Tea cups

I was at Tea Smith yesterday and I was very much enjoying the tea I was drinking, and the owner remarked that they were his favourite cups to drink from. “The lip” he said, “disappears!”

So I grabbed 7 of them and took them in to work.  We’d talked about sourcing tea cups for Penny University for certain coffees (like the Yirgacheffe) where we thought a cup could really enhance it.

Having tried brewed coffee (and enjoyed it very much) I couldn’t help but want to try espresso…

It was really, really good.  Embarrassingly good – you couldn’t help but feel a little self conscious drinking from the cups – but true to John’s word – the lip disappeared.

A few thoughts in my head to finish – because this is really just a fun little post:

1 – We really need to explore the vessels we serve coffee in.  I like owning diner mugs a lot more than I like drinking out of them.  I know it has been brought up before, but we still haven’t really done much

2 – As Tim would point out:  Is there any way you could get something like this into service without coming across as being incredibly pretentious?

3 – I now want to buy lots of different tea cups.  I worry this could get expensive.  If anyone has any recommendations I’d be interested!

4 – The disappearing lip thing is one of the reasons I really hate hot espresso cups.  I don’t want to notice the cup, and a scorching hot cup is really quite a distraction.  I also really enjoy espresso when I barely notice its temperature – when it is close enough to body temperature that all you thinking about is texture and flavour.  This may also seem a little pretentious but I’ll survive…

24 Comments

  1. You could have it be a lot less pretentious if the cups simply didn’t match…

  2. These are like the Ethiopian coffee-ceremony cups ;-)
    I agree that cups are underrated. We are serving in huge espresso cups, just because it tastes so much better compared to when you use the silly thick and small espresso cups. It is like drinking wine from a shot glass.

    By the way, what is wrong with pretentious???
    I think it is all about attitude and. If you don’t make it a big thing then no one will think of the cup as being pretentious. After all it is just another cup.

  3. I agree that we should consider alternative shapes — my favourite is still the ACF competition espresso cup but I sometimes try to lick the bottom and my tongue is not long enough.

    The problem of scorching cups is not one I have had to deal with; a much more common problem is espresso which is not hot enough. This is where thin walled cups fail, losing a lot of heat very quickly.

    Another issue is that since espresso is (or should be) a small amount of liquid, 1-2 oz, it is comforting to drink it from a very dense cup, it makes the experience more “weighty” if that makes any sense.

    Anyway it’s my 2¢

  4. I’ve got some antique bone china espresso cups you are welcome to borrow for experimentation purposes. I find them to be sublime but have never drunk a real espresso from them.

  5. @malachi – the mismatching thing would probably drive me a little crazy!

    @Tim – I want some coffee ceremony cups. I tried pulling shots into big cups but there was something about it I didn’t like that I can’t quite put my finger on. It might be aesthetic, it might be that cooling was too quick. I should go back. I think the rewards are probably bigger in brewed coffee than espresso – but you should really try espresso from cups like these, I think you’d love it.

  6. Oh – i forgot to ask, what about a wine glass shape? I think it would be fantastic but wouldn’t you lose too much of the beverage as it sticks to the sides of the glass?

    What I did consider is a wine glass shape which has a certain type of hydrophobic glaze which prevents the espresso from ‘sticking’ to the sides, much like rain rolls off a waxed car. Any thoughts?

  7. I have been thinking about this for awhile as well. Could espresso and coffee be enhanced by the cup it’s in, like wine is? I am going to have to start experimenting with this.

    Being an activist about coffee as a passion doesn’t necessarily mean pretentious either.

  8. 1 – Exploring the vessels we serve coffee is a good step forward. John Piquet of Salt Lake City’s Caffe D’Bolla has been painstakingly sourcing very particular china for a number of years now and my experience there sounds very similar to yours at the tea joint.

    2 – Without disrespect to anyone, I’m a bit troubled that anyone would automatically presume that working specialized cupware into service would be “pretentious.” Perhaps if you touted it boldly and brashly to the customer and the public, but presented the correct way, it would just seem “right” and unobtrusive to the experience.

    When venturing out, I find it reassuring that a restaurant invests in specialized glassware for their wine service (or bar service, for that matter). It’s testament to their commitment to look down and see a well-regarded glassmaker etched into the base of the glass. If the vessel is doing its job and they have paired the wine to the proper glass, then it can be a very rewarding experience – and one that the restaurant does not need to call attention.

    It’s that calling of attention to the detraction of the experience when it crosses into pretentiousness.

    3 – Since there’s hardly an industry that supports vessels designed for coffee, we must look elsewhere. John Piquet can be an insightful resource on this matter. He’s been thinking about cupware for coffee for years and I was blown away a couple of years ago when I went to visit D’Bolla for an afternoon at how much work he had done looking into cups for coffee.

    For the past couple of years, I’ve been playing around with Reidel wine glasses as coffee vessels. The unique shapes of their glassware deliver liquid to different parts of your palate (or so the theory goes) which can highlight or diminish different aspects of flavor.

    A word of caution: deeply inhaling through your nose to savor the aroma of a freshly brewed coffee from a burgundy-shaped wine glass may cause a strong burning sensation. Better to allow the coffee to cool first!

