Preparing Tea with a Gaiwan

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The Chinese Gaiwan adds new depth to your tea experience.

Bao Zhong Oolong Steeped in a Gaiwan

A few weeks back we highlighted the Japanese Kyusu, its history, and how to use it for brewing Japanese green teas. Among other things, the process of making Japanese green tea, which is steamed, instead of fired to stop oxidation, results in a wide variety of leaf sizes. The Kyusu, therefore, which typically has a screen inside the pot, serves to strain away all but the smallest of leaf particulate.

This week we are focusing on another specialized tea accessory, the Chinese gaiwan. If you love tea exploration then this is certainly a must-have item. Just like the Kyusu, the gaiwan provides another way to experience your tea, and really can make a substantial difference in both the taste and the experience. If you primarily steep your tea in an infuser or single use tea bag, the use of a gaiwan will undoubtedly bring out different flavors to your favorite teas (and perhaps even some of your less favorite too). Subtle teas, in particular, like many white teas, or in my case Bao Zhong seem to magically transform from being quite bland to flavorful and complex experiences.

History of the Gaiwan

Gaiwan with rolled oolong, ready for steeping.

Antique Gaiwan with Balled Oolong – Preheated and Ready to Steep

The gaiwan was created during the Ming Dynasty of China which lasted from 1368 to 1644 CE. During this period of Chinese history, noted for government stability and order, the Forbidden City was constructed and much of the brick and stone work of the Great Wall was laid. While scientific advancement lagged during this period of Chinese history, ceramics and porcelain had a boom, both in overall production and in the designs and colors used. This period marked the construction of a factory in Jingdezhen (southwest of Shanghai) that would ultimately produce almost all of the worlds porcelain for nearly 400 years (Facts and Details).

The gaiwan, literally meaning lidded (gai) bowl (wan) originally consisted of the bowl and lid, evolving over time to include the saucer as well. It was developed at a time when the use of tea leaves, instead of powder, started to become popular after the Yuan Dynasty (History of Tea). Steeping from leaves created the problem of separating leaves from the liquid and as it turns out, the lid of the Gaiwan works quite well to hold back leaves while drinking. It also works quite well to pour off the liquid entirely to another bowl or cup. The size of the cup itself is relatively small, though a perfect size for one person and it allows individual choice of water temperature and strength.

Holding a gaiwan.

One way to hold a gaiwan for pouring off the liquor includes the saucer and thumb on top.

Using a Gaiwan

There are many different ways one might use a gaiwan for steeping tea.  It can change depending on  the type of tea  (green, black, etc) used.  Then on whether one is leaving the leaves in, pouring the liquor off, using boiling water, a combination of cold and boiling water, using cooler water, and more.  All start with a rinse with boiling water that is discarded. This will clean it but more importantly it prevents a rapid drop in temperature of hot water when you begin steeping. After rinsing we prefer one of the following methods:

Steeping Green, White, or Yellow Tea in a Gaiwan

  1. Add 5 grams of loose tea to the gaiwan.
  2. Carefully, and gently, pour in water that has cooled to about 175° Fahrenheit.
  3. Wait 20 to 30 seconds.
  4. Drink directly from the gaiwan using the lid as a filter.
  5. Leave a small amount of liquid in the bottom and refill 2-3 times with slightly hotter water each time.
Alterantive method for holding a gaiwan.

Alternate method for holding a gaiwan without the saucer and your knuckle to hold the lid in place (can be quite hot).

Steeping Black, Dark and Puerh, or Oolong

  1. Add 5 grams of loose tea to the gaiwan.
  2. Smell the aroma of the leaf in the hot bowl.
  3. Add enough boiling water to just cover the tea and discard.
  4. Add boiling water, cover, and wait 20-30 seconds.
  5. Pour off the liquor into a cup or mug.
  6. Refill with boiling water to steep multiple extra times. For black tea this may be 2-3 times, oolong may be 4-6, and puerh may be as many as 15 times depending on the tea.

Finding a gaiwan is relatively easy on-line though driving to a shop to pick one up is going to be tough unless you live near the Chinatown neighborhoods of New York, San Francisco or other major city. Preparing your tea in a gaiwan provides a great way to learn about Chinese history. From a pure enjoyment perspective you will find that the use of a gaiwan will allow greater exploration of your tea from one infusion to the next. For some of your more delicate teas, you may find that it transforms a seemingly bland tea into a complex sensory experience and will become your go-to steeping vessel.

Sources Cited

Facts and Details, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644):  Porcelain, Pirates, and the Yongle Emperor, http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat2/sub2/item35.html

The History of Tea, Chinese Tea, http://www.china.org.cn/learning_chinese/Chinese_tea/2011-07/15/content_22999489.htm

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