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TEA - THE DIVINE MEDICINE

I am speaking here about TEA, camellia sinensis or closely related varietals, what in Chinese or Japanese is called cha. Green and black tea both come from this same plant. Unfortunately, in English the word "Tea" is imprecise and may mean any herbal infusion, such as peppermint or chamomile "tea." I am using the term Tea only in the specialized Asian sense.

According to Chinese medicine, tea clears the mind, circulates the qi, and strengthens the internal organs. Scientists have found positive immune-enhancing and cardiovascular effects for all kinds of tea.

There are five kinds of tea:

White Tea: the lightest tea, made with downy buds
Green Tea: the natural leaf, green and refreshing
Oolong Tea: a beautiful reddish-green slightly oxidized leaf, with subtle hues of flavor
Black Tea: fully oxidized, red leaf with robust flavor-- a more stimulating beverage
Pu Erh: a unique leaf from Yunnan Province, much loved in Tibet, often aged like wine, with peaty or musky tones

Interesting Tea Facts:
  • Tea contains a chemical that inhibits tumor growth. The National Cancer Institute has published articles on the cancer-preventive effects of tea.
  • Research shows that tea lowers cholesterol and normalizes blood sugar.
  • Tea is anti-bacterial and helps prevent cavities.
  • Tea is a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-aging medicine (200X more potent than vitamin E).
  • Tea is low in caffeine-like chemicals; green tea has approximately 1/5 the stimulant of coffee.
  • Tea has an amino acid that calms the mind. If you are anxious or stressed, drink some tea and contemplate the beauty of nature. Drinking tea is meditation.

We advise that you drink only single estate teas, grown with pride on a single plantation. Unlike machine harvested commercial teas, fine teas are gathered by hand (2,000 pickings to make a pound), the quality of each leaf carefully checked. To vary the flavor, leaves may be dried, steamed, roasted, curled, rolled, pressed, twisted, or folded. Of course, the quality of the soil and natural elements greatly affects the quality of the leaf. Imagine the difference between tea grown on a steep mountain side, where pickers must be as agile as monkeys (such teas are called "monkey picked") compared to tea that soaks up light and mist from the ocean. Some monasteries maintain their own tea gardens, their ancient plants stimulated by the sounds of the temple bells and chanting monks.

Kenneth Cohen offers tea lectures and tastings for private groups, tea-houses, and conferences.


THE WAY OF TEA: HEALTH, PEACE, AND CULTURE

Join author Ken Cohen for an exciting and entertaining introduction to the art of Chinese Tea. He will discuss the early legends and history of Tea, including the relationship of tea to meditation. Ken will cover the basics: what are the differences between the five kinds of tea: white, green, oolong, black, and pu erh? How do you prepare a delicious cup of tea? Learn about the effects of water quality, teaware, and even the method of pouring hot water. We will discover how drinking tea can lead to a life of taste in widest sense-- a life of leisure, grace, and refinement. Ken will also share cutting edge research that shows how tea may prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
The beautiful leaves of camellia sinensis
Photo by Kenneth Cohen

Ken Cohen, former student of Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, has followed the Way of Tea for more than 30 years, including many years teaching the Japanese Tea Ceremony. A China scholar and health educator, he has written about Tea for Chanoyu Magazine, Yoga Journal, Alternative Medicine, and many other journals. Ken lives in a cabin at 9,000 ft. elevation in the Colorado Rockies, where he enjoys sipping tea while listening to the music of "wind in the pines."

TEA TIPS

Brewing Basics

  • Use good water. Pure spring water is preferred.
    Heat water in a stainless steel or pyrex kettle, never aluminum or copper. Be sure that tea equipment and utensils (kettle, teapot, thermos, cups, etc.) do not have the scent of coffee or any other substance!
  • Use fully boiled water for black and pu erh teas; very hot water for oolongs (approx. 180-190o F.); and very warm water for green or "white" teas (160-170o F.). Hot water can scald and destroy the flavor of white or green teas. Tea is a plant, and like any plant it can be cooked. Fresh picked white or green tea should be steeped in a way that releases its refreshing flavor. Don't use hot water and cook it!
  • Always add tea leaves with a wooden spoon (or, if necessary, a metal spoon). For flavor and cleanliness, do not use your hands to scoop tea!
  • Although the general rule is 1 tsp. of tea leaves per cup of water, this can vary quite a bit. With experience, you will discover just the right amount of tea leaves to make a delicious cup of tea.
  • Brew tea leaves loose, so they may open and release their flavor. Never use an infuser or tea ball with good tea leaves. Never stir tea!
  • Enjoy the appearance, color, scent, and taste of the Tea!

