It’s no secret that we take a great deal of pride in the teas that we choose to source.
We travel to China at least twice a year, visiting the most historically famous tea-producing regions; working very closely with tea masters, farmers, and artisans; and meticulously examining the production process from beginning to end. We refuse to cultivate relationships with anyone who uses pesticides or fails to implement sustainable farming practices, and we take pride in those who still craft teas using traditional techniques and methods.
In the end, the culmination of these efforts comes out in your cup, brimming with nutritional goodness, intoxicating aromas, and unforgettable flavor profiles. The latest fruit of these efforts bears out with two of our teas that we were pretty excited to source: Long Jing Dragonwell Green Tea and Wuyi Rou Gui Horse Head Rock Oolong. It is with great pleasure that we announce that both of these special teas were recognized in their respective categories at the Spring Loose Leaf 2018 Global Tea Competition.
So what makes our Long Jing Dragonwell so special?
For starters, we have two Dragonwell green tea offerings, one from the true origin of West Lake. Any tea connoisseur who is familiar with the Dragonwell market, however, knows that securing true origin Dragonwell can prove to be quite an expensive ordeal, and so tea vendors will sometimes look outside of the West Lake region for interesting variations on this green tea.
In this case, we happened to find a gem from Xincang, and while it’s not quite comparable to West Lake Dragonwell, it’s not intended to be. We were determined to find a Dragonwell that was not merely an imitation of true origin Dragonwell, but one that could stand on its own, that offered something different to the market.
And that’s exactly what we found.
Our Xincang Long Jing has the same stringent standards demanded by the highest quality West Lake Dragonwells—one bud, one leaf, hand pan-fired, flat spear shape—but whereas Lion’s Peak Dragonwell (the best of West Lake) features floral notes in its flavor profile, Xincang Dragonwell has this fulfilling chestnut quality to it, making it one of those rare green teas that is fitting to drink during the holidays.
At this price point too, it’s quite the steal.Stay tuned for next week’s post as we introduce you to the wonderful world of Wuyi Rou Gui Rock Oolong!
The change of the seasons is always an exciting time of the year. For many of us, the weather gets cooler, sometimes uncomfortably so, and people everywhere are filled with holiday cheer, eager to enjoy their favorite pies, stews, chilies, roasts, and teas…how can we forget the teas?
A lot of tea drinkers may notice a shift in preferences at this time of the year. That craving for a light, crisp, refreshing tea, like White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) white tea or Huang Shan Mao Feng green tea, gives way to desires to quench that tea thirst with black teas, oolongs, and darker pu erhs.
A seasonal favorite of ours is always something with a hint of dried fruit, and there’s nothing better in that regard than Xinhui Ripen Mandarin (Da Hong Gan) black tea and 2007 Xinhui Mandarin Gongting puerh, both of which are packed into a dried, authentic mandarin shell that imparts this wonderful citrus flavor that complements the black tea and pu erh, respectively.
Most know this tea as that smoky, campfire tea, and some people even find it offputtingly aggressive in its flavor, as if one were drinking a cup of charcoal. While this can be true of inferior, commercial grade Lapsang, true, authentic Lapsang from Tong Mu Guan village couldn’t be more different.
To be sure, Lapsang is a smoked tea, but there’s an art to pulling this off, one rooted in a long and storied tradition that began more than 400 years ago. Imitators outside of Tong Mu Guan have failed to capture the results, and part of this is due to the fact that it is difficult to make this tea, often leaving tea masters with dry, even damaged eyes and respiratory problems. They persist, however, because they have a true passion for making this tea and making it well, and they want to share the tradition with you. Anyone can set tea leaves over a fire and wait until they’re a step or two away from becoming ash, but it takes true commitment and love to make proper Lapsang.
It takes not only experience, it also takes access to the right materials. What good is a house if you’re going to make it out of straw?
