There’s quite a bit to take into account when brewing. Most of us figure out how they work in our setup and fall into routines that eventually get filed away into muscle memory.. It can take being removed from our familiar home setups for us to really think and utilize improvisational gong-fu skills to bring the most out of a tea. Maybe, you’re used to serving one or two and are suddenly brewing for eight, or you don’t know exactly how much leaf you have or are using an unfamiliar pot. There’s an infinite number of important and less important factors to consider when brewing tea.. Knowing these factors and how they interact with the finished product are not only important for your own gong-fu but important when evaluating a tea, where you might not be brewing but are observing and drinking in order to make a purchasing decision.
How rolled or compressed the pieces are..
For anyone that’s brewed rolled oolongs it is pretty obvious they brew out differently than something unrolled like a Baozhong or Yancha. When brewing non-rolled oolong, you can get more immediate surface area on the initial steeps, whereas it takes heat and time before the rolled tea unravels. Usually this means you’ll need to brew the rolled tea a bit harder for the first couple infusions before scaling back.
Compressed tea is similar in many respects.. With most cakes/bricks/tuos it’s usually a good idea to break the cake into loose form, breaking as few leaves as possible.. If there are still stuck together compressed bits, you really need to be hitting the tea hard early in order to get those to come part. Ever tried to brew a particularly compressed tuocha or beenghole? These can follow a similar brewing to rolled oolongs but can be even trickier depending on compression. I’ve seen some people hit the tea with a boiling rinse and then let it sit for 20 minutes to allow the leaves to soften.
- Another brewing option usually reserved for high-fired, lowish grade oolong, is breaking up some of the leaf and placing it at the bottom of the pot for intense Chaozhou brewing. This concept of using leaves to strain broken bits can be borrowed for brewing dust which should be placed on the bottom of the pot so it gets strained by the whole leaves.
How the Storage Was (for tea with some age)
The initial steeps can tell you about what conditions the tea was stored in. This is especially important if you are observing and letting someone else brew. If they give the tea a long rinse or multiple rinses it could means that those brews would’ve been nasty. Similarly, if a tea seller doesn’t rinse and it tastes proper it’s a positive sign that the tea is clean.
When brewing, there’s a few subtle things that can affect the heat. Things like pre-heating the vessel and pour height (higher height = lower temperature) can have an impact. I’ve also seen people do things like pour water into the cha hai and then onto the leaves. The result is similar to the water cooling devices that are used for Japanese tea where they brew with a lower temperature. This could be desirable if you’re trying to reduce some of the bite in greener oolongs or young sheng but probably isn’t ideal for darker teas or older teas.
Heat retention of the vessel is also very important. Different materials and thinner or thicker walls will affect how long a device stays hot. Leaving the lid off also reduces the heat retained in the vessel. Some of the impact of clay is simply the extra heat retained, which are usually thicker than most gaiwans which tend to be thinner walled. Larger gaiwans or pots in general will also retain heat for longer than small vessels made out of the same material. One technique is to transfer teas from a smaller vessel that retains less heat to a larger vessel once the steep times get longer. Much of this same concept is also relevant for hot water kettles. If they’re big and 100% full, they remain at a higher temperature for a longer period of time. If they’re smaller or half full, they’ll cool off more quickly.
There’s also the factor of time between brews. This usually affects tea in two ways. If you wait for a long time between brews, the water in the kettle will cool down and needs to be re-heated. If you’re drinking at a slow pace and don’t want to be always re-heating your water, then you can always stack a couple infusions into the chahai. The tea might cool a little bit, but that’s often a preferable tradeoff. A second factor is coming back to a tea after x amount of time. This might be 20 minutes, 2 hours, or even much longer. Each one will cause the tea to perform a bit differently and can sometimes give the tea more longevity.
- Also the factor of altitude will affect the temperature water boils at. If you’re very high above sea level, water boils at a much lower temperature.
This one is pretty easy, but there’s a little more than the absolute obvious. An important attribute when using a pot is the pour time. Pairing a big pot that pours slow with young pu’erh is asking to be slapped around with bitterness.. If a pot pours in six seconds, then if you flash steep you’ll still have a steep time of ~six seconds. Now if that pot is a slow pourer and it takes 24 seconds to pour, a flash brew is going to be much different.
- Bigger vessels will usually tend to brew tea harder, due to a slower pour and the increased heat retention.
A lot of good brewing isn’t necessarily road mapping everything before it happens it’s being to adjust to these different things on the fly. Part of this is judging from the tea and judging off of past attempts. If you normally use 5g/70ml but only have 3.7g.. You could extend the steeps. If you’re trying to make young pu’erh less bitter for a more casual crowd? Maybe you pour into the chahai to reduce the temperature first. You can also do things like adding or removing leaf in the middle of your session to adjust on the fly to a tea’s potency.
In addition to taste, brewing by smell or aroma can be an effective way to tell when to brew a tea. Just take the lid of the gaiwan or pot off and give it a smell. This sort of brewing is intuitive and will become easier with more practice and repetition. It’s also especially useful during times when brewing may or may not to be extended later on in the session. As is the case for most things.. Pay attention, think and you’ll improve.