practice, and brings the practice to its humble origins. What could be simpler than large-leaf teas brewed directly in a tea bowl? We cut out the qualitative analysis, fussing over water temperature, steep times, and preferences. We let go of antique teaware or subtle aspects of tea processing. We simply let go, practice presence in the movement, and allow the spaciousness to inform the meditation of tea-barren trees, deep roots, autumnal light, clear mind, open heart.
Sidehandle Bowl Tea carries many of the same qualities, yet the pot brings an added dimension and flair to the practice. The clay filter built into the pot opens up entire genres of smaller leaf tea such as balled oolongs and compressed cakes, allowing for greater exploration. More movement requires more focus and engagement. Sidehandle tea lends itself to meditation and ceremony, while also allowing the brewer to share tea with larger groups for longer sessions. Shorter steep times (than Leaves in a Bowl) means that sessions can be drawn out, allowing the brew to transform through many steepings. As my teacher Wu De likes to point out, bowl tea is about equanimity and balance. There’s no right or wrong, and the real focus is about connection.
Boiled Bowl Tea connects us to the ancient shamanic roots of tea when Shen Nong “discovered” tea as leaves from a tea tree floated down into his boiling squash gourd. With boiled tea, we are in the deep roots, brewing tea in a cauldron over a low flame and stirring in medicinal herbs, stalks, roots, and mushrooms. The tea is then ladled from the cauldron into bowls. For purists, a Hunan black brick tea or tightly compressed shou puerh works beautifully. As an herbalist, I like to sometimes add reishi mushroom, chaga mushroom, dried tangerine peel, Himalayan crystal salt, and even a scoop of ghee or coconut oil. It’s important to know the herbs you are working with as they will of course affect the flavor and energy of the tea. Boiled tea is wonderful for large groups at an event, or for a long tea ceremony on a cold morning, lending itself well to Winter when we slow down and go inward. Finally, taking partially-spent leaves from your teapot and brewing them in the cauldron is a way to honor the tea by drinking it until it’s truly gone. Visit the Living Tea blog to read more on boiled tea methods.
If bowl tea is about equanimity and balance, Gongfu Tea is about sensitivity, skill, and discipline. When we find our bowl tea becoming a bit too laissez-faire and sloppy, it’s time to hone in on gongfu cha. For this we use small zisha or purple-clay pots, a saucer for the pot, small porcelain cups, a tray for the cups, and water heated to just the right temperature for the tea we are brewing. We work to brew the perfect cup of tea and the only real rule is: If it brews better tea, then do it. This requires sensitivity, focus, patience, experimentation, and practice.
Gongfu cha developed out of the martial arts and therefore follows many of the same principles: economy of movement, grace and directness, maintaining the foundation, never crossing the center line, ambidexterity, attention to the pot and cups before and after, economy of leaves, etc. Generally, we brew gongfu for five people or fewer, and personally, I like to brew my finest teas gongfu because it feels like I’m honoring them by brewing them as best I can. In terms of the actual method, it’s important to pour hot water over the pot before and after putting water over the leaves. This maintains the internal temperature of the pot, which brews better tea. You also want to heat the cups with a small amount of water between each steeping, again because preserving heat makes for better tea. Master Lin says that by preserving temperature and disturbing the tea as little as possible with slow and gentle movements, we “steal” its essence. (Consider exploring a wonderful online course about all about gongfu cha made by our friends over at Global Tea Hut.)
While learning the intricacies of each brewing method can seem either overwhelming or exciting (depending on your personality), it’s important to remember that each method serves a greater purpose: everything in the practice of Tea aligns us with Nature, connecting us to something bigger than ourselves, which is what shakes us free from the suffering caused by the limits of ego and the trivial concerns of daily life.
At Living Tea we relate to the brewing methods through the lenses of the seasons and elements not because there are “right” or “wrong” times for each one, but because living in alignment opens our minds. For instance, the transition of Winter into Spring brings us to lighter flavors like yencha and floral oolongs, whose subtleties are most apparent when brewed gongfu. Gongfu brewing teaches us precision and economy of movement, just as our energy becomes more focused and our cravings naturally shift from heavy Winter foods to lighter Spring fare. In this way, tea is an entry point to a rich and complex web of practices that bring us back home to Nature and to ourselves, season after season, year after year.
Aligning with the seasons doesn’t mean following “rules,” but rather awakening our awareness. Tea is not dogmatic. This season, the metal element encourages us to experiment, explore, and dive deep into the intricacies of our practice, letting any superfluity or artifice fall away.
