The Art of Chinese Tea

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Traditionally called Cha Dao, or the Dao of Tea, it is the harmony of tea, water, utensils, preparation, environment and conversation to create the perfect moment–a moment that can last for hours. A skilled pourer of tea creates the moment without standing in the middle of it. The moment belongs to the fragrance and taste of the tea, the atmosphere of ‘tea friends’ coming together, a moment outside the hecticness of daily life.

However, the art of soaking tea in China is not about creating that moment. It is about the tea itself. The moment is simply something which enhances the tea, and anything which increases the joy of drinking such a wonderful plant is to be cultivated. Good tea sparks spontaneous joy, a lightheartedness which separates it from the Japanese tea ritual. In Japan, the tea is a way to attaining a certain state; for the Chinese, that state is simply a way of soaking a better pot of tea.

Over its almost 2,000 known years of history, the ways of preparing and drinking tea have undergone great changes, just as some types of tea have waxed and waned in popularity. There are many varieties of tea bushes, each unique in their own flavors. Today, most tea is loose leaf tea, separated into three main categories, which are green, Wulong (literally black dragon), and red (known as black tea in the west). Thus, any freshly picked tea leaf can be made into a green tea, a Wulong tea, or red tea. However, certain varieties of leaf lend themselves to one preparation method or another. The famous leaf grown in the Longjing/Dragon Well region of Hangzhou where we live has a highly prized flavor when prepared as a green tea, while fully fermenting it would destroy the leaf. Pu Er, a fully fermented tea that is prized for its age, has little taste if prepared as a green.

While green tea is certainly the most famous of all teas, red tea probably has the largest global market share and Wulongs have the highest quality. The greatest Wulongs are grown in the mountains of Taiwan, where the mists, sun and elevation combine to create the perfect climate for semi-fermented tea. The leaves are cared for by generations of tea farmers for whom growing tea is more of a way of life than a livelihood. Today, it is around Wulong tea that the greatest efforts are made in the art & ritual of Chinese tea, though with the increase in wealth and leisure time in mainland China, the soaking of Green tea as an art is fast returning to its former glory during Imperial times.

Soaking Tea
The most important ingredient of soaking tea is water. The quality of the water used is much more critical to the taste of the tea than the actual tea leaf itself. A skilled pourer with good water can make a bad tea palatable. However, there is no way to savor a good tea when made with bad water. Unfortunately, water is the ingredient most people think least about. A skilled pourer will taste many different kinds of water to find the best tasting one. While tap water will never do, many famous brand bottled waters are not ideal, either. The best thing to do is buy a variety of waters from a store and taste test them. There are many stories around the quality of the water used in the ancient books, and this should be the place a tea lover puts his or her greatest efforts. Once one has procured good water, one must be careful not to boil it for too long or too many times. Water that is over-boiled is said to be dead in Chinese, devoid of its Qi. While seemingly esoteric, they are referring to the flat taste water takes on when over-boiled, a taste that comes through to a refined palate.

The tea itself is next important, though it could also be said to be the least relevant to the entire process of drinking tea. This is because an excellent tea can be ruined by poor preparation skill, and a poor tea can be appreciated when soaked by a masterful hand. However, assuming that a pourer has a basic level of skill, the flavor of the leaf is critical. I say flavor instead of quality, because I live by the words of one of my most influential tea teachers. “Never judge a tea by its fame or buy it for its price. You must only judge tea by how much you like the taste. If you are very lucky, you will like cheap teas. What a pity the teas I like are all expensive ones.” If you are not one of the lucky few to be immune to the powers within a high end leaf, then the next best thing is to cultivate your skills to the greatest level possible. As your skills improve, you will continuously discover new levels of pleasure from your choice of tea. There is no shortage of variety in tea, nor in cost. A pound of tea can cost less than a dollar or more than ten thousand. Fortunately, to go beyond several hundred dollars a pound requires a palate few people ever cultivate. While that may seem a high price at first, it is a sum one ends up gladly paying for the love that went into growing and processing a high end tea.

