White ceramic Taiwan on table

Going, Going…Gaiwan

Guest blogger: Geoffrey Norman

Let’s backtrack to the year 2005, the birth of my tea exploration. In the nearest urban area to where I lived, an entire city block was converted into a traditional Chinese garden; like the ones prized scholars of the empire used to reside in. The best feature of this garden was the two-story, traditionally-built teahouse, complete with old-style music. My first visit was with family in tow. I was their in-house “tea guru”, and – as such – they expected me to show them how things were done. Oh, what little I knew…

My eyes beelined to the white tea menu. At the top of the list was a Nan Yue Yin Zhen (Silver Needle White Tea) from Hunnan Province. It was the priciest of the bunch. Naturally, to prove my mettle to my mother, I selected it. Ten minutes later, the cheongsam-clad waitress came back with an unassuming cup with a lid.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“That’s your tea, sir,” she replied with a chipper tone.

“Where’s the tea pot?”

“Oh, Silver Needle isn’t served in a pot,” she explained. “This is a gaiwan. Here…”

She gingerly showed me how to slide the lid back only so far, allowing the steeped liquor to pass without the leaves escaping. I was still wide-eyed that I was supposed to drink from the same cup that the leaves were steeped in. The first attempt was an exercise in futility. I cupped it in both hands – one to hold the lid in place, the other to keep it stationary. Figuring I had slid the lid back enough, I took a sip. And tasted straight leaf. The texture was like slurping green beans. I puckered my face, and plucked the “needle” from the gap between my front teeth. Being the bratty bachelor I was, I plopped the leaf back in the cup when no one was looking.

On later visits, I mastered finagling it with one hand. There were times when I dribbled some down my chin – usually on dates – but I played it off with a, “That usually doesn’t happen to me.” If I wasn’t in the mood to fiddle with the forsaken device, I stuck with teas I knew were served in a pot.

By November of ‘08, I fell into the tea reviewing trade. Samples were sent to me, and I was required to write my thoughts on them. It was – and still is – probably the sweetest gig I’ve ever landed. Most of the vendor sites contained brewing instructions to go along with the product. This made my job a lot easier. That is, until I ran across a pu-erh that required a gongfu-style preparation.

Gongfu – as I’ve come to understand it – is like gaiwan use multiplied a thousandfold. It’s even more of a headache than the Japanese tea ceremony. Typically, though, one can sidestep tradition a little bit by simply doing the multiple steeps in a single gaiwan. Problem was I didn’t own one.

I was well-versed in different types of tea by then but not teaware. I worked at a hotel, and since it was hardly a high-paying gig, teaware purchases were kept to a minimum. Tea kettle, steeper cup, coffee mug – that was it. A few times, I ventured out to peruse various articles of infusion but often recoiled at the accompanying price tag.

A tea blender took pity on my rookie steeping sensibilities, passing along a gaiwan that he no longer needed. And with it went my last excuse. Regardless, my reluctance still held steadfast against the cup-’n-lid of that cute li’l gaiwan. Two weeks went by before I field-tested it on a light-roasted oolong. I did four steeps at thirty-to-forty-five seconds each and made note of the flavor changes.

There’s a term for what occurred. Only philosophers, scholars, and pretentious hipsters use it regularly. I learned it in college and oozed superego whenever I uttered it. The term is “paradigm shift”, popularized by the historian, Thomas Kuhn. It basically means, “interruption to a given pattern and/or structure”. Well, my usual pattern had definitely been disrupted. The multiple flavor experiences were eye-opening. I looked at my notes, and they echoed my epiphany.

Since then, any time a tea requires multiple steeps for a full effect, I turn to that lovely lidded cup. Even for teas that don’t require a gaiwan, I use it anyway (except rooibos, that would be messy.) Gongfu-style, though? Uh…maybe in another three years.

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