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The High Art of Tea

tea man
Robert Scheer

Nothing Shalking But the Leaves in the Tea: Wayne Brennan dreams of introducing fine teas to the U.S.

Wayne Brennan blends the ancient with the modern

By Sarah Phelan

IT'S FOUR O'CLOCK and time for tea in Squid Row Alley, that enigmatic little lane that lies hidden behind India Joze restaurant in Santa Cruz. Three of us are sitting in lawn chairs amid the trailing geraniums, jasmine and racks of gently used clothes that adorn the smoky-blue facade of Rivendell. We're gathered here because Rivendell co-founder Wayne Brennan is about to take us on one of his laid-back and personal tea-tasting adventures.

Inside his cultural warehouse of a store, Brennan is rubbing elbows with quality antiques and exquisitely embroidered vests as he plucks tiny, fat-bellied teapots off the shelves. He struggles down the front steps like a nomadic tea monger carrying his favorite teaware--a large copper kettle--and a picnic hamper full of tea samples under his arm, to where we're sheltering underneath a green sun-umbrella. We form an intimate tea-sampling quartet that's worlds apart from the land of mass-marketed herbal and flavored teas, flowery teapots and artificially aged "tea shoppes."

But that's fine with Brennan, since selling mainstream teas in quantity is not his bag. He's interested in giving us a taste of unusual and quality Chinese tea and creating a thirst for what he calls "an emerging California-style Pacific Rim tea culture." By this he means a blending of ancient tea-making traditions into modern lifestyles without damaging or losing< the delicate flavors and poetical nuances gleaned from a 5,000-year history of this beverage.

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As the water over the charcoal brazier begins to hiss and bubble and stories of ancient teamasters pour from Brennan's lips, Santa Cruz slowly evaporates into the mists of time. In its place an ancient landscape of arched stone bridges and magnolia trees emerges, thick with the ghosts of Chinese emperors, Japanese shoguns, Taoist philosophers and Buddhist priests. The legendary Shen Nung floats into view, the man who accidentally discovered tea around 2700 BCE, when he boiled up some leaves that had fallen into his kettle. And there drifting by is the orphan Lu Yu, who fled his adoptive monks to become a comic clown but ended up as the patron saint of tea when he wrote the world's first book on the subject in 800 AD.

Stories, stories, stories. Brennan has lots of them. Like the rather gory Japanese legend about the origins of tea, involving the Indian monk Bodhidharma. He fell asleep 'round about 520 AD, while staring at a wall during a nine-year meditation session. Is it any wonder if the poor man's eyelids fluttered and drooped once in a while? The problem was he wanted to demonstrate the beneficial, not soporific, effects of Zen Buddhism to the Chinese. Determined not to blow it again, he cut off his offending flaps, hurled them way yonder and--poof!--where his eyelids landed, there grew a plant prized for its ability to chase away fatigue and stimulate body, mind and spirit.

As Brennan spoons out yet another eye-opening anecdote from his personally potted history of tea, he straddles centuries and continents effortlessly with a mental dexterity equal to any Buddhist monk. His informal and spontaneous approach to tea is a far cry from the elaborate stylization of intricate Japanese tea ceremonies, and far more akin to the Tao-infused Chinese art of tea. That Tao lineage requires a taste for fine teas and ceramics, a sprinkling of poems and stories, and--above all--the ability to relax and enjoy a brew in pleasant surroundings, so that a tea session provides a short but sweet retreat from the hurly-burly of life.

The Search for the Subtle

BRENNAN'S SAMPLES DRAW heavily on the Chinese because most quality teas still come from there. As the infusion expert explains, "It's only in the last 150 years that tea has been grown commercially anywhere outside China. And over the centuries, the Chinese not only actively cultivated the high art of tea, but also constantly searched for subtler, gentler varieties." In fact, tea appreciation didn't reach anywhere other than Japan until 1610, making the Europeans and Russians very late arrivals at the tea party. But, then, that was exactly what the xenophobic Chinese wanted: they knew little about the rest of the world and remained happily isolated, cultivating and experimenting with their wonderfully invigorating, yet relaxing and health-promoting, green teas.

But despite Brennan's preference for fine Chinese teas, most of his favorite teaware is Japanese--"not because it's superior," he says, "but because most of the available Chinese merchandise is either really cheap and mass-produced for Chinatown, or very expensive and esoteric." Swooshing hot water around a blue ceramic pot, he shows off an easy-to-use side handle and an inner screen, which eliminates the need for teaballs or strainers.

It's soon clear that teaware ranges widely from the simple to the complex, but, according to Brennan, "One of the easiest ways to prepare and drink tea is by using a tea ball in a Chinese covered cup, provided you don't overfill the tea ball." He continues, "It's vital to the flavor that tea has room to expand and thereby allow water to flow through freely." His personal preference, however, is for a Japanese cast-iron teapot.

