Sourcing Water with a ChaXi

What water you use to brew your tea has a huge effect on its flavor, as has been repeated ad nauseum in books and blogs as a source of wisdom, improvement, and importance.

And it does.

Spring water isn’t magical (so they say), but a proper balance of minerality, ph, and provenance makes a huge difference to the quality of our favorite leafy infusion.

So it should come as no surprise that the Tea Institute sources our own water from near by Roaring Spring, PA. Once (soon to be twice) a semester, a group of our intrepid researchers and artists ventures out to fill ~100 gallons of water. That’s half a ton if you’re keeping count. The Institute will use that in about a month and a half; not a very water intensive operation really, untill you think we’re ingesting the great majority of it!

Most of that water is simply stored and boiled with active bamboo charcoal from Taiwan. Our tetsubans give the water a slight sweetness (free iron cations bind with calcium which activates sweet receptors… so ghost sweetness… kinda…) and a more present clean mouth feel.

A small portion of our water is put into ageing jars for salt-ion exchange experiments; the aged water is amazingly light and airy. We can only age about 2 gallons at a time, and our current batch has been ageing for more than 4 months!
This is only used for the most special of tea!

Driving out to the spring one fine summer day, we made ChaXi in view of the spring and old paper factory that still bears the towns name.

We boiled the spring water with 3 pieces of our LongYan Charcoal, the aroma filled the air as we carried the jugs back to the car. With only a little too much work, the water was boiling in about 40 Minutes. Most of that time was simply getting the super dense charcoal lit! (it really just requires a blow torch a’la Stéphane Erler)

The ChaXi had a simple branch warped with a string of late bloom flowers, and I used my white porcelain travel set on wooden blocks set atop large green leaves. We brewed our ‘palace grade Dian Hong’ for such a event.

I would call this a success, but I’m still at 0 Okapi’s for Pennsylvania.
Looks like I need to step up my tracking game.

– Jason

Sencha…

Is your tea marine-ey and vegital with a strong mineral note? Than your probably drinking sencha (or stale Chinese green tea). Does it have any small amount of depth or complexity to it at all? Then your probably drinking Gyokuro (or better stale Chinese green tea).

All the (findable) sencha in Japan is machine harvested, machine processed, and machine packed. They may as well advertise “never touched by human hands”. As you can imagine that doesn’t bode well for the quality. The fact that most of the plantations are beside roads and trimmed and picked with diesel powered machines doesn’t help either.  Labor and land is far to expensive in japan for the type of eco-gardens of semi-wild tea we enjoyed so much in Korea, or even the small family factory-farms of Taiwan and (some of) China. Tea fields here are perfectly rounded bushes of industrialized agriculture with every town selling to one or two factories. There must be someone out there with a small field hand processing his tea, but we haven’t found him!

Sencha, while not at all new to japan, is a new movement in tea with museums and “ceremonies” now sprouting up throughout japan. It seems that sencha came over to japan from china, obviously much later than powdered tea, and went through the same process of Japanese-ification that all foreign arts here go through.

Sencha uses modified wares from southern china, such as tiny NiLu, tiny teapots (sometimes), and silver or pewter cha tou`s with tiny cups, and they stole much of the pomp and circumstance from chanoyu with modifications; making the tatami rooms large and airy, lightening the mood with landscape calligraphy instead of poetry in the tokonoma, and edging more towards ikebana than cha-bana. Yet much of the ceremonial aspect, cup order, bowing, random cleaning techniques, seems to be modern additions and contrived to lend “something to watch” for the guests. I may be wrong, but I have doubts as too much of the modern practices historical accuracy.

So have I found any Japanese tea I like? Ya, matcha.

– Jason

Wisteria Tea House – Round 2

On returning to Wisteria Tea House (Pat and I are there quite often, working our way through the menu – oh, the pains we must bare), just a normal tea drinking day, we were greeted with overwhelming kindness and a fiery new interest by the infamous Chow Yu;

He had read the Institutes Mission Packet and was now interested in ways he could help.

Little did we know, at Wisteria, serious conversations are held over even more serious tea. Hong Yin in this case.

This was the ‘paperless’ Hong Yin from the menu, and, though lacking a wrapper, it didn’t disappoint. I will avoid the is-it/isn’t-it debate, and leave it at the (unsatisfying) response that it is a mistake to clump all “Hong Yin” together as cakes were made over the course of ~8 years and there were 4 different versions produced. This being the only Hong Yin I have tried, I can’t compare, but I have had many teas of similar and older age, and this one blew them out of the water (save for 1, the pride and joy of the Institute).

The most surprising thing was its initial underwelming-ness in the first brew (no rinse). I had some doubts to start (as anyone drinking Master Era cakes should), and that only amplified it, before this tea reached back and yanked my mind out of my skull by the brain stem before I could finish my 2nd brew’s cup. How am I suppose to talk about the Institute when I’m Okapi hunting from the back of a magic tea jassid lofting on hong yin fumes?

Besides the ChaQi, of which there is no besides, the most griping flavor of this tea was the effervescence I associate with older plants or aged leaves, and a lasting lengxiang that not only felt cool, but felt titillatingly pure. The soup was dark, and one could describe it as burnt brown sugar, the kind you want to eat.

To be sure, this was not the best tasting tea – but it was among the best feeling tea, in Kou Gan and ChaQi.

I’m out of time and need to park my jassid.

– Jason