In my Cupboard: Investigating the Gaiwan

As my Instagram followers may know, I have a varied collection of teaware from around the world, in many different styles. I’ve decided to start a series where I talk a little bit about the different styles of teaware I use, their history, and how I use them.

When I wrote my tea primer, the third “level” was the use of the gaiwan to brew tea using a technique called “gong fu cha,” or “tea with great skill.” In modern times, the use of the gaiwan of a brewing vessel, from which the tea is decanted into serving vessels, is taken largely for granted, but offhand comments of people on Reddit, as well as what I’ve seen on historical dramas, suggested to me that the gaiwan was originally used as a brewing and drinking vessel. Intrigued, I decided to do some digging and explore how the use of the gaiwan has changed over its history.

One of the seminal works on Chinese tea preparation is Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea (or Tea Classic), and yet this work makes no mention of the gaiwan, instead describing a method of preparing tea by whisking powdered tea in a tea bowl. It is believed that the gaiwan was developed during the Ming Dynasty. It’s not known exactly when the gaiwan began to be used, but it was a regular part of teaware in the early 18th century. Sadly, this means that the depictions of gaiwan that delighted me in the Yuan dynasty courts of Empress Ki were probably an anachronism.

The blog Tea Guardian offers this pictorial history of the gaiwan, which shows a vessel that is recognizable as our modern gaiwan, which dates to the early 18th century, though predecessor lidded bowls also exist. In a post on using the gaiwan as a cup, the article states that the Manchurians began using the gaiwan as a brewing and drinking vessel. They favored green and jasmine-scented green teas, which are brewed at a lower temperature, and can be easily drunk from the gaiwan before the tea steeps long enough to become unpleasant. Other sources suggest that this would have been an early form of tea cupping, where the tea is sipped throughout the steeping process in order to determine at what point the tea is to the drinker’s taste.

Armed with some research, I resolved to try drinking from the gaiwan. I chose a gaiwan with a deep saucer, and the tallest one I own, in order to  adhere to the suggestions in the post above. And I chose a Longjing tea, which was a favorite of the Qing Dynasty, when the gaiwan arose for certain. Drinking from a gaiwan is similar to drinking grandpa-style, though the smaller quantity of tea makes it easier to finish a cup of tea before it overbrews. There is a unique sense of both informality and ceremony in it, as the tea is not carefully timed, but the ritual of tilting and holding the lid, and carefully holding the cup by the saucer rather than touching any part of the bowl itself feels special. It is oddly one of my favorite ways to drink tea at my desk now.

And if the depiction in my favorite drama is anachronistic, I do still feel a bit like a fancy court lady.

Tea Review: Yunnan Sourcing Oolong Tea Subscription

It has been a while since I’ve done regular tea reviews on the blog, but I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been drinking. While I was pregnant, I got very into oolong teas, and that hasn’t changed as I’ve navigated motherhood. One of my favorite things about oolong is that it’s generally the easiest tea I’ve found to brew grandpa-style because the leaves are very big, and I don’t find most oolongs get particularly bitter or astringent if they sit for a while. So when my mom offered to pay for a tea subscription to go along with the gorgeous silver teapot she bought me for my birthday in March, I knew I would be going for oolong, despite the fact that it’s perhaps not the best suited for brewing in silver.

So I joined the Yunnan Sourcing Tea Club and got a subscription for their Oolong Tea Box. Now, after three months of the subscription, I decided to cancel, but that was mostly due to having to save space for my upcoming move (although a bit of it is that my tea tastes run very seasonally — in the future, I might write a post about my ideal tea subscription). But for three months, I enjoyed a monthly box of surprise oolong teas (yes, they post what each month’s box will be, but I didn’t usually look before I got my package).

Because I’m not reviewing specific months, I’m not going to focus on the specific teas I received. In the future, I might start filming tasting videos again and share some of them. But as a whole, the tea box was full of interesting teas, many of which were styles that I wouldn’t have tried on my own. I’d never really gotten into dan cong oolongs and at least one month featured them heavily. It also featured teas harvested within the last year, so it didn’t feel like I was getting overstock of teas that didn’t sell.

