When you reach for a teacup, do you ever have to think about it? If you’re a somewhat tea-obsessed individual, yeah, you get this, and you may have joined me in pausing and deliberating.
Aesthetics or just functionality? Match teacups to teapot? Or teacup to tea type? Serving guests or no? Drinking mindfully or absentmindedly?
While we may—correctly—assume that the brewing method, including type/size/shape of teapot, if one is used, is far more important than what cup we use to serve the tea, the cup does matter!
There are multiple factors to consider:
- type of material
- shape of cup
- size of cup
- type of tea going into the cup
- where tea will be consumed
with an array of possible materials:
- clay, unglazed (various types of clay)
- pottery, earthenware (various glazes)
- pottery, stoneware (various glazes)
- pottery, porcelain (including bone china)
- stainless steel
- disposables (plastic, polystyrene foam, coated paper)
Enough choices to quite paralyze you—especially when you realize that the quality of your tea may be diminished if you use the incorrect cup! And, just as in the wine world, there are people who can distinguish all the nuances so the choice of cup matters a great deal to them.
Not being in that population myself, I simply try to take note of what teacups work the best for whatever tea I happen to be drinking, keeping in mind a few guidelines.
The Aroma of Our Tea
The major part of taste is actually our sense of smell. When allergies or colds interfere with what we can smell, we find that nothing tastes as it should. A good teacup should maximize how we experience tea’s aroma. The width, depth, and material of the cup all impact aroma because they either direct the aroma to your nose, or they do not.
Teacup Porosity, Thickness, and More
If the cup is porous, flavor and aroma may sink into the cup rather than being released.
This, however, works both ways—an unglazed clay cup or a tenmoku cup, which has a high iron content, will indeed change the tea but for the right tea, these cups will absorb certain elements so that the flavor is improved rather than diminished. They may soften a tea, or bring out certain notes.
You have a reaction between the material of the cup and the tea, somewhat akin to aging wine or spirits in an oak barrel. There is an exchange between container and liquid, and done correctly, the liquid vastly improves. And note that there are different types of clay, with each having a unique impact on tea.
But not all teas will improve by reacting with the cup. And I don’t refer just to polystyrene foam cups, which indeed react, very negatively, with the tea!
You don’t want to lose the bright notes of a black tea, for example.
Smooth, nonporous cups such as glass, bone china, and porcelain will remain inert, not changing the tea’s aroma and flavor in essence—yet they do still influence how you experience your tea. For instance, a shallow cup cools your tea more rapidly, a narrow cup directs aroma more precisely. Sipping from a paper-thin cup is vastly different from drinking from a thicker lip.
Back in the 1600 and 1700s, Europeans were taken with Chinese porcelain due to its glasslike properties, its non-reactivity with its contents, its clean breaks, its thinness—all the things that earthenware was not!
Many tea drinkers favor thin cups as they allow the tea to glide over your tongue differently, and more fully, than when you drink from a thicker cup. A thinner material encourages mindful sipping, whereas a thicker material readily allows faster and larger intake.
As I write this, I realize that my thicker-walled china travel mug forces the tea to stay at the tip of my tongue, and then I tend to quickly swallow it, which means the liquid is quickly bypassing most of my taste buds. Not to mention that its lid prevents any experience of aroma at all. Definitely not an ideal way to drink a cup of good tea.
There are also plenty of stoneware cups, somewhere between the high porosity of unglazed clay and non-porous porcelain. They often have thicker walls and lips. Unless dedicated to tea, or designed for tea, these are mostly better suited for coffee.
And don’t forget color. Many research dollars go into figuring out what most appeals to consumers and how they perceive the drink’s quality, which changes according to the color of the cup! There’s also the color that the tea takes when it’s in the cup, which changes according to color of cup, depth of the liquid, etc., and which influences your perception of what you’re drinking.
Or heat retention. You want the tea to cool quickly enough to drink it in a reasonable amount of time, yet you don’t want it to cool down too quickly. Besides the cup’s material, the size and shape also play a role. Thinner walls, shallower cups, wide openings, and glass all allow heat to be lost more quickly. The Soma ware tea set below is constructed of double-wall porcelain for better heat retention. Its cylindrical shape also helps preserve heat.
And then there’s the whole cup-with-or-without-handle issue.
Looking back into Western tea ware history, handles eventually were added to European tea cups for various reasons:
- to differentiate them from coffee and cocoa cups, thus forcing people to buy multiple types of cups;
- because black tea, more often drunk in Europe than in China, was brewed at higher temperatures, and when it was no longer fashionable to drink out of the saucer, it was more practical to have a handle on the cup;
- as tea became cheaper in Europe, cup size increased—but then it was easier to hold the larger cup if it had a handle;
- people wanted novelty in their teacups.
These reasons are still valid considerations. If you want a large serving of steaming hot tea, a sturdy china cup with handle will suit your purposes. But if you are sipping a pricy green tea, that small handle-less cup is perfect.
Although many of us dream of sipping tea in some lovely garden, the reality is that we are grabbing tea as we run out the door or picking it up to-go.
Going the travel cup route, I find that my china cup, aside from the issues listed above, doesn’t keep tea hot for very long at all. It’s pretty, but has little else to recommend it.
Stainless steel is rather an extraordinary substance, self-healing and insanely durable. It’ll keep your brew hot, although not without coloring flavor to some degree.
Plastic and polystyrene foam, just no. Coated paper really isn’t too bad, especially when you need to-go and disposable.
In the end, you can drink tea from any container you want, but when you invest in a really terrific tea, you want to maximize your experience of it.
Which includes pausing for a second before you reach for that teacup.