Sourcing Water with a ChaXi

What water you use to brew your tea has a huge effect on its flavor, as has been repeated ad nauseum in books and blogs as a source of wisdom, improvement, and importance.

And it does.

Spring water isn’t magical (so they say), but a proper balance of minerality, ph, and provenance makes a huge difference to the quality of our favorite leafy infusion.

So it should come as no surprise that the Tea Institute sources our own water from near by Roaring Spring, PA. Once (soon to be twice) a semester, a group of our intrepid researchers and artists ventures out to fill ~100 gallons of water. That’s half a ton if you’re keeping count. The Institute will use that in about a month and a half; not a very water intensive operation really, untill you think we’re ingesting the great majority of it!

Most of that water is simply stored and boiled with active bamboo charcoal from Taiwan. Our tetsubans give the water a slight sweetness (free iron cations bind with calcium which activates sweet receptors… so ghost sweetness… kinda…) and a more present clean mouth feel.

A small portion of our water is put into ageing jars for salt-ion exchange experiments; the aged water is amazingly light and airy. We can only age about 2 gallons at a time, and our current batch has been ageing for more than 4 months!
This is only used for the most special of tea!

Driving out to the spring one fine summer day, we made ChaXi in view of the spring and old paper factory that still bears the towns name.

We boiled the spring water with 3 pieces of our LongYan Charcoal, the aroma filled the air as we carried the jugs back to the car. With only a little too much work, the water was boiling in about 40 Minutes. Most of that time was simply getting the super dense charcoal lit! (it really just requires a blow torch a’la Stéphane Erler)

The ChaXi had a simple branch warped with a string of late bloom flowers, and I used my white porcelain travel set on wooden blocks set atop large green leaves. We brewed our ‘palace grade Dian Hong’ for such a event.

I would call this a success, but I’m still at 0 Okapi’s for Pennsylvania.
Looks like I need to step up my tracking game.

– Jason

Extreme ChaXi: Climbing at the Gunks

What does it mean to be a climber? What does it mean to accept and face the risk inherit to scaling walls of stone that normal human beings would wisely not tread near (least cling to)?

Does it mean you’re cool or brave?
Does it mean you’re young and foolish?
Does it mean you’re wild and rebellious?

Andreas, my close friend and climbing partner at Penn State, and I are very different people, and we climb for very different and personal reasons.

I climb because I am afraid. Afraid of falling, afraid of equipment breaking, afraid of leading badly. Like most, I have a strong sentiment for self-preservation. climbs that are long, hard, and strenuous scare me. So I seek them out to climb.

In climbing I conquer fear. As fearful as I may be on the inside before the climb, once I touch the first hold my mind goes silent. I am zen.

Climbing is all focusing. 3 pitches up and off rout on a run-out Gunks style sandbag, any mistake can be deadly. I know that. I have to know that. Yet, if I was to let that affect me, if I was to quiver at the precarious perch I so finely rest on,  if I was to loose the stillness and fluid motion of ‘the moment’ or ‘the zone’ or ‘the zen’ or ‘the screaming silence’, whatever you call it when you personally commit and move and trust, it would only making falling (and all of its consequences) definite.

Instead, through climbing, I am alive. Fear has no hold on me. My mind is still, my moments precise, and my motivation personal. I climb for no one. I climb to live.

How does this relate to tea ceremony? How does this relate to GongFu?

Tea takes many forms for me; I teach it, I study with it, I drink far more of it than I should (maybe).

Yet my most precious moments with tea, the moments that keep me coming back to tea ceremony, after all the learning, and after all the knowledge that lets me appreciated it, are the moments of beauty that shine through the sessions of meditative contemplation.

Sometimes its the tea.
Sometimes its the setting.
Sometimes its the company.

But it is always the same type of feeling.

 

And through climbing, I can feel those same moments of pure beauty.

So I did them together. Extreme Chaxi.

And it was Beautiful.

 

The ChaXi was simple, held to the slop at the top of the climb by stones, the tea a roasted oolong, and the wares carried with us in the pack.

The shadows of the mountains and trees shimmered below, rolling hills of upstate New York, while the featured cliffs of the ‘traps’ ran through our vision.

Sitting on the ledge, still tied in, and sipping tea before our descent, a day of climbing still ahead of us, this was the most extreme chaxi yet.

 

Go find your zen. It will be beautiful.

 

– Jason

Application of Knowledge: Cups 2

Things didn’t end with my last experiment. In fact, that post set off a group of local Baristas to check their own assumptions about cup quality.

