So I teased on Facebook that I wanted to branch out from my usual reviews a bit, wanting to go more educational without repeating the same info that is everywhere, and this my friends is the first such post! I am calling this series Gongfoolery, my pet term for when I am having my tea Gongfu style, the purpose is to show how different variables alter the taste of tea. Gongfucha is an art that requires skill, it is right there in the name, and everyone develops their own technique. There are some who go by the book full ceremonial and others for whom the ceremony is in the free form nature, there is no absolute right way (unless of course you are doing a historical demonstration on how tea was served in the Ming Dynasty, then some historians might fuss at you if you are not exact.) However slight changes will alter the way the tea tastes, sometimes in very surprising and intense ways.
The first variable I am going to explore is heat, not the heat applied to the leaf through hot water but the way heat influences the vessels used. I will be using a tea I am very familiar with and have reviewed (Shang Tea's Tangerine Blossom Red) and first brewing it in a cold gaiwan using cold cups, then I will preheat the gaiwan (good thing I have several gaiwans) and then preheat the cups, lastly I will have both preheated. For this test I will be using the koi themed travel gaiwan set made from porcelain, mostly due to it having small cups and meaning I am less likely to get too tea drunk to think. Plus this set has the benefit of retaining heat really well meaning the results, if any, will be more striking.
First off, why would you want to pre-heat your teaware? Well for the gaiwan the theories are that for more robust teas it keeps the water from cooling too quickly, it makes the aroma of the leaves more potent. For warming the cups things become a little more esoteric, with ideas that Qi is lost through them being significantly cooler than the tea. I have also seen the theory that it will prevent your teagear from being damaged by heat if you pre-warm them, but that seems nonsensical since you are using the same water you are using to make your tea and unless it is immensely thin bone china heat is not going to cause that much of a problem. Of course the big reason for pre-heating cups is it keeps the tea hotter longer. Personally I never pre-warm things, and my reasoning goes back into the esoteric side, see in theory water is the mother of tea, one of the most important aspects of it, so using it to rinse the teaware seems like a waste of that precious water, but I do blame some of this outlook on experiencing two rather horrid droughts and me being a displaced sea creature. Also I don't mind if my tea gets a little cool, because having a scalded tongue is a way to ruin one's day.
The control test goes as expected, it tastes like I am used to Tangerine Blossom Red tasting when brewed in a gaiwan, but this is not just me waxing poetically about a tea I have reviewed in the past, so onward to the first real test!
Pre-warming the gaiwan while using a cold cup. I do notice that the aroma of the leaves in the warm gaiwan is a lot more striking than if they were just in the cool gaiwan. It is much the way the leaves smell when I examine them for reviews, I have them in my Cha He and I warm them with my nose, my breath acts as the heat. I also found that the tea seemed to steep faster, making the first steep slightly richer than using a cold gaiwan, however the second and third steep were virtually identical.
This next test was the hardest, using a cool gaiwan and a pre-warmed cup meant I needed to stick my gaiwan in the fridge to cool it down. The tea brewed like the cool gaiwan, as expected, and the cup certainly was hand burningly hot, also as expected, and it stayed warmer longer, much like later steeps. I found the taste of the first steep to be much richer, bringing out notes of peanut and stronger tangerine blossoms like I find in the later steeps of this tea.
Lastly I warm the gaiwan and the cup before steeping! Well, I admit I am surprised! It brings out a malty quality that this tea usually does not have and diminishes its natural sweetness some. I notice that pre-warming both it takes away a lot of the gentle start I associate with the first steep, and while Ben (just an example) tends to skip the first steeps in favor of the stronger later steeps, I adore the gentle start. It is like a light hour d'ourves before a meal, it gets my palate ready for the more intense flavors without being overwhelmed. Personally I can see a valid reason for heating, and not just because it changes the flavor. One aspect not mentioned earlier is applicable to those who use tea not just as a sensory joy but also as a meditative/spiritual tool, because the added step of pre-heating the tools slows art of creating the tea allowing more time for introspection and tea appreciation. While my brain is not wired to see if this affects the taste, it is very relaxing so no harm there.
Will this personally change how I brew my tea? Probably not, but our next experiment involving heating teaware just might as I break out the clay teaware!