I had a non-tea-drinking friend ask me once, what is the point of having a nice teapot? Why does it matter how nice your tea comes out? To me, it’s obvious; the tea tastes fuller, a fast pour gives me more control, it enhances the entire experience. Even with that, he still didn’t seem to get it. I wondered where that question was coming from. Perhaps he didn’t want me to spend a lot of money on something that has no practical use. I mean, it’s only tea. I think other people see tea obsession as a distraction, something that gets in the way of more important things. They see it as a waste of time and money.
He might have a point. What’s the point of making better tea? Why do our standards have to be so high? Tea is a beverage.
But tea is also a secret. The best cups of tea cause the drinker to be silent. It’s hard to explain, but when I’m having tea, there’s something in the air. I’m not obsessed with the energy of everything, but I feel a certain energy. What is that? Why is there no word for it?
I know I’m asking a lot of questions and not answering any. That’s because I don’t know why I have made tea such a significant part of my life. Well, I actually do know why, but I don’t have the words to say. I guess it’s a secret.
First, meditate for around thirty to forty-five minutes until you have settled into a deep connection with your qi body. Otherwise you will not detect the body feel of your tea, which is why it costs so much in the first place.
Next, boil your water, but don’t let it actually boil. While this is happening, gather your tools. Use your puerh knife to loosen off five grams of tea without using a scale and without damaging a single leaf. Put the leaves in the pot with a very expensive scoop. Oh crap, you forgot to warm the teapot and cups. You already messed up, you dingus. So dump the leaves out back onto the scoop, warm the teapot with the hot water and rinse the cups, using bamboo tongs to avoid touching the cups with your hands. Rinse the tea leaves by pouring hot water into the teapot which you have filled with the leaves that you took out earlier because you forgot to warm the teapot and cups. Pour out the water into the cups. Or right into the waste bowl. You choose.
It’s time to make the tea for real. Get ready. Pour the water into the pot, then into the pitcher or the cups, or the cup. It really depends. Don’t burn yourself. Make sure you have not lost touch with your qi body. Drink the tea. OUCH! Too hot. If you have guests, someone choked on the tea and is now coughing. Everyone is listening to them coughing. Now you are afraid to cough. Don’t worry, the qi is setting in and will guide you. Make sure the water is boiling and not boiling at the same time, and make another infusion.
You know what to do from here. At the end of the session, don’t forget to use your digger wimble.
Deciding what tea to drink can be very simple or extremely complicated. In the evenings, when it’s too late to drink tea, I often spend time thinking about what tea I would drink if I could, and that ends up being the tea I have the next morning. But then, I try to dismiss that idea, thinking that if tomorrow I just make the decision in the moment, it would be a better choice.
So we need to decide how to decide what tea to drink. There are many factors that influence the decision: for example, is there a new pot you want to try out, do you want something intense or more relaxing, do you want something you haven’t tried before or would you rather drink something you are familiar with, do you want to try a familiar tea with a different pot than usual?
When do you drink your daily drinkers and when do you drink your special occasion tea? What constitutes a special occasion? Is your Japanese green tea going to go bad if you don’t drink it today?
It becomes much harder when you are going to have tea with someone. How many teas to bring to their place? How many teas can you handle in one sitting? What is a good order? Young to aged, or old to young, or mellow to strong, or strong to mellow? What will they like? What do you want them to like?
When you start thinking like this, it is easy to enter a state of paralysis. This is because they are verbal thoughts that come from the ego. Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Watts. But what is the alternative to this? How will you decide what to drink without thinking verbally?
Here’s a little technique I like to call “consulting the void.” Basically, without thinking, just choose a tea with your eyes and hands. This works because there is no wrong decision unless you make it a wrong decision. If the tea you choose doesn’t taste good or feel right, that doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice. Without bad tea sessions, there can be no good tea sessions. If you are trying to make all your tea sessions perfect and amazing, you will be disappointed. However, if you have an open and quiet mind, your tea sessions can be much more fulfilling and harmonious.
You can extend this technique to choosing your teaware. Just choose without choosing. It works very well and you will grow as a tea drinker this way. I am trying to “consult the void” more and plan my tea drinking less.
Oh, and if your Japanese green teas go stale, that’s just the way it turned out. Use them to absorb odors in your shoes, make a smoothie, cook something with them, or let them age until you run out of tea and it’s the only thing you have left. If it’s not going to make you happy, you can also throw it away or give it away.
Do you have trouble deciding what to drink? How do you decide? Leave a comment if you want.
