Serious Eats: Drinks
Tea Technique: Gaiwan Brewing
Feel free to make room in the cupboards right now: though there are myriad devices to brew tea, the simplest, and perhaps most elegant, is the gaiwan.
The gaiwan, a brewing invention dating back to the Ming Dynasty, is a basic lidded cup, typically made from porcelain but also available in glass and even clay. An unassuming little teapot, it sits on its base humbly awaiting spoonfuls of tea. There is no strainer—only the skill of your hand's steady grip as you tilt the gaiwan, allowing only tea, and not leaves, to pass between the gap between lid and bowl.
While you can brew many varieties of tea beautifully with a gaiwan, it is best suited to oolong, white and green, Pu-erh and Chinese black teas, for its ability to convey delicate flavor and for the ease and experience of brewing these teas. (It is less suited for other black teas, and Japanese green teas.)
Through its thin walls and rounded base, the gaiwan cools the tea as it steeps. It also offers a uniquely uncomplicated way of following your tea through the brewing process, from the initial unfurling of a leaf to multiple infusions of a dynamic tea. You'll feel involved, your senses will be aroused, and best of all: it's really easy.
1. Your first step will be to warm your gaiwan with hot water. This ensures much better temperature control of the brewing process, and cleans your gaiwan at the same time. Rinse the gaiwan and drain.
2. Measure your tea. How much tea to use will vary with type of tea and size of your gaiwan. Your tea will ideally be accompanied by its own instructions, but many brewing guides are available online if it is not.
3. Rinse the leaves before fully infusing; this releases the initial aroma and can begin the process of leaf-opening.
4. Infuse leaves by pouring in water heated to the appropriate temperature for your specific tea. Again, you'll want to consult brewing instructions for both temperature and time. You can sneak a sniff of the tea's aroma as it develops at this time.
5. Serve the tea by carefully picking up the gaiwan—it might be hot!—and holding the lid on top of the cup, just slightly opened to pour the tea. This may take some practice. Of course, you're welcome to just drink out of the gaiwan, too.
6. Reinfuse if you like—many teas evolve with multiple infusions, and you'll get to know your tea, and at what stages you enjoy it best, by experimenting with this process.