How to pour a teapot

What a ridiculous title for a post, eh? “Grab the handle and pour”, is the expected response. However, as anyone who’s tried to use a yixing pot for the first time can probably tell you, there’s a little more to it than that.

First of all, let’s clarify that I’m mostly talking about fairly small teapots, in the smaller-than-400ml range. Those big heavy twenty-cup teapots are pretty foolproof and you don’t need an article on this blog to tell you how to use them!

Often, teapots of this size are called Yixing (宜兴, pronounced roughly “ee-shing”), even if they are not from the Yixìng region of Jiāngsū province which is most famous for the style. Debating the authenticity, usefulness, and naming of these pots is far beyond the topic of this post, but suffice to say if you have a small teapot made of clay, ceramic, glass, or even silver, these principles will apply.

Before anything else, warm the teapot with some hot water before using it (then pour it out). While this may seem like a chore if you’re really looking to dig into that first cup of tea, you can turn it into a pleasurable experience all by itself. First, some clay pots will make delightful bubbling sounds when they start to absorb water, and hearing that symphony is a great prelude to get my senses focused on the task at hand. Second, the tea will likely turn out better, since the water temperature can drop significantly when pouring into a cold pot. But third, and the most fun in my opinion, is that a warm pot can produce an amazing fragrance from tea leaves. As soon as you are done warming the pot, toss in your dry tea leaf and shut the lid. Give the leaves just a few moments to heat and then carefully (lest you burn your nose hairs) lift the lid and inhale the aroma. A good quality tea will produce a fragrance to stop time. You can also sniff the inside of the lid which will protect your nose from the hot steam.

Once the tea has infused for an appropriate amount of time (which can vary considerably based on preference), it’s best to pour it all out. If making tea for more than one cup, either pour the infusion into a sharing pitcher or fill each cup about half-way once before returning and filling each cup the remainder. In this way the strength of the infusion is more-or-less constant between cups. Having a pitcher requires much less practice than knowing how full each cup should be and avoiding drips on the table.

vertical-pourAs the teapot is being poured, the angle will increase from horizontal to vertical (and sometimes beyond) which can cause the most disastrous and unfortunately common type of broken teaware that I’ve seen: the lid will fall off, sometimes even cracking the cup as it lands. I think everyone who’s owned a small pot has gone through this experience or has seen someone who has. There’s no shame to not remembering to hold the lid, but there’s a few different ways to go about it.

Probably the most simple is to use two hands, placing one hand on the lid and using the other to grasp the teapot handle. The second method is to use a free finger on the pouring hand to hold the lid in place; this technique can be done with either the index finger (more traditional) or the thumb, depending on the size of your hand and your grip on the teapot. It’s best to avoid touching the lid itself which is likely to be extremely hot, but every teapot should have a knob or handle with which it can be held safely.

The trick with any method is to avoid covering the small hole in the lid which prevents a vacuum from forming inside the teapot that would stop or slow the pour. (In fact, a well-made lid will fit on the teapot so well that covering the hole should stop the pour of liquid completely.) If using the one-handed technique, this is generally accomplished by putting a little bit of sideways pressure on the lid’s knob rather than covering it completely.

Even though I’d say that a Gaiwan is worth ten teapots for its flexibility and convenience, there’s a definite aesthetic about a Yixing or Jianshui teapot that can really be pleasant to use. And with practice and an appropriate pot it’s possible to create infusions that bring out hidden characteristics of the best and least of the tea world. Not every pot will work well for every tea, so if you have a pot, give it a try with different leaves and different times to find what suits it (and your taste) best. Just remember to keep the lid on top!

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Jalam Bada 2014 Sheng

“Bada bing!”

That’s what I crow every time I make some of this great Sheng Puer from Jalam Teas. Not just because it’s really fun to say (and it is!), but also because for a relatively young Sheng (Summer 2014) it’s got quite a lovely character. (The tea is harvested on Bada Mountain and “Bing”, or 饼, means “cake” and is more or less the standard form into which Puer leaves are pressed.)

badabing-cups2Compared to most Shengs of this age range (1-4 years), I taste surprisingly very little cedar and sulfur. Instead, notes of leather, wicker and straw are prevalent. Really, I like this tea almost more for its drinkability more than any sort of dramatic flavors or aroma. It’s so mellow and light bodied that I infused even the first three pots for almost a full minute, which for a lot of Sheng Puer is pretty rare if you don’t want a sharp bitter mess in your cup.

