Time

Time passes of course, and every time you make tea you have to consider that passage of time. Unless you’re making some abomination like instant tea powder, the amount of time you allow the leaves to interact with the water changes what your cup will taste like. Unlike coffee, which has many ways of brewing that more or less take time out of the equation (hello drip coffee), tea usually asks you to pay attention or you can suffer a nasty cup of astringency, especially if you’re dealing with run of the mill teabags. So controlling time has always been an important part of tea making.

One way to do it of course is to use timers. These guys at Revolver in Vancouver, typical of many coffee joints, do it with timers (and cups that leave no space for tea leaves to move – you see them behind the chemex, but that’s another matter). I didn’t watch them for hours, so I don’t know if they make adjustments for different kinds of tea. A tightly rolled Taiwanese oolong would need probably 10 seconds to just open up, whereas a black tea will be well on its way to bitterness by then. In a cafe setting, you only get to drink once, so if it was screwed up, it’s over. Getting it to be palatable without under or overbrewing is very important. I can see why a cafe that brews the tea for you will need a timer.

Gongfu method is a little more forgiving – if you mess up one infusion, you can always adjust the next. I find timers distracting and more or less a waste of time in this sort of setting. You only need to know if the last cup was infused too long or too short, and adjust accordingly. Differences of one or two seconds on the timer isn’t going to change much of anything, because there are so many other things that can change as well – the speed you pour, the temperature of your teaware, how long you waited between infusions, etc, that will affect the outcome. I’ve even seen people claiming they need highly precise timers down to the hundredths of a second; that’s just being silly. Timers only get to be useful for tea brewing if you’re measuring something over 30 seconds. Splitting hair won’t help you make better tea.

More than just the immediate question of infusing tea though, tea drinking itself takes time, especially when done gongfu style. The time it takes to drink tea in a session is probably at a minimum 30 minutes. You need time to boil the water, and then drink a good 4-5 infusions; that’s half an hour right there, and that’s if you’re fast and are totally focused on the tea drinking itself. If you want to be doing something else while drinking tea, it can go on forever. When you have a cup of coffee, there’s a natural halflife of how long it can last – if you wait too long, it gets cold, and unless you dunk ice in it, the quality of the brew is gone. So you pretty much are limited by that amount of time, dependent on room temperature and such things. With gongfu style tea brewing and a ready supply of hot water, you can literally go on forever if you’re willing to drink tea flavoured water.

That explains why it’s so hard to find places that provide space for tea brewing in gongfu style. During the tea renaissance in Taiwan in the 70s and 80s there were a lot of these chayiguan, “tea art houses”, but the vast majority of them have died and very few survive with serious tea still being their main focus. In Hong Kong it never became a thing, because a customer will easily sit there for a few hours while paying only one price; here that price needs to be very high or you can’t cover rent. China, funny enough, is the only place that has a bunch of chayiguan, but most of them serve very mediocre teas at an unreasonable price. At the end of the day, none are very good options, and that’s all because tea takes time, easily a lot of it. In that amount of time you can sell a lot more cups of coffee.

I think this is probably why a lot of us, even in Asia, end up drinking at home, often alone. Some would have regular gatherings of friends who share the interest and drink together, at which point time passes pretty quickly as you go from tea to tea and chat about it in the meantime. Otherwise, committing to a couple hours of tea drinking together is not too easy to coordinate. Shops where you can hang out and meet others naturally are rarer still, and require a patient owner who is willing to put up with customers who lull around and not buying much and who can still pay the rent (while often doing the brewing themselves). It’s a difficult environment to survive in. If you have a local shop like that which also doesn’t gouge you for the privilege, cherish it.

While it probably isn’t too likely, here’s hoping that more interesting tea places open, or stay open, during 2015, and that all of you will have new and meaningful experiences with tea in this new year.


Comments

Time — 11 Comments

  1. Happy new year.
    Hello, I am the president of a tea club at my high school in the United States. I was wondering, do you have any recommendations for serving tea for about 34 students? The purpose of the club is to share the wonders of tea , however it seems increasingly difficult to make great quality in such a quantities. Any recommendations about large event tea serving and just general insights about sharing tea with others would be helpful.
    Thanks, By the way keep up blog , it’s most enjoyable.

    • 30+ is a bit difficult. What are you hoping to achieve with this? I think that’s probably the first question you need to answer. Are you merely trying to expose them to different kinds of teas? Are you trying to show them something?

