Recently in tea ware Category

Those of us who love tea tend also to have a deep affection for the tools we use in the preparation, presentation, storage and sharing of tea. Just as we invite valued friends to our tea table, we also invite the special objects with which we have developed an intimate relationship--our tea kettles, gaiwans, yixing teapots cups, tongs, picks, tea caddies, and even tea "critters" that enliven our tea trays.  Some of us are also inspired to find objects that have nothing to do with tea and re-purpose them to have everything to do with tea.

Throughout history, eminent tea masters have had something to say about the values that are meant to be expressed by the selection or creation of their teaware.  And if we go far enough back, to the origins of the discovery of tea, we begin to understand the earliest perspectives on nature and life and the corresponding philosophies that inform the relationship between the tea master and his or her teaware.

Vintage Gaiwan - 1913

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Teaware has been as much a topic of discussion as tea, and more so, is said to influence the quality of the tea experience. Lu Yu, who in the eighth century wrote the first treatise on tea, Cha Ching, included a meticulous etiquette for using teaware; and eight centuries later, Japan's famed tea master, Rikyu, expressed his endearment to the wabi style of teaware with its underlying philosophy of simplicity and minimalism which he so respected and to which he paid homage in his practice of tea.  

Through the objects of teaware and the relationships held between the teaware and the tea masters,  the values and mores of the times were embraced, handled and poured. As such, teaware reflects the philosophy of the age and region in which it is being used and appreciated.

The ephemeral nature of a tea ceremony or even the simple sharing of tea between friends, is heightened by the intimacy we have with our guests as well as with the objects of the tea service. What elevates the event includes not only the disposition and intentions of the tea host and guests, but also and equally so, the character or "nature", if you will, of the objects used to make and serve the tea. We love the way a teapot pours water, the way a kettle hums at different stages of heating, the taste of tea from a particular cup, or the snug, effortless feel of a serving vessel embraced by the hand. These objects comfort us, make us smile, and whether we admit it or not, we befriend them, and, as with good friends, would miss them if they were absent.

Text from "Teaware Treands And An Intimacy With Objects" by Jennifer Sauer 2010

morning tea

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I have found no better way to spend the early hours. JLS

Vintage teaware invites the imagination.  A Song Dynasty tea bowl or a Qing Dynasty
gaiwan (as above) brings history to the tea table and invites the sharing of legend and lore.

So too does the incorporation of teaware previously owned by those we love or admire. 
When writing my book on San Francisco tea culture, for example, I met with famed Zen priest and cookbook author Ed Brown, who shared tea with me using the special tea cups given to him by Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. This gave me an opportunity to ask questions about Suzuki Roshi and the personal relationship he and Ed shared for so many years. It also gave me goose bumps to drink tea from the same cup that touched the lips of such a great man.

Aaron Fisher (Wu De) serving tea

When visiting Taiwan, The Way of Tea author Aaron Fisher (aka Wu De), created some fascinating tea gatherings with his very nice collection of antique teaware. Watching him pour hot water water from his silver Japanese tea kettle into Song Dynasty tea bowls created an amazing ambiance.  This rare and special privilege inspired an even deeper interest in teaware for me and encouraged me to seek out more experience of how teaware effects the taste and feeling of drinking teas.

Sipping tea from such old and rare pieces made me feel as though I were somehow absorbing something of the past and bringing it to the present.  This feeling of timelessness is one of the greatest attributes of any tea gathering.

Old tea ware can be challenging to find, particularly at reasonable prices, but it is out there. Sometimes it is of benefit to seek out information from experts as to the authenticity of a piece before purchasing.  Here are some suggestions passed to me as I sought out information on the vintage gaiwans I recently bought in San Francisco:

First, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum offers a Contributors Consultation Day the third Friday of every month, inviting contributor level members an opportunity to consult with curators about asian art works (each member is allowed one consultation per year). If you bring several pieces, the $150 membership pays for itself in the consultation alone, and provides other special benefits to the museum as well. You may want to check Asian art museums or Asian departments of museums in your area for consultations.