The amount was actually maybe a little more than I could get through, given that I didn’t always want to drink the teas from the boxes, but I think that if I ever wanted to exclusively drink teas from a subscription, this would be how I would do it. My original thought behind getting a subscription was just that — as a new mom, I didn’t spend as much time looking at interesting teas online, so having them picked out and sent to me worked well. But I was getting in excess of 100g of tea per month, which, given my immediate-postpartum consumption of just 2-3g of tea per day (grandpa-style), was more than enough to hold me. Now that I’ve gone back to regular gongfu sessions, I could probably get through 150g or so in a month.

Finally, I think one of the main complaints I hear about Yunnan Sourcing is that their selection is daunting. I get it. I pretty much only buy from them when I’m in the market for something pretty specific. But the upshot is that I don’t branch out quite as much. One of my favorite teas from them was a sample that Scott threw into an order. The tea subscription feels a lot like what would happen if you just asked Scott to send you something good each month.

So my bottom line is that if you’re a regular tea drinker, have a definitive favorite type of tea, and have decision fatigue, give the Yunnan Sourcing subscriptions a try. I imagine the “curated samplers” are similar in quality, for a one-off experience.

NB: While this subscription was given to me as a gift from a family member, I was not given any particular incentive to review it and all thoughts are my own.

Getting Started with Tea and Amazon Prime, part two: Tasting Teas from Teavivre

So last week, I shared some of my favorite teaware purchases on Amazon Prime as a way of helping someone get started with loose-leaf tea more easily and accessibly. In that post, I mentioned that I’ve also bought some quality loose-leaf teas off Amazon recently from Teavivre. Teavivre is a company that sells teas from China and is pretty consistently ranked in the top 10 among the User’s Choice Vendor List on Reddit’s Tea subreddit, r/tea. Since they have an Amazon storefront, with options available through Prime, they’re also really, really convenient, especially if you’re impatient like me.

Now, a note about shipping: Most of the vendors I use charge shipping, and shipping can add up, especially when you’re sourcing teas directly from the country of origin. If you have a hard time getting over paying almost as much for your tea again for shipping, it would help to read this post. One thing to note about buying items through Prime with “free shipping” is that they will probably be priced higher than the same item on Teavivre’s own site because companies work shipping prices into their item prices when they decide to offer free shipping. In fact, I’ve bought matcha from one site that had low prices and charged a lot for shipping, only to find that, ultimately, if I bought a couple of things, it was much more economical to buy from them than from a site with free shipping. And the matcha was excellent. But I do like free Prime shipping when I just want to try one thing and don’t feel like putting together a large order. It’s about your shopping and drinking habits. Anyway, on to the tea. I’ve chosen to try one each of black, green, oolong, and white teas to review here, so you can get a sense of what they offer. I didn’t get a puerh because I’m still working through the samples I got from white2tea a while ago!

Organic Bai Mu Dan White Peony white tea: This was the first tea I tried, and I actually showcased it in a sunrise tea session video a while ago. I’d never tried a white peony before, but it had a pretty standard non-silver-needle white tea profile, if a little straw-y for my tastes. It brews up nicely in gongfu and lasts for at least five infusions. This is a very fluffy tea and will probably seem like a lot of leaf if you measure your tea by weight.

Tieguanyin oolong tea: I’ve spoken at length about my love of oolongs, and Tieguanyin is one of my favorites. This is a great example of this style of oolong, still quite green and light, but with a satisfying slight creaminess and honey-floral character that I adore. I got 100g of this and it’s my go-to, can’t-decide-what-kind-of-tea-to-make, I-need-a-nice-cuppa-to-perk-me-up tea.

Premium Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea: I got this tea simply because I keep seeing “the green tea with the big leaves” on Instagram and I wanted to try it for the novelty. But it’s quickly become one of my favorite teas for a lazy, warm morning. I don’t know how much I’ll drink once the weather (finally) cools off, but it’s pretty much what you’ll find me drinking on work-from-home days and weekends. I just put 2.5g in my double-walled tumbler and drink it farmer-style, and it’s a delightful classic Chinese green tea. It’s a bit light in flavor, but it has distinct notes of grass, green leafy vegetables, and just a tiny touch of the sea.

Yunnan Dian Hong Golden Tip black tea: Wow, I saved the best for last here. With the aforementioned weather cooldown, I’m finding myself more drawn to black teas, and I was curious to try a Dian Hong. This Dian Hong is absolutely wonderful, with notes of dried fruit and syrup. It doesn’t get too tannic or bitey, and I just find it a lovely mellow tea to sip on a rainy or cool morning.

