The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Bonus Levels (Matcha and Masala Chai)

Hello, again! While I ended the main tea primer with Level Three’s superficial introduction to gong fu brewing, I thought I’d return with two “bonus level” techniques. While I’m not a tea expert by any means, I have had first-hand teaching in two specific traditional preparations of tea: Japanese matcha and Indian masala chai. So I thought I’d share a little bit about how I incorporate these techniques into my own tea practices when I want something a little different than just leaves steeped in water.

Matcha:

Matcha is a type of ground green tea powder that is used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The most authentic forms of matcha are made from tencha tea leaves that have been shaded for at least a few weeks to force the tea to concentrate some of its chemical constituents to produce a brighter green color and a richer umami flavor. It is made from a variety of green tea known as tencha. For more about traditional matcha production, I really like this overview from Ippodo.

Because the processing leads to high concentrations of certain chemical constituents, matcha has gained a reputation as a health superfood in recent years. Unfortunately, that means that there is a lot of subpar matcha on the market being sold as a supplement. Matcha is also used in baking, lattes, and other recipes, which mutes subtle flavors, so typically “culinary grade” matcha is used for these purposes. While good culinary grade matcha is absolutely drinkable on its own, it does not compare to the experience of a really nice bowl of matcha, prepared traditionally.

Personally, my favorite matcha comes from Ippodo. Since their products ship from Japan, the international shipping can be a bit steep, but if you buy a few different things, the value is still pretty good for the quality you’re getting. I tend to mention which specific matcha I’m drinking on my Instagram profile, usually for Matcha Monday. And I will use a good-quality matcha in a latte, mostly because I tend not to add much sweetener, so as to let the flavor of the matcha come through.

But matcha is primarily known for being the tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. I’m fortunate enough to live in a city where there is an active society for the preservation and teaching of the Japanese tea ceremony. I visited the Washington DC Chado Urasenke Tankokai last year and chronicled my experience of a private demonstration and lesson in the Japanese tea ceremony, and I thought I’d share how this experience has informed my preparation of matcha.

When I make a bowl of matcha at home, I don’t follow the whole tea ceremony. Obviously, the ceremony is an inherently social, service-oriented practice, so making a bowl of matcha for myself is not the same. But I do observe some of the procedures.

First, I make sure to set out all my tools carefully before I begin. I heat my water, usually to 180 F because it will cool upon being poured out into another vessel. My first step is to pour some water into my chawan (or matcha bowl) and whisk it with my chasen (matcha whisk) a few times to moisten the whisk. Then, I empty the water from my bowl and wipe it with a cloth I use only for preparing and cleaning up after matcha. The next step is to measure out my matcha. Because I only sift matcha as needed, I place my sifter over my chawan and measure out two scoops of matcha with my chashaku (matcha scoop) and use the chashaku to gently push the matcha through the sifter. I remove the sifter and measure out two ounces of hot water in a separate cup. This, I pour over the matcha in the chawan and whisk. I whisk with a back-and-forth motion for about 15-30 seconds, until a nice froth has appeared. Then, I make a few slow circles to help break up larger bubbles.

Now it is time to savor my matcha. I like to sit in silence and enjoy my matcha, focusing on it entirely. It is a small amount, so it doesn’t take a long time, but I do roll it around in my mouth and appreciate the complex flavors. Some matchas are quite umami, or savory, in flavor, while others have varying degrees of floral, tart, or vegetal flavors.

Once I’ve finished my bowl of matcha, I clean up. This comes from my past Zen practice and the koan “Wash Your Bowl”. I take my empty matcha bowl back to the kettle, pour in some hot water, swish the whisk around in it to wash off the matcha, and then put it on the whisk stand to dry with the tines facing down so that water doesn’t run into the handle and mold. The stand also helps to keep the shape of the whisk. I empty out the chawan and wipe it with my cloth. I also wipe off the chashaku and sifter, after tapping off excess powder. Then, everything goes back into the tea cabinet. I never leave my matcha tools out, even though I’m rather bad about leaving out my other tea tools.

In this way, making a bowl of matcha becomes a meditative activity as well as a morning beverage. I don’t know if it is the theanine in matcha that makes my mornings feel brighter and calmer, or if this small meditation puts me in a good frame of mind, but my mornings that start with matcha are almost always calmer and more productive.

