Microbial Colonies of Pu’er Tea – new research

I’ve been talking / teaching / writing about the importance of the origin and cultivation of the microbial colonies within Pu’er tea for years,as they’re responsible for everything from “aging” rate to flavor profiles. (Reminder: all tea ages at the same rate of 1 year per year)

Yet, outside of the Institute, I’ve gotten some pushback;
including some crazy counter arguments like  pu’er is never actually fermented, or that there is no effect on colony strains from the factory / plantation / forest, or that the steaming process kills of the microbial colonies during compression (it doesn’t).


This new paper (June 2016) does a good job of showing just how important the microbiological colonies and inoculations are in determining arability, flavor profile, and quality of Shou Pu’er.

The Microbiome and Metabolites in Fermented Pu-erh Tea as Revealed by High-Throughput Sequencing and Quantitative Multiplex Metabolite Analysis



Pu-erh is a tea produced in Yunnan, China by microbial fermentation of fresh Camellia sinensis leaves by two processes, the traditional raw fermentation and the faster, ripened fermentation. We characterized fungal and bacterial communities in leaves and both Pu-erhs by high-throughput, rDNA-amplicon sequencing and we characterized the profile of bioactive extrolite mycotoxins in Pu-erh teas by quantitative liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. We identified 390 fungal and 629 bacterial OTUs from leaves and both Pu-erhs.
Major findings are: 1) fungal diversity drops and bacterial diversity rises due to raw or ripened fermentation, 2) fungal and bacterial community composition changes significantly between fresh leaves and both raw and ripened Pu-erh, 3) aging causes significant changes in the microbial community of raw, but not ripened, Pu-erh, and, 4) ripened and well-aged raw Pu-erh have similar microbial communities that are distinct from those of young, raw Ph-erh tea.

Twenty-five toxic metabolites, mainly of fungal origin, were detected, with patulin and asperglaucide dominating and at levels supporting the Chinese custom of discarding the first preparation of Pu-erh and using the wet tea to then brew a pot for consumption.

Tea Ceremony as a living art

Chinese Tea Ceremony is a living art. It is an art that has been propagated through the culture and the skill of individuals. As you progress in your practice of tea ceremony, your approach will change; the wares you use, the settings you create, and the focus of each session will change.

The goal of Chinese tea ceremony is to brew good tea. As the teas available and produced changed with the years, the ebbs and flows of history, the changing of dynasties, imperial decrees, and climate, the practice of brewing good tea has changed.

Today, top practitioners use Japanese tetsubans or silver kettles to make water lighter and sweeter, we use wood-fired wares from Europe or Korea that match our tea’s brewing parameters and our ChaXi’s aesthetic, we use filtered spring water, machine made ceramics, and bring the (often) modern western ideals of beauty into the tea room. Today, our practices of tea ceremony have changed.

Since its inception Tea Ceremony has known nothing but change.

This constant state of change that we find tea and tea ceremony in is good. The practice of tea would not, could not, exist any other way. This constant state of change has allowed tea ceremony to become a living art, beholden to the wants and needs and desires of its practitioners. As we, members of our culture, change, we bring with us just so much of the past, and the rest is left to fade. Should tea ceremony have remained about scented tribute tea, or roasting wax tea, or boiling powdered tea, the practice would not have been carried into the future; the practice of tea, as tea ceremony, would not exist today.

At the Phenomenist level tea ceremony is not an art that can be viewed, or tasted, or felt; it must be experienced. To call tea ceremony a “living art” is to say more than it has survived the test of time; it is to say that tea ceremony is kept alive by the living. Tea ceremony is only a practice, and a practice must be practiced to be a practice. I hope this is less circular than it seems; many arts have lost their practitioners, and survive today in a petrified state. Consider Japanese Archery, originally an art of war that included Zen practice, it is today mealy a ‘sport’, and had had little development in practice, let alone practitioners, since the WWII. Consider the art of cartography, the making of maps, which has been overtaken by GPS and computerized graphics; there is no true artistic development to the modern practice of map making, and most hand painted maps are made to look old, in the style of cartography’s former glory

This is not to cast any shame on the current or past practitioners of these arts; it is that these arts are effectively dead. They are not living arts the way the practice of tea is a living art.

