A welcome addition to your own personal tea adventure.
An important part of any true gongfu tea ceremony is the sniffing cup (also called the “tall cup” and aroma cup). While there is some question on whether there is any real Chinese tea ceremony or if the West has adopted a “tea show” as a true ceremony akin to the Japanese Chanoyu ceremony, the use of sniffing cups is definitely on the rise. The main users are those who want to get the most sensory enjoyment from the premium teas they have been drinking for awhile, sometimes even for years. One thing is for sure: you never run out of new experiences with tea!
[Side note: “gongfu” (or “kungfu”) simply means “done with skill.]
Why even use one of these sniffing cups?
The answer is simple: aroma. While the senses of taste and smell are closely aligned in the human head (just think back to that bad head cold you had where you could neither taste or smell), the aroma and the flavors in the tea liquid (also called “liquor” or “soup”) can vary quite a bit from the taste. And the shape of the sniffing cup focuses the aroma in the liquid to make it have an even bigger impact than in the sipping cup (also called a “drinking bowl) where the aroma is not concentrated and also goes up into the air. Some tea drinkers pour first into the sniffing cup, appreciate the aroma of the tea, and then pour the liquid into the sipping cup. Others enjoy them side by side, comparing the aroma in the sniffing cup to the taste in the sipping cup. They can be quite different. While taste and aroma are closely aligned, they are processed differently by our bodies and brains.
Often the sniffing cups and drinking bowls come as sets. The photo above is made of white celadon, a type of ceramic that originated in China, at such kilns as the notable Longquan in the Zhejiang province. Examples of pieces using a celadon glaze were found dating as long ago as 25–220 AD (the Eastern Han Dynasty). The set shown above is super white, similar to the color of Nephrite Jade. They come in other materials, too, including zisha clay and glass.
You can also get sniffing cups as a normal part of a whole tea set, like this one:
The dragon design makes it especially appealing, dragons being a symbol of wisdom and beauty. Considering that tea is said to make us wiser, this pairing seems very fitting!
Enjoy your next fine tea to its fullest by taking in not just the flavor but all the aroma with sniffing cups.