“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.” – Rebecca West
Good tea is art. The tea itself is work of art. How one prepares it is an art. And one should consume it as one consumes fine art. Through art shines some of mankind’s most clever ingenuities, profound emotional heights and deepest disparities. It inspires curiosity, pleasure, and often, sheer amazement. It is this human capacity for art that drives our collective culture’s richness and our individual passions to communicate the inner depth of our souls while recognizing its empathetic power in others.
If we can view tea in this same way we listen to a symphony or experience a painting, it’s easy to understand the complexity and beauty that exists within our cup. If we can sit with it and let it wash over us, absorbing its subtle nuances, we can appreciate the time and techniques used to prepare such an exquisite work. We feel at once the desire to preserve the experience and revel in its fleeting exquisiteness. The art of tea is unique in its collaborative effort between the producers, the preparers, and the consumers. All three of whom play a vital role for the unification of the finished work. The farmers and tea-producers toil meticulously with nature to deliver the best possible leaves and blends which illicit the flavors and effects for the consumers. But that effort is wasted if not steeped correctly by experienced hands or the proper canvas of teaware. Then, the final step lies within the consumer, to experience the tea on its complexity of levels far beyond simple taste.
I am not the first to equate tea to art. In a rather accurate and useful analogy, Don Mei of Mei Leaf Teahouse compares the preparation of tea to the role of a music producer. He describes the tea as music, with the leaves as the instruments and the manufacturers or farmers as the musicians. This leaves the three important variables of brewing up to the preparer to produce the most effective sound. The first is tea temperature, which he describes as the equalization or fine tuning of the range or dynamics. The second is length of brewing time which is the volume in this analogy. And the third is water to leaf ratio, which is roughly 1 gram to 15ml of water for gong fu. When done correctly, this skill produces a tea that gives the consumer a wondrous experience and provide their palates with a product that shows its virtues in subtle but definable ways.
This is where the magic happens! The aroma speaks first, even before the tea is brewed. A quick shake of the dry leaves in the heated pot or Gawain and the lid reveals a preview of things to come. Is it smoky and rich? Or sweet and vegetal? Can we tell the age or the quality? A quick rinse followed by a flash steep, then the pour. The color and clarity come next. Is it oily and thick? Do the small bubbles linger on the surface and break for the edges slowly or quickly? The soft natural shades of the liquor, from almost clear white to total blackness, gives us a second prelude. From the palette of color to the palate of taste, we begin to recognize and appreciate the vibrancy of great tea and array of muted tones. How does it contrast with the cup? What reflects in its surface? Ourselves? Our moment and surroundings?
The gentle steam dances through the ether seducing us toward that first sip. Then, the cup to our lips, comes the great revelation. A gentle taste and slight inhalation to cool the nectar, the tip of the tongue probes for sweetness in bursts of delight. The warm brew fills the mouth in a fine layer of fulfilled anticipation. Astringency and green vegetal summer rain or fresh cut lawns bank the mouth on each side while clean dry backdrafts pervade the palate as the tea washes down the throat. An exhalation followed by a deep breath, and the ghostly whisper of aftertaste and hui gan begins to cool that center where the tongue and throat come together. Is there a long finish accentuated by deep aroma and thick lubricating mouthfeel? Is there a quick dry gasp and nothing at all? Impressions of season, mood, texture, minerals, memories, places, or people? This is the place where we experience the otherworldly ineffable greatness of tea. This is where the art of tea as an object, as a performance, and as an experience collide in a rapture of profound joy, only to build on itself in experience of the next sip, the next brew, the next tea.
If we are skilled, if we are lucky, if we are resolute, we will find meaning in this experience. We will find a springboard toward loving some aspect of this world that helped create this magical work of art. We will find a peaceful place where worries and anxieties are pushed to background while our attention rests on the beauty we have accepted into our bodies and hearts through an exaltation of the senses. Not an adulation of extremes, but through subtleness and thoughtful poetics. The grace of tea upon us, we can linger undisturbed in our thoughts and feelings, guided by simplicity and complexity clasped together within our cups, within ourselves.