Tea Ceremony is not safe from this fate. A cursory overview of tea consumption in the western world, and most of Asia, shows tea to be an afterthought. Brewed with little skill, leaves of an unknown provenance, had ‘on the side’; tea may be fading into the recesses of history. We, the practitioners of modern Chinese Tea Ceremony, may be the death rattle for this dying art to be lost to history.

Or we can be the vanguard of this tradition, preserving, innovating, and most importantly appreciating the experience through the Phenomenist approach. It is though our practice and presentation that tea ceremony will continue to thrive, and tea ceremony will continue to change.

The experience of the practitioner is different from the experience of uninitiated; the practitioner can reason, while the uninitiated can only question; the practitioner can appreciate, while the uninitiated can only observe; the practitioner can feel, while the uninitiated can only think; and the practitioner can experience, while the uninitiated can only remember.

Without having experienced a proper tea ceremony, the spark that ignites the will to practice, it would be impossible for a new student of tea to begin their own practice. There is no impetus, no memory, and no experience. Recorded knowledge is not enough; if tea ceremony dies, it can never be revived. The experience will be impossible to re-create from writings, photographs, and video.

The path to become a practitioner includes seeking out experiences with tea, followed by study and practice. Your practice is what keeps tea ceremony alive. You are now the vanguard.

An introduction and first approach to tea

This is a draft section of my upcoming book “An introduction to the art and Science of Chinese Tea Ceremony”. Please help improve it with your comments, suggestions, and hate mail! 

Tea, from its home in the southern reaches of China, began its involvement with humans as a spice, stimulant, and medicine. Collected by the wandering mendicants of Chinese village life, the shamans of the Far East, tea was part of a large assortment of known herbal remedies.  Tea was used as a culinary herb to add flavor, and perhaps its stimulating properties, to dishes that still exist today among the minority groups of Yunnan and Sichuan. Tea was used as a masticant, chewed fresh off the tree, for its stimulating and healing properties much like the denizens of the Andes chewed coca or perhaps less dutifully, like those who partake in chewing betel nut.

Teas popularity can be directly attributed to its stimulating properties, its Qi (Chinese for energy), if you will. This feeling, this turn of emotions, is chemically dictated by the presence of the psychoactive compounds caffeine, theobromine, and L-theanine. These three compounds are what have pushed tea to the forefront of our world’s consumption habits, vying with beer as the 2nd most popular drink. There is nearly nowhere in the world today where you can’t get a cup of tea; given, most of it is simply bad – low quality, broken leaves, in a bleached paper bag, yet there it is; tea, waiting to be drunk.

Readers of this book, I surely hope, have some idea or at least an interest in the qualities of good tea, of artisan Chinese tea. This book is on the modern practice of Chinese Tea Ceremony, of GongFu Cha; it aims to clarify the range of flavors, brewing wares and techniques, traditions, and styles that can be overwhelming to new and experienced practitioners alike.

It helps to step back and think about tea without its ceremony or history or additions. Tea is a beverage, something we drink for a myriad of reasons. No amount of special or old wares, or new brewing methods will change that. Nothing will change that. It helps to approach tea, at least in the beginning, as a simple beverage and recognize the inherent nuances of beauty in tea before you begin to practice the ceremony.

Start with a bowl. A simple bowl. One made by an actual ceramist is preferred; if possible with a round body, a low foot and an open lip. If not, any bowl will do. Don’t measure your tea yet (though I suggest using oolong or sheng pu’er for this), use just enough to cover, loosely, the bottom of the bowl. Brew with just off boiling water. Do this in silence. Watch as the steam rises off the steeping liquor of brewing tea, breath as the aroma fills the air. Drink when the bowl is cool enough.

