On Britas

Hey everyone! Long time, no blog. Hope everyone’s been enjoying their tea in the meantime – I know I have! I took a trip up to Setting Sun Tea Hut in Vermont, which has beautiful tea, an awesome experience, and great well water for tea – they don’t even have to filter it. There, we had tea with tetsubins, clay kettles (chaozhou and novak), and copper kettles. The differences in each were striking – I had never tried a tetsubin before. I am sure there is a reaction going on in there on the iron-water interface.

Something like this, and this might not be the only one.

In the above reaction, the iron from the kettle binds with the water and releases hydrogen ions. Interestingly, a similar thing happens in a Brita filter, the most popular water filter around.

More than meets the eye

I’ve been familiar with them for a long time, but only recently did I understand what a Brita filter does. If you have a TDS meter, you may notice that water run through a Brita has around 20% lower TDS reading, and has a more acidic pH. They curiously don’t advertise these two features – probably because “alkaline water” is believed to be better than acidic. But why and how does it do this to the water?

In addition to activated carbon, which improves the water’s taste, Britas contain ion exchange resin pellets. In this case, these are beads that specifically accept a calcium ion (Ca2+) and give off hydrogen ions (2H+). The result of this is twofold. First, the hardness of the water is reduced, due to reduced calcium. Second, the alkalinity of the water is also reduced, because (and this is what I just figured out) the acidic hydrogen ions are neutralized by the HCO3- buffer forming H2CO3, or carbonic acid.

I used to think this was a very mild and subtle change – after all, TDS only goes down 20% on average. But recently, I took very hard, 500 TDS spring water that scales aggressively when boiled, ran it through the Brita, and boiled it. And what did I find? No scale at all. I was shocked! This means that almost all the temporary hardness (calcium-bicarbonate) is taken out. The resulting tea was way different. With the unfiltered 500 TDS water, tea is thick and muted. After the Brita, the water measured only 220 TDS, and the tea was hollow and forward.

This is when I realized that Brita filters radically alter the mineral profile of water. They cause already forward waters to be more forward and hollow out/brighten up, and cause less-present waters to become thinner and milder, but also brighter. Now, don’t get me wrong, they can still make good tea – in fact, I had a great session with an older raw puer last week with Brita-filtered NYC (Brooklyn) tap water. However, it’s definitely worth knowing that Britas don’t just make your tea taste better, they radically alter the mineral composition – and not always for the better. It’s worth testing for yourself – what do you like? Brita, or something like a Waterdrop that doesn’t change mineral content at all? Or even a blend? I personally am still alternating between many different options in order to learn more.

Photo by Joey Tea Time

Replicating Water from the Xi River and Making Tea With It

I’ve been wanting to try Chinese tea with Chinese water for a long time, because it would be so cool, but only recently did I stumble upon some good data that I could use to replicate Chinese water at home. This water is a replica of the Xi River in winter (seasonal variation in natural water is significant, as TDS changes around 50% from winter to summer.) The main branch of the Xi River is located west of Guangzhou, but the basin of the river extends all the way to Kunming, in Yunnan. This water is rather difficult to make, and can not be made without a Sodastream. I used a new method to get silica into the water, and decided to test the new method by adding double the silica that was in the data. I don’t think it should make too much of a difference, but I wanted to note it here. Silica is not an ion, so it doesn’t have as significant an effect on extraction, only on texture (as far as I know now!)

After a lot of work over two weeks, here it is.

2750 ml

The water was distilled from my local tap water, which recently tested over the safe limit for PFAs, a pollutant that can cause health problems. I get a kick out of removing pollution from water by purifying it – distilling water removes PFAs entirely, and I distilled this water three times. Two of these distillations were in glass laboratory equipment dedicated to water. This resulted in my base water being some of the cleanest and purest I’ve managed to create, with the downside being 10 hours of distillation time to get only 2750 ml. I’m sure I can cut that time down in the future. I’m just really happy I can get pure tasting water at all, as it was a big struggle just a year ago. The distilled can go side by side with lofoten and hold its own! It’s not perfect by any means, but it is around the same level as very good natural waters bottled in glass.

