how to use different kinds of tea ware

teawarecomposite.jpg Some people want to explore the world of connoisseur tea, but are not comfortable with the idea of brewing teas that do not come in tea bags.  Let’s demystify the options here and save the planet, friends (for more, see my entry on “Tea’s Carbon Footprint”).

First, the only thing you really need in order to brew loose leaf tea is a device to strain the tea or rather separate the infused tea liquid from its leaves. There are several methods to choose from:

1. Porcelain cup with filter: For many people new to loose leaf tea, this is the most comfortable and familiar method of brewing tea.  You simply put tea leaves in the filter, place the fitted filter in the cup, then pour in hot water.  Steep for the allotted time, then remove filter (with leaves), and your tea cup will be filled with a lovely tea infusion. You can put the filter, with the used tealeaves, aside, and steep it again when you are ready. If your cup does not come with a filter, you can use a small strainer, found in almost any cooking store or even the supermarket. Easy peezey.

Thumbnail image for yixingpot2jpg.jpg 2. Tea pot (with its proprietary strainer or with a filter): The next most familiar method is the trusty tea pot.  You will find many choices, but optimally, you would use a glass, porcelain or ceramic teapot to brew white and green teas and porcelain, ceramic or yixing for oolongs, blacks and puerhs. Many tea pots have a built-in filter or some type of internal system at the interior base of the spout that will prevent tea leaves from escaping the tea pot.  If you have a tea pot that has no such filtering device, simply use a filter or strainer over your cup or serving vessel. You can find some very nice strainers made of bamboo and other non-metal materials (which is preferred).

Red Blossom408.JPG 3. Gaiwan:  Ahhhh, the gaiwan…. For those who are new to tea, the gaiwan can be either  enchanting or perplexing.  Once you learn how to use a gaiwan, you might never want to use a filtered tea cup or tea pot again.  The gaiwan comes from China, and comprises a saucer, a cup, and a lid.  In fact, it means “covered bowl” in Chinese.  Regardless, the lid of the gaiwan is used to cover the tea as it steeps, smell the tea, and also prevent the leaves from escaping the cup when the infusion is sipped or poured into a serving vessel.  To use a gaiwan is simple: put tea in the gaiwan.  Rinse the tea for 1 second with hot water, and pour off.  Pour hot water on the leaves and cover with the gaiwan lid.  You can also use the lid as a kind of paddle to nudge the tea leaves awake while the tea is brewing.

Then either pour the infusion into a serving vessel or drink the leaves directly from the cup of the gaiwan, using the lid to hold back the leaves. I brought a gaiwan with me on a family trip, and my father blanched and asked “WHAT is THAT??.  Alas, the gaiwan is not for everyone.

Thumbnail image for bamboo whisk for matcha copy.jpg 4. Japanese tea bowl & whisk (for matcha): Tea has been prepared from ground green tea for more than a thousand years.  In China, it was whisked in a bowl. In Japan, it became the primary object of contemplation and practice in the famed Japanese tea ceremony, but you can lose the kimono if you wish, and simply whisk up some tea to elevate your mood. The bright green froth of a matcha brings great solace and energy to those who love this kind of tea.  To use this method: put a few small scoops (2-3 teasppons) of matcha powder in a ceramic tea bowl.  Pour hot water into the powder and whisk briskly (while you say “whisk briskly” briskly three times :>D ) with a bamboo whisk.  Stay tuned for more information on different kinds of matcha and different Japanese tea ceremonies (hint; there is a sencha ceremony as well).

In all, tea brewing can be taken very seriously and require a number of traditional tools, but it can also be extremely simple and require nothing more than a cup and a filter.  This is the beauty of tea.

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tea picnic season

Rita&Arnas-falls copy.jpg Rita & Arnas sipping a winter baozhong together by Cascade Falls

In Tang dynasty China as well as in Victorian England, taking tea outside was de rigeur, as well as a marvelous way to share some ebullient times and fine teas with great friends and colleagues.  Japanese tea ceremony also celebrates the natural world, but even the most austere and engaging tea room is no match for Mother Nature.

