I began drinking tea at some indefinable moment in my youth. Iced tea (unsweetened) was a staple beverage in our household, quite often made as “sun tea” in the warmer months by putting a 2 or 3 gallon glass jar of water with a handful of Lipton tea bags outside in the morning and ignoring it for the better part of the day. My memory recalls that being a beverage for everyone, whereas “hot tea” and coffee were reserved as forms of “adult beverages” and I in my teens before I had my first cup of either of those. Although Lipton remained our house brand for both hot and iced tea, I developed a preference for Twinings “Irish Breakfast” which has remained to this day – when I find myself presented with a selection of tea bags to pick from that is the one I look for first. During my last two years of high school some of the more technically minded students found our way to the physics lab every morning for a relatively unstructured “association” – the details of just how we organizationally managed to do that escape me now – which in memory seems to have resolved around drinking copious quantities of tea and setting up physics experiments typically involving lasers, fire, or high pressure air.
I believe my first exposure to loose tea was when I was living in Germany and a good friend whom I often visited had a couple of types in her room, and at some point in the evening would always pull them out and make a pot of one or the other. It didn’t taste like anything I had ever had, and I suddenly found myself introduced to the wider world of teas, in particular green tea. I had probably already had it at some point before while at a Chinese restaurant given the ubiquitous custom of green tea being served with a meal, but I had never before sat down and appreciated it on it’s own. Sensing she had a potential convert on her hands, my friend led me into a tea store while we were out shopping one day. The store was memorably simple with it’s name “Der Teeladen” (The Teastore), but it made a deep impression as it was the first time I had ever been in a store where the walls were lined with a seemingly unending selection of loose leaf teas. I was hooked, though on my return to the pre-web US I found it difficult to find loose leaf teas and was back to dunking bags in cups.
A few years later I was visiting another friend in Portland who was dating a barista, and one afternoon he suggested we go out for a coffee. She wasn’t overly enthused having just gotten off her shift at the local coffeeshop we would have been aiming for, and suggested going for tea as an alternative. We found our way to an eclectic tea shop where we were presented with a tea list in the way some restaurants present wine lists. While I was struggling for a choice, the waitress, with the full confidence of a sommelier, took charge and guided me to a small cast iron pot of an exceptional tea. Looking back, I can recrate nearly every nuance of that afternoon with the notable, and critical, exception of what that tea was.
The I ended up in Japan. It was a short notice business trip filling I for a colleague who was suddenly unable to go and my first to Asia, and I landed with no real expectations of what to expect. Among the many experiences of that trip, one that stands out was a day spent in a conference room at the facility I was visiting. Just prior to my arrival they had had an issue with part of the system I was there to observe, and they needed a day or two to get that repaired before they were ready for my visit. Although I would have been perfectly happy to have been waived of for the day and had a chance to do some exploring on my own, the company I was visiting seemed to consider it critically important that I was on-site and looked after during the delay. Their idea of how to do this was to setup a conference room with a video projector showing a seemingly endless loop of trade show promotional videos about their company and products, with a secretary stopping in every half hour or so to see how I was doing. On her second or third time she brought a tray with a flask of hot water, a bowl, a little bamboo whisk, and a green powder. I must have looked suitably confused as she came back in a few minutes later with another bowl and more powder and demonstrated to me how to make a cup of matcha, then demonstrated how to drink it. After that she brought different types of teas with each visit, and in the process gave me my first introduction to Japanese tea. Matcha seemed too cumbersome to me, but I was hooked on the other teas. Not knowing the details I waded into a grocery store the night before I returned home and bought a few packages of what seemed to be mid-grade tea, then stopped by a dollar store for a basic teapot with a strainer like the secretary had used. Thus began my experience with loose leaf brewing….
Since then I have persisted in my casual exploration of tea of all types. While living in England I developed an appreciation for Yorkshire hard water blend – not so much from any nuance of flavor, but from the effort they had gone to blend teas to have the same end flavor with different water types. When living in Japan I made further explorations into the details of what I was drinking, and made my first foray into actually visiting a tea growing area and walking amongst the tea bushes, as well as glimpsed a formal tea ceremony taking place in a pavilion at a park I was visiting.
But it was in China that I gained a true appreciation for tea. Everywhere else I have been, tea has been subjected to a near mythical association with time and temperature. Tea X “steep for 30 seconds in 180 degree water” or tea Y “use 2 grams in a mesh infuser per cup and freshly boild water, then steep for 3-5 minutes” or other guidance along those lines. On my first day in the office in China, one of my colleagues asked if I would like some tea. What he brought me was a paper cup with hot water and a generous pinch of tea leaves in it – certainly not what I was expecting. I asked for a strainer, and instead he instructed me in the art of using teeth and tongue to filter out the leaves while drinking. To my surprise, once finished he topped off my cup, and even after several cups the tea still had plenty of taste and aroma, and when we had finished he took the cups and dumped the leaves into a plastic strainer over a bucket sitting in the corner of the office. This was tea at it’s most basic. A few days later I attended a teahouse with some other colleagues where we enjoyed the more formal “gongfu” style of tea drinking, where a large quantity of tea is brewed for a short time in a very small pot and served in tiny cups. Unlike the near monastic environment of a Japanese tea ceremony, this was a fairly lively occasion as the attributes of the tea were discussed in deceptively great detail, the leaves were sniffed, drips happened during pouring, etc.. – it was like a wine tasting rather than communion.
When visiting a tea producer in Longjin village, I was surprised when they offered a tasting by simply adding a pinch of leaves to a small glass and topping off with hot water. If there was anywhere I would have anticipated would make a big deal of brewing the tea this was it, but instead it seemed casual, almost careless. Only later did I realize they were focused on selling the combination of taste, aroma, and appearance of the tea – and a simple glass is the best way to allow a customer to experience those qualities.
Most noticeable of all, however, was the “other” drinking of tea. Nearly every desk in the office had at least one tin of tea on it, and a hot water tap was never overly far away. While some colleagues had variations on teapots at their desks, the majority of them used what are generally referred to as “tea bottles”. These are basically water bottles with a strainer on top and provide the unconstrained space for the tea leaves to expand and move, yet also keep the leaves separate while drinking. What is most notable about this method though is that the same leaves may well be used for most of a day. It is not a “steep and remove” system, but a continuous brewing system. As the bottle empties, more water is added to top it off, and if the tea starts to loose too much flavor or aroma the old leaves are tossed out and more added. This is tea as a basic beverage – in some ways akin to the sun tea of my youth, in other ways very different. Gone are the constraints of time and temperature, as well as material, size, and shape of the vessels used. This is tea for tea, and not tea for ceremony. It just took me a few years to return to this point.