Recently, we had the pleasure of attending a Chinese tea ceremony at the home of our friend Stephanie Chow in Echo Park. Stephanie is well-versed in traditional Chinese medicine and practices the traditional ritual of making tea daily, but she also infuses it with her own personal touches. It was such a peaceful pause to the day, and afterwards we asked Stephanie if she could explain to us a bit more about the history and ritual of Chinese tea.
Puer is a fermented tea from China which undergoes a natural aging process of anywhere between 1-10 years depending on the variety. The longer it's aged, the more complex and rich the flavor. (And the more expensive. There are plenty of puer tea cakes out there that are more expensive than gold!) Puer is highly prized in China not just for its depth of flavor but for its strong health benefits too, including lowering cholestrol and promoting gut health and digestion. From a traditional Chinese medicine point of view, it helps regulate and detox the body through the spleen. I started drinking it after I had a fainting episode from drinking too much green tea two years ago. My Chinese doctor said no more matcha, so I switched to puer, which is much lower in caffeine and has more of a warming effect on the body, versus green tea's cooling effect.
There are two types of puer, sheng (生) and shu (熟). Sheng cha has been fermented for less time—it is younger, brighter, sharper, and more mellow tasting, and when steeped the color will be a little yellow or green. Shu cha is aged longer, and will have a richer, deeper, earthier, and more complex flavor that ripens as you brew it over multiple pours. The type that we used for the tea ceremony is a shu puer tea. Puer is a classic favorite to use in the tea ceremony because it has the most complex arc and development of flavor among Chinese teas, but I haven't heard of anyone saying you can't use another tea. I'm sure oolong is used sometimes too.
For the tea ceremony, I use a teapot, a tea pitcher, teacups, a tea tray, a towel, and a tea scoop. It's not always necessary, but I also used a bowl to decant the first pour and discarded tea leaves, and a water kettle. Some people might use a whole array of tea utensils for the ceremony, the most common of which are called the "Four Gentlemen."
The first step of the ceremony is to wake the tea leaves. This is the first pour to wake the puer leaves from their 5-10 year slumber with a splash of boiling water. You pour it and swirl it quickly in the teapot for no longer than 10 seconds, and it also cleans the dirt from the leaves, because the traditional way of aging puer was in the ground. The second step is to heat the teapot, tea pitcher, and cups with boiling water to bring the temperature of all the materials up so that they don't cool the tea on contact.
Next you brew the tea. The first brew is very short, about 5 seconds. Every brew thereafter, you add 5-10 seconds, however you like. One pot of tea should yield several brews. The final step is to enjoy each cup with a snack. I like dates and dark chocolate. And never drink tea alone! The ceremony is meant to be shared with others.
I also always light incense and pour the first cup for my ancestors when I do my tea ritual in the morning. It came about organically for me, but incense has been a part of Chinese tea culture for as long as they've both been around. In ancient China, incense was one of the first methods of timekeeping, so lighting an incense stick marks the passage of time, and makes the act of enjoying tea slowly throughout the ceremony more purposeful. It also marks the space with aroma, creating a multi sensory experience with the tea that you drink.
by Stephanie Chow