What Is A Gaiwan?
Let’s begin with exactly what is a gaiwan. A gaiwan (盖碗) is a tea cup with a lid and saucer, which has become a worldwide tool for preparing tea due to its functionality and well-designed simplicity.
No strainer is included, for this type of tea preparation relies solely on the skills of a steady hand. The small size of the gaiwan allows all three of the parts to be picked up using only one hand (if skilled enough). The name literally translates to “lid and bowl” in Chinese. They can be produced in a variety of materials, including porcelain, glass and clay.
This teaware allows the drinker to view the tea leaves during their steep so they can judge the color as they infuse. This can help you find the perfect infusion time, resulting in your perfect cup of tea.
History Of The Gaiwan
Preceding the Ming Dynasty, which was from 1368 to 1644, the Chinese drank tea from the vessel in which they prepared it. What they used at the time was called a chawan (茶碗), which translates to “tea bowl”. Tea Master Lu Yu described that this bowl needed to be large enough for the necessities required for brewing tea, but also small enough to be held in your hands to enjoy drinking from it. The chawan was later innovated alongside tea preparations and rituals and resulted in the gaiwan – the perfect vessel for brewing and drinking tea from.
During the Qing Dynasty, from 1636 to 1735, loose-leaf tea became very popular and so did its brewing methods. The Chinese imperial court as well as officials, eunuchs, and aristocratic families all enjoyed the widespread use of the gaiwan at the time.
The gaiwan became a household item in all levels of society in China by the second half of the 19th century. Nowadays, it is mostly used by tea professionals and enthusiasts of the gongfu ceremony, as well as in tea shops.
Different Types Of Gaiwan
As previously mentioned, gaiwans can come in different styles and materials. Let’s start with the different materials.
Gaiwans made from purple clay will absorb the smells and flavours of the teas brewed in it. Although since it isn’t airtight, it does not do as an efficient job of keeping these flavours like a teapot would. The material is best paired with black teas, oolong teas and aged Pu-erh teas.
Porcelain may be the better option since it is easily cleaned, and flavours do not attach themselves to it. This allows the drinker to have the option to brew a variety of teas in the same gaiwan over time. A white porcelain will also grant the drinker a view of the color of their tea during their steep, resulting in better control.
Another option is the glass gaiwan, which is often used to appreciate the dark color from black teas. The material is less premium although still a viable option.
Next comes the different styles.
Gaiwans come in different sizes. The standard size will hold around 100ml to 150ml. An oversized one can hold up to 300ml and was originally designed to steep white and green tea.
Smaller gaiwans (110ml-120ml) are generally used for black and white tea. Gaiwans that hold 150ml of water and more are typically used for oolong tea, since oolong leaves are usually larger and need more space to unfurl and expand.
They can even differ in their heights, with a short gaiwan being the ideal vessel for fragrant black teas. Its shortness is great at preserving these fragrances. Oolongs get a much better steep in something wider for the same reason previously mentioned – oolong tea leaves need space to expand.
The Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty both enjoyed the horseshoe gaiwan, its design resembling that of an upside-down horseshoe. It used to be very hard to hold due to its narrow and small cup opening. Since then, it has been modernized and the opening has widened to accommodate a more comfortable grip.
How To Use A Gaiwan
It can be a little bit tricky when pouring tea from a gaiwan for the very first time. Start by holding the flared edge of the bowl with both your thumb and middle finger, while your index finger is stabilizing the lid on top. Then pour.
If the water is too warm, you can include the saucer in your method, although this is a much more advanced technique. To do this, grip with your thumb and middle finger both the saucer and lid. The lid must be slightly open to let the tea pour out, which means you must find a delicate balance between gripping hard enough so that everything is stable, and holding it gently enough that the lid doesn’t slip and go shooting off. Once again, practice with an empty gaiwan first, and a less valuable one in case things go wrong (we’ve all been there).
If there are tea leaves on your lid after pouring, it means too much water was poured into the gaiwan.
Be sure to try this a few times without any tea in the gaiwan, to gain more ease and confidence. If you can feel that your fingers and hand are relaxed, and that you have control when lifting and moving the gaiwan, you are ready to try with warm tea inside. Everyone is different, so just find the position that feels most comfortable for you.
What Tea Can I Brew In A Gaiwan?
Technically, you’re free to brew any type of tea in your gaiwan. Although, it is best suited for green, white, oolong, Pu-erh and Chinese black teas. It is less suitable for other types of black tea or even Japanese green teas.
Step-By-Step For Brewing In A Gaiwan
- Warm water to the required temperature for your tea of choice. Pour the water into your gaiwan and drain. This will ensure a better control of the temperature during your brew and will also clean the gaiwan.
- Put the required amount of tea into your gaiwan.
- Pour warm water onto your tea leaves and drain. This is done before a full infusion to help release the aroma of the tea and kick-start the unfurling of the tea leaves.
- Now it’s time for the real infusion. Pour warm water onto your tea leaves in your gaiwan for the required amount of time.
- Pour the tea into your teacup(s) by following the methods explained previously (How To Use A Gaiwan).
- Reinfuse tea leaves again and again.
Now you know everything there is to know about the wonderful gaiwan. The next time you go and purchase one, reflect on your preferences and browse to find the perfect gaiwan just for you.
If you’re still having trouble deciding, a safe recommendation is to choose a 160ml gaiwan made of porcelain/china. Your tea leaves are guaranteed to have the space needed to reach their potential, the material will allow you to be able to see the color of the liquor throughout your steeps, as well as let you brew a variety of different teas throughout its lifetime.
Which gaiwan is perfect for you?
Gaiwans To Try
A gaiwan made of Yixing clay, named after a city located in Jiangsu Province where a specific compound of iron ore gives the unique coloration of this teaware. Best for one type of tea, so as not to corrupt the developing flavours in the clay.
Ru Kiln porcelain comes from Lunru county in China’s Henan province. It is known to have slight cracks created by an oxidation of iron in the glaze. The cracks will become more apparent after every steep, creating a unique and ever changing gaiwan.
A hand-decorated white and blue gaiwan made of porcelain, perfect for an elegant tea ceremony.