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Friday, June 8, 2012

Thoughts on Gaiwans

small cup, small gaiwan, gaiwan

For some reason the topic of gaiwans have been coming up often lately in the tea circles I frequent.  Pictured above are my first two gaiwans, but the blue and white one I acquired quite a few months before I got the pure white one ( a Tea Gallery small gaiwan).  Since then I managed to buy the other two Tea Gallery gaiwans in the set ( getting this in before they closed up shop).  I have also purchased the Gaiwan from Teamasters blog.  I do have one other gaiwan but its not often talked about because it was damaged during shipment, with the vendor unresponsive to any email I sent, but it is borderline usable ( if you do not mind a huge triangular chip out of the rim of the piece.

While I have not tried hundreds of gaiwans, I have started to realize what makes a good gaiwan "good."   It is mostly how it handles heat.  As such people usually consider things such as the flair of the rim, and the thickness of the porcelain.  I feel there is one more thing to keep in mind but it is near impossible to tell without actually using it, and that is the thermal properties of the particular clay and glaze used in the piece.  I know that sounds odd but I have used a gaiwan that seems medium thick, but is worlds hotter to use, than a gaiwan that's incredibly thick, where both have somewhat similar flair.  The only real explanation I had for the difference is the clay/ glaze between the two had vastly different thermal properties.

Of course with gaiwans you want a wide flair, keeping the part of the gaiwan your fingers will touch away from the boiling water inside.  Thinner is almost always better, as the thinner the wall, the easier the heat dissipates from the rim of the gaiwan.  Some people spend a lot of time worrying about the heat retention properties of their Gaiwan, worrying if it is too thin the water won't stay hot enough to allow the tea to infuse properly.  While this is a concern there are far more workable, and less painful ways around this than dealing with burnt fingers.  Most common of which would be to use a teaboat or other dish/ bowl with raised walls, and a flat bottom, to add boiling water in the dish to sort of create a hot bath for the bottom part of your gaiwan, while the tea infuses.  The hot bath should not extend more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up the gaiwan, as we really do not want their to be so much heat that the whole gaiwan becomes too hot to handle. The Teaboat trick, I learned on my only visit to the Tea Gallery.

What I realized yesterday, when I pulled my very first gaiwan off the shelf to pull it out of "retirement," knowing full well it's not as good as the gaiwans I have since become used to using. Though I used that gaiwan almost exclusively for many months, and used it regularly for at least a year if not two.  But pulling it off the shelf, and putting it through its paces on some puerh, I swore I was handling a pan pulled from a hot oven.  Granted I do exaggerate because I could still handle the gaiwan, but the calluses and damaged nerves I used to have, are long since healed so a few times mid pour, I did have to set it down and get a new grip on the piece to give my fingers just those few seconds to cool off.

A major question people ask, who missed out on the widely acclaimed Tea Gallery Gaiwans, is "Where can I get a high quality gaiwan?"  The truth is they do seem to be few and far between, as most vendors seem to think a gaiwan is a gaiwan, and therefore aim for a good price over quality.  I mean who is to blame them, most plain white gaiwans look nearly identical in vendor pictures, and online shoppers are notorious for looking for deals.  While I can not help people with this question for all sizes of Gaiwans, but my favorite gaiwan size ( for 1-2 person drinking) ~60ml, I am quite fond of the mini Gaiwan sold by Teamasters.

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