Friday, June 18, 2010

Questions for The Gallery: Topsy Turvy Gaiwans

Recently, Toki of The Mandarin's Tea Room brought our attention to a couple of questions regarding gaiwans and ours in particular floating around the internet. At the request of Toki, I posted the answers on this blog (I think he's got some tea riding on the outcome).
Question 1: The lid rests at a crooked angle on the gaiwan. Why doesn't it sit perfectly straight on the cup?

While Michael knows the answer to this, he has a hard time explaining something that makes very natural sense to him. I think I really understood best myself, when Bill from China Flair explained it to me: A perfectly round lid that maintains constant contact with the walls of the gaiwan is one that has no natural gaps for tea to pour out. Extra effort and finger strength is needed to create and maintain an artificial gap that can lose it's place. You also run the risk of creating a vacuum that seals the lid to the cup, this can cost precious brewing seconds as you try to unstick the lid and create the gap for the tea to pour through.
Let's look at a Late Ching Dynasty gaiwan up close:
When the lid is set straight across the cup, there should be a gap between two sides of the lid and the wall. The other two opposite sides of the lid should be in contact with the cup. The tension between those two contact points act as a hinge for the lid to swing around. All good gaiwans should have this feature. As Bill from China Flair explained it; there should be a position where the lid rests naturally to create those points of tension and the gaps. and then you won't need to rely on finger strength to maintain an artificial gap. He has a great tip for the pros: Examine your gaiwan BEFORE you even add the tea leaves and find the contact points. Position the gaiwan and pitcher in such a away that you should be able to grasp the vessel and pour from it without any wasted time or movement.

One of the most cringe-worthy moments I've witnessed occurred while having tea with a friend at a tea house that just opened up in the city. While the proprietor was a very nice man and an avid tea drinker, it became quickly obvious that he had never been trained to brew with a gaiwan. What he knew was probably gleaned from watching his vendors and crucial details had been missed during his observation. First, he used a very lightweight glass gaiwan to prepare an aged puer, when a porcelain one would have handled the high heat better. Once the tea was in, he let hot water overflow his glass gaiwan for a good several seconds. A number of sizable tea leaves was pushed out in the cascade. While a dome of boiling water settled on the top and rested along the rim, he grasped the edges with his fingers and let the scalding water break against his skin. Ouch. I noticed his finger pads were a vivid, blistering scarlet. The lid slipped against his fingers a few times while he poured out the tea, allowing more large leaf chunks to escape and some awkward fumbling. Like watching a car lose control and veer off the road,we couldn't look away. When we asked why he chose that particular gaiwan to brew with, he explained that the porcelain lids were all crooked while the glass lid fit perfectly in the cup. If he realized all those times the lid slipped against the wall of the cup and further burned his fingers was because of that perfect lid, I don't think he would have been so happy.
Question 2: Why is the saucer so much wider than the foot of the cup?
Sometimes the dish is deeper than the height of the foot the cup has a lot of wriggle room. If you don't center the foot, it can sit at a tilt and appear crooked. This is prevalent in many older gaiwans like the one picture above. While there may not have been an original reason other than the fact that same person rarely worked on both pieces, Michael realized that looser saucers did have a benefit. When a gaiwan fits snugly in it's saucer, excess water that drips into the bottom can create a pressure difference and suction the base to the cup's foot. Of course, the effect doesn't last long and the bottom will eventually come loose again, often while the cup is hoisted in the air.
Michael doesn't use the saucer when he brews tea but this is one of the details he focused on when he commissioned his own gaiwans to sell. He wanted to minimize the risk of falling saucers for the customer that does include their saucer while they make tea.

Here's a modern hand-painted gaiwan I picked out while in Hong Kong. In addition to the beautiful lions cavorting across the lid and cup, it has functional features I'm looking for. A perfectly, imperfect lid with a natural tilt; a thin edge to the flared rim and a nicely balanced knob that's easy for me to grasp.

The saucer is also much wider than the width of the foot. If I ever do brew tea with the saucer, I at least don't have to worry about water suctioning the cup to the saucer. For the sake of full disclosure, this is actually the second one I've purchased... I dropped and chipped the first one while washing it; Yumcha strikes again!
Michael tends to go through several gaiwans in a sitting. Especially when the Mandarin stops by and the marathon comparison tasting commences. By the end of the day all the gaiwans are sitting out with lids at various crooked angles. The scene can look quite haphazard but it's one that hasn't changed in many generations.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lion's Peak Preview

Finally, our Lion's Peak Dragonwell (longjin) has arrived and we wanted to share a few basic tips for brewing such a delicate green tea:
We like to use gaiwans with thin porcelain walls to brew our Dragonwell. The thinness of the walls is important because it's the first step in ensuring that heat won't linger and over brew the leaves. Some people really like to use a glass gaiwan and seeing the leaves suspended in the water is very pretty but I've yet to find one that wasn't too clunky for my tastes. I like using a small glass teapot instead because there are better quality ones out there with nice delicate details and thin walls.
Always preheat your brewing vessel with near boiling water. While this is a common practice for brewing all types of teas it's especially crucial for green teas. Longjin requires low temperature brewing but if the temperature gets too cool, then you run the risk of losing out on some wonderful flavor notes. One of the ways to ensure the tea doesn't cool too quickly is to maintain the indirect heat. Also, heat up your serving pitcher and cups.

Winnie used our medium sized gaiwan (90cc) and 5 grams of tea or a heaping tablespoon full.
We like to prep the young buds by gradually building up heat levels.
Once the dry tea buds are put into our prepared gaiwan, the heat will gently warm the buds and the aroma will come to life. This is a great time to appreciate Dragonwell's sweet and savory fragrance.

