Following the publication of The Classic of Tea by Tang dynasty tea sage Lu Yu some 1,300 years ago, it was no longer a beverage consumed just for its medicinal, thirstquenching attributes. Elevated to an elegant pursuit alongside calligraphy, painting, incense, floral arrangement and the like, tea found its way into the hearts of the literati, who declared it a form of art and philosophical thought.
Today, it is the secondmost widely consumed beverage after water, and its finest offerings are worth their weight in gold. “Like great wine and whisky, fine tea is highly valued and soug ht after by collectors and enthusiasts alike,” says Hong, founder of Woo Tea Studio. “Terroir, craftsmanship, natural scarcity and singularity are just some of the factors contributing to these teas’ exclusivity and desirability.”
These qualities have captivated the attention of numerous chefs and sommeliers, who now present it as a worthy substitute for wine. Michelinstarred restaurant Beni offers diners Royal Blue Tea, touted to be “on par with the best of wine and Champagne”. It even comes packaged in wine bottles with clean, elegant labels describing names, cultivars, and appellations.
Similarly, at the contemporary kappo-style Esora, chef-owner Shigeru Koizumi affords diners a curated tea pairing option. By sourcing seasonal selections to match dishes on the food menu, he shows how tea can further enhance the dining experience.
A SIP OF MINDFULNESS
The alluring flavours, however, are not its only appeal. Ever since monks of old discovered tea helped maintain a state of alert calmness during long periods of meditation, the wondrous brew has come to be treasured for its soothing effect. And while, like coffee, the caffeine in tea supplies the drinker with a burst of energy and alertness, tea contains another compound coffee lacks – theanine, an amino acid that promotes a sensation of mental focus and calmness without drowsiness.
As it turns out, it is also in the ancient monastic traditions that the tea ceremonies of China and Japan find their roots. Lu Yu spent his formative years under the tutelage of a Buddhist monk, and the intimate friendship he later formed with the Buddhist poet Jiao Ran would undoubtedly have had an influence on his tea practice.
Rikyu, the head tea master for general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was a monk of Zen Buddhism. Considered the greatest and most influential figure in the history of the Japanese whisked tea ceremony, he is recognised as the founder of Japan’s three foremost tea schools, which to this today are dedicated to transmitting the tea ceremony as observed and practised by Rikyu himself.
For many people unaccustomed to the ascetic practices of religion, sitting through a traditional tea ceremony may feel like a test of endurance where rigidly rehearsed movements are performed with ceremonial ritualistic intent, all carried out in awkwardly unbearable silence. But for the tea practitioner, this seemingly austere ceremony is a practice of mindfulness. Every movement, from the boiling of the water to the raising of the teacup, is an outward reflection of discipline, inner stillness, and contemplation.
The more these movements are rehearsed, the easier it is for the body to carry out the actions without conscious thought. Like walking and breathing, performing the tea ceremony becomes instinctive, freeing one to be mindful of intent, equanimity, charity, and similarly lofty ideals and values that underpin the practice of tea. So calming, tranquil, and beauteous is this practice that the illustrious Japanese scholar and art critic Okakura Kakuzo calls it the zen of aestheticism.
“The cut and colour of the dress, the poise of the body, and the manner of walking could all be made expressions of artistic personality,” he wrote. “These were matters not to be lightly ignored for until one has made himself beautiful, he has no right to approach beauty.”
At the heart of all this is the concept of mindfulness. The idea that at a tea ceremony, there is no past or future but only here and now, encourages one to be in the present, and to live and experience the very moment for what it is. Hence, tea also finds a ready audience among various mindful disciplines such as yoga, and among people who yearn for a lifestyle marked by simplicity, quietude, and a love for aesthetics. To them, tea is not an escape from life, but the very means by which to live it.
That tea has found renewed interest in the fields of fine dining, health and wellness, and self-cultivation says a lot about what it has to offer in a world where our lives are rewired for a digital age. There is something so warmly human and intimate in receiving a cup of tea. Perhaps it is the peace and serenity that the drink brings to us. Or perhaps it is the simple act of selfless giving that we so fundamentally crave.
The growth of the industry reflects this trend. Starbucks may have closed its Teavana stores – a sign of the times, some say – but there are plenty of new boutique tea brands, lounges and salons to take their place. The Singapore Tea Festival, which has seen two successful shows thus far, appears to be growing stronger still. And, in what may be the most encouraging sign yet, the love of all things tea is driven by free-spirited entrepreneurs – mostly in their 20s and 30s – with a strong sense of identity and direction.
