I began writing about tea because I was passionate about it and I love to share. For me, it’s not enough to have experiences and learn things on my own. I relish the joy of bringing what I’m learning back to a community of friends so that we can all grow together. As I fell deeper into the world of tea, I knew I had to share. In February of 2017, I opened a blog and started writing about my tea experiences.
The early days were confusing. The world of tea is vast and knowledge is scattered across numerous sources. Even with something as simple as brewing instructions, each individual producer, vendor, or brewer has their own take on how to make their favorite tea. These early experiences formed my initial desire to build a path for people like me who were getting into tea for the first time.
I also wanted to connect with other tea lovers. I turned to Instagram, where a steady flow of tea photos flowed hot and fast like boiled water from a kettle. Just as quickly, my feed filled with beautiful pictures of tea in its various forms: highly curated layouts, beautiful teaware, and well-written tasting notes. I immersed myself in the world of tea connoisseurship.
Wanting to copy what I saw, I wrote tasting notes and reviews of tea. I tried to up my photo game as I obsessed over the visual aspects of tea’s presentation. I took detailed tea notes like the ones I read online. I even went so far as to start smelling vegetables, fruits, and flowers so I could build a larger library of scents. After more than a year of this, I realized I wasn’t having very much fun. Then, in 2018 I had tea with a special person who put me on a path into tea I never expected.
That person’s name is David Lee Hoffman. He’s the original founder of Silk Road Teas, which he sold and then opened a new tea company called Phoenix Tea Collection. He’s also the subject of the Les Blank documentary “All In This Tea“, and he ranks among the first to bring premium Chinese tea to America shortly after China opened to the world in the late 80s.
We had tea together once at his tea museum and retail shop in Lagunitas, California. There, nestled among the towering redwoods along the Francis Drake Highway, David showed me how to have an experience with tea. I came in expecting to hear all kinds of facts and figures he learned across decades spent sourcing and selling tea. What actually happened? We just had tea.
Sure, he knew all the info about the teas’ origin and the characteristics of their various types. However, he deftly dodged and parried all my attempts at trying to pin him down on what he thought about flavor and other objective markers of quality.
He let the tea speak for itself, through me. Like some kind of kung fu master, he redirected the energy my of questions back at me, forcing me to answer them myself. I felt like Neo fighting Morpheus in the Matrix for the first time: “Stop trying to hit me and hit me!”
Somehow, the shock of that experience broke me out of my left-brain shackles. I left David extraordinarily caffeinated (we had 18 different teas) and with a lot on my mind.
Afterwards, I pursued new tea experiences alone and with others. I met many more tea friends and we shared our stories about tea and how it made us feel. I began to study Japanese tea (called “chanoyu”) in the Urasenke style. I bought books about what our ancient ancestors thought about tea. I learned how to learn with my body and not just my mind.
Finally, I came to realize we can only intellectualize tea so much before it loses its taste. The truth of tea lies beyond the threshold of connoisseurship in a world apart, where tea ceases to be a beverage and becomes art we experience with body and mind.
When I crossed that threshold, I discovered the true purpose of my tea writing mirrored the purpose of all art–to explore the nature of the human condition. With “tea as art” as my lens, suddenly the whole range of human experience opened up before me.
You see, tea is a mind-expanding substance. Tea doesn’t inebriate like alcohol, nor is it as harsh on our body and senses as coffee. Rather, it gives us a gentle awake and alert feeling that opens the path to introspection and self-awareness. The experience of drinking tea is invigorating, and we can even choose a particular tea to drink based on our current or desired mood.
Once ready, the gentle, nuanced fragrance of tea followed by the warm, satisfying sip of the warm liquor opens our eyes and awakens the mind. So much so, it was a favorite topic of ancient Chinese poets such as Lu Tung, who wrote this passage:
“The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,—all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup—ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.”Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea (Unexpurgated Start Publishing LLC) (p. 11). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
It’s for this reason the Buddhist monks of ancient China and Japan used it in their meditation and ritualized practices. First, it was medicine or a simple way to stay awake during prayer. But then it took on its true form as a tool for self-actualization and enlightenment.
From there, the ancients took it and used it to strengthen social relationships, bring peace in times of strife, and reach the lofty realms of sages and poets. Eventually, in Japan, tea came to act as the basis for a complete aesthetic and spiritual world view.
All of that in a humble cup of hot water and dried leaves. You can bet I didn’t know that when I was getting started.
And that’s why I write about tea–because tea changed me. I want it to change you too.
Great read, Mike. I often forget about tea, which I think means I often forget about the far less superfluous aspects of life. I forget to pay attention to myself, or maybe I’m aware of my anxieties and worries and choose to hurry through them and ruminate on them instead of sitting with them, realizing that the human experience is always filled with anxiety. Your writing unlocks things for me, Mike. Appreciate it. – Paul
Tea has definitely changed me. As an introvert, it brings me out of my shell and connects me with people that I never would have met otherwise. My approach has evolved in many of the same ways yours has. I make sure to take time to simply be with tea rather than focusing on Instagramming or writing a review.