There’s a dried herb quality in the taste as well for which I had trouble coming up with a label, perhaps dry cilantro? Maybe that’s not too appetizing a term. Let’s just say there’s a fresh and interesting flavor somewhat reminiscent of an herb garden.

I steeped the fifth and sixth infusions longer just to see what would happen, but they still came out not as sharp or sour as I expected. The strength manifested instead as a tannic dryness and little else. Even brewed strong like this, the aromas remain mild and light.

Definitely this Bada bing is going to be a regular in my gaiwan, as long as the small 100g cake lasts!

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2015 Spring Tea Anticipation

So it’s Spring. And by “Spring”, I mean apparently Summer because within one week the temperature here in Vermont went from 40°F (4°C) to 80°F (26°C). But I’m not complaining, because Spring is Fresh Tea Time!

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My first hits this year have been from India. I’ve been drinking some great 2015 Darjeeling First Flush (Rohini estate from Stone Leaf Tea was the first, followed by Mimm estate from Dobra Tea). There’s really nothing like fresh First Flush. The malty, woody fragrances followed by a burst of energy that I think compares only to Matcha are an experience that can’t be beat. If you’ve never had some, I highly recommend it. But be sure to get it brewed by an experienced brewmaster or give yourself some time to experiment, because First Flush is the opposite of your average black tea. If you’re new to making First Flush the best advice I can give is to treat it more like a Chinese green tea or a light oolong.

I’ve also had the opportunity to sip some fantastic fresh Chinese Greens. And just like every year, I’m amazed at what fresh tea can be compared to even leaves that have been packed six months ago. I’ve been drinking what I have too fast, but I did manage to get some photos of a White Buddha Mao Feng from Stone Leaf.

The World Tea Expo is going on right now in California, and if I wasn’t doing a hundred other things right now I’d be right there shaking hands with the giant ginseng. In lieu of being present with such great people and leaves, I direct your attention to my fellow tea bloggers Oolong Owl, Tea For Me Please (nothing posted yet, but I assume we’ll see some coverage; and congrats!), Tea Moment, World of Tea, Steep Stories, or just follow WTE2015 on Twitter or wte15 on Instagram.

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In conclusion, welcome (foolishly hot) Spring, and may we all be sipping fresh hot tea (to cool down)!

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What are we even drinking? Tea and Tisanes

In the US, it’s extremely common for people to walk into a shop asking after “a cup of tea” and then ask for Chamomile, Peppermint, or some blend of flowers and spices. What these customers actually want is a Tisane.

Tea : a shrub (Camellia sinensis of the family Theaceae, the tea family) cultivated especially in China, Japan, and the East Indies.

Tisane: an infusion (as of dried herbs) used as a beverage or for medicinal effects.

When I was growing up, I learned from colloquial usage that “tea” meant something like, “an aromatic beverage prepared from various plants by infusion with boiling water”. What I didn’t realize is that there is actually one plant (Camellia Sinensis) which is actually “tea”, and everything else is, technically, a “tisane”.

This topic has been covered in many places, and while it sounds like mere snobbery at first (and it can be!), I think that making the distinction between tea and tisane is more important than it appears for two reasons.

Firstly, true tea has a poor reputation for taste in the West and having accurate terminology makes it much easier for vendors to identify their product. Think how confusing it would be if people said, “wine” when they were referring to grapefruit juice. Perhaps that’s hyperbole but I think it’s pretty close to the truth. If you have a chance to drink a cup of tulsi-peppermint-licorice tisane and a cup of Si Ji Chun oolong side-by-side I think the difference will be dramatic. Both are delicious; but they have very unique qualities.

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Bai Mu Dan (白牡丹茶) Tea

Secondly, there is the matter of health. If, while traveling to India or China, some poor traveler orders tea and then specifies a “caffeine-free” version, they are likely to be met with only confusion. Tea (even decaffeinated tea) always contains some caffeine, just as chocolate always does. Wanting a caffeine-free chocolate, the wise consider something else, like carob (which we usually don’t call “chocolate”, despite its similar properties). Conversely, there are several herbs which have known medicinal properties, but the healing properties of actual tea are much less specific and are still being studied.

