A cup of tea for you and me
and one more for the pot makes three
A cup of time, both yours and mine
makes well-loved pots reveal their shine
Tea preparation is the topic of the hour in my life. I just broke a lifetime record, having sipped my seventh cup of tea today. I’m drunk on tea because the teas I’m drinking are so very good that I just can’t get enough. It’s true that the teas I’ve picked are outstanding *and* it’s also true that after nine weeks of my all-out obsession, I’m improving in my craft of coaxing a fine cup of tea. You can too!
Brewing loose tea can be as simple as a pinch of leaves in a thermos of hot water, waiting indiscriminately and then eventually drinking the result. That description represents the most basic end of the spectrum, one in which legions of people employ daily; it contrasts immensely with the opposite end: an exquisite performance of spiritualized art where every detail of the process is attended to by the learned and intuitive hand of a connoisseur. Most people find themselves hovering near the simpler side but I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the middle, peering toward that alluringly elegant end.
My opinion is informed by an amalgamation of suggestions from a gaggle of tea specialists and from my own experience. I will elaborate with the idea that you’ll extract what is personally significant to use at your own discretion.
Number One: Water. The main ingredient in tea is water, after all. My proposition is that everyone will benefit from using the best water available to them. What is the very best water of all time? Mountain spring water from the same region in which your tea was produced, of course! What is the more accessible choice? Filtered water that is free of heavy metals, excessive minerals and chlorine and which has a neutral pH and neutral taste. We want to taste more of the tea itself, instead of the reaction of the tea to the excess of foreign particles in the water. Tap water isn’t very good for making tea especially because chlorine levels in typical municipal systems tend to adversely affect the flavor–a Brita-type filter works just fine for transforming tap effluence. Apparently, reverse osmosis removes the trace minerals that actually help the flavor of tea shine, so it’s recommended that we avoid this system, though I myself have found it a superior alternative to unfiltered tap water. Ideally, I’d either use wild artesian well water (I don’t yet know where they are in Texas) or a Berkey water filtration system–feel free to give this to me, any of you! Please and thanks in advance.
Number Two: Tea. Don’t be shy about splurging on the “fancy” teas because it still usually ends up being much less than a dollar per cup. Plus, you’re more likely to treat it as something to appreciate and savor if you perceive it as fancy. I use loose leaf teas almost exclusively because I enjoy the interactive experience of their preparation. I encourage you to try them out if you haven’t before. You can observe their unique qualities with all of your senses and, if properly stored, they tend to retain their integrity and flavor better in this form because there’s less surface area exposed to oxygen, preserving the aromatic molecules for your express enjoyment.
Bagged tea often employs the broken pieces or the tea “dust” from the manufacturing process; this is considered inferior in quality but infuses more quickly in the cup because of its increased surface area. When teabags use “whole” leaf tea, the bags don’t tend to offer enough room for the leaves to properly unfurl and fully release their fragrant magic. That said, teabags have their place (whilst travelling, for instance) and there are more and more high quality teas available in this form. Try many types of tea to find out what you enjoy, because there is a vast and beautiful, ever-changing array of things to fall in love with. If you need more information about types of tea, please refer to my previous post about the basics, Elixir of Life. If you like to read reviews of specific teas, check out websites like steepster.com or tea companies’ websites.
Number Three: Vessel. Choose the appropriate teaware for the tea you’ve selected. While any of these teas can be made with a strainer in a cup, there are other methods and tools that may be more suitable to the tea, to your aesthetic or the trajectory of your own special tea adventure. I’m going to tell you about a few of the vessels I was unfamiliar with before my tea obsession.
If you’ve chosen a delicate white, yellow, green or lighter oxidation wulong tea, it is best to use a smaller teapot, with which you can make numerous infusions of the same leaves. The small pot allows the fragrances to build up better and concentrates them, in addition to cooling a little quicker, which is beneficial to these tender teas, whose molecules continue reacting and processing when exposed to sustained heat.
A gaiwan (aka – guywan or zhong) is simply a covered bowl. These days, they are often daintily perched on a saucer for ease of use. They are good for preparing almost any tea, especially the lighter ones such as white, yellow, green, or wulong. They’re often porcelain or sometimes glass. Place the leaves and water in the gaiwan and steep according to the instructions or your own intuition. You may sip directly from the cup, using the lid to hold back tea leaves, or you can use the lid to strain and decant the liquor into another vessel for serving.
