Tea Ware and Taste

August 21, 2015

It is a crisp autumn day and the emperor’s cast bronze tripod is filled with sparkling spring water, slowly coming to a boil. The wind picks up and carries the leaves of a forgotten camellia sinensis bush in the corner of the imperial garden. The leaves flutter about before landing in the cauldron, boiling until they infuse the water. The first cup of tea is born and the open-minded emperor Shen Nong is the first human to enjoy the full effects of caffeine as he sips from a bamboo ladle.

 
a simple tea bowl and ladle for Dian Cha ceremony

The cauldron and ladle were for many years the prime implements of tea preparation. The leaf was boiled like any other herb. The brew was bitter and medicinal, usually mixed with goji berries, ginger, and even salt to mask the flavor. As tea evolved, it was the ceremony and the brewing objects that guided people’s’ relationship with tea. In the Song Dynasty the simple boiled leaf concoction was reformed into a ceremony involving a mortar and pestle, and grinding tea into a powder before whisking it in bowls.

Even today, the objects of tea ceremony that were born in the Song Dynasty continue to be used in Japan for Chado. The potency of the finished brew brought about the ritual of eating sweets between the bitter sips of ceremony-grade matcha.

 
a modern chawan and whisk
Water is the mother of tea, and the tea pot is its father...
 

Today there are countless ways to brew tea. Every year, new styles are being invented, and new forms are being explored. Modern tea lovers are free to play with our tea, brewing every way we please and finding the styles that suit us best. If we choose, we can tap into the implements and rituals of every culture and history.  In this way, the tools we use to brew our tea are deep statements about our connection to the past and those that came before us.

The tools we use to brew our tea do not just connect us to the past. Every tea tool has a profound influence on the flavor and aroma of finished tea. Every tea reacts differently to different shapes and materials. The same tea brewed with the same water for the same amount of time will taste dramatically different in glass pitchers, yixing teapots, gaiwans, and brew baskets. With this in mind, it is no surprise that every farmer we work with has their own preferred way to present their tea, honed in through years of tasting. Every region has favored implements for tea ceremony that accentuate different qualities in their teas while building each region’s unique tea culture.

 
  • Li Xiangxi brews her golden Tongmu Reserve Jin Jun Mei in a gaiwan
  • the He Family brews Laoshan Green in a glass pitcher
  • Niu Niu loves using her mother's yixing tea pot!

In general, tea wares and preparation play a huge role in the balance between aroma and flavor: on one end, you can brew teas with huge aroma and light flavor, or you can brew at the opposite extreme for huge flavor and light aroma. The secondary dimension of thickness/body is closely related to the aroma and flavor balance of a tea, as is the nuance of the aftertaste.

There are so many ways to brew tea it can be daunting to try to find the “right” technique. The good news is that in almost every case, any brewing style brings out something interesting and worthwhile in a tea, so they are all worth exploring.

To arm you for your own exploration of the “taste” of tea wares, it is worth looking at what qualities of your brewing implement affect your tea.

 

It’s All About Chemistry

 

On a basic chemical level, the material your teapot or brewing vessel is made out of will always influence the taste and aroma of your tea. Only glass and highly vitrified materials such as De Hua or Jingdezhen porcelain have zero chemical interaction with the liquid they hold.

Why is this so? It all comes down to chemistry.

Water is a solvent, and at high temperatures, the potential for interaction between the water in your tea and the material of your brewing vessel is high. This is why it is important to know how your teapot is fired and glazed.

Lead-based paints and other glazes with heavy metals are not suitable for regular use and will influence the flavor of your tea in a negative way. The minerals in Yixing teapots, however, can actually have a positive effect on the flavor of your tea. Metal tea pots are interesting for their ionic interactions. Silver in particular is known in the tea world to actually purifying water. Copper too is used for antibacterial applications in water treatment. Cast iron, on the other hand, can rust if not  properly cared for and contaminate tea with an unpleasant metallic taste.

Don’t know where to start?

When it comes to choosing a material for your teapot based on chemical interactions, glass and highly vitrified porcelain are the safest bet across the board, with ceramic and yixing pottery being useful for more specific brewing needs.