I spend far too much time at Panther Coffee, as I’ve mentioned before, using it as my office and a source of (almost) infinite energy. I still drink tea in the mornings, and at night but most of the rest of my days in Miami are spent sipping coffee by a computer. It’s so much nicer being in the company of others rather than being hole’ed up alone; Panther has really built a community around it and has a constant flow of ‘interesting and unique flowers of individuality’, also known as ‘people’. I mean, its still Miami… so I sit at the wonderful communal table and chat with the small start-up teams that meet there, or the cute (Miami) girls who won’t stop talking, or the slightly older and more mature women on their overpowered Macbooks. The bankers are not very conversational, but the police and fire fighters are good company.

Best of all is talking with the Baristas. Our conversations always move to action and most end in experiments (where I find out I still do have a limit to my caffeine tolerance).

It started off normal enough; A shot of espresso came out a touch watery and was lacking in all the malty depths ground beans can offer. Not an earth shattering problem, and not one I blamed them for; their primary Synesso is in the shop, and they have been relegated to using a mere double head La Marzocco without pre-infusion.

But improvements could be made.

Christopher, the fearless Barista manning (not simply using) the machine, adjusted the parameters, and hidden flavors locked away came surging up sugar coated in proper tiger stripe crema. The shot went from just under 1.5 fl oz to a single ristretto 1.15 fl oz (not that I was counting or anything); correlates of quality you ask? the bitterness flipped from a slightly woody note (-) to nuttiness (+), while roastedness (- / is that a word?) decreased, and rich (+, the flavor of fat and oil) increased with an enjoyable creaminess  (+). Most of all, the viscosity (mouth feel) of the shot was much thicker and more present. The shot was an order of magnitude (on a logarithmic scale) better.

While most intelligent, life loving mammals would have ended their consumption of psychoactive alkali while still cogent, it was with great pleasure, amidst further discussion, that I proffered a fine quality YingGe tea cup to test how much a difference it would make.

I hope all of you tea lovers are shuddering at the sight.

The results: Wow.
actually, let me make that a bit more clear:  WOW

And while I’m not much one for superlatives, this really did raise the bar and blow me away.

The aromatic profile was far more rich, dense, and complex than in the coffee house ceramic. Coco, butter, figs, and ground up young fairies all were volatile and aromatic. Viscosity increased, and the general sense of well being and paranoia from caffeine overdose also hung over my head. I know I wasn’t imagining all of it, because Christopher, the brave and valiant Barista pulling the shots (from the mere, remember?) tasted it as well. T’was good!

More experiments are needed, we were still only 2 tasters, and one shot of the variant sample, so statistically, we don’t know anything yet; but I’ll be taking my espresso out of Chinese or Korean Porcelain in the future.

– Jason

Application of Knowledge: Cups

One of the many things on my mind recently is the application of all this (some would say little bit of) specialized knowledge to broader frameworks of understanding, and applying them to other fields. In theory, this is one of the ways knowledge should spread and evolve; and in an attempt to find the utility of theory in practice, I conducted an experiment (linked just in case…).

I brewed a wonderful Panther Coffee (best coffee in Miami, and I don’t get paid for these endorsements…), Columbia, Finca El Ventilador, brewed in a Chemex (unbleached paper filter, rinsed), and tested the liquor in 3 different cups.

The coffee aroma has a fruity body and a caramel base, an easy flowing mouth feel, and nothing but other wonderful joyous notes. On to the experiment!

 

CUP 1

Cup one is a standard home coffee mug, made in Malaysia. I expected it to be the worst of the lot. On the first round the coffee from it displayed seemingly nice highlighted acidity tending towards a nearly-sour tart berry note. I was surprised that that cup would highlight anything.

 

CUP 2

Cup two is a higher quality “specialty coffee” cup made in Japan. After cup one, the coffee tasted downright flat in it; again, not expected. What is going on here?

 

CUP 3

This is an antique English cup, probably from the inter-war years. Wasn’t sure what to expect from this guy as it was my first time ever drinking from it. What I didn’t expect was for the coffee to have  a beautiful round and mellow body tending towards dark dry fruit (figs, dates, etc). This wasn’t even in the same ball park as the flavor profile I was getting from cup 1.

 

And now, a quick note on perception based preferences: Many things go into ones perception of flavor, and the decisions (revealed preferences) we make on a daily basis. Taste is not as simple as [physical sensation] -> [perception], it needs to pass through the filter of [cognition]. Now our model looks like this: [physical sensation] -> [cognition] -> [perception]; cognition, the filter of thought, emotions, and all other stimuli at this very moment, will characterize the way you think about any product you are tasting. That means product “A” will not always yield “Taste 3”.

