In our third and final part of the Tea Master Class, we delve into the preparation of the global beverage and then take a trip into various cultures and their ceremonies of appreciation!
Simply, Tea is made by steeping leaves in hot water. This is traditionally made either by placing loose leaves directly into a tea cup or pot or by using a Tea Infuser or modernly by using Tea Bags. Freshly boiled water is then poured over the tea leaves, and the tea is allowed to steep (or ‘brew’). After a few minutes, the leaves are separated from the liquid either by removing the tea bag / tea infuser, or by straining the tea as it is poured. Increasing the strength of the tea should be done by increasing the amount of tea that is used, rather than increasing the time that the tea is allowed to brew for.
For best results, do ensure that the tea cup or pot have been warmed using hot water before adding the tea and water, in order to ensure that the water is not too quickly cooled by the cup or pot before brewing the tea.
Water should always be boiled, as the boiling process reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. The oxygen can react with phenols in the tea, thus affecting the taste.
The optimum brewing time and temperature depend on the type of tea. Camellia sinensis naturally contains tannins. These tannins form the bitter flavours of the tea, which are brought out by both temperature and steeping time. These tannins are enhanced by the oxygen in the water.
Teas that are higher in tannins are normally served stronger with milk such as Oolong, black and post-fermented teas, which softens the flavours of the tannins. For this reason, the stronger teas are brewed for longer, and with a higher temperatures (approaching 100°C), which releases the tannins better. Teas with flavours that are more delicate, such as white and green teas, are brewed at lower temperatures (65 to 85°C) for shorter periods of time, in order to ensure that the delicate flavours are not overpowered by the tannins. These are not served with milk.
Some types of tea are brewed more than once. In China, historically, tea is divided into a number of infusions. The first infusion is discarded as soon as it is brewed. Further infusions are drunk. The exact number of infusions that can be made out of each type of tea is different, though the third to fifth infusions are considered to be the best in most circumstances.
|Tea Type||Water Temperature||Steeping time||Infusions|
|White tea||65 to 70°C||1 to 2 minutes||3|
|Yellow tea||70 to 75°C||1 to 2 minutes||3|
|Green tea||75 to 80°C||1 to 2 minutes||4 to 6|
|Oolong Tea||80 to 85°C||2 to 3 minutes||4 to 6|
|Black tea||99°C||2 to 3 minutes||2 to 3|
|Flowering tea||100°C||2 to 3 minutes||4 to 5|
|Post-fermented tea||95 to 100°C||Limitless||Several|
|Tisanes||99°C||3 to 6 minutes||Varied|
Tea Etiquette & Culture
Almost every country in the world where there is a significant history of tea drinking has a culture surrounding the tea, each with their own rituals and etiquette. Some of the more famous rituals surrounding tea are the Japanese Tea ceremony, and British afternoon tea, but these are by no means the only ones. Let us delve deeper into some of them.
The Japanese tea ceremony is much more than just making tea. It is a ceremony that has become a spiritual experience that embodies harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. It varies as an experience from a small intimate ceremony lasting about half an hour, to a full three course meal lasting up to about 4 hours.
The host will often prepare for hours, ensuring that all the gestures and movements are as refined as possible, and look simple in every detail. It can be held in the home, on a special tea room, in a tea house, or even outdoors.
The guests may stay in a waiting room (machiai) before the ceremony begins. They then walk across roji (Japanese for dewy ground) symbolically ridding themselves of the dust of the world. The host greets each guest with a silent bow. They will finally wash their hands and face in a stone basin as a last purifying step.
Guests remove their shoes, then enter the tea house/room through a small door, so that they are forced to bow as they enter. They are free to examine any equipment or scroll work in the room before sitting in order of prestige, kneeling on their calves, in the traditional Japanese style. Once all the guests have arrived, the closing of the door with an audible movement will alert the host, who will enter, and silently bow to each of the guests in turn.
The ceremony itself begins with the cleaning of the utensils. The tea bowl, tea whisk, and tea scoop are all cleaned in front of the guests in a precise order, and using pre-described, graceful movements, and places them in a specific arrangement and orientation, depending on the particular ceremony being performed. Then the host prepares the tea.
The host then presents the tea bowl to the most senior guest, and they bow to each other. The guest will bow to the second guest, rotate the bowl so that they are not drinking out of the front of it, then take a sip from the tea. He/she will then compliment the host of the quality of the tea. After a few more sips, he/she will wipe the side of the bowl, and pass it to the next most senior guest, who will repeat the gestures, but will not speak. Once all of the guests have drunk from the same bowl, the guests each have a chance to examine the bowl, before it is returned to the host.
The host will once again ceremonially cleanse all the equipment. The most senior guest may ask the host to examine the utensils on behalf of all of the guests. They are passed around, and handled very delicately, as they are often priceless, irreplaceable antiques. Usually there will be a special cloth for the guests to hold the utensils in to reduce the chance of damaging them.