This in turn has fuelled the popularity of teaware collecting. Both on social media and in real life, hobbyists and seasoned practitioners are only too eager to display their latest tea toys and gear. For those who desire to take their love for teaware a step further and make their own, pottery studios such as The Potters’ Guilt provide an opportunity to bring creative dreams to fruition — tea bowls, cups and pots line the walls here, quietly testifying to the endless hours of loving labour put into crafting each and every vessel.
If this burgeoning passion for the tea leaf prevails, we may soon find ourselves immersed in third-wave tea, with a strong focus on speciality growths and artisanal wares. Take it with your digital detox.
“EVERY MOVEMENT OF THE TEA CEREMONY IS AN OUTWARD REFLECTION OF DISCIPLINE, INNER STILLNESS, AND CONTEMPLATION.”
ONE STEEP AT A TIME
In the world of teaware, nothing is quite as iconic as the Yixing teapot. Named for its city of origin in Jiangsu, this is a specific type of teapot exclusively made and produced in Yixing, using local clays known collectively as zisha.
Depending on the clay used, Yixing teapots range in colour from straw yellow to orangey-red and purplish-brown. But they all share one similarity – their mineral compositions and porosity or “breathability” mean that they have superior qualities of heat and aroma retention. Being unglazed, they also “season” over time, becoming more lustrous and valuable as they age. In contrast to using porcelain or other types of clays, tea brewed in a Yixing teapot is perceived to have a better aroma, flavour, and body.
But, as any experienced tea drinker and fan would readily tell you, the differences between them aren’t merely cosmetic. Kenny Tan, owner of Zisha Art Gallery, knows this all too well. “No two Yixing teapots are entirely identical. Depending on what you want to achieve with your tea, you then choose the pot most suited for your needs,” he says.
Veteran tea drinkers readily splurge considerable sums on fine or rare Yixing ware. For instance, a zhuni pot no larger than the size of an apple could easily set you back by $3,000 to $8,000. Certainly, any inexpensive tea brewing equipment might do the job adequately, but for the avid tea lover, good enough is simply not good enough; the value of a Yixing pot surpasses brewing performance to other considerations such as artisanship, age, condition, rarity of the clay, and so on. Yixing zisha teapots are mainly classified into three groups (according to clay types):
Duanni. Usually pale straw to yellow, it is typically used to brew white, green, and oolong teas.
Hongni. A broad family of red Yixing clays that include zhuni, Huanglongshan hongni, and Xiaomeiyao hongni. Differences mostly lie in the origin of the ores and mineral constituents. Zhuni is usually vermilion tending to oxblood, whereas other hongni come in various shades of orange-red. Both clays derive their red colour from the high content of naturally existing iron oxides. Due to this, hongni (and zhuni) pots are said to possess superior brewing performance, and are suited to brewing aromatic oolong teas and pu’er.
Zini. The commonest and consequently the most affordable of all Yixing clays. Coming in various shades of purplishbrown, zini is considered to be the least fussy clay, and is used to brew all types of oolong, red, and black (fermented) teas.
In spite of the differences in clay types and shapes of teapots, the procedure of brewing tea basically stays the same, and involves three main parameters of water temperature, the amount and ratio of tea leaves to water, and the steeping duration.
If the water is too hot or if there are too many tea leaves, the brew is overextracted and becomes harsh and astringent. Conversely, if the water is not hot enough or there are too little tea leaves, the tea is under-extracted and would taste insipid and dull.
Duration determines the rate of extraction. The longer tea leaves are steeped, the more compounds are dissolved into the water.
According to a common approach, teas which see heavier oxidation during processing should be steeped at higher temperatures, while the opposite holds true for teas that see little to no oxidation. In practice, this means that white and green teas are usually brewed at around 70°C, lighter oolongs at 80°C to 90°C, heavier oolongs at 95°C, and red and black teas at 100°C.
It is recommended to use 4g to 7g of tea leaves to 80ml of water – a ratio that may be adapted as necessary.
POT OF GOLD
In recent years, a few teas have garnered such critical acclaim that they – like the legendary Moutons and Lafites – are often reserved for more affluent circles. Considering how demand continues to outstrip what nature can supply, their prices show no signs of abating.
Unlike their more affordable counterparts, these teas are produced only once a year, when they are mature for the picking, and processed with the utmost skill, diligence, and care. Putting aside the questions of prestigious appellations, noble cultivars, and the fame of the producer, the value of these teas is also largely determined by natural scarcity, making them some of the most exclusive in the world.