So how is it possible to run tests on flavor?

Please humor me and let me skip many of the details and explain how the test I was ruining should have worked. I believe this will be a more enlightening way of showing you the power of flavor profiling (not capitalized, I’m not talking about the singular method by the same name).

I fully expected the antique cup (cup 3) to be best, followed by the Japanese cup (cup 2), and then cup 1. That was my expectation – the null hypothesis. Yet, we know that expectation will influence taste and that influence can deceive us. So their are 2 possible outcomes, I will accept my stated non-parametric ranking and fail to reject the null (I would not have proven anything) OR I would find these cups fall in a different order. That 2nd possibility is the key; for that to happen, it would mean that the change in flavor was so great, that it overcame my pre-conceived notion of cup quality.

Should I have failed to rejected the null, I would have had to use other tests to see if I was just missing subtlety. I fully expected not to reject the null. But I did. I preferred, after 2 rounds of sipping, cup 1 to all the other cups; but cup 1 also had a different flavor profile than the 2 other cups.

I had a very hard time believing that mass produced cup 1 truly was better, but what was I to do? Enter the glass cup. Glass is not neutral the way people mean (inert), but it is more neutral than the majority of ceramics.

I used the glass cup to test what the “unaffected flavor profile” would be; that is unaffected by interaction with the ceramic materials. The flavor profile did not match cup 1. Now we’re on to something!

I sat there sipping from cup 1 when it hit me; or rather when I couldn’t help but notice that that enjoyable acidity from the small sips during the initial rounds built to an overwhelmingly un-enjoyably acridity. The cup was acidifying (or at least reacting with) the coffee!

I sat back, waited ~15ish minutes, and went back to the cupping counter to re-try the other 2 cups. The antique won handily, and I failed to reject the null hypothesis. More tests will be necessary to determined if it is truly better now.

I did learn that I need to throw out the set of cup 1’s! (probably poison).

Problems with this design

  1. Only one person (me) doing the tasting – lack of data
  2. Not blind – I knew which cup was which the whole time
  3. same coffee throughout the test – lack of data and repeatability, no generality
  4. Tasted the cups in the same order each time – knock on effects, halo effects, carry over effects, masking effects, you get the idea…

 

Lots more work to be done!

Now, you might ask, what spurred me to do this?
I’m getting on a plane in about an hour to Panama heading for the coffee region – my work is classified (for the moment), but you dear readers, I promise, will be the first to know.

All the Best,
Jason

 

Matcha Production at the ShunSho Factory

I was quite right to conjecture that matcha, even at its (available) best, is subject to very mechanized production. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; tea drinkers demand matcha of a certain quality, and companies rise and find methods to meet demand; much of the matcha is very good. One of the best producers, a suplier to the SanSenke, is the Kanbayashi Shunsho Honten of Uji. This factory traces it’s history back 450 years. We got to spend some time with the owner touring the facilities.

Originally, all matcha was ground fresh for each ChaJi, using a small stone or mettle hand grinders similar in style to those used in China during the late Tang / early Song dynasties. In fact, many of the originals used in Japan were produced in China; I’t is strange to say, but I have always discounted the trade between Japan and China during tea’s early days (as a drink / ceremony, don’t take that as a reference to the Shang), but it was actually thriving. This influenced Japan so greatly that to this day teaware is often called Tang ware.  With the growth of Chanoyu, producers began to sell pre-ground matcha made with stone turns:

This method of making matcha continues to this day for higher quality production, though I’m not sure if anyone would be able to recognize it without knowing its antecedent…

Close by the 450 year old original factory, which is now only a museum, there is a nice new shiny factory. Those are actually stone grinders covered in matcha and turned by a motorized belt. The mettle funnels are filled with raw tea to be matcha-ized, and each row is a different grade. The air smells not so faintly of matcha, such that it satisfies my thirst for it just by breathing. The factory produces some very high quality matcha; its just hard for me (personally) to see and drink hand processed Chinese and Korean tea, and allow it to be compared with this… though I would rather this matcha than non-stone ground matcha, or ‘food grade’ matcha (flavoring), and if this is what is used by the Senke perhaps it is better than hand ground matcha (uneven grind, no heat produced, coarser, etc)? I have not had enough experience to know.

Matcha is without a doubt an art form in its own right, and with its (obvious/necessary) relationship to Chanoyu it only becomes a higher art. My time in japan and my experiences with Japanese tea ceremony have only led me to a greater and deeper understanding of these traditions.

– Jason