Arnas1.jpgWe have all seen images of those romantic days when folks joined together to sing, laugh, recite poetry, make music, and share philosophies by soft flowing streams and blue mirror lakes, all the while sipping tea.

Spring called up these images, and conspired with memories of last October’s Wuwo tea ceremony to get excited about creating an outdoor tea. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, friends Rita Stanikunaite and Arnas Palaima joined me for the first tea picnic of the season in my hometown in N. California, where streams, waterfalls and redwoods converge to create the ideal tea picnic site. The natural tapestry of wild flowers, towering trees, flashing streams, and rich flowing waterfalls spurred by spring rains made the perfect backdrop to an amazing tea gathering.

Here are some tips for you to consider in creating your own tea picnic or outdoor tea gathering:

  • Bring a thermos of filtered, water which is boiled just before leaving for your hike or picnic.  Use a large thermos–you’ll need it to rinse cups & heat teaware besides just brewing tea.. (Sometimes more IS more.)
  • Bring a tea that requires cooler brewing temperatures–often green, white and delicate oolongs work best.  For our picnic, we chose a winter bao zhong, and it was spectacular!  Now that spring teas are newly arrived, you may want to celebrate the event by choosing new spring teas.
  • PicnicTeaware2.jpgBring teaware:  gaiwan or yixing teapot, cups for each person, serving vessel, and cup coasters. It is fun to bring special tea ware reserved for special occasions.  Pack it carefully or use a tea travel set.
  • Bring a nice mat, blanket, or pretty piece of fabric to sit on and create the space.
  • Find a place that inspires you with its beauty, and light, and which is not heavily visited. It is especially inspiring to have tea by a body of water–stream, waterfall, pond, lake, etc.
  • Bring some delicately flavored snacks. ( I brought a lightly sweetened polenta honey cake and fresh organic anjou pears for color and delicate taste.
  • Bring friends, a date, a colleague, or your family.  Or just head out on the trail on your own.  It’s all good!

We can slow down and enjoy the seasons and its teas.

rethinking the steep

This morning I did a sampling of 2006 Rice Pollen Green Puerh from Pure Puer Tea. Using very hot water for the first couple of infusions for a minute or more produced a very bitter, almost undrinkable tea. But the lovely, smokey aroma wafting off the lid of the gaiwan suggested that I had erred, and there was something good to be found in this tea.

According to Roy Fong in his book, The Great Teas of China, “Younger, less fermented puerh can easily become bitter, so try about 2 tsp in medium-hot water with a 1-3 minute steep time.” I’ve noticed that Roy likes his tea “thick” (heavily infused), so even the 1-3 minute steep time might still be too long for some teas for another palate.

So I started completely over with a new serving of leaves, and this time brewed only one teaspoon in 185-190ºF water for only 5-10 seconds (similar to brewing specs at Pure Puer Tea). Nice!

I had a very similar experience with David Hoffman’s Bamboo Fragrance Puerh, which when steeped for 90 seconds was undrinkable.  Taking it down several notches made the magic happen. Brewed in 195ºF water for about 15 seconds created a really fine and unique brew, offering a kind of smokey, exotic taste that made me feel as if I were sitting by an open fire with the tribe that had picked and processed the tea.

So, the next time you find an “undrinkable” tea, try steeping it very differently.  Hotter or cooler water, more or less leaf, different tea ware, or a change in steeping duration (or a combination of some of these variables) can make all the difference.

Then again, some teas ARE undrinkable.  In such a case, toss it in the garden, and find a new tea.

tea brewing for the connoisseur

 

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A number of tea masters and merchants recommend brewing techniques as guidelines, and in the same breath say, “But these are just signposts. You have to know the tea.”

