Category Archives: Method

Tea as Patience

I make a fair amount of tea during the average day. By the time some evenings roll around I’ve brewed three or four pots of different teas, each one usually three to six times. One thing that this practice has shown me is that not all tea preparation is equal. Many infusions end up being brewed while I’m working, reading something on the Internet, or having a deep conversation. The result? The tea becomes just another beverage.

That’s not my preference, of course. I’d much rather be aware of my tea making. Not only does a carefully, mindfully prepared cup of tea taste much better, the experience of making the tea itself becomes enjoyable. I’ve written about “tea as meditation” before, but today I was struck by one particular aspect: patience.

One of the most interesting and unique parts of making tea by hand is the steeping time. The way I see it, this single factor sets it apart from other artisan beverages like wine, beer, whiskey, etc. To make the best tea, we have to be very careful about how long the leaves sit in the water. Too long, and a bitter cup of tea results; too short, and a watery cup is what you get. While using a timer is almost essential when starting out, as familiarity develops the practitioner gains an intuitive sense of when to pour out the pot. Either way, we must wait, and wait, and wait, but not be distracted! Our awareness must remain on the tea as it sits there in silence. A vigil of the leaf.

While waiting for thirty seconds or two minutes can certainly be annoying at times, I see this as a wonderful part of the practice of tea! Annoyance, after all, only appears when we’d rather be doing something else. When it arises, I try to notice that it’s arisen by saying to myself, “well, now I am annoyed; how interesting! I want this tea to be complete so I can go do something. This is what restlessness feels like.” And then I wait, and wait, until the tea is ready.

I encourage everyone to try this practice! Being present with the emotions when we resist an experience can be very interesting indeed! And what a short meditation it is: the time it takes to steep a pot of tea. In many cases less than a minute! Better still, the result is not just learning about our own mind or cultivating patience, but we get a delicious cup of tea as the icing on the cake. If only all practices of meditation could have such a tangible reward.

Kabusecha and the Warm Teapot

The super rich, spinach-and-seaweed aroma of a Japanese green tea is the result of many different factors. One technique pioneered by Japanese tea farmers is the practice of covering some of their plants for a few weeks just before harvest. The covers are permeable mesh or bamboo, allowing only a little sunlight to reach the tea during this period. The result of this practice darkens the leaf as the plant tries to produce more chlorophyll in its attempts to reach the sun.

When these covered teas are harvested, they become either Gyokuro, the most savory of green teas; Tencha, used to make powdered Matcha; or Kabusecha, a unique form of Sencha that is a real treat for the senses.

A recent excursion allowed the purchase of some Kabusecha Saemidori from Camellia Sinensis tea house. I’m quite familiar with the covered Sencha served at Dobra tea room, and it’s always been one of my favorite green teas, but at most other tea shops I usually lean toward earthy Puer and heavenly Oolongs. I’m very glad that I made an exception here, and honestly I have to thank my wife and my good friends for picking this tea in the first place.

The dark green leaves are finely cut into medium-size pieces, as is typical for all but the most rare tea made in Japan. Gently infused with relatively very cool water (approximately 50-70 degrees Celsius) they produce a light pea-green liquor that just radiates happiness.

It’s not just the flavor, though.

kabusecha-liquor

Let me share with you my favorite part of this ritual. I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the great joys of brewing loose leaf tea is getting to experience the aroma of the warmed leaves, and this is doubly true for Sencha.

First, warm your tea pot. It doesn’t matter what kind of pot, although something with a mesh strainer is going to resulting infusion much more tasty. All you have to do here is pour hot water into the empty pot, let it sit for twenty seconds or so, then pour it out (you may as well warm your cups with the water when you’re done).

Next, pour in some tea leaves. If you want to measure, I’d say around six grams of leaf per 200ml of water, but I usually don’t bother. Roughly two tablespoons is a good rule of thumb. Also – and this is a point that ruined many pots of Sencha for me in the past – don’t use a teapot that holds more than 400ml of water. For Japanese tea especially, the infusion will need to be very careful, and large pots make this nearly impossible.