Proper utensils that are pleasing to the pourer come next. People’s choices run from Chan/Zen simplicity in color and shape to ornate designs fit for the Imperial court. For many tea lovers, collecting utensils becomes a passion that consumes more money than their taste in tea does! However, the best place to start with is a complete set of simple utensils until one develops an understanding for the tea. As one’s skill in brewing tea increases, one’s appreciation for the quality of porcelain or clay used in the process does, too. An example of the generosity among tea drinkers is bequeathing your past pots and cups to new lovers of tea. In that way, even ordinary utensils stay treasured as new generations join that most wonderful association of people the world over, known as Cha You, or Tea Friends.

Finally, the skill of the pourer enters into play. While most people place this above all else, I place it last. Without a doubt, a person highly skilled in the art of Chinese tea makes a good tea great and critical for a high end tea. But with only rudimentary training, any lover of tea can enjoy a perfect infusion of fragrance, taste and time for the perfect pot of tea. Part of the great pleasure of tea is watching your skill grow from the excitement of a novice to the refined palate of a connoisseur to appreciating the uniqueness of each year’s harvest or a special tea found through a network of fellow tea lovers.

Pouring Tea
The basic art of pouring of tea requires easy access to boiling water, a clean, attractive kettle, and the proper tea utensils.

For Green and Flower Teas water should be brought to between 70-85 degrees Celsius, depending on the tea. If you have a see through kettle or one which has an easy opening lid, this is the temperature range at which the first bubbles leave the bottom of the kettle. However, with practice, nothing will be more accurate than training your ears over time. Boiling water scalds the leaves, ruining the taste of delicate green teas. While improper water temperature will certainly brew the tea, it does not allow the full complexity of tastes to come out. Many of these complexities do not surface on the palate until a few minutes after the tea has been drunk, so one should never rush to drink cup after cup with any connoisseur tea, especially with Greens. Start at the lower temperatures and work your way up until you find the perfect temperature for the tea on hand.

For Greens and light teas, the teapot should be filled to approximately 1/4 to 1/3 full with tea. Water is poured into the teapot and then immediately emptied into the gathering pot. This is known as rinsing the tea, which washes out any dust that may be on the leaves while also warming the gathering pot. New water is poured into the teapot and left to sit for 30-45 seconds. During this time, pour the washed tea into the teacups to warm them as well. The tea is then poured into the gathering pot, the drinking cups are emptied. Fill each person’s drinking cup from the gathering pot and enjoy.

The tea is only rinsed once. On successive soakings, first fill the gathering pot with water to warm it, then the teapot. While the tea is soaking, use the gathering pot water to warm the cups and continue as above. Green teas are light, which means after the third soaking most of the flavor is gone.

Tea flavor changes dramatically with temperature change, both when soaking in the pot and sitting in the drinking cup. Warming the drinking utensils ensures that the tea never undergoes a rapid temperature change, allowing the full complexities time to unfold. Remember that you must coax the full essence of the tea out during each step of the soaking–you cannot be sudden with a fine tea. If the tea seems bitter or only has one dominant taste, use less leaves the next time. The highest end Longjing Dragon Well, for instance needs much fewer leaves.

If you are soaking in a lidded teacup or glass cup, make sure to warm the cup before adding tea leaves. Begin with just enough leaves to cover the bottom, then fill with slightly warmer water than used for a teapot and let steep. The longer the tea sits in the cup without going cold, the more complex tastes will appear.

For Wulong Teas
Water should be brought to approximately 80-90 degrees Celsius, depending on the tea. If you are eyeing it, there should be several streams of small boiling lines leaving the bottom of the kettle, but the pot should not reach a full boil. Again, boiling water scalds the leaves, though Wulongs are slightly more tolerant of higher temperatures. Should your water come to a full boil, simply remove the lid and wait for it to cool back down. If you are unsure, err on the side of the water being too hot. For Wulong and Green teas, if the water is not hot enough, the flavors will not soak out of the leaves. Good tasting water brought to the right temperature is an important part of soaking tea.

