Because of its elegance, functionality and ease of use (after a little practice, of course), the gaiwan has long been recognized in China as the universal tool of tea preparation… in the teahouse, at home or in the field. The gaiwan’s universal practicality, superior control and versatility through all families and styles of tea make it the perfect vessel in which to explore the widest range of the world’s teas.
Rinse - Whatever the type of tea being brewed, the first step is always to rinse cup with hot water. This performs two functions: first, it purifies the cup (both practically and symbolically) by rinsing away any dust or residue and symbolizing that the cup is clean, empty and ready to receive the tea. Secondly, rinsing with hot water warms the cup – which, at room temperature, is quite cold and therefore inappropriate for brewing most fine teas whose temperature must be carefully controlled. The water should be poured from the gaiwan into the serving pitcher and from there into the tasting cups to warm them and then discarded.
Tea Leaves- The tea leaves should be prepared in advance and ready to be placed in the gaiwan as soon as it has been warmed. (A tea caddy or “tea presentation vessel", as shown, is recommended for this purpose, as is a proper set of tea tools.) Approximately one to two teaspoons of leaf is a good quantity to begin with and is easily adjusted to taste after the initial infusion. Keep in mind that due to the many variations of tea processing, some leaves are a lot more compact than others. For instance: you’ll need a lot less Dragon Well or Jasmine Pearls than Silver Needles or Formosa Oolong.
Aroma - Before infusion a few drops of water from the kettle should be added to the leaves. This releases the tea’s aroma and should be savored prior to infusion in order to prepare the palate to appreciate the full flavor of the tea and also suggests to the experirenced tea maker how to approach the infusion (i.e. in terms of temperature, time, etc.). Alternatively, some people like to cover the leaves with hot water and quickly pour it off. This is known as “flushing" the tea and is recommended particularly for tightly rolled and aged teas, such as oolong and Puerh. As above, the wet leaves’ aroma should be appreciated before brewing.
Water– 99% of tea is water, so it’s important to give some thought to the water you use for brewing. Tap water should be avoided since its chemical treatment imparts undesirable flavors and odors which interfere with the delicate aromatics of tea. (Home filters and other water purification systems can minimize and, in some cases, eliminate these problems.) The best water for tea brewing is spring water with a natural mineral content that’s neither too hard nor too soft. Since T.D.S. “total dissolved solids", or mineral content measured in parts per million varies greatly from water to water, you may want to do your own taste-test of waters available in your area to determine which one has the best flavor, body and compatibility with the tea you drink. NOTE: Distilled water is not recommended for tea since water purified of its mineral content produces a flat-tasting infusion.
INFUSION - When it comes to infusion, water temperature and steeping time are just as important as the quality of the water and tea leaves used. Unfortunately there are no set rules for either, but the following guidelines may be used for starters:
GREEN TEA: Many people have heard that it is best to brew green tea with water below boiling, but few know just how low to go. When encountering a new green tea for the first time a good rule is to steep it for one minute with 70ºC (158ºF) water. Green tea is almost always steeped uncovered, which prevents over-heating and allows constant monitoring and visual appreciation of the leaves during infusion. From this test you will be able to adjust the time and temperature of future infusions to bring out the best flavor. If, for example, the taste is too strong or bitter after only a minute, this indicates the water temperature should be dropped, perhaps to 60ºC (140ºF) or even as low as 50ºC (122ºF). Lowering the temperature also allows you to steep the leaves longer and, in many cases, extract more flavor without the infusion becoming bitter. Experimenting with each tea will help you discover how to achieve the flavors that appeal to you most.
OOLONG TEA: Start out at 80°-85°C (176°-185°F) with a 3 minute infusion.
BLACK TEA: 85°-95°C (185°-203°F) for 3 minutes.
PUERH TEA: Use water that’s just come to a boil and infuse 3-5 minutes. (Remember to rinse before brewing.)
SERVICE – When the tea is ready the gaiwan should be covered and picked up on its plate with the left hand and placed on the up-turned fingers of the right hand. The lid should be positioned slightly askew and held in place with the thumb – just enough to allow the tea to pour out while retaining the leaves. (Using two hands may at first appear to be easier, but it actually makes pouring more difficult, while using one hand locks the three pieces in place and holds them together as the gaiwan is inverted for pouring.) Pour the tea into the pitcher and then serve in individual tasting cups.
RESTEEPING – One of the benefits of using high quality, full-leaf teas is that they do not instantaneously “leech out" like the chopped-up tea found in teabags and, as a result, may be resteeped – generally 2 or three times, sometimes more. To resteep it is usually necessary to increase the infusion time slightly and also to reheat the water – at least to the original infusion temperature, sometimes higher. NOTE: After the initial infusion, the leaves can be resteeped up to twelve hours later.