Three Ways to Prepare Tea

A. Western Style
  • Use a ceramic teapot (try the classic "Brown Betty").
  • Preheat the teapot with hot water. Pour in; pour out.
  • Always place leaves in the pot before adding the water for brewing: approx. 1 tsp. of tea leaves./ 8 oz. of water + "1 for the pot". For example in a 4 cup capacity teapot use 5 tsp. tea leaves. More or less to taste.
  • Brew for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Pour tea directly into guests' cups. If you are using small or finely cut tea leaves, you may pour tea through a strainer.
  • Pour off any remaining tea in a decanter to prevent oversteeping; this is especially important with oolong or black teas, as they can become very bitter.
  • Re-steep as necessary, adding about 30 seconds to each steeping.
  • You can use the same leaves for three steepings.
  • You may reuse the same tea leaves within a 3 hr. time period. Never drink day old tea.

B. Everyday Chinese Style
  • Use a ceramic cup, ideally with a lid. White interior color is best to highlight the color of the tea. One of the best ways to enjoy the tea experience is by drinking from a specially shaped Chinese ceramic cup called a gaiwan.
  • Preheat the cup.
  • Place 1-3 tsp. of tea leaves in an 8 oz. cup. The amount of tea leaves depends on the weight of the tea rather than its volume. For example, because white Silver Needle Tea is very light (in weight), you may add 2-3 tsp. per cup. Tieh Guanyin, a famous oolong, is relatively heavy, requiring between 1 and 2 tsp. per cup.
  • Steep for approx. 2-3 minutes, checking for ideal taste and color. For green and white teas, leave the cup uncovered while steeping. For other teas, cover the cup. A Chinese Secret: when tea leaves have sunk to the bottom of a tall mug-style cup and left their color behind, the tea is ready.
  • Add approx. 30 seconds to each successive steeping, up to 3 times total.

C. Gong Fu Tea: The Finest Way to Prepare Tea. Adapted from Kenneth Cohen's book, The Way of Qigong.

Gong Fu is more than martial arts. It means a high level of skill in any activity, achieved through practice. Gong Fu Tea is appropriate for preparing oolong, black, and pu erh teas, but is generally not advised for white or green teas.

Utensils: The most important utensil is a small ceramic teapot, somewhere between the size of an orange and a grapefruit-- enough to hold one or two cups of water. The very best is Chinese Yi Xing Ware, from the town of Yi Xing in Jiangsu Province. The Yi Xing red clay (zi sha) has been used to make teapots since at least 1500. The pots are generally unglazed to display the subtle earth tones of the clay and to allow seasoning of the pot. Use your Yi Xing pot with only one type of tea: that is, make only oolong, black, or pu erh teas in a particular pot. Yi Xing ware holds the warmth, flavor, and qi of tea like no other utensil. Yi Xing teapots are sometimes available through the Qigong Research & Practice Center or at Asian art and tea shops.

Other utensils needed: some small shot-glass sized tea cups (Japanese sake cups are fine.); a small ceramic, porcelain or heat-proof glass pitcher (a coffee creamer pitcher works) which will act as a decanter for the brewed tea; a flat-bottomed bowl (the “tea boat”) large enough for the Yi Xing teapot to sit in, with at least an inch or two between the teapot and the edge of the bowl (Look for an elegant soup bowl in a culinary shop or section of a department store. The bowl should either be plain or with colors and patterns that will not outshine the Yi Xing pot.); and a cloth to clean up any spilled liquids.

The Essential Steps:
  • Warm the teapot, cups, and the decanter with hot water. Discard this water.
  • Fill the pot about 1/3 with tea leaves. Always use a spoon, preferably wooden or bamboo, to put in the tea, never your hands! (The oil from your hands can affect the taste and freshness of tea.) With practice, you will learn the right amount of leaves to use, so that when they expand they will not block the spout.
  • Place the teapot in the tea boat (the bowl). Pour enough hot water into the teapot to cover the leaves, and immediately pour this out into the tea boat. That’s right. You are warming the pot, washing the leaves, and teasing some flavor and aroma from the leaves. Now you are ready to make tea. (Since caffeine is water-soluble, this will also slightly decaffeinate the tea, a process that will continue with subsequent steepings.)
  • Fill the pot with hot water (at a temperature appropriate for the type of tea). Put the lid on, and pour more hot water over the lid to seal in the heat. The bowl catches the hot water, forming a small pool that keeps the pot hot-- a natural tea cozy.
  • Steep the tea for 5-20 seconds. Steeping differs from tea to tea, so it will take some practice to find the correct brewing time for the best color, aroma, and taste. When the tea is ready, pick up the teapot and make some leisurely counter-clockwise circles with it a few inches above the rim of the tea boat. This will mix the liquid and ensure that there is a harmonious infusion of tea flavor and color.
  • Line up the guests’ teacups, so they are touching. Pour the tea back and forth among the cups until they are all filled. (Otherwise, the last cup will have too strong a flavor) To prevent over-steeping pour the remaining tea into the decanter. Or you may pour the steeped tea immediately into the decanter and serve tea from it.

