I was flipping through the collection of old tea texts again, and something caught my eye. This is stuff that I saw a few times today with some Ming dynasty (1368-1644) texts. It has to do with water.
Remember those lessons you’ve learned, on or offline, that you should use water that is at “shrimp eye” or “crab eye” meaning that the water hasn’t reached a full rolling boil yet because once you do, the water is “old” and isn’t good for tea anymore?
Well, it seems like people who wrote about tea in the Ming dynasty didn’t agree. In fact, they say that the only water that should be used for tea is stuff that reached a full boil. You shouldn’t brew tea using water that is anything less than a full boil, they say, because in those cases the water would still retain a “water qi” that interferes with the tea. If you boil it out with a rolling boil, then the water becomes fully cooked, and is suitable for making tea.
So who’s right? After all, Lu Yu, of all people, said water should not reach a full boil!
Well, one of the authors explained that there’s a reason for this discrepency. It has to do with, you guessed it, the way tea was brewed. Whereas in the Tang and the Song, tea was ground down and powdered, etc, and sometimes with added incense or other things to enhance the flavour of the tea, water that has reached a full boil will mess with the powdered tea’s texture and taste. That’s why it’s no good. Whereas with the switch to full-leaf tea in the early Ming dynasty, the whole bit about water not reaching a full boil no longer applies. If you leave it underboiled, what you end up is a mixture of water and tea that isn’t quite harmonious. Full boil, with a fire that is “open” (in this case meaning a live fire with charcoal, not a bunch of flameless charcoal that is just very hot) is the way to go. Anything less is not good.
Interesting food for thought. It is important to keep in mind that most of these later tea texts are generally ignored by current day “tea masters” who tend to go back to the few famous ones, such as Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the Daguan Chalun that I talked about last time, and a few others that tend to be more often quoted. However, the fact that there was this change in these rather short and relatively unknown treatises on tea means that there are other theories out there, and given that three or four different texts I read today all say the same thing about water needing a full boil means that this idea probably had wide currency among Ming tea drinkers — even if they were copying each other, the only reason they’ll commit it to paper is if they thought it was right.
Another thing to keep in mind — the teas they were drinking were green teas, maybe slightly roasted, but largely speaking, what we now call green teas. Full boil water anyway. Yup.