On the weekend following Thanksgiving the Mad Monk Tea Studio hosted a special tasting event featuring a collection of shou puer (熟普洱) or just shou cha (熟茶) with environmental anthropologist and puer producer Brian Kerbis. Brian’s experience with puer production and sourcing led to a great informal lecture and Q&A about shou cha’s production and Brian’s perspective on tea’s essential nature as an extended example of the Eastern philosophy concept of emptiness. Members of the tea club might remember Brian’s tea from two shipments earlier this year, the Mu Yu shou brick and the Mangjing Village sheng cake. After a decade of studying in Southwest China, Brian launched his tea brand Theasophie in 2017 with his wife out of her hometown in Mangjing not far from the Burmese border. The small afternoon tasting featured four shou cha spanning forty years: the 2016 Theasophie Mu Yu, 2000 Menghai Dayi 7572, 1990 CNNP Green Mark 9016 tuo, and the 1970’s Menghai Cultural Revolution brick.
A quick primer on shou puer: This is a newer style of puer invented in the early 70’s by Menghai Dayi tea factory. Shou cha is made with thewo dui (渥堆) pile fermentation process in which large amounts of raw puer material is stacked with high heat, humidity, and pressure that accelerates the aging process of puer to achieve comparable taste to that of a 20 year old raw tea in a month or two. It's not a true copy, especially in shou cha from the big factory producers that were the only game in town until the early 2000’s, and as Brian pointed out at the tasting this process leaves its own telltale mark on the finished product such as a grittiness on the palate and residual heat from industrial piling. Tea like this benefits greatly from a few years of storage in a humid city like Hong Kong which he likened to an “extended rinse”, absorbing moisture and softening the tea pushing undesirable traits on the surface out to the humid surface. Despite being designed to mimic an aged raw tea shou cha still benefits from its own aging process. This is in contrast to the artisanal shou cha made by boutique tea companies starting in the early 2000’s, made in smaller batches with less heat, lower humidity, on a smaller pile for a few extra weeks. Artisanal shou cha avoids the unpleasant characteristics that a factory tea will need to sweat out in humid aging.
Only the Mu Yu was an example of artisanal shou cha at this tasting, with the others having a history that could trace them back to Menghai factory. Four digit identifiers such as 7572 or 9016 can quickly tell you some basic information about that tea recipe. 75 refers to 1975, which is the first year that tea recipe was produced. The third digit, 7, indicates the grade or size of the leaf, with seven being on the larger end, and 1 having a very small leaf. The fourth digit indicates which factory produced the tea. The Cultural Revolution era brick doesn’t have a known number, but at the end of the evening we noticed both a similarity in taste and in leaf size when comparing Mu Yu and the Cultural Revolution Brick.
Brian used the same yixing pot for the duration of the tasting. Shou cha has developed a reputation for being easy to brew in Western tea circles and that the earthiness of long infusions is a commonly desired flavor outcome. While there is an evident level of forgiving leniency with shou cha compared to green tea or raw puer, deep dark infusions can become a muddy and less refined example of what shou cha can offer like ginseng aroma or red date sweetness. On the other hand good shou cha brewing can’t be done in a thin pot or a gaiwan; an attentiveness to the heat retention with a good clay pot is key to keeping the tea hot in the pot between infusions to keep pushing and pushing the cart uphill to finally reach the peak of the tea’s full expression. Then the tea can roll itself gradually down the far side of the hill for the remainder of the gong fu session.
After almost two hours of drinking amazing tea and discussing the technical aspect of shou cha the conversation drifted into the more abstract theme of tea’s connection to emptiness as a philosophical concept. It was pointed through several examples of how tea is perceived and used in many different corners of the world that tea’s ideological essence can’t really be pinned down to the sum of its different material manifestations. This creates the illusion that tea doesn’t have a nature, or that its true nature is “empty”. The classical example of emptiness here is of a chariot:
Although we may not be conscious of it, we tend to think of things as having some essential nature that makes it what it is. So, we look at an assemblage of metal and plastic and call it a "toaster." But "toaster" is just an identity we project onto a phenomenon. There is no inherent toaster essence inhabiting the metal and plastic.
A classic story from the Milindapanha, a text that probably dates to the first century BCE, describes a dialogue between King Menander of Bactria and a sage named Nagasena. Nagasena asked the King about his chariot and then described taking the chariot apart. Was the thing called a "chariot" still a chariot if you took off its wheels? Or its axles?
If you disassemble the chariot part by part, at exactly what point does it cease to be a chariot? This is a subjective judgment. Some might think it's no longer a chariot once it can no longer function as a chariot. Others might argue that the eventual pile of wooden parts is still a chariot, albeit a disassembled one.
The point is that "chariot" is a designation we give to a phenomenon; there is no inherent "chariot nature" dwelling in the chariot.¹
The true essence of tea has been espoused by thinkers from the three pillars of Chinese civilization: Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist. Tea has a historical relationship to each of these approaches attributed to three main literary or historical patriarchs, each pointing to tea in relation to health, lifestyle, and self cultivation. Shen Nong, the mythic emperor who invented agriculture and medicine, tea has a purgative and tonifying nature; for the 8th century confucian scholar Lu Yu, making tea is an orderly process and is a tool for gentlemanly socialization, and for Boddhidharma, the founder of zen, it has a nature that helps cultivate single minded meditation and still self reflection. The opening of the dao de jing its said that the way that cannot be named is not the true way. Tea’s essence is prior to its name, or its named attributes praised by each of these doctrines.
There is an anthropological notion that the further a natural substance travels from its point of origin it moves from being a natural substance to being a cultural product, but this perspective is flawed in relation to tea, because “tea” the plant has to be a domesticated and acculturated product at its point of origin in order to become “tea” the processed product. Tea is changed and viewed differently by peoples and different distances from its historical point of origin depending on how tea is delivered to them and what they choose to pull from and name out of its latent essential nature. Tea travels along an acculturated route, moving from the practices of the indigenous Bulang cultivators, to the geographic neighbors of Han Chinese market or the Tibetan market, and then beyond to a global market overseas or further west into cultures of central Eurasian peoples. Tea is noticeably different in all these places, its value is different in each set of hands it falls into along the way to the final tea cup, but its the emptiness of its nature that thrive anywhere among people who in their own way discover what either Shen Nong, Lu Yu, and Boddidharma felt in their first experience of good tea.
Brian brought up the anecdote of his Bulang godfather, an elder who spent his entire life in a tea producing village being brought an expensive aged puer. He sits there quietly after being served, not drinking and looking skeptical. The host encourages him to drink this great aged puer, assuring him of its quality by touting the tea’s decades long ageing. After his initial sip the tea village elder shrugs and says “It tastes old”. For people who live in tea mountains, fresh tea is always a few months away. These farmers need to see surplus tea sold to support their community. For the buyers and processors who live in distant cities, careful curation of tea that can rise in value is an investment and the good taste and social capital that comes with it is its own reward. Contradictions in the essence and authenticity of tea are abundant the closer you look. Just like Nagasena’s chariot, tea’s main essence is its transcendental emptiness, delivering an acculturated experience from both the natural world and the artistic work of human cultivators that is in reality prior to names and values put upon it.
The shou cha tasting event was a great success and we would like to thank all of our local tea community members who attended and Brian Kerbis for visiting our tea studio and sharing his time, knowledge, and amazing tea. If you are in San Diego and want to set up a tea session email us at email@example.com for booking information.
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