Recently in brewing tea Category
There is a common protocol used by tea professionals to judge teas which is called "cupping". When visiting a tea farmer or wholesaler, the tea buyer might see several white porcelain cups and several plates of tea which are set up by the tea seller. The seller will then weigh four to five grams of tea, and put it into each of the cups. S/he will then pour near boiling water at the same temperature into each of the cups, which contain the same amount of tea. A timer will be set for five minutes, and when the five minutes is up, the buyer then begins sampling the teas, using a white porcelain spoon to dip into the cups, smell the aroma, and also serve him/herself some tea into the sampling cup.
By using the same weight, water temperature and steeping duration, all of the teas are treated exactly alike. While teas are naturally grossly over-steeped with near boiling water, (which is counter intuitive to making a great cup of tea), this method of employing extremes brings out the characteristics of the teas to the highest degree, allowing the tea professional to quickly assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.
Generally the buyer will be sampling one kind of tea and therefore judging many different options of the same tea. For example, (s)he will be tasting five or six different Lishan teas or Asian Beauty teas (if in Taiwan). From time to time, a seller will also include a sample that is a different kind of tea to the others.
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 (Cha 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.
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?
Now to tea and the imperfect cup...
Not every cup has to be perfection. When the tea turns out to have bitter tones because it has been over-steeped or, on the other hand, too watery because it has been under-steeped, one might be inclined to self criticism.
The imperfect cup will lead you to experiment with water types and temperature, different kinds of teaware, and varying steeping times. When taken in combination, the variables to achieving the "perfect cup" will keep you busy, amused, creative, and alert.
Buddhists say that "enemies" ultimately do more to benefit us than do our adoring, accepting friends. The enemy gives us challenges, which when overcome, bring us to a higher level of self-mastery and awareness, and therefore closer to "enlightenment" or spiritual completeness. So it is with the imperfect cup.
Sip, engage, explore.....and appreciate every sip of your "imperfect" tea!
I still favor the aroma cup, and believe that it greatly enhances the overall experience of the tea in a way that smelling the lid of the gaiwan cannot.
Aroma cups are typically used only on the first steeping and only on Taiwanese oolongs. You will rarely if ever see aroma cups used in China or Japan. (I, however, use my aroma cup on all teas, regardless of tea type, but only on the first steeping).
This is how you use an aroma (fragrance) cup:
1) Heat the aroma cup, tasting cup and tea vessel with hot water, and pour off
2) Steep tea properly
3) Pour tea into the aroma cup
4) Cover the aroma cup with the tasting cup by inverting the tasting cup so that the pair resemble a mushroom.
5) Hold the pair together with thumb and middle finger
6) Flip the aroma cup and tasting cup pair, so that the aroma cup is facing downward, into the tasting cup.
7) Lift the aroma cup vertically, out of the tasting cup, leaving the tea in the tasting cup.
8) Waft the aroma cup to give it some air
9) Sink your nose into the aroma cup and enjoy the fragrance.
10) Smell it every 10-15 seconds to smell the changes of the aroma as it mixes with the air. It will become sweeter and more fragrant for the first 60-90 seconds before falling off.
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.
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.
We 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.
- 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.
- Bring 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!
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....
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.