If you’re interested in learning more about traditional matcha, I highly recommend looking for a Chado society near you. And I give a list of matcha tools that I use on a regular basis in the information box below this video (which also shows my matcha preparation).

Masala Chai:

When I was fresh out of graduate school and freshly divorced, I moved around a lot, often living in shared houses. In one of these houses, I lived with an Indian woman and her husband. Every morning, one of them would wake up early and make masala chai. Masala chai means “mixed-spice tea” (fun fact: “chai” just means “tea,” so the Western habit of referring to spiced tea as just “chai” is somewhat like the habit of calling a caffe latte a “latte,” which in Italy just refers to plain milk) and is a blend of black tea with various spices. According to my housemate, it is made and served at all hours of the day and her family is always up for tea.

Traditionally, masala chai is often made by boiling spices and tea in milk, but my method involves preparing the tea with only water, since my housemate was lactose intolerant and would let everyone choose their own form of milk or milk substitute. So this is her method, which I quite enjoy.

First, she would put a cinnamon stick, some cardamom pods, some black peppercorns, and maybe a couple cloves or allspice berries (I prefer allspice because cloves can easily overwhelm the other spices) in a mortar and pestle and hit them a few times just to crack the pepper, break up the cinnamon, and open the cardamom pods. These would go into a small saucepan, along with a few slices of fresh ginger. This would be covered with water and brought to a boil, and then simmered for at least fifteen minutes (sometimes it would simmer for longer, as the did other things to get ready for the day). Then, she would turn off the heat and add a couple spoonfuls of loose-leaf black tea. She used loose-leaf Tetley that her family would send her from India, but I generally recreate this with a loose-leaf Assam tea. This would steep for about five minutes, and then get strained into mugs. Each person can add milk and sweetener as desired. She liked almond milk and stevia, while I usually used whole milk and honey. A very traditional way to sweeten it would be to add jaggery, which is an Indian unrefined sugar, but as it comes in lumps, it generally has to be boiled with the spices to fully dissolve.

The nice thing about masala chai is that it doesn’t require much in the way of fancy ingredients. I can get all the spices I use in the grocery store, and it generally works out well with any strong black tea. Inexpensive “English breakfast” tea blends often use strong Indian teas, so if you can’t find Assam, any English breakfast tea should work. While the tools may seem daunting, I have made this tea by smashing my spices on a cutting board with a heavy jar (it remains my favorite use for coconut oil), rather than using a mortar and pestle, and if you have a tea infuser mug, you can use the infuser to strain the tea if you don’t have a small strainer.

I will say that I’m not a fan of pre-blended loose-leaf masala chai. If I had to choose one, I would probably go with Rishi’s, because they use the most cardamom, which is my favorite, but I find that with pre-blended masala chai, you don’t get enough spice flavor before the tea is oversteeped and unpleasant. They’re nice in a pinch, but if I’m going to indulge, I do it properly by boiling the spices separately.

So those are my two “bonus levels” of tea. Perhaps in the future, I’ll expand this primer, so let me know in the comments if there are more tea topics you’d like me to cover!

NB: I have not been provided any incentive to mention any of the shops or products mentioned in this post.

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The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Level Three

(or “Getting fancy with gong fu cha”)

Now you’ve explored a bit of the world of higher-quality loose-leaf tea. You can make yourself a pretty nice mug of tea. Perhaps you’ve even bought a few different options for teaware, like a teapot and an infuser mug. And you’ve tried a few different kinds of teas. No big deal, but you want more.

Well, this is where I want to talk about gong fu cha, or brewing based on the Chinese tea ceremony. Gong fu style brewing involves steeping a relatively large amount of tea leaf in a smaller amount of water for a series of short brews, rather than putting a small amount of leaf into a mug for a few minutes. It yields a tea session, rather than a cup of tea, and can be a wonderful way to really get to know a tea.

Before we really get into this, I wanted to point out that I am in no way an expert on the Chinese tea ceremony, nor should this be considered a guide to really “authentic” or traditional gong fu brewing. For more information about the context and history of formal gong fu cha, you can check out this article or see if there is somewhere near you to experience a Chinese gong fu tea ceremony. It’s worth noting that, in China, most people brew their tea much less formally, either grandpa-style or in a modified grandpa-style by throwing tea leaves in a pot and letting them brew as they serve it, refilling with water as needed.

