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Story and photos by Anna Mariani

Any discerning tea lover will put as much careful thought into the choice of teaware their tea is prepared and served in as they do into the tea itself. Historically, handmade pottery and tea have always gone hand in hand, regardless of the geographical area of culture, so much so that many tea lovers are also pottery collectors.

Today, a growing number of ceramicists and tea houses, tea shops, cafes, and restaurants are pushing the boundaries by adding a curated dimension to tea service: handcrafted custom-made teaware. Specialty tea, similar to craft coffee, is all about the experience. Would you drink a small-batch, high quality tea that shows craftsmanship and a complex flavor profile out of a paper cup? Neither would i.

Stonemill Matcha in San Francisco focuses on premium matcha. Stonemill Matcha has two separate counters, one for matcha-based drinks, like tea lattes, and a second one, which is dubbed “the slow bar,” for hand-whisked ceremonial-style matcha served in handcrafted chawans (matcha bowls).

“We visually and conceptually separated the two ways of serving tea. We wanted to make the tea ceremony more accessible without it being intimidating,” say Keiichiro Yoshikawa, Stonemill Matcha tea master. “For hand-whisked tea we use bowls handcrafted by local artists, which we have to hand wash. A handcrafted bowl is more fragile than a mass-produced one, but when you actually touch it, you can feel how precious and how important it is. It’s part of the experience.

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“In Japanese we say ‘Ichi-go Ichi-e,” he adds. “Enjoy the present moment because there’s not going to be another one like it ever again. The artists are making this one bowl and the next one will be different and our customers, our guests feel that. The uniqueness of the experience is what matters the most, especially for hand-whisked matcha.”

Form & Function

One of the artists who custom-made tea bowls for Stonemill Matcha is Mitsuko Siegrist, owner of the Bay Area-bases Tsuchikara Pottery. “I grew up in Japan and my hometown is close to the pottery village of Bizen, famous for its unglazed, high-fired pottery. Naturally, I grew up surrounded by a lot of pottery,” says Siegrist. “One culture is like that and tea is a daily staple.”

But it wasn’t until she moved to California that she had the opportunity to pursue her passion: creating pottery.

“I started my Japanese tea ceremony practice at the same time as pottery’,” she says. “I learned a lot from tea ceremony and not only about creating teaware. Tea is not just a drink, it really connects people. In tea ceremony we do traditional Japanese kaiseki cooking and that opened my ceramics to dinnerware too.”

Her teaware, coffeeware, and tableware grace the tabled of acclaimed restaurants in the Bay Area, including SingleThread in Healdsburg, 3rd Cousin in San Francisco, and Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar in Berkeley.

Making teaware for a café or a restaurant is different than for retail or a private customer, and it requires finding a compromise between form and function.

“I like thinner teaware but if it’s for a restaurant or a cafe, especially in a self-service environment, it would break very easily, so I have to compromise and make it thicker,” says Siegrist. “I can’t just make a teacup with thicker walls, though, I also have to make the design work, and that’s a challenge.”

That was the case at Pinhole Coffee, a craft coffee shop in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. They serve a selection of Red Blossom Tea Company teas in sleek glass teapots and Siegrist’s handcrafted cups on rectangular bamboo trays.

More insight on achieving balance between form and function comes from Match Stoneware in Culver City, California. Their handcrafted teaware, as well as their coffeeware and tableware, can be found at Destroyer, a cafe and daytime spot in Culver City. Destoryer serves high-quality loose-leaf tea by San Francisco-based Song TEa & Ceramics, brewed by barista in a glass teapot behind the counter and served in Match Stoneware’s crackle teacup and serving pitcher.

“We’re daring. If we think it’s crazy, we’re going to do it anyway. That’s our philosophy, that’s what pushes us every day. But that’s the challenge: How do we still make it functional? Because at the end of the day, it’s a drinking vessel,” says a Match Stoneware ceramicist. “The other thing is, every tea is different. HOw do you find a shape that’s universal for all types of tea at Destoryer? It had to be simple.”

Unexpectedly, more handcrafted matcha bowls were waiting to be discovered at the Match Stoneware studio. They had a dedicated installation call “99 Matcha Bowls” and recurring matcha whisking workshops held by Alissa White of Matcha Source.

“The participants picked a matcha bowl and learned to use it in their tea practice. They are all unique and one-off because every tea drinker is different, everyone has their preferences and gravitates towards something different,” the ceramicist continues. “That’s why we made tha matcha bowls all different. We put our own untraditional flare on some of them but with still some of the aesthetics like the high feet, the rounded lip, the squatty feel to it so that you can get the whisk in there, but we try to push it. It’s not a traditional matcha bowl but it has the functions that are necessary to whisking and drinking tea.”

Ceramic Vessels by Match Stoneware. Located at the Match Stoneware Studio in Culver City, CA.

Ceramic Vessels by Match Stoneware. Located at the Match Stoneware Studio in Culver City, CA.

Ceramic Vessels by Match Stoneware. Located at the Match Stoneware Studio in Culver City, CA.

Ceramic Vessels by Match Stoneware. Located at the Match Stoneware Studio in Culver City, CA.

Working with Ceramicists

Pete luong, owner of Song Tea & Ceramics in San Francisco, curates the company’s teaware collection by collaborating directly with artists from Taiwan, China, and the United States.

“We usually begin with understanding a ceramicists work, looking at any available pieces to get a feel for their style and their aesthetic,” he says. “If  that aesthetic matches, we begin looking at whether the artist has a sense for the peculiar technical challenges of ceramics of tea service. We then proceed to either select pieces that the ceramicist already has in their repertoire or -more often the case- work with the ceramicist to develop pieces that are unique to Song. We also try not to skew too far away from their innate ability and style, but do offer inspirational suggestions.”

The importance of giving the artists as much freedom of creativity as possible is further highlighted by Mikiko Yui, pastry chef at stonemill Matcha.

“We usually go to their studio and pick what we like,” says Yui. “we don’t want to tell artists specifically what we want. As an artist, it’s nice to have freedom of creativity. We give them vague idea in terms of style and color palette and we let them create whatever they want to do.”

Private Commissions

Drawing from her fashion design background, Tina Huang of Los Angeles based Ren Vois Ceramic Design Studio, creates unique ceramics in captivating pastel colors.

“I do something different - I actually hand-mix colors into the porcelain clay myself before I throw it on the pottery wheel,” she explains. “Then I use a clear glaze, so the color still shines through. When you use regular glaze, it covers up the color.”

Two high-end restaurant experience in Europe, NOma (Denmark) and The Clove Club (England), inspired Huang to become a ceramicist.

“Those were the first time I noticed the ceramics the food was coming on.” she says. “I had a moment where I thought to myself, “this is so amazing, it’s elevating my experience and it’s making my food look so beautiful!’ That’s how I got interested in ceramics in the first place.”

While her main focus is tableware, she has been commissioned by professionals in the tea industry (this writer included) for designs such as custom-made spouted matcha bowls.

Could the rising popularity of handcrafted teaware be a reflection of what, for the past few years, has become an essential part of the restaurant experience: the now ubiquitous custom-made tableware? Maybe.

Ceramicists and tea industry professionals have been rediscovering handmade teaware and re-inventing it in tune with more current aesthetic principles by pushing the creative boundaries - without losing functionality. Certainly, preparing and serving premium tea in handcrafted teaware, whether at home or in food service, shows respect and appreciation for the artisans who produce tea leaves and teaware, while delivering a unique experience.

Match Stoneware LLC