Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Breaking the Law

I tore open the hermetically-sealed bag of a Taiwanese oolong tea, Rishi's Bai Hao Oolong Hsinchu. It had been a couple of weeks since I picked up this tea from my farmer's market but the bag remained unopened until now, when I finally found the time to sit down to a proper tea tasting. One at which I would be comfortably ensconced at the kitchen table, sipping multiple infusions of the tea at my leisure. So with the beeper turned to mute, I set out to brew the oolong in my gaiwan. I sat next to the sun-filled window where I would be bathed in the warm rays, where the sunlight lay dappled here and there, shimmery like silent wind chimes.

I looked at the brewing instructions printed on the bag of tea and read them with perplexity: I was to fill 75% of my gaiwan with the tea leaves and brew the first infusion for one minute and the successive 2nd and 3rd infusions for a mere 20 seconds. Seventy five percent full? I glanced at the trimly packed and not overly plentiful batch of this oolong and quickly decided against depleting what would be tantamount to most of the bag's content at one sitting. Instead, I scooped out a mere tablespoonful of the leaves into the gaiwan and poured hot water over them. I also settled on a longer brewing time of 2 1/2 minutes - instead of the enjoined one minute- wondering what consequences my flouting of the printed directions would yield. Was I foolhardy, risking an encounter with an insipid cup of tea by not following directions? But I felt myself bucking against a reflexive obedience to authority. But what was this authority?

I pictured a phalanx of dignified high priests of tea at Rishi decreeing, "they shall brew this oolong with the lion's share of their tea supply for no longer than 1 minute." Was tea a subject so enshrouded in mystery that only an elite few enjoyed the power to dictate its modes of preparation and consumption? I wasn't sure about that and moreover, I was accustomed to brewing oolongs with modest amounts of tea leaves and with longer brewing times, lengthening those of successive infusions.

My tea brewed up an aromatic cupful, one with floral notes emanating from a limpid honey-colored liquor. The first infusion, alas, was overbrewed and tasted bitter. However, I still detected a fruitiness present in this lightly-oxidized oolong. Not yet chastened, I then brewed the second and third infusions, keeping the brewing time of 2 1/2 minutes the same.

Finally, I hit the jackpot. In both infusions, the floral and fruity notes emerged -unalloyed with any bitterness. I sipped with delight, savoring the nuanced complexity of this tea.


Jason Witt said...

I've had success both with following the instructions "to a t" and with breaking the rules as you've done here. I guess it depends on mood a lot. When you're feeling adventurous and yet connected, you might be able to feel out the best steeping time for the tea. However, you always risk making mistakes until you find what you prefer. --Teaternity

Anonymous said...

The smell of the tea while it is steeping tells me when to pour off the infusion. If the water temperature is right the smell of the wet leaf will be vibrant.