Brewing techniques

I went down to Miaoli today again to have tea with Aaron. It was, as usual, a good day with good tea.

One of the topics that came up during the course of conversation was the little things you do that can make the tea better. He went to Malaysia recently, and rediscovered the warming of the pot. Heating the pot before and after adding water makes a difference (as well as pouring water into the cup to keep it warm between infusions). I myself have also started to neglect doing it recently, even though I used to do it before. It’s time to try it again and keep it in my habit.

One other thing though that came up — making tea isn’t like doing experiments in a chemistry lab. Measuring out the amount of water, checking the temperature, using a timer…. those might be things that help make somebody starting out more comfortable with the making of tea, but if too much attention is paid to those things, the person making the tea can actually get too busy, too distracted to actually make a good cup. A good story I’ve heard from Action Jackson a while ago was that she’s met a couple who made tea for her, and who were so obsessed with the timer and how long each infusion should be that they completely forgot about keeping the water warm. So, it was a perfectly timed cup with lukewarm water. If they didn’t obsess about the time, perhaps they would’ve remembered to do the other things right, but they didn’t.

The point being, doing all those things (and perhaps even taking meticulous notes on the side while doing all those things) can actually take the person away from the actual drinking of the tea. Maybe while worrying about the temperature, the time, the amount… the actual tea gets lost in the process. There isn’t a right or wrong (just look at how so many tea experts disagree with each other). There isn’t an optimal amount of leaves or water that will make a tea come out perfectly. I know if I used the exact same parameters, teaware, water, etc as somebody else and make tea together in the same setting, the taste will still not be quite the same. Maybe it’s that jerk of the hand, the force of the pour, etc. If one were looking for a scientific explanation, there might be one that’s usable to explain the difference. But does it really matter? Can one truly control all those things? We try our best, but I have always found the best tea making happens when I’m focused and not distracted, then things go smoothly without me having to worry about each specific little thing. When I’m doing other things, sometimes I am drinking tea, but not really drinking tea. After a few cups, I don’t even remember what I drank, basically. Then it’s just a beverage and I might as well be drinking Lipton teabags.

For those of you who use a scale, timer, thermometer… try ditching it for a change. It might mean you will screw up the brewing sometimes, maybe too much tea, too long a steep, etc, but that can happen with those aids anyway. It’s best to try it with a tea you know well. Then move on to things that you don’t know so well. You might just surprise yourself when your eyeballs, hands, and mind do better than scales, timers, and thermometers.


Comments

Brewing techniques — 12 Comments

  1. I think there is a difference between obsessing over dogmatic details and taking note of them for future reference. I use a scale, and on rare occasion a thermometer, but I don’t fuss over tenths of grams or degrees. I feel my method is more about observing the process of making tea, as opposed to stressing over getting *exactly* the right parameters (which is concerned with just that– parameters– not tea).

    I like to know some of the variables in case something interesting (for better or worse) happens during the tea-making, so that I know a bit about what made it that way. I think part of that is, as you say, because I’m not yet comfortable gauging these variables by eye. I also think taking notes helps me focus on the tea, but I can see how others would disagree. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. 🙂

  2. Hi Brent,

    I understand your point. However, I think in the long run whether the tea you made recently was better or worse with 90C water and steepings of 6,6,10,15,30,45 probably doesn’t matter when compared to the last tasting when water was a bit hotter and with 6,6,7,12,26,30. I’ve tried taking notes like that early on in the life of this blog, but I realized that like Hobbes’ recent realizations with his picture-taking, I never went back to those notes to actually see if each individual infusion was different (the volume of such stuff was simply too great).

    The other point of my post was that these are only the measurable parameters that people have focused on. There are things that aren’t easily measuarable that could affect the tasting just as much, but I feel sometimes the over-emphasis on time, temp, and volume/amount has taken attention away from such things. They go from how you pour water into the tea, to how you pour tea into your cup, to whether the pot/cup is warmed during the tasting, to ….. it’s a zillion things that are going on.

  3. 90 percent of the time, I record specific parameters only for accountability, since I am inexperienced with many of the teas I review.  I think it lets the reader know what I did and gives a quantifiable explanation as to why I thought this pu was good or that oolong was crap. 

