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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.

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.

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

  • Our Essential Gaiwan Set has everything you need to brew in the traditional gongfu method, including a gaiwan, pitcher, strainer, and four tasting cups, all nestled in a padded carrying case.

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  • This Ru-style gaiwan from our Song Kiln collection is handcrafted in Yingge, Taiwan by master ceramicist, Xu De Jia. With use, the faint web of craquelure in the glaze will darken, making each piece unique.

    Ru Kiln Gaiwan: Series 1
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    Strikingly modern in its aesthetic, this gaiwan is inspired by the Imperial Ru Kilns of China's Song Dynasty. Crafted by nationally acclaimed Taiwanese master ceramicist Xu De Jia, this piece features the artist's signature blue-green glaze on a white clay body. Our Ru Kiln Gaiwan retains heat better...

  • Also crafted by Xu De Jia, our Ru Kiln String Server is a versatile piece of teaware, fuctioning either as a gaiwan or a server depending on your preference.

    Ru Kiln String Server
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    Part of our Song Kiln Collection, this server is inspired by the celadon ware of the Song Dynasty's Imperial Ru Kiln.

    With an elegant glaze and refined shape, this lidded server was crafted by nationally acclaimed Taiwanese master ceramicist Xu De Jia, and features...