Around a year ago, I read in the book “The Ancient Art of Tea” that water can be seen as the limiting factor of tea. To paraphrase, if the tea leaves are 10/10 quality, and the water is 8/10, then the resulting tea will be 8/10. It’s well known that water affects the quality of the tea. In fact, MarshalN said that water is more important than tea leaves in terms of potential to improve the quality of tea for your money, although I can’t find that specific post right now for some reason. Here’s some more evidence from the blogosphere that water matters:
I started drinking tea with friends right when I started thinking about water as it relates to tea. It quickly became apparent that because of my water, my tea sessions at home did not meet expectations. Flavor was muted, body was thin, and instead of enjoying the tea with friends, we felt really unsatisfied and ended up experimenting with water instead. It took many attempts before I figured out a water “solution” that works for me.
First, I tried the babelcarp water app. It tells me how much epsom salt and gypsum to add to my filtered tap water to approximate a mineral water. I added enough to approximate volvic because I had decent results with that brand in the past. It sort of worked, but not really. I could try that again, but the problem is that epsom salt and gypsum are both sulfates. They don’t contain any carbonates, which would help make calcium carbonate, which thickens the body of the tea. So, I found that to be a good step, but not completely what I was looking for. I also tried using sticks of bamboo charcoal in my kettle, but that made the tea lose its vitality entirely. I think it was overpurifying the water and removing dissolved gases.
Then, I tried making water based on this brewing water calculator meant for mineralizing water for beer. The resulting concoction was much too thick for tea, and left a sort of slimy feeling on the teeth, but it was making my tea ultra thick, which was a step in the right direction. Without thickness, tea (puerh in particular) isn’t very fun, and you’re not extracting the full flavor.
I started trying every conceivable brand of bottled water that I could get my hands on. Iceland spring, Volvic, Crystal Geyser, the local supermarket brand, and then finally Nestle Purelife. Some waters were thick, some left a layer of scale on the surface of the tea, some were harsh, and some were quite refreshing. Volvic was thick but muted in taste, while Iceland Spring was refreshing but harsh. Shunan Teng, who runs Tea Drunk in New York City, told me that Nestle Purelife is the only bottled water she likes for tea. So I was using that for a while, with decent results. I realized that I could actually reverse-engineer Nestle Purelife to make my own. I bought calcium chloride, epsom salt, and baking soda, and added it to my filtered tap water with my estimations of how much is in Purelife based on reports on their website. And then, suddenly, my tea came alive.
My tea became thick and full, miles better than the pure filtered tap water without minerals added. It was even coming out a bit better than Purelife. I tried white2tea’s carbolic soap oolong with it, and it was phenomenal. Tried again without the minerals, it tasted weak and underwhelming. These minerals were helping me get what I needed out of $1/gram tea. The water was no longer limiting the tea, in other words.
I have been tweaking my recipe ever since. I have found that potassium bicarbonate and potassium chloride tend to make the tea ultra ultra harsh even in very small quantities. I stick with epsom salt, calcium chloride, and baking soda, because they react to produce calcium carbonate (chalk) to enhance body, and the dissolved magnesium enhances the flavor.
One thing that helped my tea immensely was switching water filter pitcher brands. I had been using Brita and Nakii pitchers, but once I ran out of those filters, I decided to try the Waterdrop. I am in love with this pitcher. Sometimes, I make tea just with the filtered water from this pitcher, and it’s really decent. I decide to use the mineralized water when I just want that extra juice from my tea. This is with Brooklyn tap water, so your milage may vary.
My current recipe is, for every gallon of filtered tap water (you could also try distilled water, but I haven’t done this), add 75 mg baking soda, 75 mg calcium chloride, and 75 mg epsom salt. (UPDATE: My current recipe is 100 mg baking soda, 75 mg calcium chloride, and 50 mg epsom salt.) This results in a water that is still refreshing, with enhanced thickness, taste and throatiness. Hopefully you can try this, let me know if it works for you, and maybe it will save you from the headaches I have had on the way to figuring this out. Water is very very complicated; there are whole books on water and there are even water sommeliers. With water, it’s much deeper than it seems on the surface.
If you’ve ever left a cup of puerh tea out for a couple days, or tried putting some in a thermos, you know that once it’s a liquid, it changes very rapidly. A young puerh will quickly turn from yellow to orange within about ten minutes if it’s particularly active. This probably has something to do with the microbes in the tea, although I don’t get how they could possibly be alive after being hit with boiling water multiple times. Perhaps it’s some form of oxidation, but that doesn’t really happen to green teas, so I don’t know. Maybe you do?
Puerh is a complex chemical soup that takes about five seconds to make. What other soup is that instant? Ramen? Once it’s made, you have to let it cool down for a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on your tolerance to heat. It depends on the airflow in the room how fast everything cools. If you set up a fan a few feet away and turn it on low, or open a window to bring in a gentle breeze, it can speed up a session drastically by lowering cooling time. However, I don’t really like to do that, because once the fan is on, all I can think about is that there’s a fan blowing wind across my tea table, and it becomes a fan session, not a tea session. A breeze from a window makes more sense, but it depends on the season if you can do that. I do enjoy some breezy tea. It’ll cool you off if the tea makes you too warm.
