2. Gaiwan and/or Teapot
This is dangerous territory. It seems that there are about as many opinions on the gaiwan and teapot issue as there are tea drinkers (and that's not even counting the arguments over the various types of Yixing clay)! I'll try to explain the basics of both, but it's up to you to decide which you prefer. I also can’t promise that I’ll be completely neutral in my recommendations, so you should research elsewhere too.
If you are used to brewing tea in big honkin' two-cup or larger teapots, gaiwans and Yixing teapots are going to look shockingly small. The online pictures don't usually convey how teeny they are, so be prepared! If you are brewing tea for one or two people, 5 oz (~150 mL) is considered large (I promise you, it will feel that way after a few long sessions with it). I prefer something in the 3-4oz (90-120 mL) range, and some use vessels even smaller than 2 oz (60 mL).
You may be wondering, "Why so small? Do you just drink less tea this way?" The main difference is that typical Western brewing produces a large quantity of tea a few times, while Eastern methods produce a small quantity of tea many times. This is accomplished by using a lot of leaf per volume of water, compared to big-pot brewing, with shorter infusion times. If that doesn't make sense, mull it over a bit, you'll get it eventually!
What's all the fuss about Yixing?
If you believe what some have to say, this wünderclay has the power to call on ancient spirits, quell demons, restore the balance of one's four humors (that's right, I made a humorism reference), and grant godlike wisdom. However, many argue that this magical type of Yixing is extraordinarily rare, that 99.9% of what is on the market is dangerously laced with other clays and shoe polish, and that anyone who purchases teapots without the combined aid of the I Ching and a blind hermit is a buffoon.
Okay, so maybe I'm a little tired of hearing what seems to me like endless speculation about Yixing (What was it that I just said about neutrality?). For those who spend lots of time and effort studying the subject, know that this is all in good fun and I mean no offense. :) Moving on to actual information...
One of the main qualities Yixing is said to possess is a superior ability to absorb tea flavors. This "seasons" the pot and improves the flavor of the tea it brews by rounding out imperfections. It seems to be commonly accepted that some residual tea flavor remains, but there are those who are skeptical whether Yixing is significantly, if at all, better than other clays. Still, a well-seasoned Yixing (a long process!) is supposed to be quite a thing to behold.
Related to the flavor absorption issue is the practice of dedicating a pot to a type of tea. There is a large spectrum of beliefs here; there are those who will only brew Da Hong Pao in a certain teapot for fear of contamination with other yancha flavors, and there are those who will brew everything in one pot. It's up to you, really, but I advise a happy medium: avoid strongly contrasted flavors from colliding in the same pot. Yancha and roasted TGY? Not so bad. Baozhong and shu puerh? Oof.
It is commonly said that you shouldn't brew green or white teas in a Yixing pot. I'm going to rebel a bit and say that I really haven't heard any good argument other than "it just doesn't work." Some say "the clay doesn't work," but the next logical question to ask is, "Then why are so many unglazed clay teapots used exclusively for Japanese greens?" I have not yet heard a satisfying response to this question. It may be that Yixing is not the ideal brewing vessel for greens and whites, but as long as you watch your temperatures, they should come out just fine.
I feel I should mention one last thing— pour speed. Cheap teapots usually have terrible pour speeds, sometimes 30 seconds or more. Obviously this becomes a problem when you are trying to do flash infusions! It is difficult to determine pour speed by photos alone, but larger spout openings are a good sign. I don't know if this generalization is valid, but all the cheap Xi Shi shape Yixing pots I've handled are slowwwww, so avoid those.
Many, many books have been written about Yixing clay and pots, so there is no way I could explain everything. Notably absent here are discussions about types of clay and teapot shape; this information can be found elsewhere, but really isn’t important for first-timers.
Brandon (the creator of wikiCHA) also offers a good newbie tip: avoid duan ni clay for your first Yixing. It tends to be much more rounding and subtracting than other clays. Thanks B!
The Mysterious Gaiwan
Compared to Yixing teapots, this is easy. If you haven't seen one yet, a gaiwan is an elegantly simple two- or three-piece brewing tool. You can use it to brew tea, like a teapot, or you can drink directly from it, similar to how you would drink while glass brewing. These babies can brew anything, are often dirt cheap, and you don't have to worry about dedicating them to a certain type of tea. Gaiwans are usually made of porcelain, though glazed and unglazed clay (which you may want to dedicate) variants are not uncommon.
They are a little tricky to use at first, but you should catch on pretty quickly, especially if you study this fantastic instructional video made my MarshalN. If you find that you really can't handle a gaiwan, you might look for a gaibei, a commonly used (if not entirely accurate) name for gaiwan with a handle and spout. Kind of a teapot/gaiwan crossbreed.
While some prefer thicker stoneware gaiwans, I think porcelain is a better material for most purposes. Some complain that porcelain heats up too quickly, making porcelain gaiwans difficult to handle. Their response is that stoneware gaiwans are thicker and heavier, so they do not get unbearably hot as quickly.
There are two problems with this argument. First, it is true that stoneware won't heat up as quickly. However, the other side of that coin is that stoneware will store more heat, so when it does heat up, there is no place to pick it up that will not burn you. Second, if you are preheating effectively (not just dumping hot water in and out, which has no effect on a big heat sink like a stoneware gaiwan), the stoneware automatically loses any advantage it may have had.
There are times when a hollow cup-shaped block of magma is an appropriate gaiwan material though. If you want more heat retention for a particular tea, stoneware is better than porcelain. I just hope you can pick that sucker up—if only it had a convenient handle. Oh wait, there is something just like that! A teapot!
Here is the secret to not burning yourself with a porcelain gaiwan. Hold it by the very edge of the lip (where heat dissipates rapidly into the air) and don't pour hot water on your fingers. This does take a while to learn, but until then the easier way should work. Shorter infusions also help.
Quality or Quantity?
If you are buying your first gaiwan, get something cheap. The odds are in favor of breakage. Once you feel more confident, step up and buy something nice— I promise you will enjoy it more.
Yixing teapots are another matter. The cheapies are almost always terrible, and quality really does affect performance when it comes to teapots this tiny. Do yourself a solid and pony up for a $30+ teapot. Think of your blood pressure.
Gaiwan or Yixing?
Both! If budget is a concern, buy a gaiwan now and save for a Yixing later.
- Any cheap gaiwan in the 90-150 mL range. Look at these from Dragon Tea House or Yunnan Sourcing.
- Buy something cheap so you won't be too sad when you break it. Don't be concerned about these vendors being on eBay— they have very good reputations. Be aware that they are located in China, so shipping will take a long time if you don't pick the expedited option.
- Quality gaiwans from The Tea Gallery
- I have heard nothing but praise for these. I don't own one quite yet, but it should be here in a few days! [Edit: Just received it. It's all true! If you don't mind a plain white gaiwan, the construction quality of these is spot on.]
- A Yixing teapot, also in the 90-150 mL range. Try Nadacha, Dragon Tea House or Yunnan Sourcing
- I wouldn't spend too much on your first teapot, just in case. If you don't want to spare $40 + shipping for a teapot you won't curse at, it might be a good idea to stick with a cheap gaiwan for now.