Today I am writing as I sit down to enjoy tea. The tea is a fine example of a Milan Xiang Dancong Oolong, or a Honey Orchid Phoenix Oolong from the Chaozhou region, located in the northeast corner of Guangdong Province, China. Besides enjoying the tea for it’s wonderful full-bodied honey flavor, one of the reasons why I love this tea is because it is produced in the geographic homeland of Gongfu Cha.
For centuries (at least since the Ming Dynasty), a recognizable form of Gongfu Cha has been practiced in the Chaozhou region of Guangdong Province. Most often utilizing the “Three Jewels of Chaozhou Gongfu Cha”, the traditional implements to brew tea in this manner were a small charcoal brazier, atop which sat a white clay kettle. Next, the tea brewer would use a small Yixing clay teapot, no bigger than a modern tennis ball (oftentimes smaller). Finally, porcelain cups were used to savor the brewed tea’s flavor. These cups were (and still are) very small, enough to hold only a small sip’s worth of tea, just enough to convey the “idea” of the tea’s flavor to the drinker. As the centuries progressed and Choazhou-style Gongfu Cha spread, these combined three implements became the “standard” set of tools for tea brewers in China.
Today, I’ve chosen to enjoy both the flavors of a Chaozhou tea and use the teaware that would fit this particular scenario. Brewing Milan Xiang is a particular challenge, as the tea is still produce in the old style, meaning the leaves received a relatively high oxidation and are twisted (rather than rolled). This leaves the tea vunrable to over-brewing and becoming bitter. My “goal” when brewing this tea is to avoid over-brewing while still managing to bring out every flavor. As one of my tea teachers once said, “To successfully bring out every flavor of a tea is like running to the edge of a cliff. If you stop at the edge and can see the bottom without falling over, you’ve succeeded.”
In preparation for brewing this tea, I assembled a small selection of traditional teawares. teapot, made in Yixing, China, it stands no higher than two inches tall and holds no more than a cup of water. Its walls are thin (about as thin as an eggshell), but it retains heat very well. The cups I’ve selected are a set of traditional Blue and White porcelain teacups from the famous kiln of Jingdezheng. Being porcelain, they will retain little heat, thus helping to cool the tea for me to drink.
Brewing this tea will be fairly difficult, even with the array of tools I have at hand. However, to understand how tea is brewed in the Gongfu Cha fashion, I will do away with any modern tool that most tea brewers have at their disposal. Really, the only “tools” I’ll need to brew this tea is the teapot, something to get water to a boil, and my own knowledge of the tea itself (gained through the past experiences I’ve had brewing this particular tea).
Much of how I brew the Milan Xiang Honey Orchid Phoenix Oolong is based on my memory and the subtle clues the tea gives me. How it looks and how it smells will give me some indication of how I should brew it. As for the proper temperature of water to use, this I ascertain by listening to the water boil. The hotter it boils, generally the louder the water gets. Putting these two factors together with the final component, time, I basically have everything I need to successfully brew this tea.
Needless to say, the flavors of this particular Oolong are quite nice. With the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I have been able to successfully brew this tea several times now, enjoying steeping after steeping. The initial flavors are floral, lychee-like, but also thick and raisiny with no hints of roast. It finishes with a slight astringency and the returning flavors are just as intense and satisfyingly full-bodied. The color of liqueur is a deep orange with a light yellow-green cast. The aroma is extreme and easily fills-up the tiny room I’m brewing it in. I’m expecting this to make at least seven pots of tea.
As I continue to write about tea and, particularly the art of Gongfu Cha, I will continue to develop the ideas surrounding the “hows”, “whys”, and “whats” when it comes to brewing tea. But for now, I am happy to speak about it in general terms. Please feel free to write me with any questions you might have about any particular teas you are curious about, or would like to see me brew. I will continue to write-down my experiences in tea and look forward to sharing them with you soon as the week progresses!