Brewing Oolongs 101 & Sugar Caddy as Gaiwan?

It may sound silly, but after reading over and over again that oolongs should be steeped in small vessels (and not wanting to steep them in a mug) I took a gander at our ‘china cabinet’ and saw this sugar caddy and thought, well, why not? It kinda looks like the gaiwans I have seen, it’s ceramic, it has a similar looking lid, and I measured its capacity and it turns out it holds just 8 ounces. Besides, I don’t have a gaiwan at the moment, and it just so happens that I LOVE using what I already have to accommodate a present need (rather than buying something new).

So, I tried it.

AND, it turns out pouring (from the caddy to my cup, after it steeped) was VERY messy, and I spilled much of it before I realized I had to pour it over a cup with a mouth large enough to catch the liquor regardless of whether or not it dripped from the bottom or actually poured out the tiny crevice I allowed to temporarily exist between the top of the caddy itself and the lid. But, all-in-all, it seems to work (how complicated does a vessel need to be to hold hot water, anyway). And there is something very different about brewing tea this way ( I always use one of our standard 48-OZ pots to brew most our tea in—unless I use a metal basket strainer for our sixteen-ounce mugs of tea, that is).

I’ll have to work with the pouring, but I think its manageable. Still, I wonder about how thick the ‘bowl’ is supposed to be. If I did short infusion times, I wouldn’t think it would matter much; but the way I steep oolongs is a compromise between gong-fu brewing and western style: I start at 45 seconds and then add about 30 seconds for each successive steeping, thus working my way up to about 2-3 minutes and four or more infusions depending on how much flavor I yield from each steeping. I don’t do gong-fu because I have found that really short steeping times makes the flavor too light for me (I can barely taste any flavor out of this one steeped ‘accidentally’ for about 1 min). Still, as I write this, I would like to try shorter steep times, but I am thinking I may need to go with higher leaf-to-water ratio (I used the standard 2-3 grams of dry tea per 8-OZ of water) to help with the flavor and hope I can also get more steepings out of it that way (it is important that I minimize the cost per cup, or at least, per steeping, living simply and all).

I am in the process of working with my ‘new’ camera to get a picture of the sugar caddy so I can post it, but it looks pretty standard; at least, I’ve seen similar round, lidded sugar caddies in restaurants here in the States (not the open box type that hold sugar packets and sweetener).

Has anyone else used containers other than a pot or an actual gaiwan to brew oolongs (or any tea) in?

Anyway, I though I would share this with you all. Any answers, comments or suggestions?

62 Replies
Azzrian said

I almost tried this but there is an inner lip on the caddy which the gaiwan does not have this I figure would cause it not to pour well and potentially spill. I got a gaiwan for really cheap although its probably not the best gaiwan it is fine for me for now.

You are right, Azzrian, the lip is a big messy problem. Still, it’s fun using something I already have. After showing my wife how I have been using it, proud of my inventiveness, she asked with incredulity, “Why can’t you just use a tea ball?” I then simply looked at her, mentally paging through all of the various responses (some not very ‘polite’ ones), and in my hesitation, she shrugged (seeming resigned to my course of action) and said, “So, you could just use a teaball?” with the unspoken “but you simply choose not to?” And I said, with as straight a face as I could manage, ‘Yes’. Ahh, the life of a misunderstood tea enthusiast!

Azzrian said

LOL great story! Thats too funny and sad at the same time … so misunderstood.
Ask her if she could shampoo her hair with bar soap. :p

Good point. I just asked her your rhetorical question, and we both got a good chuckle out of it.
: )

Azzrian said

Happy to mediate! :P

“Because tea balls suck hippo nuts,” would have been my answer. Stated calmly, I think that’s polite enough. :P

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Your issue with pouring is precisely the problem that I thought would arise when I read your subject heading. A gaiwan does not have that inner lip that would interfere with the pouring.

