How not to brew your tea

Those of you who frequent teachat have probably seen me post this up already, but in case you haven’t…

The guy, shall we say, takes his time.  The thing that really bothers me about this kind of brewing, and more specifically, this kind of video, is that they give people entirely the wrong impression of how tea is done in China.  Other than set performances at tea fairs, where they might hold tea brewing competition and the participants are expected to come up with elaborate (usually over-elaborate) ways of brewing tea that look artistic, you’ll never see people make tea like this guy does.

More importantly, the way he dresses and sits implies a certain sense of historical tradition, which of course is also entirely bogus.  This is what my friend DougH calls “ceremony envy”, stemming largely from the sense that “well, the Japanese have their elaborate and famous tea ceremony, so we should have one too”.  The need to invent a “ceremony” is, I think, the root cause of this kind of video.  Chinese, however, never brewed tea this way — certainly not like this.  For one, tea brewing was mostly done by servants.  Ever seen those paintings of literati men sitting in their courtyard drinking tea?  In the background there are always a few servant girls or young boys fanning the flame, preparing the tea.  You think they did any of this ceremonial stuff?

This is the other thing about calling this, or any type of gongfu brewing, a “ceremony”.  Ceremony implies a certain amount of performance, and at least in the modern usage of the word, a sense that you do them because you should, not because they’re useful.  This guy’s performance definitely fits the bill — he had a lot of useless movements that really didn’t enhance the tea he was brewing.  In fact, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of this tea — it’s probably nasty.

This is the other thing different about the Japanese tea ceremony versus the Chinese way of brewing tea.  The Japanese ceremony is methodical, slow, and elaborate, but making a good bowl of matcha is a primary goal as well.  The things you do in there — adding the cold water, warming the bowl, etc, all serve a purpose.  The way this guy brewed his tea is rather unique – he’s actually boiling the tea.  In most other videos, however, they brew it normally, except in the time it took them to do all their fancy things, the water, or the tea, has cooled.  I cannot imagine any of these people brewing anything resembling good tea.  I’m pretty sure this guy’s boiling his tea because he read it in some old tea text, except that it’s all out of context.

Chinese tea brewing has always been very practical, and has evolved over time to suit the needs of the way Chinese drink tea – which is to say, whole leaf tea, brewed in hot water.  Chaozhou style brewing, from which modern gongfu tea has evolved, works, because it is not concerned with looking good, but rather tasting good.  For those who want a spiritual experience, it doesn’t have to come in the form of elaborate rituals, dictated by some odd, nonsensical rules.  I think spiritual enlightenment can be found as well in the casual brewing on a day to day basis, but done in a way that concentrates the mind.  Refinement of one’s skill through practice does not require a dictated set of rules that one needs to follow.

And don’t even get me started on the narrator in this video.  She (or whoever wrote that script) needs to be shot.

Using a gaiwan

Well, here it is — a silly little video on how to use a gaiwan and a few ideas on what works and what doesn’t.  It’s pretty basic.  For most of you, it’s probably useless.  I just thought that given all the stuff out there on Youtube — mostly with extremely elaborate procedures and all that, it really isn’t that instructive for those who aren’t into the performative side of things.

Let’s see if this works….

How to wrap a tea cake

Ok, this is by no means professional or anything, but I tried.

I guess this is self-explanatory enough. One thing I didn’t mention is that you need to make sure when you are doing the little folds, you’re doing them tightly so that they pull in all the excess paper, but not so tight that you tear the paper. Some wrappers are especially fragile and easy to tear.

An opening party

Today I went with Aaron Fisher to Jingmei Tang, Wushing Publications’ teahouse, so to speak. They’re not normally open, but only for events. There’s an event today — the opening of a 1920s (or is it 1930s?) jian of liu’an that they found in some Chinese medicine shop.

So we went there at 2pm sharp. Everybody was already there, and the prize was there too, sitting in the middle of the room. Now, liu’an is a tea that is generally packaged in baskets. When they first come out, they’re basically green tea steamed into the basket — sort of like liubao, although liubao usually comes from Guangxi, and liu’an comes from the Huizhou area, near Huangshan, the same places that give us Qimen, but NOT the same place that gives us liu’an guapian, the loose green tea (that’s farther to the west and has nothing to do with Huizhou). The most famous brands of these is the Sunyishun, and this is what we’re opening today.

Before we went on with the opening (and drinking) though, we first drank the 1930s liu’an that they opened a month or two back and featured in the current Chinese issue of Puerh Teapot.

The bamboo leaf is part of the wrapping of the original basket, and in some cases you brew the bamboo leaf along with the tea (depending on preference, really). The bamboo leaf itself is so old and mixed with the tea for so long that it has taken on medicinal quality. So has the tea. Sitting across me was a gentleman whose family originally was in the medicine business. He said back in the day, teas like this were used as medicine for certain ailments. I can believe him.

So Aaron did the honours in our corner of the room and brewed. The liquor is very much looking like a liu’an

It tastes like a good liu’an, mellow, medicinal, good and obvious qi, but in a pleasant way, and generally a pleasure to drink.

But you don’t want me to babble on about this, so on to the video. This is Lu Lizhen, another one of the Taiwan tea experts, who was doing the honours. Zhou Yu did some introductions and background info for the tea in question.

And in case you want to see pictures of the jian of tea in detail

There are ten stacks of tea in this bundled together, each stack consisting of six baskets. The small writing on the canes that hold the baskets together says “Xin’an Sunyishun zihao jianxuan yuqian shangshang yinzhen”, which means, “Top grade (literally top top) silver needles selected by Sunyishun company of Xin’an”, with Xin’an the older name for the Huizhou area.

So of course we drank this too… stronger, more lively, and more aggressive. The tea’s been kept in excellent condition, and the finish of the tea even has a hint of that greenness that you find in younger teas. I even came home with a sample of it…. which is worth quite a bit, considering the whole ball of tea, 60 baskets in all, is said to be something like $400,000 USD.

Aaron and I stayed behind to drink some more tea with the owner of Wushing Publications, a good tieluohan and an extremely good shuijingui, both of them Wuyi varietals. It was a pretty good outing.