Once I had this base water, I had to add the minerals to it. It wasn’t too difficult really, and took around an hour and a half to get everything measured and added properly. I’ve shared the water with friends and family and they’ve remarked that it tastes like water, nothing is wrong with it, and it’s rather dry (not drying, but referring to not too sweet). I suppose that is a success as water is concerned, though I’d love to make water that makes you go “wow!” I personally find the water quite voluminous in a nice way, but we will get to that later. The big curiosity is, does using (replicated) Chinese water “work” with tea grown near it? Does it express the taste as nature intended? Let’s find out.

Aimed for 34 ppm silica, tested at 30. Quite close!
Calcium43
Magnesium8
Sodium7
Potassium3
Bicarbonate148
Sulfate30
Chloride5
Silica34
Ions
Hardness139 mg/L as CaCO3
Alkalinity121 mg/L as CaCO3
Hardness to Alkalinity Ratio1.15
TDS (calculated, will not measure nearly this high due to ion conductivities)243 ppm
Electrical Conductivity at 25ºC (calculated, will not measure this high due to ion behavior)350 μS/cm
pH (measured)8
Electrical Conductivity at 25ºC (measured)303 μS/cm
Stats

Testing the Water with Tea: White2Tea 2016 The Treachery of Storytelling Pt. 2

6.3g/100ml

I chose Treachery because it’s a tea that demands good water, all about power and subtlety, in an interesting stage of aging, just beginning to darken in leaf color. It demands a water that can bring out both the youthful and aging side of the tea. It also has an energy that I’d like to experience in a comfortable way throughout the session. Aside from those considerations, I’m open to any outcome here, as it would be interesting to see how water that may be similar in mineral profile to what the tea “drank” in order to grow will interact with the tea and the experience of it. I’m not sure that tea drinkers even use tap water in China, depending on the area, or if the tap water is not altered in mineral content from the river water, but it’s worth a try for curiosity’s sake.

The water hits the teapot, sending an immediate aroma of flowers and dried fruit upward. The rinse pours a pale straw yellow. Empty pitcher smells of sweets. The leaf in the pot is intensely fragrant, like sunscreen and leather.

After the first steep is poured, immediately scale is forming in the kettle. This water is rather heavy, so I expected this to happen. It is kind of strange how rapidly this occurs, but I think natural water of this heaviness would do the same thing.

The taste of the first steep – bitter. Watery. Smooth. Many subtleties immediately – I’m delighted! Oiliness focused on the front of the tongue, evaporating into many tiny flowers and fruit essences. This is the most clear this tea has ever tasted for me. A brilliant oily soapiness blooming into a rose flower aftertaste. ECA is mild.

Second steep – the mouthfeel is so very soft, the silica is making a huge difference. The tea sort of inflates in the mouth. Juicy. Qi hits here. Downward qi, clarifying. The wateriness persists, refreshing. Extremely smooth, a lot of rear activity, experience of drinking moving from front to back to front. Leather and tobacco fairly obvious here, but the body and watery quality make this steep seem almost crystalline.

The Pyrex pitcher has never been more relevant

Speaking of crystals, unfortunately there’s a colossal amount of scale forming unlike any I’ve ever seen, forming crystalline globs on the bottom of the kettle. Luckily they’re not actually stuck together, just powdery scale collected in various spots on the bottom of the kettle. I’m sure this is changing the mineral content quite a bit, removing calcium carbonate from the water. This scale looks different than usual, so it could be silica in the scale too.

Lots of scale.

Third steep was similar to second.

Fourth steep – great bubbles on the surface of the tea, meaning we haven’t lost too much bicarbonate to scaling. Beginning to be a more full-mouth-all-at-once-experience. Darker, deeper, tannins showing up. Something that reminds me of citrus, like deep tangerine, or bitter orange juice. Smoother than any water I’ve ever made by far. 30 ppm silica is a big difference. The water holds together nicely. Huge focused relaxed energy. In tune. Heating in back. Not very sweet, like a very dry orange wine (white wine with the skins kept on) or a wild ale. Big pollen huigan!!