THE AUTUMN COLLECTION
Living Tea seeks out farms or wild tea gardens that have a healthy, reverent relationship to all aspects of tea production. The following are qualities of a Living Tea: seed propagation instead of trees from grafted clippings with shallow roots, plenty of room for the trees to grow instead of tight rows as on tea plantations, biodiverse growing regions instead of clearcut mountainsides or valleys, growing practices that avoid all chemicals including pesticides, chemical weed-killers, and fertilizers, no irrigation, and living wages for all employees.
AUTUMN TEA SERVINGS: We recommend using 4-6g of tea per session, or simply, use enough leaves to lightly cover the bottom of the pot. This is true as a general rule of thumb for all teas included in this collection. You may want to use fewer leaves initially in exploring Emperor’s Red Robe, so as to bring out the sweetness instead of the astringency.
BREWING AUTUMN TEAS: We recommend pouring off the first flash steeping to “awaken the leaves,” and brew the first five to six steepings for very short amounts of time (2-4 seconds). This practice of short steepings is different from European tea whereby you steep the tea for a long time.
AGED MENGHAI SHOU PUERH YUNNAN, CHINA 2010
With a clear burgundy brew that reminds us of Autumn, this beautiful aged shou epitomizes the transition into the quieter time of the year. The mouth-feel is creamy and full. Flavors of chocolate and nutty sweetness emerge from an ample body. The energy is calm and comforting. Jingmai Mountain is one of six famous tea mountains on the western side of Lincang River in the Southwest of Yunnan, China. This Seasonal Tea Club features two clean, organic shou puerhs from this pristine environment to show what ten years of aging do to the tea. We suggest brewing gongfu with water just shy of boiling.
JINGMAI MOUNTAIN SHOU PUERH YUNNAN, CHINA 2020
Flavors of mocha, roasted hazelnut, cooked plum, and earthy damp soil rise from a velvety, smooth broth. Noticeable Sheng Jin or pleasant moistness coats the mouth and lingers between steepings. The name speaks to this quality of wet fermentation and we are very happy with the clean, precise processing, which yields a balanced, rich, deep tea. The aroma draws you into the lush undergrowth around a river in a healthy forest. The energy is opening and steady, slightly more yang than other shou puerh, but gentle and long-lasting. The loose leaves would be wonderful as leaves in a bowl, sidehandle or gongfu brewed just shy of a boil. Here’s a great tea to explore different methods.
EMPEROR’S RED ROBE
WILD YENCHA CLIFF TEA FUJIAN, CHINA 2022
This April 2022 harvest of wild Da Hong Pao (“big red robe”) is sensational in every way. The wild trees are harvested only twice per year on a small family plot in the subtropical forests of the Wu Yi Mountains in southeastern China. The tea is nutty and floral with a mild astringency to balance the vibrant flavors of the tea. Sweet and thick in the mouth, this is the perfect traditional roasted oolong for a warm Autumn day. We recommend brewing gongfu with water around 185-190 F.
HOLY BASIL CHAI
DARJEELING TEA WITH ORGANIC HERBS
There are many stories on the origins of chai, some tracing it back nearly 9,000 years, and there are endless variations to the blend depending on region and taste. Originally this healthful concoction did not contain black tea, which was added later in the 19th century during the British occupation. We decided to add a healthy dose of organic Tulsi basil, which is an important Ayurvedic herb that is responsible for the sweet floral flavor. In addition to the traditional warming chai herbs, the Tulsi rounds out the spice of this earthy blend. Add 1 tablespoon of tea to a cloth tea bag or strainer and place in your favorite mug. Pour 8 ounces of boiling water over the loose-leaf tea and allow to steep for 3-5 minutes or until your desired strength. Traditionally in India, the herbs are simmered in milk instead of water before consuming. This organic blend contains ginger root, cinnamon bark, Darjeeling tea, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and Tulsi basil.
RAKUYOU “FALLEN LEAVES”
SOBA CHA NAGANO, JAPAN
Soba cha – roasted buckwheat – has the quintessential flavor of Autumn. Sugars in the buckwheat kernels caramelize as they are fired, creating a sweet cup with a roasty aroma, golden liquor, and nutty finish. Naturally free of caffeine, soba is known for supporting regulation of blood sugar levels and circulation, as well as good digestion. Enjoy it hot or cold with an Autumn harvest meal, and consider eating the spent kernels as well, for instance with a bowl of rice. We recommend brewing 5-7g of soba cha with hot water (around 200°F/95°C), allowing the kernels to brew for a minute or two.