Gongfu pots are part of the equipage for gongfu cha, a tea ceremony originating in China but which is also a tradition in Taiwan. Gongfu is also spelled kungfu, a phrase which you may associate with martial arts, though it applies more generally to the concept of achievement through effort. These tiny pots are often made of Yixing clay from China; the clay is porous and “remembers” the fragrances of previously brewed tea, so it is best to select one type of tea to consistently prepare in it, such as pu-erh. Wulong and pu-erh teas are especially suited to this style of preparation, which utilizes a large ratio of tea leaves to a small amount of hot water, steeped for a matter of seconds and then decanted into tiny cups for savoring. Multiple infusions reveal concentrated snapshots of the tea’s evolution through its special aromas and flavors. It should be noted that gaiwans may also be used for gongfu cha.
Tea bowls are a simple way to drink matcha, wulong and some puerh teas. While the preparation of matcha is often ritualized in chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, it is also possible to make it more simply; Zhi Tea in Austin, TX uses a heat-safe bottle to shake the hot water and matcha powder together instead of whisking it. This method produces a small amount of the characteristic froth, which ends up topping your cup as you pour it from bottle to bowl. To use a tea bowl as a one-piece steep and drink method for other types of tea, place a small amount of tea leaves in the drinking bowl of your fancy, then pour the water on it. Continue adding water to it as you drink it down–a tip I’ve read suggests keeping the cup at least two-thirds full at all times. I haven’t tried this method because I like the complexity of the others so I can’t speak to its effectiveness yet.
Number Four: Brew. Know that if you are interested in developing the subtle complexity of your tea and relieving yourself of unwanted bitterness, you will take care to investigate the brewing instructions associated with the particular tea you’ve chosen. Many tea companies list the recommended quantity of leaf to water ratio, the temperature of the water and the brew time on their packaging, which I beseech you to heed, at least the first time–it can mean the difference between a well-balanced, shimmering cup of nectar-like tea and an otherwise bitter and nasty mess. I’ve ruined tea before by both over- and under-steeping, so I suggest timing your teas to find your favorite strength. Don’t mess with the temperature of the water. Just don’t. It takes a little work but this system is tantamount to the increased potential for enjoyment. Tip: if you bought your tea in bulk, note the company that produced it for they will often list brewing instructions on their website.
With a little practice, you can learn how to hear when the water is hot enough in the kettle by the frequency and ferocity of its rising bubbles. Try using a thermometer to test your hypothesis about the temperature. A useful habit is to pour a little hot tap water in your chosen steeping vessel to warm it up and then dump it into the cup to warm that as well. Pre-heating your pot means it won’t rob the tea water of its necessary high degrees in trying to warm itself up first, which would put you at risk of an under-brewed beverage. It also ensures that you have hot tea for a longer period of sipping. Hooray!
Number Five: Explore. When the tea leaves and water are in your pot, gaiwan or bowl, place your face at a safe distance and sniff the steam wafting up from the brew, and then do it again after a minute or two. Does it smell well-developed and like you want to drink it? What about now? Sniff in short, repeated puffs like a dog on a scent trail, since it helps get the aroma molecules up to your olfactory gland more effectively. If you can, use vessels with white interiors or made of borosilicate glass to observe the way the color of the water changes as it is infused with the tea. It may be darker, lighter or a very different color than you expected–color is not indicative of strength or doneness. Please be open minded.
If you are accustomed to putting cream or sweetener in your tea, try this cup on its own. Slurp it so that the liquor is aerated as it enters your mouth–this is proper tea etiquette! Taste it like you would a good wine, beer or coffee and pay close attention to what you are experiencing. Hold the infusion in your mouth while slowly exhaling through your nose–this helps you detect aromas better; are there any aromas or flavors that remind you of something else? Is it bitter, sweet, sour or umami? Try to describe it in words. Some categories of aromas that you might perceive include vegetal, marine, nutty, fruity, floral, honey-like, chocolatey or malty. Share your tea! Ask someone you like to describe what they taste in it because they might notice something you didn’t.
Try to see this is an opportunity to connect to your body, your senses and a slower, more focused way of being. In tea, you are presented with a gift from nature and from the hands of skilled artisans. The gift is to thoroughly enjoy the sensorial pleasures but also to remember how to be human outside of our modern, digital age. A whole world of steps were carried out and many people worked hard to bring this tea to your lips; feel gratitude for the beauty of what is in your cup. Be grateful for the privilege of tasting this tea and having the time to pause and appreciate, for if you have this, you are most certainly blessed.