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蓋 (gài) means “lid” or “cover”.
The lid of a gaiwan is used to
contain heat and strain the leaves.

碗 (wan) means “bowl”. The bowl
holds the tea leaves as they brew,
allowing for full leaf expansion.

The most recent addition to the
modern gaiwan, the saucer makes
the hot bowl easier to handle.

What Is A Gaiwan?

Literally translated from Chinese, gaiwan means “lidded bowl”. In truth, this is exactly what it is. The most basic gaiwans are a simple bowl with a lid. Most gaiwans on the modern market also include a saucer or plate. This three-part form developed during the Ming Dynasty. At the time. powdered leaves were going out of style. Instead, Chinese tea drinkers began brewing whole leaves.

A gaiwan is a graceful alternative to a teapot. The bowl holds tea leaves and hot water. The lid, casually tipped, forms an adjustable “spout”. The plate is used instead of a handle, helping to avoid burning fingers on the hot bowl while pouring.

the lid of the gaiwan acts as a strainer

Traditionally, the lid strained the leaves as the tea drinker sipped from the bowl. In fact, gaiwans are still used this way in many parts of China. But gaiwans are now used more often to brew tea in gong fu style. They've gained favor among connoisseurs for the incredible amount of control they allow. We use gaiwans on a daily basis in our shop to check leaf quality. They are flavor neutral and offer a great view of the tea leaves during the brewing process.

Advantages of Using Gaiwans

Gaiwans are a versatile brewing vessel. They are perfect for tea drinkers interested in tasting a wide variety of teas. Using the lid as a strainer allows for complete control over the size of the opening and the speed of the pour. Also, the wide bowl allows leaves plenty of room for expansion. For all these reasons, gaiwans can be used to brew any type of Camellia sinensis leaves.

steeping leaves unfurl fully in a gaiwan

They are also the best vessel to use when testing the quality of tea leaves. The wide mouth of the brewing bowl offers a clear view of the steeping leaves. This allows for on-the-spot adjustments in the brewing technique. It is much easier to learn about a new tea in a white gaiwan than in a dark teapot with a small opening.

Finally, gaiwans are usually made of glazed porcelain, and are thus flavor neutral. We always recommend tasting a new tea in a gaiwan to get a true measure of it’s flavor and quality. Only then do we recommend brewing it in an unglazed yixing pot.

gaiwans work well for testing leaf quality

How To Use A Gaiwan

The traditional method of using a gaiwan can be tricky for beginners. The middle finger and thumb hold the flared edge of the bowl, and the index finger steadies the lid. But depending on the thickness of the lip, the edge can be hot!

Instead, you can also spread your fingers against the bottom of the saucer, and place the thumb on the lid. This avoids touching the hot bowl at all, and can be an easier modification.

But our favorite method is one that is rather uncommon. For the greatest stability, we recommend using two hands. Place your fingers under the plate on either side, and your thumbs at the top of the lid’s knob. Tilt the lid to form an opening, and rotate the gaiwan toward your body to pour. For a crystal clear brew, tea can be poured through a fine mesh strainer. Placed in the top of the server or drinking cup, the strainer will catch any small leaf bits that may escape.

how to hold and pour a gaiwan without burning your fingers

It can be tempting to start practicing with a cheap, mass produced gaiwan. A quality piece of teaware can feel like a commitment. But in mass production, sacrifices in functional details are often made.

Look for a deep, defined seat in the plate where the foot of the bowl will not rattle or slip around. Test the movement of the lid, as well. A gaiwan lid should sit naturally off-kilter to create a small opening on one side. It should not slip when pressure is applied on the knob. Finally, the flared edge of the bowl should be quite thin. This will disperse heat and create a precise pour without dribbling. Shortcuts in these details mean cheap gaiwans are often harder to hold and easier to break.

Gaiwans to Try

  • This basic white gaiwan is one we use daily for tastings in the shop. Quality craftsmanship makes this peice stable in the hand and easy to use, while the perfectly white background is great for checking leaf quality.

    Jingdezhen Gaiwan, Spring
    Quick shop

    One of two paper porcelain gaiwans we commissioned from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province. Hand-crafted of thin high-fired porcelain.

    A sibling to the wider bodied Summer gaiwan, the Spring version is tall, with slightly more angular lines. The silhouette is very traditional, with a very gradual outward...

  • Crafted to the same standards of quality as our white workhorse gaiwan, the crimson color of this gaiwan is good luck in Chinese culture, and popular for wedding tea ceremonies.

    Jingdezhen Gaiwan, Crimson
    Quick shop

    A beautiful, festive gaiwan, newly commissioned for 2016. Functional details are modeled on our popular white gaiwans, with a set-in center to the saucer and a well fitted lid to avoid slipping in the hand. A matte black finish on the base of the plate...

  • While paper-thin porcelain gaiwans are best for lighter teas that like lower temperatures, the thick walls of this handmade gaiwan retain more heat, and make it perfect for brewing dark teas.

    Celadon Gaiwan
    Quick shop

    Celadon Gaiwan


    A striking gaiwan from Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia, with a decidedly modern aesthetic. The bottom dish has an inset seat for the foot of the bowl to ensure a stable base. Hand-crafted in white stoneware, then glazed in luscious pale blue celadon.

    Combined with...