Why I Always Prefer a Glass Cha Hai
A Cha Hai, the tea decanter used on certain styles of Chinese tea brewing, is an indispensable tea tool. It has a very simple function and can seem superfluous and first glance. Why not just pour straight from the pot or gaiwan into the cup? Well you certainly can do that, especially if it’s a solo tea session and are drinking from a larger (100 ml+) tea cup. Chaozhou style gong fu brewing is built around not needing a cha hai. The persistent popularity of this tool comes from their simple practicality in fixing a problem that arises in tea brewing for multiple guests.
The Main Issue
In a tea session with four people if you line up each cup and pour directly from the pot into each cup in succession the strength and color of each cup will differ. You can see this clearly just by looking at the color of the tea. This happens because tea inside a pot is still brewing while it’s being poured (this is also why its important to know how long it takes to drain a pot in high level tea brewing), and the tea that comes out of the top has had less exposure to the leaves than tea from bottom of the pot that will end up in the last person’s cup. This problem is why one name for the cha hai, gong dao bei, means fairness cup. If all the tea is first poured into a single vessel the tea liquid has a chance to “even out”, into a true expression of that steeping. Then distributing it to each of the four cups can be an even division of the true tea. Its not just about fairness to each of the guests, the practice of using a cha hai brings fairness to the tea itself. In an important way, without the decantur, no one really experiences that steeping.
Tea Nerds and the Tools of Their Trade
As a tea pourer, I’ve also found that the cha hai is a very useful tool for other reasons as well. The cha hai is a great enabler of other tea tools. It simplifies the act of pouring into cups by sectioning it off as its own step in the tea making process. This allows for gaiwans, hohin, shiboridashi to be the tea vessel. Those vessels, which don’t pour as narrowly as a pot, can be easily used without needing to account for likely spillage.
A very small pot, one perfect for a rolled oolong, that might only produce 70 ml of finished tea can be used for a larger group of guests by “stacking” two infusion in the cha hai before serving. There is a tradeoff in doing this, the two infusions become averaged together and their individual distinctions will be lost, but I’ve found it to be worth it if it means using the best pot for the tea. If you want to use a silk or metal filter to get that really pure tea liquid, the cha hai is absolutely necessary. External filters that are more effective than those built into the teapot are designed to sit atop the cha hai, and the majority of decanters are designed for filters to be placed on them easily.
Setting The Tempo
Gong fu style tea sessions are not unlike performing music. The repeated cycle of infusions naturally gives a tea session a rhythm, and I’ve found that using the cha hai helps keep the tempo of the session in check. If used to its full potential a cha hai helps formalize a step in in gong fu brewing that is dedicated just to visual evaluations and thoughtful reflection on the progression of the tea thus far. The best style of cha hai for performing this step is one made of clear glass. We appreciate tea with our eyes as well as with our nose and mouth. I like to hold up the glass cha hai once its full and point out the color and clarity of the tea to guests. It gives all of you a chance to see any fogginess that can indicate poor quality and present pesticides. If I see a young sheng puer brewing up with an orange tint, I know I’m in for an oversteeped tea.
Even if you don’t make a big pause for this step, it’s a step that allows for the tea to cool slightly and help prevent a mildly tea drunk session from slipping along a caffeine greased road into a less mindful experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that once in a while!
That tea friends, is why I prefer a glass cha hai.
Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea
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