Find out where the term ‘Ceremonial Grade’ matcha came from
It's Kate from Matchaful. On Sunday I sat down (and when I say sat down I mean g-chatted in bed on a lazy weekend day in NYC) with Aislynn Van Clief, founding team member and Creative Director of Analytical Flavor Systems to chat tea ceremonies. She has over 7 years of experience studying tea ceremonies and is a certified Tea specialist through the Tea Institute at Penn State. She's currently applying for her first of many "diplomas" with Urasenke, which would grant her permission to continue studying more variations of thin and thick tea.
In your personal exploration of matcha, you may have come across the term Ceremonial Grade (re: Emerald Grade). Matcha tea ceremonies have been enjoyed in Japan (by way of China) for centuries, so you can imagine how important the quality of tea must be for ceremonies. Hence the term ‘Ceremonial Grade’ – it’s the best of the best. Typically the leaves are hand-picked from the first harvest of the season, resulting in the most green, smoothest taste of matcha. Matcha comes from Japan so we are largely focused on Japanese Tea Ceremonies, however, we do touch on Chinese tea a bit for historical context.
The host uses a hishaku to scoop water out of a kama
to prepare the matcha.
Kate: Hey! Thanks for chatting with me on a Sunday afternoon. I know we’re both crazy busy working at startups – basically a 24/7 life, but so fulfilling! So tell me how you discovered the ritual of tea ceremony?
Aislynn: It kind of traces back through my interest in flavor, actually. I attended college at Penn State University, where I discovered the Tea Institute at Penn State at our involvement fair. At the Tea Institute we focused primarily on Chinese tea ceremony, of Gong Fu cha, but what was special about the Institute was how it brought teachers and institutions from different cultures together. We made a partnership through the Philadelphia Urasenke Tankokai [an outpost of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony in Kyoto, Japan] and my teacher, Dr. Drew Hanson, still travels to Penn State to offer free Japanese tea ceremony lessons to the community.
Kate: Very cool. So I'm assuming at the involvement fair at Penn State there were many tables or booths for you to stop at - what was so compelling about the Tea Institute that drew you in?
Aislynn: I think the fact that there was such an intense interest in something so niche. It was amazing to me that such connoisseurship, another world, really, could be behind something I drank almost daily. And I still think my studies have only just begun!
Kate: Totally. Small, specialized communities definitely have a certain magic to them. Feeling really connected to something is an amazing experience. Ok so let's talk tea ceremonies - it sounds like you started with Chinese Tea Ceremonies - tell me about this practice: the history, the flow, the traditions.
Aislynn: For sure. The Chinese practice is really interesting and is really a good start to learning about tea, as this is where tea as we know it all started. A formal ceremony (there are many versions) took centuries to develop, and was closely tied to culture and history. For instance, it wasn't until the Song Dynasty [960-1279] that whisked tea was even a thing - the beginnings of Japanese ceremony - which was banned by the Mongols, forcing a switch to bowl tea with loose leaf. This then morphed into smaller bowls with the preference of fine porcelain, hence the development of the gaiwan, or 'covered bowl'. And even then modern Gong Fu Cha [Chinese tea ceremony] wasn't developed until the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912]. Today, the goal of Gong Fu Cha is to brew the best possible tea for your guest, and give them the best experience.
A final cup of prepared matcha
Kate: Why was whisked tea banned by the Mongols?
Aislynn: It was a matter of preference - they preferred dark, brick tea (ground or whole tea leaves that have been packed in molds and pressed into block form) with horse milk (yum), and made tea more about functionality rather than ceremony. You can see tea has gone through some awkward stages in history.
Kate: But it goes to show you how important tea ceremonies were in China - that a tea practice could be banned!
Aislynn: Right, exactly. It was a way for culture to flourish, not just about making tea.
Kate: Ok so tell me now about how you started learning more about Japanese Tea Ceremonies and the history of this experience.
Aislynn: So my interest expanded into Japanese ceremony within the Tea Institute first simply because it offered another perspective on tea ceremony- but I was quickly taken by it's attention to aesthetics. I've always had a love for Japanese design and minimalism, and chanoyu really emphasizes these points.
Kate: What does chanoyu mean?
Aislynn: Chanoyu is Japanese for 'the way of tea' or 'practice of tea'
Kate: Got it. How did Chanoyu originate?
Aislynn: The history of Japanese tea goes way back to 9th century from a monk called Eichu bringing tea from China. Sencha (steeped green tea) was mostly popular until again, a monk named Eisai brought the concept of 'whisked tea' [matcha] back in the 12th century (remember the Song Dynasty tea ceremony I mentioned?). This picked up with Buddhist monks using it to stay awake, to eventually being an upper-class practice. It also took a turn of it's own through the years, and 16th century is when chanoyu as we know it started forming from Sen no Rikyu. He is considered the father of the tea ceremony, and pushed the notions of 'harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility' forward. It's his great grandchildren that then lead the separation of the schools, or the 'san-Senke'. My school of study happens to be Urasenke.
Gong fu cha tea setup. In contrast to Japananese tea ceremony, Gong Fu Cha combines different tea, technique, and cha xi (tea setup) to enhance the tasting experience.
