Monday, July 21, 2008

On the importance of water

The water with which you brew your tea is at least as important, if not more-so, than the tea itself. We could introduce the most elaborate of tea ceremonies with the highest Imperial grade Chinese tea, but it could still be ruined if we have water of poor quality.

Generally, town water supplies are not very good because they've been over-filtered (taking out all of the wonderful nutrients inherent within naturally occurring water) and have elements such as chlorine and fluoride added. These chemicals can often be tasted in a glass of town water, and in tea they'll often give the tea a flat, chemical flavour, and can ruin good earthenware, unglazed teaware if you're not careful!

The other thing to be extremely careful of is minimizing the amount of contact your water has with metals other than silver (this goes for your teas as well). Metal tends to impart some of its flavour to the things it touches, giving water and tea a slightly metalic taste. So try to avoid your water's contact with metal. The only exception to this rule is silver, being a pure and natural mineral. Often tea connoisseurs will have silver teaware to store teas and even teapots to pour from! An expensive hobby to be sure... Occasionally, if the teapot or other teaware has been blessed, it can also impart positive, uplifting chi upon the owner and drinker. Again, this contributes to the overall affect of the tea. Think of the positive effect of chi as the power of positive thinking, projection, etc. as there has been much written and demonstrated on this subject. The same notion applies. But getting back to water...

Fresh well water isn't bad, as long as it doesn't go through a process whereby chemicals are added or over-filtered and treated. The best water though, by far, is natural spring water. I've heard rumours there are specific mountains in China where the glaciers offer the finest, purest, sweetest waters for brewing the most perfect teas. It is to these waters the rare, specialty Chinese teas truly respond. Chinese mythology suggests some masters of tea in China used to send people for these waters to be brought back to them for their own tea brewing in stone containers. I would not be overly surprised to learn if this still occurs.

For those who believe, these waters contain the most chi energy. Have you ever drunk from a fresh, unadulterated mountain stream? It is instantly refreshing, energizing and rejuvenating when on a long hike, unlike bottled water which will merely quench your thirst (maybe). That ability of natural spring water to have such an affect is believed to be the chi energy inherent in it. Imagine brewing a cup of high energy tea, in a high energy teapot with high energy spring water! The effect is indescribable. If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommmend taking your favourite teapot and Chinese tea with you to a naturally fed spring on a little used mountain trail, heat the water to boiling (just in case there are parasites or other nasties in it) and allow it to cool as you normally would, and proceed to have the finest cup of tea you've ever encountered. To me, there truly is no comparison. Natural spring water makes any good tea simply fantastic.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Teapot

The teapot you choose depends very much on the tea you are drinking. What you use for a fresh green, oolong or white tea is different from that of an aged pu erh or aged oolong. For a fresh tea, I personally prefer a ceramic teapot, and I'm particularly partial to a gaiwan (three pieces: saucer, cup and lid). The ceramic doesn't retain the tea essences over time, but I find it allows the tea to more fully open both in flavour and aroma than a glass teapot which could also be used. I find the thinner the ceramic the nicer the final beverage (my favourite teacups are nearly paper-thin and almost translucent). That said, with finer ceramic the heat transmits very quickly making it difficult on the fingertips of some. The gaiwan takes practice to learn to pour from as well, but with time you'll burn your fingers far less!

For an aged oolong or pu erh I would use an unfinished fired clay teapot. These are particularly special. Depending on your own special interests, some people reserve a single teapot of this kind to drink only with a specific tea (i.e. a particularly special aged sheng pu erh). Personally I reserve one for my oolongs and one for my pu erhs, though I have my preferences as well. Part of the reason for using the unglazed teapot for these teas is that you actually want them to retain the tea's essences over time because those essences contribute to the flavour of future pours, giving future teas an even richer, fuller flavour.

