Though the first gaiwans were developed in the Ming Dynasty, around the same time as the first teapots, the “lidded bowl” never caught on worldwide with the same fervor. Today, the close association between gaiwans and Chinese teas gives them an exotic reputation that can be intimidating for new brewers, but they’re actually a highly practical tool for both everyday brewing and serious tasting. We use gaiwans on a daily basis for tastings in our shop, and recommend them often for newcomers to gong fu cha. Here are five reasons why we love them, and think you will too!
Among traditional Chinese teaware options, Yixing teapots often get the most attention. The delicate details, rich colors, and rustic unglazed textures in a familiar teapot form make these little pots irresistible to many. But the unglazed surface that sets Yixing pots apart also takes on the flavor of teas that are brewed in it, “seasoning” the pot slowly over time. This requires that the pot be dedicated to one style of tea, so that seasoning enhances flavor, rather than muddying it.
In contrast, gaiwans can be used to brew any and all styles of tea. Since they are typically made from glazed ceramic, the surface is glass-like, and doesn’t absorb any flavor while brewing. Want to sip some hearty pu-erh today and a delicate green tomorrow? Go for it, and rest assured that you won’t get any residual pu-erh earthiness messing with that crisp green flavor. For those investigating Chinese teas, a gaiwan makes it easy to taste a variety of different styles without investing in an extensive collection of traditional teaware.
The wide opening at the top of the gaiwan makes it easy to observe the tea leaves as they brew, another advantage for any tea drinker tasting new teas. Watching the leaves open and unfurl is our favorite way to gauge the strength of the current brew. The clear view also makes it easy for us to adjust steeping times and get the best flavor out of any tea, a clear advantage over the narrow, dark openings of most teapots.
In addition, most gaiwans are glazed white on the inside, which allows us to see not only the leaves, but the developing color of the brew. Does it get very dark very quickly? Are the leaves chopped or broken? Though these observations don’t always relate to the strength of flavor, they help us understand the tea and grade its quality, relative to similar styles. When tasting any tea for the first time, we like to use a glazed gaiwan for a neutral brew and a clear look at the leaves.
Gaiwans are often favored by connoisseurs for brewing delicate or “tricky” teas because they offer tons of control over every aspect of the brewing process. In addition to increased visibility, the wide opening allows heat to dissipate when brewing lighter styles, or can be covered with the lid to retain heat for dark teas.
Most importantly, using the lid to strain the leaves allows for ultimate control over the speed of the pour. Unlike teapots, where the flow of the pour is often restricted by the narrow opening of the spout, gaiwans can fully decant a brew in as little as 5 seconds. This avoids any continued steeping while the water is pouring, and ensures the brew stops right when you want it to.
Though gaiwans come in many different forms, the basic design is elegantly simple. A bowl holds tea leaves as they steep, covered by a lid. Usually, a saucer or plate is included, which can be used to help handle the bowl when it is hot. Some common design details are practical as well as graceful, like the typical thin, flared lip of the bowl, which helps create a smooth and drip-free pour.
The motion of using a gaiwan also has an aesthetic effect, which is another reason they’re commonly used in tea demonstrations. Without a handle or spout, a gaiwan is actually more balanced in the hand than a teapot. With a little practice, a fluid and natural pour is easy to achieve and sure to impress guests.
5. Ease of Use
Though they look complex, gaiwans are actually quite simple to use. The wide opening is again an advantage when it comes to loading large leaves, and when cleaning out the leaves after brewing. Using the lid as a strainer allows you to adjust the size of the opening to strain even small tea leaves, though some gaiwan users also employ a small strainer on top of the server (or cup) they’re pouring into to catch any bits that slip through.
One of the most intimidating aspects of using a gaiwan for the first time is figuring out how to hold it as you pour, but there’s actually several ways to achieve this without burning your fingers. While most demonstrators use only one hand to hold the gaiwan, our favorite method uses both hands for a secure hold while pouring. Simply slip your fingers under the plate, place your thumbs on the knob of the lid, and tilt the gaiwan towards yourself to pour.
Despite their unfamiliar shape, gaiwans can make brewing easier in a lot of ways. Do you use a gaiwan for your daily brew? Let us know in the comments below!
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