So that’s my round-up of some teas I’ve tried at Teavivre, all purchased through Amazon. Do note that I wasn’t given any incentive to write this post, nor are any links affiliate. I hope you’ll consider them a way to get started with some great teas without needing to navigate all the different tea vendors out there. Of course, once you find teas you like, definitely branch out and see how different vendors’ offerings differ, but the beginning shouldn’t be daunting. I hope this helps at least one person feel a bit less intimidated by loose-leaf tea!

Getting Started With Tea Using Amazon Prime

I know that Amazon as a company is controversial, and you’re probably going to find better quality tea and teaware going through one of the smaller vendors I’ve talked about before on this blog and my YouTube channel. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people find it daunting to get into loose-leaf and gongfu-brewed tea, and I thought I might share some of the tea and teawares I’ve gotten off Amazon Prime that have been helpful in informing my journey.

My most recent tea video features my first gaiwan, which was an Amazon purchase, but that I found out after filming the video isn’t available on Amazon any more, sadly. So, to make up for that, I’ve put together an Amazon idea list of all the various tea things I’ve gotten off Amazon and liked, that still look like they’re available. Note that this doesn’t have affiliate links, since I’m not an Amazon affiliate. I thought I’d call out a couple specific items that have served me well through my tea journey.

FORLIFE Curve Infuser Mug: This was one of my first go-to brewing vessels when I made the conscious choice to stop drinking coffee most days and switch to tea, almost exclusively. I knew I would use loose-leaf tea, which I generally got from my grocery store, but I needed a simple, non-fussy way to brew it. This is definitely a vessel for brewing Western-style, with a few teaspoons of tea leaves to a large mug. I still get multiple steepings out of a single batch of leaves with this mug. I don’t use it as much anymore, as I actually do steep gongfu-style at work, but for years, this was my constant desk companion, and it’s a great starter infuser for anyone looking to make the switch from tea bags to loose leaf.

Hario Glass Kyusu: This was my only teapot for small-leaf Japanese green teas for a long time. It has a nice fine mesh, and the shape is such that I can fill it halfway with hot water and brew a little less tea. And you get to see the color of the infusion, which is nice.

The Fish Teapot: This is a perennial favorite on my Instagram, so I thought I’d share its origin. This was actually on my Amazon wish list for ages, and my husband bought it for my for my birthday one year. This is a great way to brew gongfu-style at work because the pot holds only slightly more liquid than the cup, so as long as I don’t fill the teapot completely to the brim, I don’t need a sharing pitcher. And it’s just so darn cute.

Of course, there’s more than these three things on the list, but these are some of my most-loved and longest-used items that originally came from Amazon. If you’re looking to get started with loose-leaf tea or gongfu, you can get started with the basics quickly and then take your time looking for more interesting pieces to expand your collection. Unfortunately, the gaiwan that I originally got off Amazon is no longer available, but this gaiwan is from a company that I’ve purchased from before and liked their teaware, and it is reasonably priced for the gongfu beginner.

As far as the tea itself goes, I’ve recently started buying some teas from Teavivre, which has an Amazon storefront, with Prime options. Because I am impatient, I like the convenience of Amazon Prime sometimes. So far, I’ve tried one white, one green, one black, and one oolong tea from the store and have been pleasantly surprised with the quality. I’ve already reviewed their Bai Mu Dan white tea on my YouTube channel, but I’ll share my thoughts on the rest sometime soon.

Adventures in Tea: Tetereria Tea House in Barcelona

I recently had the joy of visiting Barcelona for a week. My husband was attending a conference while I spent my days touring around, but I knew there was one place I wanted to go before I left: Tetereria Tea House. I found out about this tea house when I was looking up whether I could reasonably expect to find a decent cup of tea while I was there, or if I should consider bringing my own (it turned out that the coffee shop around the corner from our hotel had a lovely assortment of loose leaf teas, plus almost everywhere served tea in pyramid tea bags, so I needn’t have worried!). I discovered that Barcelona is home to a tea house where you can not only get a decent cup of tea, but you can get a tea session with traditional teaware and a surprising variety of teas. Sadly, Tetereria is only open from 5-9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, so I had a limited window in which to visit (if I’d looked up the hours sooner, I might have tried to stop by the first night we were in town, jet lag be damned!). But I knew it was something I wanted to make sure to experience, so I convinced my husband that we could visit the tea house on a Wednesday afternoon before his conference’s gala dinner that evening.

