Mad Pots -
I recently held a tea tasting event in Portland, Oregon. I'll describe to you what I did.
My goal was to introduce 8 new teas to a group of 8 people, along with food paired to the teas. I specialize in Chinese teas, and so, I wanted to keep an somewhat Asian theme to the event and proceedings. I happen to be good friends with a local sushi chef, John Kim, who is just amazingly talented. When I invited him to the tea tasting I was planning, he one-upped my offer and offered to host it at his restaurant and do all of the food for the event!
I met with him before the tasting, and gave him samples of the teas I wanted to use. Since there were so many teas, I decided to stagger them in this fashion -- I would serve one tea with a course of food, then between courses serve a different one as a pallet cleanser, and to prepare for the next course. I told him which teas I wanted with food, and which ones were to be served alone, and some basic suggestions for how I thought the progression of courses should go.
He tasted each tea, and developed customized dishes for each one, perfectly paired to each tea.
Fast forward to the night of the event...
I arrived early, and prepared the room. I set up a small table near the door, somewhat blocking the entrance path. On this table, I placed a large bowl of clean, cool water, and a nice Asian style flowering potted plant. I put a sign on the table saying "Welcome! Please wash your hands and face.", with a stack of large paper napkins to dry thier hands, and a small trashcan tucked below the table for waste.
This was a nod to the Japanese tea ceremony. Part of the traditional tea ceremony is a washbasin of cool water in the garden outside of the tea house, where the guests are invited to wash thier hands and face before entering the tea house.
Inside of the restaurant I have a long thin table set up, with four seats on each side. Each seat has a normal sized 4 oz chinese style tea cup, and a smaller 1 oz sipping cup. I set up a serving table near the long table for brewing the tea, and rinsing the cups. In my supplies, I had a pair of chopsticks, some tongs, one large glass tea pot, and one small glass tea pot, a large bowl for washing and preheating cups and pots, and a digital gram scale for measuring the tea.
One a counter near the table, I made a display of the dried teas I was going to use. Each tea had it's own covered porcelain bowl. I had pre-measured the amount of each tea, to suit the size of the pot I would brew it in, and put them in the bowl. Next to each bowl, I placed little cards with the name of each tea in Chinese Characters, PinYin romanization, and the English translation.
On the house radio, we were playing some light upbeat jazz.
I had also prepared note sheets for each guest. On the note sheet, there was a list of all the teas we would sample, in the order they would be served, with enough space to write notes about them. I also had enough pens for each guest.
I asked them to think about the teas as they tasted them, and write down thier first impressions, and in general what they thought of the tea, be it bad or good, mundane or eloquent. I also asked them to comment on how the tea mixed with the flavours of the food. This served two purposes - First, it gave me valuable feedback about the teas, which ones were more popular, what kind of descriptions to use for them, and how the food mixed with them, for future reference. Secondly, it forced the guests to really think about the teas, and the experience of drinking them. By describing it and writing it on paper, it would help them to experience it more fully, and also to remember the unique taste of each tea later, as well as the entire evening's experience.
After all the guests arrived, we started the event.
The basic procedure was for me to first, pass the bowl of dry leaves around the table for everyone to look, smell, and comment on. I introduced each tea, giving some background information, and answering any questions. During this time I was also taking each cup and washing and preheating it in my large bowl of near-boilng water, handling them with tongs. I did this after every change of tea. Before brewing the tea in the pots, I preheated them with hot water, and discarded the water. I did this for every tea course.
Then, after they had viewed the tea, I brewed it in the pot, and served the first round. I poured and refilled until the pot was empty, and then started a second brewing. I only brewed each tea for two infusions (of course I did a rinse infusion first to prepare the leaves and wash them).
The first round was Rou Gui Oolong, served with some light snacks -- in this case, little crunchy fake sushi snacks, some lightly flavoured pumpkin seeds, lightly salted coated peanuts, and boiled peanuts with a hint of Sichuan Peppercorn.
After the second brew, I moved on to the second tea, Li Shan Oolong, a buttery, smooth, and expensive Taiwanese Oolong. I served it from the small pot, and in the small cups, by itself.
