Through brewing tea, we can learn to understand our self and our surroundings.
When you try a new tea, you may ask “how do you brew this?” This simple question does not beget a simple answer. There are many reasons you may be brewing tea in the first place. If your reasons are to make a good cup of tea, to enjoy the ritual of making tea, or to obtain the benefits of tea, then strictly adhering to brewing parameters is not going to take you very far.
When you start with good tea, it is hard to go wrong
A lot goes into the tea that you brew. A lot! Of course, you want to start with the best leaves possible. You may try to optimize these three main components to tea brewing: water temperature, leaf quantity and length of time. This ‘parameter based’ brewing is a good place to start, but a good tea may benefit from trying all kinds of different brewing methods. And it might change to need different things at different times.
Push for longer steeps, and you will thank yourself
Our friend Mr Su, who owns a farm in Dong Ding, makes some of the best traditional Dong Ding oolong we’ve been able to find. When I sat down to drink tea with him on a trip in 2017, he was so worked up about the merits of traditional tea making that I thought he had totally forgotten about his brewing tea. I sat there, listening to an old man rave about tea, and one minute turned into two minutes turned into three minutes. He was totally unconcerned, although he had put about twice the amount of tea leaves as I would normally brew in a gaiwan. After about three full minutes I had gotten a little nervous. “Mr Su, did you forget about that tea in your gaiwan?”
“What?” he said. “A good tea… a good tea, it doesn’t matter how long you brew it. It will always taste good.”
He proceeded to pour off the liquid with a grin on his face, challenging me to find a flaw in his tea. And there was none. It was sure strong, but the structure of the tea was still there. It had not fallen apart in the least.
We often stop brewing tea a very long time out of fear it will get nasty. We’ve all had over brewed tea, and it is not a pleasant experience. When the farmers put so much leaf in the pot and brew a really long time, I feel like biting my nails in anticipation. But good teas will pull through and show a deeper side of themselves if brewed longer. More dimensions of the broth can appear, the texture could show itself more clearly, and the aftertaste could linger longer and longer.
Don’t be afraid to let your tea fail
The flipside is that the tea COULD fail. There is a real risk of the tea being over-brewed. But in that case, you’ve learned a valuable lesson about that particular tea. You’ve learned at what point it fails. We like to push our tea right up to the side of a cliff and see what happens. The closer you can get the that cliff, the better. A sturdy tea will stand up straight, strong as a tree, gazing over the edge. When you hit that sweet spot, that’s some of the best tea you will ever drink. New doors will open, and you will learn things about tea that you never knew existed. So push, push, push, and brew without fear in your heart.
Push for hotter water
This may not be popular opinion, but good tea can handle hot water. Really hot water. Boiling water. When I first started doing tea business, my customers would ask me what temperature of water I used. They would tell me I need to use 190 degree water for oolong, or something like that. I thought maybe they had a point, but I’d just never seen anyone in Taiwan use anything other than boiling water. So I decided to ask the tea farmers we work with next time I went to Taiwan.
I arrived at Mr Chen’s farm, who has been making our Baozhong oolong for over 13 years now. He sat us down, and began to brew tea. As his water was heating up, I figured this was as good a time as any. I asked him how hot his water is. All I got in return was a blank stare…. “HOT… I use hot water.” He was so earnest, it was a very beautiful moment. I repeated the question to a few more farmers I was working with, a little afraid of being yelled at, but that’s what I do for tea. They repeated roughly the same answer. Not always as kind as Mr Chen.
Of course people can brew tea with whatever water they want. It’s not really my business. But at the same time, I want the tea to taste as good as possible in your home. And I want you to taste all the hard work that these farmers put into their tea. With boiling water, you get more out of the tea. More texture, more viscosity. More complexity. In my mind, that’s how the farmers know their own tea, so it’s at least worth a try.
Throw away your thermometer, timer and scale
Or at least humor me and put them away once in a while.
How do you go about boiling water? Say you received instructions and they told you “fill with cold water, turn stove to high and wait five minutes” If you blindly follow these instructions, how much would you enjoy boiling the water? Well, maybe you don’t enjoy boiling water either way. Ok. But who needs to use tools like this to boil water? You can easily rely on your experience to know when the water is finished.
So we can take the experiential approach to boiling water. For example, your guidelines could be ‘take the water off once large bubbles are bursting on the surface of the water’. This leaves the judgement of how close the water is to boiled up to the person doing the boiling. How big should the bubbles be? How immediately do you remove the water from the heat? How long before you re-boil if you want to maintain the integrity of the water? A master water boiler may have his tricks, and I would venture a guess that no two pots of water boil the same way.
Tea is the same. If I tell you to put 6 grams of this tea in a 120 ml pot, infuse with 212 degree water and pour off after 1 minute, you are using tools to do all the work for you. You are in a different dimension, separated from the tea you are making. You could be looking at your phone, watching a tv show, doing pushups, anything. But the one thing you aren’t doing is enjoying the process of making tea. And in the end, if you consider the tea to be ‘done’, does it really taste ‘perfect’? Is the difference between a master’s brewing and a novice’s brewing really that the master adheres perfectly to an inner timer and thermometer and scale? I’ll tell you… no!
You and your environment are always changing
The tea that has been brewed with attentive care will taste much better, or at minimum present an opportunity for growth. Sometimes a tea doesn’t taste that good. That’s when you can learn. Maybe that tea doesn’t work that way, or maybe it’s just not as sturdy as you need it to be. Maybe your environment is muting the tea, or your mood could be affecting the way your brew turns out. Don’t be afraid to let you tea fail, because, when it does fail, with a little extra attention you can learn something valuable about the tea.
Put another way, a master musician doesn’t play the same song the same way every time. If she adheres directly to the manuscript, then how can she ever make room for tone color, feel or phrasing. If a barista is simply following rules exactly, then why is it that a robot is not making the best cup of coffee on the market?
It’s a really fun experiment to ask a friend to brew the exact same tea at the same time. Your teas will be different! Even if water temp, brewing time, vessel, etc are all exactly the same they will taste different. But why...?
When you start to notice how your mood, energy and environment affect the tea you are brewing, you can start to identify what those small changes are. You will start to taste in the tea what you are feeling that day. I brew tea when I’m excited, joyous, depressed. All these states of mind come out in the tea, when your attention is truly with the tea. A good tea is a mirror in which you can see your self.
These are just a few notes on tea brewing which I’ve found to help our customers, my students and myself brew better tea. Experiment and trust your instincts. A little conscious attention in your tea ritual will pay off tenfold.