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Last year I started getting into gongfu – or, at least, brewing tea in a gaiwan. I first bought a normal porcelain gaiwan. After gaining some experience with it and figuring out what properties were important, I went looking for a titanium version, as is my wont. I wanted something I could throw in a bag for brewing tea out in the world, and porcelain – even in a padded container – wasn’t going to cut it.
I’m sure that an expert would criticize the use of a titanium brewing vessel, especially double-walled. I don’t think the metal itself imparts a flavor to the tea, but it has heat retention qualities that differ from more common materials like porcelain, celadon, or glass. Fortunately, I am not an expert, and do not care. The tea I brew in titanium tastes the same to me as the tea I brew in porcelain. And I can abuse my matériel.
I found two options from the friendly capitalists in the People’s Republic of China, and purchased both.
First up, the Tiartisan 130mL Titanium Gaiwan. It weights 71 grams. The stated volume of 130mL is a bit less than a typical gaiwan. My porcelain gaiwan weighs 40 grams and holds 180mL. Both those volume measurements are with water filled all the way up to the rim. In practice, some of that volume is taken up the tea leaf, and you probably stop pouring when the water level is a bit shy of the rim. With the Tiartisan gaiwan, I end up brewing about 100mL of tea liquor. With my porcelain gaiwan, it is closer to 160mL. That’s a significant difference. It means that my porcelain gaiwan is sufficient ordnance for a party of four, where the Tiartisan gaiwan is really only appropriate for one or two people.
The most significant disadvantage of the Tiartisan gaiwan is the diameter of the lid in comparison to the diameter of the bowl at the top of the rim. The lid ought to be ever so slightly larger. Compared to the porcelain set, the titanium lid sits a little deeper in the bowl. This cuts down on the usable volume, since you’re only brewing tea in the bowl up to where the lid sits.
But for the size, it is a nice lid. It rolls within the bowl as it should, allowing you to control the size of the outlet when pouring. All in, the Tiartisan is a great low-volume option. If you’re just brewing tea for one or two people, the volume is adequate.
Next up, the Boundless Voyage Titanium Tea Set. This is a more complete package, consisting of a brewing vessel, a fairness pitcher, a lid that fits on both, and two 40mL cups.
The hypothetical gongfu expert will probably take issue with this set. It isn’t an actual gaiwan. It has a spout to pour from. The lid has a little strainer built in. Still, it brews a great cup (or three) of tea.
The brewing vessel can hold about 185mL of water before it starts to come out the spout. But that is impractically full. The usable volume is closer to 145mL. Some of that is taken by the tea leaf, so in practice you’re brewing about 125mL of tea liquor. That puts it between the Tiartisan gaiwan and my porcelain set. When brewing for one or two people, this difference doesn’t matter. If you want to brew for four people, this Boundless Voyage set still struggles.
Where this set really fails miserably is in the relative size of the brewing vessel and the fairness pitcher. The fairness pitcher only holds about 85mL, and that when it is filled up to the rim, where you’re going to be struggling not to spill anything. But the set allows you to brew about 125mL of tea. So you cannot actually decant directly into the fairness pitcher. You could brew your 125 mL of tea, fill both the included 40mL cups, and then pour the last serving into the fairness pitcher for your two drinkers to fight over. But that sort of defeats the purpose of the fairness pitcher.
So in practice, the fairness pitcher component is garbage. The rest of the set is great, but unfortunately you have to pay for the fairness pitcher to get your hands on the good bits.
The brewing vessel and lid weigh 95 grams. The fairness pitcher is another 50 grams. Each cup is another 20 grams (only two can fit inside the brewing vessel for transport.)
The strainer on the lid is nice for finer, processed teas. I have a genmaicha with matcha that I like, which I cannot brew in a gaiwan (or, at least, I can’t really serve from a gaiwan), but works fine in the Boundless Voyage set. But for most whole leaf teas, neither the spout nor the strainer lid offer much advantage over the traditional gaiwan shape. A real gaiwan takes a little practice, but once you figure it out, it is easy to pour from.
I like both of these options. The Tiartisan gaiwan I keep at work, with a Snow Peak H200 to decant into and drink out of. The Boundless Voyage set I keep at home, usually decanting from the brewing vessel straight into a Boundless Voyage 200mL Titanium Cup. I use both regularly. Since the Boundless Voyage set lives at home, it tends to get thrown in the bag more than the Tiartisan gaiwan for portable tea adventures.
