Taylor Cowan • February 01, 2021
Brewing Guide: Introduction to Gaiwans
Long Live the Gaiwan
It is at once for beginners and not for beginners. Every tea drinker should have one. Maybe it’s an alluring rite of passage that we so eagerly seek it as tea people. It is the quintessential vessel of “the artless art.” Compared to collectors’ tea bowls and unglazed clay teapots, the gaiwan is a pedestrian and everyman implement. It relies neither on rarefied clays, nor a venerable kiln—it is, simply and strikingly, itself.
When the Ming Dynasty doffed the chawan (tea bowl) of its forebearers, “paper” thin porcelain cups became mode for tea drinking. Too scalding to hold conventionally, these lithe saucers were meant to be lifted by their cool rim—as so with the gaiwan. Translating literally to “lidded bowl” the gaiwan was originally purposed as a drinking vessel, the lid being used merely to keep leaves out of your mouth. J. Blofeld says in The Chinese Art of Tea, “They should be thin as an eggshell, have a whiteness of resplendent purity, respond to a light blow with a bell-like note and shine like a mirror.”
The sublime neutrality of porcelain, a perfect blank canvas of color and material, makes it universally commendable in a field of “dedicated-to-one-style” unseasoned and unfinished tea pots. One can lift the lid and whiff the steeping tea in real time. You can stir. You can dip the stark white lid as a contrast to the luminous liquor inside. A gaiwan encourages you to make tea with your senses—with your whole awareness. Observe the dance of steam vapors carefully. See the leaves—almost imperceptibly slowly—begin to unfurl. Watch the color deepen. Lift the lid to just below your chin and let the volatiles evaporate to your nose. Breathe slowly—the gentler and deeper you inhale, the more rhythmic and deliberate your breath, the more of its character you’ll ascertain. So much of tea has nothing to do with taste.
This Gaiwan, made from silicate porcelain, conducts heat with commendable balance throughout the vessel. What gaiwans perform better at than virtually every other vessel is heat dissipation. The magnificent temperature drop that occurs while brewing with “the lidded bowl” is one of the many self-balancing elements of the vessel. Volatiles need time to stew, for proper extraction. Tannins should not be overcooked by too much leaf or time in a scalding vessel—they should be extracted in balance to give structure, flavor consistency and delicacy to a cup of tea. For the uninitiated, a gaiwan is a great first step toward a better tea practice.
Other than, arguably, the base saucer, there is no redundant aspect of the gaiwan. It is steeped tea* reduced to its most elemental: a bowl for water and leaves to sit in and a lid to strain them with. In some great versions of a gaiwan, the lid comfortably wedges itself in a nook been the bowl and the base, resting alongside the mouth of the bowl like a sepal to a petal.
*For intents and purposes, referring to the “age of steeped tea” that began after the fall of the Song Dynasty. One could argue that the chawan (tea bowl) is, in essence, simpler.
Gaiwan versus Standard Brewer
There is an endless internet trove on gongfu. For these purposes, we will not be talking about gongfu—a style of ritual with a rich, cultural history and myriad of vessels and contexts to be enjoyed in. Here, we’re simply talking about the gaiwan and making tea in it.
Our Standard Brewer, true to its French Press and English Teapot forebearers, puts tea leaves into a large amount of water for a long amount of time. During the infusion, the double-walled borosilicate glass traps and retains heat like a convection oven—allowing for an intense baking-esque concentration of heat and consistent temperature retention. The gaiwan puts tea leaves (perhaps even the same amount) into a small amount of water for a short infusion and, with successive infusions, allows a user to appreciate the gradual unveiling of a tea’s character, steep by steep. Unlike the Standard Brewer, the paper-thin porcelain bleeds heat rapidly allowing for a gentler landing. It is not advisable to lose track of a Standard Brewer’s steeping time! Whereas, depending on your dose, the gaiwan is quite forgiving.
We call this a "heroic dose" of leaves, which then drastically reduces steeping time. Depends on how dodey you wanna get, tbh.
Like, much of teaism, the gaiwan is emblematic of the “triumph of the meek.” Even if you’re steeping-for-one with your gaiwan, the amount of tea produced by a single infusion may seem small by our American standards. A gaiwan is the natural enemy of the verbs (and respective culture that condones them): chug, guzzle, crush, gulp, pound—the ugliness of these sounds, the imbecilic violence! The gaiwan, by the very merit of its humble size, calls on you to sip and to savor each sip. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you are ruminating about the past or worrying about the future you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea. Life is like that.”