    4 – The cups in you photos look like the Gong-Fu (or is it Gai-Wan?) style of cups. Nice, small cups with thin lips. I’ve only used them for tea but I agree, the lip can “disappear” while drinking. Hmmm, perhaps after ten thousand years we too will have mastered something like this for coffee!

  9. This is why I love the Black Cat Project cups. Especially the cappuccino cup — super thin lip for a ceramic cup of its size.

  10. Sure, this may not seem pretentious to the kind of person who would subscribe to this particular blog, but let’s not forget the vast majority of people who we’re looking to win over, and the fact that sometimes taking a more gentle, approachable angle might be wise.

    Having been the co-drinker on this experiment, I have to say that the difference was truly remarkable. It was almost as if the cup had been taken out of the equation all together. It was barely noticeable, which I really liked.

    I did, however, feel just a little bit ridiculous. That, in time, will pass, however I would be hesitant to foist it upon unsuspecting customers, without thinking through potential outcomes adequately first.

  11. Tim-
    Seems to me that if we’re looking to win people over and are overtly worried about coming off as “pretentious” then perhaps the best route is not to draw attention to the cups while serving them to the customer?

    Pretentiousness comes about when someone wants to boast or use some level of knowledge as a means to feel superior to others.

    To my mind, the appropriate route is to serve the best product possible utilizing whatever ingredients/serviceware necessary to deliver the desired result – without calling out for attention to any of the parameters. Then, when a customer asks what we do that makes the difference, we can then share with them the dozen minute details that we have utilized to create that experience for them.

    In many respects, the work should look effortless, smooth and controlled from the guests viewpoint. We sweat the details. They’re here to enjoy and not be browbeaten with thirty different details and talking points about why this coffee is better than Monmouth.

  12. How about something like this?:
    http://www.marylandchina.com/uploads/6133.jpg
    (without the ugly foot and without the gold)
    It has a similar lip to the tea bowl but it is a more functional shape for coffee and people wouldn’t complain about the lack of handle and their coffee cooling too fast from evaporation.

  13. James,

    As Jay kindly noted, I have been tasting coffees in various vessels to find what works best. In all honesty, Champagne flutes offer the best results, but cleaning is a pain and breakage all too easy. The best compromise are tapered or tulip shaped bone china – particularly Japanese, although Germany makes some killer china as well.

    What I’ve found is the shape of the glass enhances aromatics and thus flavor, much like you do with different wine glasses. Now we could pair each coffee with a glass based on taste, but realistically there had to be a bit of compromise just to make it feasible.
    Here’s a picture of some of our china –

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/caffedbolla/4924184302/in/photostream/lightbox/

    Most are from the 70’s and the hand-painted demi in the front is just cool… I got that for myself and only use it for a couple of my favorite customers. But all of our siphon are served in china. Better aromatics and a gentle curve that allows more nose into the cup helps to increase the aromatics as you get further into the cup.

    I think the notion of pretentiousness is ridiculous.

    Q: Would anyone think sushi served on a trapezoidal plate made of frosted glass, or painted black ceramic as pretentious?

    We serve everyone from a 74 year old woman who comes daily to 19 year old kids with more ink than the daily paper. If you treat the coffee and the customer with respect by serving in a better vessel, it doesn’t come off as being pretentious – what it does is make the customer feel more important and it highlights how special this offering is. If all of us want our customers to understand the gaping chasm between the average indie shop and what we do, then you have to create an environment of excellence. Elevate the product. Elevate the experience.

    I applaud anyone and everyone who seeks to make coffee a better experience.

  14. One thing I would like to note is that your average independent shop in Japan uses china like the above, or better. People there treat their food and drink with respect because they know the shop owner cares about mastering, or has mastered, their craft. It’s about taking more appreciation in what we do, and communicating that to the customer. It’s about sharing the soul of the experience.

    If anyone watches Anthony Bourdain’s “Tokyo” visit on No Reservations, if you understand the essence that permeates everything going on, that is what I think all of us should embody.

    My cent.

  15. Yes — I found a shallow wide bowl to be great for Espresso — I used a small tea-cup-like vessel for my Sig drink this year at the USBC for not a few of the same reasons you mention: disappears in your lips, its super easy to drink from, very slim and elegant, cools the espresso quickly. Also, the crema looks great as it spreads out across the wide surface.

    However, one tends to suck in all the crema at one with these, and it can be hard to swirl the cup, which I like to do for smelling and for bringing up the heaviness at the bottom of the demitasse. Those were my only drawbacks for this kind of vessel.

    Madcap Coffee has some badass demitasse that are very similar to this kind of cup. Anyone have a photo of those?

  16. One thing I would like to note is that your average independent shop in Japan uses china like the above, or better. People there treat their food and drink with respect because they know the shop owner cares about mastering, or has mastered, their craft. It’s about taking more appreciation in what we do, and communicating that to the customer. It’s about sharing the soul of the experience.

  17. I dig your post.

    I think the vessels are absolutely worth exploring.

    Pretentious? Absolutely not….Afterall, most craft beer makers have glasses specifically shaped for their individual beers to affect the perception of aroma and flavor.

    Why shouldn’t we treat different brewing methods and coffees the same way…yet again, a whole new area to explore!

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