The Tao of Tea

Tea has been a part of ancient Asia for a very long time. We know this because back in ancient times, Gramps (aka Shennong) had taken a trip to the Southern region where his mother lived. Along the way, it is said that some sort of leaves fell into a pot of water his people were using to make tea for him and he accidentally drank it.

After drinking this leafy drink, Gramps not only felt refreshed (most likely due to the caffeine), but the sweet aftertaste also made him nostalgic and happy. This has much to do with the chemicals in tea leaves which contain the flavanol group of polyphenols known as catechins, as well as depsides such as chlorogenic acid, coumarylquinic acid, and theogallin (3-galloylquinic acid), which is unique to tea. (1)

Excited about this new finding, Gramps called it a “tea leaf” and began propagating the methodology of cultivating the plant and usage of the tea. After thousands of years (22,000 to be exact), the system he developed became known as Trà Đạo, which literally translates to The Tao of Tea.

And I’m like…ehh??? The only thing that tea and the Tao has in common is the letter ‘T’. But who am I to question Gramps’ authority over something super important like this, so I go digging for information. This is what I found.

The Tea Plant

When I say ‘tea plant’, I’m not talking about all the other sorts of things you add to tea like bergamot or rose hips or chrysanthemum buds. I am talk about the actual tea leaf. All true tea is made with leaves harvested from a single plant species called Camellia sinensis. (2)

Just to be perfectly clear, this plant is NOT a camellia but a Theaceae. Westerners just have a weird naming system whereby they call it whatever they wish, even though its classification can by muddy and full of contradictions. But it is what it is, and we have to use whatever arbitrary thing that’s already in place.

For thousands of years, my ancestors called it trà which unsurprisingly means ‘tea’. According to botanists, the actual tea plant is an evergreen tree native to the part of Southeast Asia where China’s Yunnan Province meets India’s Nagaland region and the northern areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Its roots trace back around 22,000 years ago. (2)

Later hybridization and divergence took this basic tea plant and gradually morphed into a sort of tea called Western Yunnan Assam tea, and Indian Assam tea. The divergence happened around 2,800 years ago, long after tea had already been in wide use in East and Southeast Asia.

Fig. 1. The six categories of tea: green, yellow, white, oolong, black, and dark (Pu’er), depending on their levels of oxidation. (3)

All the different varieties of tea that you see in the stores today is the result of the processing of the tea, not the leaves themselves, because as I said, there is only the actual camellia sinensis tea leaf, and its divergent hybrids.

But enough about the boring aspects of tea taxonomy. Let’s dig into the fun stuff.

Preparing the Tao of Tea

Ingredients

Step 1: You first need to gather the ingredients and paraphernalia required to make the tea. Here is the list of things that ancient people used to make tea.

  1. Something to boil water in. It can be a simple tea kettle or even a sauce pan, but NOT an automatic drip system machine because we need to control the temperature of the water, depending on what type of tea we are using (see Fig. 1).
  2. A thermometer. I like to use my handy dandy infrared thermometer for cooking and such. Depending on the type of tea you’re making, the temperature of the water needs to be within the ballpark of what that tea needs for best results.
  3. A watch with a second hand OR a digital kitchen timer that measures in seconds.
  4. Purified water. If you don’t have an in-house water filter, use bottled water. Don’t use fancy mineral water or unfiltered tap water because it will affect the taste of the tea.
  5. Either a side-handle teapot and a regular teapot for serving the tea OR two tea pots made of ceramic or stoneware (or glass if that’s what you have), and its matching tea cups. You need to make sure they are ceramic or stoneware to ensure the temperature can be absorbed by the ceramic/stoneware so that it does not decrease the temperature of the tea that you have so painstakingly measured for correct temperature. Also, metal imparts a tang that messes with the delicate taste of the tea and should be avoided.
  6. The tea itself. Whatever tea you will be using should be loose leaf or balls of tea, not the tea bags with strings attached.
  7. Snacks. We’ll get to this important part in a minute.