This is the most basic of ceremonies, and the ceremony can be different depending on the school of tea making to which the host is a member, the time of year, the time of day, venue, and other considerations, and many are much more formal, and much longer than the simple ceremony described above.
In Japan, there are certificates that are awarded to people who have mastered the techniques (temae) for guest behaviour, how to enter and exit a tea room, when to bow, making the tea, the correct handling and cleaning of the utensils and equipment etc. Students at one of the many schools for learning the tea ceremony can spend their whole lives in the study and perfection of this art. It’s significance is not to be overlooked.
The British Afternoon Tea is a meal that traditionally falls the gap between lunch and dinner. This meal was originally made popular in the early 19th century by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, however as the working day has changed, the traditional afternoon tea has become more of a treat than a regular occurrence for most people.
There is a little confusion between what is Afternoon Tea (which used to be referred to as low tea) and what is called High Tea. High Tea was served on high tables, and normally was the evening meal for the lower classes at the time. It was a substantial hearty affair, for the manual workers to regain their strength and energy after a hard day’s work.
By contrast, Afternoon Tea was served on low lounge tables. It was, and still is, made up of sandwiches, cakes and scones, accompanied by tea. In the traditional way, the tea would be served first, normally from a pot made with loose leaf tea, and strained as it is poured. The sandwiches would be served first, then the scones (accompanied by butter, jam, and clotted cream), and finally the cakes to round off the meal. You might get all of these items served at the same time on a stand, but you should always enjoy them in the traditional order, thus moving from the most savoury to the most sweet.
When enjoying tea in the UK, predominantly black tea is served, and is often accompanied with milk. Purists would say that Earl Grey tea (which is a black tea that contains the oil of the bergamot orange) should be served with lemon rather than milk.
There is some debate about whether the milk should be added to the cup first, or if it should be added to the tea after the tea has been poured. There are two theories about where this distinction came from. For those with a defined palate, there might be some cooking of the milk if a small amount of cold milk is added to a hot tea, which could denature the enzymes in the first few drops of milk, and thus change the flavour of the tea. Therefore, by adding the milk first you are slightly more slowly adding the hot tea to the cold milk, bringing the milk more gently up to the temperature of the tea, and more evenly heating the milk as the hot tea is poured into it.
The second theory comes from the quality of the china that could be afforded by the different classes. The upper classes could afford thin bone china, which was more susceptible to cracking if the hot tea was poured directly into a cold cup and was also more affected by brown staining if the tea was poured unadulterated into it. The lower classes could not afford such finely crafted china, and had thicker porcelain which was more resilient to the rapid heating, and the use of tea bags made adding milk first lead to a poor cup of tea, so milk was added afterwards.
For Afternoon Tea, you should always try for the best tea that you can, and we would recommend a loose leaf tea in a pot. With this in mind, we would suggest that the milk goes into the cup first, then the tea poured into it, but really this a matter of personal preference and habit than anything else.
Once the tea has been poured, and the sugar added (if you are inclined to add sugar), the tea should be stirred. Scientifically, the most effective way of stirring is to use a side-to -side (or front-to-back) motion, as this increases the amount of force, and will help to most effectively mix the contents of the cup. This should be done with the least amount of noise possible, and once the tea is fully mixed, and the sugar dissolved, then the spoon should be removed from the tea cup, allowed to drip dry, and then replaced on the saucer. You should not tap the spoon against the side of the cup, as this will make a noise, but more importantly could chip the cup.
Like Japan, China has developed a formal tea ceremony. Called ‘Gongfu Cha’, it literally translates to ‘making tea with effort’, and originated around the 18th century. Although the ceremony has two possible points of origin within the country (Fujian and Chaoshan), it seems that the ceremony was more successfully integrated into consciousness and daily life in Chaoshan, so this has been more widely adopted as the home of the ceremony.
The emphasis of the ceremony is making a good cup of tea, so the methods used are practised repeatedly until they are perfected. However, the technique is not the only factor in making a good brew. Water chemistry and temperature also form essential elements of the ceremony.
The water used should not be too soft (as this would produce a ‘flat’ tea) but should not be too hard either (as the flavour of the minerals in the water could alter the flavour of the tea). Additionally, the water should not have a bad taste or smell either. Normally, local spring water is used, but if that is unavailable, then bottled spring water is a suitable substitute.
The temperature of the water depends on the type of tea used. Normally this is either Oolong tea, or a post-fermented tea (such as Pu-erh tea). Green tea is not often used. Please see above for the typical temperatures for brewing these types of tea.
- ‘Warming the pot and heating the cups’: The cups and pot are placed on the table, and are warmed and sterilised with hot water. Excess water is then discarded.