No two teapots are the same or created equal either. Hand-thrown pots are far superior to slip-cast teapots and the clay of Yixing in China is superior to almost any other; it is certainly the best known in Chinese tea drinking circles. Because the clay is so thick and porous it better retains the tea essences faster than clay for finished teapots from other places. In addition, the artisans in Yixing produce masterful work. These teapots are easily distinguishable from others. That said, the artisanship in places like Yinge in Taiwan cannot be discounted either: but the clay is not AS good for the final product. However, there have been some real teapot innovations coming out of Taiwan such as the bottom pour! One of the reasons for selecting a hand-crafted teapot are its chi properties, which are far superior to a slipcast model. As your teapot retains tea essences, it melds the chi of the teas held and poured from it, growing its own chi further.

When selecting your teapot you also don't want one too big or too small for the number of people you are serving. With practice you'll know the size that is right. I find it's nice to have a 1-2 person teapot, 3-4 person teapot and 5-6 person teapot. Any more people than that and you can double steep in the gong fu tradition pouring from the tea pitcher only every two times you pour from the teapot. The 1-2 person teapot is perfect for enjoying tea by yourself and is also nice to reach a degree of meditation you may not otherwise experience with a larger group of people to distract. That said, sharing tea is an age-old tradition, particularly in China and drinking it in this fashion is perhaps unique for many outside of Asia.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gong Fu Cha instructions

Tea appreciation in China has, over the past several thousand years, evolved into a multiplicity of tea cultures across the vast country. From north to south, east to west, region to region, each place appreciates tea in a slightly different manner from the next. That said they all share one common thread: their appreciation for a truly magnificent cup of tea. Gong Fu Cha, traditionally from Fujian province in China and modified slightly in Taiwan (formerly Isla Formosa), is one method by which to truly appreciate a gourmet, specialty tea.

Included below I have outlined a common method by which to enjoy Gong Fu Cha. The reason I include this here is because drinking tea is not just a comfort drink at three in the afternoon sipped from a teacup and saucer. Tea, when experienced fully, is enlightening, revitalizing and up-lifting. However, the ritual involved in the pouring of tea is as important as the tea itself. To follow Gong Fu Cha, means setting time aside in your day, to sit and meditate over a cup of tea. The health benefits of the tea are therefore increased as the tea and the meditation complement one another to let the stress of the average North American day just melt away.

There are several components most commonly utilized to drink in the Gong Fu Cha tradition. A tea sink, whether made of stone, fired clay, bamboo, teak or even plastic (not recommended), catches the excess water and tea poured off. A small teapot (often of unfinished, fired clay) contains the leaves to be steeped. For pu erh and some oolongs the unfinished pot actually begins to take on the essences of the teas over time adding to the already wonderful flavours inherent in each great tea. If such a teapot has only been used for great teas it will, over time, actually begin to shine a little and increase in value!

The Taiwanese tend to employ a tea pitcher and separate strainer to filter out any loose particles, which contributes to an even clearer cup of tea. And in addition, if a glass tea pitcher is used, one can easily see the clarity and colour of the tea as it is prepared. Other necessary components also include a heat source of some kind and a kettle or glass hot water carafe to keep water constantly hot/warm. The best heat source is one that can be adjusted so that the water temperature is reduced for white and green teas, and progressively warmer for oolong and pu erhs (in that order!). A pair of cups for each person participating is the final touch for enjoying tea in this tradition. The pair of cups includes a flat, wide mouthed drinking cup (cha bei) and a taller, small mouthed smelling cup (shiang bei). Because the senses of smell and taste are so closely connected, having two separate cups to experience each tea is a wonderful way to more fully appreciate and understand the different flavours and aromas. Sometimes a tea will have a markedly different aroma to taste!

And now, the methodology: heat the water to the desired temperature. White teas the water is warm, green warmer, oolong warmer still (dependingon oxidation of the leaves), pu erh nearly boiling. With experience you will be able to tell the temperature of the water by the way bubbles form on the bottom of the container you are heating it in. Smaller bubbles generally mean a lower temperature and as they get larger and start to release from the bottom the water is heating. Eventually it reaches a rolling boil which is really too hot for any Chinese tea.

