A good brew is achieved when the tea tastes as good as possible. To learn how to achieve this result, let's start at the end and see how the tea in the gaiwan should look like:
This is a good example: the leaves are evenly open in the gaibei. They fill all the space, and yet are not crammed. Each tea leaf has reached the same level of unfolding, which means they are all releasing the same aromas and tastes at the same time.
Here is now an example of a brew that has gone wrong and will continue to be substandard if the leaves are allowed to remain without harmony in the gaiwan:
After pouring the tea in the pitcher, the leaves lean on one side of the gaibei. In the next brew, the leaves on the left can unfold quickly in their empty half of the gaiwan. The leaves against the wall won't unfold as quickly, which means these will release their flavors more slowly. The result will be a mix of tastes: the quickly unfolding leaves will start to release their astringency while the others have not released all their light flavors.
Rule: The water flow must enable an even unfolding of all tea leaves.
Let's come back now to the beginning and apply this rule on all our actions.
1. Put the leaves in the gaibei.
Here is an example for Oolong. The dry leaves must evenly cover the bottom of the gaibei.
The ideal quantity (for oolong) is the one that gives a gaiwan full, but not crammed, with open leaves.
Another rule is: the better the tea, the less you will use.
For Baozhong, you first press it a little in your hand before putting the leaves in the gaibei. Fill half or more of the gaiwan with dry leaves.
Note: I'm using my bare hands to take and put the tea in the gaiwan. Don't be shocked! My hands are clean, and the best tea leaves are picked and sorted by hand. This is also part of the 'chemistry', the sensual aspect, of what's happening between you and the tea leaves. Tea leaves are very sensitive and easily pick outside odors. So, while it's OK that the brewer touches them, the guests should only be allowed to look and smell them.
2. The first brew
Except old teas and cooked pu-erh, I never rinse the tea beforehand. Nobody is doing it for tea bags, even though most of them are of much lower quality! Tea is processed at over 100 degrees Celcius and therefore I consider it sufficiently clean. Especially, I don't want to waste a drop of the wonderful aromas!
Water has just boiled. We take the water pot and bring it closer to the gaiwan. We pause a moment to let the water calm down, so that we can better control its flow. The way we pour the hot water in the gaiwan depends on the kind of leaves we are brewing.
Let's dance! This video will show better than a thousand words how to brew oolong. This tea needs a lot of energy to open up its curled leaves. The circular movement will stop when all leaves are equidistant, resulting in a perfect balance.
Pour water directly on all the leaves, almost up to the top of the gaiwan. Use the lid to take the foam away. Lightly oxidized, baozhong can take the direct heat on its leaves.
c. Green tea.
Slowly pour the water on the wall of the gaibei, thereby avoiding a direct contact between the hot water and the fragile green tea leaves.
This strong tea can also take a direct hit on its leaves. Should there be foam, also take it away with the lid. The water flow should be neither too strong, neither too slow.
3. Second brew and up
Once open, the tea leaves don't need that much strength to release their flavors. For the following brews, we pour the water slowly and in an even manner all around the gaiwan. We keep your body and mind calm during this step. Our goal remains to reach all leaves with the same strength so that they release the same flavors. If the leaves are plenty, we can also take the lid and use it give the leaves space to unfold.
In case the leaves loose much temperature between two brews, we will pour the water with more strength, from higher above the gaibei, to waken them up.
4. When do you pour the tea out?
Using a white porcelain will let you see more easily when the water starts to turn darker with tea. You can also take the lid and smell its bottom to verify that the smells have been released. In theory, the first brew takes longer than the second and the following ones will steep longer and longer. Besides, steep time may also be a matter of personal preference for light or strong tea.
Rule: The better the tea, the longer it can steep.
5. How do you pour the tea from the gaibei into the strainer (or directly in the cups)?
The speed of the pour will influence taste:
- Pour the tea quickly in the strainer, and you'll obtain a tea with floral notes. (Recommended for baozhong, jinshuan oolong, green tea in general).
- Pour the tea slowly (but continuously) and the tea will have more yun, longer aftertaste. (Good for luanze oolong, old teas and fine vintage puer).
Whatever speed you pour, try to move the gaibei progressively to keep the tea leaves nicely together.
When you eventually pour the tea in the cups, take into account that the last drops coming out of the gaibei or strainer are more concentrated than the first. Therefore, don't fill one cup after another, but fill them in several rounds.
In the next lesson, I will show different ways to appretiate the tea during the gongfu cha.