Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes
Written by ANDREW EALES
I used to be a coffee addict. Seriously. I had several pots of fresh coffee a day, and when I tried to cut back I experienced acute withdrawal symptoms.
Unfortunately though, coffee has some fairly unhelpful side-effects; among other things, it is especially bad for us if we suffer from anxiety (which is so common among pianists).
Having read about the virtues of tea drinking, I decided to try a switch. My previous experience of tea was the warm, milky, teabag variety. I realised that this is not exactly the drink that the great Daoist sages spoke of, so I jumped into the deep end and started to explore the wide variety of Chinese leaf teas that are available without straying too far from the beaten track.
To cut a long story short, switching to tea has proven one of the best choices I’ve made. Aside from tea drinking being better for my health (physical and emotional), my exploration of different Chinese teas has become a fascinating and absorbing journey in its own right.
It may seem odd to encounter an article about tea drinking on a piano site, but I will explain some of the reasons why tea might actually be the perfect brew for all pianists (and, well, people in general). Also bear in mind that Pianodao addresses my interest in Daoist philosophy and practices; hence the “dao” part of the site name. Tea drinking is so embedded in Daoist culture and practice and that it might as well be described as a core tenet of the Daoist worldview.
As the contemporary Daoist master Zhongxian Wu explains:
foreword to Daniel Reid, The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Singing Dragon, 2011.
With all this in mind, this article will address the following questions:
- Why is tea good for pianists (and people in general)?
- How does one get started with drinking Chinese tea?
- What different types of tea are there?
Tea is by far the single most popular beverage on earth today, so chances are that many reading this are already tea drinkers.
I hope that for those readers, the article will add to your enjoyment of tea, while for those who haven’t yet considered this fascinating subject my hope is that this article will pique your interest, and give you good reason to try something new!
Let’s start by going back in time….
Stories of Old…
The tea tree camellia sinensis originated in the mountain regions of what is now Yunnan province, deep in the southwest corner of China.
There are many folk stories and legends which account for how tea was discovered to have dietary, spiritual and pharmaceutical value.
One of my favourite books on tea is Daniel Reid’s recent The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea. Reid tells it like this:
Daniel Reid, The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Singing Dragon, 2011.
Daniel Reid’s book is full of these fantastical but delicious anecdotes.
Here’s another fabulous story (or tall tale!) which he recounts, which I love:
Daniel Reid, ibid.
From these prehistoric beginnings, the story of tea is one of the most gripping you could read, encompassing multiple imperial dynasties, historical epochs, devastating wars, technological advancement, all eventually leading to the global appetite and dominance of tea.
From its original use as a medicinal remedy, the drink was subsequently adopted by monks to facilitate long hours of solitary meditation, before later developing its social role, eventually travelling to the imperial palace.
And over time, the different tea-producing regions of China fiercely competed for dominance, leading to the development of different processing methods and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The Chinese monopoly on tea for many centuries was one of the primary drivers of wealth that made China a great trading nation.
The history of tea is symbiotic with that of China itself, and ultimately the history of mankind.
How is tea good for pianists?
The ancient observations of Daoist sages and mystics can be easily dismissed as superstition; yet as is so often the case, the knowledge of the Daoists on the subject of tea has been comprehensively affirmed and proven beyond doubt by modern scientific enquiry and laboratory studies.
We now know that among the many health benefits of an ordinary cup of leaf tea, the following are beyond doubt:
- tea supports the heart system
- tea activates circulation
- tea promotes detoxification
- tea fights hypertension
- tea reduces fatigue
- tea slows the ageing process
- tea helps prevent certain types of cancer
- tea aids digestion
- tea reduces cholesterol
- tea balances and helps regulate body temperature
- tea strengthens immunity
- tea enhances mental concentration over extended periods of time
Just as these benefits are obviously desirable for everyone, they have particular importance to piano players. Indeed, there are standout benefits which pianists will particularly want to note.
Firstly, our practice commitment can sometimes require us to remain mentally alert for extended periods, rather like the monks of old. And tea mitigates against the impact of our often-sedentary activity as players and teachers.
Secondly, tea certainly has a rich history in Chinese art and literature as an inspiration for creativity. This seems not limited to China either, as this rather marvellous quote from German writer and philosopher Ernst Jungen attests:
Ernst Junger (in a letter to Swiss biochemist Dr. Albert Hofmann, cited in Reid, ibid.)
But perhaps most crucially, tea can help to regulate and balance the emotions.
Whereas coffee is known to fuel anxiety, tea actually counters it, which makes it the perfect pre-performance beverage both as a stimulant for mental clarity and to help us overcome pre-performance nerves.
Readers might be forgiven for wondering whether tea drinking involves a rather complex ritual. Is it necessary to jump straight into the culture of the Daoist tea ceremony?
Certainly, dedicatees of tea will in the medium term want to explore the many approaches to brewing and sharing tea, but anyone can start by simply enjoying Chinese leaf teas in the comfort and informality of their own home.
Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up, which will hopefully demystify tea drinking and help you to make the most of your first steps.
• Choose leaf tea from a specialist tea shop. I’ve been sourcing most of my teas from the Tea Makers of London recently.
• Use purified water, because the quality of this is paramount in making a nice brew. A Brita water jug makes a huge difference to the taste.
• Heating water to the correct temperature is key to success when making a specialty Chinese leaf tea. As a general rule, white teas require 80°, green teas 85°, oolong teas 85-90°, black and pu-erh teas 95-100°.
