As readers of these posts may gather, the author is - amongst other things - a tea obsessive. This is unfortunate because over the last decade or so the society in which he lives has degenerated into a hipster-driven coffee culture (using the word 'culture' in the loosest possible sense), and it remains next to impossible to purchase a decent cup of tea anywhere in the entire country. There are endless pretentious coffee outlets - coffee, the drug that smells like heaven but tastes like sump oil - but no 'tea culture' of which to speak. You can buy an overpriced artisan coffee from a twat with bad tattoos and a man bun almost anywhere, but if you want tea instead of coffee the same venues will serve you a miserable Lipton's tea-bag scalded with boiling water and shamelessly charge you $5 for the privilege. Coffee fuels the PC set. It is the beverage of choice for establishment progressives. Everywhere today the latte is synonymous with the smug and self-righteous shallowness that has infected the whole of the body politik.
Then there is Don Mei. Don, often accompanied by his lovely wife Celine, is conducting a tea revolution through his tea store in London and through a series of highly informative short video presentations. Here he is:
His motto is 'No one should have to drink bad tea.' Millions do. Globally, tea consumption continues to decline as coffee caffinates the global elite and as the evil purveyors of Big Tea fill supermarket shelves with chinzy flavoured tea confections and bags full of tea dust. It is a staggering injustice that the tea bag was recently named as one of the greatest inventions of the XXth century. In fact, the tea bag is a modern monstrosity - a mass-market perversion of a once sacred drink - and is the single greatest obstacle to people having a genuine tea experience. Don Mei reigns as the tea bag's most ardent opponent and as the most articulate advocate of real tea.
He is the son of one of the legendary pioneers of acupuncture in Europe, Man Fung Mei. Initially, Don shunned his father's profession and took up a career DJing in dubious night clubs. Eventually - realising the precarious nature of the music industry and the impact of too many late nights - he became involved in his father's business importing Asian herbs and medicines into Great Britain, and from there began specialising in importing Chinese tea. He brings a deep knowledge of Chinese traditional medicine, and a comfortable acquaintance with Western pop culture, to the traditional arts of tea drinking. There are no doubt many tea gurus abroad, but Don Mei is - in this writer's opinion - the most accessible of them. His knowledge of tea is vast and he communicates his knowledge in a fresh, fun format (Celine by his side).
As evidence of this, readers need only peruse his video on how to get 'tea drunk'. Don's experience with night club psychotropics has clearly been put to good use. He is an expert on the entheogenic properties of tea and how to extract the maximum blood-to-brain chemical phantasmagoria from the humble camelia sinensis. Caffeine is not all that is going on. Here is the video:
Primarily, though, Mr Mei is a vocal advocate for changing the way in which tea is prepared. That is the key to better tea drinking. There are two general methods for preparing tea; the Western method and the traditional 'gong fu' method. Don never misses an opportunity to urge tea drinkers to switch from the former to the latter. Here is his video on why "tea heads" (as he refers to his viewers) should make the switch to 'gong fu' - it is one of the most informative videos in the series:
The video explains everything you need to know, but in summary 'gong fu' is prepared in a small pot, using quite a bit of tea leaf, and is steeped in hot (but not boiling) water for short periods of time, usually ten or twenty seconds. The tea is poured off, sipped in small cups, and then further extractions are made. The flavour (and chemical goodies) in the leaf is stripped back by infusion in a series of layers, each layer having slightly different properties. The Western method involves using less tea and more water (usually boiling) and letting it steep in one infusion for several minutes. There is, to be honest, something to be recommended in the Western style now and then - an English cup of tea with milk and sugar is a unique delight - but for general purposes, and a far better tea experience, the 'gong fu' method is superior. Suddenly, a whole new world of tea opens up. Suddenly, the different virtues of oolongs and whites and pu'erhs become apparent. You'll never drink Lipton again. (Actually, Liptons are tea blenders. James Lipton was a tea blender, and he made his fortune blending a uniform product much as McDonald's brought uniformity to the hamburger. Lipton's Earl Grey is OK.)
Once you have mastered the 'gong fu' method you can thereafter concern yourself with the great range of distinct flavours (and other properties) of teas from China, Japan, India, Ceylon, and a host of other places. The variety is astounding. (The present author currently fancies a green tea from the Vietnamese highlands.) There are subtleties to the coffee bean, of course, but there is nothing in the profile of coffee to compare to the botantical amplitude of the tea bush. This extends to the psychoactive components of the two plants as well. Superficially, tea and coffee have a similar effect due to the caffeine in both, but in fact they are really quite different. Previous posts to this present site have mentioned this before. To put it another way, coffee (we are talking about its impact on the human psyche here)is the drink of the journalist, while tea is the drink of the diplomat. Coffee is a horizontal drug. Tea evokes vertical and heirarchial levels of consciousness - thus its use in a sacred context in the Asian spiritual traditions over many centuries. Coffee is an externalising drug. Tea has the unique combination of stimulating and internalising effects. It stimulates and internalizes. It is the preminent drug of watchfulness as a spiritual state. Coffee is crude and secular by comparison (unless you are confusing insomnia for watchfulness) its alleged use by certain Soofi groups among the Mohammadans notwithstanding. Coffee fuels the restless journalistic mood of modernity. Tea is a gateway drug into the essential moods and modes of Asian spirituality.
This is going a bit further than Don Mei, but he touches on the history and spirituality of tea now and then as well. If you are looking for a living tea guru you cannot do better than Don Mei. All of his videos are worth watching. They will give you a complete education in tea basics, and then some. You will then begin a journey into the world of real tea, a world of which most tea drinkers are unaware. The task ahead is one of education. The public is woefully uninformed. Only when people awaken to what real tea is like, and how to prepare and drink it, will there be sufficent demand for tea to undergo the sort of cultural gentrification - if we can call it that - that has transformed coffee drinking in the last few decades. Tea has an historical reputation as the beverage of choice of the British Establishment, but in fact its prestige is much diminished and coffee has replaced it as the drink of the elite. This is an opportunity for tea to be rediscovered in a new context, perhaps even as a subversive drink. Don Mei's tea revolution awaits.