Anyway, back to gong fu cha. The name means “tea with great skill” and it is, at its essence, a method of steeping tea with precision and control over the factors. This is the level at which I find it the most beneficial to consider adding things like a temperature-controlled kettle and a small scale for weighing tea. Yes, you could absolutely buy these things sooner, but if you want to have a good gong fu session, you’re definitely going to want to have more precise control over the temperature of your water and exactly how much tea you’re using.

One note on the style of this level: I’m going to talk about the techniques and general equipment, and give a sort of “buyer’s guide” at the end, rather than interspersing vendor recommendations with the instructions. You can also check out my previous post about “Getting Started with Tea on Amazon Prime” for some recommendations on teaware that I use.

So here are the basics: You take a small vessel, usually around 3-5 oz. (90-150ml) and fill it approximately ⅓ of the way with tea leaf, and then fill with water. You steep the tea for seconds, maybe 10-30 seconds at first, and then strain it into another vessel to serve. The steeping is repeated as many times as you get flavor out of the tea, typically adding on 10-15 seconds to each steeping. It is also not unusual to rinse the tea before the first steeping. Typically Chinese tea cups are much smaller than Western tea cups, sometimes only an ounce or two in volume, so a 150-ml teapot can yield tea for more than one person (or you can drink the whole thing yourself). It is important to note the difference in vessel size so that you’re not surprised by the size of your teaware when it arrives. When my husband bought me a 60-ml teapot recently, he thought he’d been sent the wrong thing at first when he saw how absolutely tiny it was. Yes, it’s supposed to be that small — you’re brewing a tea session, not a single cuppa to linger over.

The essential tools for gong fu brewing are a vessel for steeping and a vessel for drinking. The classic example of a steeping vessel is the gaiwan. This is a small cup, usually made of clay or glass, that has a cover. The cover helps keep volatile oils from evaporating during steeping, and also serves as a way to strain leaves out of the tea when you move it from the steeping vessel to the drinking vessel. The drinking vessel can be anything, although if you have quite a small brewing vessel, straining into a large mug can look and feel a bit silly. That said, I routinely use a gaiwan for steeping and strain it into an English tea cup.

From there, you can add elements to make your tea brewing experience more refined. Some people like to strain their tea more than the lid of a gaiwan allows, and use a mesh strainer over their drinking or serving vessel. Some prefer to strain into a serving pitcher and move it to drinking cups from there (this is particularly useful when your cup is slightly smaller than your brewing vessel). And going further, in the most formal tea ceremonies, tools such as picks, scoops, and tongs are used to handle the tea and teaware to avoid the oils and dirt from your hands from contaminating the tea. Finally, since gong fu brewing can involve a fair amount of spilling and discarding liquid, some people choose to use a tea tray with a draining base so they can simply pour the liquid through. Personally, I either use a discard vessel, or else brew outside on my wooden deck, which acts as a sort of giant tea tray.

Additionally, not all gong fu brewing has to be done in a gaiwan. There are also small Chinese teapots that can serve as a brewing vessel. While glazed porcelain is common, some pots are unglazed and made of materials like clay or silver, which are thought to alter the taste of the tea in interesting ways. Unglazed clay can also supposedly pick up a kind of season, and when used for one tea or one type of tea, and impart complexity and additional flavor as they take on more of that kind of tea. Personally, I have two teapots that are unglazed on the inside, one for oolongs (particularly bug-bitten “honey” oolongs) and one for ripe pu-erh, but I generally brew in glass or glazed porcelain so that I don’t have any concerns about using any teaware for any tea in my cupboard.

Alright, so let’s imagine that you’ve just received your first gaiwan. Time to brew some tea, right? Not so fast. I highly recommend you practice moving liquid into and out of your gaiwan, without the pressure of actually steeping a cup of tea (and the hazard of hot water). There is a bit of a learning curve with gaiwan brewing, and I had my fair share of spilled tea and burned fingers when I started out. Indeed, even after years of practice, I have bad days where I just can’t seem to strain from the gaiwan properly. This will also give you the chance to get an idea while gaiwan “hold” you like best. The trick is to be able to hold the edge of the pot and keep a finger on the lid to keep it from falling off, all with one hand. The two basic holds are holding the edges of the bowl with your thumb and middle finger, while keeping your index finger on the lid, or holding the whole thing (with saucer, if you have one) in your hand, while keeping your thumb on the lid. These holds are demonstrated in the photos below.

