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Tipping the Cup on the Day of the Dead

November 16, 2009


1979_oolong_gaiwanThe first day of this month, All Saints Day, the first half of the two-day festival El Dia de los Muertos, I saw a much-needed period of un-allocated time laid at my feet, in between all of the running about, executing tasks and organizing, writing and building. I decided that this allowed me sufficient attentiveness to brew some of the 1979 Taiwanese Oolong that I bought from Hancha Tea at the Northwest Tea Festival in October.

As the water began heating in the Kamjove kettle, I sat down at the tea table, pulled out a dark yixing-style, white porcelain-lined gaiwan and similarly-lined aroma cup, tasting cup and sharing pitcher. The light in my living room was strangely intense for this time of year, and it was unseasonably warm, in between the frequent bouts of wind and Autumn rains. The rosewood of the tea table glowed in the harsh light, and the surface became at times almost blinding once it was wet with water and tea. As I prepared and drank the wonderful tea, the swirly-winged bat who has become the favorite of my tea mascots sat on the edge of the draining surface of the table, with glints of tea sparkling off of his black eyes in the sunlight.

On this day, as other places in the world displayed fanciful decorations of brightly colored paper cutwork skeletons, sugar skulls and other memento mori, the dark, rich tea seemed particularly appropriate, not nationally, or culturally, but in its deep Autumnal character, and in the sense of history and the passing of time that seeps into the experience when one drinks a thirty-year-old tea.

The 1979 oolong is a fabulous one, with a deep complexity that I believe can only be produced through decades of aging. I have been discovering fairly recently that the more I drink aged Taiwanese Oolongs, the more I enjoy them and I think this change has been largely a matter of training my palate. I have drunk many more cups of lightly-oxidized, very floral oolongs than more traditional darkly roasted oolongs, which are of a very different character and flavor profile. I can understand how this can sometimes be a divisive preference among tea drinkers, young and old, Chinese and Taiwanese, revealing what kind of tea drinker the person is. I don’t have a decided preference in this respect myself, at least not any more. I seek different teas for different seasons, or times of day, or occasions, seeing no need to declare a preference for one over the other, at least not among these two, very highly praised families of oolongs.


Because I am a person who writes, one of the elements of almost any experience for me is the consideration of how later that experience might be reconstructed and conveyed in words. This often leads me to start pondering the utter impossibility of communicating the taste of a particular tea with language, and this one was particularly challenging. Anyone familiar with really nice aged Taiwanese oolongs would probably already have a pretty good idea of what this tea was like in a general sense, but for anyone else I’d rather communicate the tea drinking experience by handing over a cup of it across the tea table. I eventually settled on the idea that the tea had qualities reminiscent of roasted chestnut and ume (Japanese plum), but devoid of any elements of sweetness or fruitiness. Really that description doesn’t mean much, unless it serves to arouse curiosity in the reader. I also realized that for me it was just as appropriate, if not more so, to describe the nature and flavor of this tea as being akin to a deep, rich, soft burgundy shade of silk velvet from the ’20s. As you can tell from the photograph, it was not anything to do with actual color which led to this association, since the tea liquor is very orange. It was more that this was the quality of what the tea felt like, what I envisioned while drinking it.

Ultimately, it has to be accepted that any attempt at describing the physical experience of drinking any cup of tea will fall short of the visceral, physical experience of actually doing it. I can weave any number of evocative words around the flavor and the scent, and perhaps engender a yearning in the reader for a similar experience, with that tea, or with another like it. Or perhaps the best and more valuable goal is to attempt to kindle a broader desire, by describing my own sensory adventures with different teas, so that others will be inspired to find and create their own special relationships with their own teas.

You can find out more about Hancha Tea on their Facebook page.

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