August 25, 2020
by Diana Rosen
Quite often, the oldest and simplest tools are the most practical, and the gaiwan is one of the most ideal ways to brew tea. You can use it as a combination of tea brewer and drinking cup, or as a small brewing vessel with thimble cups for drinking.
Developed by the Chinese, the gaiwan has three parts: a bowl/cup without a handle that is slightly indented rather than round; a matching lid with a knob on top, and a saucer whose edges curve upward slightly.
Each piece has several functions: The lid (gai) is also a paddle to move the leaves in the water to help release their flavor, or to strain the leaves when brewing oolongs, and to retain heat of any brewed tea. The bowl (wan) is both a brewing vessel (versus a teapot) to allow for full unfurling of the leaf, and can double as a drinking cup. The saucer is a stabilizer for when one drinks directly from the gaiwan, and a coaster/saucer on which the cup stands when placed on the tea table or stored away.
Gaiwans date to the Ming Dynasty ((1368–1644) and some tea historians believe its design was to metaphorically “reduce the barrier” between man and tea. Some Chinese refer to a gaiwan as a “three bowl” in which the teapot or lid on top is the sky; the saucer below is the earth, and the bowl or cup in the middle is man, connecting nature and man in an intimate way.
NOTE: Gaiwan is the name in Mandarin and the combination is called zhong or cha chung in Cantonese. Other Chinese names are sancai bei or chazhan.
HOW TO USE A GAIWAN TO BREW TEA
It does take a little practice to use a gaiwan, but it only takes a few times to master it. Preheating the bowl with water that you discard after heating the bowl is a common step but is not necessary.
Oolongs are ideal for using a gaiwan. First place the tea leaves in the bottom of the bowl, then pour enough water cover the leaves and pour off the water immediately and discard. This “wakens” the leaves and, more practically, flushes away any dust. To do this, hold the cup and saucer together in one hand and use the other hand to hold the lid securely against the bowl. Tilt slightly over the waste bowl and use the lid as a strainer to hold back the leaves in the cup while the water is discarded.
When you have strained off this first bit of water, inhale the fragrance of the oolong leaves to whet the appetite for the savoring your first cup. Pour freshly heated water, taking care to pour the water down the inside of the bowl rather than directly onto the leaves. Never fill the gaiwan to the brim; only to three-fourths capacity. This is both a safety caution and a way to ensure that the brew will be flavorful and not diluted with too much water.
Cover the bowl with the lid and infuse according to the tea seller’s suggestions. Pour the tea into waiting thimble cups. A gaiwan should easily fill two or three such cups.
HOW TO DRINK FROM THE GAIWAN
To drink directly from a gaiwan, prepare the leaves and water as described above. Place the entire gaiwan in the palm of one hand. With your other hand, lift the lid by the knob, tilting it AWAY from you by dipping it into the liquid slightly toward you. This is how the lid will hold back the leaves while you drink the tea. Take several sips but do not drink it all. Set the gaiwan down, lift the lid, and add more water for a second infusion as noted above. Sip the tea leisurely. For the third infusion, you can pour water directly onto the leaves to get the remaining flavor.
THE TWO-HANDED METHOD
You can also pour or drink from the gaiwan using two hands, which is a good way to start if you’re nervous about the one-handed style. Place your fingers under the saucer on both sides. Put our thumbs on the knob of the lid. Tilt the lid slightly to form an opening toward your body. Carefully lift up the entire gaiwan toward your mouth and sip the tea at the opening. Adjust the lid as necessary to make an ample enough opening. Re-infuse and drink until the leaves are spent.
HOW TO CHOOSE A GAIWAN
Sizes of gaiwans can vary depending on manufacturer, but in general, choose ones that hold 3 to 4 ounces of water. Depending on the type of tea used, add 6 to 8g of tea leaves. The denser and smaller the leaves, the fewer tea leaves you need to make a flavorful cup. The larger and lighter the leaves, such as oolongs, the more tea leaves you will need to make a flavorful cup.
When placed directly onto the bowl, the lid should fit securely over it and not slip when pressure is applied to the knob on the lid. When creating a small opening on the side for drinking, or pouring, the lid should sit a bit off-kilter for the opening to form.
The bowl should flare out at the top, the cup material be thin, and curved enough to feel comfortable when you hold it. The saucer should have a depression in the middle to hold the bowl securely enough that there is no rattling or slipping when the bowl is filled, to avoid spillage.
The most common material is porcelain. White or celadon are popular because they show off the color of the leaves and the subsequent brews. The thinner the porcelain the better for brewing white or green teas; thicker ones are better for aromatic oolongs. Although pu erh and black teas can be brewed easily in them, gaiwans work best for the more delicately processed teas.
Fine jade is sometimes used and works just like porcelain. Yixing and other clays are sometimes made into gaiwans, however, you should dedicate a clay gaiwan to use only one tea type, unless the inside is completely glazed.
The primary reason that porcelain and glass are the best materials for a gaiwan is that they can be used for any type of tea without worry that it will marry with the material like tea in clay pots can. Simply rinse the porcelain or glass cup of remaining leaves thoroughly with hot water, shake off the moisture and air dry, and it is ready to use. Do not use soap and water as the residue from most soaps can remain and impact the flavor of your next brew.
[Editor's note:] Check out Masters Teas Classic Gaiwan
as an affordable option (pictured above), and consider practicing by using your gaiwan with cool water first to prevent hot water burns. It also helps to practice over a towel or cushion to prevent breakage.