Originally shared in our Tasting Journal Newsletter
This article is excerpted from our Daily Deal Newsletter.
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We talk a lot about gongfu tea. Indeed, all of the tasting notes on every tea are written using standard porcelain gaiwan brewing and standard porcelain cups. When I share my own tasting journals here, I am almost always using a gaiwan or an yixing teapot. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, gongfu style is pretty “newfangled.”
So what’s the oldest brew style?
Well, basically: drinking out of a mug.
I know, it seems like a modern convenience, but hear me out.
The old stories of tea’s ‘discovery’ come from leaves falling into either a pot of boiling water or a cup of hot water and emperor Shen Nong tasting the resulting brew. (OK, even older stories have him eating the tea leaves - we’ll get back to that.)
For most of tea’s history, it has been simmered or allowed to steep loose in a large vessel of hot water. In the earliest days, tea was used along with many other medicinal ingredients - from ginger and spices to garlic and onions. Then came ground and powdered tea (not too far away from matcha) a Song Dynasty innovation, and all the crazy whisking competitions. It was like new wave latte art for the 1300’s. This meant the development of special jian zhan whisking bowls and bamboo ladles to pour water into the bowl.
From here, the matcha tools actually got co-opted back to old school brewing with white tea and green tea Dian Cha, adapted to looseleaf tea to bring out the most texture in every sip. This process involved loose leaves in a bowl and water topped off throughout a day. Bamboo ladles would be used to serve tea from the bowl. Critically- the steep time is ‘indefinite’ as it just keeps mixing up strong brewed tea with fresh water - like making sherry in a solera system.
So in modern times, we have a similar technique being used across all of China. Some Americans call it "Grandpa style," but really in China people just say da bei, or mug brewing. This isn’t mug brewing with a brew basket; this is brewing where you add your tea leaves, pour in water and top off throughout the day. It is so popular because people can do this while working if they don’t have time or space for midday gongfu. Yet, it is also popular because it can make incredibly good tea.
It might not be flattering to teas that are inherently bitter or astringent, but high quality tea only has its texture bolstered the longer it steeps. The water cools over time, so the extraction of aromatics slows down, and it becomes a slow game of gaining texture and depth. This method is actually so good for some teas, it has been adopted for serious tasting and evaluation in some places.
What traditionally brews up best in a mug?
Dragonwell - Li Xiaoping prefers brewing her teas up in a big mug because that way, the brew stays cooler and can show off the tea's sweet sweet minerality.
White teas - as I mentioned, mug brewing is adopted Dian Cha, which was repurposed specifically to show off aged white teas
Honestly, almost any of our partners teas are great in a mug with water topped off throughout the day. Right now, I am drinking Shui Xian Wuyi Oolong in a mug, and I can’t believe how juicy and powerful it becomes.
If you aren’t already brewing teas da bei style, I hope you’ll give it a try. If you are going to start anywhere, the brilliant minerality and powerful sweetness of Li Xiaoping’s Dragonwell is the place to start. Not to mention it being her preferred technique!
- Golden Leaf Glass Brew Mug
This lovely personal brew mug from Min Xin Tang features crystal-clear tempered glass to show off the color of your tea and the leaves as they swirl and unfold. The generous brew basket is nearly the size of the mug itself, giving the leaves all the room they need to infuse. The wood handle and matching wooden lid provide a perfect contrast to the golden leaf motif and glass. The lid is lined with stainless steel to act as a saucer for your brew basket between infusions.$34.00
- Golden Gingko Glass Brew Mug
This lovely personal brew mug from Min Xin Tang features crystal-clear tempered glass to show off the color of your tea and the leaves as they swirl and unfold. The generous brew basket is nearly the size of the mug itself, giving the leaves all the room they need to infuse. The wood handle and matching wooden lid provide a perfect contrast to the golden gingko leaf motif and glass. The lid is lined with stainless steel to act as a saucer for your brew basket between infusions.$34.00
- Feng Zi Studio Ru Brew MugThis incredible brew mug is inspired by the classic Shi Piao teapot form, a meditation on triangular geometry and perfect ratios. Hand made in the studio of master Guo Zhihao, hand-glazed and fired by master Lin Defeng, this brew mug includes a generous saucer, a strainer basket and a lid to keep your tea hot as long as possible. The smooth creamy ru glazing work crackles over time, forming a beautiful crazing effect. This brew mug combines the aesthetic presence and ritual of serious gongfu teaware with the convenience of big mug brewing, making it perfect when you want to enjoy a special tea in a big cozy steeping, or sip your favorites while working. includes custom gift box
- Covered Celadon Mug