Recall that terroir plays a vital role in how teas will ultimately taste. Dragonwell (Long Jing) green tea grown near the site of its origin at West Lake in Huangzhou will taste different from Dragonwell grown elsewhere. Everything from the local climate and nutrient profile of the soil to the mineral content of the water and surrounding vegetation will affect the final result, resulting in very different kinds of tea. This is no less true of Lapsang, which traces its origins back to Tong Mu Guan.
But if Lapsang is so good, why smoke it? Is it not true that smoking is a technique used to hide the deficiencies of lower-quality, poor tasting tea leaves?
In many cases, this is true, but not in the case of authentic Lapsang. The goal of a tea master is never to hide the flavors of the tea; he merely wishes to complement the natural flavors.
You see, what makes the smoking of authentic Lapsang different is that the tea leaves are not charred to a crisp; they are lightly smoked over local pinewood, resulting in this wonderful balance of sweet, fruity notes with a touch of pinewood smokiness, creating an elevated tea drinking experience that can be enjoyed among more places than just a campfire. Everything in balance—that’s the mantra; that’s the goal.So if you’ve sampled Lapsang before, chances are good that you haven’t yet tried true, single origin Lapsang Souchong, and there’s no better season to warm up to it than the fall! And if you’ve already had the pleasure of enjoying real Lapsang, then it should go without saying that it’s about that time of the year to sip it some more!
It’s really easy to get complacent when it comes to daily routines. We’ll leave our freshly laundered clothes lying around an extra day or two; we’ll worry about our kitchen cleanup in the morning; and sometimes we’ll even (gasp!) occasionally go to sleep without flossing!
It’s not hard to take these sorts of things for granted, and on especially lazy days, we might even extend these “shortcuts” into our tea drinking, convincing ourselves that it doesn’t change much. We’ll let our tea leaves sit out a little too long, or we’ll decide it’s a better day for a stainless steel infuser basket instead of a gaiwan.
And yet, one of the first things impressed upon new tea drinkers is the importance of preheating the teaware. This is even something that we can observe during the performance of gongfu tea ceremonies. The practitioner will fill their gaiwan or Yixing teapot with hot water, pour it into the tea cups, and then empty the tea cups into a bowl.
But this raises a question: does it really matter? In other words, whether we’re using a tea mug or a tea cup, a teapot or an infuser basket, is it really that important to preheat our teaware?
Almost all of us have done this at one point or another. The ecologically minded might feel guilty that we’re wasting water with a preheat; and let’s face it, preheating is an extra step that uses just a little more time and attention than we care to afford. Perhaps even after skipping it once, you come to the conclusion that it didn’t make much of a difference, verifying that it’s an expendable step.
Unfortunately, we’re here to emphasize the importance of preheating teaware.
Why does this little step matter?
We’ve addressed in some of our previous tea blogs how different phytochemicals are extracted from the tea leaves at different temperatures over varying periods of time. For a brief synopsis, you can always revisit this post. The short end of it, however, is this:
recommended steeping temperatures are recommended for a reason
The reason that we include the temperatures on the instructions is that it is these temperatures in particular that tend to bring out the best flavors of the tea, helping ensure that your tea drinking experience is just right.
For an experiment, you can always try steeping a cup of dragonwell green tea at 205°F (95°C) alongside another at 175°F (80°C). Upon doing so, you might note how the tea brewed at the higher temperature will yield more of a bitter flavor. Conversely, our black teas are usually better at higher temperatures, right off of a boil, tasting much weaker at 175–180°F (80°C). All of this has to do with the chemical composition of the tea you’re trying to make, and how these chemicals respond to temperature as they are extracted into the water.
What the act of preheating does is prevent any sudden, rapid temperature change when your freshly heated water is poured into your teapot or tea mug, which would otherwise effectively lower the desired temperature of your infusion. This is less of a concern with green teas (although it still makes a difference), but it definitely negatively impacts your oolongs, black teas, and pu erhs.