Kate: When did tea ceremonies change from using Sencha steeped tea to Tencha powdered/whisked tea?
Aislynn: Good question - Sencha was a hit all the way until the second monk, Eisai, brought back Tencha in the 12th century - that is what was first whisked.
The practice of chanoyu is much different than Gong Fu Cha- the goals are entirely different. For example, only matcha is used in chanoyu, and the brewing method will always be the same. Your goal is more to lead your guest through an experience of 'ichi-go ichi-e', or 'one moment in time'. This idea was what Rikyu instilled in the ceremony; that we will never have this experience again, and we should treasure the transient moments. You accomplish this through the host's attention to details such as seasonality, dress, and wares. I like to think of it much more as a dance. It's very meditative for me.
Kate: I love the concept of ‘one moment in time’ – we are so busy living our lives from second to second and multi-tasking, never stopping to appreciate. Go ahead and walk us through the ceremony of chanoyu.
Aislynn: So there's a basic flow for pretty much all variations of a chakai, or informal tea gathering. I'll try and break it down to a few major steps:
First, the guests enter the tea room and wait for the host. The host enters, offers the guests some sweets (this balances the bitter taste of the matcha), then sets up their brewing wares. The host then takes the time to gather their thoughts and purifies the wares with a silk cloth called a 'fukusa', to sort of put good intention into what they are doing.
Formal tea gatherings, such as Hatsugama, or first tea of the new year, include a kaiseki meal and special sweet with burdock root
Then they will scoop the matcha into the bowl, pour hot water, and whisk until nice and frothy. They pass the bowl to the guest to retrieve, and repeat until each guest is served. When a guest receives a bowl, they have a set of movements they must do as well, such as turning the bowl two times before drinking.
Then, the first guest will ask the host to close the ceremony. Sometimes, a guest will ask for 'heiken', which involves the host laying out some of the wares they used to make the tea for further observance of the guests.
A few things are worth mentioning about some key points of the ceremony. One, is the host absolutely does not stop making tea until the first guest asks them to close the ceremony on cue. The second is the saying "Shitsurei itashimashita" or, “Please excuse me for having been in the room.” This is a very humbling idea, especially for a host to their guest. The dynamic of chanoyu is very interesting in this regard.
Then the host collects everything, leaves the tea room, and the ceremony is over. A guest definitely gets a special feeling of being catered to, as a lot of work and preparation and care goes into that single bowl of tea. It's a very intimate experience with a small group of people, so you feel like you all shared a unique experience together.
In the tea room, the host and guest show mutual respect and humility.
Kate: Incredible. Such a beautiful, mindful experience. I can see why you fell in love. Why does one host a tea ceremony? Can anyone do it?
Aislynn: Traditionally, ceremonies were done among the upper class, samurai, or for political meetings. Now, ceremonies can be as informal as having a few friends over, or to celebrate occasions such as New Years. Anyone can study tea ceremony, you just need to find a formal chanoyu establishment near you!
Kate: Awesome. And how long do they normally last? Is there talking or silence? Music? Where do the ceremonies take place? A home, a special place? Do people in Japan have tea ceremonies on only special occasions?
Aislynn: An informal ceremony can last between 30-60 minutes, while a formal gathering can go as long as 4 hours. There is no music played, as it focuses mainly on the natural sounds on the tea preparation, on what is happening in the tea room alone. However, there are points in the ceremony that are open for conversation between host and guest, so it isn't too stiff! Traditionally, a ceremony is done in a tea room or on tatami mats, but there are table-top variations made for western preference. Really though, it can be done anywhere on a floor with the right orientation. In Japan, tea ceremony is becoming a rare occasion, and usually is only seem for special occasions, just because a lot of time and resources go into the preparation.
Kate: How do you feel after a tea ceremony?
Aislynn: I feel calm and temporarily detached from my worries. It's really nice to just focus on a single task for a bit, and nothing else. I'm also happy to show gratitude toward my guests, which is very fulfilling.
Kate: Yes – we are all about sharing meaningful experiences. It’s so important to make sure we aren’t living such a superficial life, just floating through the surface of it. To take the time to really sit and meditate and appreciate those around you, the life you’re blessed with, and maintain awareness. What else do you want everyone to know about tea ceremonies that they might not know to ask?
Aislynn: I would say that studying tea ceremony is just as zen of an experience as it is for the guest. People who pursue tea can take that time to reflect within, and share it by brewing for others. It's a very meditative practice; one that I think we can learn a lot from. It's also entirely accessible - The Tea Institute has made this knowledge very approachable and collected for the first time ever, and I hope to spread more awareness of how we can take what we practice in the tearoom into our everyday lives through this blog, too!
Kate is Vice President of Marketing for Matchaful. She is currently obsessed with Matchaful's Emerald Grade mixed with Cacao Powder and Ripple's Half & Half. She enjoys repurposing vintage clothing for a more unique and sustainable world.
Aislynn Van Clief is a Creative Director for Analytical Flavor Systems. She is passionate about spreading knowledge of tea and tea ceremony to benefit our everyday lives.