As you and your guests drink tea, pour more hot water into the pot. Steep several seconds shorter than the first steeping. (Again, no strict rule here. With some teas, the second steeping should be slightly longer.) Then repeat the procedure for pouring tea. With the third and subsequent infusions, most teas require adding about 15 seconds to each steeping. It will take some experimenting, until you know your tea.

When you make tea this way--a very tiny teapot with a large amount of leaves, steeped for a very brief period--you can keep infusing the tea from six to ten times before flavor is lost (depending on the quality of the tea and the shape of the leaf—for example tightly rolled leaves open and release flavor slowly). This is a simple, elegant way to drink tea.

Clean your Yi Xing pot with water promptly after use. Never scour or use soap.

 

Discover your Inner Tea Master:
These steps are not "rules." Unlike Japanese Tea Ceremony (described later in this site), the choreography of gong fu tea varies from practitioner to practitioner. The important thing is making a delicious cup of tea in a way that pleases you and your guests.

Storing Tea
  • Most teas retain full flavor for approximately one year. However, pu erh teas are aged like fine wine and have an almost unlimited shelf life, peaking in flavor at about 15 years.
  • Avoid moisture, light, and heat. (Though some humidity may be good for pu erhs, as they continue to age.)
  • Store tea in an opaque container with a tight sealing lid-- ceramic ware is best, otherwise stainless steel.
  • Store in a cool place. Green teas keep longer when refrigerated.


Why Is Tea So Expensive?
It's not! It is reasonable to spend at least $200- $400 for a pound of good quality tea, approximately a year's supply. This is equivalent to 15 to 20 cents per cup. (FYI: Teas that win national competitions in China generally sell for $2,000 to $20,000 per pound.) Many of the great Oolongs have hand-crafted leaves that progressively coil open or unroll with each steeping. They can be steeped 7 to 10 times before losing flavor; this means you may be paying even less per cup. Now, try an experiment. Go to the supermarket and look at a box of typical American teabags. Look at the net weight of the actual tea, and calculate what you are spending per ounce. People who buy this product are probably spending more for their tasteless brew-- tea that is cut by machine, mixed with substandard teas from various continents, and generally considered unfit for consumption in their country of origin!


Peace in a Cup of Tea
© Kenneth S. Cohen
originally published in Alternative Medicine, January 2006

"A cup of tea is a cup of peace." These words were spoken to me some thirty years ago by Soshitsu Sen XV, descendent of the sixteenth century founder of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I was a beginner in Japanese Tea Ceremony, and it has taken me a long time to realize the depth in that simple sentence. I believe that Sen was talking about far more than mental tranquillity or the biological effects of theanine, the mood-altering amino acid concentrated in green tea. He was speaking about tea as a Tao, a path in life, a way to realize peace in every aspect of one's life-- in one's own mind, with one's family and community, and as a communion that can bring peace in the world. A cup of tea is a celebration of the mystery of the ordinary, beauty found in the simplicity of the everyday. After thirty years practicing this beautiful art perhaps I am finally an advanced beginner.

Thirty years to learn how to drink tea? You've got to be kidding. Let me put this in context. A student of a great Japanese tea master spent more than ten years perfecting the choreography-- how to clean the utensils, handle the tea bowl, whisk the powdered tea, arrange the flowers, even how to bow. One day he asked his teacher to reveal the deepest secrets in Tea Ceremony. The master explained, "First you boil the water, then prepare the tea, then drink it. That is all." The student looked disappointed and somewhat perplexed. The master continued, "Show me someone who can truly do these things, and I will become their disciple." This is the challenge of Tea, and it is the challenge of life. How can we be so present that we perform each action with our whole body, mind, and spirit? Normally, when we do one thing, part of us is doing something else. We reach for the pot of soup, but the body is so disorganized that we tense our jaws more than our arms. We decide to sit "quietly" for a few minutes but our minds are alternating between the shopping list and the morning news. As multitasking is extolled as a virtue, we lose the deep satisfaction that comes of doing one thing truly well.