Dumping the hot water out of the pot, Brennan spoons in a small quantity of tea, meticulously rinsing it to clean off any outer tea dust, while explaining the basics of making the perfect cuppa cha. "Step one: Always preheat the pot," he explains. "Whether metal or ceramic, the heated pot will then act as a thermal mass, reserving heat and holding the water at a consistent temperature. Step two: Empty the pot, add tea, rinse it, then top with boiling water and let the tea steep a little."

Of the two main methods of Chinese-style tea making--the Kung Fu way, using a tiny teapot, and the Guy Wan way, using a covered bowl --Brennan recommends the Kung Fu method for making the more expensive teas. "They're conducive to eight or 10 steepings," he says. "A small teapot not only prevents frequent visits to the bathroom, but makes it easier to control the strength and quality of the tea. With expensive teas, the first second and third cup will be different. But price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality. Many times teas priced in the $6 a quarter pound range has made me very happy."

Color Me Green

OPENING UP LITTLE baggies individually labeled with magical names like Dragon's Well, Old Man's Eyebrows and Iron Goddess of Mercy, Brennan passes around rosette-like cakes and beard-shaped bricks of tea for us to smell. The samples vary in color from white through green to black, because the color of tea depends on the oxidization process. "A white tea is very young and delicate, and hasn't been oxidized at all," he says. "Green tea isn't oxidized either, but it's full leaf. Oolong's been allowed to oxidize from a few hours to a few days, then stopped by heating through steaming or pan-frying. And black tea is fully oxidized, then inoculated with a mold."

As Brennan points out, it's no coincidence that the Chinese favor green over black teas--5000 years of experimentation have taught them that green and white teas have less caffeine than coffee and far less caffeine than black tea. The oxidization process concentrates the caffeine in black teas at the expense of many of the nutritional and medicinal properties of the leaf, whereas green teas contain fluoride, vitamin C, catechins and other substances that may reduce susceptibility to heart disease, cancers, liver diseases, tooth decay and other ailments. It's no wonder that they are seen as yin tonifiers by the traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, who form over half of Brennan's tea clientele.

For today's tea sampling, Brennan has chosen two vastly different selections to give us an idea of the wide spectrum of Chinese teas. First up is a Been Ch'a Pu-erh, a black tea used to rid the digestive tract of parasites, molds and yeasts. Although the tea has steeped for only one minute, the cup Brennan pours is already dark and winey, making me afraid that this heavy, aged tea will have a horribly bitter taste. But my fears are unjustified, as I sip the smooth and mellow liquid.

Although, in general, the Chinese use only clean, boiling water and avoid mixing milk and honey into their teas, they sometimes use rose or chrysanthemum petals with these sharp and sassy Pu-Erhs. But just like French wine connoisseurs, they always use only one variety of fine tea at a time. As Brennan puts it, "The high art of Chinese teas is like fine wines. To make sangria, you can happily mix in some table wines, but you'd never use a fine wine for it."

While we wait for the second steeping of the Pu-Erh, we pass around a cake of green Peony Rosette, which smells like freshly mown grass on a summer afternoon. Brennan explains that the outer character of the leaf differs in taste from the inner, and he points out that the stemminess of a long-leafed Oolong, called Dragon's Beard, which is highly prized for its anti-cholesterol properties, adds another taste quality. He also shows us some of the feathery, silver-green leaves of a white tea called Silvernito, which are supposedly edible but taste rather woody to my inexperienced tea-munching taste buds. Minimally caffeinated, it is subtler and drier-tasting than the green teas.

The second cup of Pu-Erh proves much stronger to my palate and I secretly feed it to the unsuspecting geraniums. I much prefer the light, fluffy and more subtle flavor of a Spring Blossom Pekoe, a green tea found at the other end of the taste spectrum. Highly pursued for its health-food qualities, Brennan prefers this tea to carrot juice as an antioxidant, admitting that "it doesn't give me a sweet buzz or leave me feeling speedy, but makes me really light and clear as a cloud." He claims that drinking green tea has refined his palate and that he can no longer tolerate fried, fatty foods or any substance that has an abusive effect on his body.

Today, half the tea drunk in the United States is made by dunking a small bag of leaf-fannings and dust into a watery grave, and then pulling it out tail-first, like a drowned rat sacrificed on the altar of convenience. Given this addiction, why the resurgence of interest in fine and exotic teas after two centuries of indifference?

Brennan lists several possible reasons: "A saturated coffee market, a quest for a healthfully invigorating beverage and a growing interest in the traditions of the East, plus an added twist that's peculiar to the West Coast--tradition often runs the risk of being static, but here we have no norms, which makes it easier to cross-fertilize ideas. It's a process of fermentation, which has poetic, historical, and health-promoting aspects, all rolled into one leaf, and, hopefully brewed to perfection."

We'll all drink to that.

For information on tea samplings, call 425 8522.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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