Whenever I’ve been to Taiwan or Hong Kong, I’m reminded of the solitude of being a western drinker. In tea hotspots out east, you learn about teas by drinking with other people, shop owners, hobbyists, etc. You can explore different tea shops, drinking and talking about tea with other people. And while there’s plenty of writing online about different teas, tea as a hobby is a very social and interactive experience. In the west, most of us more closely resemble crazy, gongfu hermits. Outside of a few assorted tea shops there’s not really much tea culture in America and Europe that resembles east Asia. We may occasionally read an article online or watch a video, most (or all) of us do our gongfu sessions by ourselves or if we’re lucky with one other person. This presents some dangers in how we are developing habits and acquiring knowledge.
- We’ve received emails from a fair amount of gongfu drinkers that they like watching our videos because it gives the feel of drinking with other people. This is on one hand affirming but it is also sad for the reasons stated above.
Discussion is a very important part of the learning process to talk tea with other people and get exposed to different ideas. Always drinking by yourself isn’t inherently bad, but can lead to unusual and sometimes bad habits. If you’ve read all the forum posts, B&B thread, all the blogs, seen every single TeaDB video (NERD), that’s great! Still, all those hours online can only take you so far. Tea is a social drink and drinking by yourself and watching two guys online is not a substitute for actually drinking with others.. If you’re in a coastal, diverse urban center, there’s probably more people out there like you. Get connected to some local tea folk.
- This is one area, where I’m fortunate and privileged (for someone living out in the west). I live in a fairly multi-cultural area with a few other gong-fu drinkers I meet with semi-regularly.
- People more inundated in eastern tea culture are always baffled and amused by (a) the small sample sizes we want (b) the tiny little 70-100ml we want. #foreveralone
When I was in Taiwan, I visited a shop with a bunch of traditionally stored pu’erh that originated from Hong Kong. The shop owner pushed his tea hard brewing using a large (~250ml?) pot for two people and made big, thick and dark cups that still had a good deal of bitterness despite the tea’s storage history. Another vendor used a gaiwan eyeballed a pile of leaf (old oolong) and brews the tea hard, skipping the rinse. The tea turns out strong, full and depending on the tea a bit tart. A third vendor, also selling traditionally stored pu’erh, uses much less leaf and brews two or three teas concurrently using the same parameters for each tea. We then drink the teas in sequence, brew by brew. After buying tea from these vendors and bringing them home and messing around with my own brewing parameters, they unsurprisingly turn out differently than the shop. None of these brewing techniques are inherently bad or inferior, but they are different and inform you of different characteristics of the tea.
Brewing matters.. And one way that we can really get set in our own ways and develop bad habits is our brewing. Drinking with people usually means that you’ll experience and drink from other people’s setups and their brewing. Getting exposed to different ways of brewing tea is a good thing! How you make tea is one of the most impactful things about how the tea actually turns out. While it can be good to use relatively stable/steady parameters, if we haven’t seen others brew tea and tried it for our self our experiences are very limited. If you’ve been to teashops in Asia, most people/vendors brew a little differently, some significantly and if a vendor is brewing and you’re trying to evaluate the tea for purchase you should have some idea about how the cup of tea turned out the way it did. Is it the tea or how it was brewed?
As an example, a tea may have short longevity and brew out over four infusions at the hands of the person making tea.. But it can be for a lot of reasons. Before you dismiss the tea as short-lived. You should consider:
- How many leaves were used for the brewer?
- Was the tea being pushed or being brewed closer to competition style?
- How potent were the brews?
Sampling a variety of teas with an open mind is an important part of the learning experience. Similarly, seeing how experienced tea people make tea and thinking about it with an open mind is important, something that is missing from most western gongfu’s lives.. While personal preference towards brewing shouldn’t be completely discredited, it is also easy to get into some unusual habits in how we make tea..
If you’re making gongfu for one all the time you’re probably not alone! Go out there and find someone besides your significant other to drink with. It’s fun and you might learn something.