Seriously.

Fifth – Under-lid aroma is flowery, in a settled way, not like a brand-new tea would be, balmy. The scale is not showing up in the cup at all, though, which is nice. I’m very happy right now, for many reasons – the base water is good, the tea is good, the mineral composition is natural, the result is somewhere in the liminal space between natural and… well, not artificial… what is this? I guess this water is a secret, nobody has ever tried it, let alone with tea, except maybe people in the Xijiang Basin have this running in their house all the time. That’s a secret from me, I’ve sort of taken this water out of context and placed it in a new context that reflects a reality that I’ve probably made up. Not the first time this has happened in tea culture. Please contact me if you know if this water is used by many people. I believe it is similar to Guangzhou tap water, which is taken from six tributaries of the Pearl river, and the Xi is one of the main tributaries. I’m aware of water pollution in china too, so if everyone uses bottled water, or if it’s a mix, I appreciate the info. Back to the session – I’m getting a woody-stemminess, and awesome petroleum power. The tea isn’t heavy though, it still floats and has structure.

Sixth – What is this water? I mean, when you have a beyond burger, it’s kind of natural, but it’s fairly obvious you’re having something that’s been built from something else. But with this, I distilled water, which is what nature does with clouds and rain. Then I added minerals, which is what happens when water flows over rocks. There are some things missing, like the volatile scents of rocks, which are a real thing, such as the many volatile compounds that cause the petrichor effect after it rains. But chemically, it’s nearly identical to natural water at this point. It’s more like a photograph, or a sculpture of nature.

artificial (adj.)
late 14c., “not natural or spontaneous,” from Old French artificial, from Latin artificialis “of or belonging to art,” from artificium “a work of art; skill; theory, system,” from artifex (genitive artificis) “craftsman, artist, master of an art” (music, acting, sculpting, etc.), from stem of ars “art” (see art (n.)) + -fex “maker,” from facere “to do, make” (from PIE root *dhe- “to set, put”).

Earliest use in English is in the phrase artificial day “part of the day from sunrise to sunset” (as opposed to the natural day of 24 hours). Meaning “made by man, contrived by human skill and labor” is from early 15c. The word was applied from 16c. to anything made in imitation of, or as a substitute for, what is natural, whether real (light, tears) or not (teeth, flowers). Meaning “fictitious, assumed, not genuine” is from 1640s; that of “full of affectation, insincere” is from 1590s. Artificial insemination dates from 1894. Artificial intelligence “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines” was coined in 1956.

Sixth (cont.) – present. Roots, like fennel, parsnip. Dry huigan, dry mouthcoat, but not drying. Dry in taste in every aspect. Rather elegantly dry. The idea of sweetness is still there though, thank goodness.

Seventh – a 45 second steep, lighter than expected, too short of a steep. Taste is fairly mild here. I’m surprised at the slow extraction. Still has dried raspberry, creamy, qi. While the next steep is happening, let me talk about the chemistry of this water. High in bicarbonate, calcium and sulfate, higher potassium than normal, medium-low sodium. Low in magnesium. The potassium and sulfate contribute to the dry flavor and depth. The low magnesium and high calcium create a smooth and settled profile, and may cause the slower extraction.

Eighth – 2 minutes, good color, more present. Still quite watery in a way, but I’ve heard of this tea being like this. It’s watery but not underextracted. There’s plenty to chew on here. Oats and grains, definitely. I love the purity of the base water, free from plastic. My body is refreshed, back sweating, butter and bubblegum aftertaste. The tea is always shifting, elusive. Foresty taste, dense deep mouthcoat.

Ninth – Ripe peach. Only noticed this obvious note now, the florals were so distracting earlier! Getting more and more ethereal, focused on aftertaste, so vivid. There’s something natural and microbiological about the tea, as if some sort of fermentation is happening in the cup, like wine. It’s not close to sour or anything, but complex and active, alive.

Tenth – I am out of water in the kettle, let’s see if a fresh boil will revitalize it. A smell in the glass water container confirms that this water is indeed odorless, which is great. Tenth steep, still from the first boil, same boil as the last nine steeps, is a bit flat, but still nice. Suntan lotion, banana, bubblegum, irises, corn. Mouth is happy, not dried out at all. Pleasantly coated in tannins.

