Monday, June 10, 2013

Tea Class

Pouring Tea
We are both tea people—tea snobs, possibly.  Excellent tea was one of the things we left behind on our journey.  We haven’t had access to actual tea, even in teabag form, for most of the trip—there are a lot of hot drinks around the world that are called tea but have nothing to do with leaves from a tea plant.  We knew that Hong Kong was one of the best places to seek out some truly spectacular tea, so we did our best to find some. The recommendations we found were to visit somewhere called LockCha Tea Shop, so we took ourselves there on our first morning in town. After tasting four different kinds of teas and then buying some (yeah, we know, we don’t buy stuff), when our tea sommelier told us about a tea appreciation class that was available at the Museum of Tea Wares, we signed up on the spot.
Outside the tea house, they had a section of tea plants growing, which were quite pretty.
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When we took our seats, we saw this interesting tea tray, as well as a selection of loose tea leaves, two Yixing pots, and an army of electric kettles.  The tea tray has a wooden grille in the surface, and a plastic reservoir below it, that collects hot water and tea that is intentionally spilled into it as part of the tea service. 
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Tea tray
She told us a little about tea, and gave us a mnemonic for remembering the six types of Chinese tea: “think of a panda (black, white) eating bamboo (green-ish), while waiting at a stoplight (red, yellow and green).”  Except for white and green, her terms are a little different from western descriptions of tea.  In her taxonomy, black tea is pu-erh, which is somewhat unusual in the US (especially in bag teas), and definitely an acquired taste.   Green-ish is oolong, a partially fermented tea, and yellow is similar to oolong, but kept damp longer, so it is only lightly fermented.   Red is what westerners think of as black tea—the tea leaves are black, but the tea it produces is red colored.  She didn't brew white or yellow teas for us, and she didn’t even talk about white, aside from the 6 types discussion, which was interesting.  Apparently yellow tea is pretty rare now, though it was quite popular in China before the tea trade with the west took off.
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Preheating a Yixing clay pot
Our tea master mostly brewed teas in a gaiwan, the lidded cup she is pouring from in the first picture.  The tea leaves are completely loose inside that, and when the tea is ready, it is decanted into another container, with the lid acting as a strainer, keeping the leaves in the gaiwan.  For a few of the special teas, she used Yixing clay pots instead (the one she’s pouring into in the picture above).  More on that later.
She brewed all but the green tea for mere seconds, producing a very tasty tea that needed no sweetening whatsoever--and that's saying something for David, as he has a serious sweet tooth.  This was especially true of the oolong, which tasted wonderful.   She preheated the pot or gaiwan cup, by filling it to overflowing with hot water, and then dumping the plain water through the grille in the tea tray.  Then she added tea leaves, filling the gaiwan about 1/5 full with tea, added hot water, put the gaiwan lid on, paused for less than ten seconds, and then poured the brewed tea out.  She would re-steep the same tea leaves between 5 and 8 times, depending on the tea.  The oolong tasted the best around the third and fourth steeping--she actually discarded the first steep of the oolong, as she said that first steep was just to wake up the leaves.
Because the brewed tea flavor changes with each steeping, she was pouring the gaiwan into a larger “fairness” jug, which would blend the flavors of the multiple steeps, ensuring everyone who was served got a similar quality taste.  One thing she did mention for re-steeping is that it was very important to drain the leaves as completely as possible--she'd hold the pot or gaiwan upended and give it six or so shakes to get the last drips out.  She said that any water remaining will just sit there steeping, and when you add new hot water, the whole batch will be bitter.

In an aside, she mentioned that you could brew green tea with cold water for a great iced tea; just combine green leaves and cold water, and leave in the fridge overnight, then decant/remove the leaves.  It’s not something we have the equipment to try, but we’re looking forward to it in the future.  We wish we'd had another hour to pick her brain--it was obvious that there were tangents in every discussion that she didn't have time to pursue.
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Pouring from a glass fair jug; the white pitcher in the center foreground is another, and the lidded pot directly over the grille of the tea tray is a gaiwan.

She brewed  two of the special oolong teas in Yixing clay pots.  Traditionally, you would only brew one specific variety of tea in a pot—that pot would be reserved for that exact tea, as the flavor of the tea leaches into the porous clay interior, and affects the flavor of subsequent batches.  She mentioned that her father would occasionally run out of tea leaves for one of his favorite teas, and when that happened, he would simply add hot water to the empty pot, and steep the empty pot, to get a perfectly acceptable cup of tea from the accumulated flavor in the pot.  Note that a perfectly acceptable cup of tea—even from leaves—would never be the dark brown you’d get from steeping a western tea bag for 5 minutes, it is a very pale yellow, with a complex flavor and absolutely no bitterness.  Certainly not something you would dilute with milk (milk was not something she even mentioned—I can imagine the tangent she’d take if someone had suggested it!).

If you ever find yourself in Hong Kong and can fit it in, we highly recommend taking the class. It’s really interesting, even if you’re not tea snobs like us. One bonus is that the location of the class is just next door to the Museum of Tea Wares, which houses a beautiful selection of tea pots, tea trays, and even some very ancient tea cakes (pu-erh teas are like wine—better as they age). It’s also a great place to get a better understanding of the tea plant, it’s history and it’s properties.  And then once you’ve whetted your appetite, saunter next door to Lock Cha for a tea class, or even just go there for afternoon tea if you don’t have time for the class. You have to sign up ahead of time, but you can ask your hotel to make the reservation for you. Best part of the whole thing—it’s free. You have to pay for your entrance into the Museum of Tea Wares if you decide to go there (and we highly recommend you do), but the tea appreciation class costs you nothing. And in a city like Hong Kong, you can’t get a better bargain than that.