Okay, so you have a gaiwan and you know how to use it. Time to steep some tea! Wait, no. There are still two more tools you should consider getting: a temperature-controlled kettle and a digital scale. As I said earlier, you can absolutely buy these things sooner, but for gong fu brewing I find them more necessary. The whole point of gong fu cha is having control over the brewing of the tea, and it’s important to know how much tea you’re using and how hot the water is. On a more practical level, I’ve definitely had trouble eyeballing how much rolled oolong tea to use and ended up with a gaiwan so cram-jam full of leaves, once they’d expanded in the water, that I can barely get water into the gaiwan. Weighing your leaf gives you a better idea of how much tea you really need. For reference, this photo shows the same weight of three different teas:

Finally, now can we brew some tea? Okay, you’ll want to start by determining how much tea you need and how hot to heat your water. Again, the amount of tea, the temperature, and the steeping time are all things you can play around with to get your favorite iteration of a particular tea, but I find that a good starting point for amount of tea is to use approximate 1-1.5 g of tea per ounce (30 ml) of water. So for a 150-ml gaiwan, you would use about 5-8 g of tea (for reference, the typical tea bag contains about 2 g of tea, which makes an entire mug, so this is a lot of tea for a small amount of water).

Water temperature will vary by tea type, and generally it’s good to start brewing black teas at 200-212 F (95-100 C), oolongs at 180-200 F (80-95 C), greens at 160-180 F (70-80 C), and white teas at 180-195 F (80-90 C). Ripe pu-erh teas can handle boiling water, while raw pu-erh teas benefit from being treated a bit more gently and may prefer water at 195 F (90 C). From there, you can follow the troubleshooting in previous levels to adjust water temperature (or tea amount).

The steeping method is often called “flash infusion” as the tea is brewed for a very short time. It’s usual to give the tea a rinse, particularly for rolled or compressed teas. The rinse gives the dry tea a chance to take on some water and start to open up, and in the case of aged teas, can help rinse off any dust that may have settled. To rinse the tea, pour some hot water over it in the brewing vessel, swirl it once or twice, and strain it into your other vessels. I like to use this rinse to warm the teaware. Then, discard the rinse (or taste it, if you want).

Once you’ve rinsed your tea, it’s time to start steeping. Start with 5-30 seconds. It sounds like an absurdly short amount of time, but it really does give you a fuller picture of how the tea opens up. I like to stick to this guideline the first time I try any particular tea. For black teas and pu-erhs, I definitely stick to the 5-10 seconds for a first steeping, but for green and white teas, I usually extend the first steeping to 20 seconds, and for rolled oolongs, I start with a 30-second first steeping. It is a bit frantic, particularly if you haven’t perfected your gaiwan hold, but do the best you can to steep it and strain it quickly.

Then, taste the tea. This isn’t tea to gulp. You’re brewing this way to get to know the tea, so take your time. Smell it. Write things down. Write down exactly how you steeped your tea and how it turned out.

Then, repeat, adding 5-10 seconds onto each subsequent brewing. The flashest of flash steeping sessions is the method recommended by the company White2Tea, where you rinse, and then steep the tea for 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, and so on, for up to ten steepings. Personally, I tend to start with 10 seconds for a first steeping because I don’t often find a tea where that first 5-second steeping doesn’t just taste like a second rinse.

As you take notes, you can experiment with brewing parameters. Some teas want to be pushed. Some teas release a lot of flavors quickly and could be pulled back with a shorter steeping. I’ve actually salvaged some green teas that I thought were unpalatable at first by cooling off the water and steeping for shorter times at first. Play around with it, but write things down, so you can repeat the sessions you enjoy.

Alright, now I want to talk a little bit about where to buy your teaware for gong fu brewing. While I’ve mentioned my Amazon post, I don’t actually prefer to buy most things from Amazon. The two things that can definitely come from somewhere like Amazon or Target are an electric kettle and a digital scale. I prefer a scale that is precise to at least 0.1g (both of mine are precise to 0.01g), so that I don’t have to worry about the precision of the scale affecting my steepings. I have this one at home and this one in my office.

Kettles are a whole different rabbit-hole. Personally, I’ve never bought a fancy gooseneck kettle, though I can see how the control could be helpful with filling smaller teaware. But I’ve used the Chefman programmable kettle my husband bought me for Christmas for the last couple of years. Before that, I think I just picked something up from Target. But any decently-rated kettle that allows you to control the temperature to within 10 degrees Fahrenheit should work fine. It’ll probably run you at least $25-50.

