Drink Magazine

How to Select a Gaiwan

By Dchew78 @peonyts

As discussed previously, a gaiwan is one of the most versatile and useful brewing vessels around especially if you are constantly testing new teas. It adds nothing (unless Yixing pots) and detracts nothing (unlike French press) from the flavor of the tea, presenting a ‘true and fair’ view of the tea.

This post discusses what to take note of in selecting a gaiwan, at least with practicality as a paramount concern. Also, this focuses on using a gaiwan as a brewing vessel as opposed to a drinking cup as the northerners often do.


How to Select a Gaiwan
As discussed in a previous post, size does matter- the smaller the better. The common adage is “茶盅(aka盖碗)宜小不宜大,宜浅不宜深”. Translated it means, for gaiwans- smaller ones are preferable to bigger ones, shallower ones are preferable to deeper ones.

However too small a gaiwan makes it hard to handle at the initial stages hence if for those just starting out 120-200cc would be a good starting point. In my opinion 250cc is the maximum that one should go before the degradation in taste starts to take place.

My regular gaiwan when I am brewing for myself or at most 1 person holds approximately 70ml of water. This is ideal for my use and proclivity to drink oolong tea over other forms. If you are preparing Shu Pu-er or black tea, you can go even smaller since the leaves tend to be smaller.

How then do we ensure there is enough space for the tea leaves to expand and unfurl in these tiny vessels?

That’s where the next consideration comes in:


There are a couple of considerations for shape:

Height and width

How to Select a Gaiwan
宜小不宜大,宜浅不宜深 but no mention is made of 宜窄不宜宽 or ‘narrower ones are preferable to broader ones’.

In other words, while gaiwans are favored for smaller ones and shallower ones, the same does not apply for width.

Ideally, a gaiwan’s height should be less than the width, I would suggest that you go with as wide as you feel comfortable with- of course as long as the shape is not ridiculously wide and short.

Width is important for expansion of the leaves and my observation is that it’s preferable to expand sideways than upwards, at least in terms of release of taste.

Incline of the Gaiwan

Unlike a taster mug, a gaiwan has sloping walls which aids in decanting the brewed liquid. A more pronounced slope will help in pouring out the liquid while holding the lid in a comfortable position.

At the same time, too sharp a slope will leave the vessel top heavy and quite unstable. In addition, too sharp a slope will render the leaves at the bottom of the gaiwan unable to expand to its full potential.

My experience is that a gentler slope, just enough to aid the decantation. If you are looking at a more precise definition, probably 60-80° angle (90° would be completely ‘un-angled’ as in a normal mug).

Shape of the Lid

The shape of the lid is also a consideration. The lid should be in a convex dome shape. In other words, there would be a small gap between the filled gaiwan and the grip of the lid.

This serves as an insulator so that the lid would not be too hot to grip and secondly allow a bit of space for those huge beaded oolong tea leaves such as Tieguanyin and Taiwanese teas to expand fully.

On the other hand, too big a gap would hamper the heat retention of the gaiwan and also makes it pretty hard to maintain the angle of your lid.

The rim of the gaiwan

How to Select a Gaiwan
When the lid is placed on the vessel completely, the rim of the vessel is longer than the lid, leaving an excess space. There should be sufficient space for the user to grip securely as this rim would be insulated from the heat, making it easier to grip without scalding the hands.


Aesthetics aside, the most important consideration is how securely the lid fits on the vessel and how well it traps the air. This preserves the aroma of the tea and improves the heat retention properties of the gaiwan.

Usually this is the hardest to achieve and a factory or craftsman who takes care of this detail usually gets the rest right.


The material of the gaiwan is important primarily for heat retention. While Yixing would deliver the best heat retention without detracting from the taste (hello Tetsubin!), one of the main advantage of gaiwan is versatility. If you dedicate a Yixing to a type of tea, it makes more sense to choose a pot since usually better clays are used for pots which typically fetch better price.

Porcelains or bone china would be quite ideal for gaiwan and provides enough heat retention. Clear white material is quite ideal for observing the color of the liquor.

Glass is a pretty sight but generally apart from green and white tea, where the beauty of the leaves can be admired, it makes little sense for other types of teas, especially oolong and Pu-er where heat is of paramount importance.

In addition, glass gaiwans are a poor heat insulator and you can scald your fingers easily.

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