There is an old saying that “patience is a virtue,” and many wise tea connoisseurs say that tea teaches patience. Well, I must be neither virtuous nor a good pupil, for I have little patience when it comes to tea. When the teacup is empty, I want it filled now!
There are many out there who feel the same way. They use electric kettles to heat the water a few seconds faster, or a tea steeping machine that forces hot water through the dry tea bits and gives you an entire cup of hot tea in a minute or maybe less. Patience certainly seems in short supply these days when it comes to tea. Or is it?
Even as ever faster steeping methods are devised, more tea lovers are discovering that taking time with their tea is very rewarding. They are exploring the traditions that grew around the preparing and enjoying of tea. They are also setting time aside from the task of the moment to switch into low gear and coast a bit while the tea steeps. This can be a very refreshing moment in the day but also shows the importance of a bit of patience.
The first time of patience is required as the tea plants (Camellia Sinensis) lie dormant and then start once again to put forth their fresh crop of buds and leaves. This patience gets severely tested and can bring those who are enamored of first flush (the first time of growth and then harvest after dormancy) teas, especially those from Darjeeling, to the brink of insanity. How else would one explain them paying premium prices to have some of this first crop flown in (“flugtee” as the Germans call it)?
The second time of patience is in the processing of the tea leaves. This can often involve days, weeks, and months with each step needing to be done just so and time for natural chemistry to take its course. Experienced workers hand sort out the premium leaves (some teas only use buds or leaf-bud combos) and grade them on quality (teas like pu-erh have 10 grades and Silver Tip tea uses only tipmost leaves and buds). Moisture has to be removed from the leaves so they can be rolled and shaped. This drying is called withering and takes time and patience plus the knowledge to stop the process at the right moment. Rolling and shaping have to be done carefully and again with patience, since they release natural oils and so cannot be overdone. Oxidizing is done for oolongs and black teas, a process that again takes time and patience, especially for the oolongs since the process has to be stopped at the right moment. Pan firing stops the oxidizing and cannot be rushed or the leaves will be burnt. Flavoring/scenting takes patience, too, such as for jasmine teas where flower petals are layered between racks of tea leaves and let sit awhile.
The third time of patience is getting the tea to market, and from there to vendors, and from there into the hands of folks like you who will steep and enjoy. The leaves that were tended so carefully in the gardens, plucked and processed so carefully by skilled workers, must now be bulk packaged for those vendors, who then break down those bulk packages into smaller pouches and tea tins for more easily selling to you.
The fourth time of patience is for the steeping. Here is where centuries old traditions are coming more and more into play. One of them is the method known as “gongfu cha” (roughly meaning skilled tea). It involves more than dunking a string-and-tag teabag in some hot water. First, you must have the patience to learn about tea and how to prepare it to best advantage. Then, you must have the patience to use what you have learned. There is also the traditional Japanese ceremony Cha No Yu (the Way of Tea), full of symbolism and involving items created especially for it: the chashitsu (tea room), the chawan (tea bowl), the kama (kettle), and the hanaire (flower container). Masters of this ceremony can practice it on average of 5 to 10 years — that’s a lot of tea patience!
Fortunately for me, the only real patience I need is for the kettle to boil and the tea to steep. The wonderful black teas that I drink most often are ones that store well and so are available year round. Still, when my teacup is empty, it can really try my patience. But I am learning to deal with that, and the soothing powers of tea certainly help!
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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