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Water, The Mother of Tea By A.D. Fisher

PROFILE

Mr. Fisher was born in the U.S. He studied philosophy and anthropology. Afterwards he traveled to more than 40 countries, living in India, China, and Japan before finally settling in Taiwan. He was first introduced to tea by a Chinese friend in the 90's and fell in love instantly. Since then he's developed a passion for the Leaf that motivated much of his travel and study over the last years. It is an infatuation he wishes to unreservedly share. Nowadays, he divides his time between the school he founded, writing, painting and drinking tea.

Here you will find some suggestions for how to better appreciate your teas. They are just recommendations. In the end, everyone must choose how to enjoy his or her own tens. There is no right or wrong way to drink tea. Some guidelines are important and drastically alter the tea; others are just personal preference. Using a pot well-seasoned for Puerh to brew a green tea, for example, would produce something unpleasant. But most aspects of making tea are very private, and even our worst efforts only serve to better te^ch us how to make our teas to suit our taste. Perhaps it is the journey that is important. Perhaps there is no destination, just the cup before us. And however sweet or bitter our cup is, it is present for us - perfect and complete as it is.

Learning about tea is a marvelous journey and new insights often come with the same passionate epiphanies that inspire any art. Once one begins to brew tea Gong Fu, which means as an art with spirit, skill and intuition, it is important that more and more aspects of the process be handled spontaneously. The best chefs are the ones that need no recipe. They create the recipe as they go - tasting and adding this or that to balance changes and add to the flavor of the dish. The recipe is just a guideline. Teamasters are the same. Every steeping of every pot will be slightly different. No two brewings, even of the same tea, will be identical. Actually, leaves from the same cake or box will be different each time, as will the water in the kettle. If we are too hung up on the overall "rules" or outlined parameters, than we will miss the opportunities to adapt. Becoming sensitive to the needs of each session is an important stage in learning the art of Gong Fu tea, and this can only happen when we learn to develop our intuition. We do this by connecting more and more to the process. There is no mysticism or magic involved; it is a learned skill like any, though there may be natural talent or predisposition involved in the art of tea. We practice feeling as many of the stages as we can with our senses. We learn to see by steam that the Yixing pot is ready to pour, to know by feel the temperature of our water, to look and judge the right amount of tea leaves for each session.

Because so much of tea is intuition, the best way to learn is to experiment by ourselves. Reading any number of books will never be as valuable as practice in any art - that is, in fact, the real difference between the scholar and the artist. Getting the best out of a tea is indeed an art,the preparation of which includes three important aspects: teaware, water and heat.

Oftentimes, for the beginner, the vast array of teaware available may seem a little daunting. One enters the tea shop and is bewildered by the variety of cups, pitchers, pots, Yixing, etc. Some people find this variety so overwhelming that they put off learning about tea. I had only one Zisha pot and one gaiwan for the first few years I made tea. Almost all of the kinds of teaware can also be refined over time, but there is no need to head right for the deep end. The cost of much of the high-end teaware often intimidates beginners, who are less likely to notice the differences anyway. It is better, therefore, to begin simply. As we practice more and more, learning to feel more aspects of the art, we can then begin experimenting with different kinds of cups, pots and ware and see what differences we recognize in the tea.

Many people starting to take an interest ask how their tea can be improved simply and affordably. So much of tea preparation is water and the manner in which it is heated that its importance cannot be understated. Water and the way in which we heat it offer many ways to improve any tea, and not all of them cost a lot of money.

Water is half of tea, and has embraced these leaves so many times over the centuries - enough to warrant the title, "Mother of Tea". The importance of water in tea preparation has been recorded for centuries. By improving the water used to brew tea, one will have enhanced the art significantly. The easiest way to improve the tea one already has is to pay attention to three simple aspects of water: source, storage and heat.

Source

The water's source is very important. Of course, where we live in the world determines what water we have access to. Long ago, teas were matched to spring waters found in their native areas. Try to use clean and pure mountain spring water. Experiment by tasting different waters alone and with a familiar tea in order to become acquainted with the differences. If no spring water is available, use products like bamboo charcoal, placing them in bottled "spring" water to add natural minerals. However, overly mineralized and distilled waters are also extremes to be avoided. Good mountain spring water gathered at the source is best. It should taste clean and sweet right from the font. Ideally, it will be pure enough to drink from the spring without any filtration. Getting the water by oneself lends a special feeling to the water, more treasured and meaningful than anything bought in the store, as well as assuring the source. A tea session is always enhanced by water that was gathered by the tea drinkers themselves. Many good springs provide perfect water, but should the water be slightly below standard, use bamboo charcoal. Just place the bamboo charcoal into the water and leave it. These charcoal pieces enhance the cleanliness, mineralization and Qi of the water. They can be reused for quite some time. When they become dirty, simply scrub them with a clean brush (no soap) and let them dry in the sun before reuse.

