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How to Drink Good Chinese Tea During a Walk Through the Garden

March 19, 2009


yixing_thermosAt the other end of the spectrum from careful, fully attentive sessions of gongfu cha are solutions for drinking tea while mobile, with mental energies diverted to tasks other than tea drinking. I doubt that tea on-the-go is anyone’s preferred way to enjoy tea, but it doesn’t have to be a miserable, unsatisfying compromise, particularly if one is drawn to elegant and/or clever methods and devices.

I have written before about the wonderfulness of glass Chinese tea thermoses. I should note here that I’m not willing to steep tea in plastic for any reason, but glass thermoses are obviously not as hardy as plastic ones and some care must be taken to protect them. I clumsily broke two of them before I came up with the idea of transporting mine inside of a heavy felt wine bag, which works perfectly.

In a glass tea thermos the teas must be somewhat delicate in taste, but also consistent and durable enough to hold up to long steeping times and multiple brewings. Chinese green, yellow and white teas are all suitable to this method, with varying degrees of success among individual teas. It is most important to brew the initial infusion with proper temperature water, but I’ve found that in the subsequent infusions I can generally get away with hotter water because the leaves are already wet so they don’t get scorched.

A close cousin mobile tea device is a yixing (zisha clay) tea thermos, pictured above. Like yixing teapots these thermoses are porous and absorb more and more tea essence with use, so it is important to devote them to specific tea types. I can’t really imagine that any black (red) or darker wulong teas would work with the thermos brewing method since they would get bitter, so the ideal tea for these types of thermoses is pu’er. Pu’er can certainly build up a strong flavor if steeped for a long time, but it won’t get bitter. Pu’er teas also suit this method quite well due to their ability to yield multiple infusions.

yixing_thermos_screenLike the glass version, these thermoses have a screen insert that serves as a filter. Unlike the filter in a glass version, which is entirely metal, the one in the zisha thermos is a metal screen encircled by a plastic insert piece. The mesh of the screen in the filter is also a little less fine.

Design of the thermoses varies, but mine has a somewhat silly hologram dragon on the top of the lid. It has cherry blossom decorations and something written on the sides that I have not yet translated. These thermoses are heavier than the glass ones and they have a very nice feel in the hand, particularly when they are full of warm tea. I’ve never tried to leave one for a long time without drinking the tea, but I don’t think they cool very rapidly since they are very good at retaining heat.

yixing_thermos_hologramThe one thing that I would change about the particular thermos that I have is that I would prefer it to have a slightly larger liquid capacity. It only holds 7 oz., considerably less than the 10 oz. glass thermos. This results in pu’er with a great deal of punch to it if I use a whole mini-tuocha. Since the whole point of a mobile tea thermos is the ability to prepare quickly and dash out of the house, mini-tuocha are perfect for use with them, and I’m sure not going to take the time to cut one up.

Yixing thermoses are not as easily obtainable as glass or plastic tea thermoses, but I do know of a few sources. Mine came from the Xiu Xian Tea retail store, although their website indicates that they are out of stock currently. Teayears carries them, and Yellow Mountain Imports has been known to sell them. It’s sometimes possible to find them on eBay, but not reliably. They are a pretty useful and great device for people who like pu’er. A good pu’er that can be brewed 5-6 times is perfect, as you just fill up the thermos with fresh boiling water each time you’re ready to drink more of it. Mine is getting quite a bit of use and was especially nice to have when it was wintery outdoors.

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