I also learned of Jan-Erik Nilsson, an expert in porcelain who offers an online forum for those interested in Chinese and Japanese porcelain.  For $25, you can become a member, or for $20, you can send photos of your piece to Nilsson for an assessment. 

At Bonham and Butterfield auction house, there are three locations in the United States where  complimentary appraisal clinics intended for those who wish to consign their pieces are offered. The San Francisco branch hosts such a clinic the first Wednesday of each month; Los Angeles offers one the last Wednesday of each month, and New York offers one every Wednesday. Consultations are free, and you may bring up to five pieces. You can also find an area of their online site that offers consultations by uploading photos of your items.

Finally, you might be lucky to know tea people who are adept at appraising the age and value of vintage tea ware.

Fakes and frauds are rampant, however, and you are best off finding a skilled professional to evaluate whatever you might want to purchase.  Bon Teavant is having recently acquired pieces evaluated for our collection and for sale, and we look forward to sharing our special finds with you. Stay tuned!
While traditional Chinese and Taiwanese tea ceremony normally involves a yixing teapot, a gaiwan or "covered bowl", can also be used, as in the video below.  In this video Chen Shao Lan from the famed Geow Yung Tea Hong in Taipei demonstrates the use of a gaiwan in gong fu cha.

tea ceremony etiquette

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Meiya Wender, Head of Tea, Green Gulch Farm & Zen Center
"The tea room is a laboratory for studying the self and our relationship with others," said Meiya Wender, Head of Tea at Green Gulch Zen Center in Muir Beach, CA several years ago when I interviewed her for my book The Way to Tea.

Yesterday, Meiya hosted a public tea ceremony at the Center's Sowing the Moon Teahouse, which gave me an opportunity to "experiment" firsthand.

The beauty of the tea room is distinguished not only by the carefully placed flowers, tea scroll, and tea implements, but also by the behavior of the host(ess) and guests.  

As the ten or so of us filed into the tea room, on our knees as prescribed by tradition, we entered a sanctuary where the norms of the external world fall away to a breathtaking humility and community that is tea and zen. 

It is the art of the guest, in this case, most specifically the "first guest" (and the only one among us who knows tea ceremony etiquette in detail), to match the hostess' kindness, and whose job it is to compliment and draw out the virtues and efforts of the hostess in creating the ceremony by requesting information about the tea art and tea ware used in the ceremony.


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Chashaku resting on natsume
"I see you have chosen a special piece for this tea gathering. Please tell us about this lovely tea scroll," says the first guest to Meiya.  Meiya initially explains to us that each object in the tea room has both a practical and poetic function.  For example, she says, the chashaku (tea scoop) is functional in that it scoops the tea, but it also has a poetic function, which reinforces the theme of the tea experience. In this case, the chashaku was carved by Meiya herself, and was named by a Zen priest.  The tea scoop's name--"Swift And Unbridled"-- comes from a Zen poem and also reinforces the message of early spring, the season in which we are gathering for tea. 

As for the tea scroll, Meiya translates the calligraphy for us: "No highs or lows in the colors of spring," which echos the Buddhist appeal for people to follow the "Middle Path" in which one does not identify oneself with extremes in order to find balance and harmony within.
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Sowing The Moon Teahouse
It occurs to me that the guest also has both a practical and poetic function in the tea ceremony. The guest is needed as the one who receives the gift of tea, but (s)he also serves the function of bringing delight and awareness to the gathering. Just as we sometimes learn more when we share our thoughts, the guest serves as the facilitator for the expression of the hostess. Our "first guest" continues to request information, while complimenting the hostess:  "And the flowers that you have chosen and arranged so artfully are lovely. Could you tell us about them?"

Meiya tells us the tight white bud surrounded by high gloss, forest green leaves is a camellia, about to bloom. The camellia is from the same species as the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and so has significance in the tea ceremony.  The other flower in the iron vase is a small-fisted bud of pink-orange quince, one of the transient delights of this season.  Neither opulent nor strongly fragrant, the flowers too reinforce the message of simplicity, humility, and the temporal nature of the moment and of the season. 