 

Bring on the Heat (Retention)

 

Heat retention is an important part of brewing tea. The hotter the water, the more rapid the extraction of flavor compounds from a tea leaf. Too much extraction can lead to a bitter flavor, while too little extraction can be too light in flavor. Some flavors seem to come out best at lower temperatures, especially savory notes. Others such as vegetal and spicy notes require higher temperatures. Sometimes a tea needs a long infusion in cool water, while other times you may want to introduce the leaf to hit water for the vegetal notes and encourage rapid cooling for the sweeter and more savory notes.

As a general rule, the longer you brew a tea, the more flavor you get.

However, the more time a tea spends brewing, the less aromatic it will be. This is in part due to the voltaility of aromatic compounds in tea and their tendency to “burn off.” It is also due to the more intense and potent flavor making it difficult for the senses to pick up the more diverse aromatics. Different teas are at their peak at different levels of balance between aromatic and flavorful. Much depends also on personal preference.

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Brewing Tieguanyin in a Jingdezhen porcelain gaiwan

Yixing teapots hold stable temperature very well as they are thicker than many other materials, and the clay composition helps with insulation, especially with iron-rich clays. While yixing needs to be “primed” with hot water before use, the pot will hold temperature long enough for very stable and consistent brewing. This attribute makes yixing perfect for teas that benefit from high temperature, or long steep times. For example, pu’er can be steeped so many times, and interesting late steepings can be had from long two minutes infusions. Yixing can hold water hot enough to allow for an effective infusion this long. Black teas may not require boiling water – in fact some black teas benefit from 175 or 185 degrees – but black teas do shine best with consistent temperature for a longer ten second brew.

He Qing Qing brews her favorite tea - Laoshan Black - in a dedicated yixing tea pot

Glass brewing vessels cool extremely quickly. The thin walls mean that even boiling water comes down to lower temperatures in a matter of seconds. More delicate green teas love this temperature variability. The high to low temperature brewing arc extracts both sweet and vegetal notes from the tea without over-steeping.

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Porcelain vessels are a balance between the retention qualities of yixing and the cooling qualities of glass. Porcelain holds temperature reasonably well and it can be warmed before brewing to ensure consistent temperatures. It can also be used without warming or even without a lid for more glass-style brewing. Oolongs, white teas and scented teas benefit from this middle-ground heat retention.

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Metal and cast iron teapots tend to hold too much heat for too long and over-steep many teas. These pots are suitable for brewing large pots instead of gongfu-style small cups.

Ceramic & porcelain tea pots and brew vessels have similar heat retention to yixing, and are suitable for any tea that you are looking to brew at a stable and consistent temperature.

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Getting into Shape

 

Tea leaves need space to expand, and water needs space to extract flavor from every angle of a leaf. If tea leaves are too compact during steeping much of their potency is lost. Some leaves will over-steep while others will have given very little to the infusion. In almost any case, the ideal is consistent extraction.

The more surface area of a leaf that is exposed to water, the more quickly and evenly it can infuse.

This might make it seem like the bigger a vessel the better in every case. In fact, there is a sweet spot where a vessel is completely full of leaves but not so full as to restrict infusion. A vessel with too few leaves is not going to get even infusion throughout the pot. If you brew in glass, you can see this principle at work with the darker stronger infusion concentrated the most right around the leaves or brew basket.

The least effective way to brew tea in terms of even extraction is in a bag, which highly restricts water flow and the ability of the leaves to expand and spread out. Taller, more vertical teapots and brewing systems can run into issues too, especially with large leaf, expanding teas such as Tieguanyin.

The bowl shape, or any circular design that lets the leaves expand uninhibited by brew baskets and strainers is often best for extraction. Teas with very small leaves tend to do better in a gaiwan or even a test tube steeper because – when pouring with a teapot – the leaves all bunch at the spout instead of keeping even distribution. This can affect the later steepings and yield uneven brews. A gaiwan’s shape and functionality allows the leaves to stay spread out throughout each infusion.

