Do Teacups Make A Difference? Sizes, Shapes, Materials

When it comes to choosing a teapot, many tea enthusiasts consider the material, shape, volume, thickness and the tea that they want to make in it before purchase. Why don’t we do that with our teacups?

The teacups do have a major influence on the taste, smell, and feel of the tea we drink, but we tend to ignore the importance of the teacup over the utensils used to make the tea. That I want to change.

Here I want to share with you the research I have done on the influence of various aspects that teacups have and how you could use that knowledge to your advantage and make your tea taste better.

SHORT ANSWER – The Influence Of Teacups On Your Tea

Teacups have a strong influence on the tea-drinking experience. Taller teacups will enhance aroma and smell and wide teacups will let you taste more volume and boldness. Further, the material of the teacup can add to the taste or reduce the intensity. The teacup is just as important as the teapot.

To go into further detail I have listed various shapes, materials, and characteristics of teacups below and what influence these have on the smell, taste and the experience you get out of your tea.

The Size Of Your Teacup

The primary aspect of your teacup that influences your tea-drinking experience is the shape and size of said teacup. Many of us use mugs and large teacups regularly, but that might diminish the joy you get out of your tea.

Both Japanese and Chinese tea culture have been perfected over many generations. Both of these tea cultures use different ceremonies, different teapots, and different teacups. But what do they have in common?

Most traditional tea-making makes use of small teacups. For one, you will be able to experience the tea better if you try the various infusions in small samples.

But there is a more important aspect as to why small teacups that hold no more than a few sips are used. Smell and taste of tea is more intense when the tea is introduced to oxygen. For this reason, wine tasters and tea enthusiasts both will tend to slurp while drinking.

With smaller teacups, you do automatically slurp a bit. This enhances your tea. The obvious downside is that you have to pour yourself tea more often. This may be too inconvenient for some.

Difference Through Teacup Shapes

There are infinitely many teacups out there that all differ in shape and form. What you will need to understand is that there is no perfect cup, nothing here is correct or incorrect to use. 

Each shape of teacup has its own effect on the tea you drink and by changing the teacup your tea could taste better, taste worse or simply taste a bit different.

I want to encourage you to experiment with this and see for yourself what difference you are able to make out. These experiments are what over time will make you experienced after all.

Nosing Cups For Aroma And Smell

The first type of teacup or rather a teacup shape I want to get to are nosing cups. These are tall and narrow cups that are specifically designed to allow you to smell and experience the aroma of a tea.

Technically, the ideal nosing cup would be wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. This would allow for more aroma compounds to evaporate from the tea at the bottom of the teacup and then directly go to your nose.

But every tall and narrow teacup is in principle a nosing cup and will allow you to smell the tea better. The other effect that a small opening will have is how and where the tea enters your mouth when drinking.

If the tea enters your mouth through a very small opening, the tea will most likely hit the tip of the tongue the most. This will make the tea taste sweeter when compared to a wider teacup. Further, the tea will taste less sour and bitter, but that depends on how the tea proceeds to flow through your mouth.

This is due to the tongue tasting sweetness more intensely at the tip of the tongue and bitterness and sourness at the back and sides of your tongue respectively. You taste every taste everywhere on your tongue, but much more intense in the specific areas.

Wide Cups For Body And Intensity

With a wide teacup, you will not have an intense aroma and you will always smell less when compared to a nosing cup. With very aromatic teas such as green teas and light oolong teas, this can be a major downside.

But a wide teacup has an advantage over a narrow one by allowing the tea to fill out the mouth quickly after sipping the tea. The tea will touch all areas of your tongue simultaneously.

This results in a fuller and more complex taste of the tea you drink. If you want to experience the tea as much as possible, you should use a wide teacup for tasting and a narrow one for smelling the aroma. 

Difference In Temperature Control

Another aspect that should not be overlooked is how long the tea can be kept at temperature with different teacup shapes. The speed at which tea cools off can have some unexpected impact on the taste and smell you experience with your tea.

Tea that cools off too much can lose flavor compounds through that process, but you want your tea to reach drinking temperature in a timely manner to avoid oxidation and loss of aroma.

This aspect really depends on what temperature you want your tea to be at when you drink it and how quick you are to drink your tea. Generally, if you are a slow drinker you want your tea to cool off slower. If you are a fast drinker you want it to reach drinking temperature faster.

Tall and narrow teacups lose heat much faster than rounder and shorter teacups do. A teacup that has a lot of surface area for the tea that is inside will cool much faster than a perfectly round teacup.

Difference With Teacup Materials

What I have been experimenting with most during my tea journey are different materials for both teapots and teacups. As many others have found too, I have concluded that the material has a major impact on the taste of the tea.

There’s a list of materials below that are more or less common in the world of tea and which many tea enthusiasts have experimented with. Both my own and the experiences of others have gone into this list of teacup materials.

With each of these materials comes a quick summary of the influences that the respective material has on the taste and which teas should be used and not used with each of these teacup materials.

Glass Teacups

Glass is a common material for teapots, teacups, and teaware that is known to be taste-neutral and easy to clean, too.

  • Suitable Tea Types: Glass teacups work with all types of tea.
  • Taste Difference: Glass does not influence the taste of the tea.
  • Teas To Avoid With: None.

Glass is very neutral and can be used to make every tea. Teaware made from glass does not influence the tea and because there is no interaction with the tea, you will experience the tea as it truly is. Glass teacups will lose heat fast and are best suited for all types of tea, but especially for white, yellow and green tea in my opinion.

