1. Shou puer smells like a horse barn: wet hay, dirt, mushrooms, and sturdy, natural things. Drinkers of sweetened and fruit-embellished blends would not believe they come from the same leaf.
Late one evening, we gather for a tasting: Ashikubo sencha, 2015 Da Xue Shan, Alishan oolong, and a rich, dark puer. The transition is sudden and surprising. We clean our palates with matcha: a bowl of fresh grass.
2. An interest in tea necessitates an interest in pottery. Yixing clay pots are the best for robust flavors. Their porous interiors retain the oils and minerals of each tea brewed inside. After some hundred uses, the pot's façade develops an even sheen. Museums housing thousand-year-old Yixing teapots require a tea maker to brew in them regularly to maintain the seasoning and prevent drying or dullness.
Before disposable tea bags made it easier and faster to drink (and easier and faster for manufacturers to sell a minced-up product of questionable quality), there were just leaves and water, strained before drinking. In China, the gaiwan is the lidded cup for brewing. The lid retains all but small particles that manage to slip through. In Japan, it is the shiboridashi: wide and shallow for the delicate pieces sencha or gyokuro to expand in the water.
Architect Yoshio Taniguchi: "Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea."
3. I remember a day I spent at the piano, learning Bach's C-sharp Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. I filled and re-filled my mug with gyokuro, Japan's finest green leaves. Gyokuro is grown in the shade for its last weeks before harvest; woven mats hover above the bushes, filtering light and intensifying its rich, bright green (both color and flavor). The leaves are steamed to stop the oxidation that occurs during harvest and withering. A cup of gyokuro smells like fresh rice. By the third steeping, it is all savory umami: seaweed in miso soup.
4. In Asheville, we visit Dobra Tea twice in two days. On the first, Big Blessing shou puer is like syrup: it runs in thick streams from the lip of the gaiwan. After ten steepings, the leaves still release new flavors.
On day two, white puer is underwhelming. On the first and second cups, I wish I had ordered something else. By the third, it smells like wildflower honey. The liquor has become thick and aromatic. I've never had white puer before. The transformation is stunning.
Puer is fermented tea, left to sit in heaps and foster microbes that create a microcosm of flavor. In the Chinese gong fu ceremony, the tea is brewed ten to fifteen times, for between three and thirty seconds each. Every cup is a new tea.
We leave Dobra full and "tea drunk."
5. A required tool of the gong fu ceremony is the gong dao bei, literally, "fair cup." The brewed tea is dispensed all at once; if the tea maker carefully poured each guest's cup directly from the pot, the last cup wouldn't be the same as the first -- those extra seconds of heat. Instead, the tea is poured into the gong dao bei, which is used as a pitcher to fill each cup. The tradition is to fill each cup halfway, then return to the first and evenly distribute the remaining liquor.
Guests wait until all cups have been poured, then drink together.