Just Tea.

As I told you in an earlier post, I lived at a Zen Center for a good while. During that time, I drank a lot of tea. A lot of it. And, since I worked in the kitchen, I made a lot of tea. Usually a total of one to two gallons a day: more during meditation retreats.

Just tea. Simple, unadorned, unsweetened, unflavored tea. And I hope it doesn’t sound wishy-washy when I say that I learned a lot about how to approach life from tea.

Tea is attention. It is not through the ingredients– water and tea leaves– that tea is made, but by the careful attention to details and awareness of responding at the right moment of the tea-maker. The tea will reflect the mind of the maker: if the tea-maker is worried and agitated, it will be weak; if they are distracted and absent, it will be bitter; if they are present, it will be refreshing and light.

Okakura Kakuzo wrote in The Book of Tea that “The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.”

Many of my friends and family members how much I love tea, and how much I value the process of tea-making. There is no condition of the bodymind that can’t be brought into greater equilibrium with a good cup of tea. I honestly believe that.

And so it was with great delight that I unwrapped an early birthday present for my upcoming 30th birthday: a beautiful teapot, with two cups reminiscent of the cups the Zen Center uses during meditation retreats. I cried a few tears of loving gratitude when I opened it, and I’m not too proud to say so.

As a result, I have been making a lot of tea today. A lot. And it occurred to me that a post on “Just Tea” would be well-advised.

One of the most important variables in the making of the perfect cup of tea is the temperature of the water. In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo describes the three stages of boiling: “the first boil is when the little bubbles, like the eyes of fishes, swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle.”

As poetic and accurate as those descriptions are, I decided it might not be a bad idea to post images of each of the three boils: keep in mind that is is impossible to actually capture the movement of water in a still photograph, but with close attention to the water as it reaches a simmer will help you catch it at just the right moment. Trust yourself, and learn from the results you get: if your tea is weak, you stopped the water too soon, but if it is bitter, you let the water get too hot.

First boil: see how the bubbles look kinda like fish eyes around the edges?
Second boil
Third boil: see how the steam billows wildly in the kettle?

For green and oolong teas, only bring the water to first boil; for black and herbal teas, bring the water to second boil. Third boil is too hot for the tender tea leaves.

For the best tea, do not let the water come to a full boil, and then cool down until it is at the right boil level. This will deplete the water, and the tea will not feel as smooth and soft on the tongue.

It also is important to use loose-leaf tea, rather than bagged. Allow the leaves room to unfurl, just loose in the pot, then strain the tea into cups.

It is preferable to use well-filtered water. Do what you can on this, without going so far as to buy disposable containers full of water. I strongly suggest getting a good filter on your kitchen faucet, but if the cost is prohibitive, just do what you can with a less-expensive water filtration pitcher.

For 4-6 cups of water, use one heaping tablespoon of loose tea leaves; for 8-12 cups, use two heaping tablespoons.

Green teas should steep 3 1/2 minutes for optimal flavor. Oolong teas should steep around 4 minutes, black teas for 4 1/2, and herbal teas for      4 1/2-5 minutes. Matcha teas only need 30 seconds to 1 1/2 minutes. Understeeping will result in a flavorless tea, while oversteeping will lead to a bitter tea that leaves the tongue and mouth feeling dry, instead of refreshed.

As you can now see, so much comes down to full attention to each moment, and an intimate understanding of the tea you are using.

I encourage you all to take up tea-making. Developing the skill of brewing the perfect cup of tea will not only benefit you with the delicious, invigorating refreshment of a steaming cup of peace, but it will also (potentially) develop a greater sense of attentiveness and sensitivity in how you see the world.

Think it’s hyperbole? Try it out. Make some tea every day for a week or two, then try to tell me you don’t feel a bit better.