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So too might a guest come to tea simply, humbly, and not flashy or full of himself and his ego. The tea room is not a place for heated discussions or demonstrations of one's own knowledge, virtues or abilities. The guest's role, in particular, is to put the focus of discussion on the hostess' efforts and to ask about the objects used in the ceremony.

Subjects considered oafish to raise in conversation in the tea room include anything divisive (most especially politics), gossip (particularly speaking badly of others when they are not present), and money (which creates disharmony, jealousy, and stratification).  The tea room is a place for equals (which is why everyone enters on their knees),  and while certainly no two people have equal abilities or qualities, the appreciation of each others' kindness, intentions, abilities and actions (not one's own), is what creates delight, peace, and harmony.

The guest's role is to compliment the hostess, to draw her out, to put the focus on the inspiring objects created and/or used in the ceremony for the benefit and enjoyment of all present. This  intention by the guest of bringing harmony and inspiration to the tea room heightens the experience for all, and reinforces the meaning of the tea ceremony,  to which is traditionally attributed four words that are as much intentions of awareness: Tranquility. Respect. Harmony. Purity.

Were that the whole world engaged in tea room etiquette throughout all interactions.

the imperfect cup

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"Wabi" is a Japanese term that describes "perfection through imperfection," and sometimes refers to imperfections in ceramics and other material things. It is imperfection that gives a thing its true value and perfection, according to those who ascribe to the wabi ethic. 

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.

Be patient! The imperfectly steeped cup is your teacher, as it guides and helps you to  understand tea in a deeper way.

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!

how to use a tea aroma cup

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Mmmmm.....the first time you use an aroma cup (also called a fragrance cup), you will understand why some tea people become addicts.  The euphoria one feels when breathing in the fragrant florals of a Taiwnese oolong cannot be measured, and like all undefined things, leaves one searching for words to describe a sensation that defies even the mighty metaphor. But since articles rely on words, I shall do my best to introduce to you one of the most special elements of a tea ritual with Taiwanese oolongs.

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The aroma cup is distinguished by its cylindrical shape which enhances the fragrance of the tea. The use of fragrance cups originated in the 1970s in Taiwan, when oolong production increased dramatically and a connoisseur market for these delicate floral teas developed. The aroma cup became a part of the Taiwanese tea ritual for many years, but since the late 19080s or early '90s, has fallen out of favor, and many people now just smell the lid of the gaiwan when the tea is brewing.

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.

aesthetics of the tea table

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AaronFisherSilverpotjswm.jpg Aaron Fisher (aka Wu De) uses a silver teapot and antique Chinese tea bowls as an aesthetic and soulful treat

Tea enthusiasts spend countless hours tasting teas, but perhaps even as much time focused on the aesthetics of their own personal rituals with tea.  Collecting fine or simple tea ware is a favorite pastime of most tea lovers and brings a deeper awareness of the potential of a tea by the kettle, gaiwan, teapot, or cups that are used to heat the water, prepare the tea, and sip it. 

People who study tea know that all aspects of tea ware will influence the final cup.  The kettle and its heating element, the teapot or gaiwan and serving vessels, and the cups themselves all have an effect on the taste and "mood" of the tea.

While some use very expensive and collectible tea ware including silver or antique Japanese iron tea kettles, others seek out or come upon items for the tea service that fit more into the "wabi" aesthetic of tea in which the rustic, pure nature of the tea ware stands out by virtue of the beauty of its simplicity. In other words, the refinement of the unrefined. 


A roadside stone can be put to use on a tea tray
For example, I had tea with a well-to-do, Taiwanese tea company owner who has one the largest collections of antique Japanese tea kettles I've ever seen.  However, for his own tea service, he uses a kettle that is "un-sellable" because of its cosmetic defects, and in addition, uses a stone he found on the side of a road as a platform for his yixing teapot lid.  His tea tray? Part of an old wooden door whose finish has been worn by years in the elements.