- ‘Appreciate excellent tea’: The dry tea is examined and its appearance, smell, and other characteristics are examined and politely commented upon by all those participating in the ceremony.
- ‘The black dragon enters the palace’: The tea is placed into the pot. (This term is most specifically used with Oolong tea, as the Chinese translation of WuLong is black dragon).
- ‘Rinsing from an elevated pot’: The tea pot is placed into a catching bowl, then the water, which has been heated to the appropriate temperature, is poured from some height into the pot, until the pot overflows.
- ‘The spring wind brushes the surface’: Any debris or bubbles that have formed are gently removed (ensuring that the tea is not also removed) from the surface before the lid is placed onto the pot.
- ‘Bathe the immortal twice’: The first brew of the tea is discarded into the cups. There is some debate as to whether this should done instantly, or whether the tea should be allowed to steep for a short time first.
- ‘A row of clouds, running water’. The First brew, which has been poured off, is left un-drunk in the cups.
- ‘Direct again the pure spring’ or ‘Pouring again from a low height’: The pot is refilled with hot water until the water reaches the mouth of the pot. It is important to make the distinction between the first pour from a height (where the height of the water helps to force the impurities from the tea before its first drinkable brew) and the second pour from a low height (where the flavour of the tea is not forced form the leaves too quickly). This is the principal of ‘high to rinse, low to pour’
- 刮沫淋盖: Again, bubbles that have formed on the surface of the tea are removed, then the lid is once again put on the top of the pot. The tea from the first brew is then emptied over the outside of the pot. Allow the tea to infuse before starting to pour.
- The tea is poured evenly. This does not only refer to the volume of the tea that each guest is given, but also ensuring that each guest gets the same quality of tea. The tea at the top of the pot may be slightly cooler, then the tea at the bottom, and the last dregs of the tea from the pot will be more strongly infused than the tea in the first seconds of the pour, closest to the spout. In the Chinese style, the cups are poured in a circular motion in order to ensure that each part of the tea from the pot is evenly shared amongst the guests. In the Taiwanese style, the tea is first poured into a tea pitcher before being served so that the tea can mix before it reaches the cups.
- ‘Bathing the scent cup’: In the Taiwanese ceremony, the aroma of the tea is as valued as the taste of the tea, and for that reason, the aroma is captured in a scent cup. The tea is poured into the scent cup to infuse it with the flavour of the tea.
- ‘The dragon and the phoenix in auspicious union’: In a ritualised action akin to a prayer, the larger tea cup is balanced upside down over the scent cup.
- ‘The carp turns over’: Both the tea cup and the scent cup are inverted, so that the tea cup (now on the bottom) contains the tea, and the scent cup (now on the top) stops the aroma from escaping.
- ‘Respectfully receive the fragrant tea’: the scent cup is lifted, allowing the guest to enjoy the aroma of the tea, before drinking the tea from the drinking cup. Ideally, the drinker should finish off the tea in three sips: the first a small one, the second the main one, and the third as an after taste.
End of the ceremony
- The used leaves are put into a bowl for the guests to appreciate. The guests should make a comment about the good choice of the tea.
- Brewed tea leaves should not remain in the pot after the ritual. The pot must be thoroughly cleaned and rinsed with hot tea.
- Utensils must be sterilised in hot water.
- One the pot has been rinsed in hot tea, the outside of the pot should be polished with a cloth.
- A clay pot should never be washed with detergents or soap.
- The tea pot must me allowed to dry naturally
- The utensils and serving cups should be allowed to air dry.
In Myanmar, the social activities revolve around the many tea shops, which form the heart of the community, not only as a place to get tea, but as a meeting point, a place to hang out, or to pass the time. Tea is accompanied by a vast array of snacks influenced by the west, China and India.
Myanmar is also a rarity in that tea is not only drunk as an infusion, but also eaten. It is served pickled with various accompaniments, and is called Iahpet. On special occasions it is eaten as part of a snack or at the end of a meal. It is normally served in a compartmented dish with its accompaniments. On less formal occasions it can be served as a basis of a salad that is served throughout Myanmar.
Rest of the World
In almost every culture, there is a way of drinking tea that is unique to the people in that area, from the strongly brewed black teas brewed in Russia, to the green tea with mint served in Morocco, and encompassing all kinds of other additions (Thai Iced tea, Taiwanese Bubble tea, Indian Masala Chai have all become increasingly popular all over the world). It would be almost impossible to list them all, we will come back to Tea around the world in a later series, or perhaps at one of our events!
It is difficult to overestimate the spread of tea across the world, or to overstate the importance of this infusion and its significance to the world’s population. For the Perfect Gentleman, it is surely as complex a topic as wine, and knowledge of some of the peculiarities of tea, its origins, and its surrounding cultures are a sure sign of a cultured individual.