Thursday, October 08, 2009

How to time a good brew without a timer

I have been pondering how to write this article for a while, with my limited choice of words, precisely explain something imprecise has its own challenge.

Many years of brewing tea without a thermometer and a timer is the path took me to where I am with tea today. Reading others brewing reviews with precise time and temperature written down, I always wonder if anyone actually follows with again modern gadgets of thermometer and timer. The bigger question is with all these tools involved, is outcome of tea really at its best? After all, the Chinese or other parts of the world have been drinking tea for centuries if not millenniums without a thermometer and a timer beside them. How did Gong Fu Cha refine its technique by nothing but skilled hands, observing minds and sensitive palates?

While training my new employee Peter, I realized learning to brew tea with borrowed data can not improve ones skill. Peter can now brew DCs really well after some side by side boot camp style training which he learned the initial technique, then later learned to observe color and consistency. This experience has improved my skill in teaching how to brew tea. My brewing has been some what subconscious, kinda like driving. My consciousness does not aware of the subtle difference in technique. Here I propose a simple way to start then transcend your skill level in leaps and bounds.

For oolong and pu-erh teas in general, as a starter brew, use 3 g of leaves, 100 to 120 ml cup or pot

1, preheat utensils (cup or pot)with boiling water
2, add dry leaves in to utensil IMMEDIATELY upon emptying and cover lid
3, shake utensil in circular motion (not up and down) occasionally for 1 minute
4, pour hot water (boiling or off boiled) on side of utensil at one spot (do not go all over the utensil), avoid hitting leaves directly, with force and from high up (6 inches above)for oolong teas, low for pu-erh teas.
5*, cover lid for 15 seconds for 1st brew, empty to pitcher

***For step 5, use 15 seconds as a standard for every NEW tea comes to hand as a reference point. You can change it as you get to know the teas in future sessions.

The most important part begins here, how ever the first brew comes out is your reference, observe color and consistency of liquid. After tasting this brew, you'll find out whether it's 1)just right, 2)too weak, 3)too strong for your own taste. Base on your own preference of strength, when making the 2nd brew, adjust the color and consistency in comparison to the first brew. Current brew will become the reference of the follow brew.

Out come 1, just right: brew subsequent brews with same or "similar" color and consistency as 1st brew.

Out come 2, too weak: make 2nd brew into darker color and thicker consistency. Timing is irrelevant since each tea is different, but the color and thickness of liquid are your most tell tail signs of what's being extracted and at what ratio, which is the influential factors in how strong your tea will become.

Out come 3, too strong: make 2nd brew into lighter and thinner consistency. Same as out come 2, timing is not relevant but the color and thickness of liquid are the indicators of how strong your tea is.

Each brew should be a reference of the following brew as for how long to brew and how strong you prefer your tea. Timer is soulless, it does not recognize your palate preference, it can not smell the aroma of tea, most importantly, a timer does not understand each tea individually. Only you the tea drinker can recognize those desirable attributes of a tea through tasting and more tastings. Practice makes perfection perfect!

The key to this is reproduce the same color and consistency of the brew that you like. It can be achieved for the first 4 to 6 brews depending on the quality of tea. Later brews will have lighter color, consistency can keep up or thinning depending on the quality of tea again.

This is the only way to perfect your skills in making a good cup of tea. A timer and thermometer are not going to get you there.

For other variables (temperature, utensil, leave quantity, type of tea, water, etc.), you can experiment with them in future sessions, after you get familiarize with the tea. No mater what parameters you change at one given session, the fundamental remains reproducing the same color and consistency of liquid that best suited for your own taste, without a timer and a thermometer.

You might wonder how does one know if the potential of the tea has been reached. This will come with experience, and become consistent. No one can tell you how you prefer a tea. No one can formulate a mechanical brewing process for a tea using tools.

8 comments:

marlena said...