Aaron Fisher, a tea teacher and author of the new book The Way of Tea, uses Ming Dynasty tea cups and Song Dynasty tea bowls to teach his students about the impact of tea ware on the taste of a tea. He told me that the quality of tea ware has a huge influence on the tea, and that even touching one's full tea cup to a treasured piece before sipping from it will heighten the taste and experience of the tea.

Some tea friends of mine bought slices of semi-precious rocks at a mineral show, and use these under their yixing teapots, so when the water flows down over the teapot and onto the rock, the slice of geology is transformed into a lustrous and luminous tableau full of color for all to appreciate. This demonstration of the abundant beauty of nature is the most fitting offering in a tea ritual of any kind.

You may wish to purchase expensive items or simply find usable "tea ware" in nature, abandoned construction sites or at estate sales. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on one silver tea kettle or find a gorgeous item for your tea table on the beach, in a forest, or even on the roadside. Whatever you choose, have fun experimenting with what makes your tea experience look, feel and taste the way you want it to.
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tea vacation

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Many people cannot afford the time or extra expense of a vacation right now. But we all need some rest, to be sure. Years ago, when I was traveling in Bali, some Balinese people asked "Why do you Americans take vacations? We don't have big vacations, but we have a small vacation everyday when we see our friends and make music, art or a meal together."

This got me thinking that it is important to take a small vacation each day, and having a daily tea ritual fits nicely into this logic. While I don't see tea friends in person everyday, I do think of them when I have my tea, as I have bought or received tea ware from some of them.

My wood bark display dish was a gift from Shiu Yuen Li, a Singaporean teacher of tea culture who lives in Taiwan; my tea tray comes from my friend, Shiuwen Tai, my gaiwan and serving pitcher from Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court, aroma cups from friends at Pure Puerh, who brought them back to me from Taiwan, and tasting cups from Peter Luong of Red Blossom. The small ceramic figure of Lu Yu that graces my tea bench was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Norwood Pratt. So when I have my daily tea, I feel the presence of all these special tea friends as well.

I offer up a cup of tea and the scent of an aroma cup in thanks for all the gifts of life so generously given to me. And perhaps even more than tea, gratitude offers the release from care that we seek from a vacation. 

If you don't have time to take an extended rest this summer, take your daily tea vacation....

tea picnic season

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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.
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.

Chinese gaiwan (l) and Japanese tea bowl (r) ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer

While for centuries western women have enjoyed afternoon tea, men hear the word "tea cup" and think of a dainty porcelain cup covered in flowers.  For this reason alone, a lot of men have been turned off by tea.  This came to my attention when the 14-year-old son of a friend became interested in tea only after being introduced to Chinese tea. He had to be bribed into coming to Chinatown for tea, sporting a pair of dark sunglasses, just in case a friend of his might see him at the teashop.  But then something great happened: the gaiwan appeared. A Chinese man deftly steeped and poured tea from the gaiwan into a serving vessel.  "Cool," the kid said, non-committally.  By the third steeping, he was fully engaged, focused, and fascinated.

Originating in Chinese tea culture,  "gaiwan" means "covered bowl", and is a three-piece set comprising a saucer,  vessel, and lid. It is perhaps the most ubiquitous teaware in the world, considering the great number of Chinese people who prepare and sip tea with it. Gaiwans are cool, masculine even in contrast to my grandmother's Limoges teaware.  This is "real men's"  teaware.  No flowers, frills, or obviously feminine lines. I could see Clint drinking from a gaiwan, raising his squinty-eyed, chiseled face in stoic silence through the hot steam and hissing a line as quiet and rich as the steam itself. 

Chinese gaiwans as well as Japanese tea bowls and Moroccan tea glasses could be put in the hands of any man without necessitating the extending of a pinky, and with few exceptions, are monochrome, neutrally glazed, or covered in dragons. What guy could feel like a sissy with these in his hands?