Eleven – fresh boil, 3 minute steep. Actually not enormously different. A bit more vitality and strength. This session overall is very relaxed, yet bitter, watery, yet potent. I love a good paradox in a cup! Sessions with other waters have been sort of similar, but not as bitter. It’s much less bitter than, say, the Truth Serum water recipe would make this tea. Grape skins, red and white.

Twelve – Final steep, ten minutes. Still so smooth, mild, chewy. Tobacco, simmered root vegetables, oils, coconut. Such an endlessly interesting profile and cohesive texture.

Session rating – 8.8/10

Water rating for this tea – 8.5/10

Reviewing the Water Itself

Drink up!

55ºF. Odorless, it hits the mouth, very thick and full for water. Holds together well. Mildly sweet, can taste the air in the water. It really is smooth and dry in the same way that the tea made with it is. Aftertaste is pure enough, could be more pure. Extremely slight CO2, not as much as Saratoga. The sulfate expresses itself with a thickness and presence. Really smooth, not particularly crisp, heavy but empty. Satisfying water with a sort of plain, ordinary and natural character. Could be more thirst-quenching.

Water rating – 8.1/10

What did I learn?

First, Xi River is really heavy. Unless there’s something I don’t know about how to get scale to stay in water and not precipitate out, it’s just a water that scales aggressively. I feel like the time investment that it took to make this water was worth it in the same way that the money investment for Treachery is worth it. I learned that silica makes a positive difference. I also learned that I can make good base water now, albeit with great effort. I got to know Treachery more, the qi was extremely comfortable and beneficial. This is good tea water in my book. I thought it could be a bit more present, but there was a sort of authenticity to what I was replicating here, or at least my idea of it, having never tried it. It tasted ordinary yet elegant, and seemed to express the tea in a beautiful, rather emotional way. I want to improve my process and make more water – I have plenty to replicate and even more water to create and design. I really enjoyed this session and process – it is like reverse-engineering nature.

Replicating Toronto Tap Water

The following is an account of an experiment I did in April 2020.

The Context

I had been messing with water for two years, adding minerals to pure water and trying all sorts of different brands, with varying results. I was having fun, but I knew there was better water out there than what I was making, buying, and getting out of my tap. As I was reading Late Steeps, Marco Gualtieri’s tea notes blog, I noticed he seemed to be getting amazing sessions with aged teas like the 2004-06 Yang Qing Hao productions. I’m aware that now his opinions of those teas have changed a bit, but back then he was enjoying them, getting tons of intense flavor and engaging energy. My experiences with Yang Qing Hao were less stellar, more boring and flat. I started to wonder… what if it was the water? Marco lives in Toronto and was using tap water usually in his older reviews. I looked up the water quality report and thought,

What if I could make Marco’s tap water in my own apartment?

The Process

The first thing I had to do was figure out the mineral composition that I was going for. The water quality report has minimum, maximum and average ranges for each of the relevant mineral ions; for example, the calcium content is between 31.1 and 38 mg/L, with an average of 35.6. I decided to aim for the averages, and see if it led to any problems. I used a slightly modified version of the Khymos mineral water calculator to convert my target ion concentrations into a mineral recipe that I could use.

(Ignore the carbon dioxide and pH, they are wrong, and also it’s not grams on the right column, but milligrams)

The ion charges didn’t match up, so I let the calculator compensate by adding bicarbonate to balance it out. 118 mg/L of bicarbonate was still within the range on the water quality report. This water is very heavy, and pretty hard. However, the hardness is higher than the alkalinity, which basically means that the flavor won’t get eaten up by excess bicarbonate. In general, the hardness to alkalinity ratio should be above 1 to prevent dullness of flavor. However, Icelandic glacial is decent for tea and has a hardness to alkalinity ratio of 0.85. This toronto water replica has a ratio of 1.32.

