Sunday, 21 June 2009

Adventures in Gongfu Cha

The other night I decided to treat ymself to a gongfu cha session, just as an experiment. It's something I've been putting off - partly due to a lack of confidence, and partly due to a lack of time. However, after reading Hobbes' two very encouraging posts at The Half-Dipper (see here and here) on finding your own way with tea and not worrying about 'rules' or 'doing it right' - I thought I would give it a go.

Not having a hot-plate that I could put on the table to keep water heating near my tea session, nor a suitable kettle to use on one anyway, I realised it would be actually okay to walk to the
 kitchen and back, bringing fresh water with me in a teapot. Limiting preconception #1, gone - I was off to a good start!

I set up my little Yixing teapot, set of cups, and a bowl for waste water on the table. The noise of my electric kettle seems like it would be contrary to the soothing experience I was hoping for - so I decided to heat my water in our smallest saucepan on the gas stove in the kitchen. Much quieter and more restful, especially in the gathering dark, even though it takes a lot longer; but I wasn't in a hurry, was I?

The tea I chose for brewing was my Milky Oolong from Zensation, which I've only prepared at home once before; I have a stash of samples of Taiwanese oolong sitting in my cupboard, but my crisis of confidence was still lurking in the background, and I didn't feel like breaking out a completely new tea, yet.

The aroma of the dried Milky Oolong leaves was just as heady, floral and fragrant as I recalled - a good sign, I must have sealed the packet well last time. But what did I need to do to brew it - what were the vital steps again? Well, all my tea books had been packed away in preparation for the upcoming move - no recourse there. The internet? Frankly, I couldn't be bothered. I'd just give the brewing a go anyway - 'no rules', remember - and see what eventuated.

So: warm water into the Yixing and cups. Drain. Add the tea leaves. More hot water, pour it out straight away, to rinse and slightly unfurl the tightly-curled leaves. More hot water; steep time of about 2 minutes is recommended on the packet for the first infusion. Wait quietly; candles are flickering and it's pretty dark in here, but I don't want to turn on the overhead lights yet if I can avoid it. Pour the steeped tea into the waiting warmed teapot for serving, so it doesn't
 overbrew. I can't seem to pour from my Yixing without dribbling tea everywhere. Well, that's ok for now. A steaming stream of tea from the serving pot into the aroma cup; place the drinking cup on top of that, flip. I made that dribble too.  Never mind. Inhale the peachy, flowery aroma, then sip the sweet liquid from the tiny cup.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

I only made it through two infusions at this particular session - despite what some of my friends may believe, there IS a limit to how much tea I can drink in one go - but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the flavour of the first infusion carried over quite strongly into the second; I seem to recall that it dissipated fairly quickly last time. 

I was reluctant to discard the leaves after only two infusions though, so I filled the Yixing up with cold water a bit later, and set it in the fridge overnight to cold-brew a third - which rewarded me the next day with a stunning golden infusion, still rich in peach fragrance and flavour, extremely mellow and sweet.

This tea session was a valuable lesson in, if not quite 'beginner's mind', then something very like it anyway - and it was very liberating to remember that, really, the tea police are not going to come after you. The main thing is to make your tea, and enjoy it in the moment. Sure, there are ways to make the experience more enjoyable - I can't relish a cup of green tea that's been rendered burnt and bitter by water that's too hot - but if you get caught up in the desire to 'get it right', so much that you can't relax, or are too hesitant to even plunge in at all...? Time to let go.

Thanks to Hobbes for the timely reminder and inspiration.


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