Dragon Well

Yesterday I was in the tea shop, and again I asked them to suggest something. They said they could recommend a Chinese green tea without any hesitation, called Dragon Well. It was so fresh, that they literally cut open the sealed bag and gave me the first of it. It was an incredibly rare, fresh experience. They got the tea that morning.

Dragon Well is a very well known tea in China. The name, even before the taste, captivated me. Dragons are common myths in cultures all over the world, but the Asian concept of a dragon is amazing. They are water spirits, symbolizing life itself. The fascinating thing about the concept of a well of dragons makes a subtle statement about the effects of this tea. A well is a place where water is collected from the air and sky. I imagine dragons as the wind, invisible and carrying with it the atmosphere, filled with lightning that illuminates a gray sky, for brief flashes. Out of this cloud world, the movement of life passes through to be collected at the ground, the invisible dragons flowing in and out of it, for water, life itself, as a gift to all people.

The taste is subtle. While recently I looked at Pearl Jasmine, with definite floral accents that engage the senses without hesitation, this tea has a multi-dimensional arc of linear time as the experience takes shape. With each draught, while grassy, there is a quick bell curve of sensations. From an immediate kick, to a slow leveling out and feeling of solidity and strength. Wouldn’t the arc forms of dragon flight be like this, as wind and water? It was so subtle that I planned on having it again soon, to really focus and thing about it more, so this may be a two part entry. 

Pearl Jasmine

Few tea houses do not have a jasmine pearl option in their selections. It’s one of the most iconic teas of all green teas. Still, it is a bit more expensive than other more well-known teas. That is mostly from the process of making the pearls: the round, interwoven leaves that make up the texture and form of the tea. The rolls are handcrafted, one at a time. So if even not so dear a price, they are from human endeavor and love of craft, whether by choice or by necessity, or maybe both. It is a beautiful example of the handcrafted qualities of tea.

The tea shop’s Pearl Jasmine is considered one of the best, and it’s been one of my favorite selections from the shop for a while. The floral sensation of the tea is immediately recognizable. While at one time extremely exotic to me, it has acquired the familiarity of a really warm experience, still rich and mysterious in its invisible flower that it places before you, just beyond your senses, ready to be perceived at the slightest hint of it with each cup.

If I can continue with my attempts to describe tea flavors as a shape, this one is oval. There are not quite sharp, but more progressively narrow sensations that come from the floral qualities. It makes me think of unassuming gardens in the East Bay, particularly in the overgrown, seemingly unwavering grasslands of the front yards of West Berkeley, where the shop is located. It also recalls the Berkeley Botanical Garden, always a kind of pale green in parts, which is how I imagine the emotional color of the tea, mixed with light purple. The tea is harvested in early spring, and the jasmine flowers are picked early during the summer.

I immediately started searching my memories for memories of other gardens I have seen. Probably one in each city we’ve lived in, civic public gardens, Hawaiian preservations, ancient petrified gardens at historical sites, all the anonymous, humble gardens on city streets and suburban environments. I wonder how rare these types of gardens might be over time. Will future generations look at these as archeological sites as well?

A friend of mine wrote a song recently that comes to mind in which he says, “We are smoking flowers, we are seeing flowers, we are being flowers.” We can certainly drink flowers too, and that was what I did in the tea shop today. There was an ancient garden on the table. I drank from it, and a flower appeared in my mind.

There was no one else in the shop, and the tea ambassador (I don’t know what to call the tea shop workers) helped me do research when she didn’t have any answers to my questions. We had a really interesting discussion.

From her memory, she knew that the legend of where tea comes from is serendipitous. According to her, the first person who discovered tea was an emperor who was boiling water on an open fire. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew leaves into the boiling water, and when he poured the water into the cup, it became the first tea drink.

It’s probably an impossible story, but the sentiment is interesting. It imagines that tea came to us from a natural occurrence. The physical transformation of the environment through natural processes that created the event was mediated by the choices of an individual, in this case, an emperor, but she said that in other versions of the story it is a healer who discovers tea this way.

She thought for a minute and then said that we were more connected to nature in the past. I think that is true but I also think we could become more connected to the earth again. The uncontrollable gardens and wildflowers of West Berkeley give me hope that we will find a way.

Hakuro

Hakuro tea is one of the most strange experiences I have had with tea. The flavor is round, permeating the environment with a feeling of solidity. The tea shop told me that there is more to a tea than just its caffeine. Each has its own particular “energy.”. And that’s absolutely true. There are many experiences I have had with just herbal tea that have a definite energy to them.