Having both, I’m not sure that I have a strong preference between the two. I paid $32 for the Tiartisan gaiwan, which I think is a fair price for a nice piece of double-wall titanium kitchenware. I paid $80 for the Boundless Voyage set, which is a reasonable price for all the included components, but it is more difficult to justify when I only use the brewing vessel and the lid – not the fairness pitcher, and not the cups (the cups are really nice – and I’ve actually purchased more to have at home – but most of the time I’m just brewing for myself, so I want to decant all the liquor into a single vessel I can sip from). The Tiartisan gaiwan, being an actual gaiwan, is more aesthetically pleasing. And aesthetics are an important part of gongfu.
Airscape Tea Storage
I store tea in Planetary Design Airscape Storage Canisters. The setup consists of an 18/8 stainless steel bucket with two lids. The inner lid is a plunger that evacuates air inside the can down to the level of the contents. The outer lid just sits on top of the canister, providing a platform to allow other canister to be stacked on top. The bottom of the bucket has a silicon pad that improves stackability. All together its a nice system for keeping things fresh.
It comes in two sizes: medium and small. Medium is good for unrolled leaves with body (like Mi Lan Xiang) or something you want to store a lot of (like Hojicha). Small is good for something with leaves that are flat (I like keeping Pre-rain Dragonwell in stock), rolled (might I suggest Jin Xuan), or otherwise compact. I wish there was an even smaller size. Alas.
They are not appropriate for pu-erh, which needs to breathe. But for the teas I like to stock in my pantry, they’re great. I’ve been using them for about three years now, and I do think they help extend the shelf life of my supplies.
On Mi Lan Xiang
Mi Lan Xiang is currently my favorite oolong, and probably my second favorite tea after Hojicha.
I’ve found that it doesn’t lend itself too well to the infuser-basket-in-mug method popular with most of us tea drinkers on this side of the Pacific Rim. A gaiwan is needed to get the full experience. Roughly 4 grams of leaf, 4 ounces of 190 degree Fahrenheit water, 30 seconds.
This past summer I frequently brewed it cold, leaving it to sit in a teapot in the fridge overnight and then decanting into a bottle in the morning to take on a bike ride. Since it is just sitting in cold water for multiple hours, I’m less picky about the ratio. I use 24 ounces of water, probably around 8 grams of leaf, left in the fridge for 8 hours or so.
OIML-M1 Scale Calibration
Back in 2017 one of the ladies at Red Blossom Tea chastised me for not using a tea scale. I went home and ordered an American Weigh Scales SC-2kg, which measures up to 2kg with 0.1g resolution. It seemed adequate for the task, and compact enough that I wouldn’t mind it taking up a little room in a drawer if I ended up not using it frequently.
At the start of 2020 I decided to become an adult and begin to measure all solid kitchen ingredients by weight instead of volume, so the SC-2kg began to see much more frequent use.
That went along swimmingly for about a year, until the beginning of 2021 when I became curious about the accuracy of the scale. Nothing in particular prompted this curiosity. I just enjoy knowing that the tools in my life are both precise and accurate. As helpfully explained by LabBalances, there are a number of different scale calibration systems in the world. All of it is overkill for use in my personal kitchen, but I decided to look into the OIML-M1 class from the International Organization of Legal Metrology.
The calibration procedure for the SC-2kg requires 1kg and 2kg weights. I found a good deal on a set of 2kg, 1kg, 20g and 10g OIML-M1 certified weights on eBay. According to OIML-M1, a 1kg calibration weight must be accurate within 50mg. A 2kg calibration weight must be within 100mg. That’d get me a pretty accurate bowl of rice.
When I received the weights I found that the SC-2kg reported the correct measurement for all 4 calibration weights. I also tried the calibration weights on my MyWeigh UltraShip Ultra-35, which is the scale I’ve had kicking around since 2009 for measuring backpacking gear. It only claims to have 2g resolution up to 1kg, and 5g resolution up to 16 kilograms. I found it to be accurate within its claimed resolution.
So all of this was for naught. Both of my scales were already accurate and not in need of calibration. But I really enjoy having these OIML calibration weights and knowing that my measurements conform to the standards of the universe.
I pedaled over to Japantown a couple months ago to restock rice and umeboshi. While there I visited ChaTo, a tea shop I had heard about but never been to. I had a craving for genmaicha, which I was sure they could satisfy (they did). But the real victory of the day was leaving with a bag of their Sumibi Houjicha. This is my new favorite tea.