As far as thickness, I don’t know how important that actually is. The gaiwan that I use on a daily basis is almost the thickness of what a china sugar caddy might be, I would think. That is to say it is thicker than some gaiwans out there … most of the cheaper gaiwans are very thin, what I call eggshell porcelain. And the problem with those, at least for me, is that they get so hot that I end up burning my fingers as I try to pour the tea into my cup. I’m sure there is a better way to pour it so that this doesn’t happen, but, I have since found a gaiwan that is thicker, plus has little spots on the side that I call “handles” (although they aren’t traditional handles) that stay cool so that my fingers don’t get burned. Here is the gaiwan that I have, and exactly where I purchased it from:

I love it, and have since gotten rid of most of the other gaiwans that I had, with the exception of one that I received as a gift for christmas that is part of a full set.

Thanks, LiberTEAS, you’re certainly right about the lip. And I appreciate the tip on the thin gaiwans. Using the sugar caddy is hot enough when I pour it; I don’t think I could handle it being much hotter.

I checked out the gaiwan at the link you provided (the first one), and it looks simple enough, and elegant; I think I see what you mean by the “handles”. I haven’t priced gaiwans but $20 doesn’t sound too bad.

Still, even with the all of mess when using the sugar caddy, the tea still tastes good, and the tea leaves look more at home (when not being steeped) nestled quietly within it’s small bowl than sitting in a metal strainer, exposed, on top of my somewhat-larger teapot (which it normally does when I steep an oolong loose in my glass Bodum); so the time being, sugar caddy it is!

Addition: Wow, the one at Yunnan Sourcing US is half the price! And it looks like the same one …

Missy said

That’s a pretty awesome gaiwan. Seems like it would be good for people just learning how to use one. Thanks for the links!

Azzrian said

Ummm it has been TWO months and I still do not have my yunan sourcing items.
IF you are talking about this site:
never mind – your talking about a diff place.

chadao said

As far as thickness of walls go, this is my experience. I always brew my high-end oolongs at boiling, just because they can take it. I use thinner walls for greener oolongs, since they release heat a bit more easily, and I have found that the faster-cooling temps are good for this kind of tea. For darker oolongs, I use a thicker walled vessel, since they retain heat better, and I like the water to remain as hot as possible for as long as possible for this kind of tea.

Thank you, chadao!

You directly addressed one of my key questions: do thicker gaiwans hold the heat longer (clearly, thicker walls means more ‘insulation’, but I didn’t know how much heat could dissipate when we are talking, at most, a few minutes), and if it does, then when does that matter! So, greener oolongs do better with a little cooler water than the darker oolongs? Similar to how green teas like it cooler than black teas, then I imagine.

I’m learning more and more about oolongs! Uh-oh, just don’t tell my wife (she doesn’t like them, at least not yet, …)

You know, your wife may like Oolongs better after they’ve been steeped in a Gaiwan… there really is a world of difference in flavor.

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Azzrian said

My main problem with gaiwans is I have freakishly small hands.

I have similar problem. You may aim at those with 120ml volume or smaller. Another main problem of mine is, I seem to break things fast :-p I often see hair line split on my gaiwan and don’t even know when I did it :-?

Azzrian said

Its the gaiwan gnomes!!!!
Thanks good suggestion – when I ordered mine I didn’t even know how to use it let alone there were sizes!

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I want to get a real gaiwan, but for now I’m using a tasting cup set I bought from Adagio for $9. It’s 2 or 3 oz and requires a bit of practice to get it to pour without spilling (I still usually drip at least something on the desk). It works great though.

It’s pretty good and the outcome is not that different from gaiwan.

Sort of what I figured, but hey. Buy all the tea supplies!

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Once I was in a place where there was nothing! Nothing! That’s what I used – mug and dish:

It was not handy. But anything is better than nothing :-p

Azzrian said

Wow I have LOST my mind – Im on your blog looking for the “like” button …

I just did a fifth infusion, and up until now it has been working out fairly well (no mishaps), but this last one was at three minutes, with boiling water, and although I noticed that the edges of the bowl were hotter than before when I grabbed it between my fingers—yeah, you know what’s coming—and I still poured it as I have for the other infusions, it became so hot for my fingers that it all slipped and I almost broke the large mug (which I am using as a decanter) and the bowl itself (luckily, neither broke, as I poured just above the top of the mug, but it did make a loud noise). And one of my fingers is now burning to boot! So, I am starting to think this is not even the best temporary solution. : – }

I do like how the sugar bowl looks, and all, but I think using a wide mug and putting a simple tea saucer over it may be my best temporary solution (although not as elegant). That way, the mug and saucer should be easier to control when pouring. UPDATE: I just looked at your above-referenced post, Gingko, and that’s basically what I plan to do …

Ahh, well. This is making me want to buy an actual gaiwan now. (Shhhh, don’t say anything to my wife, though, who happens to be sitting near me, quietly reading as I sit here typing away!)