      You may wish to separate the two goals of 1) showing them good tea and 2) showing them how it’s done. This might mean having small sessions where members can come (with sign-up) and taste things in a more in-depth manner, but with less people, or where you have a larger demonstration where you show but aren’t necessarily sharing, so to speak. I’m guessing most of your members are novices? Where are you located?

      • Mainly I want people who don’t usually enjoy tea to be enlightened by its variety and tastes. I also want my club to get a general sense of the culture associated with the tea cultivating regions throughout the world. I definitely want to expose them to different teas, most of the youth I encounter does not know that there is a world of tea outside of black and green teabags. To summarize id like to show them culture, taste, preparation, and variety.
        That sounds more reasonable. I think ill try to incorporate taste meetings and culture/preparation meetings. Yes we are novices, there are only about 3 people that are reasonably versed in tea including me. The club is located in Galt, California.

  2. I work at a tea shop in the US; for the most part we offer tea by the cup or the pot, and you can buy loose tea by the ounce to take home. We’ve been trying to incorporate gongfu service for sometime now, but it’s hard to make it work the way I’d love it to. There are some regulars who will sit at the bar and I happily pull out a gaiwan or yixing and will take them through a session… that is if I have the time and there is another employee working to take care of customers while I’m preoccupied.

    A lot of our customers aren’t familiar with gongfu tea, they just want a tastey beverage. But there are a few who are curious when they see me or someone else drinking tea that way. We’re planning on hosting some small scale tastings were we could introduce people to and have them experience gongfu tea, and hopefully get some converts

    • I think as a commercial enterprise gongfu service is mostly a lost cause – it’s difficult to make it work, unless you happen to have the right combination of cost and revenue. There’s probably a reason very few places have found stability in this regard.

  3. What little we know or imagine we know of tea’s history suggests it began as a “practice” whether that be of zen (eg Bodhiharma’s eyelid), art (eg chanoyu) or healing practice of indigenous people of Yunnan observing tea’s effects on illness. Practice that slows if not devours linear time. Quite a difference from ubiquitous thirst quencher in a world devoured by time.

  4. Thanks for a really great blog. I’ve learned a lot from reading it over the years!

    I have a request: You write a lot about the limitations and the cost in-effectiveness of teaware. I very much appreciate your myth busting. It isn’t clear to me, however, what teaware (above the basics) you think someone getting into Taiwanese and Chinese tea should buy if and when they are ready to spend some money on it.

    Of course it depends on the exact tea (I prefer Dancong). But where should the tea drinker who wants to maximize the taste/aftertaste/throatiness of his tea start? With a tetsubin, a clay kettle, a yixing pot?

    Thanks again for a great blog!

    • Considering that water is one of the most important and basic tools to preparing tea, I’d get a tetsubin first. It really is quite nice once you get a feel for it. I believe I’ve found that any metal kettle will have its own character. I also believe you should take it slow and purchase, first, simply what appeals to you. The quality of all these things varies, but you aren’t going to know much about it at first anyway, so buy what speaks to you and your learning, and get a feel for how it affects your tea time compared to what you’re used to.

      You’ll likely find yourself naturally seeking out new wares for varying reasons. I have a few yixing pots that produce varying results, (one seems to take well to dongding, but it’s really just coincidence I found that out as I just throw any and all oolongs in it) but often times I elect to use a gaiwan instead as simply the feel and appearance of using it can enhance my experience, and sometimes I use a different gaiwan for whatever reason, or different cups, or sometimes I do something else entirely.

    • I should probably write a little more as a response, but Von Monstro’s answer is not a bad one – a decent tetsubin may improve the water you drink, thus improving your tea. That depends though, and also depends on how much money you want to spend. I think yixing pot (if you don’t have any) is useful as well because it is good for a different kind of drinking control/experience from a gaiwan

    • Thank you both for your input. What do you think about iron vs clay for a kettle? I drink mostly DC and Taiwanese.

      Also, MarshalN, how do you suggest the neophyte pick their first yixing? Just go with a reputable dealer, pick one, and play with it?

  5. Hi guys. We serve gong fu tea since 10 years now. It s not so easy but possible! Come to see us in Montreal, one day (camellia sinensis tea house). Cheers.

    Ps: thanks for your blog. Sorry for my english!

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