How to Make Tea “Grandpa Style”
One of the best things about making tea is its simplicity. At its foundation the recipe reads tea + water + time = brewed tea. Every answer to the question of how to make tea is going to be a variation on this basic equation. Each style will ask you to actively control how much of one ingredient is used while the others stay fixed.
The Doaist Account of Tea
One of the oldest legends about the discovery of tea opens with this principle. The story goes that in 2737 BCE emperor Shen Nong, the divine farmer, was ill from testing the effects of plants on himself. He must have been down in Yunnan as he rested under a tea tree while waiting for a pot of water to boil. Shen Nong knew even then that boiled water kept sickness away even without a microscope to see bacteria. The winds of fate led to a few raw tea leaves to fall from the tree into his cauldron. Sick as a dog, Shen Nong looked at his hot leaf water and said “here goes nothing” and drank the first cup of tea. Before long he felt reinvigorated and named the plant “tea” and shared it with the people.
Whats great about this story is that it shows that tea can be made from the most basic ingredients without even intending to. In true daoist fashion he made tea through inaction, how is that for wu wei? That isn’t to say we should strive to reinvent tea on accident (How do you even do something on accident on purpose?) but that if we understand the fundamentals of how to make tea we can make tea in the easiest way.
Keeping it Old School
Scholar and tea community giant Lawrence Zhang coined the term “grandpa style” a decade ago. It refers to the way of making tea by placing a little bit of leaf in a large cup and filling it up with hot water. You sip away from the cup, filtering the leaves with your teeth and refill the cup once it’s a third finished. This is an old school way of making tea used by regular folks all over China. Its perfect for drinking while your hands and attention are busy with something else. Chatting with friends, smoking a cigarette, working with your hands, playing cards. You know, grandpa stuff.
Some teas are going to lend themselves to this style more than others. You are going to want whole unbroken leaf tea to start with. There are two reasons for this. One is that you want to easily filter the leaves out with your mouth. This should be an easy and relaxing way to drink tea. The other is that broken leaves have more surface area exposed to hot water. Broken tea will brew up faster and stronger which doesn’t match the laid back grandpa style. The tea will get bitter and there won’t be anything to do about it.
Long Jing style green tea is perfect for this style and is a mainstay of the outdoor Sichuan tea houses. Gently roasted taiwan oolong is also a versatile tea that I find myself reaching for with this style. Keep in mind that less is more with tea leaves. We are making use of the time part of the equation. More time brewing means you need less tea. Conversely if you are flash steeping a tea in a small pot you need a lot of leaves.
Getting the Technique Down
Keeping bitterness at bay is the main challenge to this style. There isn’t a simple point when grandpa tea is “done”. Think of it as tending to a garden then as a chef trying to plate a perfect dish. But if we think about the basic tea recipe the variable that you control is water. Time moves on and the amount of tea stays the same. As you drink you have less water but the same amount of tea so continuing to top it off before it reaches halfway keeps a bitter concentrate from forming. Good pouring technique also helps stir up the leaves which looks beautiful and helps spread the tea around brewing evenly.
You can try this with a large mug, a gaiwan, a travel tea tumbler, or a beer stein if you have one. It will take some practice, but if you master it you have the best way to enjoy tea while your attention is elsewhere. Set your fundamentals up well ahead of time and you can make tea through “inaction”.
Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea
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