 
Li Xiangxi brews her Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong

Pouring Speed

 

Considering the speed of a pour is very important to a final brew. The time it takes to pour a tea will affect the total steep time of the leaves, and the fineness of the pour stream can change the temperature and aromatics of the final brew. A large teapot with a small spout will take much longer to pour than a small teapot. The longer pour can work very well for many black teas, roasted oolongs and shu pu’er. However, teas sensitive to steep time require a greater level of control.

Glass pitchers can be poured almost instantly, allowing for perfect and minute control over steep time. Gaiwans are similarly functional for controlling time. The quick fast pour will yield more precise tea, but a long thin pour from a larger yixing pot or porcelain pot can waft much of the aroma throughout the room, which makes the tea even more appealing at first sip. If you can learn to account for the pour in overall steep time, the long pour can be overcome and even used to enhance the brewing experience.

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Put a Lid On It?

 

Brewing tea with or without a lid has a dramatic effect on the final flavor. So much so that our farmer partner Li Xiaoping in Dragonwell has appealed on video to her fans to brew however you want in whatever you want as long as you don’t cover her Dragonwell during brewing.

The most dramatic influence of covering a tea vs leaving it uncovered is the difference it makes in heat retention.

An uncovered tea brewed in glass vessels cools extremely quickly, a critical piece of brewing the perfect green tea. Most teas however so not perform as well as green tea does uncovered. This is because most teas require a consistent and higher temperature for effective brewing.

Brewing Dragonwell in Mrs. Li's living room

The other effect of leaving a tea uncovered is oxidization. The more surface area a tea has exposed to air, the faster it interacts with the air and oxidizes, just like a fresh cut apple turns brown. One of the major benefits of gongfu-style brewing is that you drink small cups of tea very quickly instead of leaving a mug out for hours to change its flavor. Greener teas left out too long start to taste almost metallic and lose all of their aroma.

Even when brewing green teas in glass, it is often best to leave a bit of water at the bottom of the vessel to protect the leaves from direct exposure. Other teas brewed covered are fine between steepings as long as they are left covered. Yixing teapots do a particularly great job of sealing a tea away from the elements between steepings.

 

Porousness

 

The more porous a material, the more likely it is to absorb tea during brewing. The pores of an yixing teapot will absorb tea oils and aromatics for months before they are considered ‘seasoned’ and actually start giving back dimension and body to their teas. Any tea brewed in a porous vessel loses aroma. Much of the aroma is in tea oil which clings to the pores instead of mixing with the brew. The difference with yixing is that the absorption of aroma and flavor is controlled and trades high aroma for more body and more aftertaste.

Glass and high quality vitrified porcelain are completely non-porous and absorb nothing at all during brewing. This means that they yield the most aromatic and clean teas.

Lower quality porcelain, metal and ceramic absorb oils and diminish aroma but do little to make up for it in body and aftertaste like yixing.

 

To Strain, or Not to Strain?

 

The strainer has become a critical tool for Western and Chinese tea preparation. Whether brewing in a large pot with a built-in strainer or pouring through a strainer into cups or pitchers the strainer is an invaluable tool to stop you from getting tea leaves in your finished brew. Yet, is the strainer really necessary? We so often use it without thinking when brewing Chinese tea. An yixing teapot has strainer holes built in, and a gaiwan is designed to filter out most of the leaves simply through holding the gaiwan lid correctly.

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Very small leaf tea or even broken leaf tea requires a strainer for sure. The strainer allows the finished tea to separate from the leaves and control brewing. Large leaf teas don’t necessarily need a strainer at all. Very few, if any leaves will end up in your finished brew when using teapots, gaiwans or glass pitchers assuming the leaves are large and whole.

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Why not use a strainer? The finer a strainer the more it catches. The finest strainers actually filter out much of the down material on young spring green teas, Yunnan black teas, white tea and even sheng pu’er. This down, when suspended in the finished cup actually adds an immense amount of body and flavor to the tea. The difference is similar to filtered vs unfiltered olive oil. If at all possible, try brewing your tea without a strainer first. If leaves are still coming through, go ahead and add the strainer back in. It is valuable to try a tea both ways.