I’ve previously mentioned my fondness for kukicha. Kuki means stem or twig, cha means tea, hoji means roasted, sumibi means charcoal fire. So kukicha is tea made of stems instead of leaves. It can be roasted or not. I like it roasted, which seems to be more common on this side of the Pacific Rim. Sumibi hojicha, then, is a charcoal roasted tea. It consists of 60% stems and 40% leaves, so it isn’t a pure kukicha. Instead it is a blend of kukicha and sencha. Most hojicha, I’m told, is made using bancha, which is harvested later in the season and considered a lower-grade leaf. Sencha is the premium early harvest stuff. The sumibi hojicha has a great smell and an amazing taste. The roasting gets rid of most of the caffeine. If you like kukicha, I bet you’ll like this stuff.
ChaTo also sent me away with a sample of their Houjicha Shizuoka, which is lighter in taste (but darker in color) and very sweet. I like it as a cold tea, but the sweetness of the tea tastes wrong to me when brewed hot. I recommend sticking to the sumibi.
I keep a Snow Peak H450 Mug at work. This is double-walled titanium and as such is expensive and entirely unnecessary. But it is a luxury I enjoy, and I expect that (like most Snow Peak titanium products) it will last approximately until the heat death of the universe. As the name implies, it has a capacity of 450mL. It has an outer diameter of 86mm and a height of 97mm. This is the mug I use for my daily oatmeal and miso.
Tea is brewed in the mug using a FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Tea Infuser, which fits perfectly in the H450. It is easy to clean, allows the tea to breathe, and lives up to its name as being something that ought to last for life.
The Snow Peak MGC-053 Lid fits on the H450 mug and provides a cafe style lid. A better option is the old, discontinued Klean Kanteen Pint Lid. Klean Kanteen made this for their pint cup, but it fits perfectly on the H450. It gives you a cafe style lid, and has a rubber piece that rotates into place to cover the hole that you sip out of. There’s also a sealed hole for a straw, though I’ve never used this (maybe you could use it for your bombilla if you were into such things). I would prefer the lid to be deeper, like the MGC-053, so that liquid that does splash up out of the hole has a better chance of being contained within the dish of the lid and then running back into the mug. However, the rotating cover of the old Klean Kanteen lid reduces the chance of liquid escaping in the first place. Neither lid is leak proof, and I rarely use either because I’m generally not moving around while drinking tea, but the Klean Kanteen Pint Lid lives in the small pouch of tea supplies that I keep at my desk. It will get slapped on if I’m walking someplace.
At home I keep a Keith Titanium Ti3521. Keith is a Chinese brand that previously was only available direct from the People’s Republic on AliExpress. In the past couple of years I’ve seen them start to be distributed directly stateside. The Ti3521 has a capacity of 450mL, an outer diameter of 78mm and a height of 125mm. Compared to the Snow Peak mug, it’s a little skinnier and a little taller. What makes this product unique are the lids. It has a silicone cafe style lid with a sippy hole that fits tightly over the rim of the mug. As with the lid options for the Snow Peak H450, this lid is adequate to protect from spills while walking with the mug. The Ti3521 also has a titanium lid. This can be placed directly on the mug, but it isn’t a tight fit and is mostly useless here. It is intended to be placed over the silicone lid, covering the hole you drink out of and providing further protection. The titanium lid has a small pin hole in it to allow heat to escape, so the setup isn’t waterproof – you certainly wouldn’t want to put it in a pack when it had liquid in it – but it will probably keep you from scalding yourself on a bumpy car ride.
The Ti3521 includes its own titanium infuser. The infuser inserts into the silicone lid and hangs down into the mug. The infuser is small, with a diameter of 42mm and a height of 78mm. Some teas, I find, need a bit more room to breathe. For those teas, the FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Tea Infuser does fit in the Ti3521. But the Keith infuser works well enough for many teas. It has a larger volume than your typical tea ball or stick infuser, so if you are happy with those you’d probably be happy with this.
When new, the silicone lid did impart a strong silicone taste. Since I purchased the product direct from China, I have no way of knowing if the silicone is what the USA FDA would consider “food grade”. When I first received the Ti3521, I made a number of different attempts to reduce the silicone taste from the lid – boiling water, baking soda and vinegar, lemon juice, etc. Nothing really helped, but after just using it for a few months the taste finally went away.
