Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Almost Nothing is Harder Than Brewing Tea

My final stop on the big Chow Tour I did soon after selling Chowhound was a visit to Chinese tea pioneer David Hoffman (see the film about him), which made for one of my favorite reports. I described the high point:
David casually asks whether you’d like some tea. Even though you don’t ordinarily drink tea after meals — even though it’s late and you’re afraid that tea at this point might keep you up — you immediately and enthusiastically agree. Yes, David. Sure, I’ll have a little tea.

He retreats into one of the tea aging/staging areas, and emerges to hand you a tiny thimble of a cup, filled with about six sips of greasy nectar of indescribable shimmering hue. You sip. And you quietly gasp.
I own some good quality pu-erh (an earthy, complex type of tea especially suited for long aging, often sold in hashish-like bricks) which came, in fact, from David. And I've been working literally for years on producing this "greasy nectar of indescribable shimmering hue" result. The same pu-erh can be so-so, tasty, or devastating, depending on brewing skill...which makes no sense at all.

You boil to the right temperature, you steep the right length, and that's that. A robot could do it - or so you'd imagine. But it's like pasta. Perfectly al dente pasta is an entirely different thing than a slightly lesser al dente, and it takes years to get it perfect - even though it's just a simple matter of boiling for the right length of time.

The simple things are always the hardest to get right. A couple of years ago, after much effort, I attained greasiness. My tea had texture, it had bite. It was more than the sum of its scant few parts. I was finally making tea, if not yet phenomenally great tea. But I haven't brewed for a while, and I now find myself back at square one, with results that are watery and unfocused.

I've made toasting a spiritual practice, honing my tolerances to milliseconds, aiming to extract the bread at its peak. That's working out quite well, but it's just a matter of vigilance and commitment - of wanting it (watching me peer expectantly into my toaster oven, you'd think I was slicing atoms). But tea brewing, with multiple moving parts to its process, each ridiculously sensitive to minute variation, is so, so much harder.

See my video "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies" for more on the conundrum of how super-quality gets into ordinary foods.

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