(left) Li Xiangxi and her cousin work on black tea in Tongmu.
(right) Li Xiangxi's brother at his workshop in Wuyishan.
As if it weren’t enough to be wild-picking in the protected Tongmu region of the Wuyishan Ecological Preserve, or to be winning awards every year for meticulous hand-firing technique: the dynamic Li Family cousin and sibling trio also co-founded the Yangxian Tea Institute, which is where Wuyi-style Daoist-rooted tea ceremony is taught alongside tea tasting and cultural practice.
Between Li Xiangxi, her brother and her cousin, this is a family out to change the way the world thinks of tea.
While I am hoping to work with Li Xiangxi on translating an entire introductory course on tea into English so that everyone can enjoy, today, I want to share one simple tip that I’d never thought of until drinking tea with Li Xiangxi:
Save the rinse.
When you brew gongfu tea, you might know about pouring tea over the leaves to wake them up and get them primed for brewing. This rinse is often used to heat up glasses and to pour over your yixing teapot to help build its patina.
Instead of discarding this rinse, try pouring it into a pitcher and setting it aside to taste at the very end of your brew session.
But isn’t the rinse also cleaning the tea leaves?
Well, Li Xiangxi would say: don’t drink tea that isn’t clean to begin with.
If you’re not sure of the provenance of a tea and whether or not it is free of pesticides and pollution, it probably isn’t a good idea to drink it, with or without a rinse.
The Li Family (and all of our partners) are all about impeccably clean tea, from land management to finishing. In fact Li Xiangxi’s father-in-law was just interviewed and profiled about eco-friendly / zero-impact farming techniques in Wuyishan.
Why save the 1st steeping for last?
Over the course of brewing a tea and sipping each infusion, your palate gets more and more primed to enjoy the tea, building up aftertastes and after-sensations that complement and amplify the brews that come later. However, this aftertaste is usually bolstering brews that start to get lighter and sweeter the further you are in brewing.
If you build up an entire session worth of aftertaste and then circle back to that big, rich 1st infusion, you get an extra-amplified final taste that comes full circle to express the tea more fully.
Today I am following Li Xiangxi’s advice and brewing up her family’s Dark Roast Big Red Robe. This extraordinary tea was picked and hand fired by Li Xiangxi’s brother at the family’s misty, rocky plot within the Wuyi Ecological Preserve, fed by sweet spring water and surrounded by bamboo and evergreen trees.
In fact, you can smell the forest in the aroma of the wet leaf. It feels like stepping outside into humid, cool air after being stuck inside for way too long and reconnecting with the fresh bracing smell of grass and forest: instantly rejuvenating.
The first sips are so incredibly sweet, reminiscent of fresh-picked mint with a touch of Medjool dates and candied ginger. Something about this balance feels both refreshing and comforting at the same time.
When I hold the tea on my palate for a few seconds, sipping slowly, it becomes almost vaporous and deeply perfumed. This perfumed quality reminds me - today I am using a tall cup whose shape is perfect to double as an aroma cup. I smell the empty cup and pick up floral buttery depth like just-opened daffodils.
It may be the depths of winter, but the taste makes me think I must be out on a covered porch in a midday rain passing through, the kind where you can see the sun off on the horizon even as the rain falls overhead; sweet, thick humidity, distilled into the cup.
The deep, dark quality of the roast gives the tea an aged medicinal aftertaste, one of ginger, herbs, and smoldering incense. I brew up one last very long steeping, letting the tea brew in my Yixing pot for over a minute before enjoying the juicy, rocky sweet results.
With my palate fully infused with Big Red Robe, I come back to my 1st infusion, set aside and cool.
The first sip is huge, just completely packed with flavor. I am getting pine bark, juniper berries and that nostalgic smell of antique Chinese lacquerware and rosewood.
The texture is thick but engaging, like old-tree oolongs. The intense vibrant qualities of the tea is brought out all the more by the lingering aftertaste from every steeping before it.