To help put this into perspective, we conducted our own experiment. After heating our water to 205°F (95°C), we poured it into a teapot that was sitting at room temperature. Shortly thereafter, we poured it once more into a porcelain tea cup before quickly measuring the temperature. Within 15 seconds, our 205°F (95°C) water had dropped to 170°F (75°C)!!! Had we been preparing some black tea for a guest, we would have been infusing it at temperature best suited for a green tea, making for a very poor tasting black tea.
While it’s tempting to skip some of our steps when preparing our teas, let’s not make preheating one of those steps. Unless we have a properly trained palate, we may not notice the difference it makes in isolation, but a side-by-side comparison with a properly heated vessel can help us appreciate just how much we’re shortchanging ourselves by hastening our preparation at the expense of preheating.
On each of our tea journeys, we discover our own unique ways of preparing tea. Some of us prefer the gaiwan to the teapot, oolong to white tea, or unsweetened pure tea to the use of creamers. There is not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” way to make your tea as long as you understand what brings out the best flavors given your constraints. If you’re satisfied with your cup of tea, then you’re probably doing it right.
And yet, in spite of however well-intentioned we might be, there are some very common mistakes many of us make that unquestionably affect our cups of tea for the worse. The degree of these effects can vary from subtle to extreme, but in either case, it’s usually pretty easy to correct most of these mistakes (and fixing them will make a difference).
Today, we’re going to look at one of those mistakes: letting your tea leaves sit too long between infusions.
This may seem like a no-brainer, and yet, if you catch any of us on a particularly slow and lazy day, it might be surprising to find how easy it is to talk ourselves into believing it’s okay to leave our tea leaves lying around for hours at a time (or even overnight). This is a bad idea for a couple of important reasons.
For one, in a worst-case scenario, moist tea leaves compacted together in a humid environment create the perfect recipe for mold and fungi to colonize and proliferate. If you’re not paying attention, you may not even notice any growth, and this is especially the case if your tea leaves are sitting in an infusion basket or teapot. It’s just way too easy to pour hot water over them and begin to make a new cup. As a general rule, don’t let your tea leaves sit around for more than 3 hours at a time. If more time than that elapses, then consider making a fresh cup of tea with new tea leaves.
Another issue with wet tea leaves is that they tend to be especially absorbent of surrounding odors, and so the longer they sit around, the greater the chance they’ll pick up any smells lingering in the immediate environment.
Sometimes, these smells are not even noticeable to you because you’re acclimated to them. Have you ever visited a place that had an unappealing smell that the occupants didn’t seem to notice? The same sort of thing can apply here. There was a passionate tea drinker who once said that he had transported an infuser of used tea leaves from home to work, driving with the windows down a short distance. Though he didn’t detect anything abnormal on his drive, when he resteeped his leaves at work, guess what happened? His tea now had a hint of car exhaust! Yuck!
A good thing to remember is this: if your tea tastes different than you remember, throw it away! Your taste buds and sense of smell are typically well-suited for detecting some of these problems.
Now, if you are adamant about making the most out of your tea, there are little things you can do to help minimize these problems. First, don’t let your tea leaves remain wet and clumped together. Empty your infuser basket, gaiwan, or teapot, and fan them out over a paper towel. Next, take a second paper towel and gently pat them down, drying them as much as possible. At this point, you can either let them air dry or even carefully blow dry them at low heat. Finally, once they seem thoroughly dry, place them in an air tight container until they are ready for another use, ideally within the next 24 hrs.While we, in general, do not recommend that you reuse any tea leaves that have been sitting out, following the above instructions should at least help preserve your leaves for another infusion or two if you are in fact intent on resteeping your old leaves after an extended period of time.
Our last two blog posts have been focusing on the inimitable gaiwan, a teaware piece that represents near perfect coordination between function and form, use and aesthetic. We first explored a little of its history before considering what sorts of features makes for a good gaiwan. Today, we are going to wrap up our series by walking you through how to use one.
