Friday, September 17, 2021

Talking to Ken Cohen, host of the Talking Tea podcast

This is about talking to Ken Cohen in a meetup, not about being a guest on the Talking Tea podcast.  It was interesting hearing how hosting that goes, and other personal background stories and discussion.  There wasn't as much central theme as occurs with tea producers, or even vendors, when narrowing discussion scope down to a clearly defined range of tea types and activities makes sense.

Ken is from the same state I'm originally from, Pennsylvania, but over on the other side, in Philly.  We talked about NYC a bit since he also has had plenty of exposure to there.  And about Buddhism; he is also a Qi Gong and meditation practitioner.  I don't have any background with Qi Gong but the Buddhism and meditation parts are familiar.  We covered a lot on personal practice variations, and how Buddhism works out interpreted as Western philosophy, and considered Buddhism in relation to tea practice.

In writing about all these talks some degree of a lack of a central theme makes it hard to summarize what was covered, all the more so in this version.  I can start with the Talking Tea podcast background.

Talking Tea

Ken mentioned that he started this years ago to further his own self-education in tea background, which is a familiar theme with bloggers too, just less of a formal process and output for them.  In reviewing what he has covered the range is fairly broad.  I caught a version about Meghalya teas recently (an region in India), and an interview with Brother Anthony (An Sonjae), the main name that comes up in relation to tea themes in South Korea.  He came up in a meetup discussion about association with the Penn State Tea Club not so long ago.

Ken talked us through an elaborate planned out alcohol infusion experiment that related to a podcast episode.  That went a half dozen steps beyond what normal media coverage of a sub-theme gets to, never mind informal blog posting.  A tea vendor cooperated with a local spirits manufacturer to host an offsite, hotel-based alcoholic drink tasting session, which is complicated to arrange in the US. The podcast version would include more details, and the results of the alcohol infusion trials.

It sounded like a lot to take on as a hobby interest, not just that more developed event, but an audio podcast format in general.  Ken mentioned that rather than ramp up version production over covid times he has kept the pace moderate.  In part that related to being busy with other work scope.  Then he also added that lots of vendors are hosting lots of forms of more and less formal podcasts and online gatherings now, so he doesn't see that range as a gap to be filled over the last year and a half.  

I've written regularly about discovering new forms of these types of channels and versions, most recently about Discord channels hosting them, but Youtube and Instagram versions are common now too.  Crimson Lotus is an example of a vendor holding a video podcast version, Farmerleaf an example of a Discord audio only version, and Cody of the Ooolong Drunk blog holds regular Instagram based podcast sessions.  Elyse of Tealet seems to bridge from some of those forms into multi-channel events of different kinds, some more like seminars and some just random streaming.

Ken's approach to a podcast seems a little more considered, planned, and structured than almost all of those, more like a conventional media approach.  Maybe Farmerleaf one on one interview discussions don't fall too far from that theme, but as live sessions the result includes whatever it includes, and those seem a bit conversational.  Cody's version is quite social, which can be nice, or I suppose someone could see the small talk and extension beyond tea themes as not being of interest.  We've talked about extending these informal meetups to be a recorded and shared version in the past, but never did, because it would diminish the informal feel.

only the first of a longer list

Tea as Buddhist meditation

This could seem a little disappointing as a finding, since we discussed how tea practice could be used as meditation or mindfulness practice, but didn't get far with seeing it as closely linked.  I'm not really a great reference for meditation practice, but I have informally practiced that in the past, and went through a few weeks of guided instruction during regular sessions while ordained as a Thai monk.  In general a lot of Thai "city monks" leave off meditation practice after spending a lot of their time chanting in services and ceremonies, but I did visit a local meditation center daily at that time, one hosted by monks at the next temple over.

with Nong On, who is now the oldest of our three cats

Why wouldn't it be great mediation experience to brew and appreciate tea?  Formal meditation is something else than people tend to describe as meditational.  It's nothing too exotic or hard to relate to, but relaxing and paying attention to tea experience, or walking in nature, or whatever else, can overlap but it's not the same.  Related to the overlap part there isn't much to discuss that isn't already familiar ground; it can provide a good opportunity to relax and pay attention to the present moment, and to turn off a broad range of other distractions.  If a half an hour of that experience every other day helps calm and center someone then in a broad sense it is meditation.  In the narrower sense it's still not, related to seated meditation, calming your mind, watching breath, and noticing thoughts pass, which brings about some degree of inner experience change the rest of the time.  That involves a lower degree of external stimulus and can result in a different effect (per a standard take, and to a large extent to my past experience).

