There is more to brewing tea than mugs, thermoses, and tea bags. Please do not misunderstand me, I appreciate these conveniences, especially first thing in the morning on my way to work, or with my hands busy while I am working in the garden. But one of the most admirable things about the global diversity of tea culture is the marriage of what is beautiful and what is practical. When I first interviewed to work for John Wetzel (owner extraodinare) at Stone Leaf Teahouse he conveyed that what he tries to do is serve people tea with the beautiful traditions of ritual but in an ordinary every-day way. His goal has been to make the elegance of loose leaf tea accessible to all people.
If you have ever visited our Stone Leaf Teahouse in The Historic Marble Works District of Middlebury Vermont you may have been struck by how our tea is served. If you order Yi Mei Ren China we typically serve this over a Cha Pan, a portable bamboo box/tray that catches your rinse water. If you order Marrakesh Mint it will be served on a metal platter with golden plating. If you order Gen Mai Cha from Japan you might get it on a simple flat bamboo board. We try to serve tea according to the tea’s culture. Whichever tea you do order when you visit us there is a common thread: a tea tray.
Whether it is for ceremony or for the ordinary daily enjoyment of drinking tea, a tea tray is an incredibly simple and practical kitchen gadget. Why? Because they catch water. It is a simple and yet very helpful resource because tea usually involves pouring lots of water. In modern Chinese gongfu (basically translates as “skill with tea”), water is used with great abundance, from warming your tea ware and rinsing your leaves to steeping your loose leaf tea multiple times. But nowadays you do not have to travel to China to enjoy these practical tea inventions. Nor do you have to be a Buddhist gongfu master to make tea beautifully. You, ordinary you, can brew your loose leaf tea at home with simplicity, beauty, and skill.
Using your Tea Tray: an Intro Gongfu Tea Lesson
First thing is first, get your water boiling in your kettle (or microwave cause everyone’s got something that works for them, especially during a global pandemic!). While your water heats up, choose your loose leaf tea. For this little tutorial on how to brew tea beautifully but simply at home I chose a re-infusible oolong, Jin Guan Yin. Next, get your teapot ready, but hold the loose leaf tea on the side for now. A teapot with a built in strainer is great, or a gaiwan or yixing with a pitcher works well too. Whatever you have in the end makes sure to choose a good cup. Set these accoutrements on your very own transportable Cha Pan (Chinese tea tray). Yup, you can take it anywhere, to your desk, to your dining table, to your couch, to a cozy nook on the floor.
Here’s where the magic happens. Once your water has boiled but before you add the loose leaf tea, pour a little of this freshly boiled water over your tea-set (yes, really, you can do this because the tea tray catches the water. It’s amazing!). This little pour over warms everything and helps your tea to steep completely. Now you can put your loose leaf tea directly in your pot. You can rinse these leaves by pouring a little boiling water over them and then pour that water off. Listen up friends cause this is important, the tea tray catches the rinse water so you’re not spilling all over the floor! Now your tea should be super fragrant, the dust rinsed off, and by now you are salivating for your first cup. It’s time for a steep. In a small gaiwan (lidded bowl) with a teaspoon of Jin Guan Yin (about 3-4g tea) I steep my first brew for about 30 seconds. Basic rule, the longer the steep the stronger the brew, the bigger your vessel the longer your steep because there’s more water. Pour off your tea into your cup and enjoy. Be sure to keep steeping because you’re now a gongfu master!
Simple Steps for Steeping your Tea:
- Boil Water
- Warm and Rinse Teaware
- Add Leaf (3-4g)
- Rinse Leaf (if green tea, you can skip this step)
- Steep Tea (30 seconds)
- Reinfuse your tea, adding ~30 seconds each infusion
Care and instructions for using your tray at home: When you order yourself a tea tray, especially one of the bamboo box kind, you will have the arduous job of maintaining it. But the good news is that all this means is that you will need to keep using it! Now that we have no costumers coming into the shop drinking tea every day John and Danya are wetting them down so they don’t crack and leak. So make sure you keep pouring water over your trays and drink lots of tea, wherever you are. I have served tea on planes, on construction sites, and next to a river or at my dining room table. Each time I bring my trusty little tea tray along.