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Share and Share Alike: Sharing Pitchers

 

The pitcher is a more modern addition to tea ceremony. Gaiwans used to be sipped from directly while teapots were used to pour directly into small cups for guests. This is still completely acceptable.

However, the pitcher allows you to first combine the first and last drops of an infusion so that every guest gets the same flavor. Otherwise your first cup is very light while the last one is quite strong. Consistency in a single steeping for all guests is often a more useful way to taste tea with friends since everyone can discuss a more similar tasting experience. Using a pitcher is almost always the right choice.

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Through Thick and Thin

 

The cup you sip out of is just as important as the vessel used to brew your tea. Even something as seemingly unimportant in a cup like the material and thickness can have a dramatic effect on the taste experience. Since the cup is the main vehicle used not just for taste but also for smell, it is critical to have a non-porous material. The best options are glass and high quality vitrified De Hua or Jingdezhen porcelain. These materials do not interact with your tea and allow the aromatics to be released for your appreciation with each sip.

The thickness of a cup is also critical. It might seem that a thicker cup is better because of heat retention, but for gongfu tea, the small cup is meant to be consumed very quickly. In fact, the way that we sip out of a thin cup is very different from a thick cup. Thin cups encourage aerating while sipping tea, which allows far more aromatics to be delivered to your nose.  A thick cup encourages drinking without aerating, making it easier to ignore aroma.

Jingdezhen and De Hua porcelain outshines glass in terms of thinness. It is an incredible material that can withstand boiling water, even when thinner than a crystal wine glass. This makes it the most perfect material for any tea drinking.

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In general, it is good to have a variety of cup sizes. The smallest cups are perfect when sharing a gaiwan or teapot with a group of friends while larger cups are a good choice for drinking tea alone. In general, the larger a cup, the less likely we are to register what we are drinking as something precious and worth appreciating. The smaller cups reinforce the idea of scarcity and value, which can lead to more thoughtful and deliberate tasting.

The wider a cup, the more surface area is exposed to air and the faster a tea cools. However, the wide cup also creates a bigger more aromatic taste experience for the nose by directing the steam. Narrow and tall cups keep a more consistent temperature but often need to be tilted back to far to get the last drop, which makes it impossible to sip from these cups while the tea is hot. Without sipping, the aromatics are diminished.

The color of a cup is the backdrop for your tea. White or light neutral colors allow the natural color of the tea to be appreciated most fully. Dark colors can be interesting for show pieces but tend to be less useful for everyday drinking.

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Age Before Beauty

 

Some tea wares have the unique quality of changing over time and becoming more beautiful. Bamboo becomes more lustrous and red. Yixing gains patina and adds complex flavor to tea, and many glaze styles such as Jian Zhan gain beautiful depth over time. These wares may be more porous than porcelain, but they balance this with adding a dynamic and changing element to your tea set up. It is worth acquiring at least one or two pieces that can age over time to mark your own explorations with tea and have a reference object that grows with your own knowledge and experience.

Technical details aside, brewing with objects that you have formed a personal connection with can yield the best tea by far because those objects bring a greater sense of ritual and deliberation to brewing.

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All in the Eye of the Beholder

 

The finest teas in the world are precious and worth approaching with a deliberate and thoughtful tasting. People go to school and train for years to plate dishes at a restaurant in a way that emphasizes the quality of what is being served. Families spend hours polishing the silverware and setting the table for a big family holiday feast. Presentation is a deep and ancient part of the human psyche. There is no escaping the fact that we experience something more positively if it is presented well. Tea is no different. The beauty of the objects used to brew a tea influence the brain’s preconceptions about the taste experience ahead. Even more important if guests are over to communicate to your guests that they are about to taste something different and worthwhile.

The thoughtfulness necessary to appreciate tea to the fullest is reinforced by surrounding the tea with objects of beauty and value. Some of these may be antiques, and family heirlooms. Others may be gifts with sentimental value. Others yet may be hand made pieces that resonate with you personally. Just as tea is hand processed, the bets tea wares are hand-made, from gathering and mixing clays to shaping, painting and firing the final pieces. Over the years, the hand-made pieces will be more meaningful, and indirectly, they will brew better tea.