I just tried it with a mug and a lid, and it was still challenging—as it still felt almost as hot to the touch, and it was awkward as I have never tried it that way, and I spilled much of it—but it was easier than with the sugar caddy.

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Dinosara said

When I was in China I had two medium-sized mugs with lids provided in my hotel room. I think a lot of Chinese would just leave the leaves in the mug while they drink it and thus it’s not a problem, but I can’t really deal with oversteeping so I decided to use the mug and lid combo as a rough gaiwan. Over the first two weeks I was there I used this every day, and every day I spilled tea out of it because it was impossible to pour out of a straight sided mug and not have the tea run down the outside (fortunately there was also a tray provided). Then the last week I was there I got a gaiwan… not an easy gaiwan, just a regular one, and let me tell you it changed my life. The flare on the rim of the gaiwan combined with how the lid fit with it is made for pouring, and I didn’t spill a drop. It was amazing, and it really made me appreciate the design of the gaiwan and how well suited it is for its task.

I totally understand wanting to work with what you have, but even a cheap gaiwan would probably make your life so much easier.

Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’ve some to after spilling so much of it on my last infusion trying it the second time with the mug and saucer. I judge I’m stubborn, and it takes lots of failures before I finally throw in the towel (earlier today I tried to see how fitting a tiny Japanese tea cup over the top of a cream dispenser would work; although it was an almost perfect fit, there were still too many gaps, and it looked pretty silly to boot). Consider the towel thrown. : – }

Missy said

We ordered a gaiwan from for a decent price. I believe it was $13.00 plus $3.50 for shipping if I remember right. I got the dragon and it seems pretty thick to me. I wouldn’t characterize it as eggshell porcelain. I think it took about 4 days from ordering to picking up the box on my porch.

Very stylish!

I don’t like to admit this, but It’s hard enough for me to brew up only one cup (to me, that’s eight ounces) at a time, let along 4.3 OZ. I DRAW THE LINE AT EIGHT! OK, I’m just trying to be silly, but drinking tea in such small amounts certainly would change the way I drink tea. I’m not saying it’s bad, just DOWNRIGHT UNSETTLING, that’s all.

Thanks for the link. And I hope you don’t mind my silliness just now. ; )

Missy said

Lol, silliness is good! I’m pretty goofy most of the time. :D

I tend to brew in bigger portions as well. I figured with a gaiwan, I can taste each infusion and then pour them all into a “make fair cup” that is big enough for me and Dylan to share. He won’t mind if I taste them first, I’m sure. It seems like I can get more bang for my buck that way. I have a really hard time drinking 4 of my teapots. We have a 42 ounce teapot and by the time I’ve gotten through the second infusion, I’m ready for a different tea. Any who, I wish you good luck in your quest for a gaiwan!

Thank you! : )

I was looking at the link LiberTEAS provided, and there was only one that Yunnan Sourcing US had that was even close to 8 OZ (200 ml), but plenty at about 150 – 160 ml. So, I am beginning to suspect I may have to settle for something like a 6OZ gaiwan if I want a good enough selection to chose from, but I’m not for certain.

Are there that many affordable gaiwans around 8 OZ (or even a little more)?

jones5874 said

I haven’t seen many 200mls out there, but a few do pop up if you google it. I read somewhere that the large size used to be more common – especially in restaurants – but I would assume that the way people brew has become less traditional. (maybe someone with more knowledge could offer more on this subject)

I now have both a 100ml and a 200ml. As someone with smaller hands, the 100 is the perfect size for me for daily use, and anything above 150 is more unwieldy and I find I have to pour it differently (more awkwardly, at least for me). However, I do love the larger one when I want to brew a larger quantity gaiwan-style and have less time. Another thing I like about the smaller size is that I can play around more with temperature and time and don’t have to use as much leaf. Also, if I am using a tea from which you can get many infusions, I opt for the smaller one.

