Water and Leaves: A Conversation with Jesse Berry About the Art of Tea

By David Nilsen


Thursday, November 6, at 6:30 pm, Jesse Berry of Blue Lantern Tea will be offering a Gung Fu Tea Ceremony here at the Greenville Public Library. The ceremony introduces participants to a beautiful and ancient practice, and is open to the public free of charge. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Jesse, and his knowledge of tea and passion for the art of tea-making is fascinating.

Fourth & Sycamore: My first awareness of the Gung Fu Tea ceremony was when I found out you would be arranging one for our library. Since then I’ve done a little reading, but can you briefly explain for me and our readers what the ceremony involves?

Jesse Berry: The Gung Fu Tea ceremony is an expression of art—the setting, the utensils, the tea ware, other visuals like flower arrangements or a simple painting on the wall, sounds, and of course, the tea. But this is art in the moment. The host is creating a unique experience unlike any other. This is not something that gets put on a canvas and hung on a wall to be viewed over and over. The true tea master creates an experience that cannot be recreated. The celebration, as with all celebrations, is the celebration of that unique moment.

Metaphorically, the tea ceremony is the essence of life. Life is none other than a series of unique, individual moments that we can’t get back. Tea is the practice of celebrating these fleeting moments of life. We often want to hold on to the great moments in our lives, and try and recreate them. But if Gung Fu Tea teaches us nothing else, it’s to stop holding on to past moments, to stop trying to relive them, and create a new, unique moment.

F&S: In my understanding, “gung fu” or “kung fu” in Chinese refer to gaining expertise in a given field through hard work, devotion, and study. Can you talk a bit about how this principle applies to the making of fine tea?

Jesse: In the tea ceremony, like most things in life, rules and etiquette can be broken down into three categories: informal, semi-formal, and formal. Whether we’re talking casual or formal, there are some rules that are not ignored. For example; one etiquette is no talking about work, money, politics, or anything else that would bring disharmony to the experience. It is up to the host to keep the conversation light and away from these and other topics—or to guide the conversation back from these topics. And it must be done subtly, in a way that would not embarrass, frustrate, or otherwise offend the guest or guests. So on a social level, it takes great skill and effort to manage the mood of those attending. Another example would be the tea. There are dozens of varieties of tea. There’s even varieties of specific teas. Each tea has its own characteristics and are not always prepared the same way other teas are. The host must know the tea, its origins and history in case a guest inquires, and the correct tea to water ratio. And of course water and water temperature are of the utmost importance. Finally, some tea wares can complement the flavor of a certain tea. With this knowledge, a tea master can use the same tea on separate occasions but create a distinctly different brew. Additionally, there are some specific steps of the preparation that not only serve symbolic purposes, but functional purposes as well. Like pouring hot water over the tea ware, for example. This is done as a symbol of purification and also to heat the tea ware. This helps to maintain the water temperature throughout the brewing process.

F&S: Can you share with our readers how you first gained an appreciation of tea, and what doing this ceremony means for you?

SONY DSCJesse: In my early twenties, after growing up eating unhealthy, I decided I wanted to live a healthier lifestyle. I stopped drinking pop, which was one of my staples, and started looking for healthier alternatives. I had come across tea and heard about its health benefits. So, I started trying different teas and researching the benefits. I started to discover information on the history and philosophy of tea. Being a student of both subjects, I was hooked. And when I eventually found good quality tea, there was no stopping me on my quest to learn more. I was also just getting into the martial art of kung fu at the time and was astounded when I realized that the two arts shared the same philosophies. That’s when I realized that kung fu, or any martial art, is not just learning to fight. It’s about self discovery—discovering your true identity. And, it’s about developing yourself to your fullest potential. As I discovered that tea shared the same principles of self discovery and awareness, and self development, I was amazed, that through these two seemingly different arts, one could achieve the same results.

F&S: In the research I was able to do online, it appears the details of preparing tea for this ceremony (and in general) can be quite specific and demanding. Can you talk a bit about how details such as the type of water used, the temperature of the water, the cut of the leaves, and other details affect the final outcome?