The next tea was Bi Lou Chun, a hearty green tea. This was served with a salad of Asian Pear, mixed greens, and topped with a dollop of a special ginger/lemon/walnut sauce.
After that, I served the 2004 Wild Green Meng Ku Pu Er, a smokey and spicey, young green Pu Er. Small pot, small cups.
The fourth tea was a strong black Pu Er called Jin Gua Gong (Golden Melon: Offering to the King), served with the "main course" sushi roll, consisting of asparagus wrapped in bacon with a miso rub, deep fried, with some other vegetables in a roll, drizzled with sauce.
After that, I served Jasmine Pearl tea. This one I served a little differently. In order to allow the guests to experience the tea's brewing, I placed three pearls in each of the small cups, and filled them with hot water, allowing the guests to watch it brew and watch the tea leaves unroll in front of them. This was also a carefully planned segue to the next tea and next food course.
The next tea was a special "Hua Cao Cha" bundle. A hand-sewn radial green tea bundle, with dried flowers sewn to the center of the bundle, packed into a ball. I served that in the large glass pot, in a location where everyone could watch it gradually "bloom" as it brewed. The round glass pot magnified the tea, providing an excellent display of the beautiful flower and grass bundle that magically bloomed in mid-water over the course of a few minutes, while they were sipping thier Jasmine Pearl Tea's first and second round.
Then John served a Sashimi platter of various fish and a green leafy vegetable of some sort. It was displayed to mimic the floral motif we'd set with the two teas, and each peice of fish was curled up like a flower's bud, in pinks, and white, against the green leafy vegetables. I served the Hua Cao Cha, which had a light green tea flavour with subtle floral overtones, that matched the equally delicate flavours of the fresh fish.
After that, John served a round of unfiltered Sake blended with three fruit juices, with a small peice of mango in each glass. This was suberb, but unforunately, I missed out on the details of what he did to make that, since he did it as a surprise to all of us! It fit perfectly though, as a sweet and fruity shot just before the last tea.
The last tea was Tie Guan Yin Gua Hua Oolong (Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Scented with Sweet Osmanthus Flower). This tea has a amazingly sweet, fruity, floral flavour that is quite strong, with a base of a nice balanced midgrade TGY Oolong. It is a complete dessert in and of itself.
During the night, as I brewed each pot, I emptied the wet tea leaves back into thier original display bowls. So after the last tea, I had a nice display of all the wet leaves on the counter. I invited the guests to consider the wet leaves. As they looked and smelled them, I commented on all the differences of the leaves, in size, shape, stem, and processing, answering all thier questions and pointing out various other distinctions.
Finally, I collected thier note sheets, and gave each person a pricelist of my current offerings, with contact information, and with the teas we had sampled duely marked. I wished them all a good evening, inviting them to once again wash thier hands and face in the basin of cool water, as they left, and thanked them all for coming, and promising to invite them to my next tasting.
Well, that will give you an idea of what kind of things you can try. My next tasting will have less diversity in the types of tea, and will focus completely on Oolongs, and the GongFu method of brewing and serving. After that, I plan to do a a green tea tasting (it will be around the time of the early spring first rain harvest, so the green teas will be at thier freshest), using Gaiwan.. Not sure what will follow that one just yet.
You asked specificly about water supply and temperature. We kept a large pot of boiling water going all night, adding to it with cold water, as I used it. I would let it cool before using it, when needed, to the correct temperature in a spare glass decanter.
You can do a tea tasting with lots of equipment or just the bare minimum. It all depends on what kind of atmosphere and experience you want to create. I try to keep things modern and simple, with a strong reference to the ancient customs, but not overtly so. I engage the guests with humorous and casual conversation, not being afraid to slip from formality and make some bawdy jokes, or poke fun at them. I encourage them to talk to each other, and make sure to spur conversation along, and help people to meet each other and learn about each other as friends. This keeps the atmosphere light, and comfortable, so that there is no undo social stress to distract for thier enjoyment.
I learned this by my experience as a customer in the tea shops of China where they managed to master this amazing blend of modern casual acquiantance with a great devotion to the important elements of the ancient customs. I hope to someday be as good at this as the average tea seller is at the corner shop on any given street in China.
Hope that helps,