So, I think there are many considerations and everyone has a preference, but I was surprised by how much I liked the small size when I was first getting into gaiwans.

The 200ml is close to the traditional size for green tea. For oolong, most people I’ve seen in the gongfu tea regions (in Southern China) would use sizes of 160ml or smaller. Larger gaiwans from Northern China were traditionally used for green tea and used in a slightly different way than the gongfu gaiwan. 200ml could be a little hard even for a man to grab, considering the volume, weight, and heat accumulated – but that’s not always true as averagely American men seem to have larger hands than Asian men :-p But generally the larger the gaiwan, the more heat accumulated to burn the fingers.

Aiko said

I actually prefer small gaiwans, like 100ml and below; currently my most beloved gaiwan is 90ml and I can’t imagine a more perfect size for me. Maybe it’s my tiny hands, or my stomach’s limited liquid capacity.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of brewing up a only a few ounces of tea at a time, but the more of you who post and tell me that’s how you do it, and knowing that that’s the way the Chinese traditionally did/do it (Although I can be very pragmatic, tradition does have weight with me, especially Chinese tradition, when it comes to Tea), the more I think, “Hmmm, there must be something to that …”

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BJC said

I actually tried the same EXACT experiment that you did using a sugar caddy. I wanted to try gongfu style brewing but finding a gaiwan in Africa is hard. I haven’t even seen one in two years. Anyway, needless to say, I had the EXACT same results. But hey, anything is worth a try, right?

As far as gaiwan options, I’ve been eyeing some of the selection from here at jkteashop. Namely, the following:

Glad to hear others have tried the same thing!

Yes, as long as the possible consequences are not too dire, anything is worth a try.

US$4.50 for that gaiwan? Wow. Thanks for the link.

I don’t know if you read all of the posts here, but my conclusion is that it’s quite messy, and unfortunately using the sugar caddy wasn’t really manageable, especially not when the temperature of the water in the final steepings was boiling. I think the messy-ness could be managed (I was able to minimize the spillage by pouring quickly—I didn’t mind a little bit of it being wasted) if the entire thing wasn’t so darned hot, and thus so difficult to pour. As Gingko mentioned, more water means more heat, and so, I’m not sure, but it seems as though 8OZ of boiling water generates too much heat for my hand (which I consider to be of normal size for a man of my height) to be able to endure—even when the whole thing cooled after 3 minutes steeping time.

I have been surreptitiously eying other small bowls we have in our China cabinet—ones that don’t have a lip—but we don’t have any small ceramic ‘piece’ that I can think of to use as a lid for it. I am considering buying a gaiwan, but that means having another ‘thing’ around, and I like to keep my possessions to a minimum (for me it’s not just about the money). So for now, buying one is on hold.

jones5874 said

SimpliciTEA, I hear ya about the keeping possessions to a minimum. I have a pretty strict “one item in, one item out” policy (probably due to the fact that my parents have trouble getting rid of things…). I figure someone else can always use what I don’t want/need if I donate it. Also, I move occasionally and it is not practical to have too many things.

I’d say be inventive – try as many little bowls as you want and figure out what works. Also, you may find that different bowls work best for different teas. Sounds like a fun project!

Thank you for the encouragement, wokeupfuzzy! You comment spurred me on! I tried a traditional tea cup, with a small plate (smaller in diameter than the standard saucer that comes with it) for the ‘lid’. It worked better than using the sugar caddy or the mug, but it was still not very … fun to use (still better than using a standard teapot, though). Part of it was that I was using a flavor-added oolong from Teavana, and all of the flavoring bits made a total mess when they slipped through the small crevice between lid and cup I made (a crevice that the leaves would not fit through). Once I got rid of those flavoring bits on the later steepings, it wasn’t too bad (yet another reason I am not a not fan of flavor-added teas, as they sometimes add complexity to brewing).

I enjoy being resourceful, but I think, in the long run, getting a gaiwan is best for me. Although I don’t strictly adhere to the "“one item in, one item out” policy, I am with you on that, as I am on the it’s “not practical to have too many things.” A have also moved many times (when I was younger), and I think, in part, that’s why I am careful about not owning too many things; when shopping, I often find myself thinking (or saying) things like, “Uh, honey, that thing is pretty big, and it looks pretty heavy/delicate/hard-to-wrap, are we sure we really need that?” : )

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Barb said

Now I have to look into acquiring a gaiwan. Five minutes ago I had never HEARD of a gaiwan. Thanks, y’all. ;-)

I had planned to defile my sample of Amethyst with an infuser or maybe a French press. Maybe I’ll just dump it into a mug and see what happens.