Preparations

Step 2: There are some preliminary steps you must take before you can serve the tea. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

  1. Add the filtered water to the pot. Use a pot with a lid so you can remove the lid to check the temperature.
  2. Shoot a ray of infrared laser onto the surface of the water at intervals to determine its temperature. It needs to be at the boiling point between 167°F (75°C) and 208°F (98°C) depending on the variety.
  3. When the water is close to the first temperature point (around 160°F/70°C) pour the water into both the side-handle teapot and ceramic or stoneware tea pot you will be using to serve the tea. Then close the lids and wait for a few minutes so that both teapots have been warmed by the water.
  4. Pour ALL of this almost-boiled water from the teapots into all the teacups you will be using to serve the water. The reason for this is that you have to also warm the cups or the temperature of the tea will be cooled when it touches the cool cups.

Making the Tea

Step 3: Now that we’ve done all the preliminary steps, we finally get to actually make the tea. Here we go.

  1. Measure out the amount of tea you will be using and add it to the (now empty but warmed) side-handle teapot. This is up to the individual. Some like it strong enough to grow hair on their chests and others like it mild and gentle. Here is where your skill as a tea barista comes into play.
  2. Pour the (160°F/70°C) warm water over the tea inside the side-handle teapot and then quickly pour the water out (just the water, not the tea!). This is not the water that will be used for drinking the tea.  It is only used to “wake up” the tea so that the tea leaves can be unfurled from their balls and begin to bloom. Note: Do not use boiling water. You don’t want to kill the delicate flavors of the tender tea leaves.
  3. Congratulations. You should now have an empty side-handle teapot filled with blooming tea leaves, ready to start the steeping of the tea.

Steep and Serve

Step 4: This is the point in time where you bring out that fancy pre-warmed teapot and all those cute cups on the tray to begin the serving process.

  1. Now fill the side handle teapot with water that is at the temperature you need for the type of tea you have (between 167°F (75°C) to 208°F (98°C)). Keep checking the temperature with your infrared thermometer to ensure it hasn’t cooled too drastically. It is at this point that you are actually making the tea from all that delicious awakened blooming tea leaves.
  2. Steep the tea for about 10 to 40 seconds (depending on the tea type). This is the most important step so don’t mess this one up. Use your watch with the second hand (or kitchen timer) and make sure that the tea is only steeped for that required amount of time.
  3. Required length of time to steep: Small, thin, spongy tea fibers need to be steeped at low temperatures. Large thick fibrous tea leaves need a higher temperature. Green tea must be brewed at a lower temperature. Oolong tea and black tea need the higher temperature. Note: If you want a stronger flavor, increase the amount of tea leaves. DO NOT increase the temperature or try to steep longer just to save on the tea leaves.
  4. Pour EVERY SINGLE DROP OF STEEPED LIQUID from the side handle tea pot to the fancy serving tea pot MINUS THE TEA LEAVES. This step is required so that we can stop the process of brewing the tea because we do not want to ‘over steep’ the tea. Do this as quickly as you can because the tea has reached its required steeping time. Do not leave any amount of liquid within the side handle tea pot.
  5. Take the lid of the side handle tea pot OFF. This keeps the tea leaves from continuing to get cooked from all the steam that has nowhere to vent.
  6. Pour the tea from the fancy serving teapot into all the pre-warmed fancy cups in equal measures and serve your family and friends immediately.
  7. Because you have done an amazing job and it’s so good, they are going to want more. Good news is, you can repeat this procedure several times, using the same tea that you measured out for the first pot. Repeat the Step 4: Steep and Serve steps for the next phases. The next brew will require slightly longer steep time than the previous brew. If the first brew is too light or too strong, adjust the steep time for the next brew. You can repeat this process between 5-8 times of brewing, before the tea becomes too pale to use, in which case, you will need dump out the used tea leaves and to go back to Step 3: Making the Tea to use new tea leaves.

The Tao of Tea

These are just basic guidelines. The Tao of Tea requires that you, the esteemed tea barista follow your own path, adjust your individual senses–olfactory, visual, and taste perception so that you may find the optimum brew times and water temperature for each individual type of tea. Continue to experiment with different varieties of teas and keep a tea journal so you can keep track of your findings.

Now that I’ve gone over the basics of tea-making, I need to get into the traditions and ceremonial aspects of Vietnamese Trà Đạo. Since this post is super long, I will continue this subject in a future posting. Until then, stay joyful.

  1. Green tea composition, consumption, and polyphenol chemistry
  2. Camellia sinensis
  3. What is Tea? – Origins and Categorization of Camellia Sinensis