Firstly, what is a Gaiwan?
Essentially it's a lidded tea bowl, however it's far more than the sum of its parts. First conceived in the Ming Dynasty (over 900 years ago) gaiwans are unassuming but beautifully functional teapots that are perfect for infusing the most delicate and intricate teas. It's particularly suited to Oolongs and whole leaf tea rather than finer cut leaves, due to the ability of whole leaves to be infused multiple times with a high leaf-to-water ratio (sometimes more than six infusions).
Making tea in gaiwan is often referred to as Gong Fu Cha. This refers to a method of focused and precise tea brewing.
In a gaiwan you use small amounts of hot water and a relatively large amount of leaf, this high leaf-to-water ratio allows you to infuse your leaf very quickly, and make multiple steeps of the same leaf. In this way you are able to extract every exquisite layer of flavour. The infusions are usually made in quick succession to explore all the beautiful nuances of the tea leaves. As the water penetrates deeper into the leaves different subtleties are revealed. The following method can be used to make six infusions, or more, of your precious tea.
The gaiwan works best with a high leaf-to-water ratio - about double what you’d do for a normal cup, between 4g and 6g.
Water Temperature & Wash
Rolled oolongs need softening before infusing. Using your gaiwan, cover the leaf with an inch of boiling water at 100°C (212°F) to "wash" the leaf for a few seconds - this opens out the rolled leaf and allows the water to penetrate (discard this "wash").
With a unrolled leaf oolong like Da Hong Pao you can skip this step.
Fill the gaiwan to just below the rim, infuse for 5-10 seconds and strain completely into your cup or a jug*. There's no need to reheat the water as you go, because the softened leaves will require lower temperatures to release their flavours - but you will need to extend the time to 10-20 seconds for later steeps.
*Straining with a gaiwan takes a little practice - offset the lid slightly on the pot, hold it in place with your thumb and index finger, and pour out the liquor. Bits of leaf may end up in your cup, but they are harmless. You might want to practise this with cold water and no leaf, just to get to grips with your gaiwan without burning your fingers. Some gaiwans like our Easy Pour Gaiwan Set have a spout to make it easier.
You can also enjoy one pot of the same leaves all day; coming back to the gaiwan and reinfusing the leaf – but in this instance reheat the water. The leaf will have oxidised, changing the flavours, but that is not to say that they are not still delicious.
All in all we recommend at least six infusions to allow the leaf to completely open out and reveal all its complexity.
To use your gaiwan with black, green and white teas, please infuse at the temperature specified on the product page (or hotter) and far more rapidly. The higher leaf-to-water ratio means you need to be quick - just a few seconds. But with this method you can infuse the leaf repeatedly before it is exhausted - each infusion should reveal different flavour notes.
Here's a short film we’ve made to show you how to use a gaiwan for loose leaf tea:
There’s a great saying, told to us by one of our oldest and beloved farmers in Anxi, about oolong:
“The first infusion is for your enemy, the second for your servant, the third infusion is for your wife and the fourth is for your mistress. The fifth is for your business partner - because business is more important than pleasure, and the sixth you keep for yourself.”