Winter is upon us, and during this time of the year we particularly enjoy long sessions of boiled tea. Early this morning, I climbed out of bed and placed a kettle on the stove. For a tea lover, there are few joys greater than boiled tea on a cold, snowy day. Warming my hands on the flame beneath the kettle while waiting for the house to heat, I dug through my drawer of aged shou puerh, seeking ideal leaves for this ancient brewing method.
Here in the mountains of Southern Colorado, a thick blanket of white covers the ground, the mountain peaks, the bare Aspen trees silhouetted by the flurry. The first arrival of snow supports my morning musings on a Life of Tea, and the Winter Season in particular. The “soughing of wind through the pines,” a commonly used term to describe the sound of boiling tea water, called me back to the kitchen. As I sat at my low table, I noted the quiet murmur of boiling water. For a moment, it felt that life was conspiring to draw me into direct contact with the reality of Winter, and the qualities that define it: the darkness of hibernation, the womb of nature, nascent life, the water element, the source of life, the desolate cold of snow and ice, taking stock of what is essential, storage of resources, the fear that accompanies life at the gate, dormancy, stillness, quietude, introspection, and one’s relationship to fear and the unknown. This is the time to move inward, to gather one’s internal energy, to reflect on the year that has passed, to rest the body and mind. Those wishing to cultivate their life energy, to foster longevity and to transform fear into wisdom, might heed the advice of our ancestors and follow the cycle of the season. Boiled tea draws us into a primordial realm, connecting us to the oldest brewing methods, using a squash gourd or simple hand-made vessel to brew unprocessed tea leaves.
Boiled tea is the third of our five brewing methods in the Tradition of the Hut. The process of boiling leaves is unhurried and takes time. It slows us down, organically creating space for meditation and reflection. Boiled tea also connects us more essentially to Nature in a more direct way. This ancient practice allows us to access the deep essence in the tea leaves, and dates back to a time before humans developed sophisticated processing methods and different categories of tea. Humans tend to differentiate, categorize, dissect, separate, label and judge, but for the tea trees, there’s no fragmentation nor separation. This ancient method connects us to brewing “tea,” the way it would have been brewed long ago, and more closely aligned with Nature before the qualitative mind became so much of the tea experience. One can imagine ancient Taoists and Shamans in the forests of Yunnan, sitting with their boiling gourds, extracting the essence from tea leaves and wild herbs. Without all the fuss of modern tea, they likely had a more open channel of communication with the plants, animals, rivers, stones and stars above, facilitated by the practice of brewing boiled tea and other plants.
Once while traveling in the tea mountains of Yunnan, China, I stopped at a roadside hut that some friends recommended for a simple lunch cooked over an open fire pit in the floor. I imagine they would have prepared food this way thousands of years ago. I was offered some tea from a big silver teapot that sat on top of a nearby metal stand. I noticed some leaves poking out under the lid, so I lifted it to tuck them back in. To my amusement and surprise, an entire tea branch, covered in leaves, had been stuck in the kettle and boiled. Something about this humble approach to tea showed me the type of relationship these indigenous people had to tea. For them, it was so utterly a part of their everyday life, they didn’t make a big deal out of it. While I believe it’s important to treat tea with reverence, we are also reminded to keep our approach simple, modest, and natural, observing the same spirit of relationship that these people who live among the ancient trees demonstrated. Boiled tea returns us to this ancient way.
Boiled tea fits nicely as a third method in the three practices of bowl tea: leaves in a bowl, sidehandle bowl tea, and boiled tea. The intention is the same with the other bowl tea methods: simplicity, modesty, meditation, connection with nature, and community. Because we emphasize meditation during the short, cold days of winter, no method is better suited to the season. Also, with more time spent indoors, we find our activities more limited and thus have more time for longer tea sessions. Black tea, shou puerh, and sheng puerh are the ideal teas for boiling: robust flavor and depth, with plenty of wisdom to gather from these ancient trees. In the spirit of the traditional herbalists, consider adding another plant -- dried citrus peel (chen pi) or chrysanthemum buds (ju hua) to brighten up the flavor and chi of dark, musty teas.
There are three primary ways that one can boil tea. The first method is perhaps the most common: boiled leaves in a glass kettle. We often use this method after we’ve finished a nice tea session of sidehandle tea and suspect that the leaves have more to offer. You simply add your used leaves to a glass kettle of boiling water and let them sit for a few minutes. You’ll notice that often when we believe a tea is done, it’s actually far from spent. You might also consider using this tea water for cooking grains or for a nice winter stew.
The second method is nearly identical to sidehandle bowl tea, except that you would place your fire-resistant sidehandle on a brazier to let the tea gently boil, adding a pinch of Himalayan salt, and only pouring out part of the tea into bowls. This way, the tea continues to gently boil throughout the session, drawing out the deep minerals, oils and tannins in the leaves.
The third method, our favorite, is Cauldron Boiled Tea. This method is ideal for long sessions where you will be brewing tea for many guests, including events where guest might come and go. This method is also wonderful for a tea ceremony with a set number of guests. First, you boil water in your cauldron (ideally over charcoal), but you can start it on the stove as well. The cauldron then sits on top of a brazier and is kept hot with a glass wick or charcoal. Having a steaming cauldron as part of the cha xi is a beautiful welcome for guests when they arrive. Once the guests are seated, we bring out the bowls, one by one to the heart, and place them in a semi-circle or line, depending on how many guests. Once the bowls are out, we use our ladle to scoop some boiling water and put it in each bowl to preheat and rinse them. We then rinse the water from each bowl by pouring it into the jian shui (waste water bowl), removing the jian shui afterwards. The next step is to add a pinch of salt, which will be added every 3-4 times you add water to the cauldron. We use Himalayan pink salt, which brings out umami and depth in the tea, which prevents the tea from tasting “spent.” The next step is to vigorously stir the water so that it creates a vortex, into which pour our tea leaves. This distributes the leaves throughout so that we get an even boil right from the beginning. We can add smaller amounts of tea slowly throughout the tea session. The final step is to fill the ladle with tea, holding it against the inner wall of the cauldron so that the leaves do not fill the ladle. We then use one ladle per bowl, after which we pass our the bowls, turning them outwards as we place them in front of the guest so that they aren’t drinking from the part where our hand was holding the bowl. After the guest enjoys their tea, they can hand the bowl back and the process starts again.
Bowl tea is truly ideal for long tea sessions over a couple hours. We like listening to a great album beginning to end, or setting a topic for discussion, or perhaps a book that everyone has read. The later steepings become sweet and smooth, and contain a deep structured body that isn’t achieved through other brewing methods. We hope you discover as much joy in this method as we have, and have some suggestions below for nice tea and wares that are conducive to the practice. Please feel free to reach out with any questions, and we hope to share a boiled tea session with you soon!
Written by Colin Hudon, Founder of Living Tea