Tetereria is located a short walk from the Lesseps subway stop, which is on Line 3 (the green line). This made it very convenient from our hotel near the Placa d’Espanya! I imagine it would also be relatively convenient from the Gothic Quarter as well. The walk brings you down some typically narrow European streets, around a corner, and through the narrow shop entrance into a veritable oasis of tea. It’s cozy and has a warm feeling to the decor, with an eclectic mix of styles. About halfway back, there is a small counter where you can order tea to go, mostly latte-style drinks like chai lattes and matcha lattes, and then there are several small tables around the tea house. My husband and I sat towards the back of the shop and were able to see the partitioned area at the back, which is set up like a traditional Japanese tatami room for the Japanese tea ceremony.

Upon sitting down, we were greeted by one of the owners, and given menus. There was a book of available teas, sorted by type (pu-erh, black, oolong, green, white, herbal, etc.), and listed with a flavor profile diagram that gave the relative qualities of different flavors in the tea such as floral, astringent, body, etc. I decided to try a hei cha, which I had never tried before, and my husband went for a traditionally-prepared bowl of Kyoto matcha. We also got some sweets to go with the tea: I had a thin slice of apple cake and he had a rather large matcha-flavored dorayaki.

Upon making our selections (and it took much longer than outlined above — I oscillated among an oolong, a shou pu-erh, or a hei cha for a while), we were faced with what was probably the biggest obstacle we faced: I understand the intricacies of the teas we wished to order, while my husband is the one who speaks Spanish. This was made particularly apparent when they turned out to be out of the matcha that my husband initially chose (i.e., that I chose for him), and he had to decide on the fly which matcha the lady suggested he would like to substitute. I believe he chose the Kyoto because he’d heard of Kyoto (similarly to how my father used to order Merlot because it was the only wine he could confidently pronounce). I was then able to order my hei cha mostly in Spanish (and Chinese, I suppose), along with my apple cake. Luckily, I’d spent the last three days learning the words for foods that I liked to eat!

After we ordered, the tea arrived fairly quickly. Each tea is brought out individually with a cart that holds all the necessary teaware. So first, she brought out mine, with a gongfu brewing set, the pot of hot water, and a small dish of the single serving of tea (I was able to watch her weigh it out off the larger brick of tea while she prepared the cart). She gave me the leaves to inspect, and I noted that they didn’t have either the strong earthy quality of dried shou pu-erh, nor the green nature that I associate with sheng, but instead were a unique experience. Which was exactly what I had been hoping! She then went through the rinse of the leaves and two steepings. One steeping she poured from the sharing pitcher into the single cup, and the other she left in the pitcher. The entire set was placed before me to consider while I enjoyed my tea.

She then re-prepared the cart to bring my husband his matcha, gathering a matcha bowl, whisk, scoop, and a dish of beautifully green matcha powder. I was particularly impressed with her whisking technique and the voluminous amount of froth she was able to generate in a short time. Unfortunately, my husband finished his matcha fairly quickly, so I got very few photos of it, but I did get a taste, and it was a lovely, balanced matcha with a mild umami flavor that melted almost instantly into sweetness, plus a vegetal floral nature that I found very pleasant. He liked it, too.

My tea started out with a lighter body and subtle earthiness, as compressed teas sometimes do, but after the second or third steeping, started opening up into something with a lovely sweetness and depth. There was almost a smokiness at one point. After my initial two steepings, the lady in the shop came around every so often with the pot of hot water so I could keep steeping, which was nice. At one point, she noticed that I was sharing with my husband and let me know I could turn down the water at any point, but I (stiltedly) explained that I thought he would like it, too. I was intrigued by the almost coffee-like qualities I noticed as the session went on, which is part of why I started sharing with him. We share tasting notes when he gets single-origin coffee at our favorite coffee house, so I thought this would be a nice way to reverse that, given that he’s not often present for my tea sessions.

Sometime in this whirl of amazing tea, our food came. The apple cake was delicious, not too sweet, and the perfect amount to serve as a late afternoon snack before a late dinner. My husband was hungrier, which was good because he received a jellied sweet along with his matcha, as well as the dorayaki he ordered.

All in all, it was a lovely visit, taking just over an hour. We probably could have spent longer, but we did need to make our way to the gala dinner for my husband’s conference. But I didn’t feel rushed or cheated. I did, however, leave with a desire to return not only to Barcelona, but also to Tetereria.