The amount of each mineral I had to add per gallon was all the way on the right column, in milligrams. I needed seven ingredients in my water to get that Toronto profile. My plan was to add them one at a time until I was done, pretty simple. If you add them all at once, there’s a chance they might react in some negative way.

The gang’s all here

The first five minerals, NaCl, KHCO3, MgCl2-6H2O, MgSO4-7H2O, and CaSO4-2H2O, dissolve fairly easily in water. However, the last two ingredients, MgCO3 and CaCO3 (chalk), are insoluble. So what did I do? Khymos instructs to carbonate the water – put simply, this produces carbonic acid which reacts with CaCO3 and MgCO3 to form soluble/aqueous Ca(HCO3)2 and Mg(HCO3)2. This works, but you end up with bubbly water, which I didn’t want to use for tea – I wanted to simulate what someone in Toronto would get out of their tap.

Bubbling and Debubbling

Debubbling

Luckily, the local Publix supermarket had Syfo Seltzer, a Reverse Osmosis carbonated water with 0 mineral content. My strategy was to make two concentrated solutions: I dissolved a gram of chalk in one bottle and 500 mg of MgCO3 in the other bottle, left it in the fridge over two nights, and rotated the bottles every once in a while until they were clear. Then, when it was time to make the water, I used a winemaking air pump to bubble air through each of the concentrates until the solution reached a pH of 8 or above, meaning all the dissolved CO2 was basically gone. I tried using a vacuum chamber for this another time, but it didn’t seem to work as well.

pH 8!

Making the Water – Putting it all together

A pinch of salt

It was then an iterative process of measuring out minerals, dissolving them in 0 TDS RO water, and then pouring that into the big jar.

Et cetera

After the first five minerals were added, it was time for the CaCO3 and MgCO3 concentrates. I simply measured out the appropriate amounts of each – one ml of the CaCO3 concentrate contained one mg of CaCO3 (in a way) and one ml of the MgCO3 concentrate contained 0.5 mg MgCO3.

This is only some of the chalk concentrate – there’s a lot in this water!
Pouring it in, almost done!
Finished
There are ions in this water is what this reading means

The TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) measured 148, even though the calculated TDS was 232. Quick note about TDS meters – they measure conductivity and multiply that reading by a constant to estimate the TDS. This water is less conductive per mg of TDS than the solution that the meter’s coefficient constant is based on. Bicarbonates are much less conductive than chlorides and sulfates. My meter’s coefficient is actually smaller than the commonly accepted one, too. So, that TDS reading was nearly meaningless, and the water was likely actually the proper TDS.

Taste of Toronto

I’ve never been to Toronto, but the finished water had a nice, natural mineral taste. It really didn’t taste synthetic, and was quite full and soft. I was impressed! The whole process took about three days, with two hours of work total.

Making the Tea

Ok! Now that the water was finally done, it was time to test it out. I had some Yang Qing Hao Jinhao Chawang lying around, so I fired up the kettle and did a little session.

The result was astounding. I had never experienced such a concentrated, thick, powerful tea before, especially from Yang Qing Hao. It’s hard to describe, but it was so satisfying, and I felt the energy much more than other sessions. I could tell that the full potential of this tea was being extracted, but the bicarbonate was providing a wonderful softness and richness. I now understood where Marco was coming from with his praise, when before, with Nashville water and even bottled water, I never got close to this experience.

Many other sessions were had with this gallon of fake homemade Toronto water.

I forget what tea this was
Teaswelike 2001 Yellow Mark
Young Sheng – thick and sweet

It was all amazing. To be clear, this water is heavy. You couldn’t go much heavier than this and have a good experience. But the calcium and magnesium are in perfect balance, as well as the sulfate and chloride, hardness and alkalinity, just a bit of potassium, not too much sodium. This, as I understand it, is a great mineral profile, especially for a water as heavy as this. I also like lighter waters, but there’s something with this Toronto water, this density in the resulting tea, that is extremely addictive. It’s too bad it was so hard to make. I plan on making it again, with a slightly easier method that shuffles the minerals around so I only have to make one concentrate.

