Thursday, July 1, 2021

Talking to Stéphane Erler of Tea Masters


Ralph had a schedule conflict

We've talked to some interesting and amazing people as a part of that social meetup series but this moved on to someone I consider to be a tea expert.  No one is a deeper-level expert than someone with half a lifetime's experience in making tea, or a background in helping found a unique nation-specific tea tradition, as people we've talked to. But the conventional sense of someone putting in long years of study, training, and communication, first learning and then giving back to a well-grounded local tea tradition, all evokes a unique type of respect.

For people exploring tea a decade ago Stéphane Erler would've needed no introduction; Tea Masters was one of those classic blogs that helped define tea experience and culture.  And it still is active; that's unique.  I suppose the multitude of social media channels and the current high level of focus on pu'er as a preference end-point might've diminished that standing, as being one of relatively few points of focus, but not as I see it in relation to the solid foundation and value of the reference.  

I'll add a short introduction here of who I see Stéphane to be, and a bit on how he came across to me (we've never spoken by video call before now).  Then this will move on to a set of tangents, for the most part topics we only barely touched on.  These meetups have evolved to be more personal introductions than explorations of tea themes, which is fine.  When a participant has so much to offer about a subject matter, spanning the entire Taiwanese tea tradition in this case, or how Wuyi Yancha is produced and sold, in an earlier example, it can feel like not much was covered for dwelling on personal background, but those life stories and details ground the rest.  There is no tea tradition without complex individuals having and sharing the ideas and experiences.

I don't have a good intro for Stéphane handy, and didn't turn up one in his own words on his Tea Master's blog or Youtube video channel, or on his blog Facebook page (with his vending page here).  Somehow that seems appropriate and positive, that there is no main 50 word summary version out there.  This will mainly draw on my own impression then.  With some positive bias, kind of a given, but I think that's fine, and warranted in this case.  His own words in a recent blog post about blog anniversary context at least clarifies the context:

This weekend, my live video tea classes on FB will be about gaiwan, gaibei and zhong! It's the Absolute Beginner's tea vessel! As we are approaching my blog's 17th anniversary next week, I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by learning more about this fantastic tea vessel. It's the brewing vessel for beginners and experts alike. It's a reminder that despite the years of learning, we remain Absolute Beginners in front of tea.  ...[here posted] on my YouTube channel

Honestly, I had no idea that tea blogging would turn into such a long undertaking and a new career for me. It has allowed me to be a 'stay at home dad' and take care of my kids (with my wife) every day for the last 17 years. I'll be forever grateful for interacting with so many kind, knowledgeable and passionate tea friends over the years.

And that captures what I would cover for character, that he comes across as very knowledgeable, able to communicate about different levels of practice and exposure, and as very humble.  To me this continual student of tea perspective captures the positive essence of traditional tea culture.  

On to some discussion points then.  We didn't get so far into Taiwanese tea, or brewing practice, or even that local tradition, but some themes we did skim across were really interesting.

The decline of text blogging

Relevant here too, changes in media forms and preference have led to the decline of text blogging, and reading text in general.  It's nice that Stéphane embraces a video form too, which he has for quite some time (starting 15 years ago, although more regular posts started half that long ago).  Watching those first dozen videos could provide an indirect snapshot into modern tea culture's perspective evolution, since there is far less reference content out there from a decade ago and prior than in the last half dozen years.

We didn't reach any end point about what it means that media and content preferences and consumption are changing; it just is what it is.

Penn State tea club 

We didn't spend much time on this either, but due to being a PSU alumni myself I've found it interesting that tea clubs flourished there.  Stéphane was instrumental in supporting that, regularly visiting Penn State to assist with instruction and guidance, surely across a very broad scope.  He mentioned in this talk that there were multiple tea clubs there, covering Chinese and Japanese scope, extending to one being recognized as an "Institute" for also supporting productive research, resulting in research paper output.

I had forgotten the name of a main founder of one such group, and researcher, Jason Cohen, who went on to develop the Gastrograph aroma mapping application and food research company (with more on that in this post).  As with education and business in general the pandemic has disrupted tea events for the past year and a half, which in the context of a club or group whose members "turn over" every four years would really disrupt direction and leadership, beyond freezing the main group functions.

that app is really set up to be modified, definitely not tea specific

Sheng pu'er in relation to oolongs

Experienced tea enthusiasts would each have their own take on the placement of sheng pu'er versus oolong experience, but something Stéphane said linked with what another oolong-range expert once said, in an interesting way.  He said that sheng is naturally a more intense form of tea experience, so that once one acclimates to that range other tea types would seem to lack intensity.  From the perspective of someone who has drank mostly sheng for coming up on four years that rings true(after earlier focus on oolong, as it worked out).  I had always tended to see it as acclimating to bitterness, and then appreciating complexity, and finding aging changes interesting, and then also experience of a tea reaching a peak of character at an undefined age.  Let's unpack some parts of this.

That other oolong expert--who I hope to mention in a meeting summary, but who can remain unnamed here--placed a very similar idea in relation to the "cha qi energy" of sheng pu'er.  She said that to her sheng experience felt a bit harsh and aggressive, not as calming and pleasant as oolong effect.  I don't "get" cha qi experience enough to place that so clearly, but the other range intensity I can relate to.  Even if you flash brew a moderate proportion of somewhat young sheng it comes across as intense, and for the most part that doesn't drop out with age (although for some versions it would).  Even if taste and aroma range diminish older sheng can often still retain a thickness to the feel, or an interesting way that underlying mild mineral tone supports complexity of experience, and so on.