If you do (use a mug), please let us know how it worked out for you!

Barb said

So far, I’ve chickened out. There’s a tea shop near me that’s open late tomorrow night so I’m going to stop by after work to check out their teaware. I will let you know what I end up doing.


Very cool picture of your Scottish wildcat.

Barb said

Can’t take credit for the wildcat. I think I nabbed it from here: or possibly just from a Google image search!

Alas, my visit to the local tea shop did not end with me carrying a gaiwan home. They offered to special-order one for me but I want to learn more about them. So it will probably be back to the loose tea in a mug or Western pot for me.

They had a couple of small pots with a more Western style but a built-in wire mesh inside covering the spout opening and a handle on the side. It was a right-handed design, and I am left-handed so it felt awkward for me.

Too bad they didn’t have any. : (

Good luck if you do end up looking for one in “Chinatown”!

Barb said

And (facepalm) I discovered the “Western” style pots with the handle on the side are Japanese.

I think I’m just going to go on the Interwebs and order me one of them beginner gaiwans like the one LiberTEAS mentioned way up in this thread.

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Hrmmmm, so… take into mind and and all thoughts expressed by me past this point should probably be considered silly at the very least, if not full on crazy/reckless/stupid.

So, I was thinking about the whole lip thing on the sugar caddy. What if you took say a Dremel tool, and grinded the lip of the sugar caddy down on one side, so that it gave you a somewhat pourable spot? In case you’re unfamiliar, a Dremel is like a handheld orbital sander, roughly the size of an electric toothbrush.

Anyway, if you grind down one small section of the lip of the sugar caddy, you would remove some of the issues which are causing you to spill. It should theoretically be small enough (in width) that it wouldn’t interfere with the lid function. The fact that the one point would be an obvious breach would allow you to control the stream that you’re pouring a lot easier too (at least, I think so).

Probably a silly idea, but with the right tools and an otherwise unused sugar caddy, it could be something to think about. Though, you’d be grinding off the finish, so presumably the pottery on the lip would no longer be glazed, and would start to stain. Not strong enough in pottery-fu to know whether this would have any kind of structural integrity issues.

Yeah. This sounds worse and worse the more I think about it. You’re probably better off just buying a gaiwan.

The clear glass gaiwans on eBay are purdy. If I ever seriously contemplate tea pictures and blogging, I’m buying one of those.

Hey, I can handle so-called ‘crazy/reckless/stupid’ ideas as my wife would probably enthusiastically agree with me when I say I am ‘full of’ many myself. ; )

Yes, it turns out I am very familiar with what a Dremel is (although its been years since I used one; very handy, those). Very interesting idea to take off a part of the lip to help reduce spillage. Although I consider myself to be resourceful, I’m not quite THAT resourceful (although I have at least one friend that I believe has one, I don’t). I bet it would work, though. It’s more the overall weight and amount of heat that’s the real problem, anyway. But thanks for the idea, Dylan. I am a firm believer that some of the best ideas are the ones that seem crazy-insane when they are first conceived and spoken of.

“pottery-fu”: I love it! I am guessing this is some made-up word that means something like, highly skilled at pottery making?

Exactly :)

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As I said in a comment a little while ago, I can’t imagine brewing Oolong or Pu-erh in anything other than my gaiwan now. Although with some flavored Oolong teas, I do go ahead and use my breville to steep them … but, really, the gaiwan produces the best flavor of the higher quality Oolongs and Pu-erh. It also makes the rinse a lot easier.

SimpliciTEA, if you happen to have a Asian Mall near where you live, or an Asian tea house, try visiting one. You might be able to find a really inexpensive gaiwan and not have to pay the shipping charges. I have found them for as low as $2. at my local Asian Mall. (Plus, I love going to the market in the mall and filling my freezer full of Steamed Buns, YUM!)