So yeah, this is one example of what I’ve been up to in regards to water and tea. If there ever was a tea secret, this is one – water mineral content has an enormous effect on tea. I’m not suggesting everyone should make this water, as it’s rather difficult and time consuming, and maybe not for everyone. I feel like most people know that water has an effect on tea, but don’t know what to do about it. There’s probably a 50-70% chance that your tap water, when filtered to remove chlorine taste, is good enough. But if it isn’t, it might be worthwhile to find a solution (haha) to that problem, to get the most out of that hard-earned tea. Also, it’s just fun to play around with water! This experiment really opened my mind to what’s possible with a little chemistry and imagination, and I’m looking forward to making water that’s even better than Toronto’s.

Thanks for reading!!

Water, a Wicked Problem

I’ve been working on making good water for tea for almost two years now. A recent article on TeaDB mentioned puer tea storage as a “wicked problem” where there’s so many variables and not very good or clear feedback. Water for tea has proven to be a similarly wicked problem.

Natural vs. Artificial

What’s the difference between natural spring water and artificial purified mineralized water? Obviously, spring water comes from nature, and purified remineralized water is man-made. But what is the actual difference between these two substances? Does spring water have some magic structure, or is it just a good mineral balance?

What is in water?

There are 11 substances besides water that are in drinking water in various forms.

  1. Calcium
  2. Magnesium
  3. Sodium
  4. Potassium
  5. Chloride
  6. Sulfate
  7. Bicarbonate
  8. Silica
  9. Oxygen
  10. Carbon Dioxide
  11. Nitrate

These are 11 of the variables we can manipulate in the study of water. Where do you even start?

The Challenge of Purity

Getting purified water in a small scale is extremely difficult. My tap water comes from a dirty river, so cleaning it up has been a struggle. Distilled water bought at the store commonly comes in bottles that reek of plastic, are expensive, and pollute the environment. My local supermarket’s Reverse Osmosis machine produces water with a chemical aftertaste, likely from the monthly bleach treatment.

Distillation at home can be done with a distiller, but these are full of metal tubing and leave the water tasting quite strange. Also, distillation doesn’t remove odors in water very well, so distillers come with charcoal packets which don’t quite remove the taste. I purchased a $300 unit and despite the positive amazon reviews, it produced drinkable, but obviously metallic water.

I’ve also distilled in a closed all-glass setup, but the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are reabsorbed back into the water along with high concentrations of CO2, which makes the water taste not very nice. Basically, you can have water free of minerals, with 0 TDS (Total Dissolved Solids), but full of gross gases and non-conductive chemicals from your water supply. However smartwater gets their water, I would like that too, but it’s probably a piece of equipment worth a ton of money and bigger than my apartment.

I have a home RO (Reverse Osmosis) system, but the high pressure concentrates hydrogen sulfide into the end product, and I get eggy water. Also, the TDS is only divided by 10, so there’s some minerals left. It’s quick though and not metallic, so that’s what I’m working with.

If someone knows how to get pure water at home (or anywhere) without any metallic taste, plastic taste or dissolved grossness, that tastes like absolutely nothing, please comment on this post. It would help my research a lot, and I can share my findings with others.

Why

Probably 10% of people are getting the most out of their tea leaves, water-wise. There is so much that can go wrong with just the mineral balance of water that can ruin your tea. I also believe there are new heights in water quality and mineral content that could beat any spring water. If you disagree, please tell me why this wouldn’t be the case.

P.S. I am aware that this is a problem in coffee that has been partially solved by various companies, i.e. Third Wave Water and gcwater. These could point in the right direction, but tea is not coffee, and there’s reasons these recipes might not be optimal.

Opportuni-tea

Why do I keep drinking tea?

Sometimes there are tea sessions that just aren’t good. People don’t talk about them usually because they just aren’t notable or interesting – they are moments of failure. Usually, the explanation for these sessions is “I just wasn’t in the zone.”

During tonight’s ripe session, after a full day of water research (yes, I’m diving deep into water for tea), I was kind of bouncing back and forth between the computer and the tea table, sort of half focused. Suddenly, a song came on: Mind Mischief (The Field Remix) by Tame Impala. I have been listening to both Tame Impala and The Field for years, but didn’t discover this song until I heard it repeatedly on White2Tea’s Instagram and Snapchat stories. When I kept hearing it there, I started to wonder, “yeah, it’s a cool song, but what does Paul see in it that makes him listen again and again?