OOLONG OF NOBLE BIRTH
Laocong Shuixian $230 for 50g
China’s Wuyi Mountains – now a Unesco World Heritage Site – have been the source of the imperial court’s tribute teas for the past millennium. The appellations here produce the world’s most expensive teas, with Laocong Shuixian arguably being the most rarefied. “Quality Laocong Shuixian is a fine example of what the bestWuyi tea can be,” says Alex Lim, founder of Eagle Tea Merchant. “Simply put, it is Shuixian crafted from old trees grown in the valleys of the traditional appellations, with the best terroir and micro-climates expressed through traditional roasting techniques that bring out a deep lingering sweetness and nuances.”
Brew: Best prepared in a Yixing zhuni teapot; the clay’s properties of heat and aroma concentration and retention help to bring out the tea’s subtleties. Use approximately 6g to 8g of tea leaves to 80ml of water and steep at 100°C. The first two infusions should last about five seconds each. Increase the duration by a few seconds for every consecutive infusion.
A FAIR AND EXOTIC BEAUT Y
dongfang Meiren $780 for 150g
Dongfang Meiren, also known as Oriental Beauty, is one of Taiwan’s most beloved oolong teas. “It is prized for its honeyed fruity aromas and flavours, and can only be produced when perfect climatic conditions are met,” says Hong, from Woo Tea Studio. In the summer, the tea green leafhopper feeds on the tea plant, inducing the latter’s natural biological defence that results in an increase in natural sugars and organic compounds. This, in turn, translates to higher concentrations of appealing aromas and flavours in the tea. Dongfang Meiren by renowned tea producers is so desirable that collectors have started to buy “en primeur”, where the tea is priced and sold even before it is produced.
Brew: While it is customary to make Dongfang Meiren using a porcelain teapot or lidded bowl, experienced tea drinkers may also choose Yixing zhuni teapots for better aroma and flavour. Use about 5g of tea leaves to 80ml of water and steep at 90°C to 95°C. The first three infusions should last about five seconds each time. Increase the duration by a few seconds for every consecutive infusion.
GRAND CRU PU’ER
lao banzhang $1,800 per 357g disc
Pu’er tea enjoys pride of place in many tea collections because, like fine wine, it is reputed to improve with age. If kept well, a vintage pu’er matures into a deeply complex, soothing brew that retains plenty of vibrancy and brightness.
“The best comes from old tea trees in Yunnan, and its character varies from region to region,” says Lim. “Particularly sought after is raw pu’er from Lao Banzhang’s old tea trees. But tea leaves from old trees here cost so much, farmers are reluctant to separate them from those of younger trees. Hence, many genuine Lao Banzhang end up being a blend of tea leaves from old and young trees that taste astringent, leading many drinkers to confuse astringency with aggression.”
Pure Lao Banzhang pu’er from an old tree is esteemed for its unusual balance of ethereal richness and volume that lead some tea drinkers to experience euphoria.
Brew: For old Lao Banzhang pu’er, choose a Yixing teapot made from hongni or zini, and use about 5g to 6g of tea leaves to 100ml of water steeped at 100°C. The first two or three infusions should last about three to five seconds each. Increase the duration by a few seconds for every consecutive infusion.
OOLONG WITH OLD-WORLD CHARM
tieguanyin $250 for 150g
First discovered in the early 1700s, Tieguanyin is a type of oolong tea that originated in Anxi in the region of Quanzhou, located on the south-eastern coast of Fujian in mainland China. In the 1800s, the Tieguanyin tea plant was brought to Muzha, south-east of Taipei, where it is cultivated to this day by the descendants of the early tea farmers. Many are now into their fourth generations. True Tieguanyin is made exclusively from hongxin waiweitao, a high-maintenance finicky cultivar that rewards great effort with an extraordinary taste profile hinting at dark ripe fruits and roasted nuts with a delightful tinge of tartness. Hong likens its charm “to an old soul, drawing one in with deeply comforting flavours.”
Brew: Choose a Yixing hongni or zhuni teapot, and use about 6g to 7g of tea leaves to about 80ml of water and steep at 100°C. The first infusion should last about 20 seconds, followed by quick short infusions of three to five seconds for the second and third steeping. Then increase the duration by a few seconds for each consecutive infusion.
Laocong Shuixian and Lao Banzhang are available from Eagle Tea Merchant by appointment or online at www.eagleteamerchant.com
Dongfang Meiren and Zhengcong Tieguanyin are available from Woo Tea Studio upon request (email: info@wooteastudio).
“THAT TEA HAS FOUND RENEWED INTEREST IN THE FIELDS OF FINE DINING, HEALTH AND WELLNESS SAYS A LOT ABOUT WHAT IT HAS TO OFFER IN A WORLD WHERE LIVES ARE REWIRED FOR A DIGITAL AGE.''
TEXT KENNY LEONG