Seasonal Tea Club
Through a deepening quietude, winter settles upon us like a blanket of midnight snow. In the persistent early morning chill, we place the kettle on the stove and notice the lingering darkness. We summon greater willpower during this time of year, climbing from our warm beds to dust off jars of dark, earthy shou Puerh. As we sip the first of our winter teas, we notice morning frost forming in the window corners. The sun rises later and stillness permeates the air. According to the Chinese calendar, November 7th marks the beginning of winter. The autumnal leaves have fallen, animals begin to hibernate, lakes and rivers freeze, the first frosts have hardened the land and man stores away the harvested food and wood for the months ahead. As the days grow cold, we move indoors, shutting the windows of our homes. This movement inwards is a time for introspection and reflection on what is most essential and important to us. We slow down and take time for loved ones over long, nourishing meals and hot tea. While autumn is marked by the activity of gathering, accumulation and storage define the transition into winter. During this time of placidity, we take rest earlier in the evening and rise later with warming rays of the sun. In traditional Chinese thought, winter is associated with water, the color black, and the kidneys and bladder in the body. According to Chinese medicine, cold enters the body through the feet, and the wind enters through the back of the neck. We are advised to maintain warmth without sweating so as to minimize the loss of energy or Qi, to always wear warm socks and to protect the back of the neck with a scarf.
In the words of Lonny Jarrett, Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, “During the winter the earth becomes a seed. Dead on the surface, its potential is frozen deep within… the tendency of water to freeze during the winter is associated with the water element’s powers of focus and concentration (Nourishing Destiny 176).” Cold constricts, drawing inwards to our depths, the abode of the kidneys and our willpower. Winter is the most yin time of the year, and thus correlates to the most yin element of water, as opposed to the yang opposite of fire. While fire dries and transforms, water flows, nourishes and stores life. It is during this sacred time of the year that we might access our deepest essential self through meditation and contemplation, learning to assess our unexamined fears. Through this exploration, we give birth to our deeper wisdom. Often, our lives are inexorably drawn forward by unconscious motivations that are colored by existential fear. Our nervous system, after all, developed through continuous subtle evolutionary and biological changes that better suited us for survival. This hardwiring to survive and to fear threats to our survival, whether perceived or real, continues to play out in our lives. At its core, all fear stems from our awareness of our own mortality. We can access deeper levels of authenticity in the way we choose to live by reflecting on this fear. Our time is limited and thus we must use it wisely. Through closer proximity to Nature, our ancestors came into direct contact with the fragility of life during winter. They learned not to squander their resources, and in this confrontation with fear, they relied on innate knowing, accumulated wisdom, and the powers of focus and concentration. By studying nature, we gain insight into how to best organize our lives for the highest unfolding of our individual and collective purpose. Drinking deep, earthy, quiet teas during the winter can greatly facilitate this inner exploration. We invite you to reflect on how to best utilize your resources, both innate and acquired, during the winter and in your general life.
We started the seasonal tea club because we wanted to share the incredible value we’ve found in living seasonally. The process of intentionally choosing local, seasonal foods, for example, connects us to the region and climate that we live in, as well as the farmers who live so close to the land. We develop deeper reverence for where things come from and for the lives that exist outside our ordinary purview. By observing the climactic, environmental and natural changes around us, we recognize the impermanence of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and beliefs. We rest in change and find beauty in the ephemeral. These qualities inform the aesthetic of the tea ceremony, wherein we bring elements of nature to the tea space. By observing and celebrating changes in the natural world, we come into contact with the changes in ourselves during different times of the year. By doing so, we recognize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. This recognition can help to free us from our pathological egoic belief that our individual life is somehow separate from the rest of Life, and that our species is somehow independent of all life on earth. Does Nature observe borders, boundary lines and ideological differences? How so? We sip the leaves of trees and if we’re listening carefully, we just might hear them whisper, “we are happy to help you breathe, to shelter you, to provide you medicine, food and fruits.” When we actively listen, we step out of our continuously lost-in-thought daydream. We arrive in the reality of the moment, where are lives are actually taking place, here and now. Seasonally appropriate teas are powerful conduits to connecting with the many facets of seasonal awareness.
During the winter we tend to drink aged shou and sheng puerh, dark red teas, strong yencha rock oolong, heavily oxidized and dark, aged oolong. These teas are rich, full-bodied, flavorful, grounding, earthy, vegetal and deep. Aged teas are warming in the body, which is helpful during the colder months. Aged shou and sheng puerh support digestion, which is helpful as we eat heartier meals during the winter. Further, we often drink tea later in the day during the colder months because we spend more time indoors. Shou Puerh and aged sheng facilitate quietude, reflection, and relaxation, which are ideal states as we wind down. Aged Oolongs and Yenchas are grounding, yet also tend to open the heart and senses through their sweet, uplifting, floral qualities, brightening the mood during cloudy, snowy days. Red teas tend to be more moving and enlivening, so we drink them on cold mornings when we feel sluggish or have a lot to accomplish in the day.
We particularly enjoy Puerh tea during the winter, and for many Westerners, this remains an undiscovered genre. There are so many things to love about Puerh, but tea lovers especially cherish the way it makes them feel. Aged teas in general, but Puerh in particular, are prized for the strong energy they possess. The term “Cha Qi” refers to the increased energy that one feels while sipping these teas, as well as strong feelings of contentment, joy and euphoria. True Living Teas, grown in pristine environments free of polluting chemicals, often contain these special attributes. Cha Qi is not the same as caffeine, which is a strong stimulant. Many types of Cha Qi, in fact, are calming, relaxing and generate feelings of vast peacefulness. These states are particularly conducive to doing the kind of inner reflection and meditation we seek during winter. We invite you to explore this concept of Cha Qi further while drinking this seasonal collection as we partially chose the teas for this reason. During the Spring offering, we will explore the concept of Qi and it’s relationship to physiology in greater depth.
