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To Make Tea with Great Skill

October 28, 2010 | by  |  Food and Drink, Lifestyle and Culture

Gong Fu Cha: “to make tea with great skill.” It is regarded in China as not only an art form but a cemented tradition, and Daniel Lui, proprietor of The Chinese Tea Shop, is one of the few people in Vancouver keeping this tradition alive.

Seated in front of a small wooden table, Daniel sanitizes miniature cups with boiling water and invites me to take a seat. As he brews, a young tea enthusiast gives me a primer on how to properly participate. When my cup is filled I take it delicately in my hands and slurp (to best experience the flavour and aromas).

The tea is Pu-erh. New to me, Pu-erh, like wine, includes a process during production to promote fermentation before it is stored for further aging. It is usually then compressed into a cake before selling. Daniel’s oldest Pu-erh for sale is from the 1980s ($349.95 for a cake), but the oldest he has in the shop is from the 1930s; it’s not for sale, and he would only share it with real tea experts, “people who know how to appreciate it.”

Through Pu-erh’s earthy tones, I note a faint aroma of dried fruit and the essence of a lush, distant forest. As Daniel prepares our next cup I observe his meticulous process. First, boiling water is poured into a miniature teapot containing the Pu-erh. After replacing the lid, Daniel pours steaming water over the pot itself, which dries immediately while excess water is whisked away in channels carved in his ornate serving tray. After a minute or so, the steeped tea is emptied into another pot that contains a filter. The aromatic beverage is then released into our cups.

Photo Credit: Emily McFadyen

My fellow taster turns to me, “when you drink Pu-erh it’s like you are drinking something that is alive.” Daniel is a little less cryptic, “interesting about Pu-erh is that you can buy Pu-erh made in the same factory of the exact same year but store it in two different places and it will taste completely different.” He explains that some of his customers experiment with oxidation by storing their Pu-erh in different places and in different containers.

Daniel’s entire supply of Pu-erh was purchased before 2004. In 2003 Pu-erh started to get very popular in China and in just a few years the value of this large leaf variety grew exponentially. Daniel can no longer afford to buy Pu-erh from China. “In China the supply of tea is very big but the demand is much, much bigger than the supply, so the price of tea in China can be very high — of course much higher than here because there is much less demand [in North America]. I bought a popular Pu-erh for about $250, and now that same tea costs about $800 wholesale.”

I ask Daniel about the tiny teapots. Contrary to Western convention, tea is supposed to be steeped in short increments, Daniel explains, with more tea leaves added in increments to make the tea stronger. With the small pots, the tea leaves are concentrated, which allows for shorter steeping and makes it easier to control the volume of leaves:

“Steep leaves for five minutes and tea becomes bitter, and that’s why you add the sugar and milk. In China with the same tea they never add sugar and milk because we use the small teapots and do quick steeping. Instead of five minutes we only steep for 8 or 10 seconds so the tea can be very strong but it has a smooth taste.”

“Every brew we make of tea, the taste will change. The tea is different, and maybe it will get stronger or maybe get weaker. The flavour will also change because the leaves will open slowly. Every steeping is different, and people like those other tastes and also love how the taste changes every time; but when you make the big tea in the big teapot and with the long steeping all the taste comes at once.”

Daniel uses a different mini-pot for every different type of tea. Each pot is crafted out of specific clay, which is artificially formed for perfect porosity and is naturally polished with use. “The tea oil accumulates into the teapots, which makes them very shiny and smooth,” he explains.

Daniel Lui is passionate about breaking down Chinese tea essentials for those unaware of Gong Fu Cha. “I have many, many people here. They come to me. They love tea. They buy the best tea, but they do not know how to make tea. Many of these people have the tiny pots just for decoration until they come here and they learn about Gong Fu Cha and realize that this is the real teapot to make tea.” It seems a proud point for Daniel Lui to enlighten others on what, here in the West, has become a lost art.

Photo Credit: Emily McFadyen

For more about Daniel Lui, The Chinese Tea Shop or to buy tea visit:


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