    I like a scale because I got tired of my tea turning out too weak or too strong, and my timer’s primary function is to remind me that my tea is ready, or I would forget about it.  Anything else gets guestimated.

  4. Though measurements of tea preparation have some positive to it, it is worthwhile to try to duplicate each measured procedure without the measurement – and it is IMHO even more valuable to actually observe a good tea being made and drink that tea.

    It is perhaps not easy exactly, but the entire concept (in my humble opinion) falls neatly under the very description of the three words Gong Fu Cha.

    One should or may measure to obtain a ‘feel’ for quantity and temperature if one believes this helps – but more important to train the senses (eye, fingers etc) to absorb this details instinctively, like a master chef cooks with pinches of salt not by grammes … it is not unlike practicing the martial arts – one does not get into a brawl measuring out steps, each step or ‘move’ comes instinctively because it is built into the body to bring out a ‘move’ in response to the environment – this is my aim though the mountain still seems far away!

    I honestly think that each time I observed a good tea making, I could ‘understand’ a little bit more – and attempt to ‘imititate’ it – and I believe that I have improved ever so slightly each time … I never found I could make such improvements by measurement.

    It is also important to cultivate the personality.

    Adrian must have had quite a busy time! I believe I glimpsed him making the rounds at at the Malaysian exhibition and I last saw him at the Yin Yi booth sitting with Master Ling and a large group of ‘dignitaries’ (for want of a better word!) all getting ready to make some Wuyi cha. Unfortunately it was late and had to vamoose from there without witnessing this rather ceremonial tea making whilst they were still making arrangements as to who should sit at the Big Table!

  5. Disclaimer first: I’m a scientist. I usually do weight my tea leaves and use a timer, and quite often measure the temperature of the water. For me the reason to weigh tea is that I drink too many different teas (say sencha one day, long jing the next one, then darjeeling, then sheng …) so I don’t get the intuitive feel for the “right” amount of tea leaves. For water I use very fast boil kettle (2.2kW), so I’m not able to judge the lower temperatures by the sound or size of the “eyes” accurately enough. And the timer solves my problem with not being able to time longer infusions (like 4 or 8 minutes) to any reasonable degree of accuracy.

    Having said that, for some teas I do not need the tools (like sheng, or sencha – once I remembered the best sequence of pouring to cool the boiling water to the temeprature I need). And I’m sure if I brewed a limited number of teas for some period, I would get intuitive with those as well. But for now I keep to my tools and I do not feel my tea experience to be worse for that.

  6. I figured writing this post would raise some reactions 🙂

    I totally understand the sentiment to provide brewing parameters in reviews.  I used to do that at some point, until I thought — even if I provide parameters, somebody making the exact same tea will probably have different results and different thoughts.  Unless I royally screwed up the parameters (say, 5 minute steeps) then it’s a different matter.  Otherwise… I’ve come to the conclusion that 10 seconds or 20 really don’t make a huge difference because you can’t account for taste, water, pouring, etc, again, all those intangibles that you can’t measure easily.

    Behhl:  Yes, I think this is what gongfu is about, and I think you’re right about the cooking thing — chefs (pastry chefs excepted) don’t measure out how much salt or sugar to use.  They just do it by feel… and most of the time, they’re right.  So why not apply it to tea making?

    Jan:  I certainly don’t mean to criticize anybody for their tea making habits, but I am making a plea for people to try to kick the measuring devices.  Sometimes the best discoveries come from mistakes… I’ve discovered things about teas I thought I know by screwing them up accidentally.  The result is not always bad.  That itself is interesting to me.

  7. Dear MarshalN,

    Many thanks for the article – I wholeheartedly agree with the benefits of training one’s own faculties to best determine the parameters of making a good brew.

    Dear Jan,

    A surprisingly large number of the tea drinkers that seem to drift through the main Internet-based tea pages are scientists; perhaps we need something “intuitive” after all of the “quantitative” analysis.