THE WINTER 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 like you see on tea plantations, biodiverse growing regions instead of clear-cut mountainsides or valleys, growing practices that avoid all chemicals including pesticides, chemical weed-killers and fertilizers, no irrigation, and living wages for all employees.
WINTER TEA SERVINGS: We recommend using 3-6 grams 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 in this collection. You may want to use less leaves for Nympheas Red Tea to bring out the rosy sweetness, as well as Swallow’s Nest Aged Sheng Puerh because too many leaves will make it bitter. We suggest brewing Understory Shou Puerh with less leaves if you find it too earthy, while some folks enjoy it very dark and rich, using more leaves. Ultimately, one must drink a lot of tea to develop discernment in terms of how leaf to use for different teas.
BREWING WINTER TEAS: We do not recommend using any type of metal vessel such as tea balls or cast-iron tea pots for brewing fine, looseleaf tea. These instruments were developed for European plantation tea and the rough edges created by these wares were covered over with milk and sugar. For all the teas in this collection, we recommend brewing in small “gong fu” teapots, which is made from a special purple clay called Zisha. This clay softens the water and improves the quality of the tea. If you wish to brew larger bowls of tea, instead of small cups, we recommend using a sidehandle teapot and tea bowls. For the large-leaf Sheng Puerh tea in this collection, called Ancestor, you can also brew the tea directly in a bowl by simply adding near boiling water to a couple leaves, which you’ve already placed in the bowl. We will post videos in the next couple weeks on these three brewing methods so as to make it simpler for you.
Make certain to use fresh spring water for your fine teas. Tea is 99% water after all, and the easiest way to improve the quality of your tea is to use fresh, oxygenated, pure, somewhat sweet water. We like to harvest our own water. The website findaspring.com is a great resource for finding a spring near you.
We recommend brewing Ancestor and Understory with water between 200 and 212 D Fahrenheit, which is just shy of a rolling, “turbulent” boil. Nympheas and Swallow’s Nest are ideal between 190 and 200 D Fahrenheit or “string of pearl bubbles,” which allows the sweetness of the tea to be balanced with the bitterness. We suggest 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 than European tea whereby you steep the tea for a long time.
NYMPHEAS- Wuyi Mountains Red Tea- Fujian, China 2019 28 g.
This rare varietal comes from one of our favorite places on earth, Wuyi National Park in Eastern China. We especially appreciate the pronounced roast, flavors of rosebud and melon, and beautiful bittersweet balance. The Cha Qi is gently uplifting, but not overstimulating, which makes this a nice red tea for any time of the day. The small delicate leaves are best brewed in a small gongfu pot with small cups, but you can enjoy this tea in whatever way you have available. We do, however, recommend brewing very short initial flash steepings to bring out the sweetness of the tea.
UNDERSTORY – Ximu Mountain Shou Puerh – Yunnan, China 2013 28 g.
This is winter tea at its quintessential finest: dark, rich, warming, comforting and quiet. The body of the tea maintains a mellow smoothness called “yin wei” with nice structure and mellifluous thickness like milk. We find the sweetness of fresh spring water, healthy undergrowth and slight asperity. The cha qi moves inward, ostensibly dropping you into the earth. This is a tea for discovering aspects of the self that lie far beneath the surface. This tea is best brewed in a gongfu pot with small cups.
ANCESTOR - Lincang Mountain Old-Growth Sheng Puerh – Yunnan, China 28 g.
Many tea lovers know that Yunnan Province in southern China is the birthplace of all tea, but not everyone knows that the Lincang region may contain the oldest tea forest in all of Yunnan. In fact, Lincang is home to the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree, some 3,200 years old. During our August trip to Yunnan, we met with a friend in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, who owns a beautiful tea shop there. She has close friends in Lincang who protect and harvest some very old tea trees, ranging in age from 500 to 1000 years old. These incredible old trees yield an extraordinary, rare tea. What we find most striking about this tea is the warming, illuminating yang Cha Qi that rises in the chest and down the arms. After enjoying the flavors of fresh sweet grass and honeydew, we notice a palpable experience of joy and happiness imparted by this tea. We attribute this quality to the ancient trees and the incredible biodiversity found growing around the trees. This is the kind of tea that we consider a true healing herb. We recommend brewing these leaves directly in a tea bowl by simply adding some leaves and near boiling water from the kettle. This ancient method of brewing tea may help connect you with these ancient trees.
SWALLOW’S NEST – Southern Yunnan Sheng Puerh – Xishuangbanna, China 2004 100g.
This stunning one-bud, one-leaf, old-growth Southern Yunnan Sheng Puerh maintains a slight spice that is balanced by flavors of herbaceous, mildly sweet green herbs. Sorrel and sap yield a supple, thick-bodied tea that is refreshing, nourishing and more comfortable than most mid-aged puerh. The Qi is strong, yet calming and Yin, like the sensation of walking through an old-growth forest. These “nests,” called tuocha, have become quite hard over time. We apologize for the difficulty in breaking them up, but this is common with teas of this age and pressing methodology. We recommend using a knife and looking for loose spots in the leaves. You can whittle the cake loose on a plate, and put all the smaller pieces back into the bag. We recommend brewing this tea in a small gongfu pot with small cups or in a sidehandle pot with bowls. This tea steeps for as many as 20 steepings or more. We particularly enjoy observing the way it changes from one steeping to the next.
written by Living Tea founder Colin Hudon