Traditionally, the gaiwan has been a centerpiece in gong fu tea ceremony, but numerous tea drinkers around the world have appropriated it for more casual tea-making as well. Whether you want to use it in a more formal setting or else prefer to prepare your tea more casually, there is no reason why the gaiwan cannot be for you.
But first, a word of warning. We always recommend that you practice manipulating your gaiwan without any tea or water until you develop more comfort using one. It will take some practice, but within no time, it will become second nature to you.
You may also want to practice over some soft surfaces, such as carpet, and hold your gaiwan from a safe height. This will help prevent your gaiwan from breaking should you accidentally drop it—though you still must be careful, for an accidental collision between the saucer and lid or bowl can spell bad news. For this reason, it is wise to invest in an inexpensive gaiwan before handling one that is more unique.
Assuming that you followed our purchasing guide from last week, your gaiwan should either include a saucer or else have a pronounced foot on the bottom of the bowl. In addition, you should notice that your lid has a knob on top, enabling you to quite easily lift it from the bowl and replace it. This knob, however, is also an integral part of handling your gaiwan.
Broadly speaking, there are two main grips that people prefer when they are ready to pour from their gaiwan. The first method is to place your hand palm up underneath your gaiwan. If you have a saucer, it should be resting on top of your fingers; and if you don’t, then the foot of the gaiwan should be resting comfortably above your fingers.
(Side Note: It is at this point that those who own a gaiwan without a saucer might begin appreciating the craftsmanship in designing a foot. A narrow foot appears far more elegant, but as it gets narrower, it becomes less stable. An artist is thus challenged to find the sweet spot between maximum stability and maximum aesthetic when designing a foot. If it does not rest comfortably on your hand, then it is too narrow for its shape.)
With the gaiwan resting on your fingers, you should be able to free your thumb and move it to the top of your gaiwan, placing it right on the knob of the lid. This grip should provide enough security between all three pieces such that you can turn the gaiwan upside-down and rightside-up with ease. If it helps, imagine getting ready to lift a table; your fingers should be under the table while your thumb clamps the top of it. This is one way to hold a gaiwan.
The second method might seem a little more comfortable for western practitioners, but it also requires that your gaiwan have enough of a flared lip to prevent the dreaded finger scorching. To use this method, you will want to grip your gaiwan by the top, wrapping your fingers around the lip. In this way, lifting your gaiwan is more like lifting a cup by the rim (assuming the cup had a lid as well).
With this second method, people tend to either use their index finger or middle finger to secure and manipulate the lid. Another option is to use your free hand. In addition, you can either ignore your saucer, lifting the bowl with the lid by the lip, or else use your free hand to hold the saucer below the bowl.
Regardless of which method you decide to use, your goal is to pour the tea from the gaiwan, and so the next step is to practice this as soon as you feel comfortable manipulating your gaiwan and all of its pieces.
Again, before attempting to do this with tea, first practice with lukewarm or cold water. Fill your gaiwan, lift it slowly using your preferred method, secure the lid with either your thumb or free hand, and get ready to pour.
The trick to a good pour is to slide the lid ever so gently to the side so that it creates a small opening, sort of like a sip cup. This small opening makes it easy for the water to flow, and it doubles as a natural strainer when you’re finally ready to add your tea leaves.
Now that you’ve developed some comfort lifting your gaiwan and pouring with it, you’re finally ready to prepare some tea!
Tea preparation with a gaiwan is going to require some different parameters than you’d find with a teapot or infuser. Perhaps the most notable change is the infusion time, which tends to vary between 5 and 15 seconds (as opposed to 1 to 3 minutes). This short infusion time allows you to enjoy your tea much longer, brings out more flavors, and helps prevent you from burning your fingers.
