(IMAGE: Each leaf of Da Hong Pao arranged by size to maximize their potential when fastidiously placed into the teapot)
Dear beloved blog readers,
We tea drinkers learn about tea from various sources. Now-a-days, one doesn’t need to spend much time to find an over abundance of information on tea. From tea blogs to tea shop websites to Youtube videos and all sorts of click-bait health claims that seem to engulf tea knowledge; for the tea drinker, the challenge today seems to be “what information” is valuable as they comb through the deluge of truths, half-truths, and skillfully-crafted marketing material.
As a tea drinker who began his journey before the Internet Age, I have tended to trust the guidance of a teacher and am a natural skeptic of that which I find online (I thank those who read this blog, but, seriously, find an actual person to talk about tea with… You’ll find it infinitely more engaging). As a result, my approach to tea has been shaped by my teachers; people who have dedicated their lives to the study and unwavering exploration of tea.
In around 2009 I began to learn about tea (specifically Chaozhou gong fu cha) from the San Francisco-based tea scholar (and excellent guqin master) David Wong at his then nascent Tranquil Resonance Studio. Working with a tea shop just down the hill in Chinatown and trying to survive the rigors of an attempted Masters/PhD in East Asian History at UC Berkeley, I entered David’s tutelage already “well-steeped” in tea. However, David’s approach to tea (and the path he would take me down) forced me to re-evaluate everything that I knew about the subject, redirecting me towards the historical source of gong fu cha and relying on knowledge of practices that had been handed-down from teacher-to-teacher, often absent from or only hinted at through the canonical texts in tea scholarship.
Along with making me recognize the irrelevance of time an temperature to tea (a topic I will most certainly write about), David exposed me to the importance the arrangement of tea leaves played on producing the perfect brew. Literally going though pounds of tea at his studio in order to get the right flavor, he showed me how the simple act of putting tea leaves into a teapot can have a lasting effect on the end result. From how the leaves are arranged to how the water hits the leaves to how the leaves expand and tumble in the teapot will all determine the flavors of the final brew. Part art and part science, to recognize this was and is the core to understanding the concept of “gong fu cha”.
So why arrange tea leaves? Who has time for that?
In what is probably the earliest mention of tea in a written text, the “Tong Yue (童约)”, written by Wang Bao in 59 BCE during the Western Han dynasty, the author mentions a contract with a servant in which said servant (who was specifically to come from the Bashu area, Sichuan province today, then one of the most prominent centers for tea) was to both procure and brew tea. Probably before this time, but certainly from this time onward, in China, for the well-heeled classes, brewing of tea was almost always done by a servant.
(IMAGE: Grinding Tea Leaves by Southern Song dynasty artist Liu Songnain (1155-1218), National Palace Museum, Taipei)
Evidence of the role of the servant (whether a slave, an apprentice, or acolyte) can be seen in many painted depictions of tea gatherings. Tea, although consumed by figures central to these paintings, is brewed often off to the side. In this preparation space, one usually sees a kettle brewing (the look and function of which changes throughout the centuries) and brewing implements, from ewers to tea bowls, grinding stones to eventually teapots. It was in this side register, in a space often out-of-view from those drinking the tea, that the art of gong fu cha was diligently practiced.
(IMAGE: Tasting Tea by Ming dynasty artist Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), National Palace Museum, Taipei)
Given the amount of time and attention paid to the preparation, the leaves would have definitely been dealt with a great deal of care (as evidenced through the volumes of texts dedicated to them and their brewing). As tea brewing practices shifted from grinding tea bricks and whipping the powder into a foamy brew (still done in Japanese tea ceremony with matcha or enjoyed in Korea via malcha) to brewing the actual full leaves from the Ming dynasty onward, how one arranged one’s tea leaves in the brewing vessel became more important. Concurrent to this was the explosion of different varieties of tea that were becoming popular, ranging from the various twisted Wuyi yancha (that had become popular by the Song dynasty) to the rolled Tiekuanyin oolong, flattened Longjing green tea, and diverse forms of pu-erh teas (many of which would only become widely popular towards the late Ming and Qing dynasties). With each tea form came a new challenge as each tea leaf would unravel and expand in its own way. Thus came a need to address how one would arrange the leaves to produce the very best brew.
Brewing the “BEST” Da Hong Pao
As a tea drinker, I began to enjoy really fine Wuyi yancha when I was in college. By this point I was already a drinker of many teas, including pu-erh, hongcha (“red tea”, the Chinese name for what is known as black tea in the West), and all sorts of green teas. I even had a dedicated yixing teapot for my favorite tea at that time: Lishan high mountain oolong. Happening upon the Wuyi rock teas (“yancha”) introduced me to new flavors and a new challenge.
With a yancha, the leaves are twisted (an older style of crafting a tea leaf). Because of this, the vessel required to brew them should be flatter since leaves like this will want to expand outward (think of a spring uncurling horizontally). For this reason, yancha can be brewed best in squatter-shaped teapots and gaiwan. When it came time for me to decide upon a teapot for Wuyi yancha, I first chose a low-draft, pear-shaped pot. When I eventually began to specialize in more particular teas in this category, I chose a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot for the famed Da Hong Pao (“大红袍”, “Big Red Robe”).
As noted, the shape of this teapot is well-suited for this tea: its squat, wide, and the mouth of the teapot (the opening where both the tea leaves and water enter) is wide enough to accommodate the often large tea leaves of the famous tea. Likewise, in the case of this teapot, the clay is thick enough to keep the temperature relatively high (as Da Hong Pao tends to want a higher heat sustained for a longer time).
(IMAGE: Delicately arranging each leaf of Da Hong Pao with a pair of chopsticks)
When arranging these leaves it is important to keep them horizontal, so as to take advantage of the shape of the pot. In the case of today’s brewing, I tediously sorted every leaf used, arranging them on a cloth from largest to smallest (choosing not to use some of the very smallest of leaves… sorry small leaves… I promise I’ll use you later). After this, I used a pair of pointed chopsticks to arrange the leaves in the teapot (I had pre-warmed the teapot for those who are curious to know).
(IMAGE: The “pattern” produced by each leaf carefully arranged one on top on another)
The arranging of the tea leaves was an incredibly mindful act. Each leaf was stacked in a way to ensure they opened to create a weave-like network, allowing each their own space and making sure not to create points where leaves above would limit the expansion of those below. The resulting “pattern” was similar to something like a game of Jenga, with layers of leaves above placed perpendicular to those below (with slight variation at times given the natural irregularity of the leaves).
To be specific, the tea was a purported Qi Dan Da Hong Pao (奇丹大紅袍), a Da Hong Pao that is certified to have come from the original location of cultivation within the Wuyi natural preserve in Fujian Provence. The water used was a filtered and boiled New York City-available tap (being very honest here). The result was exquisite.
The flavor was what I wanted in a Da Hong Pao. Only slightly roasty, no hint of charcoal like most modern interpretations of this tea. Spicy but also floral, with notes of sandalwood, carob, and something akin to rose water. What stood out most of all was how thick the mouth feel on this tea was. The finish lasted for hours!
(IMAGE: The final result: a beautiful brew of Da Hong Pao enjoyed in a Meiji-period blue-and-white teacup)
Having had this tea under less-fastidious means, I could easily note the marked difference that the leaf arranging had on the brewing. Looking into the teapot revealed the truth behind this: the leaves were evenly unfurled, curling and untwisting at the same rate. In taste, this meant no sour or bitter notes, just a clean and direct flavor that was both complex and distinct. Prepared this way, with no corners cut, resulted in what I can easily say was a tea brewed to the best of my abilities.