Gaiwans Are Great
I can’t think of a better tea tool that encapsulates our motto “Radically Simple” more than the gaiwan. They are sadly not as iconic as teapots and don’t have the deep pocket universe quality of collecting yixing ware. However I can’t think of a tea tool we use more in our tasting room, certainly at my home tea table, than a ceramic gaiwan.
A gaiwan, rhymes with Taiwan, is made of three basic components; saucer, cup, and lid. Occasionally gaiwans are made without the saucer part, usually if they are part of a travel set and space is at a premium. You’ll notice the cup has a distinctive shape reminiscent of a flower opening up. The lid has a top handle for the same reason a cooking pot lid does, it gets very hot especially at the sides. The lid needs to be shorter in diameter than the full opening of the cup to allow for an easy pour out the small aperture in the side.
Gary Stevens / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
The gaiwan is old teaware, but it’s not ancient. They date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE), a period for where the Chinese tea began to evolve into something recognizable to the modern drinker. Before this period loose tea wasn’t consumed by elites, medieval tea was much more like matcha. In the previous century the Mongolians ruled and preferred darker fermented tea. The gaiwan was invented as an early attempt to make drinking loose unbroken green tea simple and sufficiently elegant for a new era of Ming era nobles. At this point tea drinkers would drink directly from the cup, allowing the lid to keep the tea leaves from being swallowed. Plenty of people still drink tea this way today. Take a look at this video of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Obama sitting down to drink some long jing.
The simplicity of the gaiwan underlies its versatility. With a few exempted categories, the gaiwan’s neutral material, quick cooling design, fast pour, and aroma promoting cup shape is well suited for most teas. If the tea is aromatic and needs cooler water, like all green tea, then it really becomes the obvious vessel to use. The gaiwan is a go-to vessel for green tea, rolled oolong, chinese black tea, white tea, and young(ish) sheng puer.
How to Not Burn Yourself
I know I’m talking up gaiwans here, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about what can go wrong when using them. If you aren’t careful you absolutely can get hot tea all over your hands.
- Stick to ceramic. My first gaiwan was made of glass and the whole thing would get too hot to handle very easily. When I see clay gaiwans all I can think about is how long it would take between steepings for it to cool down. Gaiwans are designed to pretty quickly cool down, so using one made of a heat retentive material is just setting yourself up to get hurt.
- Don’t race to the next steeping. Even a super fine Jingdezhen porcelain gaiwan will get quite hot if you don’t give it time to cool down. Just like the above point, the hotter the cup the hotter the tea. Use the principle well in prewarming cups and vessels, but if you don’t pace yourself you can end up having a bad time.
- Use proper yin grip. Unless you are directly drinking out of it, leave the saucer on the table and hold the gaiwan with three fingers. The thumb and middle finger on the sides of the cup and the index finger on the top handle of the lid. Other grip styles that involve holding the saucer with your thumb and middle finger stretch your hand and put more pressure on the index finger on the lid. You’ll end up with less precision and will be more likely to press too hard on the lid and let the lid slide forward. The result is steam on your palm and tea on your table.
If the versatility and simplicity weren’t enough to love, gaiwans are also less expensive overall than teapots. If you want to spend a ton of cash on a very high quality hand painted gaiwan from Jingdezhen that option is still available, but this is in reality a humble everyday object. You don’t have to spend over about USD $20 to get a serviceable gaiwan. Compared to a decade ago they have also become much more available to Western buyers. This is an essential part of any tea setup, it’s well worth it having a few around.
Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea
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