Next it's hard to say if it's a good thing or a bad thing that many people would evolve towards sheng preference over time.  Maybe neutral?  Before skipping on to that point it's worth considering that tea preference in general has shifted to love of bubble tea in a lot of places, including among young people in China and Taiwan (something we also discussed).  They're not the same thing, but there could be common ground, some overlap.  People tend to cycle through flavored teas due to liking strong flavors and familiar range, then to some extent acclimate to milder and more subtle range in oolongs (at some point; exposure patterns vary), and especially in relation to white teas.  Then maybe it is natural to appreciate intensity and complexity over balance and more subtle aspects in later stages.

This could be unrelated, but I recently wrote about developing a form for analyzing tea experience, for documenting it (so form as in record template), and I omitted "balance" from that version:

"Intensity" was listed as a place to put positive notes in relation to aroma aspects (the split between tongue based taste and nasal receptor aroma / flavor isn't described consistently), and in notes related to flaws and limitations in that draft.  It was never intended as a final version; for actual use someone would need to adjust those categories in relation to how they interpret teas.  I don't use any such formal evaluation or note-taking process myself; I made it up for a friend, and then it also works as a thought-model for the parts that comprise tea experience.

We talked a little about gaba teas, and why I dislike the taste of them (or taste plus aroma experience, or however one puts that).  Again, as suggested by a Russian tea enthusiast, he speculated that it could relate to a feel effect, and that gaba oolong--or oolong and black versions--aren't supposed to be strong flavored or intense.  So it could link back to preferring sheng.  He even said that it would be odd if someone loved sheng best and liked gaba oolong too, which I suppose would also work out for silver needle / tips versions, which also aren't one of my personal favorites.  I like Bai Mu Dan better, because that tends to be more complex and intense.

This could seem like I'm implying that a final preference towards higher intensity means something (which really goes beyond a simple infusion strength issue, as I see it).  It is odd that a typical preference cycle moves from relating to flavored-tea intensity and familiarity, bridges to more sophisticated and subtle scope, then potentially often leads back to valuing a completely different kind of intense and complex experience.  How I think it all maps together is too complex for a sub-theme here, so I'll set it aside.

Relationship between Taiwanese teas and other sources as imports

The subject of Vietnam (and Thailand) producing oolong imported and sold as Taiwanese oolong came up.  That's quite familiar to most people who have been following tea themes for awhile.  I first visited Vietnam awhile back, maybe 10 years ago now, and I was surprised to run across a shop and well developed business producing and selling Japanese style green tea.  I thought it was great that Japanese producers supported a fellow Asian country's local industry in that way, linking up to provide growing and process expertise.  Only later did it occur to me that they were producing tea likely to be sold as from Japan, if not in Japan then elsewhere.

The best of the oolong I've tried from Vietnam was better than the best of what I've tried from Thailand, but neither matched what I've tried from Taiwan, even though I've surely never explored the best high mountain teas from there.  In response to asking what inputs led to that, and how good Vietnamese oolong could be in comparison, Stéphane mentioned that since producers from Taiwan are directly supporting processing terroir limitations might restrict final outcome.  William of Farmerleaf just did a video on a related theme about oolong production in Yunnan, and on the oolong processing side here, directly informed by experience from Taiwan.

There are high mountains in Vietnam, in an area I've personally visited in Sapa, but all the conditions would need to come together, that elevation and temperature, relatively ideal climate and micro-climate (local weather and sunlight / shading), soil type, plant type, processing, and so on.  We never really discussed how far an optimum might go, talking around general background a bit instead.

rice fields instead, in the Sapa area (Northern Vietnam)

the focus then was on family travel, not so much tea themes

Beginner's mind

We didn't explicitly discuss this much, but the one thing that stood out the most in talking to Stéphane was how approachable and humble he was.  He seemed to be comfortable talking about what oolong even is (mid-oxidized tea), or going as deep as one would want to go into cultivars, processed tea characteristics, and brewing practice.  

Stéphane said that his own teacher, Tea Parker, emphasizes giving his students tools to keep improving their brewing practices, and presumably teaware experience and ceremonial forms background, but doesn't lay out rigid structure for how to approach or appreciate tea.  That's admirable.  To the extent there is an objective right and wrong to approach to tea that seems right, embracing flexibility and room for preference and experience development.

Given how interesting those briefly skimmed tangents were it would've been nice to hear more about those topics, and related perspective.  Having no structure in discussion is nice for not imposing limits, with the trade-off that if you talk to a Taiwanese tea expert about Indian and Vietnamese teas for half of a short discussion session you end up hearing very little about Taiwanese teas.  It's an odd part to leave out.  But maybe we can meet again, and put more focus on that.  And it's not as if those other themes serve no purpose, for the people joining to place where their own tea experience stands, and for Stéphane to hear a bit about scope he's not experiencing day to day.

1 comment:

  1. I founded the Tea Institute at Penn State and the 3 tea ceremony clubs.

    The Institute existed from 2009 - 2018 and oversaw the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Tea Ceremony clubs, each of which offered a distinct tract for students to test into the research institute.

    While some for of the 3 clubs still exist, the Institute was destroyed by a failure of student leadership and administrative oversight.

    In addition to my work at Analytical Flavor Systems,
    I write about tea at and