The vast majority of Asian tea masters are men, and in fact, the tea industry itself is known as a "gentleman's" business.  Women might drink much of the tea in the western world, but men are usually the ones buying and selling it in the wholesale market. 

Most people think of a delicate Asian female serving tea when they think of the classical Japanese tea ceremony, but in truth, the most prominant Japanese tea masters are men. One of the biggest surprises at a Japanese tea ceremony class at the Urasenke Foundation in San Francisco was the male-dominant ratio of students in the evening classes--and none of them were Asian.  More and more American men are inspired and engaged by Asian tea culture, which is mutating and fusing in the landscape of the "new world".

All of this is great news for American tea culture.  The influence of Asia is bringing the tradition of  gender-neutral or male-leaning tea culture and teaware to our shores, and this makes for a great balance.  Go to any non-British tearoom, where doilies and flowery teaware cannot be found, and you will find highly educated, well-healed, masculine men imbibing in the best of teas.  Check it out. Throw off all notions of tea parties, and join in the old tea traditions finding new inroads in America.

water for tea #2

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                                                          All images ©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer 

WATER TEMPERATURE ALSO INFLUENCES the final cup, and tea masters are vigilant about heating their water optimally to match the tea they are brewing. However, they determine the "readiness" of the water in different ways--visually, auditorially, and electronically.

Some look for visual signs of the water temperature to determine when the water is heated properly for the particular tea they intend to brew. You may have heard that some tea masters look for "fish eyes" in the water. This is when medium bubbles form just before the water moves towards a roiling boil, and when the water is ready for oolongs. The way the steam leaves the spout of the kettle--in wisps or in gusts--also signals the water's readiness to some tea masters.

Lu Yu said:
    When at the edges it chatters like a bubbling spring and looks like pearls innumerable strung together, it has reached the second stage. When it leaps like breakers majestic and resounds like a swelling wave, it is at its peak. Any more and the water will be boiled out and should not be used.1

David Lee Hoffman listens to the water. During our tea time together, as the water began to get closer to boiling, he stopped the conversation and said "Listen!" as he waited in anticipation for exactly the right crackling or rumbling noise to emit from the iron kettle over the fire. A skilled sound man, Hoffman has a keenly trained ear which he puts to good use as a tea master. He said he also pays attention to the way the steam rises from the spout at different temperatures.

Many tea masters simply use automated kettles that brew water to a pre-selected temperature, and still others in the slow food movement who like to be numerically exacting without the aid of electronic technology, will use a simple kitchen thermometer meant for liquids. (Note: these thermometers have a range that does not exceed about 220°F and will melt if accidentally use in the oven).

I rely on a combination of visual and auditory methods to brew water to the right temperature. I watch for the intensity and velocity of the steam coming from the spout of the kettle, and if I am busy doing something else while the kettle is heating, I listen for a certain sound I have come to recognize when the water is close to boiling (kind of like popcorn popping). If the whistle blows before I reach the kettle, I've failed.  I just recently had to buy a new tea kettle, and notice that it makes different sounds than the old one, so I am having to learn the language of this new tea kettle.

You will also want to become familiar with the relationship between tea type and water temperature. Here are some basic guidelines, which are meant to be experimental baselines. Green and white teas tend to require cooler water temperatures, usually between 160-185°F; oolongs do well in higher temperatures, approximately 185-205°F; and black teas can usually be steeped in water 205°F to boiling (212°F). Playful experimentation might also lead  you to discover some of the secrets of tea, such as steeping an oolong in cooler-than-optimal water will bring out sweeter notes in the tea.

This is just a brief overview of water for tea.  Each aspect regarding water for tea is a subject in itself that some tea experts delve into with great vigor and in depth. Collecting and heating water is the first step to brewing good tea. But however you brew tea, be sure to drink, dream, share, and be merry.