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Getting Started: Basic Set Up Guide

 

With all these technical considerations, what do you need to be set up for success no matter what tea you are brewing?

Here is our guide to the best foundations for tea making:

 

Two pitchers

Use glass or porcelain. Double pitcher brewing is by far the best way to make green tea. When not brewing green tea, you can choose which pitcher to use for holding finished tea from a gaiwan or teapot. Glass is great for showing off color, while porcelain is great as an accent or contrast to your other equipment.

 

One Gaiwan

The gaiwan is the most versatile tool you can use. It is the one piece to get before any other in setting up your tea cabinet. It is perfectly balanced and suited for any tea you can think of. With such an essential piece, get a hand-painted porcelain gaiwan if at all possible.

 

One Yixing Pot

If you have to pick only one piece to grow and age over time, a high quality yixing pot is the way to go. If cared for, these can become the lustrous and stunning highlight of your collection. A word of warning- don’t get a cheap yixing pot. Cheaper pots are machine molded and made from clay that is often mixed with paint to get the desired color. These have no aging potential and can be dangerous for brewing depending on the chemicals used. Wait to get the one yixing pot of your dreams instead of getting lots of low end pieces. The best clay ages spectacularly and adds so much depth to you tea.

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One Strainer

For small leaf teas and when getting started with a gaiwan, strainers are critical. A metal strainer is simple and utilitarian. A porcelain strainer works well if you are looking for a matching set with a gaiwan and cups, while a woven bamboo strainer is difficult to clog.

 

Four Cups

Even if you usually drink tea alone, it is important to be ready for guests. Tea is all about hospitality and having a set of beautiful cups lets you rotate which one you use based on the tea and the time of day. If you can only have one set of cups, make it De Hua or Jingdezhen porcelain. If you can have a second set, get glass cups for green tea. It looks beautiful in the light.

 

A Travel Set

Make sure you have tea equipment you are comfortable taking on the go. Whether that means your office set-up or your set for camping and travelling, you will want to have a way to bring the beauty of tea into your life even when you are away from home. The travel set can be very simple and utilitarian- either a self contained brewing vessel and cup, or an a la carte selection of basic cups, glass pitchers and a simple gaiwan.

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13 Responses to “Tea Ware and Taste”

  1. I greatly enjoyed the discussion of the elements of brewing. I am often annoyed when reading supposed reviews of teas that make no reference to the quantities of tea/water used (i.e., the ratio of tea to water), the typed of brewing vessel, and the duration of the various steepings. For this reason I’ve been encouraging vendors I buy tea from to use a multiple question type of form for tea reviews. This would have the dual function of informing readers of the actual qualities of the the tea in question and also educating reviewers to think about tea more comprehensively..

    It might be interesting to comment on the Japanese taboo-of-four, something I’m aware of because of my Japanese American wife. It would be a drag for someone to buy one of your nice sets and give it to someone who would react negatively to the “shi” thing. Not a biggie (to me, since I’m not Japanese), but something to think about. It’d be nice to offer single cups to match sets-of-four so that one could avoid violating the taboo. I”m not saying this because I’m looking to buy anything (my teastuff cupboard is crammed) but for the sake of functional diversity in our globalized culture.

    With your mention of aroma cups it’d be great if you’d make them available to your customers, even if it’s just the ubiquitous (probably imitation) 20ml Yixing/porcelain aroma/drinking cup sets. Again, I’m probably not going to buy any since I’ve collected a variety of these things over the years, but as a service to your customers.

    Finally, I’d really like to see unedited videos of tea brewing by your various producers. I say “unedited” because watching the timing is crucial for getting a real sense of what’s going on as the water makes its way from the heating vessel to the cup and/or to the discard vessel.

    That’s it. Thanks for what you’re doing.

    • Lily Duckler

      Thank you so much!