By learning the nuances of one tea, you pick up the secrets of others. This is the art of the tea connoisseur.

For example,  J-Tea’s Mi Xiang oolong, smells a little bitter after the rinse, and when brewed for 60 seconds, the tea exhibits a harsh edge and an almost dry mouth feel. When brewed for 20 seconds, however, it’s a really fine, smooth tea with complexity, character, and even a wry sweetness.  Where did the bitterness go? It seems to have been swallowed by the black hole created by the absent 40 seconds.

The same goes for the Bamboo Fragrance Puerh from The Phoenix Collection and a number of other teas that I now recognize as a category when I smell them….the sharp, bitter smell, mingled with other notes like sweetness and smokiness signal a tea that requires a short brewing time.  Brew it for only 10-20 seconds and you might not taste any bitterness at all.

This works for Phoenix oolongs, green puerhs, and other teas like J-Tea’s Mi Xiang. So in getting to know the Mi Xiang by spending real time with it, I learned something about a certain quality in tea and what it’s telling me about its brewing requirements.

From there, brewing variables increase: you can experiment with different tea ware or water, leaf quantity, and higher or lower water temperature. Each tea will sing more sweetly or wail a little louder with each slight change.

What are you learning from tea? Let me hear about your tea adventures….

how experts judge teas

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How do experts judge teas? By “cupping”.  That’s what it is called when experts line up a series of white porcelain cups, drop a standardized amount of tea (usually 3 grams) into each of them, then pour boiling hot water over the tea and let it sit for exactly five minutes.

Yes, five minutes each–whether a green, black, oolong or white tea. For most teas, this standardized infusion will render the leaves steeped to or beyond their full potential, drawing out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the teas.

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Following this, the tea buyer will submerge a white porcelain spoon into an infused tea, then sniff the spoon to take in the aroma of the tea. After that, the spoon is used to allocate a small amount of tea into his or her personal tea cup for tasting.  The spoon is then rinsed in hot water before sampling the next tea in line to ensure that no residue of the previously tested tea will influence the taste of the next.

This process can and usually does take hours of sipping, discussing, waiting, laughing, and weighing (both teas and opinions).  It’s all quite fun, until one realizes that the tea is stronger than the tea drinker.  Buyers might even return the next day to try final-selection teas with a fresh palate to be sure of the purchase.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, I found it at first quite difficult to judge teas this way.  They all tasted terrible to me when steeped for five minutes in boiling water.  But watching expert tea buyers cupping teas and asking them many questions helped me to understand what they were looking for in the sample brews.

As in other areas of life, one generally must make compromises when selecting teas.  One infusion might have a floral aroma to knock your socks off, but a bit of a harsh bite to the taste buds. Another might have a very full-bodied flavor but not have as great an aroma. Still others have their strengths and weaknesses. It must be very rare indeed that a tea expert has that “ah ha!” sentiment when finding the “perfect” tea.

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What many tea buyers look for in a tea is balance. The various notes of the tea harmonize with eachother, without any particular aspect of the tea overpowering the others.  They might also be looking for the archetypal qualities of certain tea varietals to be present.  It might be a great tasting Phoenix oolong, but does it have that honey finish for which it is famous?  Does the Lishan have that buttery, light mouth feel that is so sought after by connoisseurs of tea? Does the Ti Kuan Yin offer that “whoosh” that comes off one’s face with the delicate, almost ethereal finish?

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Judges often cup more than a dozen teas at one time, and each person has his or her own way of marking which ones should be pursued further. Some people move the actual cups forward or backward, others make mental notes, others make notes on paper.  When the contest has narrowed to only two or three teas, the tea buyer might ask the seller to steep the teas in a gaiwan, and as a person would do for himself at home.  This way the tea buyer gets a sense of what customers will actually taste.

