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Magic Pots

Magic Pots

Yixing or Gaiwan? The Right Choice Can Make Tea Sipping an Adventure


I've discovered the perfect teapot.

But let's back up a minute: There are two methods for brewing and drinking very fine tea in the Chinese tradition. In public, you'll see a lot of Yixing teapots. These are one-serving affairs made of unglazed earthenware. Some are very small--no more than a few inches wide. They hold heat extraordinarily well, and their porous surfaces absorb tea oils, giving brews made with an old pot quite a bit of inherited savor.

Yixing teapots are the primary vessel for any sort of formal tea-drinking occasion among connoisseurs. In private, there's the gaiwan, a small, handle-less cup set on top of a saucer and covered with a small lid. It serves as both pot and cup. (The name means "covered bowl.")

Until about two months ago, I was a Yixing man. But the gaiwan is an utterly different beast, and I've been converted.

Yixing teapots are for perfectionists. They allow a high degree of control over all the variables. If you know what you're doing, you can take a leaf to exactly the place you want and produce cup after cup of perfectly tuned tea. A cup of pot-brewed tea is clear, stable, and static--it's something you sink into and consider.

But the experience of drinking fine tea out of a gaiwan is extraordinary. It is an experience of constant, intense transformation. It is exciting.

The bowl in any well-made gaiwan has a delicately flared rim, so it fits perfectly into your lips. The lid fits inside the bowl. You put your tea leaves into the gaiwan, add hot water and cover with the lid. The tea brews within the gaiwan, and when the time comes, you slip the lid down a tad, opening a little gap between it and the lip. You then sip the tea directly off of the leaves. The lid catches the tea leaves so no strainer is necessary.

Tea develops over time. Brew a pot of very good Taiwanese high mountain oolong in the Chinese style--lots of leaves, short steeping time. Pour it out after two minutes, and the flavor is clear, sweet and gentle. Pour it out after three minutes, and the flavor is deep, dense, almost nutty. Pour it out after four minutes, and it has developed a beautiful, high, dense bitterness that unfolds on your tongue into the aforementioned sweetness and nuttiness.

The problems with teapot brewing are: first, you might miss the stage you really want; second, you only get one stage, no matter how well you brew it; and third, if, like most of us, you brew with a timer and never deviate from the instructions that you read in some book, you'll only experience one stage and never get to know the tea's development.

Drinking from the gaiwan is entirely dynamic. You start drinking early and keep drinking through all the stages. The tea opens up and blooms as you hold and sip it.

Dragonwell, a variety of Chinese green, takes to the gaiwan beautifully. After the first minute's brewing, the flavor is faint and sweet. Then it develops a high vegetal note and a low warm note. A delicate sweetness enters after a minute and a half. The warm note hardens, becoming beautifully bitter. Astringency increases.

At two minutes, there are three powerful, vivid flavors. They begin to meld, and, as you finish the cup in the third minute, the flavors have become one: intense, searing middle bitterness, with a single, gentle, grassy hum almost detached, floating high above.

The experience is very intense, completely entrancing and entirely unpredictable. I've had the same tea come out one time sweet and gentle, and another time roaring and full of dense, dark, beautiful bitterness.

Part of this is that fine Chinese tea takes to multiple infusions. With the gaiwan, you add more hot water when you've drunk about two-thirds of the liquid. This means the variables are staggering.The temperature of each re-brewing, the amount of time to drink each cup--the leaves react differently, and, I like to think, excitably.

Drinking from a gaiwan is rather like a difficult love affair: joyous, intense, sometimes painful and entirely surprising.

C. Thi Nguyen teaches philosophy at UCLA.

Teapots this page, Yixing teapots (top photo on cover) and gaiwan teapot on right in cover photo, from Yuan Yuan Enterprise Inc., San Gabriel. Gaiwan teapot on left in cover photo from Life Style China & Arts, San Gabriel.

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