The tea shop said it was really popular with people who know it well, but not everyone does. There is almost no information about it online, with the exception of a book about the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which looks like a guide for advanced practitioners.

Because of the caffeinated content, the tea shop suggested that I make the first two steepings and pour them out. Then I could have a much more diluted tea. Apparently, this is how almost all decaf tea is made. It was still a little too strong for me. Very quickly the feeling of solidity began to fade and I felt like I had just had four shots of espresso. But that wasn’t the only quality. It wasn’t like any other experience I have ever had. I think the experience would really vary between people, but there’s no other tea quite like it, but that goes without saying. No tea is like another. They are all infinitely complex.

When I was trying to do research, I couldn’t find much information. What I did find was inspiring though. Hakuro is a Japanese word that means ‘Mist.’ It is also one of thirty or so names for the month of August. This was beginning to make me explore language, culture, poetry and tea all at once. Tea is truly a gateway into cultures, experiences, and our own consciousness.

Reading that the name was literally the word for mist made me think of all of the times I have experienced mist or even light rain. While I wrote, through my headphones, I kept hearing what I thought were waves slowly passing along an empty shore. I thought I had accidentally left an ambient song playing on my computer. But when I checked my computer, I found nothing, so I took my headphones off. I then heard the direct sound, not muffled by my headphones. It was the sound of cars passing on the street, lightly flooded from rain, that made a soft sound as they passed by at a high speed. I listened for a little while.

The sky is gray again today, and everywhere I go in West Berkeley the streets are empty, except for the occasional view of solitary walking, head down with umbrella keeping them out of the light rain. There was a time when there was no rain in the bay area. It wasn’t so long ago. I remember. The California drought eventually ended, when after a week of contaminated air in the bay from fires in the north, finally cleared. After a few days of it in our contamination masks, we finally left the bay area for Texas and waited it out. It took me a few days to recover. My body felt heavy and weighed down. It was surreal. It felt like we were escaping a true environmental catastrophe, and in a way, we were.

Connecting through tea to a place of emotional realization of the reality of mist is strange. Through its round, circular presence, it encourages me to believe in the possibility of reversing climate change. I don’t know if that is even possible, but this tea will always mean that to me. The realities of the California fires, and the hope that the rains bring. A world completely made by mist could make things more cloudy and mysterious. Maybe there are people living on the planets we can’t see into. Living their days in peace and mystery, and only seeing things when they have a direct view.

Genmaicha

When I walked into the teahouse, from the strangely cold, gray, and slightly raining form of the natural city world, from walls of graffiti and nature spilling onto the concrete against vacant storefronts, there were only two people in the line in front of me. It wasn’t a line as much as a small crowd. The teahouse is relatively small, and even four people seem like a lot inside of it. But honestly all of West Berkeley can feel like that. Sometimes I really don’t know how everyone survives.

The man behind the counter was a tall older man in his seventies, who I had never met before. Some of the people in the tea shop have been working there for decades. I remember them from long ago, and they’re some of my favorite people. I used to think they just had their own thing going on. They’re into tea, the experience of it, and I was just looking for the easiest way to get a mango iced tea at the time. We just had different priorities. It took them a few times to realize that wasn’t what I wanted anymore. The barista and teahouse craftsman creates patterns for your behavior within a few instances. That’s how after you’re the 80th person in line they can remember your needs. It’s a wonder to behold. It’s a real skill.

I’ve already gone there more in the past month than I ever went in a year before. It’s hard to get to and honestly I just never had the time to devote to it, but I have a little bit of time now, so I’m not taking it for granted.

I asked him if he had Genmaicha, recommended to me by a friend, and he said that he did. I went and sat down. I had second thoughts. The previous day someone told me I should just let the staff decide for me, since they are the experts. I asked him if he had any recommendations other than Genmaicha. He offered me something incredible, when I read about it, but I quickly changed my mind again. Could I get Genmaicha, I asked again. It was an interesting conversational three part act. It started with Genmaicha, moved on to the mystery tea, and then returned to the beginning again at the end. It’s not indecisive. It is a complex narrative of discovery, contemplation, and revision. It is an iteration of inquiries. And also, yes, I couldn’t make up my mind. It seemed like a really important decision, and it was. I went and sat down again.

He brought out a small pot, a decanter, and began to teach.

Like the green teas I have had before, this one had a really fast brewing time, somewhere between 30-45 seconds. A decanter was used to hold the tea after brewing, and there was a fairly hearty sized cup to drink from.