So why do we like to use the terms interchangeably, particularly in US culture? I’m not really sure, but I think some of it began with the experience of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. During that time, tea (actual tea) was a major staple of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, and taxation of its importation was symbolic of the control levied by England over the colonial citizens. The colonists were strongly inclined to find a substitute, and so invented what they called “freedom tea”, or “herbal tea”, which contained no tea but could be sourced locally without import fees. I believe that from that point onward the idea of “tea” and “herbal tea” became so conflated that each subsequent generation lost the ability to tell the difference.

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In today’s quantity-over-quality global market, however, the heavy manual labor and precise skill required to produce real quality tea leaves is fading from disuse. Fortunately for us, there is a small revolution in artisan tea production that is slowly catching on. Companies like Camellia Sinensis, Stone Leaf Tea, Red Blossom, Song Tea, and White2Tea (just to name a few) are importing real quality leaf with a focus on education and tradition. Groups like Global Tea Hut are working to improve the tea market for organic farming and appropriate pay for artisan labor. I believe that keeping our terms straight and educating (compassionately) those who are uncertain is one of the best ways to honor this burgeoning movement.

So, be proud of your Chamomile! Enjoy your Rooibos! Slurp Yerba Mate by the gourd-full! But when the leaves of the Tea plant make their way to your cup, remember all the history that they represent and honor those who struggled against a global industry to bring them to you.

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Tea as Meditation

Just this past week I was privileged to be able to prepare tea for a meditation group I attend weekly. Our practice is Insight Meditation or Vipassana, a very old Buddhist practice that migrated to the West through Thailand. Besides wanting to share some delicious tea, I also had an interest in discussing and experiencing tea as a meditation object. Tea and Buddhist thought have been intertwined for almost as long as Buddhism itself, and as tea made its way throughout the world becoming altered by the traditions of the cultures through which it traveled, so too did the practice of awareness travel and mold itself to fit each place.

I began the class with a quote by Sen Sōtan that I hoped would bring some mindfulness and curiosity to the sitting,

“If asked / the nature of Chanoyu / say it’s the sound / of windblown pines / in a painting.”

Tea, in my opinion, gives us the chance to honor this moment, which is unique and will never happen again. As written by Shunryu Suzuki,

“Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.”

“Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.” This was the advice I read to the group before I began preparing their first cup of tea. As they drank, I suggested one additional instruction: “Three sips, two hands, one cup.”

copper-chatakuTea can be a meditation object; just as the breath can be an anchor to our awareness, so too can the process of making and drinking tea. Just focus your concentration toward the tea, and when you find that your mind is wandering, bring it gently back to the tea again, without judgement.

Why tea? Because it lends itself to ritual and is at the same time a mundane activity. It is also a single beverage that exists in the experience of millions of people on this planet. It is perhaps one of the few unifying factors that lies between all countries and cultures. What is making tea? Simple! Heat water, infuse leaves, drink. And yet, when one cares to do so, it is possible to perform those actions with mindfulness, being aware of each step, each motion, fully in the present.

In one sense, tea is no different from any other familiar activity, but it can be used to create something special. After all, sitting is done without mindfulness many times each day, but when we sit to meditate, we tend to do so with a bit of ritual; a bell may be rung, a cushion may be used, or our hands may be placed just so. None of these things are necessary, of course, but they are aids to mindfulness. Such variation helps us remember that we are not performing an everyday activity. When making tea, through the use of particular tools, motions, or setting, one can also cultivate such a variation. Indeed, others have developed these variations into rituals and schools for hundreds of years.

chaxi-practice-setupThat is not to say that one must follow the rituals or use the utensils used by ancient masters. Far from it! Tea can be made mindfully using the simplest of tools. A cracked old teapot or a bowl can be just as satisfying a place for the mind to rest as a fine yixing Shuiping pot. Fine teaware or not, if the mind becomes attached to these utensils, then that is not the practice of meditation.

