How to Use a Gaiwan to Up Your Tea-Steeping Game

Tea bags will never be the same again.
Tea bags will never be the same again.
All photos Scott Reitz

If you're like me, you left your recent visit to The Cultured Cup in an upbeat mood, with a bag of Don Fang Mei Ren in your hands and the hopes of finding stone fruits in the bottom of your next cup of oolong tea. But at home you read the steeping instructions and you hit a hitch. "Superb with Gong Fu Cha or Gaiwan," the label read, and you asked: "What the hell is this?"

Gong Fu Cha translates many ways, depending on who you ask, but it all boils down to steeping tea with skill. If you recognize that Gong Fu sounds a bit like Kung Fu, then you're on the right track: You're about to go all Bruce Lee on this cup of oolong's ass.

But patience grasshopper, there is much to learn. So before you spend hundreds of dollars on handmade yixing pots, fancy wood trays and delicate cups, focus on the gaiwan that the label alludes to. It's by far the easiest way to get into elevated tea making, and as a bonus it's also the most cost effective, which saves your precious scratch for the tea leaves that will soon be spilling out of every one of your kitchen cabinets.

After hunting through a few Asian groceries in the Dallas area, I've given up on purchasing gaiwans here (I'll leave that up to you and Google) but note you only have to spend ten bucks or so to get your foot in the door. Anything beyond that and you're paying for looks, style and other things you're better off converting into more tea leaves.

Gaiwans let your tea leaves completely unfurl, releasing their true potential.
Gaiwans let your tea leaves completely unfurl, releasing their true potential.

When you find one, note that every gaiwan comes in three parts. There's a lid, a cup (gaiwan literally means "lidded cup") and a saucer because everything seems more proper with a saucer involved. Tea leaves go into the cup along with hot water, and then the lid is used like a strainer after the desired steeping time.

The beauty of the gaiwan is its simplicity. There is no basket, no ball, no chain or other device of restriction or torture. The leaves are given ample room to unfurl so they can release as much of their flavor as possible. Tea can be steeped many times, sometimes just a few seconds at a time, so a tea drinker can note complex flavors as they develop over an extended tea drinking session. This is the art of Gong Fu Cha, but we could spend many, many more blog posts on developing your own personal ritual.

The other day I took an oolong for a spin and over progressive steeps noted sugary dates and then apricots, fresh peaches and, finally, light floral tones toward the end of the session. It was like watching dried fruit evolve in reverse, from a gnarled nub of sugary leather back into a tender flower bud. There's a journey in every session with the gaiwan. You'll never come back the same from a trip like this one.

Strainer and teapot, all in one hand.
Strainer and teapot, all in one hand.
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The Cultured Cup

13714 Gamma Rd.
Farmers Branch, TX 75244

972-960-1521


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