Monday, August 03, 2009

Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Orient Express (Part III: Cups and Miscellany)

Continued from Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Orient Express (Part II: Teapots and Gaiwans).

Addendum to Part II

I forgot to mention a common concern of new Yixing owners: pre-seasoning or pre-treatment. This is another topic about which everyone and their mother has something to say! My advice? Don't worry. Some don't think any treatment is needed before use, some boil their pots in water, some boil their pots in tea, some soak their pots in tea, etc. etc. I doubt you could do permanent damage with any of these treatments, so don't be concerned about possibly choosing the "wrong" one. (If you decide to boil your teapot, it would be a good idea to line the saucepan with a towel to prevent chipping.)

Part III:

3. Cups!


Yay! The hard concepts are over; you're on the home stretch now. There is actually more than meets the eye when it comes to cups for Eastern brewing, but we'll avoid the more esoteric stuff for now.

The best part about cups? They're cheap! Of course, this makes it dangerously easy to buy cups on a whim, but a little variety is always nice. :)


There are a couple ways to go about this. One way is to buy a cup roughly equal in volume to your teapots/gaiwans, or two cups around half that volume each. This is very simple and easy, and I prefer the minimalist aesthetics. The other strategy is to buy a few or more teeny (1 oz) cups and a faircup, which I'll get to in a moment. Some people like those little cups, but I don't and you probably won't either if you are used to 6-8oz cups.


The two extremes are the tulip shape and the flat-ish bowl shape. For our purposes, it's mostly a matter of aesthetics. Flatter cups cool your tea faster (more liquid surface area is exposed), but it is much easier to spill from them.


The most common materials you are likely to see are porcelain, stoneware (glazed or not), glass, and celadon (a very popular glaze, somewhere between green and blue in color). I would probably avoid unglazed stoneware, but other than that, go for aesthetics.

While a white porcelain or white-glazed stoneware cup will allow a tea's true color to show, celadon tends to make the tea's color much more attractive, particularly with green teas and greener oolongs. Glass doesn't display color very well, in my experience, but go for it if you like glass.

Aroma cupsaroma cup set

A.K.A. Wenxiangbei (See Hobbes's excellent wenxiangbei article). Try them out if you like, you will probably get at least some enjoyment out of them. They provide extra aroma data when tasting a tea, which can be nice. I grew tired of using them, but many do not.


Buy lots of them!

4. Faircup (Optional)

Left: R.I.P. with your fallen brethren. Right: My new baby. Let's hope it survives more than a few months.

You're probably wondering about the name. These are also called fairness cups, sharing pitchers, servers, or a few other choice words* (by me anyway). They are "fair" because if you decant your tea into a faircup, the tea will mix evenly, so every guest receives tea of the same strength. If you try to decant from a teapot or gaiwan into several cups, you have to make several passes to balance the strength of each cup, and chances are it still won't be very even. You really don't need a faircup if you are decanting into one or two cups, though, so this is an optional item for the budget-conscious.

*Why do I curse at my faircups? Don't get me wrong, they are great tools. For whatever reason, they like to break for me. I have only slightly chipped one gaiwan and had just two Yixings and one cup break in transit, but I have destroyed at least four or five faircups. Can't explain it. Anyway.

There's not a whole lot to say about them, just pick one that looks pretty. Most of the time they are either heat-resistant glass or porcelain. I think porcelain clashes with some tea setups, so I prefer glass, but that's just me.

Recommended models:

Whatever. Most tea and teaware vendors carry them and they are generally the same level of quality, unless you find an artisan piece. Try Yunnan Sourcing, Dragon Tea House, and Imperial Tea Court for starters.

5. Tea Tray (Optional)

Um, pay no attention to the blowtorch. (Seriously, what other tea blog has to say this?)

Ah yes, the tea tray. I don't use one very much anymore; I prefer a simple mat and waste bowl setup for aesthetic reasons, but they are undeniably useful. Still, you can get by without one quite easily, so I consider it optional.

Aside from size, shape, materials, and color (these are mostly a matter of personal preference), there are three main styles of tea tray.

One is the basic two-piece box type, which is essentially a large waste trough with a slotted surface placed above it. These are simple, cheap, and usually the most compact (making them ideal for the space-challenged), but there are two problems. First, it may or may not be watertight. Metal trays are probably fine, but my bamboo tray leaks A LOT. Second, if you fill this up too much, it is quite difficult to carry to a sink without spilling.

Another, the kind with a removable plastic tray (shown above, right underneath the blowtorch), is very similar to the two-piece box tray. The plastic tray is less likely to leak and easier to clean than wood. It also allows for (potentially) much larger and more luxurious tea tray designs, as the plastic tray only has to sit beneath the slotted portion. However, these plastic trays are even harder to carry when full, as they can twist more than wood.

The third type is a solid piece of wood (whether flat for use on a table, or an enormous block of wood which serves as its own table) with grooves leading to a drain. One generally connects the drain via a plastic tube to a bucket, so cleanup is easier and less frequent. The downsides? You can't dump leaves in the drain, so you need to either use the collecting bucket or a separate waste bowl. Also, you can't dump liquids as quickly due to the bottleneck in the drain.

Recommended models:

"A Look at 32 Tea Tables" is a great guide to the various options out there on the 'net. It was written a while ago so some links may be outdated, but it is still the best guide that I know of.

6. Waste Bowl (Optional, but recommended!)

A container for discarded rinses, leaves, etc. This item's function is dependent on its design which is, simply put, a concave continuous solid. The structure utilizes the downward force of gravity on tea waste and its partially opposed force from an inwardly-sloped interior surface to create a force vector pointing medially toward the inferior-most point of the interior surface. It is more effective if made from or covered by a non-moisture-absorbent material.


That's it for this guide (finally)! Sorry about the recycled photos, some of them are baaaaddddd. As I said in the beginning, there are far more items traditionally used in Eastern brewing methods than those I have listed here— the various "Cha Dao" tools (an odd name, really), filters (possibly helpful for puerh, otherwise unnecessary in my opinion), water baths for cleaning/warming cups, etc. For practical/newbie brewing, they aren't necessary or even particularly helpful.

This will likely be the last article of the series. Somewhere down the road I may write another, but it probably won't be any time soon.

However I would enjoy writing shorter articles on specific teaware questions submitted by readers, so ask away!


Stacey said...

Only one question, where oh where did you get that gorgeous little pair of celadon cups? ;)

Brent said...

Right here! :)


Unknown said...

Is the tea tray still alive, or did the blow torch have its way?

Haha, seriously... what was the blowtorch for?

Georgia said...

I bought my first aroma cups at a small tea shop in Hong Kong in June.

compras no paraguai said...

I love your bowl collection..I have mine as well.

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