Depending on how much tea you plan to drink throughout the day, you will want to fill your gaiwan with anywhere between 4 and 8 grams of tea. This may seem like a lot, especially if your gaiwan is 100 to 150 ml, but trust us, this is very normal.
Next, pour your water over your tea leaves and then gently place your lid on top. You do not want to fill your bowl to the brim, but leave a little bit of room so that the lip of your bowl does not get too hot too quickly. By the time you lift your gaiwan and bring it to your tea cup or mug, you’re probably ready to pour it off anyway, and so this is the moment you’ve been waiting for! Create that small opening with the lid, pushing back any extra tea leaves with it, and gracefully pour your freshly brewed tea!
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You are opening a new world of tea drinking up to yourself!
Gaiwans are not without their limitations, and so there are two important things to keep in mind if you would like to try using one.
One, unless the gaiwan is made of stoneware, it is generally not the best choice for teas that require infusion at higher temperatures, such as black teas and pu erh teas. Such a high temperature will heat your porcelain very quickly, making it easy to burn your fingers in the process.
Two, gaiwans are also not ideal for very fine tea leaves, as they tend to escape even the smallest opening between your lid and bowl as you begin pouring. Some people will address this by placing a tea strainer over their tea cup or mug, which can catch the leaves, but without one, you are better off preparing a tea like dragonwell green tea or silver needles white tea.
Keeping these caveats in mind, with plenty of practice, you’ll find your gaiwan to a welcome addition to your tea lifestyle. Working with a gaiwan might seem difficult and feel awkward at first, but like anything, it will feel more familiar and comfortable over time, and the reward is worth it!
Last week, we started to discuss the gaiwan, taking a brief look at its history and in what ways it differs from a teapot. Usually consisting of a small bowl with a lid and a saucer, this teaware item is unmistakable in its appearance. It is clearly the most elegant teaware piece anyone can feature in their collection, and the act of using one invites any serious tea drinker into a more contemplative and thoughtful practice.
So what goes into a good gaiwan? How do you know what features it should have?
If you are new to this form of teaware, you should make sure that your gaiwan comes with a saucer. The saucer not only complements the overall aesthetic of the gaiwan, enhancing its elegance, but it also serves the functional purpose of catching drips and protecting your hands from the heat. It is a common practice to transport the gaiwan with the aid of the saucer. Some people even pour the tea by carefully holding the gaiwan between the saucer and the lid, using the thumb to securely hold the lid in place while the other four fingers gently grasp the saucer, as if you were holding and handing over a bar of gold.
If your gaiwan does not have a saucer, make sure that it at least features a pronounced foot—the small, circular piece of porcelain on the underside of the bowl that elevates it from the surface. Not only does it help the gaiwan more visually appealing, but it affords some protection from the heat for your hand in the absence of a saucer.
As for the bowl itself, you should make sure that it flares out near the top towards the lip. It takes a master’s touch, but really nice gaiwans will even get a little thinner in this area. Like the saucer or the foot, this flare serves just as much of an aesthetic purpose as it does a practical one.
By radiating out away from the bowl, the flare allows a tea drinker to very carefully and gently place fingers around the lip without burning them. Gaiwans that lack this feature are known as “finger scorchers,” and for good reason. What is more, this flare has a bonus feature as well; it makes it easier to pour the tea or even drink from the gaiwan, minimizing the mess from any spills.
Arguably the most overlooked feature of the gaiwan, however, is the lid. A good lid should be slightly concave, fitting over the bowl in such a way that it creates a slight dome. As if this form had been perfected over the course of hundreds of years, this is another feature that is both functional and aesthetic-enhancing.
Like the flare, the concave lid accomplishes two things. First, it creates a small space that traps the fragrance from the tea as it is brewing in the water. This produces an effect similar to a wine glass, enhancing the aromatics by concentrating more of them in this space. Because our sense of taste is so intimately tied up with our sense of smell, this really does make your tea taste better. Second, though, the slight dome acts as another barrier between your fingers and the hot water in the bowl, making it more comfortable to manipulate and pour your gaiwan without burning yourself.
