Tea party can be quite an adventure, and in February I hosted quite a few: in Maribor, Ljubljana, Koper, and Škofja Loka (all being Slovenian cities). I’ve had the chance to share my passion for tea with almost sixty people – from complete beginners to dedicated aficionados.
Teaware I use
I bought the teaware that I’m using now at a tea market in Kunming a couple of years ago. We looked at a few shops that Roman had dealt with before. I was searching for something functional and aesthetically attractive. The table had to be big enough to ensure a comfortable tea party experience for at least six people. It had to be dark in color and light on carvings. It had to have an easy-to-handle tray for water disposal. I never liked the hose-and-bucket approach. It took some time but I found it. I told the owner that I also needed the full tea set including gaiwan, cups, pitchers, filters, and tongs, and so I was able to get everything for a very reasonable price. When I got back home, I just added a small kettle for hot water and a cup for used leaves. Voilà: my teaware is ready!
I’m quite flexible in terms of which teas I can bring, but I usually try to cover a wide range including green, wulong, black, pu’er, and some herbs. Besides the five flavors from the current Daoli selection, I bring some new teas that we are hoping to introduce in a few months: liuan guapian, dahongpao, dongfangmeiren, and shuixian. In the end, I put together a selection of about ten flavors. That’s usually enough tea to keep people happy for several hours. When we hand-pick our tea in China, we always make sure that there are no aritficial flavorings. Golden Trip is the only scented tea that we have. Its strong and distinct combination of ginseng and licorice provides a good starting point for beginners who are used to teas flavored artificially with vanilla, cherry, black currant, etc. Golden Trip can provide a smooth transition to the authentic taste of pure tea leaves. I usually get positive feedback, especially from people who want to know more about the culture of tea drinking.
Interestingly, most beginners assume that black and green tea come from different plants. I’ve had a few heated debates on this subject. I do my best to convince them, but sometimes people get a bit stubborn and it’s easier to let it slide. Another kind of trolling occurs when someome begins to preach about the benefits of adding milk or simply using flavored teas. It can become a hassle. Some value speed and convenience while others search for wisdom in traditions. Preparation of good Chinese tea with a proper toolset is a highly enjoyable process. Gather your friends and colleagues around a tea table and the conversation will surely continue into the night. One doesn’t need to know every single detail about a certain tea to enjoy it. In fact, I’ve realized a while ago that I’ve got a lot to learn myself, and I’m more than happy to listen to others sharing their ideas about different teas and the culture of tea drinking in general.
About tea leaves and water
I always use gaiwan to make tea and it is very interesting to observe the guests who are used to tea bags and paper filters. Handy as they might seem, tea bags are a poor choice when it comes to high-quality teas. One of the key factors in making a good cup of tea is to ensure that tea leaves are fully immersed and “bathe” freely in water. This can only be achieved if there is enough space for the leaves to open up. With every consecutive brew, tea leaves free up more of their essence. For many good teas it is common to yield between ten and twenty brews. This process can be quite engaging and dedicated tea drinkers eventually develop the ability to distinguish the finest nuances of various flavors and brews.
Dianhong and timing
I was surprised when I saw that a couple of experienced tea drinkers were making dianhong (black tea from Yunnan) in a wrong way. There is one simple rule: steeping should last seconds, not minutes. After several minutes of brewing even the best black tea can turn into a bitter mess. Dianhong really shouldn’t be strong like coffee. I brew dianhong for half a minute and serve it right away. When I see my friends’ faces lighting up, I know I made a decent cup of tea. A properly brewed dianhong has spectacular fragrance and has a subtle flavor of dried fruit. My favorite brews are second and third. Later steepings can last up to one minute. Towards the fifth brew, the taste of dried fruit fades away, and that’s when I like to add some chocolate to the equation.
Tea and snacks
If you are only trying out a couple of samples then there’s no need to bring food to the table. However, after a couple of hours of brewing and chatting it is common to start feeling hungry. It isn’t easy to find the right snack for wulong and green teas. Anything too salty or sweet can overwhelm the taste of tea. More oxidized wulongs combine well with neutral snacks like almonds or cashews. As for black tea, I usually serve it at the very end. It goes very well with cookies and other sweets. My personal favorite is chocolate. Actually, I think it’s a perfect match for Yunnan black tea.
Tea Party as a lesson
Sometimes I feel like making a cup of tea all by myself, without any distractions around. Making tea can even become a form of meditation. The true master, however, understands the benefit of sharing tea with others. I like the spark of excitement in the beginners’ eyes when they pour hot water into gaiwan for the first time. I love sharing brewing strategies and impressions about different teas with like-minded drinkers. Hosting a tea party is no longer a routine but a vivid interaction that gives birth to new ideas and friendships. The most valued experience, however, comes from making tea for true experts. The praise is always welcome, of course, but it is the criticism that inspires me to learn more and further work on my tea gongfu.