If you’ve ever seen or experienced a real Chinese tea ceremony, you probably noticed that the tea artist first pours the tea from the teapot into a pitcher. Such a pitcher is known as a “gong dao bei”, which literally means ‘fair cup’. In the West, it’s more often called a fairness pitcher though.
The history of this piece of tea ware can be dated back to Ming Dynasty in China, when loose leaf tea started to become more popular than tea compressed in cakes. In this article we explain the function of such a pitcher mug.
Why Use a Fairness Cup?
Steeping time is crucial to the taste of the tea, especially when you brew black tea, oolong and pu erh. When you brew such teas the Chinese way, steeping times are particularly short: usually just 10-15 seconds.
The intensity of the taste of tea changes even during the seconds you pour it out of the teapot. So, for example if you pour the liquor directly into 6 cups, the tea might taste different from cup to cup. Not strange, as the tea in the first cup might have stayed in the teapot for just 10 seconds, while the last cup you pour might be inside for 20 seconds. That’s a 100% difference in steeping time! See the image below in which we’ve served 6 cups of pu erh tea without a fairness cup. Porcelain cups are great, because they don’t affect the taste of tea, and their white appearance makes it easy to appreciate the natural colour of tea.
As you can see every cup has a different colour and therefore a different taste intensity. You can probably imagine now why it’s hard to enjoy together like this.
This is why you should pour the tea into a fairness pitcher first. This balances the concentration and the taste of the tea. See below every cup of tea has the same colour when we steeped the same tea again, but now poured it first in a gong dao bei:
You can now see that every cup of tea has the same colour! Great, now when you sit together with your tea friends, you drink and talk about the same tea!
Other Benefits of Fairness Cups
At last, there’s are three benefit of using fairness pitchers:
- Because a fair mug is without lid, you can see the amount of the tea that’s in it. This helps to pour an even amount of liquor into the tea cups. In contrast, with teapots, you might risk pouring full amounts, but ending up with not enough tea for the last cup.
- You can also use a fair mug to mix several steeps together. This can be for convenience, or because one brew isn’t enough to serve one round (depending on how many people you’re enjoying tea together with).
- Another use of a fair mug is to filter the tea coming out of the teapot, to make sure no leaves or small particles end up in the cups. Most of the small tea leaves stay in the teapot, but to be even more diligent a filter can be placed on top of the pitcher. Some fair mugs even have a built-in filter.
So with a fairness cup, the tea in each cup has the same taste; and each cup has the same amount of the tea. So it’s ‘fair’ to everyone! After all, when you appreciate tea together you want everyone to drink the exact same taste.
I Don’t Have A Serving Pitcher! What Now?
Go and get one! If you’re on a tight budget you can always get an universal gong dao bei that works with every tea set you have. A glass or porcelain one would be the most appropriate as it doesn’t affect the flavour of tea.
Don’t want to buy a serving pitcher? Here’s an Easy Fix
Instead of pouring the cups full, you pour a little tea in each cup. Once you’ve poured in the last cup you keep repeating this process, until the teapot is empty. This allows for a better distribution of flavour, especially if you’re fast with pouring.
Fairness Pitcher Materials
The materials for fair mugs are mainly glass, ceramic and Yixing clay. Glass fair mugs can show clearly the color and the volume of the liquor, which makes them the most popular ones. See the video below that shows a Yixing travel set, which comes with a fairness pitcher made from Yixing clay:
Fairness Cup Looks
A basic fair mug looks like a regular mug or a small pitcher. Some of the fair mugs are without handles, though most of those are insulated with an extra layer of glass.
Mary JoNovember 28, 2020 at 11:52 pm
I have a small red clay pitcher with enamel designs of flowers and a couple of what looks like butterflies painted on it and appears to be slip structure….The only marking is a #12 on the bottom. Could it be a fairness pitcher?
teasenzDecember 22, 2020 at 6:41 pm
The term ‘fairness pitcher’ is mainly used the application of using pitchers to serve tea in small cups. So in fact, any pitcher could be used as one. For course there will be some that are especially made to serve tea, and those tend to be smaller in size, like 150-300ml.
SoulMarch 28, 2022 at 5:56 pm
Hello, and thank you for this beautiful and fascinating website. I was watching the BBC documentary about tea, and when they showed some fishermen using a “fairness pitcher”, they referred to it as “General X patrolling the city”. I didn’t hear the general’s name, and there was no explanation of the origins of either the technique or the charming metaphoric name. Can you provide the general’s name and some more details? Thanks and regards.