Select a teapot to match your tea leaves and place enough tea leaves inside to match the number of infusions you wish to drink and the number of people enjoying with you. Larger teapots generally serve more people but also require more leaves, because you have a pitcher, you can always do two infusions back to back and serve from the pitcher afterwards. Remember, tea leaves expand considerably, so don't put more than enough to about half fill your teapot. Once you've achieved the desired temperature of your water, pour enough into your teapot to cover the leaves and let steep long enough to rid the leaves of any impurities they may have collected. An interesting aside: this will also rid you of most of the caffeine as caffeine is water soluble. Pour off the first infusion, perhaps warm your cups with it. Once your cups have been warmed, distribute one pair to each guest, keeping one pair for yourself to enjoy your beverage!

For the next infusion, fill the teapot and pour through your strainer and into your glass tea pitcher. Examine the colour and clarity of the tea so you know if it has been steeped long enough and you can then adjust the next infusion accordingly. Lay the strainer aside on your tea sink and pour the tea into each person's taller shiang bei, finishing with your own. Then demonstrate for everyone present how to pour from shiang bei to the cha bei and inhale nature's aromas by placing the shiang bei near your nose. When you've smelled enough, place the cha bei to your lips and slurp (just a bit) as this will help bring out the flavours of your tea. Repeat the pouring process until the tea leaves have been 'poured out.'

When you are ready, retrieve all of your cups to the tea sink and rinse thoroughly with the remaining hot water before wiping dry and putting them away. The same applies to the teapot, strainer and tea pitcher as well as the tea sink (last). Because tea is organic and not oily, there is no need to use soap, and in fact avoid it at all costs. The hot water is enough to sterilize the cups for the next use, just make sure your wiping cloth is clean (again, avoid using soap).

The final thing I will say about the teaware you employ is to avoid the use of metals other than silver. Metals tend to change the composition of the water you use and thus the flavour of the teas. I shall expound upon this further in a later message.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tea Chi

Unknown to many outside of Asia, premium grade, loose leaf Chinese teas actually have, and grow their own chi energy. Considered hokus pokus or nonesense to some, the rare, aged pu erh and oolong teas that have been traditionally produced in the ancient art of tea growing and processing are truly unique. When the British took tea from China to India, Sri Lanka and Africa, they did not preserve the quality with which it was being produced in China. Interestingly however, some tea plantations in the "tea transplant" zones have begun to recognize the importance of the handling of tea leaves from growth to picking to processing and consequently their own teas have improved dramatically! But I digress.

For families that have been growing tea for generations, growing and processing tea is not a science measured with the requisite instruments, but an art-form requiring a keen intuition and deep understanding of mother nature's seasonal cycles, weather patterns and other quirks of growing/processing influence. Some tea trees are fondly named by the family on the estate they are grown. And it is this familiarity and careful handling of the tea that contributes to its chi. For fresh teas, such as the white, green and lightly oxidized oolong varietals, the chi tends to be lighter as there is less processing and no aging. These teas are best consumed fresh for the most flavour and best aromas, as well as chi. But it is the aged teas, the oxidized oolongs and the pu erhs, particularly those aged for decades, that are truly special and spiritual. Smooth, often sweet and rich on the palate, these teas can leave one in a deep state of meditation, or if the mind is not quieted, perhaps contemplation. And in many highly spiritual societies of East Asia, tea has been used for just this purpose!

Cha Dao, or the way of tea, is considered to be one of the means, ways or paths to ultimate enlightenment, a state of being so pure and true as to suggest nirvana. I do not propose that this is 'the way' for all, but I do suggest that drinking tea can be much, much more than an afternoon past-time involving Earl Grey and some delicious scones. No, tea appreciation in China, Japan, Taiwan and other societies in the region can best be described as a culture, and yes, in many cases a way of life. If you can, try a great multi-decade aged pu erh or oolong and discover just what I'm talking about. They are powerful, and will leave you wondering when your next cup will be.

Cloudwalker Specialty Teas offers only these kinds of teas and are very particular about this as we work with a Taiwanese tea master. Check out our website at