This week's tea: hype, the lingering sweetness called huigan, and how rough edges smooth over time.
HYPE: a process, not a beverage
Right now, I'm drinking Hype, which sounds like a weird thing to be imbibing. Technically, the full name of the tea is “2022 Green Hype," which sounds even less drinkable, and possibly poisonous. Hype is a raw pu-erh produced by a company called White2Tea.
Pu-erh is what is usually called a post-fermented tea, which means that like wine, it gets better with age. Also like wine, there are some varieties of tea that cost a truly astronomical amount. I got a cake of Hype as part of a tea club.
Wait: let me explain what a cake of tea is.
When you remove each paper wrapper, the scent of the tea thickens--sweet, vegetal, too complex to tease out into individual threads. If this tea were a romance novel man, I might say that it smelled of sun and meadow and something uniquely tea-like. Alas. It's just an inanimate object.
This particular pressing of tea was made with some aged material, some new material. It was pressed just a few months old, and while the tea has a lovely lingering sweetness (huigan, it's called), it also has a bit of a bite--a rough bitterness that is not quite sharp enough to be unpleasant, but renders the tea somewhat imperfect. This cake needs time to mellow, so after I'm done with this session, it's going in my makeshift humidity-controlled tea storage. I'll take it out and try it again some time later.
Tea made from a tea cake is not just a beverage. It is a process. First, you must unwrap the cake from each of its two wrappers. There's a moment when you breach the second one where the scent of the tea just seeps into the air, wild and unrestrained. There's the act of breaking off a chunk of the compressed cake using a tea knife, and then there are the successive steepings of the leaves. For good-quality tea, I usually do six to eight steeps, starting around 10 seconds a steep. I count seconds in my head--one, two, three, four--while holding the pot, warm in my hands.
This style of tea brewing forces me to slow down. I can't just pour the tea and drink mindlessly. Or, well--this is me, so I can and I have. But there's something magical about slowing down on every step. Thinking about the taste of each steep makes me enjoy it more. Adjusting the length of the next time interval based on how bitter or how sweet this one is helps me get tea that is perfect for my tastes. And seeing how the tea changes over time encourages curiosity. The process of tea rewards patience and attention.
This inaugural weekly tea newsletter is going to be constructed over the course of my tea sessions for the week. Those of you who follow me on various social media platforms might have seen some of my tea posts there. I enjoyed doing them, but writing them on social media forced a form of inattention away from the tea. Social media, I think, tends to put my brain in an inattentive space. I'm always waiting for a response or a like or some form of interaction. What am I experiencing now? What does it feel like? Did I just say something stupid?
At some point, I realized that posting about tea on social media was probably not consistent with my preferred tea process. Hence, this newsletter.
what i'm reading
This weekend, I read I'm So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson. This book had such a comfortable voice. It felt like a friend was telling me what was going on in his life. Kian, our narrator, got dumped by Hudson a few months ago. But Hudson reaches out and asks him to fake-date in exchange for an introduction to the man in charge of his dream job. Lots of forced proximity between two people who are definitely not over each other ensues.
Pele turned fourteen this last Sunday. There's something about having a fourteen-year-old dog that is as pure a sweetness as you can get. I have had Pele through the entirety of my writing career. I got him the same day that my agent held the auction for my very first book.
He has always been a sweet dog: sensitive to our moods, eager to please, loving, affectionate. We've learned what he needs to be mellow (when he was younger, a truly wild amount of exercise). He's learned how not to do things that make our life more difficult, like chewing up computer cords or running out into the street. He fits into my life so well that I cannot imagine it without him.
For this birthday, we didn't really get him any new presents. He has a wide variety of well-loved toys, and we’ve showered him in gifts before, but he doesn't really show interest in much else anymore. He does, however, absolutely love opening presents. For his birthday, we wrapped individual treats in boxes so he could enthusiastically rip off the wrapping paper to get a single dog biscuit.
TEA TIME IN MY BOOKS
My first published work was This Wicked Gift. My most recent work is The Devil Comes Courting. It was unintentional, but both of these books have scenes where the main characters make and talk about steeping tea leaves multiple times. And they don’t use sugar in their tea.
And they're completely different.
Here's what This Wicked Gift has to say about tea.
For a few minutes, he busied himself with the kettle and teapot, his back to her. When he finally turned back, he held a cup in his hands.
“Here,” he said. “The very nectar of poverty. Five washings of the leaves. I believe the liquid still has some flavor.” He handed it to her. “There’s no sugar. There’s never any sugar.”
Here's what The Devil Comes Courting says:
“Now.” The woman poured more hot water into the gaiwan. “This you drink. After it”—Amelia didn’t catch the word she used, but she was guessing it meant steeps—“pour the tea into the pitcher.”
Amelia nodded. “Thank you for your explanation. I appreciate it.”
The woman just stared at her. “You’re not pouring. Did you understand what I said?”
“You said, after it…”
“Yes, after it—” That same word, probably? Maybe it didn’t mean steeps. Maybe it meant something else.
Amelia gave her a horrified smile. “But it hasn’t even been a minute.”
“A minute!” The woman widened her eyes. “No, no, this is good green tea. The first steeping finishes in ten seconds. How can you taste each steeping properly if you let the leaves sit in water for minutes on end like you’re boiling soup?”
“That’s how the English make it.”
“Ah!” The woman threw up her hands. “The English! Fight two wars for tea and can’t even make it properly!”
While I was doing my final readthrough of The Devil Comes Courting, I realized that I'd come full circle on tea. In This Wicked Gift, five washings of the tea leaves is about William White's poverty. He has no money for more. Tea is expensive, after all.
In The Devil Comes Courting, Amelia not knowing that tea can and should have multiple steepings, that each steeping is to be savored and enjoyed, is a reminder of her disconnection from her biological parents' culture. The only process of tea she knows is colonial. She has to learn the alternatives.
Whether I intend it or not, what I write inevitably mirrors where I am. As a person with both Chinese and British ancestry, my experience of tea has been a matter of both heritage and colonization.
There are a lot of choices I made in This Wicked Gift as a younger author that I simply would not make at this point. I have issues with the consent. (So many issues.) Yet there are still some things I'm proud of. I wrote a novella where the hero was desperately poor in a time when heroes were getting wealthier and wealthier.
I still hope that there's a lingering sweetness to the work, a huigan. And while there's a bite from mistakes I made, I hope that every successive work I put out gets a little more mellow.
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