1 The Classic of Tea, translated by Francis Ross Carpenter (Ecco Press, 1974)

water for tea #1

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©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer
Before tea there is water.  While you invest time and money to procure great tea, you might also want to consider your investment in "gathering" and brewing water for tea.

Any cup of tea will be at its best when you use the finest water available, heated to the optimal temperature for the particular tea. While I don't profess to be a tea master, I've made it my life's work for the past three years or so to research tea for my book and blog by interviewing great tea masters. They all have different preferences and standards when it comes to water, and I'll share some of what I have learned from them.

One of the most engaging tea experiences I have had was my recent visit with the legendary tea master David Lee Hoffman. During this second tea encounter at Hoffman's home, he gave me the choice of having tea in his open-air teahouse or at a fire pit just behind the teahouse. Despite my appreciation for his gorgous teahouse which he built himself, I chose the latter. At the fire pit, we would be building a fire together as part of our tea gathering. I thought this would be fun, and I liked the idea of building a fire together for tea.

Brewing water this way seems to change the character of the water and certainly that of the tea experience. Hoffman told me that he regularly collects water for tea from an undisclosed local stream. He also occasionally makes a trip up to the Sierra Mountains and when he does, he collects water from high mountain streams that derive from glacial runoff. What's good about this water, he says, is that it has aerated from cascading and also picks up dissolved minerals along its journey. When possible, he brings a bit of this water back for making tea at home.

This is an amazing standard and reminds me that how we live is sometimes much more important than what we do. David Lee Hoffman's appreciation for quality tea water reminds me of Lu Yu, the eighth century Tang Dynasty tea sage who instructed his readers in The Classic of Tea about how and where to collect water for tea:

  On the question of water to use, I would suggest that tea made from mountain streams is
       best, river water is all right, but well-water is quite inferior.

Other tea masters rave about the water used for brewing tea in the rural mountain villages of China where they go to find teas. They believe that where good tea grows, good water is often close at hand. As well, the experience of drinking a tea in its natural habitat with local stream water meant for that tea is an inimitable lifetime experience to be treasured.

Rites and rituals for heating water for tea can of course be found in Japanese tea ceremony. If you were to be a fly on the wall watching a Japanese tea master prepare for a tea gathering, you would see him or her carefully positioning hot colas in the hearth. The vision of the gleaming scarlet coals is meant to heighten the aesthetic experience of having tea. Whether it influences the water or not is hard to say, but seeing the bright coals glowing under the large cast iron teapot makes the guest feel warm and cared for, as if they were existentially "home". There are even ceremonies to mark the seasons by changing the hearth itself. The act of brewing water for tea is that important.

If you don't have the time or will to go to the mountains to collect water for tea and you don't happen to have a tea brewing hearth or fire pit nearby, you will probably, like most of us, be using tap water heated in a tea kettle on a gas or electric range. You can still attain an easily-met higher standard by simply filtering the water. You can find a variety of filters, some that are quite sophisticated and are installed in your water system, and some that are more basic, like a Brita® filter over a plastic jug. You can also do what I've seen done for Japanese tea ceremony, which is to put a special piece of whole-stalk bamboo charcoal into your tea kettle, which absorbs undesirable chemicals and odors while your water heats up. (These can be found in Asian tea shops and in places like San Francisco's Japantown). However you do it, it's worth the effort of filtering local tap water. Your tea will taste better this way.

As an extra note, the distillation process is said to rid water of the minerals that bind with the tea to bring out its best flavor and character, so you will not want to use distilled water for brewing tea.

Thumbnail image for DavidHoffman©2009BonTeavant.jpg 
I had the honor and pleasure of visiting famed tea master David Lee Hoffman and his wife, Bea, for tea not long ago.  An unsuspecting visitor might be tipped off by directions to David's home and private tea house that (s)he is in for a magical adventure:

"Come up the driveway, past the boat on the lake at right and chicken coop on left.  Pass the bell tower, bear to your right, walking up the brick path that leads to the tea house, and enter through the large steel doors on left. Pass through the stone tunnel below the tea house, up the brick steps, past the worm palace and moat on the left....."

