Photographed by Morgana Van Peebles
Interviewed by Uma Halsted
Could you introduce yourself?
I’m Mathew So, a student of Columbia.
Where did you grow up?
Staten Island. I went to school on the Lower West Side.
What’s the last song you listened to?
It was probably from the album that we were just listening to. It was “Hosono House” by Haruomi Hosono.
First movie you saw as a child?
I remember when I was a kid, I had one movie downloaded on my ipod, I would watch that on repeat like every night before I went to sleep. And it was The School of Rock. So that definitely was an important movie.
Did your parents or any members of your family drink a lot of tea or create it as a culture when you were a child?
When I was growing up, my grandpa would drink a lot of tea. Every year, we would get these shipments of really nice teas from family members we knew in China. But then my brother David actually got me into collecting tea a couple years ago. For my birthday, he got me some really nice teas to start with, a temperature controlled kettle, and some basic brewing material; and that’s how I started learning about the art of tea.
Do you have a first memory of drinking tea, or if not, do you have a fondest memory?
Most of my favorite memories are just drinking tea with people that I know, like my friends. All of my closest friends I have made at Columbia, I’ve met through making tea for them. I mean I always think that I enjoy tea the most when I’m talking to other people, getting a feel for how they respond to the taste of the tea, what they connect it with. Like people will say, ‘this tea reminds me of this cereal that I had when I was a kid’ or something like that.
Do you drink coffee?
I do drink coffee. But it’s different; like I also drink tea-bag tea, but I use that as more of a utility. When I want to have something nice, I’ll drink tea like this loose leaf tea, using traditional Chinese and Japanese teaware. But if I need energy, I’ll definitely drink coffee or tea.
You mentioned that there are six primary types of tea, could you explain this a little more?
This is called black tea (referencing tea in hand). What we would call black tea is traditionally called red tea [in China]. There’s white tea. There’s blue tea, which is called oolong tea. And then there’s yellow tea, which the process for making was lost for many years. So only in the last couple of years have we been able to make authentic yellow tea.
In general, what is the most basic process in which you brew your teas?
If you’re using something like a Gaiwan - a Chinese tea brewing vessel - you just measure out the amount of leaf that you want and then put it in. Then you get the temperature-controlled water, add it, and you steep it for however long you’re supposed to steep it. After that, decant it using a strainer, and then pour it out into small cups.
For a lot of tea, you want to throw away the first batch, because you want to open the leaves and get rid of what they call “tea dust.” You want to essentially clean off the leaves. So that’s the bare-bones, most basic way to brew tea. And even for specific teas within the sub-branches of tea, you’ll get very specific brewing methods. So for example, if you’re brewing something with buds versus older leaves, the way you would brew those things are very different, but they could both be considered white or green tea.
The tea making process feels very scientific. As a computer science major, have you seen any alignments between that and tea making in the way of thinking or approaching each practice? Or do you see your practice of tea making as more of a break away from the world of computer science?
Tea making definitely appeals to a different part of me [than computer science], like soul versus brain or something. But I guess I do apply a sort of science-y perspective to tea. Using a scientific lens on tea is not uncommon in the hobby. Like in Japan, they have this government organization, where they run studies on tea. And they’ve put out all of these studies and scientific articles about the best way to brew tea or, if you want to brew tea to get a certain flavor out of it, how you do it, or what temperature is best. Applying an empirical and experimental mindset to tea is something I like doing on my own as well.
As tea making is also a very ingenuitive and creative process, did you have a different creative hobby as a kid? Can you describe an early memory of creating in some way?
I didn't do a lot of art or things that you would normally consider [creative]. I played music. I still play music. I play guitar. But in terms of visual art, I didn't really do a lot of that. I liked tinkering with things: taking things apart and seeing how they worked, or trying to see how things worked, but then just breaking them. And I have sort of a similar scientific approach to tea with trying things and seeing how tea responds to very specific changes in the way you brew it.
How do you see tea and making tea as an art form rather than simply a series of steps or just the drinking of tea?
I guess it’s just that I’m cognisant of all of the factors going into making tea, from the farms it comes from to the type of cup it should be served in. I’m definitely cognisant of the environment that I try to serve tea in. But also I’m trying to improve my tea making skills to a point where it goes beyond just something for utility.
Whenever people come in [to my dorm room], they’re like ‘is this room even a dorm?’ And that’s exactly what I’m going for. I want people to just come in here and be taken out of the whole college environment; like this space is its own world for the hour and a half that you’re in here drinking tea. And then when you leave, you get to go back into the real world. But here, people say they feel like time’s stopping or something, which is exactly what I’m trying to do.
You mentioned in your artist statement that you’re trying to push the envelope of what can be considered tea, by mixing old and new. What elements of your practice are old and traditional, and what elements are newer?
When you’re building a traditional Japanese tea room, there are specific ways the room is supposed to be structured, specific fixtures of the room that you’re supposed to have; and even going into the teahouse, the pathway to the tea room is supposed to look a certain way. So I’ve been trying to keep these things in mind when I put this space together.
For example, in every Japanese tea room, there is a little alcove, where they’ll put like a flower, and they’ll hang down a piece of art. And part of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is drawing attention to the art, for example. So that is what I really had in mind over here, with this door being an alcove framing the artwork hanging on it; and that accomplishes a certain aspect of traditional Japanese tea culture. But also, at the end of the day, no matter how close to traditional tea culture I try to get, I’m still brewing tea in my dorm. So there’s always going to be an aspect of something new.
Photographs by Matthew So
What's the wildest form of or type of tea you've brewed, or your favorite experience surrounding tea?