What a great idea! There are no Asia stores close, but there are plenty that are close enough (I love seeing all of the raw fish, and other interesting-looking sea creatures, on display in large glass cases, myself. : p ). I will definitely have to keep this in mind! Thanks for the idea, LIberTEAS!

Regarding the “the gaiwan produces the best flavor of the higher quality Oolongs and Pu-erh” statement (which I have heard many times), the scientist in me wants to do a side-by-side comparison of the flavor using both methods (one using a gaiwan, and the other using a standard, largish Western-style pot). If I do (when I do eventually get a gaiwan, as I don’t think its a matter of ‘if’, but rather, ‘when’) I will be sure to report back.

jones5874 said

On the issue of gaiwans and tea quality, for me it just works best because I find I have more control over brewing in smaller quantities. I still sometimes use a teapot for larger amounts when I have guests, but I rarely even use my large basket to brew in mugs. I love my little gaiwan and have gotten so accustomed to it that I even use it for Japanese greens with small leaves.

As for finding one at a store rather than the internet – good luck! I live in a fairly large city with a sizable Chinese population and still could not find one here. I had to go to that Big City to find one. Maybe I’m just not in the know! At least perusing Asian stores/markets is enjoyable.

Barb said

I thought I might find one at my local tea shop, which seems to have an Asian bent, but they were only able to offer me a special order from a catalog. The lady behind the counter did ask whether I had been to “Chinatown” (yes, my big Gulf Coast City has an area with that nickname!) so we’ll see.

I just got back from visiting two Asian-market type stores in my mid-sized city and neither store had any gaiwans (although, at the first store I only had time to glance at what they had). Both had plenty of tea pots, and the first had plenty of what looked to be Italian Infuser mugs. In the process, I asked 4 – 5 Asian employees if they had any gaiwans ( I just did a search to make sure I was pronouncing it correctly, and based on this link, evidently I was ), and none seemed to understand what I was asking for. I then basically described it as ‘teacup with a lid’, and it seemed as though two of them finally understood what I was talking about. One Asian gentleman (probably at least in his fifties, possibly in his sixties) said something to the effect of, they are old fashioned, or out of style now. If that’s true, maybe that’s why few Asian stores (or any other store for that matter) carry them anymore.

So, I did end up buying a nice traditional tea pot (can’t beat $7USD for a nice looking porcelain teapot with a ceramic basket/infuser!), and my wife simply loves it (I didn’t want to walk out of there empty handed, after-all, especially since the Asian man running the store was so friendly and helpful)! It looks like it is a four-cup teapot, so at least it’s a little smaller than the other three teapots we own (all six-cup), and it has the standard holes inside and near the spout to help with the straining if I want to let the leaves roam freely while steeping—instead of using the basket-infuser. AND, the lid more-or-less fits one of our little ramekins (like the one shown here ), so I may be able to use the lid and ramekin as a kind of make-shift gaiwan. Ah, the search for the best-and-most-resourceful-way-to-mimic-a-gaiwan-without-actually-having-one continues …

Missy said

I looked all over Tacoma Asian markets, and not one of them I visited had a Taiwan. I thought it was strange.

SimpliciTea, shopping is dangerous! You went for a gaiwan, and end up buying a teapot. If your gaiwan shopping goes on, who knows what else you will buy! :-p

Missy said

LOL Gingko does have an excellent point there.

And I know many of us are guilty of it :-p

Actually, I don’t consider myself to be a compulsive shopper (haha!). I’ve been looking for a new teapot, sort of. I often brew up 4 cups of tea in the evening for the two of us; and from what I have read about brewing vessels (and from much of what y’all have said) smaller is better, so I have been wanting to get a new teapot as long as it: had a capacity smaller than six cups (preferably between 2 – 4 cups), was traditional-looking, was functional (as in, not-too-weird a shape as some box type teapots—I used one recently at friends house—where it’s hard to get the last few drops of tea out of the corners), and was inexpensive enough (under $10USD); so this teapot actually fits the bill. I tried it this morning—without the basket infuser—with an oolong, and we are both happy with it so far. It has a smaller spout and so it pours more slowly; that took a bit of adjusting to, but now I like that about it as it forces me to slow down some while pouring. I hope to follow the ‘item in, item out’ approach to simplicity, so we’ll see if I can come up with some ‘item’ to get rid of now. : p

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