Once you start looking up how to use one, however, you find this simple bit of teaware isn’t simple at all. It’s part of the long and elaborate Chinese tea ceremony, which is probably way more effort than you want to put in when all you want is a tasty cup of tea!
If using a gaiwan seems rather daunting, you’re not alone. Many people find a gaiwan to be intimidating, and never give it a try. However, a gaiwan can allow you to experience loose-leaf teas in a completely new way, and its benefits are more than worth a little trial and error.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go through an involved ceremony every time you want to steep with your gaiwan. Just follow these few simple steps, and you can begin enjoying your loose-leaf tea as you never have before.
What is a Gaiwan?
A gaiwan is an essential piece of Chinese teaware. It is made up of three pieces – a bowl, a lid and a saucer. Gaiwans are designed to be versatile, and can be used both as a teapot to steep tea and a cup to drink from, depending on the occasion and preference.
Unlike a teapot, a gaiwan is used to make several small steeps rather than one large one. This allows each steep to bring out the complexities of the tea leaves, creating a new experience in every cup. It also takes up very little room and is easy to clean, making it convenient as well as creative.
Choosing Your Teaware
Before you can brew your tea, you’ll need a gaiwan! There are so many different varieties, it might seem impossible to know what to look for, but don’t stress. Once you know the basics, choosing your first gaiwan is quite easy.
Gaiwans are designed for making several short, quick steeps, so they’re small by design. The average gaiwan holds between 3-4 ounces (usually 100ml). You can get larger ones, but it’s better to start small until you know your steeping preferences.
Unlike teapots, a gaiwan will lose heat more quickly, so it’s important to choose one with the right shape. A shorter, wider gaiwan will hold the heat longer than one that is tall. A good way to judge is to hold the lid upright next to the bowl – the bowl should only be 2/3 as high as the lid is wide.
The rim of the bowl should also be thin, since you’ll pick up the bowl from the rim and could burn your fingers if it’s too thick.
The best material for a gaiwan is porcelain. It holds heat well and is easy to clean. White is a great color to start with, since it lets you examine the color of each brew clearly. You can choose any outer decoration that suits you, but it’s best to keep the inside of the bowl unadorned.
You may also see gaiwans made with yixing clay, a special type of clay that absorbs the flavor of the tea with each steep and enhances the flavor. These are great if you plan on steeping just one type of tea, but aren’t so good for variety. It’s probably best to save this type until you have more experience.
Glass gaiwans are pretty, but they lose heat faster than any other type. Use this one only when you want to make a spectacle of the steeping – otherwise, porcelain is a better choice.
You will need a teapot or kettle handy for heating the water. Since you won’t be steeping directly in it, any type will do. A smart kettle that controls the temperature can be very useful if you have access to one.
Some people enjoy drinking straight from the gaiwan, but this may not be for everyone, especially while you’re learning. You’ll probably want to have some cups handy to pour the tea into.
If you’re steeping for more than one, you may also consider a companion to the gaiwan called a fairness pitcher. These open pitchers look pretty similar to the creamer found in English tea sets; you can pour the tea from the gaiwan into the pitcher, then use the pitcher to pour into cups. The fairness pitcher may also include a strainer to catch escaping leaves.
Some gaiwan sets also come with a wooden tray designed to catch spills. If you find a set you like that has one, all the better, but for beginners, this tray isn’t essential.
Now you have your gaiwan, and you’re ready to get started. Naturally, you’ll want to have a loose-leaf tea handy for steeping. Oolong and pu-erh are the most traditional choices, so they make a good starting point for you to practice. If you prefer green teas, gunpowder tea is very forgiving and will allow you to explore its subtler aspects in a gaiwan.
Be sure to give your gaiwan a proper wash with soap and warm water when you first bring it home. Afterward, you’ll only need to wash it every few uses. The porcelain material is very slick and easy to clean, so only a rinse is necessary.
Set down a towel on the table where you’ll practice (there are sure to be some spills as you learn). Arrange your teaware and begin heating the water. Each type of tea will have its own ideal brewing temperature, but somewhere between 180°-200°F is generally a good place to be.
Steeping Your Tea
The Chinese brewing process is called “gongfu”. (No, not kungfu – although such mistranslations are common. Feel free to chuckle when you see it.) Some use a yixing clay teapot, but most are done with a gaiwan. We’ll just cover the general steps – feel free to look up specific guidelines for whatever type of tea you’re dealing with.
Step 1 – Warm the Gaiwan
Before you measure out your tea leaves, take some hot water and fill up your gaiwan. You should also do this with your cups and fairness pitcher, if you’re using them. Let the water sit for a little while and warm the teaware.