For Wulongs, the teapot should be filled to approximately 1/5 to 1/4 full with tea. As with Green tea, water is poured into the teapot and then immediately emptied into the gathering pot to rinse the tea. Wulongs also should soak from between 30-45 seconds, depending on the tea. During this time, pour the washed tea into the fragrance cups to warm them. The tea is then poured into the gathering pot and the fragrance cups are emptied. Fill each person’s fragrance cup from the gathering pot. After a few seconds, each person empties their fragrance cup into their drinking cup and then smells the cup. The scent from the fragrance cup will change as it cools. Rotating the cup allows more fragrance to be released.

The tea is only rinsed once. On successive soakings, first fill the gathering pot with water to warm it, then the teapot. While the tea is soaking, use the gathering pot water to warm the fragrance cups and continue as above. Wulongs teas are stronger, which means it can be soaked up to 5 times before the flavor is gone. I personally do not use fragrance cups after the third pot.

Paying attention to the temperature of the teapot, gathering pot, fragrance and drinking cups is critical to Wulong tea. Improper soaking temperatures and not warming the cups stop complexities hidden within the tea from surfacing.

Why the Gathering Cup?
Soaking leaves change flavor with every second in the pot. If one fills each cup individually, the first and last person served are tasting two completely different teas. By first pouring all of the tea into the gathering cup and then into individual cups, everyone is enjoying and discussing the same tea fragrance and taste. The best way to understand this is to experiment with longer and shorter soaking times with your tea. Each tea is different, and each consecutive soaking has a different taste. A skilled hand examines the tea before going into the pot and then notes the fragrance and color of the rinsing. This then tells the pourer whether a tea should soak for a longer or shorter time, and how to adjust the time of consecutive soakings to maximize the leaf’s personality.

Using a Gai Wan, or Lidded Cup
A gaiwan is a wonderful way to enjoy tea by yourself, or when the focus is more on the company and less on the making of tea. The bottom of the cup should be just covered with tea. Water is poured into the cup and covered. When the tea has cooled to drinking temperature, the lid is used to push the floating leaves aside while drinking. A gaiwan can usually be refilled three times. Adjust the quantity of tea in future soakings to suit your taste.

The Basic Utensils
•Good tea, water, and a nice place and/or friends to enjoy it with.

•A teapot and gathering pot. When drinking very good teas, the size of the teapot can range from two to six drinking cups. It is difficult to fully soak out the best of a leaf in a teapot larger than that. This has given rise to describing tea in two categories: big pot tea and small pot tea. To put one into the other does not respect the nature of the tea.

•Drinking cups and fragrance cups. Ideally, cups should be white inside. This allows you to judge the color of the tea to the fragrance and taste it has. The ability to recognize the strength of a tea by its color and taste is an important step in mastering the number of seconds a specific tea should soak.

•Saucers for your drinking and fragrance cups. This keeps the cups contained together, which is important as the effects of the tea suffuse the body. It also keeps the drops of tea and water that invariably escape during the soaking and pouring process from reaching the table.

•Tea tools. There should be a funnel for putting on your teapot when filling it with tea; there should be a scooper to gently take the tea out of its bag and place it via the funnel into the teapot; there should be a set of tongs to empty cups too hot to touch; there should be a scraper for scraping used leaves out of the teapot; and there should be a poker for clearing the spout should it become blocked by tea leaves.

•A tea tray. The tea tray is known as the Sea of Tea, as that is where all the water from the rinsings and warmings gather. There are many different kinds of tea trays, from ones that catch the water to be emptied later, to those with a draining tube running to a hidden bucket. At home, I am partial to the simplicity of a bamboo tray which catches the water. A tea tray that catches water and is made of wood or bamboo should always have some water in it when not being used to keep it from splitting. I view my bamboo tray like my house plants–to be kept watered.
Your Tea Friends,
Andrew & JulieAnn Nugent-Head