Incense and tea

Some people like burning incense while drinking tea.  I must say I’m not a fan, although aesthetically it can be a nice thing to see/have.  Some would argue that incense makes the room more pleasant and calming, and that a certain amount of nice, understated aroma is great for dispelling any kind of stress that one may have from the vagaries of modern life.  The picture above is a line of just-finished agarwood.  It was, certainly, very nice to have a little aroma in the room, but at the same time, it means that it interfered with the proceedings of drinking and tasting tea.  Moreover, in a case where the incense is so prominently displayed, it actually got in the way of the tea preparation.  Our host was more concerned with not breaking the incense than in pouring a good cup.  The tea suffered.

This brings me to a larger point, which is that oftentimes we put the emphasis on the wrong things when making tea.  Teaware, preparation procedures, setting, temperature….. all these things can get in the way of making tea.  I believe human attention is finite, and what is spent on one thing must be taken away from something else.  Someone who is spending a lot of time watching the clock to make sure the infusion is exactly 20 seconds is inevitably taking something away from some other part of the tea preparation process.  Someone who is too preoccupied with the beautification of the pot with a brush is probably not paying enough attention to the tea inside the pot.

Practice will alleviate a lot of these problems, but I think more important is an acceptance that no cup is “perfect”.  There’s always a better cup somehow, somewhere.  Focusing too much on form and the peripheral things will only detract appreciation of what’s really important.

Grandpa style techniques

Life has been pretty busy the past few weeks, and I’m getting ready for a trip, so things have been hectic.  Tea has been mostly confined to grandpa style tea.  Having been doing it recently though, I have a few ideas.

1) Never, ever go below the halfway point in the cup when drinking, and preferably keep it at 2/3 full at all times.  You need that amount of tea to re-add water and not end up with a really diluted cup.  This is pretty obvious.

2) Use a lidded cup, if possible.  Don’t cover when making the tea initially.  However, start covering the cup once you’re refilling the cup the 2nd or 3rd time.  This way, the extra heat retained helps extra the tea a little more.

3) When pouring the water, especially a little later (or when the tea has cooled) pour with vigor, and pour along the edge of the cup.  That way, your water will stir up the tea a little and it helps mix the old tea and new water together a little.  I noticed a difference between pouring in the middle and pouring on the side.  Pouring on the side helps the flavour a little later on.

4) It’s actually a good way to drink tea this way as a method of evaluation.  In a way, grandpa style is just a big mug of competition tasting done over a long time.  There are nuances that you’ll get from the tea that you don’t necessarily get from brewing normally.  One of my puerh, for example, displays a smokiness that is not evident when brewed “normally” but the smoke comes out in a grandpa brewing.

5) Don’t add too much leaves.  It’s very easy, when used to gongfu brewing, to use too much leaves for grandpa style.  It’s very toxic.

Better brewed in paper

These days I’m on the road a lot, and that means that I have to be expedient — can’t brew properly when I’m in a car driving, after all.  Paper cup + leaves is often the way to go, with refills on the way for hot water and hopefully, the water isn’t tainted by coffee, as it very often is.

What I’ve found sometimes though is that some teas are actually better brewed in a cup, grandpa style (it seems like this term is now in much wider circulation than I thought possible), than actually trying to make it in a smaller pot, etc.  Young puerh, especially, seems good for this treatment.  Whereas the tea may be very bitter and somewhat acidic when brewed intensely in a small pot, in a larger cup with a higher water to tea ratio, it actually can come out pleasant, with a nice but not overwhelming sense of bitterness, and the young tea’s acidity is not overpowering to the point where you wonder if you’re drinking drain cleaners.

Of course, there are tricks to the trade too.  You can’t drink it all before you refill — that’s disaster, because the next cup will be insipid, boring, and tasteless.  You are often better off drinking water at that point.  Also, you need a tea that can stand up to the sometimes coffee tainted water, so that if there’s that extra hint of java in there, you won’t notice it all too much.  A wonderful green can be destroyed if you add those kind of water in your cup.  I recommend a youngish (but changing) puerh or a roasty oolong.