Now for the magic.

kabusecha-in-pot

Just after adding the leaves, cover your tea pot with the lid, trapping the leaves in with the warm, moist air.

Then comes the reward! After letting the leaves sit in the warm pot for around a minute, carefully lift the lid and stick your nose in. (Fair warning: if you heated the pot with boiling water, there may be steam escaping and you definitely don’t want to stick your nose in that! So it’s best to lift the lid, let any steam escape, and then inhale.) The resulting aroma is a life experience in itself.

What if I don’t smell anything?

It’s worth mentioning that if your tea is getting old (more than a year since harvest) or if it has been stored with too much exposure to air or light (often the case for tea purchased from jars or in clear containers), you may not get much aroma. Fresh and vacuum sealed tea will provide the best experience, but you can always try to warm the pot with hotter water and leave the tea inside for a longer period if you don’t smell anything. Chances are that if you don’t get a blast of deliciously savory aroma from the damp leaves, the taste of the infusion may be dull and flat.

Assuming all goes well, steep your Sencha with warm (about 70°C) water for between 60 – 90 seconds. The exact count varies but you can solve this riddle by pouring out a small quantity of tea during the steep and tasting it to see if it’s ready. Be quick, though; a few seconds can make or break a Japanese tea!

Even though it’s a tricky style of tea to get perfect, I really encourage everyone to try their hand at Sencha. The resulting incredible flavor and aroma you just can’t find in any other tea. Be patient with yourself, and when you smell the tea, really let it pervade your senses. This is the communion with nature that tea brings to us. It is a gift of the leaf, and more than worth the effort needed to find it.

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.”

A Reprisal of Gaiwans

I posted a while ago about how to pour a gaiwan, but I wanted to talk a little more about this super-useful device.

What is a gaiwan? Why should you have one? Where do you get one? How do you use it? These are all good questions! Let’s break it down.

Photo Nov 13, 9 45 20 AM

What is a gaiwan?

It’s this ceramic thing with a lid. In fact, gaiwan literally means “lidded bowl”. Usually there’s also a base or saucer making it a three-piece brewing tool. They’re basically an ancient Chinese teapot and teacup all in one. Hundreds of years ago it was common to actually drink tea directly out of the gaiwan as it was brewing, but today we usually use them as a teapot only.

Why the change? By pouring all the tea out of the gaiwan at once we have much more control over the infusion time and therefore the flavor of the tea. Leaving tea leaves in water while you drink the first cup will just continue to make the tea stronger, often masking many of the flavors and nuances available and turning the brew into a bitter broth. Of course that’s assuming the drinker is looking to find the flavors and nuances of a tea and that there are nuances to be found. Flavored and scented teas (tea containing something other than just tea leaves) are designed to provide a burst of flavor without having to look for it.

Photo Nov 13, 9 45 40 AM

Why should you have one?

So if a gaiwan is just an unusual teapot, what’s the point of using one? Bringing out the best flavors when infusing loose full-leaf tea requires some practice and learning. There are many reasons to own a gaiwan, but in my opinion the first reason is to learn. A gaiwan is an excellent tool to learn skillful brewing techniques and also to learn about individual teas.

Whenever I have a tea I’m unfamiliar with, I always try to brew it in a gaiwan first, before using a teapot. The wide opening and white-colored interior make it ideal to inspect the leaves as I begin and removing the lid makes it easy to look at the color of the liquor while I wait for the steeping to be done.

Good tea infusion usually relies on timing, but I never rely on others (and certainly not packaging) to determine the proper time for my tastes. I always prefer to experiment first and learn as I go. When the color looks right, a gaiwan has the additional advantage that it pours out into a cup or pitcher almost instantly. A teapot may pour much more slowly, making determining the timing difficult indeed. Even an additional 10 seconds can significantly change the taste of some teas.

When should I not use a gaiwan?

