The Chinese and Japanese have for centuries maintained ceremonial tea rooms where the art of drinking the beverage is central to many people's lives. Famous 16th-century tea-master Sen Rikyu identified the four basic principles of what he called the "Way of Tea" as harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. He described them as "the highest ideals of humanity, and where it is important to reflect on them for one's spiritual growth". Historically, the tea ceremony is also in part designed to focus mental energies and encourage relaxation while enjoying a very ancient tradition.
Serving and drinking tea play a major cultural role in China. The word "ceremony" does not imply that each server will perform the ritual the same way, and there are no religious connotations. Each step is designed as a sensory exploration and an appreciation, so much so that the event often inspires poetry and music. Mutual love of tea cements lifelong friendships, a concept usually beyond the grasp of foreigners. Such friendships developed among the ancient Chinese aristocracy, court officials, intellectuals and poets just as much as among ordinary people.
Unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, the Chinese version emphasizes the tea rather than the event itself, focus being on what the tea tastes like, smells like, and how one tea's taste compares with others for example the preceding tea or a whole range which has been consumed during successive servings. Servers perform the ceremony with a grace that is both stylish and artistic.
Small is Beautiful
Chinese-style tea-drinking calls for the use of small cups which match tiny, unglazed clay teapots. Each cup contains just two "swallows" of tea. Before it is poured, both teapot and cups are cured. A good amount of tea is placed in the pot with tweezers, when along with the cups it is washed in special bowls already filled with hot tea. This "seals" the cups with the tea's resins. Prior to serving, only water that is actually boiling is poured into the teapots, which are filled to overflowing. Any lesser heat would fail to draw out the true flavors of tea leaves during the "mashing" process. For hygienic reasons as much as tradition, teapots and cups are not touched by hand when being washed. Again, tweezers are used.
Equal in importance to the ceremony itself is its actual setting, and the suitability of the room in which it is held. Overall, "style" is paramount. Genuine tea-rooms are built to a strict formula, emphasis going to the creation of a warm and inviting atmosphere. It is important that guests feel comfortable and "right" in themselves. Activities are to the background of relaxing music.
Initially, about one-third of the teapots' capacity is for the tea leaves. This seems over-generous, but the water will need to be topped up many times during the ceremony. The tea is left to mash, or brew, for about five minutes before serving begins. If the very expensive, upscale Pu-erh tea is used,it should be brewed for only three minutes before being placed in the special washing bowls with the cups. This will remove any residual fermented taste. Pu-erh tea can provide between 10 and 20 infusions before it loses its flavor.
Those in charge of the ceremonies know that some green teas are lightly fermented, while red varieties can be moderately or heavily fermented. Thus they take special account of the variations to ensure the eradication of any residual taste when the switch is made to another type of tea.
Sniffing for Perfection
Included in some ceremonies is a process where the tea is poured into special "sniffing" cups made from porcelain. These are filled with tea, left to stand a while, then the tea is poured away. Guests then sniff the tea's aroma in the empty cup. So attuned is an expert's nose that he or she can tell when and where the tea was grown, and whether it is a good "vintage". The process is little different to a wine-tasting session.
If you attend a tea ceremony, never gulp your tea or swallow it in one go. Etiquette demands that you gently sip it through the lips and teeth, creating a slight hissing sound. The sniffing and drinking of tea, and its numerous servings, can take over an hour ? time for the chatting which is so integral to a tea ceremony. How do you know that a true tea-master is running the show? Simply by the fact that each round of tea should taste exactly the same.
Correct Water the Key
The water used in a tea ceremony is as important as the brewed tea itself. Any chlorine or fluoride in tap water should be filtered out because they distort the tea's flavor. Distilled water makes "flat" tea and should be avoided. Experts say the ideal should have an alkaline pH (literally hydrogen power) of around 7.9. High mineral content brings out the richness and sweetness of green teas, which are sometimes ruined if the water is ultra-boiling. For these teas generally, the water temperature should be 170-185 degrees F. Oolong teas made with hot rather than boiled water are fragrant, thus widely popular in China.