Serenity in a cup of tea

Life-coach Jemitra Hairston ushers the ancient sacred ritual of sharing tea into the 21st century.

healthy-teaGUEST COLUMN: JEMITRA HAIRSTON — This is not an easy subject for me because I grew up in the South, home of Lipton “sun tea.” On Sundays, my mama would place a big container full of water on the well next to the clothes line in the back yard.

Dangling from tabs captured between the lid and lip of the jar were several bags of Lipton’s tea. After several hours of sitting in the North Carolina sun, the tea would be brewed to “perfection.”

Mama would then take the tea inside where she would sweeten it to within an inch of its life.

And if she was really feeling frisky, she’d add some “real lemon juice” fresh from a lemon shaped plastic bottle. Fond as these memories are, eventually I had to let Lipton go. It happened shortly after I messed around and got a hold of a cup of tea made from premium tea leaves.

Letting Lipton go

So what exactly is my beef with Lipton? Well, it’s not only Lipton, but most mass-produced, commercial bagged teas are relatively low in quality. In addition, tea bags contain finely ground tea. The bags have a greater surface area and so the tea becomes stale sooner than whole leaf teas.

Finally, although tea bags are convenient, they shield the tea leaves from sight. Tea leaves come in a stunning array of sizes, shapes, and colors. For me, one of the most wonderful things about brewing a cup of tea made from loose leaves is watching them unfurl and swell as they absorb water.

zen-kettle1Sometimes meditation is best served hot

I’ll tell you a secret. I do not enjoy sitting meditation. I tried it numerous times over the years with varying degrees of success. I mostly succeeded at boring myself to tears. So I sold my meditation cushion on Craigslist and looked for other ways to cultivate mindfulness.

In fact, the Buddha once said that one’s entire life should be a meditation. There is a host of methods for developing mindfulness. Making tea is one of them.

Practicing mindfulness is like looking through a magnifying glass. It usually means that some aspect of your life will change. I discovered that different varieties of tea require varying water temperatures and steep times.

For me, making tea mindfully meant I could no longer boil water until my kettle began to whistle (usually while I ran off to do something else). Nor could I steep my tea until it dyed the water a color I found aesthetically pleasing (also while doing something else).

To do so meant ruining a potentially perfect cup of tea.  Nowadays, when I make tea, I must be mindful of the water’s temperature and the tea’s steep time. This sort of mindfulness focuses my attention on the present moment and the busyness of the day with its accompanying anxieties and stressors fade away.

Steeped in serenity

After all of the above goings on, you’re probably wondering exactly what are the proper temperature and steep times. Well, here you go….

chinese-teaGreen tea is best when made with water heated to 165 to 185 degrees and should be steeped no longer than 2 ½ minutes. White tea should also be made with water no hotter than 185 degrees.  The leaves can be steeped up to 15 minutes. Oolongs and blacks can be heated to 203 degrees.  Oolong is best steeped no longer than 9 minutes while the ideal time for black tea is no longer than 5 minutes.

Some of my favorite teas are:

- Lapsang souchong (black)
- Pu-erh (fermented black)
- Ti guanyin or ti kwan yin (oolong)
- Russian caravan (oolong mixed with black)
- Golden monkey (black)
- Assam (black)
- Gen-maicha (green mixed with toasted brown rice)
- Gunpowder (green)
- and a black tea (usually nilgiri) blended with rose petals or lavender petals

If you usually drink bagged tea, branch out a bit and try loose tea. But be warned, not all loose tea is high quality just as not all bagged tea is of low quality. Chatting up your local tea merchant can help you navigate the world of tea. There are also many fabulous books on the subject. Two of my favorites are The New Tea Book by Sara Perry and The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert j. Heiss. There are several teashops and teahouses through which you can mail order the best teas. My favorites are:

- Samovar, San Francisco
- Leland’s Tea Company, San Francisco
- Teaism, Washington, D.C.
- La Societe du Thé, Minneapolis
- Mariage Frère, Paris, France
- Teaphoria, Pompano Beach, Florida

jemitra1Jemitra Hairston is an independent wellness and lifestyle design, body work and yoga consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs at The Green Doorway.

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3 Responses to “Serenity in a cup of tea”

  1. No one has ever told me the temperatures of tea and the steeping times!

    Thank you! I also like the meditative aspects of tea making you gave.

  2. Hi Jemitra, thanks for all the tea info! It makes me want to explore some new taste sensations when I indulge in my next tea party :)

    It also makes me want to slow down and savour the complete tea experience. I hope to read more of your thoughts on this site!

    Cyndi

  3. Jemitra, Thank you, first of all, for your beautiful writing. And for touching so many points: cultural context, the art of fine tea, the how-to of preparing and sourcing tea.

    Your story brought me back to a visit I made to an elevated monastery in Hualien, Taiwan that was founded by a Buddhist nun and a selfless healing, woman (this site would call her a ‘female mystic’:)

    She lived with zero creature comforts but had inspired funding and following that had manifested a campus: it included a hospital that took care of poor people — and its *own* nursing school. Vertically-integrated enlightenment and service :)

    One of the courses in the accredited nursing school was tea.

    Preparing and sharing tea has such a deep tradition of meditation and mysticism. Thank you for sharing it, and bringing it into the present-day.