The 8th century classic Taoist text Yin Fu Jing expounds;
“The Fire is born in Wood
Our attention to the heat source for our water for tea is often not considered a priority as we become dependent upon both modern technology and lifestyles such that these choices are removed.The same amount of energy is required to heat one litre of water no matter which method of heating used. The only difference is the methods used and the loss of both energy in the process and the quality of the energy released by the fuel that creates the heat, the fire element in our tea session.
We are reminded that fire is intimate to both the beginning of human culture and to the processing of tea.
Fire is both the warmth we carry through the cold times of our life and the technology that manipulates so many of our historic innovations. It is universally celebrated in all religions and cultures and rich with symbolism and folklore.
Similarly in tea , fire is both the heat that “kills green” (shāqīng 殺青) as well as the heat that drys, the heat that roasts and the heat that prepares water.
There are many discussions around fire and heat for water for tea, with references to classic texts such as Lu Yu’s Cha Jing which outlines charcoal as the finest source of fire and preparing fire for tea as one of the nine skills of a tea master.
We are mostly dependent upon electricity and gas through the medium of a kettle to heat our water for tea. Taking the principle of the Yin Fu Jing, that fire is born of wood, we perhaps need to give some attention to the energy sources for this.
Typically gas fired burners are a product of natural gas, produced over millennium when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth and is a non-renewable heat source. Equally electric burners are often powered by the grid which is mostly produced from gas or non-renewable hydrocarbons such as coal or oil. Typically only around 17% of electricity is supplied from renewable sources e.g. wind/sun (EEA 2018).Electricity incurs energy loss in both its generation from its base fuel as well as its transport to the domestic plug socket.
From a Taoist perspective non-renewable hydrocarbon fuels are extremely Yin in constitution, and whilst producing fire is also very consumptive of the Yang in this process, hence inefficient. Fire from this source is likely to produce different heat than from other sources.
When we consider charcoal as the source for fire it is both renewable and sustainable, however is less convenient and requires skill in use. However some charcoal is not that environmentally friendly both due to the way its produced and the wood source used. Therefore it is clear we also need to be mindful of this.
Herbal charcoals have been used traditionally in Chinese medicine for many years, being one of the most characteristic processing methods of Chinese herbal medicines with the purpose of changing the herbal nature (He et al 2016) hence dependent on what wood is used determines the nature of the fire and hence the water, so the flow goes! This is why Pine is chosen for drying certain teas yet bamboo charcoal might be used for heating the water for the same tea.
A charcoal brazier may be an ideal but practically not something we can operate in an office or 10th floor apartment without incurring suspicion or even contravening fire regulations.
For most, therefore. we are constrained by the restrictions that modern lifestyles impose on us. This is something that I have been reflecting over now for some time, perhaps alongside my parallel concern around the utility of smokeless moxa over traditional mugwort fluff.
Whilst alcohol burners are perhaps more convenient in modern settings and alcohol itself is equally sustainable and renewable , having better properties than other hydrocarbons, they still require skill and equally pose risks in contravening fire regulations. There are some interesting products available on the market (example below) but are still are more confined and practicable to formal tea sessions than casual brewing.
Naturally produced fermented alcohol when burnt gives off water, CO2 and heat that is Yang and very efficient (277.7 kJ per mole of ethanol).The production of alcohol for fuel is also more energy efficient than that of natural gas and reminds me of another portion of the Yin Fu Jing ;
“The way of nature is quiet .. the wise know the way of nature..”
Although, still, in opting for alcohol over charcoal we are still met by a level of incongruence with the modus operandi of contemporary culture and living. Unpacking an alcohol burner and matches in the workplace might not do you any favours!!
In some sense giving appropriate attention to tea should include appropriate attention to all elements of tea consumption, so perhaps the problem of fuel sources isn’t really a problem at all more of a problem around giving appropriate attention. What I am trying to convey is that whilst the ideal and most perfect fuels for heating water might not be the most practicable they do ask us to question our tea practice , in that if we are brewing up in the office or in a confined space perhaps we should consider changing our environment or our practice so that we can use charcoal or ethanol and also take the time to be skillful in their use; this will only add positively to our experience and knowledge.
However, I remain mindful that even with this intention in our minds and hearts it is no something easily enacted. Other thoughts include such devices as Solar kettles, (what better source of fuel for heating water for tea than a primary source?!!) however they still require full sun for up to 2 hours to reach appropriate temperatures (something of a challenge in the Northern Hemisphere).
I therefore come back to the practicalities of daily modern living and going beyond fire to establish appropriate fuel for heating water for tea. One thing I have yet to discuss is induction stoves that convert electricity into magnetic fields. These are still reliant on grid electricity for such devices which incur both energy loss and questions around their source fuel, however in principle they are more energy efficient by producing an alternating magnetic field that heats up ferrous material. The question remains around the impact of such magnetic fields on both water and tea people, forget Cha Qi what about human Qi? Recent research remains concerning, and certainly makes me question both the health and positive effects of using induction stoves for heating water for tea. One study suggested that induction stoves far exceed the radiation limits in use recommended by established regulations (Christ et al 2012) whilst another study suggested safe operational distances might be established at 1 metre from such devices (Aerts et al 2017).
May be then we have to keep revisiting this question as we gain both knowledge and experience within our tea practice.
Our future for modern fuel for tea processing and brewing could be a positive one that also impacts on our tea experience and expands outward beyond the Cha Pan. If our electricity supply becomes 100% renewable from Wind or Sun we could be looking at a something unique and potent in the heating of water for tea that lends itself closer to Taoist ideals suitable for modern lifestyles.
Aerts S, Calderon C, Valič B, Maslanyj M, Addison D, Mee T, Goiceanu C, Verloock L, Van den Bossche M, Gajšek P, Vermeulen R. Measurements of intermediate-frequency electric and magnetic fields in households. Environmental research. 2017 Apr 1;154:160-70.
Christ A, Guldimann R, Bühlmann B, Zefferer M, Bakker JF, van Rhoon GC, Kuster N. Exposure of the human body to professional and domestic induction cooktops compared to the basic restrictions. Bioelectromagnetics. 2012 Dec;33(8):695-705.
He Y, Chen S, Yu H, Zhu L, Liu Y, Han C, Liu C. Effect of catnip charcoal on the in vivo pharmacokinetics of the main alkaloids of Rhizoma Coptidis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016;2016.