In short, then, you should be looking for three things in your gaiwan:
- A Saucer or a Pronounced Foot
- A Flare at the top of the Bowl
- A Concave Lid
Knowing what goes into a good gaiwan will make it easier to use one, ensuring that you have a positive experience with them for years to come. Next, in our third and final entry, we’ll walk through how to use it and under what conditions a job might be better suited for the teapot.
If you’ve ever attended a tea tasting, visited a tea bar, browsed the wares in a tea shop, or even awkwardly dropped in on a friend who was right in the middle of performing a gongfu tea ceremony, surely you’ve noticed this vital piece of teaware on display, a piece so central to the whole process that it looks indispensable.
Upon seeing this, you might find yourself wondering, “Why are they using that? Should I be using it? That looks mighty unwieldy and clumsy. What in the world is it anyway?”
That elegant instrument is known as the gaiwan (蓋碗), a term that literally translates into “lidded cup” or “lidded bowl.” It is the gaiwan that equips the tea enthusiast with one of the most popular ways in the world of brewing tea. Indeed, it’s a cherished piece of teaware that transcends its appealing aesthetic by proving to be far more functional than the teapot as well.
Thought to have been invented during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), the gaiwan may be slightly younger than the teapot but is a natural artistic extension of the tea bowl, a piece of teaware first mentioned in text by the great tea scholar and sage Lu Yu in his widely beloved work, Classic of Tea (or Ch’a Ching), composed in the 8th century.
If you have any familiarity with how to use a tea bowl “grandpa style,” you may already know that it requires spending your leaves. This means that you let your tea leaves remain infused in the water while you drink your tea directly from the bowl. This makes for a casual, nice way to enjoy your tea. Furthermore, in addition to the homeliness of the method, another upside is that you get to admire the beauty of the tea leaves as they blossom in your bowl while you sip from it. The drawback, however, is that this method also tends to tap out the flavor much more quickly, making it impractical for multiple infusions.
At the other end of the traditional teaware spectrum is the universally recognizable teapot. Consisting of a vessel with a lid and a handle, the teapot enables tea drinkers to pour off their infusion, preserving the tea leaves for later infusions. There is little question that this affords a convenient way to drink tea. The handle minimizes the chances of burning one’s fingers, and the spout makes for an exceptionally clean way to pour the tea.
When you factor in the historical prevalence of the teapot in the west, it also carries a lot of sentiment for people. The downsides are few and come down to matters of preference: (1) do you enjoy seeing your tea leaves (of course, there are glass teapots that can accommodate this)? (2) do you enjoy smelling your tea as it is infusing? (3) do you feel safe traveling with your teapot (be sure to watch the delicate spout)? (4) do you mind cleaning your teapot?
Regardless of how you feel about these questions, the gaiwan offers the ultimate response to each, able to easily rise to just about any challenge and satisfy any desire.
Like the tea bowl, the gaiwan always leaves you with the option to sip straight from it when you’re feeling like having a slower, lazier type of day. But because you’re still able to easily pour off your infusion into a teacup, mug, or bowl, you’re not trapped into a single infusion or two.
Contrary to the teapot, the gaiwan’s lid is easily removable, leaving you with a wide open vessel that showcases your beautifully blossomed tea leaves and filling the room with a lovely aroma. Consisting of two or three pieces, the gaiwan is also much easier to transport than a teapot, as there is no part of it that is as fragile as the spout of a teapot. Above all, however, the gaiwan could not be easier to clean and maintain. Depending on how it is made and with what material, you’ll either gently wipe it down with warm water or use a very mild soap (provided it is made of non-porous materials).
Next week, we’ll touch on the various pieces of the gaiwan, explaining their purposes as well as how to use one. Stay tuned!