The enjoyment of tea encourages us to engage all of our senses. Look at the shape and colour of the dry leaves, watch them unfurl and swirl in the hot water. Feel the cool smoothness of gyokuro leaves or the nubbly texture of a Buddha’s hand oolong leaf. Listen to the water boiling in the kettle, then as it’s poured from kettle to teapot to cup. Savour each sip, perceiving the range of tastes playing across your palate.
Our sense of smell may be the most important, and most varied, aspect of enjoying tea. Sniff the dry leaf in the sack or tin immediately after opening it to draw in the scent; again when you first pour hot water onto the leaves; and once more when bringing cup to lips. After the teapot is empty, lift the cover and take in the lingering bouquet graciously left by the tea on the interior of the pot.
To further enhance the olfactory appreciation of tea, in the mid-1900s the aroma cup was created in Taiwan. Also called a fragrance or smelling cup, this is a small cylindrical cup (wen xiang bei) paired with a small drinking cup (cha bei). Specifically designed to amplify the aromas of fragrant Taiwan oolongs, you can of course try it with other types of teas.
Fresh-made tea is first poured into the tall cup and allowed to rest for a few moments, then emptied into the drinking cup. The aroma cup is then raised toward the nose to smell the lingering tea fragrance, which is intensified by the cylindrical shape. Aromas last for about a minute, during which time they subtly change as the cup cools, offering multiple nuances of scent. Alternate smelling and drinking the tea from the two cups.
A related method is to invert the drinking cup over the aroma cup after you fill it with tea. For added drama, and if you’re nimble, lift the cups together with thumb and middle finger of one hand, quickly flipping them over to transfer the tea into the drinking cup. Otherwise, just remove the drinking cup and set it down, then pour the tea from the aroma cup into it. Then sniff the aroma cup. Ahhhh!
It’s been said that smell is the most evocative of all the senses, that a mere hint of a familiar scent can draw us immediately to another time and place. Certainly this is true of the fragrances of tea. If you don’t already use an aroma cup to enhance your tea enjoyment, I highly recommend that you give it a try.
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