Jesse: The water, type and quality of tea, the volume of each, and the water temperature are what’s considered ‘technique’ level. Again, comparing tea and marital arts, you must understand the technical side before you can understand concepts. It’s the conceptual level that allows an individual to express a medium artistically. Using just technique, like the ratio and variety of water, tea, and temperature an individual can get distinctly different tasting brews from the same water and leaves. Water itself can have very different tastes depending on the source—spring water vs. tap water, the mineral content of the water, etc. High mountain spring water is much purer tasting than the same spring water coming from a source at the bottom of the mountain, as the low mountain spring water will have more minerals. And that’s not a bad thing. As long as the water is clean and it accentuates the taste of the tea, it becomes part of the artistic expression and unique experience. Some tea masters will gather a good, pure water and age it in a particular clay vessel creating a unique tasting water. So, water alone can open up opportunities for a number of unique possibilities in terms of taste and experience. Of course tea, with its exceptional variety, becomes even more complex. During the hand processing of artisan teas, the leaves can be dried, steamed, rolled, twisted, pressed, etc., etc. And this is done in any combination of ways and a number of times depending on the artisan’s preference. This does not include air drying tea leaves from one to three days or aging the processed leaves up to thirty years or more. After an individual chooses from the infinite variety of teas, selects water, they must decide tea volume, temperature, and length of brew as they all have a decisive impact on the outcome of the flavor. For example, lower water temperatures can give a slightly milder brew. More tea to water ratio at less steep time can give a bold brew where as less tea to water ratio at a short steep time can give a mellower, smoother brew. Less tea to water with a longer brew can give a light brew.

SONY DSCAgain, that’s just the technique level. There are several steps that represent concept and the philosophy behind the tea ceremony. For example, hot water is poured over the tea pot and cups before tea is put in the pot. Although the tea ware is already cleaned prior to the ceremony, this is a symbolic gesture of purifying the tea ware. Also, it warms the tea ware which helps maintain water temperature throughout the brewing process as the tea pot and cups are small, giving the water and brewed tea plenty of opportunity to cool quickly. Low water temperature, as previously discussed, can affect the taste of the brewed tea leaves. Another conceptual example, after the tea ware is cleansed and warmed, tea is placed in the pot and hot water is poured from a high position. This high position allows the weight of the water to cleanse the tea. This first brew is poured out. This is another symbolic gesture of cleansing and purifying.

As you can see from these few examples, there is a lot of technical knowledge as well as an understanding of concepts and intent. As with all things that require skill and effort, it takes time and practice to gain the experience of a master.

F&S: A big part of the enjoyment of any food or drink that has a connoisseur-like following (wine, coffee, cheese, craft beer, etc) is the social interaction that surrounds the actual consumption of that food or drink. Can you talk about how that social aspect applies specifically to the enjoyment of tea?

Jesse: Although the tea ceremony can range from casual to formal, as I previously mentioned, there are etiquettes that keep the guests focused on the appreciation of tea and sharing a unique experience. And with the rules dictating that conversation be kept light and away from stressful topics, the guests are more free to engage in open, comfortable conversation allowing more connection and rapport between guests and host. Also, like wine tasting, cheese tasting, and other artisan food and drink appreciation events, tea and the ceremony give the guests and host a topic to discuss—the appreciation of tea, tea ware, flower arrangements, overall setting and location, art, and anything else used in the ceremony. In fact, part of the etiquette of the guests is to know when and how to appreciate the tea, tea ware, etc. These rules naturally force conversation, preventing guests to sit idle and disengage. So, essentially, guests are required to engage each other and host in light harmonious conversation in the serenity of the tea ceremony.

F&S: If persons in Darke County wanted to learn more about how to prepare and enjoy fine tea, how would you recommend they go about that?

Jesse: Really, at this point, there is nothing (aside from myself) around here within a two hour drive. I’ve had some informal lessons from a person in Columbus, OH. I had an informal training session in New York. I had some informal lessons during a visit to China. And currently, I’ve had the fortune to have some more formal lessons from a Japanese Tea Master near Cincinnati. If anyone is interest in learning more about tea or the tea ceremony, they are welcome to contact me through my web-store, Blue Lantern Tea at www.bluelanterntea.com. Or you can visit me at my retail store The Market at 120 W. Third St. We have a kioske there where we sell our artisan teas and tea wares.

F&S: Thanks so much for being willing to talk with us today, Jesse.

The Gung Fu Tea Ceremony will be Thursday, November 6, at 6:30 pm. Please plan to attend and learn more about the art of tea.

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