Thursday, September 17, 2009

A "Classic" Afternoon

Yesterday gave us our first chilly preview of fall. It was a good opportunity to make ourselves some heavily roasted oolong and stay warm. We decided on our Classic Roast Iron Bodhisattva. We've received a lot of questions about this tea and it's about time I did a post about our most popular oolong. Most were about brewing methods and water temperature.
I'll try to include information that answers the most common questions we get.
While this is the tea that Michael uses for his ChiuJoa GongFu Cha, it's flavorful enough to withstand even a western style brewing method with little leaf, lots of water and longer steeping time. Michael is away for the week, so Winnie decided to brew in the basic GongFu style that anyone can do.
Right now, we're drinking and selling the 2009 Spring Harvest. Because of the heavy roasting, this oolong has a very long shelf life so long as it is stored in an airtight container, away from light and heat. Michael will usually reserve some of the harvest for himself so he can age the tea for later enjoyment. Aging is possible due to the high firing process the leaves go through. The heat stabilizes the tea oils and compounds. Once it's been stored for a few years, the roasted character mellows and the flavors become more complex. It's a softer taste with fewer floral notes but a more mature profile. Also, the cha-qi will strengthen over time and drinking a ten year aged TiKwanYin has had me blissed out and dreamy.

Now we that we have the tea, we need a teapot:
This Yixing clay pot is from the seventies. It can hold about 2oz - 60cc of liquid. It's TINY. It fits perfectly in my hand and I have small hands. Pots of this style are well crafted and beautiful to look at but the thin walls can crack if exposed to to extreme temperature change. This is rare but when you have something this nice , why take chances?
Take the time to start with very warm water (120 degrees), fill the teapot and make sure the outer walls are thoroughly soaked. Empty the teapot and repeat once more with hot water
(175 degrees). After the teapot has been emptied again, you can proceed to use boiling water to heat up the pot before adding the tea leaves.
Once the teapot is heated through and emptied, Winnie pours in the tea. She doesn't stop until the pot is three quarters full. With so much tea, infusions are going to be very short to prevent bitterness and oversteeping. The first several steeps will be poured out almost as quickly as the water was poured in.
Hot water is poured first along the outer rim and circles it's way into the pot. Winnie pours it out as soon as she's put down the kettle and replaced the lid. This is the tea rinse and is reserved in the fairness pitcher.
We can't all have Winnie's delicate bone structure. But there are ways of moving and serving tea that create a graceful atmosphere. Every person who's ever made tea for me has their own "style" that comes through.
The rinse is poured back over the outside of the teapot. Winnie calls it "feeding the pot". The Yixing clay develops a rich patina from years of soaking up the tea. Most of our readers know this but I think it's important enough to mention again. Some people still toss out the rinse not believing it's good for anything. Bathing your teapot with the rinse is an important part of maintaining and properly aging the teapot.
Another good shot of Winnie's hand position as she pours out the tea. Her fingers are curled around the handle, mimicking the curves of the teapot and creating a nice rhythm. In my lessons with Michael in the traditional ChiuJao GongFu Cha method, I was made aware of how my pinky finger would often stick straight out and apart from the rest of my hand while I brewed tea. A little thing but one that betrayed tension in my movements and exposed my
inexperience. It seems like a minor detail most people wouldn't notice but your guests may pick up a sense of discomfort at a subconscious level. Afterward, they may wonder why they didn't feel entirely relaxed during the tea session. Keep your movements small and fluid. Notice your fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Keep your back straight but not rigid
Maybe you don't care about appearance so long as you can make a good cup of tea. Or maybe, one day, you will make tea for a master... and they will notice everything.
Because there is so much leaf packed into the pot, it's important to give the teapot time to let as much of the infusion drain out. Find an appropriate fairness pitcher or porcelain cup to rest the teapot against. The circumference of the opening should be small enough to keep the lid secure against the pot. While the water navigates the labyrinth of twisted leaf to pour out of the spout, the tea's finish should be perfuming the mouth and tasting sweeter on the tongue.

The first couple of steeps gives us an autumn hue. I think of sunsets when I see this color. Subsequent steeps get richer and darker as we move to heart of the tea.
As Winnie brews, the leaves expand and start to push out of the pot. There's just enough tea to fill two little cups.

The afternoon wore on, and each infusion took a little longer than the last to brew. Finally, Winnie upended the pot one last time that day. There was a little light left in the sky and Winnie fancied a walk in the crisp air.
I hope this has answered some questions, although maybe I'll have created more. Either way, it's always great to hear from other tea people and I'll do my best to respond to any comments left on this post.