The Ancient and Best Way to Brew Loose-Leaf Tea

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An ingenious invention that has been in use in China at least since the earliest days of the Ming dynasty—circa 1350—is the simplest, most satisfying way to enjoy loose-leaf tea. It is decidedly the best way to get the most enjoyment from green teas, for which it was originally developed, though it lends itself to making others also. I speak of the covered cup called a guywan in Mandarin (for a note on the transliterated spelling, see the end of this piece) or chazhong in Cantonese. From the cottage to the palace, handling a guywan is a drinking method as integral to Chinese culture as using chopsticks for eating.

What is a guywan? A brewing vessel and drinking cup in one, which consists of saucer, bowl, and lid that function together. Guywans are no longer hard to find in the U.S., and it's hard to imagine doing without them once you finally acquire one. Use a guywan a time or three and you feel as though you've been handling one all your life.

You unhurriedly watch this ballet of the leaf and see its dissolving juices color the water until after a minute or less you deem it time for a first exploratory sip.

To be brief, simply put a pinch of tea leaf in the cup, pour on the water, and watch the leaves steep. The lid is used to stir the tea, serves as a filter holding back the leaves when you sip, and covers the cup and keeps the liquor warm. You keep sipping and adding water as long as the leaves will yield flavor. These instructions apply to green and white teas, the hardest to brew to perfection: for notes on using a guywan to brew black teas, sea the next page.

The appearance of the tea leaf before, during, and after steeping is highly important to the Chinese. Enough tea for a single cup is heaped in the bottom, where it may be seen to best advantage against the whiteness of the porcelain. This presents, as well, an opportunity for making the leaf's acquaintance through a first smell. Pour maybe half a dozen drops of water on the dry leaf and lift the guywan to your nose to inhale the released aroma. The essence of the tea reveals itself.

Water is not poured directly onto the leaf but onto one side of the guywan, producing a swirl of the leaf in the cup. As the leaves swirl they gradually become saturated, and begin to sink and form a floating forest in the bottom of your cup. You unhurriedly watch this ballet of the leaf and see its dissolving juices color the water until after a minute or less you deem it time for a first exploratory sip, sometimes without waiting for all the leaf to sink.

Handling the guywan is easier to demonstrate than to describe. The cup is never removed from the saucer. If right-handed, place the saucer holding the cup in the palm of your right hand and steady the cup by resting the thumb on its rim. The lid is used as a paddle to stir the liquid away from you. This roils the leaf at the cup's bottom and circulates the tea. To take a sip, place the lid at a slight tilt away from you so that it serves to hold back the leaves, leaving but a hairline crevice to sip through. You hold the lid at this slight angle (the thumb and forefinger of your left hand grasp its round handle) while the right hand under the saucer raises the guywan to your mouth. You sip. All this is less complicated than it sounds. Before long your gestures develop elegance and grace.

Add water before you finish the first cup to keep the tea a-steeping and coax out more and more of the goodness of the leaf. Only when water is added for the third time do you pour it directly into the middle of the infused leaf. This will not swirl the mass of leaf but rather will cause it to invert, bottom to top. Any China tea yields multiple infusions, and one discovers what subtly different tastes emerge from a second, third, and fourth infusion, compared to the first. There's a Chinese saying that the first cup is most fragrant, the second sweetest, and the third strongest. This re-infusing can go on and on and may be repeated as long as the leaf yields flavor.

Alternatively, pour the tea liquor at the moment it is ideally steeped into a waiting pitcher, from which you fill your own and your friends' cups. This avoids all risks of forgetfully over-steeping some great tea—or even some humble everyday quaffing tea. When the tea is special, I like to use the pitcher-pour. But otherwise, truthfully, I take my chances.

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Fine green teas are the least forgiving of all teas to make to perfection. In making such for guests, you must learn to use a single guywan that can be drained at the proper instant into a small pitcher. The thumb goes atop the lid and the fingers support the saucer. You tilt the lid so that it holds back the leaf while you pour off the liquor. Use the pitcher to fill thimble cups. With less exalted green teas, water temperature matters much less. Besides, each person can drink from his own guywan and serving guests is just a matter of replenishing each guywan with hot water as required.

When you prepare black tea, oolong, or Pu-Er in a guywan, you begin by rinsing the leaves. That is, the first water you pour on—well under half the guywan—is immediately drained off and discarded. (Remember that the cup is never removed from the saucer.) You now bring the guywan to your nose and uncover it, breathing in the freshly released aroma of the leaf. Only now that you have inhaled its perfume is water poured on again, to steep. With white or green teas you omit rinsing the leaves and you steep the tea without replacing the lid, to encourage cooling. Pour just a few drops of water on green leaf to release its aroma for you to inhale before infusing. With black, oolong, or Pu-Er teas, I like to use just-boiling water, then cover the cup and allow considerably longer steeping time. These teas are not only less beautiful to watch infuse, but they also taste better hotter. Black tea should almost always be decanted to prevent over-steeping.

A note on spelling:

It's entirely my fault that the name is also spelled "gaiwan." Apparently I became the first round-eye to anglicize the Chinese name for this vessel when I was composing the first in-house menu for the first traditional Chinese tea house in America, Imperial Tea Court, which opened in San Francisco during the summer of 1993. When I saw "gaiwan" in cold print, however, I had second thoughts and opted for "guywan" as preferable spelling. It was too late, alas, and the schism dates from this first need for the term in English.

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James Norwood Pratt's Tea Dictionary was named the Best New Publication of 2010 at the World Tea Expo. He has served as honorary director of Imperial Tea Court and as international juror of India's first-ever tea competition.

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