A Tea Addict's Journal


December 5, 2009 · 14 Comments

I made some tea for class the other day, a Shuixian and an aged oolong.  I was trying to explain how Chinese have basically “invented” this new style of tea making that really has little historical basis, but is now widely viewed as “traditional Chinese tea ceremony” when nothing can be further from the truth.  What struck me though during the brewing is how different the tea tastes.  The Shuixian was subdued, without much of its natural aroma, while the aged oolong came out a bit bitter, rough, and not sweet at all like I know it to be.  I used all my regular equipment.  What’s wrong?


Specifically, the chlorine in the water.  Bringing a water filter to class and then waiting for it to filter through is really not an option, so tap water, instead, has to be used.  Maine tap water, for some reason, is really, really chlorinated.  When I turn on the tap here I can smell the chlorine.  When I boil it unfiltered, I can also smell the chlorine.  In fact, when I opened my tetsubin after that class, I could smell it in my tetsubin.  Disgusting.

School’s only two minutes away from where I live, so I am pretty certain we get the same water supply.  There’s no other vairable involved.  It has to be the chlorine (and whatever else is in the water, but most likely just that).  If you ever need proof that filtered water is necessary for a good cup of tea, this is probably it.  Bottled water, on the other hand, is a completely separate discussion.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

14 responses so far ↓

  • Maitre_Tea // December 5, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Reply

    I’m wondering what aspects of this so-called traditional Chinese tea ceremony you are referring to? Is it the part of the ceremony where pretty girls sing songs and burn incense? IIRC, aren’t some aspects of the ceremony actually have practical applications, i.e. rinsing and preheating the cups/pots not only “sanitized” the equipment and also keep everything piping hot for the tea.

    Also, I’m curious to know who invented this modern traditional Chinese tea ceremony, and for what purpose? Was it just a bunch of vendors who wanted to us it as a way to sell more tea?

  • MarshalN // December 5, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Reply

    I am talking about what we often call “gongfu tea”. It’s not traditional, unless you happen to be from the Chaozhou area. Most people in China for most of its history would regard how we make tea as insanity, or just weird. Nobody else made tea like that. I didn’t say it has no practical applications — preheating cups, short infusions, etc, all serve a particular purpose. It’s just not centuries old as some people would like you to believe.

    This method was adopted by Taiwanese (many of whom hail from the same region) and then spread via a bunch of tea people in Taiwan in the 1970s or thereabouts. It then went back to China during the 1980s and took hold in the past decade and half. Now when you go to Beijing, everybody who’s “serious” about tea will make tea with some variation of the gongfu method, but if you had gone ten or fifteen years ago, that would not have been the case at all.

  • Anonymous // December 5, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Reply

    Could you keep a pitcher of tap water with bamboo charcoal at the school? I do that at work: refill it with tap water before I leave, and most of the chlorine is gone by the morning.

    Anyway, I didn’t realize the “gongfu” method was that recent. Now I’m curious what they would have done in Beijing (or anywhere outside of Chaozhou) 20 or 30 years ago. Larger pots Longer steeps? Cooler water?

    As for who spread it: I could easily imagine customers getting scared away by an overly elaborate and precise ritual, thinking that they wouldn’t be able to do it properly at home. Seems more likely to be tea drinkers that wanted to feel superior and show off (“gongfu” style uses more leaves), and then the vendors followed along to tell to them.

  • Anonymous // December 6, 2009 at 4:04 am | Reply

    Sorry to hear that. I guess the main reason might be the combination of japanese pure iron tetsubin with highly chlorinated water. The amount of chlorine in tap water is restricted and also state-regulated. Even though chlorine evaporates easily even at normal room condition, it is still a very agressive chemical. Thus we’re told to rest tap water in plastic or earthen container rather than metal container.
    I guess at 80-100°C some chlorine did react with iron from the tetsubin, which is also reactive and the result could be any chemicals ranging from FeClx to anything.
    To confirm this, you might try to boil the same water using a normal stainless steel/glass kettle and again use it for brewing the tea. Should the chlorine smell in your tetsubin still remain there after multiple rinsing/cleaning, it is also an indication of this guess.
    This is also what I predict and thus prevent me from buying iron tetsubin. Well.. silver tetsubin isn’t user friendly as well, so I stick with regular Siemens kettle.

