A little while ago I celebrated little victories by drinking delicious peppermint tea. Since then my love for JING tea has grown as I've learnt more about the many different types of tea and their incredible flavours. So, when I was invited to a tea ceremony masterclass with JING, naturally I was delighted to go along. (Plus, it was held at the incredible Pont St at Belgraves Hotel - the most stunning restaurant!) During the evening I met David Hepburn, a creative manager at JING. He guided us through the Tea Master tea ceremony - an up to date version of the ancient Chinese gong fu ceremony.
Immediately I was taken with the absorbing ritual of using the tea master - the focus, the infusing of the tea and the savouring of a precious moment. I was also enamoured with its form, being made out of double walled porcelain. So comforting to warm your hands on. During our conversation, David explained how he came to design the tea master - here's what he shared:
What was the inspiration behind the JING tea master?
To put it simply, the inspiration for the Tea Master was the Chinese tea ceremony, or gong fu tea. To experience a proper tea ceremony in China is to see a ceremony that has been refined over millennia to give a great tea experience - with great taste being just the start. It’s a simultaneously calming but energising way to enjoy tea; every step is considered and performed with care. To some people, the idea of a 'tea experience' may be a bit farfetched, but in this sense I think it’s totally accurate. A great tea ceremony engages all the senses and can be wonderfully comforting and inspiring.
With the Tea Master, what we wanted to do was bring the best elements of gong fu tea to life for people today, in a form that is modern and contemporary, with the great function that people expect from the best tableware.
The tea master aims to bring the gaiwan tea ceremony to life today - what does the traditional ceremony involve and how can this be similarly enjoyed with the tea master?
The gaiwan is one of the oldest tea making vessels around. It’s a compact lidded bowl and saucer set. Step by step, the traditional gaiwan ceremony would involve heating the gaiwan with hot water, pouring the water from the gaiwan into a pitcher, then warming all of the tasting cups you are using. You would then add your tea leaves, rinse them to “wake them up” and then rinse the pitcher and cups with this infusion and pour away. Then you would reinfuse the leaves, decant into the pitcher, and serve into the cups. Then re-infuse over and over until the tea loses its flavour. As you can see, it’s quite an involved process!
The Tea Master keeps the basics of this ceremony - the compact size (180ml) and the emphasis on quick infusions and reinfusing, but is a lot easier to handle than a gaiwan. You don’t need to be an expert to use the Tea Master. It’s up to you how much of the above you follow with the Tea Master, but each step can be a way to root you in the present moment, and help you take a moment to enjoy a simple ceremony.
What is the tea master made from and why?
The Tea Master is made from matte white double-walled porcelain. The porcelain we have used is relatively thick, robust and durable and great for retaining heat. Due to the porcelain production process, it was also possible to create a double walled product, which is a crucial part of the function of the design. Heat resistant glass is a very tricky material to use for a product like this, and wouldn’t have worked for what we were trying to achieve.
Can you explain the design proces, from brief to completion?
We had been mulling over creating a product like the Tea Master for a couple of years, before we started the project in earnest in early 2014. To really focus on the development of the Tea Master, I moved to Taiwan for six months, leaving my girlfriend, now wife, back in London!
The design started off as dozens of sketches in my notebook. From these sketches, I worked with a colleague in Taiwan who helped me to create 3D files, which we then tweaked over the course of about two months. I printed 3D print prototypes at each stage, refining the shape and design each time. I also had to liaise with the porcelain producers to check the technical limitations of the production process to make sure what I was designing was possible to produce. When we were all happy with the final 3D print prototypes, we produced our first round of porcelain samples. After three more rounds of porcelain samples, we were happy with the product and ready to place our order!
Did you encounter any challenges during the design process?
Many! The process of producing double walled porcelain is not easy, and is usually only used with short, wide vessels. This allows the mould to be pulled out easily without the suction becoming too great that the inner walls break. All along I was keen to create something that had a tall and elegant silhouette. Our design really pushed the boundaries of the process, but we were finally able to achieve a shape that was possible to produce consistently. Until we had made porcelain samples we were also not able to tell what the final weight of the product would be. I was keen to make something that felt substantial in the hand, but balanced and not too heavy. I think we achieved this. The spout was a labour of love.
My pet hate is teapots with spouts that pour badly and drip. They just seem lazily designed and surprisingly common on the market. I tweaked the shape of the spout to be as sure as I could that it doesn’t drip. We tested and tested samples, and while you can never stop 100% of drips, we banished them as much as we could! Finally, producing with porcelain is never a totally exact science so quite a lot of dimensions had to be refined during the process.
Did you find yourself swaying more towards form or function during the design process? (Or did you aim to hit them both?!)
Definitely both, but it was a constant balance! Some products just feel right in your hand, and very satisfying to use. They feel carefully considered and become like familiar friends after years of use. I wanted the Tea Master to be one of these products. The outside shape is very simple and quiet in form, which was deliberate, and inspired by the simple, elegant shapes of Chinese and Japanese porcelain.
What is the best way to use the tea master?
With its compact size (180ml), the Tea Master is designed for many short infusions. You can use the same amount of tea as you would for a 300ml or so teapot, but instead of infusing for three minutes you can just infuse for one minute. For the temperature of the water, it depends on the tea. In general, black teas, oolongs and puerhs are best with boiling water, green teas and white teas taste best with cooler water at 70-80°C. When reinfusing, infuse for one minute again, adjusting for taste as you go.
How many infusions can you use from one measure of tea leaves?
It depends on the type of tea you use. At the very least two, at the most, 10 or more. On average three or four.
Does the tea master lend itself to specific loose tea varieties?
Yes, it’s great for oolongs and puerh in particular, but works well for all large loose leaf teas.
What is your favourite tea to brew in the tea master?
Thank you for your time, David!
Here's a little video I made celebrating the beauty of using the tea master. Ps. my tea of choice is most definitely Ali Shan oolong tea. It's so so good.
Photo credit // All images and video shot and styled by Ruth Garner
The Tea Master, tray and tea were a kind gift from JING tea, a company I love and wholeheartedly recommend. Thank you for supporting the companies I work with that keep Gathered Cheer going!