Storage

Where one keeps water for tea is almost as important as the source. Plastic is an unstable material that slowly breaks down. It taints the water with a flavor, smell and vibration or Qi. Also, most plastic is clear which means unwanted light will penetrate the water. If the bottle is not kept very clean, the added light may inspire the growth of algae. Consequently, a glazed ceramic pot is best for water storage. This need not be anything fancy. Many people use a large pot with a clay lid and a spout, sold affordably throughout Asia. The earthenware pot keeps the water clean and protects it from light. Furthermore, the clay will keep the water at a cool and constant temperature throughout the day. Otherwise, if one leaves water for tea sitting out, the temperature fluctuates throughout the day, changing from hot to cool periodically. This causes a drastic change in the Ph, mineralization and Qi of the water over time (by "mineralization" we don't mean the mineral content, which stays the same even after boiling or evaporation, but the way in which the minerals interact with the water and tea it brews). In the clay pot, however, the water never changes temperature; it remains neither warm nor cold, but just right. Many tea lovers notice a dramatic improvement in their tea just by storing their water in clay rather than plastic. Try putting tea water in a ceramic pot with a lid, and placing the pot in the shade away from too much air or light. This will maintain the natural qualities inherent in the spring water for a longer period of time.

Heating & Preparation

Finally, the vessel that heats the water is just as important as the water itself. The hot water will be influenced by the material that heats it. Also, there is tremendous variation in the quality of heat sources available. The pinnacle of fire is traditional hardwood charcoal, but not all kettles can endure such heat. Be certain to use a heat source that doesn't pass an electric current through the water, changing its Ph, mineralization and Qi. (There are several German-made ranges with elements below a stone plate. Hot air then heats the plate, rather than electricity.) Ethanol burners are also good, but be sure the flame is strong enough. Some of these burners were designed just to keep the water hot after it was heated elsewhere, not to bring it to a boil.

One of the most important aspects of water preparation is to make sure the water is heated quickly. Traditional Chinese tea experts called this "martial heat." If the water is heated too slowly it gets cooked and a lot of the mineralization and Qi are lost or changed. For that same reason, one should never put cool water into already hot water in a partially filled kettle. Always use all of the water before adding any more.

Different kinds of kettles and their good and bad points are discussed below. I list the kettles in the order which I feel they are ranked as far as their ability to improve tea. Of course, some of this is personal opinion, though most is based on the combined research of several teamasters I respect and admire, who have been steeping tea for decades.

Metal: Steel and Iron

Metal pots are generally one of two kinds of kettle best suited for beginners, the other being glass. They are often cheaper, stronger and heat water more efficiently. However, since ancient times many teamasters have taught that metal should not be used in tea preparation. Some said that the Qi was improper for tea and changed the water. Many teachers nowadays would say that such proscriptions were mentioned at a time before the invention of many modern metals like stainless steel.

Others argue that they still aren't the best solution. Nevertheless, I would suggest using a good stainless steel teapot rather than iron. Iron pots will eventually rust, and the water will have a poor flavor and become potentially unhealthy. Every culture that had an iron age moved beyond it to steel, and regardless of what your thoughts are about the meaning behind the ancients' proscriptions, it was definitely iron that they were referring to when they said that metal shouldn't be used in tea preparation, as they recommended other metals like silver and gold. There are many stainless steel kettles available on the market, some are even conveniently electric, and all will work better than iron kettles, which are often more expensive anyway.

Glass

Glass teapots are great for beginners and masters alike. As long as the glass was tempered and has a protective coating on the bottom, they can be used for a long time, cleaned easily and be surprisingly sturdy. It is better to have a kettle made completely of glass rather than the ones that are metal on the bottom. Glass kettles let one watch the water, recognize the bubbles and temperature, and learn about the changes in the water as it heats up.

Clay

Clay pots can be superb or can ruin the water. Much like choosing a teapot, be careful to choose a kettle that is made from good quality, natural clay. It is better if the clay was refined naturally without any manmade additives. Some masters suggest that volcanic ores mixed into clay for kettles makes them produce cleaner, better water. There are several clay studios that make good quality entry-level clay kettles. Clay conducts heat better. This is important, as mentioned above, because it is better to heat the water quickly so that the Qi and Ph aren't changed. Furthermore, clay teapots can be used in conjunction with hardwood charcoal which is the best heat source. A nice-quality clay kettle that has been heated on charcoal will maintain the higher temperatures that many teas like Puerh benefit from. The stove and kettle also create a nice ambience that lends itself well to many kinds of tea. When not using silver, I personally us a clay kettle and stove made by master-potter Chen, whose art is covered in this issue.

Silver

Many masters agree that silver pots can be the ultimate refinement in water preparation. Of course there are different qualities of silver ranging from silver-coating, as in many traditional British kettles, to the solid silver of handcrafted Japanese kettles. The Japanese, and recently Taiwanese, silver kettles are often handmade with 99%+ silver. We have even seen one handmade kettle that was 99.56%. This purity of silver will clean the water. I recently acquired an exquisite master-crafted Japanese kettle. Some teamasters and I experimented in several ways. First we drank water from several kettles including glass, clay, etc. and found the silver induced water to be sweeter, softer and taste cleaner. We then had a session with a tea that is well known to all of us and found that the same tea was twice as nice when brewed with this purified water. Also, we found that teas brewed with water from this silver teapot were more "patient" as the Chinese say, yielding almost twice as many steepings. We are awaiting a scientific explanation to something the Japanese and Chinese seemed to have intuited since ancient times. Even Lu Yu in his premier book about tea, Cha Ching, stated that purified silver or gold tea kettles are the best kind of kettle, as they produce sweeter and softer water more conducive to tea.

Water, the Mother of tea, can destroy or sublimate any tea. If one is careful about water collection, storage and preparation there will be a radical improvement in every tea one enjoys. As with any aspect of tea art, water also needs to be practiced, played with and refined by the tea-lover him/herself. In that way, one makes the refinement more than just sensory enjoyment, one makes tea into an artistic inspiration.