The Art of Tea
While there is a science to brewing a good cup of tea, there is also an art to it. The ritual of sharing tea with one another has taken place over centuries, and varies from the highly structured tea ceremony of Japan to the frequent opportunities to share a cuppa in Britain.
The Chinese tea ceremony is known as gong fu cha (literally "skillful tea"). It has many forms and variations given its long history and development in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The ceremony is a way of appreciating Chinese teas, brewing them well, and creating a relaxing and enjoyable experience for yourself and others.
The art is in your choices. Below we have listed some of the things you might consider as you sculpt your tea experience. Some of these things you may plan out in advance, but ultimately tea is something to be expressed and experienced in the moment using all of your senses.
What tea or teas are you going serve? How does that fit your mood or that of your guests? What is the sequence of teas if you are serving more than one (usually from lighter tasting to heavier)?
Where will you and your guests drink tea, inside or out? What will be their view: flowers? art work? messy pile of papers? What is the seating arrangement (you want to easily fill their tea cups). What is the overall feel of the space?
Sound and Smell
Tea is an all sensory experience. What sounds do you want (the wind, soft music, songbirds)? Once a friend brewed us tea using bamboo charcoal which chimed in the most beautiful way. What smells do you want which will compliment and not compete with the tea (incense, flowers, freshly roasted tea, etc.)?
This is what you bring to the experience, moment by moment. It involves reading the tea, reading your guests, and being open and awake to what is possible. Tea offers you a delicious way to cultivate your awareness with each cup.
There are lots of opportunities for aesthetics and choices here! We describe some of the possibilities below. In addition to having a good pot to brew the tea, notice how the shape and size of the cup affects your experience of the tea.
There are whole websites devoted to a discussion of the right pot! Some of these "pots" aren't even pots, but large covered cups called gaiwan. Basically you want a container made of ceramic, glass, or a good quality clay made for oolong tea. (While not traditional, glass pots allow you to watch the tea brew and to assess when it is ready by color.) This pot is going to be relatively small—6 to 12 oz. You want a high ratio of tea leaves to water. The brewing pot or cup looks almost full of leaves when they are fully open. The idea is to make several smaller cups of tea at the perfect temperature.
Almost anything will do, but traditionally the cups are fairly small—2 to 4 oz. A white interior is nice because it lets you see the color of the tea, but this is by no means necessary. There are also special tall cups for experiencing the fragance of the tea.
A share pot is what you pour the tea into right after steeping. It is often made of glass and allows you to show off the color of the tea. It is called a share pot because if you serve the tea from the share pot, everyone will get an equally brewed cup of tea. If you pour from the tea pot, the first cup you pour may be slightly less brewed than the last.
The tea tray collects any water that may be spilled while making and serving tea. Ideally it can hold the water that you use to warm the cups, and any rinse water. There is a large range of trays made out of ceramic, metal, bamboo and wood. The ultimate tea tray is a tea table in which the whole surface serves as a tray and serving area.
Who knew! A small absorbent towel (like a washcloth) handy for wiping up spills.
Scoop, Tongs, Strainer
There are implements for scooping the tea out of the container, and tongs for emptying the cups of warming water and cleaning the spent leaves out of pots. A strainer is used on top of the share pot or for individual cups.
Sometimes you may want to show the tea to your guests before you brew it. You can put it in a small bowl. Special bowls are shaped so that the leaves are easy to pour into the pot. You can also display the spent leaves in these bowls afterwards.