Genmaicha is a peasant tea. Rice is added to the mixture to save cost, not unlike chicory coffee in the South.  The only people who could afford whole tea leaves were emperors. To the Japanese, Genmaicha is like a comfort food. It reminds them of home, and it’s something passed on from generation to generation. It really does feel like that. The flavor of the rice is very strong, and it absolutely feels like a comfort food. The way the flavor interacts with your body is like a warm hug. It really made me want to curl up with a blanket and watch vintage anime.

The color was pea green, which had the added western connotation of a pea soup, something my Mom would have given me when I was sick. It has the taste of the care of a family member to you when you were in need, and that ability coming from a tea in a shared cultural experience of family is something that is somehow transmitted in the experience of drinking this warm tea. I daydreamed that my car is the catbus from Totoro, which I regretted I returned to too soon.  It’s super friendly tea. It’s inclusive, and it really does feel instantly like a family member.

And that was the profound experience of the tea to me. I’m just getting accustomed to the experience of tea, but for the first time I realized something. Tea can change your entire psychology from drinking it. I was instantly placed in a completely different world from the place I came from. Through the tea, I reconnected with memories of my Mom, and the care and love she showed to her family. Knowing that I can access those memories through the interaction of plants and my body is profound. Tea can change your entire experience, if you’re open to it, and there is a sea of experiences you can contact through it.

The man said he didn’t actually know that much about tea, and said that he was only a grasshopper. As he turned, he said he would be going in the back to take care of something. It is possible that this was not in fact, a man, but was in actuality a grasshopper spirit, returning to the shop backroom to lie in a bed of grassleaves, sleeping until the next tea pot should be given; a new teaching to take place.

Beginnings

I didn’t just love coffee. I had a complete physical and mental connection to it that was unbroken, except for a few attempts at letting it go, from teenage grunge perspectives, all the way through every path I have taken in my adult life. It was something to celebrate small achievements. It was there when I started making art.  It was there in moments of sadness. It permeated my body and created a warm glow in the early morning, and later on, into the early evening. It was a way to break up my day. I measured time around it. It was one of my favorite things, ever. That sounds like hyperbole, but it is not. Coffee was life.

But in recent years, I have been consistently asked to let it go. I always just ignored it. Coffee is, as everyone knows who has anxiety, just not good for you. It makes you really anxious, and even with its benefits, I just had to let it go. I accepted the fact that it would be a deep period of mourning. Maybe I should have a funeral for it. I could take a Starbucks cup (seriously, as much of it as I consumed, I never was a connoisseur.) and take it to a graveyard, invite some friends, and maybe read a poem. It might also serve as a way to remind me of the realities of all of the plastic I created by my addiction, all of the energy consumed by all of the coffee makers and espresso machines in unison. Hundreds of Baristas could come gather around, and solemnly watch as I laid the plastic cup into a small mausoleum, with a stone mermaid watching over it for the next thousand years. I could take one last double shot of espresso, then run around a little while, and then with boundless, temporary energy, run out of the cemetery and into the busy streets of everyday life. Letting go of the past, and moving into life, from death.

Mermaids are in interesting choice for a logo. What exactly does it mean? I don’t really care about what it’s supposed to do or its history. While I am a deep researcher, I am more interested in how I have just come to blindly accept its presence. But it’s always been there, offering a reality of unification of the earth and sea, trapped between the everyday and the sublime, the vastness of the ocean and the specificity of modern life. Half fish, half human, smiling calmly, like the indescribable benevolent smile of a buddha. It came in many forms. Green on white, backlit though electricity, remixed in designs in many different ways marking the seasons, cultural identifiers, and of course, shining through plastic saying calmly, everything is fine, there is no problem with waste, there is only you, and coffee.

And now that has passed. I found myself alone, but only for a moment. I have always wanted to leave coffee behind. And this time, I really meant it. Everything has its place in time, and it was just time for me to move on. It was time to listen to my doctors. It’s not like losing a loved one, but it is a feeling of loss. But that was for a small moment. I’ll always love the smell of coffee in the morning, but my plan was to switch to tea. And that’s where I am now.

There is a great tea shop, nestled in the emptiness of West Berkeley, that I went to off and on for years. It was a really cool place. But this time I’m looking closely, I want to really figure out what tea means to me, what it means to our culture, and how I can grow with it. It is from this small shop, that I will explore tea to its furthest extent, and write about on this site.