But the repercussions of complexity go beyond this. A person who cannot be truly attentive communicates confusion. "What you are speaks so loudly," said Emerson, "I cannot hear what you are saying." Through a kind of energetic contagion -- scientist Rupert Sheldrake's "morphogenetic field"--many of us feel compelled to a life of haste and waste. At some unconscious level we may believe that not-doing, leisure, and -- dare I say it-- loafing!-- are sins against society. Tea is the antidote. By slowing down, we become aware of beauty and capable of creating beauty around us. "Slowness is beauty," said the artist Rodin. I am not talking about beauty only in clothes, complexion, and home design, but beauty in every aspect of life. Yes, it is possible. As the Navajo Indians say in their prayer, "Beauty above, beauty below, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty all around." A commitment to beauty includes speaking and behaving with care and respect and preserving the beauty of the natural world, not by keeping some areas pristine and sacrificing other regions to industrial waste, but by considering the entire world our home.

Tea is ultimately an exercise in awareness. It assures awareness far more certainly than a Zen Master checking the posture and presence of seated monks. A chajin (tea person) whose mind wanders spoils the tea, and the guests can taste it. Tea is more than a cup of peace; it is a cup of your deepest Self. As Tea Master Rikyu (1520-1591) said, "When water is ladled from the depths of Mind, whose bottom is beyond measure, then we really have what is called Tea Ceremony."

An Invitation to Japanese Tea Ceremony

The mood in the tearoom is rustic simplicity-- tatami (bamboo) mats, wooden posts, gentle light passing through rice paper screens, perhaps only candlelight. The air has just a hint of the woodsy and peaty scent of aloeswood incense. The cast iron brazier and kettle rest on a tile on the tatami. The water is simmering over glowing charcoal embers in the brazier, making a prolonged "shu," like the sound of the wind in pine trees. In the corner alcove hangs a calligraphy to suggest through style and meaning the mood for the day. Today, it consists of two Chinese characters in a cursive script that makes the words look like flowing water. They say qing feng, "pure, fresh breeze," reminiscent of the Zen Buddhist saying, "At every step, a pure breeze rises."

Two or three guests enter the room one by one and sit on a mat facing the brazier. The host enters the room and bows low with the guests, a way of yielding to a mystery. In the tea room there is no high or low, only Buddha bowing to Buddha. She gradually brings the tea utensils into the room: sweet crispy wafers to complement the bitterness of the tea-- yin and yang, sweet and bitter like life--, a jar filled with cold water, the fine glazed teabowl, lacquered tea caddie, bamboo teascoop, bamboo whisk, bamboo ladle, and metal waste water container. Once all of the utensils are on the mat, she sits for a moment of silence, a space in which host and guest tune in to each other and create a foundation for harmony.

Next she removes the fukusa, orange silk napkin, from her sash and folds it in a specific manner that communicates grace and efficiency. She uses the fukusa to lightly clean the tea caddie and tea scoop, cleansing at the same time all dust from her mirror mind. Host and guest share a common goal: to open the senses and perceive without preconception, like a mirror that, itself colorless, can reflect all colors. Next, the hostess uses the tea scoop to lift out two small scoops of the powdered natural green tea. The guests notice the beautiful pattern left behind in the caddie. The tea which had been shaped like a mountain in the center or the caddie now, with two scoops removed, looks like sheer green cliffs. The hostess gently ladles water into the teabowl and then whisks it into a jade froth. The bowl is served to the first guest, who bows first with the guest who has not yet had tea and then with the hostess. The guest sips the tea and notices how as the tea disappears he can see more and more of the inside of the bowl. Finishing the last bit of tea with a slurp-- to complement the hostess- he then turns the bowl slowly in his hands to appreciate its color, size, and texture. He returns the bowl to the hostess, who cleans it and prepares tea for the next guest, until all have enjoyed the tea.

"Please finish the ceremony," says the last guest with a bow. The hostess cleans the utensils then ladles cool water into the simmering kettle. Suddenly the room is completely quiet. The hostess takes the teabowl and other utensils out of the room. At the end she turns, kneels, and bows with the guests. The guests are once again in an empty room, savoring the tranquillity.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA. Information is provided for educational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease nor to substitute for medical advice by a licensed health-care professional. People who are ill, taking medication, or for whom caffeine is prohibited should consult with their physician about drinking tea and about any other changes in diet.
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