Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tasting Tea

In reply to one of my previous posts, someone asked me if tea ceremony practitioners are concerned with the taste of the tea at all, or if it’s mostly about the form and movement. In fact, tea people actually do a lot to try to make the best possible bowl for their guests.

It actually starts before the tea ever comes near a tearoom, in the fields where the tea is grown. Matcha, the powdered tea used in tea ceremony, is botanically the exact same plant that Lipton’s uses, camellia sinensis. The first difference between matcha and other types of tea is the way that it’s grown. It’s cultivated in the shade (not completely, because the plants do need some light, but the amount of light is strictly regulated), and the leaves are picked in May, when they’re still young. Camellia is an evergreen, but for the best tea the growers take the young leaves. The leaves are steamed to keep them green and then put into storage for six months, similar to the way wine is aged. As with wine, the aging process matures the taste – fresh tea doesn’t have the same complexity.

After the tea is aged, it’s put through a process that removes the stems and veins and then ground into a fine powder, about the consistency of flour. (In fact, in the old days they used grinding stones that were very similar to the ones used in milling flour.) So around November, the current year’s tea is ready to be opened and drunk. This is a special time in the tea world because it’s also the transition from summer to winter season, when we open the sunken hearth in the tearoom. There’s a special type of tea gathering performed only in November (often combined with the opening of the sunken hearth) in which the host will unseal a chatsubo, a ceramic tea storage jar, in front of the guests. Then, while the guests are eating their meal, they hear the sound of the host grinding the tea leaves, which are then used to prepare both thick and thin tea. However, these days most people buy their tea already powdered from the tea growers.

For the purpose of tea ceremony, there are two grades of matcha, usucha and koicha. Usucha means “thin tea;” it’s a lower grade of matcha, so the taste is more bitter, but still very good. If anyone has ever whisked a bowl of matcha for you, you’ve probably had usucha. Because the tea is powdered and you’re drinking the whole leaf, it’s stronger than steeped green teas like sencha, but still what we usually think of when we think of tea. Koicha, on the other hand, is exactly what the name says: “thick tea.” There’s more powdered tea mixed in with less water, and the end result is about the consistency of paint. For that reason, you want the best-tasting matcha you can get, and so the highest grades of matcha are reserved for koicha. Well, there’s no rule that says you can’t use koicha-grade tea for usucha, but it’s expensive – generally anywhere from $0.50 to $5 per gram.

Big matcha companies will often offer many different types and grades of koicha and usucha, each distinguished by its own poetic name. (For example, today I had an usucha whose poetic name was “sangetsu,” which means “moon and mountain.”) Like wine makers, tea growers will often blend tea from different sources to create a more consistent taste, but still, the taste of different teas is very distinctive. In fact, there’s even a type of tea gathering called chakabuki, in which the guests taste different teas, and then in a “blind tasting” try to remember the taste and correctly identify which tea is which.

When preparing for a gathering, the host pays careful attention to all of the factors that might affect the taste of the tea. Besides the tea itself, there’s the water. In the old days, particularly in Kyoto, which has been the center of tea culture since there was tea culture, the tea masters identified special wells that were thought to have the best possible water. To get the optimum taste, they would go to the wells before dawn to draw the water, even if the gathering was later in the day. These days it’s not so easy to get water from a special well, but we do make an effort to get the best-tasting water we can find.

Another factor is the sweets that are eaten right before the guest drinks the tea. We never serve sweets that have dairy in them, or that are greasy or oily, or that have a strong flavor, because that affects the taste of the tea. The best tea sweets are ones that complement the taste of the tea, and tea people spend a lot of time thinking about what will work and what won’t.

Yet another major factor (as with any type of tea) is the temperature of the water. Generally speaking, we aim for a temperature of around 180 degrees, but since we can’t whip out a thermometer and test the temperature in the middle of preparing tea, it’s up to the skill of the host to know when the water is too hot or too cold. That’s why during tea, we always carry a jar of cold water into the room and set it down next to the kettle – so if needed, we can cool down the water in the kettle so it doesn’t “burn” the tea.

But probably the most important thing that the host does to affect the taste of the tea is simply to create an atmosphere of tranquility in the room. One of the purposes (maybe the main purpose, depending on your point of view) of all the ritual surrounding the preparation of tea in chanoyu is to encourage the guests to relax and open their senses. Matcha tastes completely different in a tearoom than it does if you just whisk a bowl in your kitchen; the atmosphere, the sensory impressions, the person’s state of mind, everything about tea contributes to the main event, which is the moment that the first sip passes your lips. When we talk about the taste of tea, usually we’re talking about the literal flavor, but I think that any tea person would agree that the real taste of tea is in the heart, and not on the tongue.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

August Heat

Typically, we don’t have tea lessons in August. It’s not just that people tend to go on vacation; it’s the heat. Shofuso is a traditional-style Japanese house, which means, of course, no air conditioning. It was fine this year until the last week in July, when the weather turned very hot and humid.

In tea, we have techniques for dealing with hot weather, most of which revolve around tricking yourself and your guests into thinking that they’re not really melting into tiny liquid pools on the tatami mats. It falls under the deceptively simple heading of one of the seven rules of Rikyu: in the summer, suggest coolness.

In July and August tea people use utensils of cool-looking materials – glass is one that’s become popular in the past fifty years or so (which in tea terms makes it one of those newfangled innovations that them young ‘uns came up with). There are glass tea bowls, glass tea containers, glass tea scoops – almost any element of the tea ceremony can be done in glass. Other popular materials for the summer are dark wood and baskets, or anything unusual and playful. It’s no fun being serious when you’re hot, right?

There are also special kimonos for the hottest season of the year, made of a mesh fabric called “ro.” Of course, it’s good to choose colors that look cool, but the fabric itself also allows some breeze to come through, so instead of wearing body-covering underwear, a full-length under-robe, and a full-length kimono, it feels like you’re only wearing two layers of clothes in 95-degree weather. (Actually, I exaggerate – they do make ro kimono under-robes that, in combination with a ro kimono, do let the air in, and they’re a vast improvement over a normal kimono.)

However, Sasaki Sanmi’s tea almanac probably says it best: “Clear your mind of all mundane thoughts, and you will be able to find coolness. This is true; whether you can beat the hot weather or not depends on your state of mind.”

I’ll be raising a bowl of hot tea to you all!