Finally, it should be said that a gaiwan is not ideal for every situation. Japanese green tea, for example, is generally very finely broken and will usually not pour well from a gaiwan, since the straining mechanism only works for larger leaves. A Kyushu or shiboridashi is a much better idea there. There are other teas with tiny leaves that may also cause a problem, but for any rolled oolong, Puer, and most green and red tea you’re going to be fine.

Photo Nov 13, 9 45 08 AM

Where do I get a gaiwan?

If you have a local tea shop, you’re may already be in luck. On the other hand, not everywhere that sells tea also carries traditional teaware. The web makes buying teaware like a gaiwan much easier than it once was. That said, there are a few things to look for when selecting one.

First, consider the material and color. I would suggest only purchasing gaiwans that have a white glazed interior. The white color makes it easier to see your leaves and tea color and a glaze protects the cup from absorbing any flavors from one leaf that might influence other types of tea. Porcelain is a pretty good bet, but clay gaiwans also work. The color on the outside of the gaiwan is less important so feel free to look for something pleasant to your eye.

Also you might want to think about size. Any size will probably be fine, but many traditional gaiwans are appropriate for only a small cup of tea per infusion, whereas others are quite sufficient for sharing between a few people (or filling a mug). Small ones are easier to handle and pour while larger ones are often harder to grasp with one hand (although as you’ll see that’s not necessarily a bad thing). This is very much up to personal preference, but I would err on the side of smaller if you’re unsure.

How do I use a gaiwan?

I’m going to include a short video here showing the common ways I use a gaiwan. This, perhaps more than anything, seems to be what prevents people from using one. Below the video you’ll see a few tips that may help.

The important things to remember are:

  1. Use fewer leaves than you think if you’re filling by eye.
  2. Leave about 1.5cm above the level of the water when pouring to avoid superheating the rim.
  3. Grasp only by the rim edge and the lid knob to avoid burning.
  4. Make sure the lid is tipped just a bit to avoid dumping leaves or blocking the flow.
  5. Pour quickly and decisively by tipping the gaiwan more than 90 degrees. Slow pouring or a gentle angle will cause the boiling water to run down the outside of the gaiwan.
  6. Make sure all the water is out of the gaiwan when you are done pouring or the leaves will continue to steep.

I hope everyone has a chance to try using a gaiwan someday! If I were to recommend just one piece of teaware for a tea lover, a gaiwan would definitely be my pick. Happy sipping!

Preparing Japanese Tea

Green tea from Japan differs quite a lot from its Chinese cousin. The different cultivars, harvesting, and processing provides a distinct experience. It can also be challenging to steep. Many folks I’ve encountered have found their first experience with grassy bitter Japanese green tea to be their last. With this post I hope to provide those people and others with inspiration to give this amazing style of tea a second chance.

While the steps below may seem complicated, if you understand some of the principles of how tea steeps, it all makes sense. First of all, Japanese tea tends to be machine-harvested, which results in smaller and more broken leaves. Broken leaves mean that the tea will infuse much more quickly and can become bitter in much less time than a full leaf Chinese green.

Furthermore, unless passed through a fine mesh strainer, it’s likely that many of the leaves will end up in the cup when it’s done. These leaves will continue steeping the tea as it cools and may cause unwanted strength even if the timing is just right.

Finally, Japanese green teas are generally steamed to fix the leaf rather than pan-fired or baked as they are in other countries. This results in a tea liquor that’s much more “vegetal” in the same way that steamed vegetables tend to be “greener” tasting than those same vegetables when fried. If the infusion is too strong, the result can not only taste bitter, but grassy as well.

In essence, Japanese green teas are much more delicate and need a little more care when preparing them. Here’s my suggestions for most styles of Sencha, as well as Kabusecha and Gyokuro (Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and Matcha are a different matter).

1. Use a mesh strainer

Because of the small and broken leaves we ideally need to use a mesh strainer. Japanese Kyushu pots usually have these built-in, but such pots can be hard to find on the Western market. Another option is the ceramic “teeth” on the lip of a Shiboridashi pot which are designed to catch the small leaves as the liquor pours over the rim. Lacking these tools, any wire mesh strainer will do the job, even a large kitchen strainer. If you don’t have any strainer on hand, just be aware that the tea will continue steeping in the cup and you may want to reduce the infusion time to compensate.