To quote Dennis Hirota from Wind in the Pines, “The practitioner eliminates all notions of utilizing the teascoop, or displaying it, or impressing the guests with deftness of movement; in this way the mind ceases to objectify it and becomes immersed in it. By entering into the teascoop and becoming one with it, the life of the teascoop is experienced from within, and this is also for the tea practitioner to become manifest with wholeness of mind and sincerity. ”

tea-on-zafuEven when one is not making or drinking the tea, the ritual of tea itself can be used an object of mindfulness. Visually, the beauty or interesting character of the tea tools can be an object to keep the mind present. The aroma of the tea in the air, the motions of the other guests, the sound of the water dripping into a cup. All these can be used as meditative anchors. Indeed, in the tea ceremony, one might say that everything is a meditation.

The important part is to set that moment aside, however short or long, as a moment of practice. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us,

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

Photo Feb 21, 9 46 36 AM

Tea in the Year of the Wood Sheep

This weekend morning I drank some lovely Lishan Winter Sprout (kindly sourced by Song Tea) as the chill wind shifted the piles of snow outside my window. It was a peaceful and delicious way to start the day. To bring a timely quality to this gathering, a small ceramic sheep (who followed me home from Montréal many years past) joined the Chaxi. He likes to celebrate special occasions, this sheep, and as the Chinese New Year resonates, our wooly friend was most pleased to be included. He refrained from drinking any tea, however.

The Lishan was sweet and bold, nearly glowing in the cup, with leaves that reached out to touch the winter air. A bit of the ice and the pines outside made their way through the aroma of the tea into our thoughts.

May your winter days be quiet and warm, with a cup of tea for everyone.

alishan-oolong-black-setup

Alishan Oolong Black

This morning’s treat was to share some waffles and a pretty unique tea with my wife as we watched the snow gently fall outside. This is one of the teas I bought from a small shop in Taipei called DigniTea, which is a family-run artisan tea company that grows (as far as I know) all of their leaves on Alishan (a rather famous mountain outside of Chiayi). I have of course written about their lovely oolongs before. Unlike their other offerings, however, this one is an “oolong black”, which seems like an unlikely descriptor, yet there it is, right on the package.

alishan-oolong-black-package

 

Well, ok, the package also reads “大紅帖”, or Dàhóng tiē, which to the best of my ability to translate means “big red ribbon”. So perhaps the title in Chinese is just as mysterious and unexpected.
alishan-oolong-black-leaves-dryWhile I might expect a title like “oolong black” from a Western tea bag company, where precision in naming is less important than floral descriptions, DigniTea is hardly that type of company. Their Jin Xuan and Qing Xin products are some of the finest I’ve tasted, and their packaging specifies the cultivar, year, and season of harvest. This leads me to believe that the title is not mere embellishment. So, how can a tea be made as both an oolong and also a black tea? My only guess is that the style is processed in the rigorous rolling and drying system common to high mountain oolongs but allowed to oxidize longer than any other similar Dong Ding or Alishan. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of such a creation before.

The dry leaves are dark and rolled into small balls, already giving a unique impression. It is as though one took the dark roasted leaves of a Wuyi oolong and rolled them like a tiny Dong Ding. Infused, they produce a beautiful amber liquor reminiscent of a Sun Moon Lake black tea.


The taste as well is similar, I think, to that famous Taiwanese black tea (Hong cha, really) known variously as Sun Moon Lake, Red Jade, or Number 18. Sweet and caramel-thick, but with a slight dryness and rough mouthfeel that reminds me of a charcoal roasted oolong, this tea has a gentle but unexpected character. Indeed, every time I drink some my palate is always a little confused. Is this oolong, or is it Hong cha? The DigniTea page designates it as the latter, but this may be one of those cases where the question is simply one of experience and not semantics.

The uniqueness of this tea has earned it a special spot on my shelf over the last few years, although there is precious little remaining. But that is a good thing! The way of tea is to remind us that the present moment is fleeting, and that change exists in all things. The seeds of a flavorless teabag exist in even the finest high mountain oolong, if it is not consumed. I am fortunate, and it speaks to the quality of this tea, that my Alishan oolong black has lasted so long while retaining its delightful character. It is time to drink it and move on, giving thanks for all the joy and mystery it has brought to my life.

May your tea be warm and delightful during the frigid winter snows. And may your mind find peace in the cup.

alishan-oolong-black-wet-leaves