It can be a problem that focus on aesthetic forms or relatively trivial calming themes can be presented as Buddhist practice, when they are sort of that, and sort of not.  Getting a massage in a spa is quite calming, but not really equivalent to Buddhist meditation.  Wearing robes could seem pleasant, or having Buddha images around can be decorative, and a good reminder of some ideals, but I personally see no connection with that to meditation or mindfulness practices.  Being in nature is great; to me there's more overlap in just being outdoors than relates to wearing natural fiber clothes, lighting candles, burning incense, or playing New Age music.  But again I think if tea exposure is experienced as calming, as a means towards connecting with the present moment, then there's a lot to that, just not necessarily a lot to be said about it.

I have no problem with people combining interest in tea and aesthetics, I just don't

Ken talked about his formal meditation practice a little, but not to the extent of delving into how it works, for example in relation to breathing techniques, or daily life effects.  There's a Talking Tea podcast episode about Taoism that goes further into tea and meditation practice themes, it's just not entirely about that.  It would represent his take on Eastern religion and meditation practices better than these earlier comments, which are really written from my own point of view, and as an interview it would include background input from that guest as well. 

Maybe it's as well that people tend to connect interest in Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy with tea, even though related to formal practice the overlap can seem limited.

this can be associated with Taoism, but it's also easy to overstate the connection

Tea origin stories

It's not typical that the circle of friends who always join (Ralph, Suzana, and Huyen) end up covering their own initial connection to tea stories, but since Ken has that interview background it was easier for him to consider and raise this sort of point in discussion.  I think I heard and shared more about my own background than we've been through in any other single session, with some details about the other coming up that I'd not heard, even though we've been meeting and talking for a year and a half now.  

I hadn't heard Huyen's family's complete story related to two brothers founding two different tea businesses, although I was familiar with her working for one of them, Tra Viet, a gift shop company that sells tea.  

Huyen and her brother Dung looking amazing (photo credit her FB profile)

their spirits and their daily life is beautiful (just check out her Instagram page)

Ralph covered how his earliest family related starting points went.  Then Ken also described his early origins with tea, which led through and connected with other Asian culture practices, the Qi Gong and meditation themes.  It was really interesting.  In a story that comes up in different forms Ken was exposed to tea in two forms over time, related to drinking moderate quality Chinatown shop tea (like gunpowder), then later onto what tea enthusiasts tend to drink, the rest of the range.

New Kan Man NYC Chinatown store (a theme we discussed, with more on there in this post)

To some extent that kind of thing works better as a personal discussion, tied to social connections, than hearing many different personal versions in those informal podcast sessions I mentioned catching parts of.  A 5 or 10 minute version wouldn't drag on, but hearing over and over about someone running across a shop or knowing a friend into tea can just repeat.  

To be clearer introductions to tea is a sub-theme I'm interested in for more than one reason.  It can be interesting for story value, but it's also worth considering how tea awareness spreads, or why it doesn't, related to coffee and bubble tea interest dominating that of "real tea."  All those online channels and content forms I've mentioned wouldn't be of interest to someone not already into better than average tea.  Text based tea blogs are even less likely to be of interest to most tea enthusiasts, it seems, which is understandable.  The main tea theme is the actual experience, not reading and learning, or watching video.

Having a friend or family member into tea is the main introduction to tea story, or another Asian culture related interest leading to tea exposure.  I kept seeing Thai tea in grocery stores, and buying some, and did the same in visiting other countries.  Oddly I was into tisanes for 15 years in the US prior to developing that interest, and never accidentally ran across "real tea."  Today I think I would; things have changed.


This is the least focused on the person joining any summary has been, with good reason.  We talked about foreign cultures, covid themes, our own connections to tea, and shops and outlets in different places, not so much about Ken and his own tea interest.  I don't even know his favorite type of tea; maybe we could've focused more on that.  

Letting discussions take an organic path lands on different results, and it was as well that we made it through so much interesting scope, instead of getting into what he's drinking, or the gear he owns.  Huyen was the only other person on time for the session, so we did an earlier limited participation version talking more about Tea Masters and tea in Vietnam than we typically do, and Suzana joined really late, so we talked about Indian teas towards the end.  That transition of themes was nice. We tend to either get pretty far into covid discussion or skip that part, and it was nice comparing notes about experiences in this session (which of course I'm not summarizing here; everyone knows how the pandemic is going, we just add more local detail in the discussions).

It makes perfect sense to me that when we talked to a podcast host and Buddhism practitioner the focus wasn't on him personally.  The opposite shouldn't have happened.  Most typically one or two of us tend to talk less than the others, with conversations settling into a two-way form, and that didn't really happen this time, which I also see as positive.  When we are talking to a tea producer it's as well that almost all focus is on them, and what they are doing, and related background, but for a more open social form discussion the more even balance is really nice.  At times I can miss just talking to Ralph, Huyen, and Suzana without any theme or topic, and this session was like that, with Ken as just one more of our friends.

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