Drink Magazine

Tradition: Does It Enhance Or Encumber Our Enjoyment of Tea

By Dchew78 @peonyts

More so than any other beverage, tea is heavily steeped (pun unintended) in tradition and culture. Besides the fact that its existence has been documented for more than 2,000 years, it is the beverage of choice for East Asia- China, Korea and Japan- 3 countries that emphasize customs and rituals.

Compared with other hot beverages- notably coffee- the process of preparation and brewing has a long drawn history and different styles- most of them deliberate and measured. Fast forward to the 21st century where microwave dinners and instant noodles are ubiquitous, do traditions still have a place in tea or is it baggage for its progress?

Tradition: Does it enhance or encumber our enjoyment of tea
When we first started this business, it was predicated on the premise that tea- especially what is commonly known as Chinese tea- would be able to reach out to a wider audience if we kept it simple and accessible. Yet along the way, we discovered that oversimplification- yes we are looking at you, tea machines and French presses- detracts from the experience and taste of tea. Too much of an emphasis on simplicity without an appropriate level in the quality of the brew would hardly win any discerning converts as evidenced by the lack of poetry and literature devoted to tea bags.

Hence there must be a balance between accessibility and authenticity.

And the authentic beguiling taste of tea that first captivated me is often coaxed through traditional methods. On this site we continually emphasis the importance of brewing, tea appreciation and slowing down but we are mindful not to be ensnared by tradition.

Gongfu Brewing- Essential or not?

It may surprise some people but the majority of people in China do not gongfu brew their tea. Gongfu brewing originated from Chaozhou in Guangdong, a province in Southern China and is more common in Guangdong and Fujian province. Part of the reason is that gongfu brewing is especially effective for oolong tea which has the most popular following in this part of China.

Tradition: Does it enhance or encumber our enjoyment of tea
In my opinion, the disparity in the quality of teas brewed gongfu style and casually are not as marked for green, white and yellow tea as oolong tea. Nor is the joy of experiencing the subtle changes brew from brew as evident in other teas- except dark teas such as Pu-er- something that gongfu brewing excels at.

Another factor is the impact of the Cultural Revolution on ‘degenerate’ practices such as ‘idling’ in teahouses. Consequentially, in many parts of China, especially Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi, brewing tea is simply a case of throwing leaves into a glass or a tumbler- popularly known on the internet universe as Grandpa Style as coined by www.marshaln.com with reference to his own grandfather.

Even though I love gongfu brewing and I gongfu brew my oolong teas and Pu-er whenever possible, ‘whenever possible’ is the operative word. If I had a steadfast resolute ‘gongfu or bust’ mentality, my tea drinking would easily be cut in half through these years.

That, incidentally, is tragic in my books.

Grandpa brewing, some new-fangled pots, infuser mugs- whatever works. Naturally there are bound to be some compromises in the taste along the way but between pretty good tea and no tea, I would pick the former any time.

It must be said nonetheless that if the only choice I have is lousy tea, I would pick coffee or plain water.

What about Ceremonial Brewing?

Gongfu brewing is not to be confused with the full gongfu ceremony. Depending on the tradition, you could come away with anywhere from 14 to 24 steps. The basics are the same:

Tradition: Does it enhance or encumber our enjoyment of tea
i)   Warm the pot

ii)   Add leaves

iii)   ‘Rinse’ the leaves (depending on which type, some are not rinsed)

iv)   Add hot water again

v)   Infuse

vi)   Decant

vii)   Serve

viii)   Enjoy

Of course following a full-blown ceremonial approach, you might add steps like lighting of incense, introduction of utensils, viewing of tea leaves, saluting the guests and so forth. These would be impressive in a teahouse setting but prohibitive at home.

For example when I have guests, I can’t be bothered to light an incense stick or introduce the utensils. My focus is to coax the maximum flavors out of the tea- something that occurs whether I am brewing for guests or myself.

It’s a very common misperception that Chinese gongfu brewing is ceremonial and mistaking the peripherals for essentials. I always advocate cutting out the steps that don’t add value to the enjoyment. Naturally there are some who enjoy the ritualistic calm of the full 24 steps, if that describes you then feel free to continue.

Does size really matter?

Chaozhou gongfu brewing especially- emphasizes small utensils. A brewing utensil of 60cc to 125cc is the norm and the cups are what are commonly referred to as ‘thimble cups’, a reference to its size.

Is it not more satisfying and practical to brew a big pot and big mugs to chug out of or do Chinese mindlessly continue drinking out of small cups because it’s tradition?

Tradition: Does it enhance or encumber our enjoyment of tea
Where possible, I would advocate using small cups for a number of reasons:

i)   It’s easier to sip and slurp heartily

ii)   You consume in 3 mouthfuls without allowing your tea to grow cold- which is frowned upon by TCM practitioners

iii)   You can smell the lingering fragrance (porcelain or ceramics work better) on smaller cups better, an act that is immensely gratifying, especially for oolong tea

iv)   Gongfu brewing extracts more infusions hence smaller cups and vessels allow you to drink and appreciate more brews without feeling bloated

What about the Tales?

It’s very common practice for teahouses to brew tea and have an accompanying tale- story of goddesses or immortals or dragons and so forth. This may surprise you- most people don’t really believe it. No, really. Chinese- as in mainland China- people are a lot less superstitious than foreigners believe. For example, the Festival of the Hungry Ghost is a much bigger deal in South East Asia than it is in China.

The notion that Chinese tea vendors really subscribe to the theory that Guan Yin bestowed the plant to Wei Yin is no more accurate then adult Westerners believing their presents came from Santa Claus.

It is merely told to lighten the mood and create an air of mystique, a practice that I am not in favor of- my belief is that tea is a daily enjoyment not an exotic indulgence.

Then there is also the fact that what started out as a simple narration may become corrupted into some farfetched tale of fantasy- such as Shen Nong and the discovery of tea.

The Classics of Tea- Cha Jing

Tradition: Does it enhance or encumber our enjoyment of tea
Lu Yu’s seminal work Cha Jing is probably the best known tea treatise and has been translated into several languages. At its time, it was revolutionary- probably because it was the first book to systematically examine tea from various angles.

Should every tea lover steadfastly embrace it like it’s the Holy Bible?

In a word, no.

Circumstances and indeed tea productions have altered considerably since then.

During Lu Yu’s time there were only green tea and it was of the steamed variety. That is a far cry from all the variants available to us.

Also, unlike Lu Yu’s time, spring water is not easily available and most of us would be fearful to drink from most natural sources such as rivers and wells, at least in developed nations.

There are other examples but in a nutshell: while the principles of Lu Yu are sound, the applications should be merely taken as a guideline and not followed dogmatically.

Loose leaf tea- merely aesthetics?

This warrants a whole post on itself but to those who are already regular loose leaf tea drinkers- there’s no need to elaborate further: the tongue provides the most compelling argument.

This list could be much longer but the fundamental principle is basically this:

There are no sacred cows but before rushing to slay them, don’t operate under the basis that traditions are outdated without knowing it in depth.

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