Porcelain Teacups

Porcelain is in many aspects the same as glass and can often be even cheaper than glass teaware. Most traditional western teaware is porcelain, as are most entry-level teacups and gaiwans nowadays.

  • Suitable Tea Types: Porcelain works with any type of tea.
  • Taste Difference: Porcelain does not change the taste of your tea.
  • Teas To Avoid With: None.

Porcelain is what most beginners are recommended to use when starting out. Teaware for the Chinese tea ceremony, mugs and old English or french teaware are made with porcelain. Porcelain has about the same characteristics as glass as long as we talk about the influence of the teacups on the tea.

Glazed Ceramic And Clay Teacups

Glazed ceramics have much thicker walls than porcelain and glass teacups have. The taste of the tea is not changed due to the glaze.

  • Suitable Tea Types: Glazed teacups are suitable for all teas.
  • Taste Difference: The material is often thicker and keeps the heat for longer but the taste is unchanged.
  • Teas To Avoid With: None.

The thicker walls of ceramics and clay teaware result in higher heat retention. This allows you to drink the tea over longer periods of time. The glazed variants do not change the taste of your tea as the glaze keeps the tea from touching the porous and mineral-rich material of the teacup.

Unglazed Clay And Ceramic Teacups

Unglazed clay and ceramic teacups do have an influence on the taste of your tea. This is where you need to start thinking about the type of tea you can make with these teacups, as they can ruin some teas.

  • Suitable Tea Types: Black tea, dark oolongs, raw Pu Erh tea, cooked Pu Erh tea, may be more or less suitable for other types of tea.
  • Taste Difference: Takes aways unwanted flavors such as bitterness and muskiness but will in turn also remove floral aroma and high notes. Delicate and aromatic teas tend to lose more than they gain.
  • Teas To Avoid With: White tea, yellow tea, green tea, light oolong tea.

Just as clay teapots are not used much for lighter and more aromatic teas, you should not really use unglazed clay or ceramic teacups for these types of tea. Some enthusiasts use unglazed pottery for Japanese green teas, but there are few exceptions.

Unglazed pottery does have a lot of positive effects on harsher teas such as cooked and raw Pu Erh tea which tend to be musky or bitter respectively. Unglazed teaware can help lessen these intense notes.

Remember that not all pottery is created equal. Some ceramics and clays are far more porous than others and take away more flavor and high notes while others have much more iron content, which again has a stark impact on the teas taste.

There is no general rule as to what clay or ceramic teacups can be used for what tea and most enthusiast will try thair pottery with different teas to see which tea fits the teaware and not the other way round.

Silver Teacups

Silver is a special material for teacups that has become more and more popular with tea enthusiasts around the world. There’s something special about having shiny silver teacups and teapots to make your tea with.

  • Suitable Tea Types: All types of tea are suitable.
  • Taste Difference: Weak to nonexistent effect on the taste of your teas. It seems to be a question of opinion for many.
  • Teas To Avoid With: Some dark roasted oolongs maybe.

Silver is a precious metal and for many, including myself, there is some value to owning teaware made from silver. But silver does not have a strong influence on the taste of your tea even though it can be extremely expensive to get.

The only thing I have noticed in a somewhat increased roasting flavor with heavily roasting dark oolong teas. And I would not consider that a bad thing as I do enjoy the notes of slightly burned honey and ripe plums.

Teacups Made From Unprocessed Wood

There are some places where I live that sell wooden kitchenware and they had some smaller wooden cups that I used as teacups. 

  • Suitable Tea Types: None.
  • Taste Difference: The tea will taste like wood.
  • Teas To Avoid With: All of them.

Using wooden teacups was a very unpleasant experience. The tea I chose to make took on the taste of the wood and did taste horrific. I’ve tried soaking the wood in tea overnight to maybe change that characteristic, but that did not help and the teacups soon started to develop mold.

Difference With Glazed Iron Teacups

Glazed iron teacups do pretty much have the same characteristics as the glazed ceramic and clay teacups mentioned before.

  • Suitable Tea Types: All tea-types work with glazed iron teacups.
  • Taste Difference: No difference in taste.
  • Teas To Avoid With: None.

The thing with these is that once they are heated properly, they will stay hot for a long time and keep your tea hot, too. I think that’s neat and use a larger cup made from cast iron to sip on while working.

That way the tea does not get cold as quickly and forgetting about it does not get you cold tea.

Unglazed Iron Teacups Do Truly Make A Difference

Unglazed teacups made from cast iron are hard to find but have a unique influence on the tea that can turn a so-so tea into a great tea.

  • Suitable Tea Types: Raw Pu Erh tea, cooked Pu Erh tea, highly oxidized or roasted oolong teas, and black tea.
  • Taste Difference: Added sweetness, less bitterness, and punch.
  • Teas To Avoid With: Light and fragrant teas.

There is something with cast iron teaware that changes the taste of the water you use. Tetsubins are water kettles made from unglazed cast iron that can have a positive impact on the tea you make.

With teacups made from cast iron this effect is not as intense, but still very noticeable. Tasting raw Pu Erh tea and green tea side by side, the difference in bitterness and sweetness is very noticeable. The tea in the iron teacup is far less bitter and the sweetness is easy to notices.

A Saucer Changes The Heat Retention of A Teacup

To end this post I want to give you a little fun fact. The saucer commonly placed below teacups is not only there to stop drips of tea to hit the table, but does indeed cool off the tea.

The saucer beneath the teacup will take some of the heat out of the tea and give it off to the air around it. Just as the spoon in the tea gives the tea more surface area to lose heat with. If you want your tea to cool quickly, get a large saucer to place it on.

There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.