2. Use fairly cool water

tama_setupSince the broken leaves will steep much faster, we need either a very short infusion time (which can be challenging) or we need to slow down the infusion somehow. More of the compounds in a tea leaf will transfer to the water if the water is hot, so using cooler water will slow down the process to make it more manageable. I usually use about 55-70°C (131-158°F) water for Gyokuro or Sencha. Within that temperature range, a steep of about 1 minute should result in a delicious brew. If your water is hotter, decrease the time. With 80°C water, a 20-30 second infusion should work, but it might taste a little scorched. The amount of leaves in the pot also makes a difference. I tend to use more than I would for a Chinese green; for a 300ml pot, I usually use about 8g of leaf.

3. Use fresh leaves

tama_dryThis step may be out of your control, since many vendors don’t list the age of their tea, but green tea (Japanese or otherwise) should be consumed within 6 months to a year of its harvest date. It should also be stored in a sealed package with no air or light reaching the leaves. Older leaves tend to be dull and flat tasting giving the palette all the tannin but none of the sweetness. For this reason be wary of stores that keep their tea in clear plastic or glass containers (I’m looking at you, grocery stores).

tama_pouredFollowing these steps should result in a deep and rich cup of Japanese tea. The qualities to look for in a good cup are usually a bright energy with seaweed-like saltiness and a satisfying Umami taste on the tongue. The aroma of freshly-cut grass is a good sign, but a “grassy” or bitter taste is not usually desirable. As always, your taste may certainly be different from mine, so experiment to find your preferred brew. Even so, hopefully the above guidelines will give you a head-start.

Springtime is Tea Stove Time

The seasons have changed, and with green grass and warm sunshine comes a perfect time to make tea outside. To celebrate the occasion I’ve pulled out my ceramic tea stove and some rather delicious sheng Puer that’s this month’s offering from Jalam Teas.

menghun-stove-tea-grass

Of course, in the two seasons since I’ve used the stove, I’ve forgotten somewhat how best to get it going. It’s not the most complex device, but as my previous entries on the subject suggest, if I want to brew tea before too many hours have passed there are some tricks I need to know. Caveat lector: I’m equally unskilled at building campfires, so it’s not just this particular firebending with which I have trouble; I think I was born into the water tribe. I may need to get some practice lighting charcoal this summer.

Thankfully, with some patience and the meticulous skills of my wife, boiling water was not far off. There’s something really magical about heating water on a stove like this. I think because the water comes just to a boil without sending the lid flying across the room. When I’m using a gas range or electric kettle the water tends to get a little out of control. There’s often a sense of, “Oh no! The water is boiling; I need to shut it off before it’s too late!”, especially if there’s a shrieking whistle going off. The gentleness of boiling water on the tea stove seems to me a perfect complement to the essence of a tea ceremony: in the constant sound of the boil and the occasional hiss as a drop of water escapes only to instantly evaporate on the side of the stove, I find a feeling of tranquility and the natural order of things.

 


I don’t have a lot to say about the tea itself, other than that it’s really very delicious for being so young. The liquor is a beautiful amber, and the aroma is woody, but not overly so. It actually seems more oak-like than the cedar scent I expected, and is quite smooth (at least brewed gong-fu style; I haven’t tried any other way). I think that with some age it may produce more bold flavors, but I like the subtle taste and potent energy that it carries. It’s a young, but very dignified Puer and I feel very fortunate to have such a cake.

Jalam’s site names this tea an Autumn 2013 harvest of Meng Hun, from southwest of Menghai county in Yunnan, harvested by the native Lahu people. From the description, I really was expecting a tea that should be stored away for a few years before even sampling, and maybe my taste is unique, but I really am enjoying this cake right now!

menghun-dry-leavesTea is a reminder that we are all interdependent. From the native people growing and harvesting these leaves to all the fine people at Jalam teas for getting the final product to my door, to the amazing pottery of Petr Novak without whom I would not have this lovely kettle and stove, they are all equally important. Even my water, kindling, and charcoal are derived from the hard work of many humans. Without any one of those people, the tea in my cup would not exist. Drinking tea with mindfulness is paying tribute to all those who provided this day for me. I hope to have many more days like this, and I hope that you do too!

