You’ve all seen them before, those sets of pairs of tiny cups, one of them high and slim, the other one flat and wide, each of them holding no more than 0.05 l of tea when filled to spill-over level, which they usually are. They can be put into each other in various ways, look pretty decorative with every tea preparation or Gong Fu Cha setup, and most Westerners will react with a laugh when seeing such for the first time, wondering what it would be good for to drink tea in such tiny amounts. Actually, it is a common perception of outsiders to the world of tea that these indeed are rather decoration objects than anything purposeful, or representatives of a Chinese tea culture that is all beautiful and exotic, but by no means practical.
Of course, being no newbies to tea, many of you will know a lot better, but let’s see if I might be able to add something to your knowledge base, too.
First of all, these cup pairs, commonly called aroma cup, scent cup or snifter cup sets, are mainly used not for just “drinking” tea in the common sense, but rather for “tea degustation”. Tea degustation, the Chinese (Gong Fu Cha) way, involves the degustation of a series of consecutive infusions of the same fill of a typical Chinese Gong Fu Cha teapot, holding an average of 200 – 300 ml of tea. Most commonly, tea degustation in China is also a social event, where more than one person is participating. And often, there will be more than just one tea to degust on the event agenda.
Now, aroma cup sets are the perfectly matching the requirements of such tea degustation: a 300 ml teapot will fill exactly 6 of such cups, for six participants to try the tea, and even after having degusted 10 infusions in a row, these will add up to no more than half a liter of liquid. Thus, participants won’t have to spend most of the event trying to get rid of excess fluid from their bladders, and in fact there will be room left (proverbially) to include more than one tea in the degustation event. This enables for theme degustations, e.g. “spring harvest” or “Wuji Oolongs”, etc., encompassing a range of teas each of which is thoroughly degusted all the way through to the last worthy infusion.
But there’s much more to it than just matching size and tolerable capacity: The long and slim cups, which are the actual aroma, scent or snifter cups, are only meant for smelling a tea before actually drinking it. After infusing, the tea is first put into these and left for a few seconds, so the inner walls of the ceramics or clay cups (often poured over with the hot water first in order to open the pores of the vessel’s walls) will take on the tea’s smell. Then, the flat and wide cup, being the actual degustation or drinking cup, is pulled upside down over the aroma cup. Subsequently, the resulting combination of the 2 cups is being held between 2 (or 3) fingers, with the thumb under the aroma cup’s bottom and the index and/or middle finger on top of the drinking cup (also bottom in this case) and the whole thing being turned upside down again, resulting in the tea liquor still being contained in the upside down aroma cup resting inside the drinking cup’s cavity. This is all done by the tea master, and this is how he or she will serve the tea to the participants of the tea degustation or tea ceremony. Each participant will then slowly pull the aroma cup upwards, thereby releasing the tea liquid into the drinking cup. Only now, the actual degustation process will start, namely with the participant guiding the now empty aroma cup to his/her nose and taking in a deep breath through the same, thereby sampling the full aroma or scent of the degusted tea. In a last step, the actual liquid is then savored from the drinking cup, according to Chinese tea tradition in no more and no less than 3 gulps.
This, as playful and ritualized as it may appear, is indeed much more than just a cultural ritual. If you will compare the smell of a tea from your “normal” teacup with what you can sense smelling at that aroma cup, you will easily realize the much more complex and intense features of the smell coming from the latter. Also, the ritualization of the smelling process imparts a significantly greater focus on the same, and the same applies to the second component of the tea degustation, the actual drinking, in regard to the ensuing use of the drinking sup.
Altogether, the use of aroma cup sets will considerably increase your level of consciousness with trying tea and deepen the actual aroma and taste experience, while at the same time adding elements of playfulness, social interaction and aesthetical beauty to the process. And, just like the Chinese, once you will have made yourself familiar with and got to love and embrace the aroma cup set procedure, it will not be so much a question of how many times you might have tried, or degusted, a tea already, but you might start to establish this way as your common way of drinking tea, reserving your Western style and size teacups for tisanes and/or occasions, where size matters, either to you personally, or to those being with you, or simply based on a given situation that would ask for larger amounts of a particular tea in greater vessels.
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