The first time I had tea that was brewed using traditional methods, it was life changing. I thought, 'I didn't know tea could be like this!' And so there have been a couple of other moments like that over the course of my tea journey so far. One of the most eye-opening experiences was [when] my brother and I were in this really small tea shop in Japan. We just [went] up, and looked at the guy's menu. He had this tea, which in English translates to "green pillow." And he gave us this tea. He poured out a lot of leaf and filled the brewing vessel up with water only up to the level of the leaves. And then he just left it there for like five minutes. The water was only like forty degrees Celsius. So at the end of this five-minute process, you're left with this sort-of room-temperature, very very concentrated five drops of tea. And it's the most concentrated, craziest-flavored tea you'll ever try in your life. I wish I could go back and experience that for the first time again.
In your artist statement you write how your “art only exists for a moment and the moment you enjoy it, it’s already gone.” Can you elaborate on this? How does this inspire you with your tea making being an art form?
Every time you brew tea, it's different. Even the slightest adjustments in how you're brewing tea, what you're brewing it in, the amount of time that you're brewing, how much leaf that you're using - even if it's just a little bit different, you're gonna get a different experience. And to try to recreate one experience exactly would be really, really difficult. Even using one set of leaves in one pot, every brew after that is going to taste different; that's a big part of this form of brewing. With every new infusion, you're getting different flavors from it. If you want to go back and try the first one, it's gone; you can't get it back. So that's what I keep in mind. A lot of times when I'm making tea for people, I'll ask them how they like the last brew, and then they'll say something like 'I liked it a lot, yada, yada, yada.' And then the next time, they'll say ‘that was so different. I like that one less,' or whatever. Then, I’ll have to explain to them that we won’t be able to taste past iterations again.
How much control do you have over that, if any?
If people tell me that they didn't like the last brew, because it was too light or because it was too dark or astringent or whatever ... I definitely have a lot of control in those factors. But also after I get a sense for what they like initially, if I'm going to start making new tea, I can definitely cater it to their tastes.
Also, when I say that it's really hard to get a tea back, I also mean in the sense that every year, when new tea is grown - even on the same farm in the same location - the tea of the next year can be very different from the tea that came the year before from the same tree. So that's part of it. And when I drink my favorite tea, there's this sad feeling, because I know that even though I like it a lot right now, I can't keep it forever. In a couple of months, the leaves that I have are going to be bad, and tea with an identical flavor can’t be made again so easily.
It's the same thing for aged teas. If you're aging teas and keeping them for many years, over time, there will be peaks and valleys in the different flavors of the tea. So I definitely believe that you have one shot. Japanese people have this term一期一会 ichi-go ichi-e, and it means ‘every moment, you have a chance.’ They use this a lot in reference to tea, in particular the tea ceremony; they think that even if you have the same people doing the same tea ceremony on two different days, it will be two different experiences, because whatever factors contributing to the first will be different going into the second one.
Photograph by Matthew So
How does your photography coincide with the tea making practice? Do you take pictures separate from your tea making? What do you usually photograph?
I use my photography just as a tool to share my tea experience with people on Instagram,
and I honestly would not say that the photography itself is the focus of my Instagram. It’s for sharing what I’m doing, what I’m drinking. I do photography on my own. But that’s a hobby. I guess tea is a hobby [too], but photography’s definitely more casual for me. [I photograph] people. I travel a lot with my brothers, and I like to photograph them candidly on our trips.
Do you know what you would want to do with tea making, professionally?
Yes. My brother and I like to do a lot of tea experiments. And we have lots of ideas of various ways we could brew tea to get different effects. For example, after we learned about this Green Pillow tea, we tried brewing other teas the same way. Most of them didn’t do so well, but a few of them did. One time we tried to make a tea espresso; that didn't go well either. We haven't really gone into mixing blends yet, but we do want to. Over fall break, I went to California and took a class on how to brew masala chai. I feel that there is some way we can professionally apply all of this, but I’m not sure what that would look like at the moment.
You talk about your brother a lot. Do you see yourselves as partners in this tea journey?
Sort of. Yes. When he introduced me to [tea], I had a lot of time, so I was really getting into it. For as long as we've had the hobby, I've had more free time [than him]. In summers I have time to read about tea history and culture. But whenever one of us learns something new or discovers a great tea shop, we always tell the other. We also go out of our way to drink tea together, and it has become a fixture of the time we spend together. One of our goals is to go on a trip to visit the best tea growing regions in the world.
How do you see your practice of tea making evolving in the near future? Do you have a plan, or are you just taking it day by day?
I’m definitely taking it day by day. This is really for myself; I just want to learn more. I could definitely see tea becoming a bigger part of my life, as it has consistently been up until now. But I just don't know how exactly, or if it would be anything even career oriented at all. I see it as a thing on its own. And I just like to do it because it's fun.
Photographs by Morgana Van Peebles
You mentioned that you've taken classes to learn more about tea making, like the one in California. Do you have any recommendations for others interested in the art of tea?
Online obviously is the best way to learn about and get into tea. There's some great books, too. The Story of Tea is a really interesting book on the history of tea. And if you're looking to learn more about tea, you definitely have to watch MeiLeaf videos on YouTube.
Do you have recommendations of tea shops or teahouses in the city?
Yea, my brother and I have gone to a lot of teahouses together. Probably my favorite one is Té Tea Company. It's right below 14th. It's a small shop, and it's really, really homey.
Why did you submit to Ratrock?
It was just to get the word out about what I'm trying to do and to get people interested. If people are interested, they can definitely message me on my instagram @leafinmyeyes.