Chinese tea, gongfu style.

dasHusband and I went downtown the Journey Art Gallery and spent a pleasant couple of hours tasting a nice selection of Chinese teas and watching and learning from the host, Laura Kolinski-Schultz, as she demonstrated Chinese tea ceremony wares and the gongfu brewing style.

I wish I’d gotten a good photo of the host’s tea table that she worked from – it looked similiar to this :

The slats in the wood allow water and tea to drain away to a basin under the table. The various tea pots she used were displayed in front of the table, while the pot in use and the serving cups were on the table.

The set up was this (edit:I found a picture of it!  that isn’t a fuzzy wasteland of blur!)  20140126_145827– the tea table was set up at the end of a long table, so all of the guests could sit and chat with each other and the host, and nibble the awesome snacks she’d made. Off to the side was an electric water kettle, and each guest had a plate and a shallow tasting cup, while the host had the tall aroma cups arranged neatly on her tea table. She would tell us about each tea as she brewed it and filled the aroma cups. Her partner served the aroma cups around the table, and the guests poured the tea from the aroma cup into the tasting cup. Then we could sniff the tea scents left in the aroma cup, and sip the tasting cup. Very cleverly, our host had twice as many aroma cups as guests, so she could brew and serve the successive teas very easily, simply by collecting the aroma cup of the previous tea while serving the next one. This is an aroma cup and tasting cup set, but not the one we used today. Our host today is also a potter, so we got to use tasting cups she had made!

Gongfu style brewing is very interesting – it uses more tea per oz of water than western style brewing does, but steeps the tea for a much shorter period of time. These short steeps – starting in the 5 second range – allow the same tea leaves to be steeped more then once, creating a tasting experience that changes with each brewing. It’s a really neat way of exploring the layers of flavor in the tea, by sort of gently brewing them out one at a time, instead of all together and at once. The teapots and cups are all very small, so that you can drink the repeated infusions without drowning yourself in tea, and without having to use huge amounts of tea. I brew western style tea with 3 grams of tea to 6 ounces of water, while the rough guideline for gongfu style brewing is 1 gram of tea per ounce, about double the amount.

The gongfu brewing / Chinese tea ceremony process is also very different from the western and Japanese styles I am familiar with. First, the dry tea was passed around to smell and admire, while our host told us about it, and poured hot water in and over the teapot she would use. Then the water from the tea pot was poured over the aroma cups to warm and clean them as well. Next, the tea was put in the pot and washed – hot water was poured over the leaves, and promptly poured out into and over the aroma cups. This washing wakes up the tea leaves so they will infuse evenly in the coming brews, and also washes away any particles of tea dust that might give a bitter flavor to the tea. The aroma cups are emptied, and brewing temperature water is added to the teapot. It is infused – anywhere from 5 seconds to a minute – then served. Our host today served the tea by moving back and forth over all the cups as she poured, but many people serve by pouring the tea from the brewing pot into a sharing pot, then filling the cups from the sharing pot. Both methods are meant to insure that the tea liquor is evenly mixed.

Now for the teas! We had four different teas today, and two servings of each tea. This let us taste a little of how the teas evolved as they were brewed, but without taking too long.

1. Organic White Silver Needle, 2013, from Red Blossom.

White teas are very light and aromatic, so having the aroma cup with this tea was a real treat. The first serving had very floral almost rose like scent, and a very light simple taste. The second serving was still floral, but with an additional toastiness to it, and was much richer in the cup. Our host actually brewed this tea four times, using a very tiny yixing teapot, and combined the 1st and 2nd infusions for the first serving, and 3rd and 4th for the second. I thought it was an intelligent way to heighten the flavor of a very subtle tea.

2. Tie Kuan Yin, from The Republic of Tea.

This is a nice basic tieguanyin, and was a pleasant bump up the intensity ladder. The first serving was very floral, with a ton of the clover/honey notes oolong teas are known for, as well as a note of toasted coconut. The second serving was much smoother and more mellow, with a pleasant creaminess to it.

3. Organic Formosa Red #18, from Red Blossom.

A very interesting tea, both in terms of tasting and in history. It is made from a tea plant which is a hybrid of the native Taiwanese C. sinenses v. sinensis and the Indian C. sinensis v. assamica , which was imported to the island early last century to help establish a black tea industry. It was a very nice tea to drink, full of the malty peppery chocolaty notes that Assam teas have, all wrapped up with a vegetal bell peppery kind of greenness that was quite interesting. Unlike the previous more traditional Chinese teas, this black tea didn’t come through the second serving as strongly, and our host told us that is is pretty normal. Apparently the highly oxidized black teas infuse much more readily and thus don’t support multiple infusions as well.

4. Dragon Pearl Jasmine, from Red Blossom.

A classic jasmine scented white tea. A tasty tea, head knockingly floral in the first serving, and showing a nice hint of citrus-like astringency in the second. I didn’t care for it much personally, though it was a nice tea. I think I’d like it more brewed western style, so the intense jasmine was toned down and balanced a little better.


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