Sleek, modern and perfectly elegant, this is the ideal mug for da bei brewing. Simply add your favorite tea leaves directly into the cup and top off water throughout the day, letting the leaves sink to the bottom. There is a beautiful lid to keep your tea warm between sips so you can enjoy it while you are reading or relaxing, which also doubles as a rest for your favorite permanent tea filter. Hand-finished and fired in a traditional Longquan kiln, this celadon is highly vitrified like glass, making it a non-reactive material that helps bring out incredible aromatic depth in your tea.$95.00
- Xiangfu Brew MugThis convenient Xiang Fu ( 祥福 / Stone Leaf Tea Set ) mug combines glass, natural bamboo and porcelain for a beautiful self-contained brewing solution for at home and on the go. Bamboo protects you from the heat while the glass helps show off the beautiful color of your tea.$29.50
Explore Mrs. Li's Shi Feng Dragonwell green tea:
- 2022 Shifeng Semi-Wild High Peak DragonwellThis limited offering from Li Xiaoping can only be picked in years where the weather is cool and temperate and the rain is very light. At the very top of the peak of Shi Feng, there is a grove of trees that have been allowed to grow undisturbed to preserve a natural habitat for birds and increase biodiversity. Among the trees, the Li family has tea plants that have not been cut back and trimmed every year like the lower slope plants. Because these semi-wild Dragonwell bushes are not tended, they require perfect weather to yield the right flavor. Li Xiaoping was able to pick these bushes again this year and offered us the majority of her tiny yield in the interest of cultural exchange and sharing a unique side of Shi Feng’s terroir not often seen. The flavor is rich, bold and complex, sharing the lingering sweetness an aromatic subtlety of early harvest Dragonwell with the big flavor of later harvests. The tea benefits from Shi Feng’s unique quartz-heavy white sand soil and mountain spring water, as well as the cool protected microclimate that the mountains form.
- 2022 Shi Feng Dragonwell
This famous tea is grown using beyond organic green tea cultivation techniques for rich sweet flavor, incredible texture and notes of bamboo and jasmine. Situated on a perfectly-shaded mountainside, Li Xiaoping’s Dragonwell benefits from Shi Feng’s unique climate, rocky quartz soil and sweet mountain springs. Her craft captures a rare example of true Dragonwell- deep minerality, persistent sweetness and complex aromatics.
- 2022 1st Picking Shi Feng Longjing #43
#43 Varietal Dragonwell was specifically bred and selected to bud even earlier than classic Dragonwell in Shi Feng and yields yellower plumper buds that make for gorgeous steeping in glassware. While classic Dragonwell is all about rocky mineral texture, the new #43 is a crisp, bright focused experience centered around stronger flavor and aroma and more pronounced sweetness. Mrs. Li's first picking of the year is full of all the nutrients and sugars stored by the plant all winter long and offers a more complex, sweet and subtle taste experience. It has a longer aftertaste and thicker texture than later harvests. The soil is full of quartz and white sand while the water comes from natural mountain springs, yielding a flavor that simply can’t be matched outside of Shi Feng itself.
- 2022 Osmanthus Scented Dragonwell
In a world premiere, award-winning Li Xiaoping sets aside her beautifully-crisp textural masterpiece that is Shi Feng Dragonwell and scents it with fresh osmanthus blossoms. Her incredible plot sits on a quartz-laden rocky hillside in the tiny Shi Feng microclimate, where sweet mountain spring water, designated national treasure protection from development, and misty mornings yield sweet clean nuanced green tea that sets the standard for all green tea in China. With such famous and in demand tea, it is remarkable that Li Xiaoping is still incentivized to do such bold experiments like this osmanthus scenting, but we're so happy she did! The results are spectacular, and perfectly balanced. The osmanthus notes are light, accentuating the natural sweet juicy qualities of the Dragonwell.
- 2022 Shi Feng Longjing #43Dragonwell varietal #43 has been carefully bred and selected in the last fifty years as a new tea well suited to Shi Feng’s terroir. It buds earlier and in colder weather than classic Longjing Qunti varietal and yields yellower plumper buds that make for gorgeous steeping in glassware. While classic Dragonwell is all about rocky mineral texture, the new #43 is a crisp, bright focused experience centered around stronger flavor and aroma and more pronounced sweetness. Mrs. Li’s #43 varietal is true Shi Feng Dragonwell, growing on one of the highest slopes of the tiny microclimate that Emperor Qianlong declared as one of the best in the world for tea. The soil is full of quartz and white sand while the water comes from natural mountain springs, yielding a flavor that simply can’t be matched outside of Shi Feng itself.
- 2022 1st Picking Shi Feng Dragonwell
This early spring tea is all about a fine and subtle sweetness, and a long, drawn out aftertaste and crisp texture. Cool spring weather produces a small harvest of truly sweet tea. This is Mrs. Li’s first picking of the season, carefully hand-finished by her husband, Shui Huamin. Her true original cultivar Dragonwell (Longjing Qunti) grows on the mountain slopes of Shi Feng and draws in sweet mountain spring water.
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