I have suddenly become Dorothy searching for the (tea) wizard in a Chinese/Nepalese version of Oz. I would not be entirely surprised to see the Tin Man or the Scarecrow waving to me at any turn of the brick path.  Whimsical stone sculptures stand erect by half-built "castles" and towers. The brick path brings the visitor over bridges and streams and past ponds and chicken coops.  I wonder when the Lollypop Kids will appear to greet me. "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," I think to myself bemusedly.

Finally making it to the open-air deck of the Chinese-style tea house which faces a panoramic cathedral of old-growth redwood trees, I hear the music of male voices discussing the completion of a Japanese tile roof. "Helloooo???" I chime.  "I'm just coming down from the roof," I hear in response, as David magically flies down from above to welcome me to his kingdom. Neither hidden behind a curtain nor donning a cape, David appears before me.  He is as lovely, rustic, and authentic a character as his magnificent Chinese tea house with its gnarled-wood antique Chinese chairs and festive Nepalese prayer flags. We shake hands, and I return the quiet grin spreading beneath Hoffman's kind and curious gaze.

David's private tea house, to which guests are welcome by invitation only, is the ultimate place to savor the delights of tea and take in the lavish gifts of the magical redwood forest (not to mention David's inspiring company). But a late autumn chill drives us into David's home, as the tea house, for now, is unheated and open to the elements.  I have brought with me a photographic print as a gift for David and Bee, yet something in me wonders if I should have brought tea. It seemed imprudent at best, and cheeky at worst, to bring tea to someone whose legendary status in the U.S. tea world is dwarfed only by his reputation among Asian tea groupies, who follow him around China to find out which teas he will buy each season.

We enter David's warm and cozy home, which, like the tea house, faces out to the great  Northern California redwoods. "Did you bring your favorite tea?" he asks.  Hawks circle the air.  I shake my head.  "Not this time," I say, feeling a bit sheepish.  I look around the wood-and-glass home to see the lovely gifts of nature David and Bee have collected, as well as some Asian art and writings.  One piece of writing tacked to a beam in the house especially moves me:

              "These three ways
              lead to the heavens:
              asserting the truth,
              not yielding to anger,
              and giving......."
                        ----Dhammapada, verse 224

David is indeed generous, bringing out three different pu-erh teas to taste, one in a bamboo casing, one a cake, and one a loose tea. He steeps the teas in ceramic gaiwans, lining them up, each behind a tasting cup, so we can taste the brews, one after the other.  He pours the rinse water into a three-legged earthen frog, which he loves because of its stability, and it's mirroring of the Chinese belief in the strength of three-pillared bases.
"Which tea do you think is the oldest?" he asks me later.  "How do you judge the age of a tea?" I ask.  He says there are many factors, each of which can be faked.  Hmmmmm....All of the teas are smooth, and each has a very different and distinctive aroma and flavor.  One is brisk, vegetal, and almost astringent; one is mossy and changes on the tongue, and one is very earthy, the "dirt" taste many associate with pu-erhs.

One tea has a particular depth and, as I decide not to risk flaunting my ignorance, I wait for him to tell me that it is this complex tea which is the oldest.  "Probably around 1992," he says.  "This tea is much darker than the other two," he offers, pointing to a different tea, "so some might guess this to be the oldest tea. But the darkness of the tea doesn't mean its older. It's this other tea here which is the oldest", and he points to the tea in the middle, the mossy one with the personality that keeps growing and shifting with such subtlety.

The afternoon moves forward, the tall trees tossing themselves into a rose sunset.  It is time to go, to let David relax after a long day of working on the roof, which has been in the making for years and years, David says.  We promise to meet again. "Next time, I will bring tea," I add.

"Can you find your way out?" David asks. I assure him I can, although within moments of departing, I find myself in a maze of tunnels, trees, streams, and collected things that have not yet found permanent homes.  I click my heels three times.......


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