What you finally receive in your cup as a customer is a bit of the palate of the tea buyer, the gifts of the tea farmer and craftspeople, and ultimately, the character of the tea.

heating elements for tea

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Many variables play a role in the making of a great cup of tea: water quality, water temperature, and amount as well as the  type, quality and quantity of tea leaves, and of course, steeping time. What few consider, however, is the impact of the heating element on the tea.

Some tea people are mindful of this, and go out of their way to find or create just the right  heating element.  Possible sources for heat include charcoal fire, wood fire, electric coil (stove), gas range, and ceramic heat, among others including electric plug-in appliances.

In earlier times, and still now in some parts of the world, people had no choice but to heat water over a wood or charcoal fire. From experience, I can say this does enhance the pleasure of a tea event, but how does it influence the tea itself? Does it matter if you boil tea over a hot flame or stove or more slowly at a medium high temperature?

According to Lu Yu, author of The Classic of Tea (Ch’a Ching) in eighth century China, “The ancients placed a great store in tea’s flavor when it was brewed with firewood that had been cured for a long time.” If using charcoal, he said, be sure to use new charcoal so that it does not “give off a musty, rank and greasy smell”.  He also advised against using “oily wood or worn-out or discarded utensils as fuel.”

It is hard to know what he would have thought of a gas or electric range or a Zojirushi, but my guess is that he would think electricity to be too excitable for the best in tea.

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In American society, we tend to like the quick fix – the electric kettle or Zojirushi. Some among us still revert to wood fire, but usually when camping, and not on a regular basis. Others use ceramic hotplates, which heat the tea at an even rate, and have high marks among tea connoisseurs for its impact on the tea.

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Japanese tea ceremony relies on the ritual making of a charcoal fire in a pit as well as the cleaning of same. There are even special procedures for placing and removing particular pieces of charcoal as part of the ceremony.  For the making of the fire to be a part of such an important tea ceremony, the quality of the fire must have impact on the quality of the tea and the tea experience.

Some people think electricity disturbs the energy of the tea water and that a wood or charcoal fire lends a natural element which cannot be duplicated by nuclear generated power.  Whether these enhance the tea itself is up for speculation.  Any comments?

letting tea settle

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It is the natural inclination to act on your excitement when receiving tea in the mail by opening the package immediately and sitting down to steep it.  If you happen to feel mildly surprised or disappointed that the tea is not “performing” as you had hoped, try letting it rest for a few weeks or more, then steeping it again.  You will likely be rewarded.

Just as people can often feel a little out of sorts after moving homes or travelling long distances, tea can take some time to re-orient and settle after being jostled over miles of ground travel or pressurized at 30,000 feet during air transport.
I noticed this strongly with my recent shipment of Asian Beauty, which after five weeks of settling in my storage, now offers a rich, smooth, round body and soft mouth feel that were, shall we say, “struggling” when I first received it.
People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience “shock” when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.
I have experienced this with several teas, and noticed that some teas can take a few months   of “regrouping” to reach their fullest potential, particularly when the tea has travelled from one country to another.
If you are willing to be patient and let your tea get over its jet lag, you will often be repaid with a bright, smooth tea that provides the resilience it has developed, as well as the rest and comfort as it has been given.

tea notes

_MG_3230.jpgSome teas are unforgettable, indeed. But knowing so well that nuances of even the finest teas can be lost from the imagination, we created a tea diary for those who want one hundred per cent recall (like we do).

This tea diary begins with a seven-page introduction on steeping teas, tea terminology, and an explanation of the notes pages.  The next 120+ pages are all yours for recording the sensual facets of your teas.

Journal entry pages provide a template for judging teas from aroma and mouthfeel to leaf characteristics and brewing specs. The back of each page is left blank for you to include any additional notes that suit your particular interests.

Use a separate journal for each tea merchant whose teas you love, or for each tea type or simply use the diary  as a chronological record of your tea adventures.

We have recreated for you the template that we use ourselves in sampling and rating teas, and hope you will find this to be an asset to your tea education.
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