True Tea Culture

by John Romanov about a year ago in history

Answering the biggest questions amongst tea drinkers: Bagged or loose leaf? What’s the difference and why does it matter? What's the good stuff and where do I get it?

True Tea Culture
Her Majesty the Queen enjoys her morning cuppa Earl Grey.

Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. In Britain, it’s a part of our daily lives and has played an essential role in shaping British society as it exists today. That being said, tea is a very personal experience. How do you take your tea? With milk? Sugar? Which one comes first? Some say milk while others say tea. Each cuppa is designed to meet the specifications of the person who’ll be enjoying it. While tea is a staple in our culture and various other cultures around the world, one question remains prominent: Do you prefer bagged tea or loose leaf tea?

The answer to that should always be the latter. Loose leaf tea all the way!

My personal tea journey has taken me down a very long road of experimentation and trial and error. This is the experience that most tea enthusiasts have while they are expanding their tea palette. Needless to say, I’ve prepared and have been served some AWFUL tea; In the past I’ve been served a lukewarm cuppa that tastes like an insult to the rich history and beautiful culture that surrounds this divine beverage prepared from the sacred leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant.

There are many arguments that tea bags are more convenient, but is the matter of convenience enough to sacrifice for a really good tea drinking experience?

There are of course many reasons why loose leaf produces better tea but one of the most prevalent answers is that fact that it makes for better flavour and allows for one to reap more of the benefits from drinking tea (caffeine, l-theanine, etc.). During the production our of tea bags, the tea leaves are chopped and ground (unlike how matcha green tea is created), and turned into tea dust rather than tea leaves. This diminishes the qualities of the tea leaves and takes away from the flavour, as well as its ability to provide us with its many nutrients.

When we prepare a pot (or a cuppa) with full, unchopped leaves, we are giving the leaves the opportunity to unfurl and release much more of its flavours and nutrients. If you’re in the mood for a little experimentation, I'd even recommend doing a blind taste testing! However, there is much more to it then just brewing tea with loose leaves. The brewing style has a huge impact as well!

My life changed about two years ago when I was introduced to the world of Chinese loose leaf teas and a style of brewing known as “Gong Fu Cha,” otherwise known as the Chinese tea ceremony.

It’s not what it sounds like, it has nothing with religion but arguably has a lot to do with spirituality. The method of gong fu brewing challenges our idea of what tea is and how it should be prepared. In the west, the most essential part to preparing our tea is to measure and let the leaves or tea bag steep in hot water for a prescribed amount of time (two to five minutes, usually), but in gong fu cha we are steeping much more leaf for much less time to produce rich, well-rounded and complex flavours that evolve with each infusion.

I’m not going to lie, gong fu cha is a lot of work, but it is a delightful and grounding experience which will change the way you look at tea forever. Since practicing gong fu style brewing, I’ve been introduced to some many different aspects of tea culture such as beautiful new tea wares, types of tea, flavours, and smells that I never dreamed of before.

One of the most knowledgeable sources that I have come across is from a little tea house in Camden (London), called Mei Leaf. Mei Leaf is owned and operated by a fascinating man named Don Mei, who has created an almost cult-like following on YouTube (myself included). Over the years, I've spent countless hours watching Don’s videos and I have learned so much! I’m going to include some of these videos because he has truly opened my eyes to true tea culture and hopefully he can change your tea drinking life as well.

There are a few tools that are important for gong fu cha and I have had quite a good time collecting such items. Some of those tools now play a huge part in my daily life. Here is a small list of some of these essential tools for gong fu brewing:

A Gaiwan

A gaiwan is a very simple yet beautiful piece of tea ware which is traditionally made from porcelain but can also be found in a variety of other materials such as Zi Sha purple clay, glass and even metal. This ware is meant for brewing tea in multiple infusions simply by putting loose leaf in the gaiwan, pouring hot water on the leaf, and when its time to drink the brew simply pop the lid on while leaving a crack to allow the tea to drain but keeping the leaves in.