  • Anonymous // December 6, 2009 at 6:45 am | Reply

    Regarding Gong Fu, I’m not questioning you or your knowledge of tea, since I’m far from an expert myself, but I’d prefer it if you could mention at least one reliable source behind these statements – say a printed book or a scientific report, something that can be fact-checked by me or others in the community. I hope you see my concern here, and I think you have also stressed this before on other topics. There is so much “facts” about tea out there, with most blogers and commentators just passing on these snaps of information that no one no longer knows the original source of and that’s never been empirically tested. Based on what I’ve read here before, I don’t think you or your blog fall under that category, but I also believe that the only way to get rid of all this bullshit (pardon me) is if everybody (I mean everybody) adheres to the same principles when discussing these topics and passing out information.

  • cha_bing // December 6, 2009 at 10:40 am | Reply

    I’d also be interested to hear more about the history of gongfu brewing, if you have time to put a few posts up here about it. I distinctly remember first encountering gongfu tea brewing in what was perhaps a touristy tea shop in Beijing in 1996. I think the guide book I was using may have even had a brief blurb on the brewing method, commenting on the intensity of the tea and the caffeine jolt you can get from it. I don’t think the tea shop was new, because I remember that it had pictures of George H.W. Bush visiting the shop several years before. But at the time I had no real awareness of much about tea or tea brewing. Plus, that was a long time ago and the details are a bit hazy.

  • MarshalN // December 6, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Reply

    Betta: Good point about chlorine + iron maybe doing something. I normally use filtered water that removes almost all the chlorine, so it’s usually not an issue at all.

    J: Good question. This is ongoing research on my part, and as far as I know, nobody has come out and said anything to that effect. However, if you look at older depictions of tea drinking, you’ll see two types: large pot with cup, or gaiwan with no cup. The idea of using very small pots that’s filled with leaves and then decanting within seconds of pouring the water in, which is our standard definition for gongfu tea these days, is not really something that people practiced on a large scale. A book on Chengdu teahouses, called The Teahouse by Wang Di, will show you some of this. Anecdotally, my grandfather told me he’s never encountered tea drinking in the gongfu format until I showed it to him. It’s not done where my family’s from, although now you can find stores that will do it no matter what.

    Cha_bing: I’m almost absolutely positive the tea shop you refer to is Tenfu, which is owned and operated by Taiwanese investors pushing Taiwanese tea in the mainland. They are a big conduit for spreading this new way of tea making.

  • teadoff // December 6, 2009 at 10:11 pm | Reply

    When I first encountered a serious teashop in Hong Kong in the late 80’s, gong fu brewing was already the norm amongst knowledgeable tea drinkers either in gaiwan or small yixing teapot. Outside of these tea circles, most people would never brew gong fu style.

    In the Qing period, we see small yixing pots that still serve as inspiration to modern potters. This leads me to believe that gong fu brewing was practiced even then. In thinking further on this, I would imagine a good yixing teapot was not affordable to the average person either then or in the late 80’s, and, maybe this style of brewing was more popular amongst the richer, more scholarly class. With all the gentrification of modern life in recent years, the masses are now privy to all sorts of information that was not easily available before the advent of the internet and the opening up of China. To me, it makes sense that gongfu brewing is not a new invention but a practice that was reserved for an elite class who could afford such things.

    BTW, bamboo charcoal will get rid of cholorine easily.

  • MarshalN // December 6, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Reply

    @teadoff – 

    I thought about this as well, but I think there is one problem here — namely, I have yet to encounter any old text that talks about gongfu brewing in a way that I recognize as similar to modern gongfu brewing. The belief back then was to use smaller pots, but how they used these smaller pots doesn’t seem to be the same as how we use our smaller pots now. In fact, there’s evidence that 1) they used the pots to drink from as well as to brew, which means 2) you cannot have the same tea/water ratio that we carry these days, because our current way of drinking requires immediate decanting, lest the tea gets too strong.

