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Tea Brewing Utensils

What are tea brewing utensils?

In essence, one can brew tea using just a single cup. Yet, in the pursuit of a finer tea experience, people kept developing new technologies and tools. In his Classic of Tea, the Sage of Tea Lu Yu describes as many as twenty eight different tools for brewing and drinking tea. Of course, the people of the Tang dynasty prepared and drank tea in a very different way than we do today.

his painting depicts the scene of literati and scholars drinking wine and composing poems with friends. The garden is full of green grass, surrounded by carved railings and sparse trees. Nine scribes are sitting around the table. Two people are standing talking under the tree. There are also nine child servants. The figures are vivid and graceful, showing the appearance of a scholar. A scene of drinking, writing poems and talking freely.
"Wen Hui Tu"(文会图) is a silk color painting jointly created by Zhao Ji and a court painter in the Northern Song Dynasty. It is now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

The painting above depicts a scene of a literati gathering in a courtyard, drinking wine and writing poems, while young servants prepare the tea. The tea preparation at the time involved grinding the tea leaves to a powder, which was then stewed. This meticulous process involved many steps and instruments.

Both tea production and tea drinking evolved over time and continue to do so today. As such, the tools people use to brew and drink tea also change depending on the location, tradition and technology/technique. The contemporary Taiwanese and Chinese tea tradition revolves mostly around steeping whole dry leaves in small brewing vessels over short periods. Let us thus focus on the tools used for this kind of brewing.

Modern Chinese tea utensils

six gentlemen of the tea ceremony

Six Gentlemen of the Tea Ceremony

The 21st-century Han Chinese are more familiar with the Six Gentlemen of the Tea Ceremony or 茶道六君子 (chádào liù jūnzǐ). The Six Gentlemen of the Tea Ceremony (the Six Uses of Tea Art) refers to the tea utensil holder, tea spoon, tea funnel, tea scoop, tea tongs, and tea needles.

six gentlemen of the tea ceremony

  1. Tea utensil holder 茶筒 (chátǒng): a container for holding the tea utensils.

  2. Tea spoon 茶匙 (cháchí): also known as 茶扒 (chábā). Its main purpose is to dig out the brewed tea leaves out of the teapot. After the tea is brewed, the leaves will often fill the teapot tightly. The mouth of the teapot isn't large, and it is neither convenient nor hygienic to dig out the tea leaves by hand, so a teaspoon is used. It can also be used to assist in adding the dry tea leaves into the pot before brewing.

  3. Tea funnel 茶漏 (chálòu): the tea funnel is placed on the mouth of the pot to guide the dry tea leaves into the pot and prevent them from falling out of the pot.

  4. Tea scoop 茶则 (cházé): the tea scoop is used to add the dry tea leaves to the pot. It is used to measure tea leaves to ensure the correct amount of tea will be used. Most of them are made of bamboo or wood.

  5. Tea tongs 茶夹 (chájiā): also known as "tea chopsticks", tea tongs have the same function as the tea spoon. They can help remove the tea residue from the pot. They are also often used to wash tea cups, which is more hygienic and prevents from scalding your hands.

  6. Tea needle 茶针 or 茶通 (cházhēn or chátōng): the function of the tea needle is to clear the inner filter of the teapot to keep the water flowing smoothly. When the spout is blocked by tea leaves, the needle is used to clear it, or to stir the tea leaves evenly after adding the tea leaves, and then break them into pieces. The tea needle is sometimes combined with the tea spoon: one end is the tea needle and the other is the spoon. It is usually made of bamboo or wood.

Tea filter

The tea filter ensures that the tea soup in the fairness cup will always be clear and translucent, and guests will not drink tea residue. Otherwise, the guests will have to worry about whether to spit out the tea residue or swallow it. However, tea filters have advantages and disadvantages. For example, when brewing white tea, the tea filter will filter out the white hair in it. And these filtered hairs are precisely the essence of white tea.

When the water contains abundant tea hairs, the white tea brew will be thick and fragrant. This difference is caused by the white hairs being immersed in the soup. Therefore, the richer the white tea, the higher the quality. If you buy a high-mountain white tea covered in white hairs, but these are filtered out of your brew by the tea filter, it is not worth the money. For such cases, you can either you can use a filter with larger holes or no filter at all.

Tea tray, tea boat, tea mat

The purpose of this tool is to catch and/or hold water that was spilled during the tea-making process. These vary in size, material, style, and function: from large expensive stone slabs the size of the table to the simple waterproof mat for the teapot and the cups, to the intricate stoneware boat that can fit only the teapot. The designs of these tools vary wildly as well: from traditional motifs carved or painted on the material to minimalistic shapes and simple colors - all to suit the mood and the needs of the tea ceremony.

