In the West, formal tea drinking tends to be centered around grand hotel lobbies or tea-rooms where tea is accompanied by an array of sandwiches and cakes. Sometimes in this process, the tea can become an afterthought as the towers of sweets dominate the visual scene.
Furthermore, when it comes to casual tea at home, we tend to throw a tea bag into a saucer, add hot water and in a few minutes enjoy our steaming brew. If we’ve friends around, perhaps we brew a whole pot. And with black tea, we might even forget the tea itself because we're busy adding sugar or honey and perhaps a splash of milk.
In China, tea-drinking traditions are quite different. While ultimately a social activity, when drinking Chinese tea, one enjoys the fragrance, the color and varying tastes of the tea as the brew grows stronger. Similar to good wine, Chinese teas command different vessels depending on the type of tea. Short-leaf Oolong tea is traditionally brewed in a clay teapot and green teas are best enjoyed in a glass pot.
Aside from the brewing (pot) and drinking (cup) instruments, traditional tea drinking involves a whole set of utensils.
- Scoop, tongs and small scoop for taking dry tea and handling the hot teapot and cups
- Tea tray – a wooden tray with slats on top and an open chamber within in which excess hot water is poured (the chamber can be emptied)
- Teapot – the preferred teapot in China, especially for Oolong teas, are small clay teapots from Yixing (pronounced “ee-shing")
- Glass decanter – a small vessel in which the brewed tea is poured
- Small metal sieve that will fit on the mouth of your decanter preventing loose tea leaves entering the decanter
- Fragrance cup – thimble-shaped, receives the first brewed tea
- Teacup – small cup from which you drink
The following gives you instructions for preparing Chinese tea. This preparation is called gongfu cha. Cha means tea. In this case, we're drinking Oolong tea.
Step 1: Warming the Pot
With hot water (boiled in an electric or stovetop teapot), warm your clay teapot and cups by pouring the water over the pot and cups and emptying into the tray. You may need to use the tongs to lift the cups and empty them.
Step 2: Add Loose Tea
Add tea to the pot. Depending on the variety of tea, the amount will vary. But you won’t need to add too much, perhaps just 5-7 grams. If you’re purchasing tea to take home, be sure to ask how much you should use (it will also depend on the size of your teapot). You can use the small scoop in your tea utensils to ladle your tea from you tea container into your pot.
Step 3: Cleansing the Tea
Whether you need to do this depends on the type and grade of the tea. You should ask the retailer if the tea should be cleansed before drinking. The tea is not dirty in any way, but "cleansing" implies simply pouring hot water on the leaves (especially dark Oolongs like Dahongpao) to wake up the tea - letting the leaves open to reveal their full aroma.
To cleanse, simply pour hot water over the loose tea into the pot. Then pour the water out and over the cups again to maintain the warmth in the cups.
Step 4: Decanting the Tea
Place the sieve onto the decanter. Pour hot water over your loose tea in the teapot again and let brew. Again, the brewing length will depend on the type of tea you’re drinking and you should ask your retailer. Oolongs, for example, have a very short brewing time – a small teapot only requires about 10 seconds. Brewing longer will distort the taste and fragrance of the delicate leaves.
After 10 seconds, pour the tea from the teapot into the decanter.
Step 5: Pouring the Tea
Remove the sieve and pour tea into the thimble-shaped fragrance cup. Place the small teacup over the thimble and then turn upside down. This is how the tea should be served to your guests.
Step 6: Enjoying the Fragrance
You and guests should now remove the fragrance cup which will be sitting inside the teacup. Simply twist the fragrance cup out of the small teacup to allow the tea to inhabit the teacup. Now, appreciate the fragrance of the tea by sniffing the fragrance cup. Don’t be afraid to put your nose in it! You’ll be surprised at how strong the aroma is from this tiny cup. Enjoying the aroma of your tea is the first step in enjoying the taste.
Step 7: Drinking the Tea
Pick up the small teacup and enjoy your tea. Unlike in Japanese tea ceremonies, there’s no proper way to pick up your cup or drink. Simply sit back and enjoy the fine flavor of your chosen Chinese tea.
Step 8: Continue Drinking
As you finish the tea in your decanter, continue to pour hot water onto your tea leaves in your teapot. Remember not to let steep too long and enjoy 3 to 7 pots of your tea. Again, the number of times you can use a batch of tea depends on the type and grade and you should ask your retailer.
You’ll be surprised at how different the tea will taste from the first pot to the last. Like a good wine, the tea will taste different from the first mouthful to the last.
Step 9: Purchasing Tea
A stop into Song Fang Maison de thé in Shanghai is a great way to get introduced to drinking Chinese tea. The friendly staff helps you sample different teas by smelling the different aromas downstairs. After choosing your tea, settle in upstairs for a comfortable rest in the airy open space of the restored lane house in the French Concession. I had the fortune to be taught about Chinese tea culture by the owner who takes great pride in being able to showcase some of China’s best-kept tea-secrets.
All necessary accouterments for enjoying your tea at home can also be purchased on the first floor of Song Fang tea house and many tea shops in China.