Thursday, July 16, 2009

have tea, will travel

Just got back from my summer vacation up in Lake Placid. I spent a wonderful, isolated week and a half at a friend's cabin on one of the islands in the middle of the lake. The rule had been to "pack light" since I was sharing a small car and limited trunk space with three others. The last leg of the trip ended in a tiny motor boat (with a maximum capacity of 5 people or 4 with luggage) ride across the lake to the cabin. Packing only the essentials, I had to leave all of my tea equipment behind. I spent the days sunning, swimming, making s'mores in a century old fireplace, and hiking Whiteface Mountain with friends. I also spent a lot of the time craving tea and wishing I had risked even a small gaiwan and some cups. I regretted not hijacking Michael's personal tea kit for traveling.

During my vacation, my thoughts often drifted towards that elegant, two-layer Ching dynasty basket containing the necessary basics for Gong Fu Cha outside the tearoom. Tall and slender, I could have easily shared my car seat with it. I'm posting some photos I took of the tea basket during a cultural event we participated in before I left. Now maybe I won't be the only one fantasizing about this beautiful antique turned tea kit during summer vacation.

This basket of brown laquered bamboo and cane dates back to the 1880's and was used primarily to transport food. A thin strip of metal sits over the lid, between the handles and is locked in place with a key. A nice solution to keep the contents from falling out if the basket is tipped over. When the cover is removed, a shallow tray sits above the first layer. This is where Michael keeps tea utensils and a strainer, folded into his tea towels.

I have to admire Michael's showmanship. Usually during an event, a crowd gathers to watch what he pulls from the basket. The setup becomes just as interesting as the actual tea ceremony. I can't think of a more stylish way to announce one's tea addiction while far from home. The first compartment has enough room for a small porcelain tea tray, a tea boat, a gaiwan wrapped in it's silk purse, some shallow dishes to displaying dried tea leaf, several tea samples, a funnel for the teapot and a rolled up mat to that goes under the tea tray.
The bottom layer holds some more tea towels ( they do double duty of protecting porcelains from knocking into each other during transport). A waste bowl cradles a wrapped teapot. There's also a fairness pitcher, some wooden tea coasters, teacups and even a shallow vessel for rinsing teacups.

Almost ready for tea...

I hope you can agree, it's a pretty nice setup for tea on the road. All one needs is a pure water source and a kettle. A teamaster on the premises would be nice too but not necessary. Maybe next time, I'll have the pleasure of a holiday with the comforts of tea .

Friday, July 3, 2009

Brewing Sencha

This week, Winnie and I want to answer your questions about brewing techniques for Japanese Sencha. There is more than one appropriate way to brew and I'm sure some will disagree with the information in this post. There's lots of instruction available online but we just wanted to share some of the tips we've picked up from other tea masters. We also encourage every one to experiment and decide what works best for their own preferences.

The heated water is first poured into a cooling vessel.
Water temperature is judged in stages and this is the first part. The rising steam is beautiful to look at as it curls and dances away from the water. But it also tells us the temperature is too hot to start brewing. Usually, the water is then poured into the empty teapot to warm up the clay and then returned to the cooling pitcher. This helps to dissipate some of the water's excess heat. Many people brew sencha at 175-185 degrees Fahrenheit but I feel that cooks the delicate, fresh leaves. Then you end up with broth, not tea. Lower is always better for me and I usually wait til the water temp. is at least 140 -150 degrees (F). A basic rule for green tea is "to brew longer, not hotter". Brewing with lukewarm or room temperature water is a different matter entirely.

The Asatsuyu sencha is poured into the heated teapot. The warmed tea leaves give off a soft and savory aroma.

So the tea leaves are ready and we want to double check the heat of the water. We often run the cooled water very quickly over our fingertips to help us gauge the heat level and calculate how long the brewing time will be. Sane people use a thermometer. Let me just add, we are NOT pouring scalding water over our skin. The water is already cooled a bit and we are using the sensitivity of our fingertips to judge if it's ready to brew tea. It should feel like dipping a toe into a fresh hot bath. Almost too hot to bear but endurable. You know what... just get a thermometer. I do not want to receive emails from people with scalded body parts.
I think the terracotta color of the tokoname ceramics complements the emerald green of the tea. The water is now poured over the leaves and the lid is placed on the pot. It's only a matter of seconds before the first brew is ready for us.

Now it's time to serve the tea. Some pour the tea into the cooling vessel and serve from there. But is also acceptable to pour directly into the cups, provided that each cup only receives a little at a time as illustrated. The timing is important for this part. Especially for the first brew, the initial pour looks more like water but by the time you've emptied the teapot, each teacup holds a beautiful shade of green.
While you are serving tea in this manner, the start and stop effect keeps the tea leaves in constant motion. The idea is not to agitate the leaves but to gently swirl them around and keep them suspended in the water. This prevents the smallest particles that get bitter very quickly from settling at the bottom of the pot. Instead, they usually pass through the teapot's strainer into the cup. You can strain out the particles if you wish but we like the depth of flavor and texture they add.

I know it's far easier to show a brewing technique rather than explain the process in words. So I did a quick and terribly executed video of Winnie brewing sencha. The quality's just so-so (used the new IPhone video tool) and the lighting is worse but I figure it saves me some words. Also, I hope this answers some of the other aspects I did not really address. This video is a first for us and a spur of the moment thing. So please don't judge too harshly.
I should mention that Michael was not around when I did this. Otherwise, there would be proper lighting, stable camera work and it would be a million times better. In fact, I know he's going to cringe when he sees this. Fortunately for me, my vacation starts tomorrow and I can deal with it when I get back.
Happy Independence Day.