If you go to China and partake in a traditional Chinese tea ritual, you will find the Chinese tea ceremony celebrates the tea itself and puts a lot of emphasis on the style and skill of the person brewing it. The ceremony is social and can be very formal or informal. One person takes charge of the brewing and commands the tea. The practice uses a gongfu style of multiple infusions that is done using a wooden tray with a small teapot and cups. The vessel that actually steeps the tea can either be a typical teapot with handle and spout, or it can be a special lidded cup called a gaiwan. The gaiwan cups consist of three parts: the saucer, small cups without handles, and lid. The lid keeps the tea warm inside the cup and acts as a strainer when sipping. With a teapot, hot water gets poured over the pot and is also used to refresh the leaves. The teapot might be a yixing terracotta teapot that is dedicated to brewing just one type of tea, or one simply made of porcelain or glass.
In a Chinese tea ceremony, they use their best teas. Most of the country drinks green tea such as Dragonwell. You might find oolong teas like Ti Kuan Yin and pu erh teas like Ancient Trees Pu Erh used in the Chinese tea ritual because those styles of tea can be manipulated in a small teapot to brew strong tea. Keep note of how the tea changes from infusion to infusion. Perhaps even keep tabs on how many infusions you can get out of one pot of tea. Oolong teas are great for brewing gongfu style.
I asked Joane Filler-Varty, our VP of hospitality to share her insights on how local tea rituals inform how she creates tea programs at four and five-star hotels around the world. Here’s what she had to say about setting up tea menus and service with our Chinese hotel clients:
“In hospitality, you have to consider two different dynamics: what the Chinese clientele want might be different from what the tourists desire and a hotel has to address both. Some properties want to bring in a contemporary universal teapot that is a cross between Chinese-style and British porcelain, while smaller yixing teapots or small glass or porcelain teapots might be used for a more specialty afternoon tea. The actual gongfu tea ceremony doesn’t occur in most hotels on a day-to-day basis. It’s offered at a specific time during afternoon tea. That interplay of style also works its way into the tea offerings themselves as Dragonwell and Ti Kuan Yin warm up to English Breakfast and Earl Grey on the tea menus.”
What strikes me about the Chinese tea ceremony that I love is that it’s not that ceremonial. It’s really about the tea and the social aspect, so it can be enjoyed among tea professionals and laymen. It’s okay to talk about tea and politics—it’s like Chinese culture—there’s a lot of room for interpretation.