I stopped drinking tea in bags pretty much as soon as I moved to China a few years ago. At first, it was more of a necessity, since the only places where I could get bagged tea were huge super markets where I don’t go unless I really have to.
Farewell to bags
My very first tea bag alternative was an extremely convenient plastic cup with a built-in metal filter. I was a freshman at the Yunnan TCM Institute at that time, and I saw many of my classmates bring teas and home-made potions in plastic cups like that. So I got one too and ended up using it for all kinds of stuff: chrysanthemum, tieguanyin, black, etc. The fact that plastic retained some smell from previous brews didn’t bother me at first, but as I was learning to appreciate tea, I eventually realised that it was time to move on and find something more reasonable.
I looked around and realised that for most Chinese that I knew personally (teachers from the institute and medical workers of the affiliated hospital) the next most popular choice would be a simple glass jar with a common screw-on metal lid, like those used for packing jam or pickled cucumbers. People just throw tea in it and add hot water every now and then. Despite its seeming authenticity, this method just didn’t feel right, so I decided to keep looking and soon got myself a few ceramic three-piece mugs.
Teaware: Going ceramic
Those mugs are great! The mugs themselves are big enough to yield a decent amount of tea in one go. They have filters that are easy to handle and lids that allow some basic temperature control. They are made of clay, so I don’t burn my lips and can enjoy the natural feel of the cup’s texture. The downside is, of course, the fragility and the fact that the filters usually have fairly big holes, so a lot of small leaf fragments get into the tea and somewhat ruin the experience. I knew all about gaiwans and the gongfu tea tools, but at that time I still preferred the feeling of a big cup of tea in my hands. So, for another couple of years, I chose convenience over perfection.
Teaware: Moving on to metal
The next phase in the evolution of my tea making skills started in summer of 2011. I went back to St. Petersburg for several weeks. I hadn’t been home for three years and had a lot catching up to do. Naturally, I brought a lot of tea with me for gifts and personal use. I went to see my best friend first and laid out some tea on the kitchen table. He gave me a benign and somewhat conspiratorial smile and asked me to look inside one of the kitchen drawers. I saw a bunch of teas there, neatly packed in air tight containers and bags. Apparently, I wasn’t the only tea addict in the neighborhood. My friend then produced a small bamboo tea table with some cups and… a thermos flask! It was a small stainless steel thermos made primarily for outdoor use. I felt skeptical at first, but then I saw my friend put some of his own tieguanyin in it, and I got a feeling that he knew what he was doing.
That tieguanyin was pretty good. It was expensive as hell, but it was good! And, honestly, sometimes that’s all that matters. It was a pleasant surprise to see tea culture gaining popularity back home. I loved that thermos right away. It was very sturdy and totally capable of producing good tea. It came with a lid that had two grooves in it, so when I poured the tea it came out very smoothly. The threading kept leaves and most of the smaller fragments inside, so we didn’t even have to use a filter. I bought a thermos like that very soon and served me well for a few months. I still keep it on a shelf in my kitchen with the rest of the teaware, although I almost never use it. The smooth surface inside eventually got covered by a thin layer of tea, so now I should either wash it very well and very often or use it for one kind of tea only. Also, sometimes the leaves inside can block up the small groove and the tea can take ages to pour out. It’s a waste of time and, more importantly, a lot of teas (such as dianhong, my personal favorite) require precise timing and don’t taste that well if they are overdone.
The whole nine yards
That is why I decided to buy a proper tea table with a full set of gongfu tools. I got a fine solid wood table with a metal tray for water disposal. I also acquired some fairly expensive cups and gaiwans to match the beautifully carved table, but soon broke them all and switched to simpler but just as workable teaware. I never bought expensive ware again because I soon realized that it is really the tea that should be the center of my attention and that cups and the gaiwan are nothing but tools. Some people attach equal importance to both, ware and tea. Perhaps one day, I’ll feel that way too… but not just yet.
The advantages of using a full tea set are obvious. First of all, I can make a lot of people very happy, and all I need is some hot water and tea that’s not too bad. Secondly, I can really let my tea shine and appreciate the development of its flavor brew by brew. The only downside is that if I’m hosting a few guests, my hands are busy all the time. But there is a solution. If at a certain point, I want to take some time off, I just ask one of my guests to take over. It’s fun to watch them make and pour tea for the first time. And, in my experience, most people feel very grateful, especially if I guide them through it.
Finding balance in glass
Naturally, I don’t use the full tea set all the time. If I’m alone or having tea with a friend or two, I always use the glass mugs now. Structurally, these mugs are very similar to the ceramic three-piece sets that I described earlier. They also come with glass lids and filters. The filters have very fine slits on the bottom that perform almost as well as the stand-alone filters from the gongfu tool sets. The transparency of the mug somehow makes the tea all the more enjoyable. The obvious disadvantage of using glass ware is that it has to be handled with great care. The mug itself is made of thick glass that can tolerate some minor falls and occasional bumps. The filter, however, is a bit thinner, and I have to take extra care when I let it rest in the lid. It took some time, but I eventually developed a reflex that slows down my hand movement the fraction of a second before I place the filter in the lid.
That’s all, so far. I’ll keep my eyes open. I wonder how I’ll be drinking my tea five years from now ;-)
It’s springtime teaware photoshoot
This post was written by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Kako pripravim čaj in kakšen pribor pri tem uporabim?). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.