The source of water is also important.  Some kinds of establishments are better than others vis-a-vis their water.  If you try to get water from a gas station, you’re pretty much doomed.  Starbucks is actually not a bad place, and they always give it to you for free.  Some places are stingy, like Dunkin Donuts, and want money from you for the water, which often tastes like coffee anyway.  I find it wasteful sometimes, but I will usually ask for a cup of hot water, rather than handing them my tea-filled cup — they are less resistant to giving you water that way, and at any rate, my “leaves floating in brown water” cup often leaves people wondering if I’m trying to do a science experiment.  Just like how kids no longer understand how meat comes from livestock, to a lot of people tea is that brown stuff you find in teabags, not whole leaves.

Time to go driving again, and today I’m drinking some of this.

Airing out tea

Some of you already know this.  You’re supposed to air out a tea, if it’s a traditionally stored puerh.  The problem with traditionally stored tea is that if you don’t air it out, all kinds of nasty, “storage” smell remain, and will affect how much you can enjoy your tea.

This point hasn’t been illustrated as clearly as what I recently did with a bag of tea that a friend brought back for me.  It’s from one of my favourite stores in Hong Kong that sells such things.  The tea is very wet stored — you can smell the storage from a mile away, and is not for those who don’t like that kind of taste.  When I first opened the bag and brewed some, it was horrible.  It smelled fishy, moldy, rotten.  The first few cups I couldn’t drink at all.  I started wondering if I got a bad batch.

The friend, however, knows what he’s doing.  When he visited the shop, he noticed that the stuff in the jar, which is what they usually use to fill these smaller orders, was rather moldy.  He thought it better to buy some that were “cleaner”, so he asked the owner to show him a few bags of the stuff from the back.  The owner duly complied, and my friend picked out some from a good looking bag.  This is all good, except, I think, because the bag was relatively unopened, the tea still retained much of the storage smell, and it’s not pretty.

Fast forward two weeks — I’ve had the bag opened for that long, just sitting on my table.  I thought it probably best to let it air out a bit, to release some of the more “toxic” flavours from the bag.  I tried it again yesterday — no more fishy smell, or rotten carcass.  It’s gone.  Now, instead, much of the sweeter note that I love from this store emerged.  No problems — it’s just a matter of airing out the tea.

Space

We all love to hate the teaball, that invention that should have been destroyed when first thought up.  It limits the amount of space that is allowed for the leaves to move, and inevitably, it creates a bad cup of tea.  It’s pretty common to see a tea ball being filled with soaked tea leaves, obviously unable to extend themselves and reach their full potential.

The same thing can happen to yixing pots, however, and is sometimes a danger if one doesn’t take care to brew carefully.  There’s always an optimal amount of space needed for a given tea, and sometimes that can be exceeded with negligible, or even negative, effect.  It ends up wasting tea, and achieving little else.  It also depends on the shape of the pot, and sometimes some pots are more likely to be “stuffed” like a tea ball than others.  I am just reminded of that today, when I used a gaiwan instead of a shuiping to brew my youngish puerh.  I’m not at home right now, so my regular teaware is missing.  The effect from my gaiwan was much better than that from the pot.  This is not to say, of course, that gaiwans are always better than pots, or vice versa, but just that sometimes parameters can drastically change the taste of a tea.  It’s easy to get into a routine brewing something, and then forgetting all together the other dimensions of the tea.  It doesn’t even have to be that one is necessarily better, but simply that the taste achieved can be different, and the amount (and type) of space is crucial to this equation.

What are you tasting?

On Thursday for class I brought in some of my testing sets, and went about showing my students how you might test for different teas when you’re a buyer.  We were talking about the commodification of tea, coffee, etc, and this, I thought, would be an interesting way to show some of the things that go on behind the scenes, so to speak.

This is the second brewing already, as the first one was consumed and commented on.  The one on the right is Yunnan Gold, the one in the middle a Darjeeling, and on the left, an Assam.  I figured it’s probably better to use different kinds of teas, so to highlight the differences, rather than going for, say, two or three stripes of Keemun that are difficult to tell apart if you don’t know what you’re drinking.

The “not knowing what you’re drinking” is quite a common thing though.  I noticed, for example, that many times their reactions are very different from mine. First of all, the teas were all intensely bitter to them, while for me it was really only true for one of the teas.  The nuances that we generally taste are not detectable to others, because the bitterness is overwhelming.  It’s quite interesting actually, because these are things you no longer realize or think about when you’re drinking tea all the time.