    Also, along with the small pots there was a large amount of large pots that were made as well, and many of the most famous Yixing pots that survive are in fact larger, rather than smaller. This again suggests that there was a diverse mix of brewing styles that existed, rather than one “traditional Chinese tea ceremony”.

  • teadoff // December 6, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Reply

    I’ve never been on the scholarly side of tea drinking so I wouldn’t know about the old texts, but, your comment about diverse styles was probably the case. I’ve also read about drinking directly from the pot and thinking it would be impossible to do with gongfu brewing. Mighty hot!

    One of the terms I still have a hard time with is the reference to ‘Chinese Tea Ceremony’. Maybe it is used loosely to describe the process of preparing the tools and the tea but I’ve never gotten the feeling of any formal ‘ceremony’ as opposed to the Japanese style of mattcha preparation and service. Tea drinking amongst the Chinese has always been a social and lively affair incorporating good conversation and even tasty treats. No ‘practice’ involved, so to speak.

  • MarshalN // December 6, 2009 at 10:50 pm | Reply

    @teadoff – 

    I never liked the term “Chinese Tea Ceremony” myself, and cringe whenever I see it. There’s no real ceremony here, just tea making. If you want a ceremony, you should visit Japan :). However, lots of people use the term, and somehow people associate it with gongfu tea making. This is why I posted about the idea in the first place — it is neither “traditional” nor a ceremony. Chinese tea making, perhaps, is the better name.

  • ABx009 // December 14, 2009 at 3:55 am | Reply

    I cringe at the term “ceremony” as well 🙂

    From reading, I believe tea was originally ground and boiled, at least once they started to refine tea (before that it was apparently dried and charred and very bitter). I did, however, get the impression that something akin to gongfu started in the Ming dynasty; could there be differences in brewing styles by class, as it was in the Tang dynasty? I’m sure that modern techniques are quite new, though, as it seems like everything about tea continually evolves at a faster pace than you might think (just look at the differences in leaf from the 80’s). If nothing else, there would be differences just to accommodate the changing shapes of leaf.

    One thing that’s going to affect the level of chlorine out of your tap is actually your distance from the treatment plant. When I lived in a nearby suburb, my bathroom constantly smelled like a pool. In my current apartment, however, there’s almost none.

    One other thing that I discovered is that the minerals in very hard water can sometimes smell similar to chlorine. I realized that I was mistaking the smell at the last place I lived, which seemed to get more water from a local reservoir (instead of snow melt). I realized this when I got a bottle of mineral water that smelled similar.

    I don’t know that a single piece of bamboo charcoal in the kettle would do all that much. I’m sure it would help a little, but it takes a significant amount of charcoal to completely dechlorinate (even Brita and such only claim to remove the smell if you check the fine print).

  • florian // May 28, 2012 at 8:40 am | Reply

    gongfu cha it’s true that always has changed or evolved, but I think it should be traced at the begining of Qing dynasty…considering that the Ruoshen small porcelain cups which are used even nowadays in a gongfu cha were made by a potter with the same name who lived at the begining of Qing. I took a picture of those cups from a book with antiques, where this potter’s name, Ruoshen (若深), it is written on the bottom of those, some simple white and some white with blue porcelain cups…i forgot the dimensions but it was smth. between 4 to 5 cm.

    even nowadays those two, the small pot and small cups, are used in gongfu cha.

    a chinese document of late Qing by Lianheng (连横- a chinese scholar from Fujian who left for Taiwan), called Mingtan(茗谈) ,,Talk on tea” says smth. like: ,,Tea must be Wuyi, cups must be Ruoshen, pot must be Mengchen.” Hui Mengchen (惠孟臣) was the name of a scholar of late Ming. Mengchen type pots are made of zisha, purple clay.

    it is true that he doesn’t mention the word gongfu cha in his document, but pincha 品茶-tea tasting, but what ,,tea tasting” is, if not a gongfu cha (功夫茶-tea with skill)?
    so I think we should trace the history of gongfucha much much earlier than modern China.

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