Tea and Tenmoku Tasting

An experiment with Jian/tenmoku ceramics.

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In December 2014, we hosted a tasting session where we served various types of tea and wine in conventional porcelain/glass vessels alongside tenmoku cups and bowls. The purpose of the experiment was to explore how tenmoku — historically known as Jian wares, or 建盞 (jianzhan) from 建窯 (Jianyao, Jian kiln) — could affect our perception of the beverages' flavours and textures.

The experiment yielded pretty intriguing results. One member of the tasting panel, who runs a wine retail and auction business, commented that the wines served in tenmoku vessels seemed softer and more rounded, giving the impression that they were more aged/matured than those served in conventional glasses. The same effect could also be observed with the teas, as other panel members said they found the teas in the tenmoku vessels tasted smoother and fuller.

A magnet adheres to the surface of a Jian ceramic bowl (tenmoku) from the Song Dynasty.

A magnet adheres to the surface of a Jian ceramic bowl (tenmoku) from the Song Dynasty.

One explanation Taiwanese tenmoku ceramicist Zhang Gui Wei offers for this phenomenon is that authentic and properly fired tenmoku ceramics possess a certain magnetic field that affects how tea's (or any other beverage's) flavours and texture are perceived. But that is not to say that there is a structural change to the drink — as the biomedical engineer on our panel pointed out, it seems unlikely that the cups could alter the liquids on a molecular level.

Zhang also claims that certain tenmoku vessels possess far-infrared properties that could have a beneficial impact on the sensory perception of the flavour and texture of tea.

While there is no evidence to support these claims, a scientific report, Learning from the Past, reveals some interesting findings that might possibly hold some answers.

Whatever the case, our observations at the December 2014 tenmoku tasting session illustrate that tenmoku vessels do have an effect on the drinks they contain, be it tea or wine. We don't yet know why, but we're more than happy to drink out of them anytime.