Moving Leaves and Tea Balls

Let’s talk about all the different shapes of tea pots that are out there. It’s quite an interesting artistic exploration to see how some teapots are designed. Now first of all, as I’ve often said, you don’t need anything fancy to make tea. A saucepan, kitchen strainer, and a mug will do. But what’s a little non-intuitive about that statement is that sometimes a saucepan would actually do better than a teapot.

Why is this? It has a lot to do with how the leaves come into contact with the water.

I’ve done some really terrible drawings to help explain this.

wide-tea-infusion-basketFull leaf tea infuses rather slowly, meaning that it takes some time for the flavors, aromas, and other properties within the leaf to be extracted into the water. This is a good thing. It’s what allows careful brewing to bring out the best balance of flavor and strength. The bitter properties of tea are generally the last to emerge, so they will appear only at very high temperatures or after a relatively long immersion time.

In still water, the (delicious) chemical properties of the tea leaf will expand slowly outward from the leaves themselves, concentrating around each individual leaf. If the leaves are just floating around, as in a saucepan, then this will ensure a fairly even distribution of tea taste in the water.

tea-infusion-leaves

Tea infusion with leaves loose in the pot.

If instead, however, the leaves are held in once location and packed together, then that area of the water will become quickly infused with flavor, leaving the rest of the pot to be mostly uninfused. This is how a tea ball works.

As such a pot is poured, it’s likely that the tea area and the non-tea area will mix, resulting in a fairly weak infusion. To compensate for this, many people have taken to steeping their tea for a longer time, which does indeed make the average tea body stronger, but it also allows the bitter qualities of the leaf to be more prevalent, since it gives them time to be extracted from the tea.

tea-infusion-ball

Tea infusion with the Death Star tea ball.

But this problem is not only related to tea balls. Many tea pots include a built-in basket strainer designed in such a way that the leaves are also unable to carry their flavors around the pot. The wide, flat, cast iron pots that I’ve seen so much recently have this problem built-in. They have a tiny central straining basket, which acts like a tea ball to keep the leaves in the very center of the pot, and the wide internal area keeps most of the water away from the leaves while steeping. (Brewing in a mug can have the same problem if you use a basket strainer that is too shallow.)

tea-infusion-basket

Tea infusion with a shallow basket strainer.

All that said, if you’re used to using tea bags, the same rules don’t always apply. Or rather, the rules do apply, but the infusion is so fast that there’s little chance for control or refinement anyway. The tea in most tea bags is ground up CTC (“crush-tear-curl”) or at least very broken. The result is that most of the possible flavors as well as the bitter qualities are released all at once, and the result is similar to the tea ball but much more blunt. If many tea bags are used or allowed to infuse for several minutes, the result is the same blunt, strong infusion spread all around the pot.

So, what can we do about this? Well the answer is to look back at the saucepan and the kitchen strainer. Putting tea leaves directly in the water without any separation will give you the best possible chance of finding the flavor of the leaves. Straining can come when pouring (in fact, the best tea pots in my opinion have strainers built into their spouts). The usual rules of time and temperature still apply, but experimentation will be much easier since you can much more easily see the color of the infusion as it progresses and you can even sample it without worrying that one part of the pot will be different than another.

Am I being too picky about my tea brewing? Oh, most definitely. These factors are only one of the ten thousand things that can affect the results of making a pot of tea. Don’t stress. Keep this piece of information in the back of your mind as you choose a teapot, but use your own experience as your guide for steeping tea. As the ancient tea masters wrote, “Tea is very simple… it is only to boil water, along with tea leaves and drink it. Anything else is superfluous.” The rest comes from within.