Okay, now onto the fun stuff. The thing about teaware is that there is just such a wide array of beautifully-crafted things that you can use to make tea. You can choose to get matching pieces or sets, or you can pick and choose and put together an eclectic collection. I can’t get into all the artists that I’ve patronized over the years here, so definitely check out my YouTube channel to see my teaware collection in action. But a good starting point is Teaware.House and Yunnan Sourcing. Both have a large variety of teaware at a variety of price points, and tend to be very up front about the volume of the pieces they sell, so you can put together a set that works for you.

I would recommend starting with at least a gaiwan and a cup that is approximately the same volume as the gaiwan (or a gaiwan, a pitcher, and a smaller cup). A good starter gaiwan size is 100-150 ml. A smaller gaiwan will allow you to experiment more while using less tea, while a larger gaiwan will allow you to get a little more tea out of a single steeping and perhaps give you the chance to linger over each cup a big more. You can also start with a “travel” or “easy” gaiwan set, which fits together so that the cup is like a lid for the gaiwan. This incorporates the two essential items of gong fu brewing into one set and is very convenient. If you’re picky about leaf debris getting into your cup, you can also pick up a strainer (though I rarely use one), and if you’re serious about gong fu cha, there are further tools that you can check out in the article I linked earlier about the traditional method.

As far as sourcing teas, there are some good resources in Level Two, but here is where I would suggest checking out one of the more daunting tea sellers, like Yunnan Sourcing, or their sister site Taiwan Sourcing, for Taiwanese oolongs. I find that gong fu style brewing works particularly well with Chinese and Taiwanese tea, probably because the brewing techniques originated with those cultures. If you want to dive into the pu-erh rabbit hole, Yunnan Sourcing has a huge variety, but I also have enjoyed what I’ve gotten from White2Tea. They also sell other types of tea, which I’ve tried and reviewed in the past. One note: Yunnan Sourcing in particular can be incredibly intimidating to order from. If you don’t have a tea style in mind, or you’re not the kind of person to just try things blindly, try one of their samplers or contact Scott. He’s extremely nice and helpful and pretty responsive over email and Instagram DM. He also has a great YouTube channel where he posts videos of himself and his wife (and guests) tasting and discussing various teas that they sell.

Once you’ve bought your first gaiwan and started experimenting with gong fu brewing, it will probably be a matter of time before you’ve developed a bit of a collection of both tea and teaware. So perhaps, also consider thinking about getting a new cabinet to store your newfound hobby tools in. But that is a discussion for another time. There is so much more to say about the world of tea, but I will leave this guide there and allow you to explore from there.

Level Three: The Brief Takeaway

  1. Gong fu cha (“Tea with great skill”) is based on the Chinese tea ceremony and involves the precise brewing of tea.
  2. A larger volume of tea is steeped in a smaller vessel for a shorter amount of time, and resteeped to experience how the tea changes over time.
  3. You need a steeping vessel and a drinking vessel, though further elements can come in handy. This is also the point at which you want to consider getting a digital scale and a programmable kettle.
  4. Chinese teaware is much smaller than Western teaware, with brewing vessels being around 100-200 ml.
  5. The classic brewing vessel of gong fu cha is the gaiwan, which is usually around 100-150 ml. Practice handling your gaiwan before you add hot water to the equation.
  6. Start with 1-1.5 g of tea leaves per 30 ml of water.
  7. Start with water temperatures of: 200-212 F for black tea, 180-200 F for oolong tea, 160-180 F for green tea, 180-195 F for white tea, 212 F for ripe pu-erh and 195 F for raw pu-erh.
  8. Rinse the tea and then steep for 5-30 seconds at first, then increase each subsequent steeping by 5-10 seconds. Steep until you stop enjoying the tea, sometimes as much as 10 times.
  9. Take notes on how you prepared the tea and what the result was for each tea session.
  10. To start your tea collection, take a look at Teaware House and Yunnan Sourcing for a variety of Chinese teaware at different price points.

Coming Soon: Bonus Level! Some tea techniques that don’t fit into the basic primer…

NB: All vendors mentioned in this post are vendors that I have used and liked, and I have received no compensation for recommending them.