This is a pattern of thinking that I believe is central to modern tea culture. What do people see in Yang Qing Hao that makes them buy it by the tong? What do people see in old Yixing teapots that make them obsessed? What makes people buy those $130 samples of old Liu Bao from Essence of Tea? And on and on.

I closed my eyes as the song played and suddenly I was lulled into a sense of happy peaceful nostalgia (yes this reads like a bad college admissions essay but it’s the truth) where my old neighborhood flashed before my eyes, the cul-de-sac with its fresh mulch, the happy feelings of freedom so different from what I find most of the time in my young adult life.

When I opened my eyes, I saw everything with startling clarity – I mean to say that colors were more vivid, details were more pronounced. The texture of the modern zhuni teapot contrasted against the plate, the whiteness of the porcelain, the waste bowl, the chabu (tea mat), everything. I suddenly felt like I was capable of greater things, to transcend my everyday life.

When you invest time and or money into tea and or teaware, you are buying opportunity for moments like this. It’s not about always having the best tea session; that can be taken away, but nothing can take away the opportunity for an incredible, eye-opening experience.

IMG_5228

 

Beginners and Experts

In the world of tea, what do we gain with experience?

What’s the difference between an experienced tea drinker and a relative novice? I’m not an expert, but I’m closer to being an expert than I used to be. I’ve also interacted with many people I would consider to be experts, especially in certain areas. Here are a few things people seem to collect along the way.

Tea and teaware

I’ve not met any tea enthusiast who does not have a sizable collection. From people with over 100 teapots to those with entire rooms full of tea, there exist tea-fans so obsessed that they have gone beyond practicality. The more you learn about tea, and the more tea you learn about, the more temptation there is to buy it. Marketing is getting better and better, limited releases are everywhere (white2tea, pu-erh.sk, others), and the selection of teaware is unbelievable. It is very difficult to purposefully reduce the size of your tea/teaware stash over time, and the best way is a sale or swap.

The ability to relax and enjoy

In order to fully enjoy tea, one must drop everything else (aside from possibly a good book or album). I mean to say that worry and tea don’t go well together, especially not worry about tea. I see most (not all) beginners quite concerned about if they are making the tea “right.” Eventually, an expert learns to let the tea make itself. This is done partially through development of personal style and habit, and otherwise learning how to relax and make tea at the same time.

The ability to make good tea

Of the ten thousand ways to make tea, not all are good. Making good tea is about maximizing good qualities and minimizing bad ones. It is an iterative process that comes from many attempts. The more pots one has, the longer it takes to learn their nuances, and the worse the available water is, well, you gotta figure out a solution. The better the water is, the easier it is to make good tea. The point is, people usually get better with experience, or at least develop some character and style in their resulting tea.

Positive memories

Some tea sessions stick out over others for various reasons. With experience, the list of memorable tea sessions lengthens. That time I had HK Henry after a long, stressful day. The outdoor session at the pond in the woods. That six-tea marathon session. The tea masterclass where the puers just got older and older. That time the tea made me tear up (it happens to more people than you think!) That first bitter-turning-to sweet taste of raw puer. And the list goes on.

Friendship

I’ve met some people online and offline in the tea community. Some of these friendships go beyond tea, but it’s perfectly possible and okay to have deep friendships entirely about tea. There are one-sided relationships too – some people serve as the experts and others as the novices. The best way to put your own tea journey in context is to show others what you are doing and compare with what they do. This is not to say that people with more experience are necessarily correct, but that they may have reasons for what they do that you can think about as you decide what to incorporate in different ways.

Personal opinions / the (dis)respect of others

The tea culture is a generally polite place full of different opinions. Most tea-learning is confirmed by experience, and people don’t easily let go of that which they’ve learned from experience. There are usually reasons for differing opinions but they are not easy to figure out. So, there are commonly long arguments about, for example, tea storage, unglazed vs. glazed clay, vendor choices, whether a tea is good or bad, and water (this one seems especially contentious). This is what makes tea so exciting to an expert, especially one who is willing to change their mind.