This short step may seem indulgent, but it actually allows the porcelain to warm up, and will prevent your tea from cooling too quickly. It also cleans the teaware at the same time. Pour this water out once your gaiwan is warmed.
Step 2 – Measure the Leaves
How much tea you use will depend on the type you’re using, the size of your gaiwan and the flavor you prefer. To start with, try using enough leaves to fill up ¼ of the gaiwan bowl.
As you fill it, give the bowl a little tap or shake. This will help to settle the leaves and make sure you are actually using enough.
Step 3 – Pour the Water
Using your kettle, pour the water into the gaiwan. You can help to stimulate the leaves by pouring in a circular motion; pouring from higher up will also work.
You’ll sometimes see people fill the gaiwan almost up to the edge. However, while you’re just getting started, it’s better to keep the water at or below the level where the rim starts to curve outward. This will reduce the chances of spilling or burning yourself.
Use the lid to pop any bubbles you see on the surface, then cover the tea. I recommend putting it at a slight angle – otherwise, the water may form a seal and make it more difficult to remove.
Step 4 – Wake the Tea
For the first steep, you’ll only steep for about 10-12 second. That’s because this steep isn’t for drinking, but for rinsing. This serves to “wake” or “activate” the leaves, causing them to start releasing their oils so that the flavor becomes stronger and more complex in later steeps. This also helps to rinse any dirt or other undesirables from the leaves, and warms up the gaiwan again.
Pour the first steep into the pitcher or cups, then dispose of this steep. (I’ll cover how to pour from the gaiwan in another step.)
Step 5 – Steep the Tea
Repeat step 3 to pour the water, this time using the wakened leaves. Since gaiwans are small vessels and you aren’t using much tea, you won’t need to steep as long as you would using Western methods.
I generally use start around 30 seconds and increase by a few more seconds with each subsequent steep. This will vary with different types of tea, so feel free to experiment here and find what you like best.
Step 6 – Pour the Tea
First, place the lid at an angle. It should be angled just enough that the tea can escape, but the leaves won’t.
Pick up the gaiwan by holding the rim of the bowl with your thumb and middle finger. Your index finger should be placed on the button of the lid to keep it held in place. DO NOT touch the base of the bowl, or you will burn yourself!
Some guides will suggest that you pick up the gaiwan with the saucer by placing your thumb on the lid button and shuffling your fingers under the saucer. While you can use this method if you prefer, I’ve found it to be more difficult and more likely to cause a spill.
Pour the tea through the gap of the tilted lid into the fairness pitcher, or directly into the cups. If pouring into more than one cup, alternate between them rather than pouring into one at a time. This will keep the cups from having different tastes and strengths.
Step 7a – Drink the Tea
While Westerners drink their tea in gulps, Eastern practice recommends that you sip the tea, taking in air along with tea. This is thought to affect the taste and alter your experience. We’ll cover more about Eastern sipping methods in another article, but for now, give the sipping method a try and see what you think of it.
Step 7b – Drinking from the Gaiwan
If you want to drink straight from the gaiwan, you don’t just want to remove the lid and slurp – you’ll end up with a mouthful of tea leaves that way.
Pick up your gaiwan by lifting the whole cup by the saucer, which will serve as a handle. With your other hand, hold the lid by the button, pressing it against the bowl to keep it steady. Hold the lid at an angle, just as you would while pouring.
Put the gaiwan to your lips where the gap between bowl and lid is. Sip gently rather than slurp, as this will help to prevent burning your tongue. When you’ve finished the tea, return the cup gently to the table.
Step 8 – Repeat
Continue steps 5-7 for several more steeps. As you do, take note of how the taste changes. The amount of steeps you can get from a tea will vary, with some teas still offering a strong flavor even beyond ten different steeps. Steep and enjoy as many times as you like!
As I said earlier, cleaning up your gaiwan is a simple matter. Unless you used the gaiwan as a cup, you shouldn’t even need to use dish soap – a thorough rinse should do just fine. If you do use soap, wash it with a soft sponge or cloth, rather than something abrasive. To preserve the gaiwan, it’s better to wash by hand than to use a dishwasher.
And that’s it, everything you need to know about getting started with a gaiwan. Wait, you might say, that doesn’t sound simple at all!
It’s true that it may sound complicated, but in practice, the whole process can easily be done in about five minutes (excluding the extra steeps, of course). Once you try it, you’ll be astonished by how simple it actually is to pick up.
Have you tried using a gaiwan? What was your experience? Tell us about it in the comments below!