    You write that you use measurements because your tastes are eclectic (always a good thing), and that you don’t have a great deal of intuition regarding individual teas. Using measuring devices can certainly help when starting out, but it has an inherent risk in that it hinders the development of your own intuition. It may be that the reason you feel that you don’t have an intuitive grasp of how to make good brews from the various genres of leaf is because of your reliance of quantative methods. Putting away the thermometers, barometers, scales, timers, and whatnot is “a leap into the unknown”, but you might surprise yourself with how rapidly your intuition develops afterwards. Try it for a few months! It also feels more engaging, as if you are participating more fully, in some sense.

    The rapidity of the kettle’s boiling shouldn’t be looked upon as a hinderance, either, I’d advise. My own kettle is fairly fast, and so I sympathise with your concerns. However, there is still an evolution of the sound of the device as the temperature increases, and a corresponding change in the appearance of the steam – after discarding your measuring devices, getting a good green / wulong / pu’er temperature rather becomes second nature, based on your intuitive feeling for those kettle-esque parameters.

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with measurement – but, speaking from the recommendation of personal experience, it can be very satisfying to watch your “body” learning the processes of making a good cup of tea.

    Toodlepip,

    Hobbes

  8. I usually only use careful measurement(s) when brewing pu-erh. In the culture of pu-erh, if you can call it that, there seems to be communicated a sense that so much more is at stake with regard to “ruining” the tea in brewing. We don’t spend so much time discussing Wuyi Yancha vintages or terroir differences and such. Far less high maintenance. Chasing the perfect cup of pu-erh tea, or simply getting to the bottom of why such nuanced teas as aged sheng pu-erhs are great … seems like there’s an atmosphere that lends itself to “high maintenance” … and so it goes. That’s my two cents. Although, I recently found a good shengpu pot and now am starting to eyeball leaf quantity instead of measure it, and starting to time brews without much thought. And it’s aaaall good.

    Wuyi Yancha – or any Oolong – I know what to do to make a good cup based on the first smell of the rinsed leaves. And the color of the rinse water. It feels that simple.

    And hey – apparently there are two Adrians. What do you know? Never been to Malaysia, although I’m glad to know my doppelganger (in name at least) is having a good time at the tea expo there.

  9. MarshalN: Haha! Big typo – that’s what you get for writing on one page and reading ChaDao (Adrian’s article) on another at the same time! Yes, of course I mean Aaron. 

    Adrian – you may be mostly right that when it comes to a tea has been roasted the steepings can be relatively easy to ‘read’ – perhaps also because most of this are plantation teas; I find that young plantation Puerh also has that kind of character that there is only so much you can get out of it so no matter how you ‘bust it chops’, that’s it that’s all its got. Its probably when you get to older Wild Wuyi cha that it gets more interesting what to do … it even smells heavenly dry in the container! 

  10. [MarshalN]: What aged shengpu is that? Care to share?

    Marshal, I think you are asking me this question. I was talking about aged sheng in general, although I’d be happy to share the best of what I have in my modest collection with you. To me the truly worthwhile stuff is dry-stored, and frankly so far the only trusted source for me – stateside – has been Seb and Jing at Jingtea. And, with limited access, that has lead to some pretty limited selections of truly verifiable aged sheng. I do have the 1992 Menghai Fangcha, which I like very much. And 1993 Xiaguan tuocha. And a mid-90s bigboy 7542, the year they starting producing again (that is currently uncracked, as it were), and one or two others – and a bunch of late 90s dry-stored that is no longer young but not yet old (incl. the 99 MH bigtree, or whatever it’s called, and what is probably a pretty amazing 99 Xiaguan Yiwu – tho I’m waiting for an excuse to crack it)… and the rest: good, but to varying degrees probably wet-stored at some point along the way. I did buy the Gao Li Gong Shan from Royalpuer and like it very much. It has an edge to it – and a taste that sets it apart from all that other wet-stored loose-leaf that’s floating around. Anyway, we can take this to email, but I’d be more than happy to send stuff for you to drink if you’re interested. It’s all about the sharing.
    -adrian

  11. Oh and behhl, if you are reading Cha Dao, please keep in mind the pun in the title. What makes a great tea: a gaiwan or a pot? Not: what are the characteristics of a great tea. I would not presume, yet, to hold forth on the latter – though I am more than willing to question what others have to say on the subject…

    adrian

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