Tasting My Way Through Teaware

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This past weekend, I attended my coworker Casey’s workshop on teaware. Casey is a fount of knowledge about the science and history behind tea, partly thanks to a book she loves, The True History of Tea. Casey has worked at Stone Leaf for about three years and leads most of the workshops we hold. On this particular morning she took us first to ancient China, where farmers cultivated the first tea plants millennia ago.

If you’ve been to the teahouse, you’ve probably had your tea served to you in a gaiwan, which looks like this:

Gaiwan translates literally to “lidded bowl” and is mentioned in the very first writings on tea ceremony, The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu, written around the 8th century CE. People used to drink tea right out of this bowl, much like one would out of a matcha bowl today. The pitcher, filter, and cup, which complete the gongfu style of tea drinking, is shown below. “Gongfu cha” translates to “making tea with skill.”

As tea-makers developed more elaborate vessels for serving tea, certain styles of teapot became associated with different cultures. The yixing, for example, is a clay teapot in which oolongs are typically served. The yokodenokyusu (Japanese for “side-handled teapot”)  is used to steep Japanese green teas.

a clay yixing

yokodenokyusu

We used glass and porcelain gaiwans, yixings, and yokodenokyusu to brew several different types of teas and discover how the teaware affected the taste. I was intrigued to discover that when brewing black, green, and oolong tea, the glass gaiwan tended to produce the cleanest taste–the lighter and more delicate flavors in the tea were abundant–whereas the porous clay yixing often muted those notes. The ceramic gaiwans and yokodenokyusu provided the most balanced cup, hinting at the brightness present in the teas while encompassing the depth of the flavors. Some people extended the teaware experiment to cups as well, contrasting the effect of porcelain versus clay cups on the taste of their tea. 

So, is the answer to brew all your teas in a glass gaiwan? Not necessarily. You can use teaware as a tool, the same way you use water temperature and steep time, to fine-tune the taste of your tea. If you prefer to experience the sweet honey notes in Jing Shan Hong Cha, you may prefer a glass gaiwan, but if you crave it for the darker cacao and fig notes it contains, a clay yixing might be better. If you like a balanced cup, a ceramic kyusu could be your vessel of choice.

If you want to learn more, peruse one of our many books on tea next time you’re in, or order a pot of tea and see for yourself!

Have you had different experiences brewing with a variety of teaware? Let us know in the comments section below.

Happy brewing!

2 thoughts on “Tasting My Way Through Teaware

  1. Teaware definitely affects taste. I initially tried various oolongs in yixing teapots and it just doesn’t do it for me. I prefer mine in a gaiwan, either drinking directly from the cup or by decanting. High quality, large-leaf ones like Ali Shan or Nai Xiang tend to frequent the gaiwan or cup because they require lots of room to expand, and it’s easier to watch them do so and sniff them along the way. They also stay in the bottom of the cup rather than slipping out with the water. Plus, they can get brewed up to ten times, which is easy with a thermos full of 190F water nearby to keep them at exactly the right temp (and to keep the tea coming!). Teas with broken leaves get decanted and the smaller the pieces, the more likely I use a strainer, too. I’ve also tried shu puerh in the yixing and it does ok, but I prefer it in a large gaiwan where it has lots of room. Large, twisted, roasted leaves of a dark oolong such as Da Hong Pao or Shui Xien are best in a wide, shallow pot full of water, kept over a tea light candle until the tea is finished. They don’t resteep very well (maybe up to three times). To be honest, I find sensitive green teas (gunpowder, mao zhen) and rich black teas (such as bi luo chun hong) to brew best in the yixings. I have one yixing for each type – another important factor if you don’t want flavours overlapping. The glass teapot gets herbals, which don’t stain as much and look beautiful as a long stem snipped from the garden or window box… or the tiny dancing green leaves an ji bai. of And finally, tea pots with strainers or the little baskets… those are reserved for the more robust, often blended teas like Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey, Assam, Niligiri, and English Breakfast. In the end, it’s whatever the drinker likes best. I could go for a good cuppa right about now…

  2. One last one I forgot to mention – jasmine green tea. For whatever reason, this one eludes me. The only way I can get it perfect every time is to use a preheated iron teapot and 190F water. I’ve heard that iron pots impart a slight iron flavour to the tea and hold heat evenly and consistently, so perhaps that’s why it works well for me. Water can affect tea flavour so perhaps the vessel modifies the water and vice-versa. That adds a whole new dimension, don’t you think? 😀

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