If we hurry through the day, it is easy for our sensory experiences to get combined into a mishmash. In fact, a part of our brains seems dedicated to making sure multiple sensations get combined into a single memory.
But the tastes, textures, and aromas we experience in tea are separate sensations, and aroma cups help distinguish these experiences so that they can each be appreciated for what they individually offer.
Aroma cup sets are a relatively modern development. Anecdotal evidence suggests aroma cup sets started appearing in Taiwan in the 1980’s. Comprised of wen xiang bei (闻香杯) and pin ming bei (品茗杯), the taller wen xiang bei is the recent innovation of the pair. The shorter pin ming cups are relatively standard, traditional cups for sipping tea. “Wen xiang” refers to the snifting of aroma, while the pin ming cup is intended to help the drinker savor the tea.
How To Use
Just as there are different stylistic variations to gongfu tea service, there can be different flourishes in the use of aroma cups. The basic principles are fairly simple. Tea is poured into the wen xiang cup first. General practices in both Japanese and Chinese tea service weigh in favor of using cups pre-warmed to temperatures similar to the tea liquor temperature.
In most cases, care should be taken not to overfill the wen xiang cup. Start by filling the wen xiang cup 75%. Cover the wen xiang cup with the overturned pin ming cup. These cups now resemble a button mushroom with a stalk and cap. Let the tea sit in the wen xiang cup like this for a short period. The idea here is to allow aromas to build, and temperatures to reach equilibrium. Time and experience will determine best practices based on tea used, ambient temperature, and other environmental factors.
After sufficient time has elapsed, invert your cups together in a single motion. The goal is to have the pin ming cup now upright with the wen xiang cup resting upside down in the pin ming cup. It is important to hold the cups together firmly and invert smoothly and quickly to prevent tea from spilling. Granted, the vacuum created from overturning the cups helps keep the cups together.
Next, you will want to lift the wen xiang cup out of the pin ming cup. Tilt the wen xiang cup slightly, and slowly lift with a gradual twisting motion. This tends to allow the tea to fill the pin ming cup without sloshing out.
Now is the time to take advantage of your wen xiang cup. Bring the cup to your nose to appreciate the captured aromas. Some recommend placing the wen xiang cup between your flat, open palms to keep the cup warmer. Depending on the tea used, aromas can vary in duration and even fluctuate with temperature. The wen xiang cup is designed to help capture these aromatic characteristics.
Does the aroma cup actually make it easier to appreciate tea aroma? I have seen no conclusive proof that a wen xiang cup enables a tea drinker to detect stronger or more aromas than other forms of tea cup. Informal research and experiments in beer and wine suggest that cup/glass shape and material may affect the ability to detect characteristics of flavor and aroma. However, it may very well be that the differences in drinking vessel shape may only make minor improvements, if any.
Not every tea needs to be served in aroma cup sets. They were likely originally developed for wulongs, but they can be useful in appreciating pu’ers and some Japanese greens. It will be up to each individual drinker to determine if the cups helps him/her slow down and savor the distinct elements of tea.