How do you choose the proper vessel for sipping that fine, perfectly infused tea? Well, it’s easy, and I’ll show you why it matters.
Some teacups seem to go naturally with certain types of tea. Green teas and oolongs seems best in a chawan (tea bowl or handleless cup), for example, while a hearty Classic English Breakfast Tea or Classic Irish Breakfast Tea isn’t quite the same if not served in a sturdy mug. And the delicate muscatel of Darjeeling teas is truly enhanced by a fine bone china or glass teacup.
Why Use a Chawan
Sipping from a chawan gets you close to the tea, and they are usually smaller, so you get more of a focus on that moment of bringing cup to lips.
A chawan is a small bowl used for sipping tea. It has no handle, a fact steeped in tea history. They are originally from China, from whence tea was first brought to Europe by the Dutch and their trading partners in France. Along with that tea came small bowls for sipping the tea. (In China, tea is consumed very differently, more revered, it seems.) At that time, tea in Europe was enjoyed mainly by the very rich (due to the high cost and risk of bringing the tea to them), and sipping from bowls did not fit their idea of good manners, plus the bowls got too hot to handle, causing spills and dropping of those bowls. So, they sought a more genteel (and less finger scorching) way of imbibing that wonderful liquid.
Ceramists in Europe were able to figure out how to attach a handle that would stay cool and attached to the cup all at once. From that point, the chawans were set aside in favor of these cups. Today, though, with teas like matcha and the gongfu style of tea steeping gaining in popularity, the chawan is regaining its own popularity among tea drinkers. (See Choose Your Chawan (Tea Bowl) with Care.)
Why Use a Teacup
Teacups provide ease of sipping while keeping fingers cool. Can be larger sized for those more hearty teas.
A cup is a bowl with a handle (according to several potters I know). It turns out to be fairly tricky to attach a handle to a bowl. The clay of the newly formed bowl has to be firm but not totally dry. The clay used to make the handle has to be a bit more moist. The area where they are joined has to be scored, pressed together, and held for a few seconds or so to assure a good connection. The more delicate the teacup, the trickier this can be. There is also the issue of heat transference. The handle needs to stay cool enough to be held onto while sipping the tea, an issue with most glass teacups I have used. The advantage, though, is being able to better see and appreciate the tea liquid as well as having that air of delicacy that can make tea time special. Of course, porcelain and bone china teacups also have that air to them.
Why Use a Mug
Mugs are generally sturdier and therefore better for carrying around or having in areas where knocking over those more delicate teacups would be a problem.
The variety is seemingly endless, in either porcelain, ceramic, glass, or even some metals (pewter used to be popular). Sizes, shapes, colors, handle size and location, lidded or lidless, and decoration are restricted only by imagination (and certain practical considerations). Brick-and-mortar stores carry limited selections, but online shops seem to offer an infinite variety. Decorations cover holidays, sports, hobbies, professions, humor, and on and on. Small wonder. A nice mug is the quintessential gift. Is a relative having a birthday? Give ’em a mug. Your son or daughter have a favorite teacher? Say “Thanks” with a nice mug. But that’s not the only reason for the popularity of mugs. A mug in the hand, whether filled with coffee, cocoa, or tea, is comforting. It takes away the chill of a Winter’s day, especially after you’ve been outside for hours, raking leaves or shoveling snow. It also fills the hand just right, giving you something homey and solid to hold onto. Just about any of the darker, stronger tasting teas go great in a mug. From hearty Ceylon Mountain Tea to Pumpkin Spice Black Tea.
The Choice Is Yours
Do you need a cup with a handle at all? That’s up to you. Some teas seem to be sipped best from a gaiwan or a small handleless cup like they serve your tea to you in at Chinese and Japanese restaurants. Teas like oolongs, green teas, white teas, and pu-erhs. Others, such as a Breakfast Blend or Earl Grey, seem fit for a nice handled teacup. Sometimes a particular mug or cup, with or without a handle, just feels good in your hands. It has the right “heft” (weight and feel), which can be as comforting as the tea in it.