I think what you have to say is really excellant, but for myself I need to use a timer because I can get distracted easily and if nothing else, a timer reminds me to check on how my tea is doing. I also mostly do black teas, with longer brew times.

Adam M. Y. said...

I myself have gone from a wrist watch to a timer to no added tools in a year. And somehow I feel that the lack of tools makes the tea taste much more personal.

Though I do follow certain extra signs, such as if brewing in a yixing, I observe the absorption of the water with the pot, but that also comes with getting to know your equipment. Or as is occasionally easier, with a Gaiwan I can easily tell color.

Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge.

Jason Witt said...

I have decided to go without specific timing anymore for my Puerh tea. And the water temp is easy because it's just boiling. But the reason for this is that I'm giving up Gong Fu-style multiple short steepings. I'm going to do a single very long steeping with a small amount of leaf and a lot of water. This can be done with Puerh better than with any other tea except for some sturdy Oolongs. It's going to simplify tea making for me. --Teaternity

Lewis said...

Thanks for this, Imen! I found the post very illuminating.

I was surprised that you don't discard a first steep (rinse.) I myself am always vacillating on this issue, but I thought of you as a traditionalist who'd always rinse.

I was also surprised that you use only 3g of leaves with 100-120ml of water as a starting point. My surmise is that you do this because you want to judge the color and consistency of the liquor while it's still brewing rather than once it's been decanted.

halfkill said...

Clear and descriptive, very nice. I never used a timer but in the very beginning I was recommended to count the breath. It sound maybe silly but I learned to concentrate on myself and the moment with tea. Additionally you brew your tea right :).
With thermometer it's a bit different, I don't use it but it's very hard for me to assess the right temperature without it. maybe in future I'll get one.

Imen I've got 2 questions in regards with brewing.
1) After e.g. 8th infusion when the tea leaves are weak do you recommend to add new leaves to the pot or first clean the "old" leaves out and then add only the fresh ones?
2)How do you know when has the water the right temperature?
Thanx

Imen said...

Thank you all for your inputs!

Lewis:
"judge the color and consistency of the liquor while it's still brewing rather than once it's been decanted"
Yes!

halfkill:
1) After e.g. 8th infusion when the tea leaves are weak do you recommend to add new leaves to the pot or first clean the "old" leaves out and then add only the fresh ones?
No, do not add new tea leaves to already brewed leaves.


2)How do you know when has the water the right temperature?

Type (color) of dry leaves tells you approximately how hot (in range) of the water you want to experiment with.

My personal experience is from low to high by the following order range between 180 to 212 F. The temperature also varies by the size of leaves, small/delicate vs large/coarse/woodiness.

Green, white, yellow, green oolong, green pu-erh, medium oolong, dark oolong, aged green pu-erh, black, cooked pu-erh.

Lew Perin said...

"judge the color and consistency of the liquor while it's still brewing rather than once it's been decanted"
Yes!


OK. Using only 3g of leaf with at least 100ml of water, I can see how you'd be able to inspect the liquor above the leaves, say, in a white gaiwan. But in a zisha pot with a narrow opening? Seems to me the liquor would essentially be invisible there. Am I missing something?

Imen said...

"Using only 3g of leaf with at least 100ml of water, I can see how you'd be able to inspect the liquor above the leaves, say, in a white gaiwan."

I use 3g of leaves for most of the old bush DC, and always have started with 3g or less for a new tea. My taste is on the lighter side of the spectrum.

"But in a zisha pot with a narrow opening? Seems to me the liquor would essentially be invisible there. Am I missing something?"

Using a Zisha is essentially the same. Instead of looking inside of the pot, you check the color when pouring thru the spout, or color of tea in cup. Begin with slow and observe color, if too light, pour slower, if too dark, tilt pot to perpendicular, if just right, pour normally. We all know as long as leaves are in water, it's still extracting, so even as we pour tea out, it's still steeping. Prolong pouring time means longer steeping.