• Modern digital kettles can boil water to a specified temperature, which takes the guesswork out of making a good brew. I bought a temperature controlled kettle and love it!
• Empty the kettle fully after use, pouring in fresh aerated water each time you heat.
• Purchasing a yixing clay teapot or gaiwan might come later, but for now it’s easy to pick up a simple, practical teapot. Many (like the one linked) include a straining pot which makes their use as easy as possible, and avoids waste.
• Steep the tea leaves in the pot for the correct amount of time. I just set the timer on my mobile phone. Easy!
• Most teas can be steeped more than once. Check the packaging or online for instructions. One of my favourite pu-erh teas has leaves which can be steeped up to ten times, and most tea leaves will take 2-3 infusions well; it’s an expensive waste not to use your tea leaves to their full potential.
• It’s fine to drink tea while doing other things (reading a book, watching a film, studying, meditating, practising or teaching the piano, etc). But try to carve out a short time each day which is given over to JUST drinking a cup of tea in a peaceful setting, alone or with a companion.
Research the teas you drink; knowing their background can make a huge difference to your enjoyment, as well as helping you to cultivate an enthusiastic knowledge and learn which varieties you prefer.
There are loads of good books and websites to help you develop your interest. One deserving special mention is Tea History, Terroirs, Varieties (Kevin Gascoyne, François Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais and Hugo Américi, Firefly Books, 2014). This lavish book provides a colourful, visual introduction with informed insight into all aspects of tea.
The different types of tea
I now get genuinely excited about the tea I am going to drink each day. I have garnered a small collection of different teas to suit different moods, and from a selection of about a dozen choices I will drink 4 choice pots a day (with between 2-5 infusions per pot).
In addition to the five most common types of Chinese tea listed below, there are many different teas from around the world; over the last two centuries or so, camellia sinensis has been cultivated throughout the Indian subcontinent, Africa and East Asia. The tea enthusiast will want to try many of these teas, including the classic Indian teas such as Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Ceylon Orange Pekoe.
Also a must: Japanese ceremonial grade Macha Green Tea, which has accentuated health benefits due to the fact that the cup includes the leaf itself, not simply an infusion.
But for today, here are the five main types of Chinese Tea. It’s important to note that all these teas are made from the same leaves; the differences are the result of alternative processing techniques, as I will briefly explain…
White Teas are among the most delicate. Only the top leaves and immature buds are picked, and they are barely processed, with no rolling or oxidation at all.
Two of the most well-known white teas are Silver Needle (Bai Has Yin Zhen), and White Peony (Bai Mu Dan). These have a subtle flavour on their own, but are sometimes blended with flowers and herbs with delicious results. My personal favourite, and a regular in the Eales teapot, is White Rose from T2, a wonderfully refreshing brew!
Green Teas remain the most popular in China. Once again, the leaves are not rolled, but here they are “withered”, a process which allows the moisture to evaporate fully before the leaves are steamed or pan-fried. No oxidation takes place.
Dragon Well (Longjing) tea is the most highly-regarded of China’s green teas. Jasmine Green Tea is well-travelled as a popular blended variation.
Oolong Teas are made from partially oxidised leaves. As a result, they retain many of the health benefits of white and green teas, which can be lost through oxidisation, while taking on those benefits more usually found in black teas (see below). As such, many consider Oolong varieties to be the best and healthiest of all teas.
The Oolong Tea type contains a huge range of very different teas, and I anticipate a lifetime of exploring this category. Famous varieties include Da Hong Pao, and from the Fujian region Tie Guan Yin, known in English as Iron Goddess of Mercy.
My favourites however are the Oolong teas grown in the high mountains of Taiwan, often known as Formosa Dong Ding Oolong teas, and including the wonderfully refreshing Pouchong or Baozhong Oolong tea.
RED / BLACK TEAS
Black teas (called red tea in China) have long been the most popular in the West, and this type of tea includes everything from “builder’s tea” through to the more exotic Earl Grey and Darjeeling tea varieties.
In China, these red teas are generally less popular, but there are some excellent examples nonetheless. Keemun tea is perhaps the most travelled; this is a deep malty tea that is often used as a base for the blends popularised in the West, including English Breakfast Tea and Earl Grey. I personally feel that it can be enjoyed at its best in its own right.
Another of the better known Chinese red teas is Lapsang Souchong. This tea is distinguished by its extreme smoky flavour. It reminds me of fine single malt whiskeys from Islay, and while it can be drunk at any time I personally find it a great drink to enjoy after an evening out.
Yunnan is, let’s remember, the birthplace of Tea. So it’s surprising perhaps to learn that Yunnan Dian Hong (red tea) is a relative newcomer, not grown before the 20th century. It is however a truly delicious tea, and one of my absolute favourites. Its light, sweet flavour with subtle cocoa notes is perfect first thing in the morning,
BLACK / FERMENTED “Pu Erh” TEAS
But Yunnan is better known as the home of Pu-erh, a fine speciality tea which uniquely undergoes fermentation as part of its developmental processing. Unlike other teas, Pu-erh improves (like fine wines) with age, and older pu-erh teas can literally cost a fortune. Pu-erh is perhaps an acquired taste, but for the more seasoned tea drinker it is a must!
Tea is the perfect beverage for the pianist, teacher, writer, human being, health fanatic, optimist, and traveller in life. As the writer John Blofeld lyrically explains:
John Blofeld, The Chinese Art of Tea, Shambhala, 1997
I hope that this introduction has encouraged you to experience tea anew, and that it will enrich your life as much as it has mine!
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