Saturday, April 15, 2017

Living with Tea Medicine - The Ninth Session: Fire


Having studied what composes the best leaves for brewing tea and what makes for the best water in brewing tea, now we turn our attention to the final basic ingredient for making the best tea: fire. And here is where I must humble myself before you and admit that, on my tea journey, I have not yet reached the pinnacle of this element in my own tea brewing: I have not yet had the chance to brew tea using a charcoal brazier of any kind. I can, however, vouch for the superiority of tea brewed with real fire from coals. Charcoal produces water that is somehow hotter and holds a very coherent structure when it hits the tongue. Tea melds right into this kind of water. The cups I have tasted brewed in this way are those that I myself seek to brew someday. Getting a chance to drink living tea steeped in Taiwanese mountain spring water boiled with charcoal heat by a tetsubin held by a hook hung over a brazier is one of the many profound reasons why one should pay a visit to the Tea Sage Hut sooner rather than later.
Yet instead of daydreaming about what tea could be somewhere far away and perfect, let's talk about what fire for tea has been, at least for me. My journey through various heat sources in my tea brewing improved over time as I learned the necessity of proper heat for various kinds of tea. I, like you perhaps, started with simple kitchen tea. For my first bowls of tea, I used my gas stove in the kitchen to boild water in glass kettle, heating filtered reverse osmosis water from my tap. Once I had heated the water on the stove to a full rolling boil, I moved the kettle over to my kitchen table and placed it on a trivet to sit. Drinking bowl tea, I let the heat dissipate bowl to bowl, the third bowl always being much cooler than the first. It took a while before I saw the many flaws of heating water in this way. I grew to love that very first bowl in lieu of the rest. In this way, my sessions always arced downwards on the scale of satisfaction.
Fortunately for me, after I graduated from three bowls of tea to start the day to longer sessions with better teas, I was forced to come up with a method of heating water where I sat. Running back and forth from my tea space to the kitchen quickly got old. I soon purchased an alcohol burner for use in my tea space. I started out optimistically, boiling my water from start to finish on the burner. Not knowing the proper use for these types of tools, which work primarily to keep water that has already been heated to a proper temperature continuously hot, I started every session with a 25 minute meditation as I waited no less than that for the water to finish boiling. This was good for my meditation and tea spirit, but not so good for my tea. My experience with water boiled slowly on a less than ideal heat source versus water boiled on a proper burner has shown that rapidly heated water wins out every time with better mouthfeel and qi. (Don't take my word for it! Do the experiment yourself!)
Months of heating my water in the kitchen while I sat mindfully in another room out of earshot of the kettle, guessing whether the water had finished boiling or not (and getting it wrong a lot once I bore witness to water gushing out all over the stove upon making it to the kitchen), grew laborious. On my first trip to Taiwan, I bought a electronically controlled infrared burner in Yingge, just like the one they use today in the kitchen at the Hut. It was the first thing I opened once I returned home, eager to start brewing tea with a proper initial heat source to compliment my alcohol burner. However, what I found was disappointing: the gurgle of the fish tanks at the Hut concealed a fatal flaw of this particular model of burner - a loud fan. I took it apart to tried to fix it, thinking I might replace the fan, but this proved beyond my skills. The whirling of the fan greatly detracted from my tea sessions. I quickly concluded that I needed a replacement.
My Tea brother Jasper (Jing Ren) had figured out how to incorporate a certain brand of off-the-shelf infrared burner into a wooden enclosure with a knob for temperature control, all with silent passive cooling; but alas, he was out of stock (and still is!). So I did some Amazon research and ended up with a nice Narita burner, all shiny and metal, perfect for a living tea aesthetic (not!). It annoyingly had a "feature" whereby it would turn off upon reaching a certain temperature in order to prevent the burning of food. My experience with the Yingge burner hadn't completely turned me off from opening the hood on these burners. This time, I was able to open the Narita unit and bypass this feature to obtain a steady constant high heat. I was left with a disabled temperature control knob and a voided warranty, but so far so good! It's been heating my water quickly and is as close as I can get to actual fire in my tea room as of right now. It's been going strong for over a year and I have no complaints. I think it makes good water for tea. I do hope Jing creates some more of his fine burners soon, though! Today, they use his burner at the Tea Sage Hut in the main tea room as a compliment to their charcoal braziers.
Let me describe in more detail the setup I now use and will continue to use until I graduate to charcoal. I have two clay kettles. If I am drinking tea by myself, one kettle is probably enough. In the event that I am serving tea, I will fill both before the start of the session. As I explained last post, I have a large water jar (complete with a taboo spout!) that sits next to where I serve tea in the tea room. Working alone, I can refill kettles if need be. The Narita burner quickly heats the water at the start of the session. After reaching its peak boil, I move it to an alcohol burner or directly to a trivet. I like the interim stage of setting the kettle on the alcohol burner, which give the tea some of the actual element of fire. During the session, I dance the kettle between the alcohol burner and the trivet, being mindful of maintaining consistent temperature and not allowing the water to overboil. This back-and-forth becomes a major part of my own practice while serving tea: having to manage water temperature keeps me alert and constantly aware of my surroundings. For me, it is a major element of "staying with the Tea", listening to what the tea needs at every steeping and being prepared as best as I can to respond to its needs. It is a great litmus test for my awareness, or lack thereof. As sessions draw to a close, caping off the alcohol burner with its metal burner cover is a sign that prepares my guests for the end of the session. The room grows quiets as the gentle hiss of the burner is silenced. Plain water is served. The fire is out.

A Life of Tea Practice: Fire


A 10 minute meditation on boiling water at the start of a tea session is one of the best ways to come into the tea space. This meditation requires one to become familiar with the stages heating water takes while on its journey towards a full boil. There are two means of determining boiling points: either with the eyes or with the ears. A glass kettle is very helpful when first learning about boiling points. Seeing the way bubbles form and at what rate they form is essential to gauging water temperature. At a later stage, you might find it more meditative to keep your eyes closed and instead listen for the sound of the water's various boiling points. Different burners and kettles, even different surrounding environments, have different acoustic properties. Start by getting used to the equipment you have and learning its patterns. I am now well aquainted with the sound of a Lin's kettle boiling on a Narita infrared burner. I listen for different stages of the kettle's whistle. It grows with intensity until a point at which it rapidly becomes nearly silent. This is "dragon water", as far as water will ever need to go for any tea we brew.
Of course, not all teas wish to be brewed with "dragon water". Every tea has different needs. Even different brewing methods have different needs. Becoming aquainted with what each moment of brewing tea needs is the path of a Chajin!

Ask Yourself: Am I grateful for the basic gifts of life, like heat for warmth and cooking, or do I take them for granted?


I am an American living in an affluent suburban neighborhood. Of course I take the basic gifts of life for granted! But I feel very fortunate that I am becoming more and more aware of the incredible clockwork required to sustain my wonderful life here. I am part of a vast integrated web of activity amongst animals, plants, human beings, corporations: life itself. I could spend the rest of my life comtemplating the components of this web. As it is infinite in its complexity, sometimes my only recourse to understanding is to light the fire on my burner and set the kettle on its way to Tea, resting in the gratitude of simplicity.



This post concludes Book I of Tea Medicine.

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