I use the silicone lid to hang the infuser basket, and I use the titanium lid as a dish to place the infuser on when I’m done with it. I rarely drink through the silicone lid.
In addition to its use at home, the Ti3521 is the mug I’ll usually grab when travelling. I find that its skinnier-but-taller form factor tends to be slightly easier to slide into a pack than the Snow Peak mug, and I like that all of the components are more tightly integrated than the H450 and FORLIFE infuser.
I own a few other Keith Titanium products in addition to the Ti3521. My experience with them is that they are of a perfectly acceptable quality, though not quite as nice as Snow Peak. The Ti3521 is exemplary of this. When boiling water is poured into the Snow Peak H450, the outer wall is warm but comfortable to hold. When the same water is poured into the Keith Ti3521, the outer wall is hot. Not too hot to hold, but certainly hotter than the Snow Peak mug. I don’t know if this is because the Keith titanium is thinner, or because the walls are closer together, or because the vacuum between them is imperfect.
The Snow Peak H450 is part of a three piece set of nesting mugs. The H200 is the smallest of the set. I’ll sometimes use it if I have brewed tea in a pot and I want a cup that just holds a small amount, but otherwise it is not very useful. The middle-sized H300 is more interesting. It holds a full cup of tea and is a nice size to drink out of. It also just so happens that the 23.7 oz Smartwater bottle that I like to use as part of my backcountry hydration setup with the Sawyer Squeeze fits perfectly inside the H300 mug. By perfectly I mean that if the mug were a millimeter narrower the bottle would not fit. So if I want the luxury of backcountry tea brewed in something other than my cook pot, my setup is the Smartwater bottle, inside the H300 mug, inside the Hill People Gear 3” Bottle Holster.
For brewing, the lower portion of the FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Tea Infuser does fit in the H300. But this is far too bulky for me to ever want to pack into the backcountry. A tea ball works, but those are always cheaply made with soft walls that flatten and small hinges that break. They don’t survive long in a pack. A stick infuser is too tall. I’ve successfully used a Tuffy Steeper with the H300 (an idea from Backpacking Light). When collapsed this is small and easily packable. When fully expanded it is roughly the size of the FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Tea Infuser, though it tapers toward the bottom. However, it can be used when only partially expanded, which allows it to fit better into the H300. As with the silicone lid on the Keith Ti3521, the Tuffy Steeper imparted a strong silicone taste when I first bought it. Over time this has diminished, but I still sometimes notice it. Another option is the House Again Tea Ball Infuser. This is a bit larger than the typical tea ball, and much more robust. It fits in the H300 and packs well separately. Usually this is the option I’ll choose.
If I want to brew a pot of tea, I use the Fire Maple Titanium 1L Kettle – another AliExpress purchase. There is absolutely nothing special about this pot, except that it is titanium, and thus cool. It is single-walled, so it can be used on a stove or over a fire. I bought it after breaking a glass teapot and vowing Never Again. It also features some neat knot work on the handle, which I assume was tied by the deft hands of small children who sleep on the cold concrete underneath their workstations, piss in buckets, etc.
The Fire Maple kettle does have an extremely coarse strainer in the spout. If you’re brewing some sort of blossoming tea, it may work, but it isn’t great for the teas I typically enjoy. Instead I use the FORLIFE Capsule Infuser, which is a great big infuser that is meant to be used in a large pitcher. It is a good size for a 1L pot, and the lid will still fit on the teapot while the strainer is inside.
Often referred to as “twig tea” on this side of the Pacific Rim, Kukicha is a Japanese tea made from the roasted twigs of Camellia sinensis. It is my everday tea, and probably my second favorite drink (behind water). I can’t comment on the purported health benefits, but I find the nutty, earthy taste to be enjoyable, and I appreciate that it is very low in caffeine.
I also regularly enjoy green tea, but green tea is the only source of caffeine in my life. This makes it a drink that needs some thought as to total consumption quantity and scheduling (caffeine in the morning or evening is the antithesis of optimizing for sleep). Kukicha I can enjoy anytime, including shortly before bed.
I was first introduced to Kukicha years ago by Vavrek, who I assume found it through macrobiotics. Outside of that community, Kukicha hasn’t seemed to have made significant inroads in the West. I rarely see it in stores. As a result I usually purchase mine from Eden Foods (along with the occasional umeboshi – though that I can also resupply that by pedaling over to Japantown), but I’ve not performed a survey to see if there are better sources available.