Large stone or wooden tea trays (if one can even call them a tray at this point) are perfect for "wet" pouring tea preparation style, where lots of water and tea are splashed around. They help catch and drain all the water through a tube and are very easy to clean the tea stains by simply pouring boiling water over them.

Smaller trays made of bamboo or wood, as well as tea boats (usually made of ceramics, clay, or metal) are great for both "wet" and "dry" pouring styles and are transportable. A simple bamboo tray is also very affordable. They catch the water through the openings in the top surface and store it inside to be discarded after, or they may also have a tube that leads the water to a hidden container.

Tea mats don't store the water inside a hidden compartment and are therefore only suitable for the "dry" pouring technique. However, they have gained in popularity in recent years as more people find the "dry" pouring a more elegant and preferable way of preparing tea. They are also the easiest to transport and can be very affordable.

Fairness cup

What is known as a Fairness Cup (gōngdào bēi; 公道杯) or Tea Sea (chá hǎi; 茶海) is a pitcher used to divide tea into cups. Because the brewing of some tea varieties is very time-sensitive, even a difference of a few seconds or more will greatly change the quality of the tea brew. Therefore, even if it takes just ten seconds to pour the tea out of the pot, the intensity of the tea that comes out at the beginning and the end is very different.

To avoid uneven tea concentration among the cups, pour all the tea into the pitcher first, and then divide it into cups. At the same time, the pitcher catches the tea leaf residue (if any) and can be used without a filter.

Aroma Cup

An aroma cup or smelling cup 闻香杯 (wén xiāng bēi) is used for smelling tea. It is more slender than the teacup and is mostly used when brewing Taiwan's highly fragrant oolong (or any fragrant tea). It is usually matched with a drinking cup. The aroma cup, tasting cup, and saucer together make a set of aroma cups.

Step 1: pour the tea into the aroma cup
Step 1: pour the tea into the aroma cup

Step 2: put the tasting cup upside.down over the aroma cup
Step 2: put the tasting cup upside.down over the aroma cup

Step 3: press the cups together with your fingers and thumb. You can use one or both hands.
Step 3: press the cups together with your fingers and thumb. You can use one or both hands.

Step 4: flip the cups and place them on the table
Step 4: flip the cups and place them on the table

Step 5: rotate the aroma cup while pulling up to slowly release the tea
Step 5: rotate the aroma cup while pulling up to slowly release the tea

Step 6: rub the aroma cup between your palms and enjoy the aroma of the tea
Step 6: rub the aroma cup between your palms and enjoy the aroma of the tea

To use the aroma cup properly, pour the tea into it, then place the regular tea cup upside down over the aroma cup. Press the cups together securely with your fingers (using one or both hands), and quickly turn them upside down. Slowly pull the aroma cup by rotating it (this will let the tea transfer to the regular tea cup. Place the aroma cup on the table with the mouth facing upwards, then hold the scent cup with the palms of both hands close to the nose. Smell the tea aroma while rubbing your palms, so that the scent cup rotates. The purpose of this is to prevent the temperature of the scent cup from falling rapidly, which helps to disperse the aroma. After that, you may drink the tea from the tasting cup.

Tea pets & tea friends

Tea Pet or Tea Lover's Pet 茶寵 (cháchǒng) might no longer serve a utilitarian purpose in the modern tea tradition, but they certainly add an important emotional aspect to the procedure. They can keep you company if you're drinking tea alone, or be the topic of discussion with the guests at your tea table. Traditionally, tea pets are made from unglazed clay, metal, or stone, but virtually anything can be a tea pet. Whether you prefer a large mythological creature made of clay or a tiny rubber duck, it is up to you which one joins you at the table.

To feed the tea pet, one simply pours tea over it, usually the first steep or the last one, but there are no strict rules. Over time, a tea patina will accumulate on the surface of the tea pet, which is when the tea pet becomes "seasoned". If you're too lazy to "season" the pet naturally, you can speed up the process artificially by boiling the tea pet in tea for some time.

And yes, you can have as many tea pets as you want.

Final thoughts

There are other utensils we've decided to omit for this article, as they aren't used as often. Simply put, these tools assist in making tea. It can make the whole tea-drinking process more sophisticated, ritualistic, and awe-inspiring. No matter how much theoretical knowledge you read, it can't compare to brewing and drinking the tea yourself, observing the details, and developing your personal style.

Always consider how to make the best use of the tools you have, and don't spam them on every occasion, lest you might miss the wonderful flavor of tea. A tea set is only a helping tool; the key to good tea lies in yourself. Practice makes perfect, and even an extremely simple tea set can make delicious tea.


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