Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Proper Tools

The writer has his pen, the musician his intrument, and the chef his knife. Every trade has its tools.

Even the beggar has his tin cup.

Some hobbies and interests take very little money to enjoy, but there are many variables at work. An enthusiast's approach to the activity may be guided by a spartan paradigm, enforcing enjoyment with the simplest and most rudimentary effects. Conversely, they might maintain an enormous annual budget for the very same hobby, shedding bags of money to acquire the latest and greatest equipment for whatever it is they do. Will I write my poetry on this lightly used napkin, or type it in an expensive word processor on a gold plated laptop? Will I settle for a point and shoot camera and a freeware image editor, or splurge on the professional level DSLR and Adobe Photoshop CS3? Good equipment helps, but it doesn't guarantee success or satisfaction. The poems will express the same meaning whether in ink or pixels. Meanwhile, the high-budget photographer will have an album of gleaming, high-res pictures, but lacks even the slightest artistic inkling, whereas the pauper with the handheld travel camera has used its low end features to produce a bold, daring and refreshingly risky photographic style. The above situation is all empty theorizing, but it goes to show that most hobbies don't need expensive gear - just a good spirited, dedicated hobbyist behind it.

However.

Sometimes you need a bare minimum to get started. It's awfully hard to play tennis without a racket or ball, and no matter how zealous you are about the sport and how indomitable your spirit, showing up at the court with a large frying pan and a ball of yarn will yield poor, poor results. Okay, so we've had enough anologies. Here's the heart of the matter: does tea have any essential tools or equipment?

If you're focus in tea as a hobby is on drinking, then no. The palate savant will, on the most inchoate level, be able to cup their hands or, temperture forbidding, find any cup, bowl, glass, tupperware or thimble to drink from. But few have dedicated their tea time solely to its consumption.

The rest of us want to prepare, enjoy, rate, and review the tea as we drink it. This presents problems for the penurious. At the very least we need the tea, either by purchase or, in the more eccentric case, borrowing it. "Hello neighbor! Care to lend me a cup of tea? I mean, loose leaf. Unbrewed. Not sugar." If the neighbor rebuffs are outre entreaties, then we've no choice but to crack open our wallets and throw money at the tea industry.

Now we have our tea. What now? We desperately need hot water. The thermal energy in heated water is critical to the development of a good cup of tea. Cold water simply won't do, and there is no feasibly free way to heat the water to its proper temperature. We have to have a kettle. It can be electric, it can be stovetop, it can be a pot on the range, it can even be a microwaveable safe container in the microwave, but we must have a kettle. We must have hot water. Now, as we watch our container pirrouetting in the microwave take on heat, we need to consider the next step. Brewing. What's in a brew?

Brewing is nothing more than a vessel in which our tea leaves and recently heated water can meld and marry to make tea. The teapot must be heat resistant. Exploding teaware is hazardous to your health. It must also be large enough to hold all the tea you desire. Have a hankering for a gallon of tea in a single sitting? See a doctor. Barring that, find a 1 gallon teapot, or get ready for many high maintenance infusions. We'll assume, for the sake of ascetism, that there are no fine meshes here, no designer pots, just something to hold water and tea.

At last, we need the final component - a drinking vessel. Any kind of cup will do. Maybe even cupped hands, if the tea has cooled appropriately. And there, we're done.

Bare Minimum:
Money for tea
Pot on a stove
A lidded bowl
Cupped Hands

That's not so bad. But remember, I said "The rest of us want to prepare, ejoy, rate, and review the tea as we drink it". Alas, this set up omits one of those desirable elements - enjoy. It is terribly difficult to catch the fine nuances of an aged Pu-Erh when your slurping it off your fingers, or when it's brewed in a questionably effective tupperware container that no doubt leeched savory polymers into the drink. So, when I first started drinking tea I got my Pu-Erh soaked mitts on three pieces of tea equipment.

A 10 oz. mug.
An electric kettle.
A ball-on-a-stick tea ball.

Considering convenience and flavor, this seemed to me to be an ideal set up. Quick hot water, a good volume of tea and convenient way to steep it, and a very covenient way to remove the leaves when the concoction is finished.

I was wrong.

If only you could see the graveyard of tea, wantonly wasted in this nefarious set-up. If only I could atone for the nugatory brewing, feckless drinking, and odious enjoyment. Silver needles, gyokuro, loose Pu-Erh, all cast to the fates by means of an uncaring tea ball and its master. I've imprisoned vast quantities of superb tea, leaving it to writhe in agony in a cramped, spherical cell. How could it possibly elicit flavor in such draconian conditions? It can't, and I never knew it. Nobody told me I was a jailor. Well, until I checked in with the greater tea drinking community.

It is now abundantly clear that there are certain necessities for a good cup of tea, and that it might require a moderately sized sum of money to get these necessities. Even taking style and function into consideration, the purchase of tea equipment is not very large at all - especially relative to the time and enjoyment it provides. The largest expense is the tea itself, and even here the premium teas are incredibly affordable. Compare the price of a serving of tea to a serving of soda, or coffee. A can of soda from a machine will almost always cost more than some of the priciest teas on the market, per volume.

Tea equipment never really loses its salience. The same Yixing teaware praised through Chinese history is made today, lavished with the same respect and appreciation. And it's been a long time. Tea pots, mesh, proper water temperature - small improvements and conveniences will always enter the market, but tea equipment's primary function is long standing. It is to produce hot water, and help it mingle with tea leaves. The action is so stupendously simple that the art of tea cannot be moved by progress. It will never be outmoded or outdated. No amount of technological innovation can improve the process enough to turn the kettle, pot and mug into moot relics of a bygone age. Even professional, automatic tea makers are no more than a well built substitute for the somantics of a tea pour. And even if there were some harbinger device to topple the canonically held procedure of making tea, tea itself is imbued with a reverence for the past. Note gong fu or cha no yu, both tea drinking ceremonies retained from the past. Are they efficient? No. Do they use the most recent tea equipment? Absolutely not. But they still hold a dear place in the culture of tea, and this is unlikely to change with the apocalyptic advent of some unforeseen tea invention

In short, I'm upgrading, and after searching long and hard for the proper tea-ware I find myself happier. My wallet is content as well. Indeed, it set me back a little bit, but if you could calcuate the improvement in the quality of the tea per dollar, it would make for a startlingly good and well reccomended investment.

Reviews of the new equipment to come.

3 comments:

trendymindy said...

I have a Zojurishi pot that I absolutely love. The best thing about this hot pot is that you fill it with water and it brings the water to a boil. Then you choose what temperature you want the water to be kept at all day long. I do not have to wait for my water to be at the perfect temperature. There are 3 settings. I always have mine set on 190 degrees since I drink green tea. If you drink tea all day long like I do a Zojurishi is worth the investment.

Garrett said...

Hmm...

Do you have a model number?

Blonde American Girl said...

I am eager to see your thoughts on equipment, preferably with photographs so I can see what outlandish equipment you possess.