Appreciation of non-tea

The more one learns to enjoy tea, the more that enjoyment spills over into non-tea elements. Whether it’s the world of alcoholic beverages, from single malts to wine to beer to eaux-de-vie, or just appreciation of nature, tea is about exploring the richness of the world to the fullest extent. Eventually, one learns to enjoy simply living and breathing.

Patience and its rewards

Patience is a virtue, and tea requires patience. Waiting for the water to boil takes patience. Waiting for the hot tea to cool a bit takes patience. Waiting for those loooong steeps at the end of a session takes patience. And all that patience is rewarded with a slow, steady adventure. It’s quite uncomfortable to wait so long doing nothing when you are a tea novice, but eventually it becomes clear that doing nothing is the gateway to a clear experience of reality, or something like that.

Learning from mistakes / Beginner’s mind

It’s easy to mess up a session, or brew a tea for a significant other that evokes the reaction of disgust, or spill tea all over your pants. It’s also incredibly common to have your most expensive tea with your favorite teaware and be completely let down by the result. This is learning, and why the best approach to tea is not as an expert, but as a beginner, open to whatever may happen in the current circumstance. The tea experts I respect the most don’t have any pretentious attitude, but simply know how to enjoy and share tea in their own way, and especially are good at listening to experts and beginners alike.

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at puerh brooklyn

P.S. I’m doing a lot of hard, time-consuming, mildly expensive work with water, and plan to share it with the world around March 2020. Sorry for the wait, but distilling water takes many hours, and my glass lab equipment is in customs. Thanks for reading!

Taste as Meditation

A lot of people make a separation between those who “nerd out” about tea and those who are spiritually connected to the tea. The zen people say “don’t think about the taste of the tea just make it and drink it” and the tea nerds say “don’t worry about stories about zen monks and health benefits just make it and drink it.” The “just make it and drink it” is common to both approaches, of course.

For a very long time, I have been just making and drinking my tea, with a sort of soft focus and presence: I pay attention and relax. But recently, I have been consciously analyzing my tea as I drink it, like some kind of sommelier searching for flavor notes. Now why would I do such a thing?

The level of focus required in order to determine what kinds of flavors are present in the tea is surprisingly deep. The fact that taste is subjective doesn’t change the fact that the tastes are there waiting to be uncovered. Perhaps they don’t need to be labeled, especially because I can’t tell my longans from my gardenias, but at least you can group your raw tea-drinking sensation into different dimensions of flavor. For example, low notes vs high notes: you can think “this taste, although I haven’t a clue what it resembles, is low.” Also, does it last a long time? When does it arrive, and when does it leave? Do the successions of notes have a rhythm?

Yun

Yun is a term that, according to chinese tea lexicon Babelcarp, means “literally Rhyme, but in a tea context, Aftertaste, or more generally, the elusive essence of experiencing a given tea.” It’s used as Yan Yun when it refers to a Wuyi rock oolong’s “rocky” taste/aftertaste. Now why would it be called rhyme?

My personal view on Yun is that it occurs when the succession of flavors has a rhythm. In poetry, a rhyme only happens with a rhyme scheme, which is essentially rhythmic:

I drank my tea alone today

It seemed to me sublime

For when I focused deep within,

I found a splendid rhyme.

The rhyming words go in a specific place rhythmically: if they were anywhere else in the poem, it would feel different, and probably not rhyme at all.

I sipped a tea with a friend

She hated it because

It didn’t have a rhyme at all,

It wasn’t a very good time.

See, that’s awkward and bad. So, when a tea has Yun, or rhyme, it is because the interplay of flavors over time is rhythmically structured. By focusing and bringing these flavors to consciousness in real time, you can experience the essence of the tea as if it were a poem and a song. This strikes a perfect balance between the meditative and the enthusiast approaches to tea, which usually oppose each other. I used to look for qi more than yun, but perhaps they are two sides of the same thing!