This is tea at its simplest. This is tea as a medicine and as a solace. This is the heart of tea. Do not lose this practice; let it be your guide. There is no skill and no mind in bowl tea, there is no pretense and no ceremony. This is just a drink, and drink you should enjoy.

Bowl tea is a reminder that everything else that has built up around tea is for ceremony. The Tea Institute uses the working definition, an imperfect definition, “the anthropological ritualization of a goal” to define ‘Ceremony’. Anthropological means that this ritual is performed by a society or subset of society, in our case the Chinese Scholar society up until the modern era. Ritualization means to turn into sequence; rituals can be strict (Japanese Chanoyu) or loose (Chinese Tea Ceremony), but there must be a flow or pattern, which tea naturally lends itself to. Finally, there is the goal; the goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony is to brew good tea.

        It is in that goal that bowl tea, where the goal is simplistic consumption, and GongFu, the skillful way of tea, diverge. To brew GongFu, to brew the best possible tea, takes knowledge, skill, and practice. From GongFu’s early emergence among the “KungFu Temples” of dynastic China to its spread within the scholar culture, the ideal of tea as a skill worthy of study, joining the existing connoisseurship culture of the mandarin class, has been refined, re-written, and transformed with the times as a living art. The practice of tea is not stagnant, nor would the proper execution of its goals allow it to be so; for, to brew the best possible tea, change cannot be feared. Whether through the introduction of the modern (such as storage techniques) or culturally distinct (such as Japanese tetsubin), to practice GongFu means to practice, learn, and change.

Should this continue as an introduction, or should I jump back to the thoughts on bowl tea now? How can I best explain why the practice of bowl tea remains important alongside the practice of GongFu? 

A rather small announcement

I’m writing a book!

“An introduction to the art and science of Chinese Tea Ceremony”

Most of the next 2ish months posts will be my draft chapters, or sections of chapters. The book may take some material from earlier writings on this blog, but the bulk of it will be new, or or rewritten in a chronological and cogent order.

While I’m writing the book, I’ll still try to get out a few follow up posts, and non-book related posts, but please don’t hold me to that…

Also, your comments and support means a lot to me (and will make me write faster).
The more comments and feedback I have, the better the book.


All the Best,

ChaXi at Poe Paddy State Park

While Pennsylvania may have a low Okapi Count, making it difficult for me to find proper Kosher stakes, the state has a un-surprising glut of beautiful and well kept secrets. Just when Asia started to wear off of my mind, and as I was starting to think State College sits in the middle of nowhere, we drive out to Poe Paddy State Park to brew some tea… Right in the middle of the park, is a spat of private property where people have their homes. Now that’s the middle of nowhere.

Back to the reason you came…
Our group of tea lovers and our new friend Kira (a blossoming tea lover), were in dire need of ChaXi. A drive that took far to long at 10 mph through 2 extra state parks, broken only by the excitement of Car Surfing left us off on a trail of 2 choices; mountain side or river side?

Decision made, we down climbed the bridge built on top of railroad trestles. I used my travel Set and the jet boil to make the Korean Green Tea members of the Institute hand processed with Master Hyo-am on his farm in Gurye this summer.

The flowing river, a setting sun soaked backdrop of shimmering fall leaves, green tea and the sound of water boiling matched with the real wind through the pines; enlightenment was not far off. We brewed till nightfall, conversation flowing, and minds almost clear.

The night still young, we had dinner, craft beer, with a side of live music at Elk Creek in the tiny town of Millheim. It rounded out the days experience. Between niche Nietzsche jokes, travel stories, and a fair bit of bravado all around, dancing to real music (made with actual instruments, which is depressingly rare among students) with a beer in hand, was exactly what the weekend called for.

I’m making ChaXi into a lifestyle.

– Jason