Saturday, July 28, 2012

Preparing Water • 准备水

"Mountain water is superior, river water is less good, and well water is the worst."
- Lu Yu, The Classic of Tea, 780 CE

Though I find the ancient's advice on the topic of water interesting, honestly, it's not something I've gone to great lengths exploring. Perhaps on a day when I'm not lugging my daughter down the mountain, I ought to carry home a jug of spring water instead! But for now, my contemporary household advice would be, "Filtered water is superior, bottled water is less good, and chlorinated water is the worst."

Since the taste of chlorinated water destroys the delicate fragrance of tea, it should never be used. I would also rather not endorse the bottled water industry. Filtered water is the only water I use. I have, at times in the past, used bottled water but I noticed, with certain types, crystal flakes forming when the water was boiled. It would leave a residue on the floor of the kettle, as well as create a gritty, unpleasant texture, not suitable for tea.

Though I'm not in the habit of collecting mountain spring water, I do observe the energy or the liveliness of the water. The reason mountain water is superior is because it has the highest energy level, especially if it comes from the top of the mountain, where it is light. Water from the bottom of the mountain is still good, but has a heavier quality. As for river water, the fast flow of the water can give it a harder energy. Well water is stagnant and therefor has the least amount of energy.

When boiling water, basically, one should begin with fresh, cold water and be vigilant not to let it boil too hard or too long, depleting its essence. Water that has been boiled for too long, or has been boiled three times is considered 'dead' and is best discarded. There are three different stages of boiling water, characterized by the sound of the water and the size and frequency of the bubbles. Water that has reached the first boil, yi fei, 一沸, 70-80°C, has bubbles the size of 'small fish-eyes' or 'crab-eyes' and is used for green or white tea. The second boil, er fei, 二沸, 95-97ºC, has larger 'fish-eye' bubbles. This is considered boiling and is ready for use with fully fermented puerh teas or Chinese oolong, such as Tie Guan Yin. After letting this water stand to cool for a few moments, to about 90ºC, it is ready for Taiwanese high-mountain oolong tea. At the third boil, san fei, 三沸, 100ºC, the water is tumbling in the kettle. Lu Yu tells us that continuing to heat the water beyond san fei, the water will become “old” and cannot be drunk.

It is common practice to pour some fresh water back into the boiled water. Not only is this a quick way to cool the water down to a desired temperature, most importantly, the combination of cold and hot waters elevates the energy levels of the water.

The Korean Seon Master Cho-ui, who kept a small tea crop in front of his hermitage, noted, "Tea is the spirit of water and water the body of tea. If the water is not true, it is not possible to reveal tea's spirit. If the tea is not carefully made, how will it be possible to discern it's body?"

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Yixing Zisha teapots • 宜興紫砂壺

»a basic intro to Yixing Zisha teapots«

When it comes to brewing gong fu cha, an authentic Yixing Zisha teapot is usually preferred. Yixing is a district in eastern China and zisha, "purple clay", is the clay mined in the area.

The reason these teapots are exclusively desired is the supreme quality of Yixing zisha clay for infusing tea leaves. The porous quality of the clay retains heat and also absorbs the tea's essential oils, eventually curing it until the pot itself takes on the fragrance of the teas brewed in it. For this reason, a true gong fu cha master will only use one particular type or family of tea in one pot, as the build up of oils will enhance the same or similar tea but may not harmonize with other teas. One should also never use soaps or detergents to wash a pot, as they would remove the precious oils from the pores. It also explains why tea enthusiasts may develop an obsession with collecting teapots, in search of the perfect pot for each type of tea.

An Yixing teapot's form is typically elegant and very simple. The beauty of an Yixing pot is in the smooth lines of its contour and balanced form. For brewing gong fu cha, simplicity is essential as a uniform pot will distribute heat evenly while steeping, ensuring a proper infusion.

Yixing teapots are small, by western standards, usually between 3-7 ounces (90-200 ml), or even a single ounce, and vary in thickness and firing temperature. Generally, a thick walled, low-fired pot (about 1100ºC), will retain heat longer, making it suitable for teas requiring boiling water, such as a fully fermented puerh tea. The low firing also leaves them more porous, allowing them to absorb more of the tea's oils, helping to soften the taste of stronger tea. A thin walled, high-fired pot (about 1200ºC), is less porous, and absorbing less of the tea's oils, is suitable for fragrant, delicate tasting teas, such as Tie Guan Yin or high-mountain oolong.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gong Fu Cha • 工夫茶

What is Gong Fu Cha? (a quick intro)

'Gong Fu', also pronounced as 'Kung Fu' in English, is translated roughly as, 'one with great skill'. 'Cha' simply means 'tea'. So, the practice of Chinese Gong Fu Cha can be understood as, 'tea with great skill'.

The preparation of Gong Fu tea is not a ceremony. Every action is done with the specific purpose and intention of serving the best possible cup of tea consistently so that each and every sip of tea may be enjoyed in its fullest potential.

A perfect cup of tea depends upon several factors; the tea plant, the harvesting of the leaves, processing the leaves, choosing a tea pot to suit the leaves, the quality and temperature of the water, the amount of tea to place in the pot, and the amount of time to steep each serving. By placing great focus on these elements, we learn the intricacies of Gong Fu Cha. When considering these factors, one can't help but observe that, like everything else in life, Gong Fu Cha does not depend solely on the one serving the tea, but rather an interconnectedness of of many; the harvesters, the tea master who processes the tea, the potter, and finally us enjoying each and every drop.