      The taboo of four is also true in China; the word for “four” sounds similar to the word for death. Because of this, just as you say, folks often avoid giving gifts in quantities of four. While we make many of our cups available in singles, a few are available in sets of four. However, we definitely want to be able to give folks the opportunity to be flexible in building your own sets. When we relaunch our tea ware selection a little later on this winter, my goal is to make cups available in a wider variety of quantities.

      As for aroma cups – I would love to make these available! Strangely, these cups have fallen out of fashion in the last few years in mainland China. We are looking forward to sourcing these cups in the future, even if it means we need to commission the cups from an artist in Jingdezhen.

      I agree about videos! I have so much footage that I am working through – everything from our partners brewing tea to full length interviews. One very interesting thing I want to help people keep in mind is this: every one of our partners brews their teas differently. Even within a family, different people will brew differently according to their tastes and goals: for example, Mr. He brews with 10-15g of tea in a 6oz vessel, and will steep anywhere between 5 and 30 seconds, while Qing Qing (his daughter) prefers to use less leaf and keeps her steepings very short. I will keep working on these videos and adding them to our blog and the website as often as possible!

      Thank you again for your excellent comments and support 🙂

  2. Hello!
    Wonderful post. I’ve just found this website today and I must say I’m very impressed.
    In relation to tea ware and taste I have a question.
    I’m very familiar with the Japanese kilns and how different firing methods affect after taste and body, and I’ve used just about every vessel out there… except a yixing.
    I have one now, as of a few days ago, but I am yet to use it. How would you say a yixing tea pot affects after taste and body? I assume that this will vary depending on the different types of clay within the yixing family just like the various kilns in Japan.
    Cheers.

    • Lily Duckler

      Congratulations on your first yixing tea pot! Yixing pots can have a huge effect on your final brew in aroma and aftertaste, body and flavor. However, the way each pot interacts with each tea is unique, both because pots are seasoned by you over time and dedicated to one kind (or general style) of tea, and because there is simply such a huge variety in the world of yixing.

      In general, shape and pour speed with have the greatest effect on your brew. Different clays will have their own unique interactions, but especially for your first pot, those can be difficult to tease apart form all of the other variables. In general, you should think of the pot as an unglazed stoneware. Different clays have different heat retention, different smoothness and, frankly, different looks when they are used. However, there is much disagreement among tea lovers and fanatics about how each clay actually interacts with different teas to produce different flavors. And since these are such gorgeous objects, the aesthetics of the piece may have more influence over what you think of the cup it brews than any minute differences in heat retention.

      No, in my opinion, more of the effective differences come from the form of the pot itself, because this effects how the leaves interact with water as they open up and brew (David touches on this in “Getting into Shape” above), and also effects how quickly the tea can be poured off when you are ready to finishing brewing one steeping. A pot with a narrow spout, few spout holes and a very wide and narrow body will take longer to pour off than a pot with a large spout, with a very large filter where it connects to the pot. Also, a pot with a very small lid simply won’t be able to brew lrge, fluffy teas like Wuyi oolong, if only because the leaves won’t be able to fit into the pot without breaking! This will influence the user to brew a rolled oolong or a small leaf tea in the pot, which in turn decide how the pot will be raised.

      All that said, the main influences come from how you raise the pot, and what you decide to dedicate the pot to brewing. These teas season the pot, and while the porous clay will “steal” from your part for several weeks, it will eventually begin giving back texture and flavor (as long as the clay itself is of some quality).

      At the most basic level, an yixing pot will yield hotter brews that are less aromatic with bigger texture. The porous pot will capture some of that aroma (stealing it from your cup), and the hotter brew usually makes for a more robust texture and body. This is in contrast to porcelain – the vitrified material will create a more aromatic brew, and gives the flexibility for a cooler or hotter cup; cooler brews will lead to a creamier, fully texture with less aroma, and hotter brews will be more aromatic (as those volatile aromatics evaporate up off of the hot brew and into your nose).

      I hope this helps to answer some of your question! The best way to find out is probably to experience it for yourself and start brewing in your pot. 🙂 These beautiful objects are a great addition to anyone’s collection, especially for lovers of beautiful ceramics.