Apparently certain teas will warm different parts of your body, but I never know if it’s actually because there’s sun coming through the window. I need to drink more tea in the dark to figure out really what’s happening to my body as I drink my puerh soup. I have read that young puerh is by nature cooling, but it can also cause your ears to feel like they are on fire while your toes are going to freeze off. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s something to think about, or feel about, while drinking your tea: how does the tea make my body feel? You can do one of those body scans where you start at your toes and go up all the way to your head, stopping at each part of your body. Of course, you might want to do this with no tea in your system first, so you can notice the changes. Then, you can ask yourself if those sensations are pleasant or unpleasant, and it can help evaluate a tea and add dimension to a deep session.
Of course, all of these phenomena are happening whether you pay attention to them or not. One of the benefits of gongfucha is you get plenty of cups and sips, but every single one of them is slightly different. You get to experience your tea from many angles and you get many moments to focus on different areas, if you want. But it is also fun to think about nothing and let yourself drink.
I’m starting to think it’s best to not think about your tea: basically, to forget about it until it arrives at your door or at your tea table. “But Tea Secrets, what about mold?” Finding mold on your cakes is like finding that your package has been sent to the wrong post office, or that it’s been taken into customs, or it’s been sent back to the vendor for no reason (all of which has happened to me and probably some of you). If there’s mold in your storage, or your tea is stuck somewhere, it’s not necessary to know right when it happens. Eventually you’ll smell something funny, or remember “hey, I feel like my tea was supposed to arrive sometime this week.” Constantly checking your cakes or refreshing 17Track is only going to bring a lot of anxiety into your relationship with tea.
Aging young tea is like ordering aged puerh 10 years in advance. As you try the aging tea, it tells you a bit about where it’s at, kind of like how postal tracking tells you a little bit about where your parcel is. You never REALLY know when it’s going to arrive. But then, eventually, it does arrive.
I work at a tea shop, but it’s not really like a Teavana or a davidstea. There aren’t a lot of fruity blends, except for a Hibiscus-Berry herbal blend. The selection is mostly pure teas with nothing added, and the shop gets them from all over the place. Some are wholesale from yunnan sourcing, some are from a brooklyn-based performance artist from Hunan, some were brought back in the owners’ suitcases from Taiwan, some are from this, that or the other vendor. I haven’t been on any of the china/japan/taiwan trips, because I’m the one who works the shop while they’re gone. The shop hosts Global Tea Hut and other bowl tea events/ceremonies, with the occasional gongfu thing or ceramics workshop. This is where I met Petr Novak, Wu De, and Gary Snyder’s housemate. More on that in another post.
Working at a tea shop, you see people approaching tea from every conceivable angle. People want tea to relax, go to sleep, wake up, digest food, lose weight, taste floral, taste fruity, clean their house, walk their dog. Once I have that info, I tell them what they should buy, and if that doesn’t work, we might drink something, or I’ll tell them about puerh, or something else I’ve been into recently that they could try. If they leave, they leave.
There’s a lot of puerh where I work and it’s stored naturally mostly in big ceramic Novak/Randova puerh jars. Some of it just sits in drawers with rubber bands around it, but it’ll be fine because those cakes are drunk pretty quickly. Some of it is out in open air on puerh cake stands.
It’s different storage than I do at home, so the tea comes out different. It’s more… natural. Storage in porous earthenware is very different from storage in boveda packs in a metal stock pot. One of the owners asks me sometimes if the metal affects the energy of the tea in a negative way. I have to say I don’t quite know. There’s no way to know.
At the shop, all sorts of tea enthusiasts collide, and the results are very often profound. As stuff like that happens, I’ll write about it.
Here is a picture of some tea. I decided to use this pot because it was my newest one. I decided to drink some 2005 Xiaguan 8653 because it was in a sample bag from a group buy and I figured it wasn’t going to age any more in the bag, so time to drink it up. It worked well with the pot, but that’s beside the point.
I used to think there is “the chinese way” of making tea, and that it had been around for thousands of years. Now, things make a lot more sense. This way of making Chinese tea is not 100% Chinese and not that old, and that opens things up a bit so you can use whatever you want as an active participant in an ever-evolving global tea culture. We have in this picture a chinese teapot bought from a hong kong vendor, a chinese cup, a czech plate with japanese kohiki glaze style, a sake pitcher made by a ceramicist in brooklyn, and chabu (tea mat) from a French dude in Taiwan.
This isn’t anything particularly edgy, but it is worth noting that tea drinking is a global phenomenon and everyone does it in their own style. It’s pretty cool to have teaware from all over the world interacting together in one session.
Anyway, on this blog I’m going to try to explore the more abstract concepts in puerh and other teas because I’ve found it all to be very, very interesting.