A Tea Tray

In gong fu brewing, the tea trays that you might find are very beautiful and elegant but unlike the tray that sits beside you during tea time with your mum’s favourite tea set on it, the tea tray serves a very practical purpose in gong fu brewing. The purpose of the tea tray is to catch and collect water as you pour it out. When you first start a brew, you typically do what is called a washing. The washing is when you pour a small amount of hot water over the leaves and then immediately discard it. There are many purposes for this but one of the main purposes is to wake up the tea leaves and prep them for your first official brew. Some tea trays are decorated with elegant Chinese characters, while others are simple and plain but they always have a small pan of sorts to catch the water from your wash and any other purpose. There are also smaller scale options available for purchase such as a tea boat, which will serve the same purpose as a tray if you’re just brewing for yourself.

A Tea Strainer

Tea strainers are very small and seemingly insignificant tools, but they serve a very big purpose during your gong fu sessions. Catching broken leaf and “tea dust” is essential to producing a pure, smooth brew; personally, I don’t mind a bit of leaf in my cup but for some this is a big problem. My tea strainer is porcelain with a small removable/replaceable strainer base and it sits perfectly in a little porcelain figure of a human hand.

An Electric Kettle

If you don’t already have one, I seriously recommend getting an electric kettle. I didn’t know how much of a difference it makes to have temperature controlled water for brewing different types of tea. What makes this especially important during a gong fu session is because you can keep it close by, keep the water hot at whatever temperature you’d like and you don’t have to be confined to your kitchen. There are so many different ones on the market. Everyone has their own preference. I have heard that gooseneck kettles are the gong fu master’s best friend, but I haven’t gotten one yet.

Proper Tea Cups

The best way to enjoy gong fu brewing is with small, Chinese porcelain tea cups. The not only add to the over all aesthetic of the ceremony but also allow you to observe the colours of the tea and smell the vibrant fragrance is you are sipping. The great part about having multiple tea cups is that you can share with friends and loved ones, even if you don’t have a full proper set.

Quality Loose Leaf Tea

The quality of your tea makes all the difference in the world. Finding and purchasing good quality teas suitable for gong fu sessions has been a long journey for me as there are so many tea sellers out there who will try to fool you into thinking their tea is of a very high quality when its actually just bad. You will find this a lot with popular teas such as the Big Red Robe or Duck Sh*t oolongs. These famous Chinese teas have a rich history behind them and are some of the most sought after, therefore a lot of tea sellers will try to sell you a lower quality product by banking on the fact you may not actually know its lower quality.

I’ve already talked a bit about Mei Leaf and if you can afford it, I would definitely recommend trying their teas. They are a bit over priced, but I don’t mind paying the extra quid for teas sourced by a team which works tirelessly to find and provide us with the highest quality teas at the best prices possible.

Another good source for high quality teas is a company called Yunnan Sourcing. YS specialises in a type of tea called Pu Erh, which is a variety of fermented teas. Once you advance further in your tea journey, I most definitely recommend taking a trip to their website.

If you happen to live states side, there is another excellent tea seller who is based in Austin, Texas. His name is So Han Fan and he has dedicated his life to sourcing quality teas to bring to American tea lovers at fantastic prices. He owns a company called West China Tea Company as well as an amazing little tea house in Austin known as Guan Yin Tea House. If you are really serious about tea and want to find the best, look no further.

If you’re still reading this then you must really love tea as much as I do. Tea has taught me to be a better person, take care of myself more, and it gives me so much joy in my day to day life. I really hope that your tea journey continues to provide pleasant surprises and that you keep learning about the beautiful world of tea. Whether you are super serious about your tea or just enjoy your daily cuppa, I hope you’ve learned something from this article!

John Romanov
John Romanov
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John Romanov
Historian, Artist, Monarchist/Royalist, TV/Netflix Enthusiast, Lushie and major Teahead.

See all posts by John Romanov