I do think sometimes that when we get picky about teas, we’re really chasing a never ending tunnel of taste.  As we get more experience drinking and achieve a better level of judgment in our ability to differentiate tastes, we demand more of our tea.  That, in turn, means that tea growers and sellers will try to satisfy this desire with more interesting products, but ultimately, it can only get worse and worse over time.  Whereas a newcomer to tea might be entirely satisfied by a good assam, I’m not sure I can be, at least on a daily basis.  That’s why sometimes when I find a tea I particularly like, I will now buy lots of it, for fear that I will no longer see it and run out.  This, of course, contributes to a large stash of tea sitting around, which will take forever to finish.  This is the joy of tea drinking.

Anyway, sorry for the long delays in update.  Life teaching is quite busy, so not much time to post….

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….

Simplicity

I was chatting with BBB today about teaware and things, and one of the points we agreed on was that both of us are moving towards simpler brewing. These days for me it’s a kettle, a pot, a cup, and that’s it. I don’t pour water over the pot. I don’t pour tea over the pot (usually). I don’t do anything fancy. Water in, water out.

If you watch those videos on youtube teaching you how to do gongfu brewing, they are usually full of pomp and circumstance — paraphrenalia galore, plus a lot of extra steps and movements that are, for all intents and purposes, completely unnecessary. In fact, very often they detract from the actual product that you care about — how the tea comes out and tastes. Oftentimes I’ve seen people getting too preoccupied with a certain step or two that other, important aspects of tea brewing gets ignored. They might take too long to pour, wait too long so the water is cold, brew too long because they have to clean something or move something, the list is endless. This is what we call literally “inverting the base and end” in Chinese (本末倒置), meaning that the emphasis is entirely on the wrong thing.

Brewing tea is really only about three variables, once you’re done with figuring out the inputs (tea + water). It’s temperature, time, and volume. How hot, how long, and how much water/tea. The rest is just motion. For me, temperature is almost not a concern, as I almost always use water that’s just off boil, no matter what it is. As long as you adjust the other two, anything, including greens, can come out just fine.

The power of acid

Yup…. same pot, soaked in much citric acid and after some scrubbing

Still not perfect — there are some black stuff stuck in the grooves on the inside of the pot, and it still smells a bit like a dirty old sock. However, the grim, dark matter that was stuck to much of the pot has been eliminated. I used cotton swabs to clean the inside — must’ve used at least a dozen to scrub it down, but it worked pretty well and most of it is gone.

For those who are not happy with the idea of using bleach to clean your pots, this might be a more palatable alternative. However, I think bleach is more effective at eliminating foul odors. Right now I am putting dried tea leaves in them (spent) to try to soak up some smell, but I don’t know how well that will work. I might try to soak it in tea and see what happens. If it still doesn’t work…. a bleach bath may be inevitable.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about another nasty cleaning job that I started a few months ago but stalled and have not finished. Stay tuned.

Casual brewing

I’ve been mostly drinking tea in a “casual” way these days, using a yixing pot and brewing as I go, throughout the day. The thing that strikes me the most, but not at all surprising, is that the teas come out very differently when brewed this way. It’s obviously going to be the case given how this is not the regular gongfu brewing, but nevertheless, some teas come out really well, while others are simply not well suited to this purpose at all. For example, I had a roasted shuixian brewed this way, and the result is quite awful — a lot of charcoal flavour without much in the way of depth. When I make it the regular way, however, it comes out quite nicely.

Another issue is simply the selection of tea — some teas work with this, while others don’t. A light tieguanyin is going to taste nasty when you make it the way I do now, with sometimes hours between infusions. The tea will be a bit nasty, astringent, and bitter. Cooked puerh, for all their faults, come out all right no matter what you do, which is why these days I am trying to exhaust some of my cooked puerh supply. Another kind of tea that works very well is aged oolongs, which also don’t get bitter no matter what you do. It makes life easier.

This, of course, also explains why this blog has been rather slow these days — I just haven’t been drinking that much new tea recently. Unfortunate, I must say, since I do miss the daily sitting, but at some point, I suppose, real life intervenes.