Now it's time to add the water.
Winnie likes to give the buds an initial shock with the rinse. She'll bring the water temperature up to 180F and give the leaves whats known as a "flash rinse" for the first. The hot water is poured in quickly, using the rushing stream technique. Once the leaves are covered, the water is just as quickly poured out into another vessel.
Save the rinse and drink it last. The aroma of the tea will have taken on even more depth and some beautiful notes of sweet rice and toasted nuts. My mouth is usually watering at this point.

With all the talk about low temperature brewing, why use scalding water at all? This is done to "wake up" the buds and prepare them for brewing. I also mentioned that heat is necessary to taste certain components. While we wouldn't brew at 180F for a longer amount of time. The quick dowsing at a higher temp. opens up the outer edges of the buds without unleashing any inner bitterness. I've experimented on friends and tried to omit this step and just brew at low temperatures but we found a dimension of the tea's flavor was missing.
Now that the tea is ready, Winnie brings the water temperature down to about 155F. She doesn't use a thermometer to gauge heat levels, but you can use one until you get a feel for it the Winnie does. The first steep can last as long as 20 seconds. Since we're using cooler water we don't have to worry about "cooking" the tender buds. If the water were even cooler, you can add another 10 seconds to the steep time. Once you decant the first steep and serve it, your assessment of the taste will inform the amount of time you need for the next steep. If the tea tasted too light for you, you will want to brew the next steep longer. However, once you've introduced bitterness from over steeping, there's little you can do to save it.

Beautiful Dragonwell buds are covered in downy hairs that's almost too difficult to see on the buds themselves. But they're easier to notice when you stare at the surface of the infusion. While the body of the tea should have a crystal clarity, the surface will be pocked with the little hairs, It's easiest to notice when light reflects off the surface and you can see the minute interruptions on the top of the brew. Some people use the "flash rinse" to scald off these tiny hairs to make the infusion even clearer. Sometimes the hairs can irritate sensitive throats and while there's no way to avoid them completely, you can avoid drinking the rinse which will have the most concentration. We're not bothered by the hairs and the rinse tastes too sweet and velvety for us to pass up.

When it comes to tea, especially green teas, temperature and timing are your tools to use in a number of ways. Use very low temperature and you can steep the leaves for longer. Sometimes, I like to cold brew green tea so I can take a bottle of it on the road with me. I simply add a tablespoon of Dragonwell to a 24oz water bottle with room temperature water and leave in the fridge overnight. In the morning, I have a sweet, delicious tea without a trace of bitterness that I can take to the gym or office. I love the convenience of it but I would never do this to a premium grade LongJin because heat is necessary for developing certain flavors and textures and experiencing a well rounded cup.
The combination of a high temperature rinse followed by longer low temperature brewing really gives us the best of both worlds. There are number of fun ways to prepare green tea and I'll be sharing more of them in the days to come.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Back to Tung Ting: Spring Harvest

May was an interesting month for us.
Much of our work took us out of the tearoom and into large, beige conference rooms. We did a tea presentation and tasting every week for corporate sponsored Asian heritage events; I spoke from podiums and lost my voice a couple times. It was a huge relief when I showed up at our tearoom and there was nothing to pack, no lectures to hurriedly edit. I almost cried with happiness as I joined Michael and Winnie at the tea table, something we hadn't done together in several weeks. Winnie sat in the host's chair while Michael was leaning his elbows on the table.
Master Lin's spring harvest TungTing had finally arrived and this would be my first chance to sample it. This was also the first of our spring harvests to come in. Early April frosts in Asia had pushed back the delivery dates on many of our teas so our eagerness was ratcheted up this season. The afternoon light pouring through the windows was golden and hazy. It cast a glow over Winnie and the tea table. The blue and white porcelain took on muted shades and softer edges. I couldn't help but anticipate something special.
The tightly rolled leaves look very similar to the previous winter harvest TungTing.
They look like sleeping baby tortoises. They turn a rich, glossy green once they get wet with thick, woody stems.

The leaves didn't start to unfurl until the third infusion.

Winnie was brewing and she has a lighter touch than Michael. She used about 4 grams in our medium sized gaiwan.

After she rinsed the leaves and reserved the liquid in a separate pitcher, we could smell delicate orchids and a faint, pear aroma coming of the heated leaves. The first brew had just a hint of color. I was almost afraid Winnie had brewed it too light but one sip banished my worries. There was a surprising amount of sweetness and a creamy yet refreshing texture.
By the third brew, the color was a rich, buttery hue with a touch of green. A slender body with a lovely dry note brought the fruit and flowers to a sophisticated level. Although, light roasted oolongs like this don't carry the same depth of flavor that heavier roasts offer, Master Lin's masterful roasting techniques and the care he puts into his gardens are evident in the abundant layers we found in his tea.

Winnie demonstrates traditional tea etiquette: Her hand covers her mouth as she sips tea from her cup.

After the fifth cup, our mouths were practically exhaling a bouquet of sweet TungTing flowers, Winnie shared the reserved liquid from the rinse. It was a soft, shadow of the first cup. Elusive tropical notes washed over our taste buds.

There were still a few more steeps left in the leaves but the brewing time was getting longer. To keep the water hot enough while the leaves steeped, Winnie transferred the tea leaves from the gaiwan into a heated, Yixing teapot she designated for light roasted Tung Ting oolong. She left a couple leaves out for us to inspect. I played with one, pulling and testing the resilience and thickness. The surface of the leaf was silky soft. When I was done, I let it drop into my empty cup not realizing Winnie had one more steep to serve...