Just when I thought I was starting to know something about tea, along comes Aaron Armstrong of Team Tea to show me that the vast expanses of things I don’t know yet is even vaster (more vast?) than I’d thought. He showed me a way of brewing tea that I’d never heard of, let alone experienced, and it was certainly something to experience.
He learned this method of cold brewing in Japan (he wasn’t sure how to translate the Japanese name for the method, so I’m just going to call it “Japanese cold brewing”). He used a tiny unglazed clay yokode kyusu (side-handle teapot) smaller than his fist. In it, he placed a small amount of sencha–lovely, very fresh, and straight from the farmer–but less than you’d use for a gongfu brewing and more than you might for a British-style brewing.
Then he did the crazy thing that caught my attention. He added room-temperature water. And about the same volume as that of the tea. Think about that for a second and let it blow away some of your preconceptions about tea brewing: he used a 1:1 tea-to-leaf ratio, and room-temperature water. After four or five minutes, he poured it out.
I suppose I should clarify. “Pour” is used very loosely here. He shook out a handful of drops for each of the five guests into some of the tiniest cups I’ve seen. If you think of the smallest gongfu cups you’ve seen, you’re starting to get the right size in mind. Bigger than an actual thimble, but not by much. The leaves in the kyusu had absorbed almost all of the water. In fact, the first time ’round, he showed us that the leaves on top still hadn’t really absorbed much water–they were still a bit dry.
So, there I am with my thimble holding maybe eight drops of liquid in the bottom. Like a good tea taster, I check the color. It’s a jade green that’s ever-so-slightly cloudy. Not dissimilar to what you’d expect from a good sencha. I check the fragrance. BAM! That tiny little cup is giving off as much fragrance as an English teacup full of green tea.
Then I tasted it. The fragrance was a mere shadow of the flavor. I think my head must have exploded or something because for a moment I had this sensation of flavor that I can only describe as dense in the space where my head had been. If you could distill an entire eight-cup Brown Betty teapot’s worth of sencha into eight drops without changing or diminishing the flavor at all, you might get something like this. And the strange thing was, it was so incredibly sweet without any unpleasant bitterness or astringency.
That, and the flavor kept on coming. Two hours later I could still taste it (or the amalgam of the six or seven teas we tried that way). Aaron did two cold brewings of each–water poured on the side so that the leaves floated on top first, then water poured on top the second time–and then a regular brewing with hot water a couple of times.
Even if you don’t have a kyusu, you can use a gaiwan or any kind of small container. Aaron told us that the clay was more dense than used in yixing pots, which are much more porous, so glazed teaware is fine to use. Whatever you use, give this brewing a try with a high-end Japanese green tea like sencha, guricha, or gyokuro. My next experiment will be with a delicate Chinese green like biluochun or a maofeng.