In popular Western consciousness, “space” is often invoked to give shape to the nebulous concept of that which envelops us when we are alone. Space has no scale. It refers to both the cavernous mystery across which entire galaxies are strewn, and the curiously tense bit of room between us and the next person on the train. The Japanese have multiple conceptions of space, giving order to its many forms. One of these is ma, which characterizes the ephemeral space of the in-between. Although it's often reduced to “negative space” when translated, ma is more aptly described as a gap or pause which allows dissimilar entities to coexist – visually, spatially, temporally. It is a fundamental component of Japanese culture that creates hierarchical equivalencies between both the form of an object and the empty space surrounding it. The juxtaposition of the two disparate elements creates a new composition altogether, bestowing new meaning to a reimagined whole. So too does the space betwixt leaves and the vessel in which they dance assume a pivotal role in creating the marvel that is tea.
The outward simplicity of a cup of tea belies a labyrinthine complexity in flavor beneath its tranquil surface. Artistry and science hold equal sway in the process of manufacturing tea, their combined influence helping ensure its quality. As part of production tea leaves must undergo changes in their physical state. Among these processes is rolling, a subsect of shaping in which tea leaves are tightly curled to help break their cell walls and release their natural juices. Herein the tea contracts, not unlike a caterpillar retreating to its cocoon in anticipation of the metamorphosis to come. Unlike the caterpillar, however, the catalyst for tea’s metamorphosis is hot water. Mere seconds after adding it to tea leaves, transformation begins. The thirsty tea leaves eagerly open up, drinking in the hot water as it coaxes flavor from their leafy tendrils. To the untrained eye, what ensues is little more than a dance of leaves and water. But on a cellular level, this choreography is far more complex. All of the soluble compounds in the tea are alight with new life as they meet the warm embrace of the water. And just is the case with any other dance, the leaves need room, or ma, to perform.
The surface area of the tea leaves expands as liquid permeates their cell walls, meaning the tea leaves take up even more space within the vessel. In this instance, negative space is anything but. Giving tea leaves the space to expand and imbue the water with their flavor is essential to developing the flavors and aromas in a cup of tea. As such, the success of extraction relies heavily on the vessel in which the tea is brewed. Certain teapots constrict the tea, denying it opportunity to regale with its transfixing show. Side-by-side experiments will confirm as much: when comparing teas brewed in a tea egg and a leather teapot such as our cylinder pot, for example, the results will be vastly dissimilar. The tea egg is much too small, and provides far too little room for the tea to open up as it absorbs moisture. The result is a lackluster cup in taste, color, and aroma. Inversely, brewing tea in a larger vessel with more room supplies tea with ample space between the tea leaves and the hot water encircling them. The resultant brew exhibits a characteristic depth in flavor, appearance, and smell, ensuring an optimal tea drinking experience.
The Chinese have dedicated an entire brewing style centered on space. Known as “Gong fu”, or “highly skilled” brewing, this method of tea preparation espouses a particular attention to the size of the brewing vessel. A larger size ensures the leaves aren’t trapped in a filter or infuser; rather, they are free to expand and make use of all the space within the teapot. There are many teapots which fit this criteria for Gong fu cha, but one of our favorites is the gaiwan. A gaiwan is a lidded teapot with a wide body which allows the tea leaves room to open and unfurl all while granting us the ability to see the color of the infusion. This feature gives us the advantage of adjusting steeping times according to our personal taste and preference. Furthermore, a Gaiwan infusion usually contains a bigger leaf to water ratio, making it doubly important to retain control over the speed of the pour. For many, the Gaiwan is a daily essential for tea rituals. A teapot and teacup in one, our Sancai Gaiwan is a practical and beautiful accessory which gestures a nod to the coexistence of heaven, man and earth; as represented by the lid, body and saucer.
Space is but one of 5 components which are essential for brewing the perfect cup of tea. Read more about the others here.