he tea ceremony is the ultimate symbol of culture and leisure among the many Chinese who have moved to the mountain town of Dali in Yunnan Province to escape the rat race of a big city life.
By indulging in the methodical, ancient steps of making tea for a guest, you are slowing down time, focusing on the moment and bringing attention to your visitor.
It’s quite common for people to have a special area of their house or yard set aside for this ritual, with custom-made tea tables carved from the trunks of large trees, amid beautiful plants.
People get geeky about this, with kettles that measure the temperature to within one degree Celsius, cups made of special clay from specific regions of China, and very expensive and hard to find “wild” teas.
More than showing off their wealth, these tea aficionados are showing off the fact they are cultured enough to choose this hobby, and have the time to enjoy it. After all, what’s the rush? Life is short, and what could be more important than passing time with friends.
To my delight, I discovered a subculture of Chinese people in Dali who are giving this sense of ritual and attention to coffee drinking.
Fussy, nerdy coffee drinkers, of course, are found all around the world.
This spirit lives on, with Chinese characteristics, in Tian Jia Bei, a tiny coffee shop run by Qingyun and Taoxing.
It only seats six people, on a bench in front of a single counter. Even so, the owners found space for a piano. The second floor is closed to the public - it is where Taoxing hand roasts the coffee beans he has gathered from all around China and the world.
A visit to the shop starts with a series of questions about what kind of coffee you prefer. In time, you will be sniffing from dozens of jars of beans, detecting the different notes as if it were fine wine. Once you make a choice, the beans are carefully measured out to the gram, and slowly hand ground. Grinding too fast can also create too much friction, raising the temperature and affecting the taste.
The water is heated to the exact temperature, which changes depending on the type of coffee you ordered. The water is then transferred into a special pouring kettle with a long narrow spout, like a swan’s head.
A coffee filter is precisely folded, and placed into a dripper, then lovingly dampened with the kettle, to wash out any flavors of the paper. The grounds are then added, and the water is poured with the utmost concentration in concentric patterns designed to make sure all of the grinds have equal amounts of water passing through. The rate of flow is important - too little and you cook the coffee in the filter, too much and the flavor will be thin.
When the coffee is finally ready, you choose one of the unique, hand sculpted shot-glass sized coffee cups from the wall, and everyone savors the first sip. The whole process takes 20 minutes, and is done with the same elegant flow and fastidiousness as a tea ceremony.
I was absolutely enchanted by the proprietors and their ritual. I also was planning to open a restaurant at the time - a plan since abandoned - and figured this was a great way to get people to pay a premium price for a cup of coffee, because it included a performance.
My family, fully addicted coffee drinkers, were coming to visit from Canada, so I asked Qingyun to help me buy the equipment I needed. Who knew a premium coffee grinder could cost hundreds of dollars? Same for a long-necked kettle imported from Japan. This was shaping up to be an expensive hobby.
My father has worked in construction his whole life, and he always brought coffee and a bag of donuts from Tim Hortons for the workers when he visited a site.
When I first made my artisanal coffee for him at my home, he was very impressed with the ritual and the taste, but he asked if he could have a bigger cup. For Canadians used to drinking extra-large double-doubles, drinking coffee by the thimbleful just doesn’t cut it.
My sister, who has been jealous of me her whole life, was less impressed. When I wasn’t within sight, she took to bypassing most of my equipment, placing the coffee grounds unmeasured into a dry, unfolded filter, setting the dripper onto a full size coffee mug, and dousing it with water straight from the electric kettle, laughing about my fussy ritual.
As a mother of two young boys with a full-time office job, you learn to take shortcuts, I suppose.
But I get the last laugh. I have the luxury of time to spend being fussy.