I hope this helps elucidate the difference in occasion between something like the Standard Brewer and the Gaiwan. Though the Standard generates a more contemporary serving (12oz) of liquid to be enjoyed while doomscrolling on your couch, the gaiwan calls you to the attention of the tea. As I’ve said before about some of our limited black teas, sometimes the Standard Brewer is actually better suited. And this is not to say that you can’t make tea in a Standard Brewer with rigor or awareness. They are different vessels, with different causes. Though no metaphor is really adequate, I sometimes explain the gaiwan as using a photographic macro-lens for incredible and vivid details of a tea, appreciated one capture (steep) at a time; Standard Brewers, represent more of a single panoramic photograph. It can be difficult to point out the particular beauty of a finch perched upon a shagbark on a distant hill—likewise, the radiant iridescence of its red head feathers belies the miraculous scope of its awesome environment.
What Teas Are Best for a Gaiwan
A gaiwan finds its easiest associative contexts in green, white, oolong and post-fermented tea styles. That said, it’s such a dependable and versatile vessel that it can be used for just about everything*. Apologies for the non-answer but I hope you’ll agree. While it commends itself to delicate flavor profiles: the vaporous, floral and misty spectrum of East Chinese teas—it finds itself just at home decocting Phoenix Dancongs, where delicate is perhaps not the first term that springs to mind.
A gaiwan is a similar function to cooking. Small adjustments (e.g. time, agitation) based on observation (color, aroma) can be made in real time as the tea leaves are decocting. Like cooking, if you are present for the experience, you should find it easier to obtain a good result. I also hope that, like good cooking, it brings you peace and the satisfaction that only keen awareness provides, especially in the age of distraction. Lastly, with appropriately small enough cups for company, the gaiwan is lovely for sharing the experience of tea with friends, steep by steep.
It’s a great way to enhance your familiarity with the teas in your collection (and with the steeping methodology of tea in general) in a way that workaday infusion with a timer just doesn’t facilitate. If there is a tea you’d like to get more acquainted with, to see a test of its mettle and hone in on its personality (while not permanently committing a teapot to it) the gaiwan is just the vessel for that. “The art of tea is artless in that it is practiced with the maximum of informality and freedom from restriction. There are no rules to be observed other than those pertaining to making fine tea in such a manner that its flavor and aroma are at their best.” This simple and elusive invitation from Blofeld points to the endless journey of discovery awaiting the avid tea drinker. There is technique to gaiwan usage, but how “correct” technique manifests is, by many accounts, the domain of the user and subject to the quality of tea infused. Experience, trial and error are far better teachers than a blog post.
*Most Japanese Greens, Herbals, CTC and Powder grades are not suitable for a gaiwan.
How to Use a Gaiwan
Put an ounce or two of hot water into the bowl and let sit. This prewarms the gaiwan. After a few seconds (or when you can feel the warmth of the bowl on the outside) discard this water (read: give it to your tea pet). For efficiency sake, you can discard the water into the vessel you will be emptying your gaiwan infusion into.
Place your tea leaves in the warmed bowl. For starters (in our gaiwan size), try 3-5g. There are many correct answers, depending on the length of your infusion. For flat leaf, twisted and bulkier styles, the rule of thumb is to fill the bowl 2/3rds. For denser, rolled, pearled and coiled teas start with 1/3rd or less. If you’re not sure what you have, weight is a good reference point. The more leaf you use, the less time each infusion will require.
Take in the aroma of the leaves in the warm bowl.
When you’re ready, fill the gaiwan. The lid should be able to comfortably sit without excess water flooding above.
Feel free to stir the tea and/or remove the lid to take the aroma.
As the moment approaches to decant, peel the lid back just enough for water to slip through, but not the leaves (some leaves will get through). There are various holds of the gaiwan.*
Decant as slowly as possible. It’s easier as a beginner to decant quickly, but as you gain experience (and aren’t consistently burning yourself) practice emptying slowly. This is probably the most common mistake I see American gaiwan users make: hurling their tea into the pitcher. The tilt should be so gradual that a bit of tea might spill over the side (that’s why there are tea tables). You don’t want to over-agitate the leaves.
Smell the hot, wet leaves.
Please enjoy the tea!
Resteep! Repeat steps 4 through 9 ad infinitum.
*On gaiwan hand positions:
*Some “claw” over the top, gripping the rim on each side and securing the lid with a finger; others lift from the side with a thumb atop and four fingers at the base; still others tell you to lift and cradle with both hands and pour straight ahead. Some remove the bowl and lid from the saucer, others lift all three parts. Do what feels safest for you, knowing that the bowl will be the hottest part (except for its rim).