      All my best,
      Lily

  3. Bonnie Johnstone

    Great information, well written Lily!
    I’m sure I have all the elements needed for tasting and serving every kind of tea. (Tongue in cheek comment really! I’m a bit of an addict with many attractive items of teaware.)
    Can’t resist your teas are since you moved to China!
    Love you guys!

    • Lily Duckler

      Thank you, Bonnie! David should get the credit for the research and writing on this one 🙂 I just help with pulling everything together at the end. But it’s always a blast to help out on the research side. It’s one thing to realize that tea ware can affect the flavor of your tea on a theoretical level, but it’s always such a fun surprise to taste the differences with the same tea – the same steeping – tasting completely different as you sip from three or four different cups.

      Thank you again, Bonnie!!

  4. Wow, this is such a great article! It’s very well written and researched. At first, I was surprised that there was so much to say on this topic. But after reading it, I feel like everything you stated was spot on and I even learned some new things. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Lily Duckler

      Thank you, Christy! It’s a really simple idea, but it’s always fun to see how much you can learn when you start to examine those basic ideas and assumptions, and try to get to the root causes behind common experiences. After we finished the article, we actually found that we still had a lot that we wanted to say, but couldn’t quite fit! I hope you’ll have fun experimenting with this yourself. We’d love to hear about anything new you learn!

  5. I just came across this article. Thank you!

    I have a question:

    I am currently watching (ok, obsessed) with a TV drama called Song of Phoenix, which I am watching on Youtube. I’m not sure which Dynasty it is set in, but it is ancient China (it’s in Chinese, and the English subtitles are really good, but I’m not very well versed in the dynasties).

    When they serve tea, it looks as though they are brewing it in a large bowl and then serve it into smaller cups with a ladle. The host served the tea to his guests in this manner. I’ll have to try and get a better look at what’s happening and take a screen cap.

    Can you tell me what time frame this method was used in and is it possible to actually use this method today? Are there special equipment for this method?

    Thank you!

  6. Charles Migeon

    I would simply add that you don’t need a pitcher to create the same strength of tea in multiple cups. You can pour the tea in the traditional Japanese way. Say you have 3 cups. Fill the left cup halfway, then the middle cup, then fill the right cup all the way. After that, fill the middle cup and then the left cup. The result is that all cups of tea are of equal strength. The left-most cup gets the very top and bottom of the tea, while the right-most cup gets the tea from the center of the pot. While there is not a disparity in strength, there is a disparity in quality that some will pick up on. The right-most cup is the highest quality, and this cup was traditionally given to the most honored person at the table.
    It would’ve been nice to mention this technique, especially given the introductory nature of the article. A pitcher is unnecessary. I would recommend people start out with one small, quality glass or porcelain teapot (8oz-16oz) and one strainer, nothing more.
    Anyway, good article overall.

    • Lily Duckler

      True – a pitcher isn’t always necessary. Your note about a pitcher ensuring all cups have the same strength brings up a good point – this is precisely the reason why many folks in China refer to pitchers as “fairness cups.” You can certainly pour directly into cups from your brewing vessel, but as you describe, this will result in some cups being different from others, and sometimes is used to honor some guests more than others. Today, that’s something that at least Chinese tea has moved away from in order to ensure that all guests are treated well, not giving preference to one person over another. That is one reason why the pitcher is such an important of modern Chinese gong fu ceremony.

      Either way, we totally agree that it is most interesting to experiment and try different styles so that you can taste the differences for yourself! This would be another fun “teaware tasting” to try at home and with friends – using two of the same brewing vessels with the same tea-to-water ratio, and brew them side-by-side. One vessel can pour into a pitcher, and the other can pour directly into cups. Everyone can try a cup from the pitcher-brew, and then sip from the directly-into-the-tea-cups brew (or if you want to avoid sharing cups, you could try pouring into three different pitchers as if they were cups, adn then everyone can have a little sip of each!). You would certainly taste a difference (more pronounced in some teas than others), and that would be so much fun to experience first hand!

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