Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ching Dynasty Tea Brick - Saturday at the Gallery pt.1

Last Saturday morning I was staring into the calm visage of this Tang Dynasty Bodhisattva at the Gallery while waiting for our guests to arrive. I don't always work at the Gallery on weekends but Toki of The Mandarin's Tea blog was coming over with friends and Michael recommended I show up. He said, "They're bringing something special and it's important that you see this." I asked Michael what I would be looking at... "A bit of history", he said with a wry smile. And so I started my weekend at work but not working. Staring into the depths of Bodhisattva until the doorbell rang.

Toki's "Auntie" Betty and "Uncle" Conrad came first and I liked the gracious couple almost immediately. Betty was bright and vivaciously pretty. I could see Conrad with his deferential gestures and handsome features at home in a classic cigar club. They had brought over a few exclusive teas from Conrad's collection including a 1970's cooked loose puer, a puer formula cake of unkown date and origin, both of which we brewed when Toki arrived.
But the real treat they had brought along was Conrad's Ching Dynasty tea brick that had been reviewed in Toki's blogpost: Vincero!. This is the same tea that Toki gave to Michael after a week and Michael continued to brew it for over a month almost every day. Now to bring that experience full circle, I was allowed to take photos of this legendary brick and share the beginning while Toki bid farewell to the brewed leaves in his recent post: Sharing a thought...
It was such a wonderful opportunity to finally get a chance to see and handle such an old tea brick. It looked and felt more like a piece of quarried stone than a brick of tea.

A brief origin story:
This tea brick was passed down to Conrad from his mother almost 30 years ago. It had belonged to his grandmother for most of her life before she bequeathed it to her daughter, Conrad's mother.
The tea was over a hundred years old when it finally passed into his possession. Conrad, himself could not elaborate more than that but it was impressive to know three generations of his family had cared for this precious heirloom.

Winne and I wrote down the brick's dimensions:
6 1/2 in. Long
4 1/2 in. Wide
1 in. Thick
Weight - 566 g (Toki wrote 600g in his post)
Considering the length of time it's been around and the amount of moisture it's lost, this brick may have weighed up to 700 grams when it was first pressed.

Notice the little white spots on the surface. I thought they might be mold spores. But a closer inspection revealed a crystalline structure. Winnie said they were sugar crystals from the leaf. I've only seen that on the outside of naturally dried persimmons and I have to wonder how long it must take to start seeing sugar crystals on a pressed tea cake.

This brick was so compact we could see the saw marks from previous tea brewing occasions. Betty said they also used a hammer to loosen the corner piece when they last brewed tea from this brick.
The light colored spots are probably cross sections of the tea stems.
A close look at the surface shows a lovely patina from the age and the tea oil. Because of that, there were subtle color variations when the brick was moved around beneath the light. Sometimes it took on a dark iron colored hue with bluish tints or it picked up coppery accents against a deep mahagony.

Michael with his oyster shucker turned puer knife, looking for a suitable entry point. I had never seen him more careful but I understood. There was a danger of splitting off more than he wanted or leaving cracks in the brick.
I held my breath when the knife went in but there was no need. Michael's a pro and he got exactly what he wanted:

3 grams of Ching Dynasty tea.
The biggest surprise was the delicate fragrance emanating from the leaves Michael pried off the brick. Like a faded perfume, more a memory than an experience. Since we already had a chance to drink Toki's sample, we weren't in rush to brew this. Also, there were the other teas we had to drink as well. Betty and Conrad's visit continues in part 2... coming soon.


toki said...

How Wonderful! Your Post and The Tea : ) I awaits the drama.... T

yumcha said...

Thanks Tok, for everything really. This post wouldn't have happened if not for you.

LaoChaGui said...

If Mr. Conrad keeps drinking at this rate, the tea is not going to last another one hundred years. This does make for and interesting situation: Tea tasting notes passed from generation to generation. I wish you could get the notes from 100 years from now and compare them in a blog write-up.

The sugar crystals were amazing. Thanks for pointing that out.

Salsero said...

Thanks for posting so sensitively about this experience.