Yixing Clay Teapot 101
There is an art of tea making. The Chinese call it Gong-Fu Cha, which means Tea with Great Skill. To achieve this skilled art of brewing tea, it must start with a quality teapot.
The teapot remains one of the most important elements in Chinese tea making. Amongst the finest Chinese teapots, those produced from Yixing clay are considered to be the best. It was the first type of vessel that was crafted specifically to brew tea during the Ming dynasty.
Those who own and use Yixing clay teapots tend to feel more like the pot is their friend than a piece of pottery used for brewing tea.
How is Yixing clay different?
The clay used for the first Yixing teapots came from west of Taihu, the great lake in the Jiangsu province, where the hills produce rich clay deposits. Pronounced E-Shing or Yi-shing, Yixing clay is often referred to as purple clay, or Zisha, from the Yixing region of China. This type of clay is preferred for crafting teapots and by tea makers because it has excellent porosity, and it handles heat well. Both characteristics improve the flavor of the tea.
Chinese Yixing clay teapots do not come with glazing but are left porous so the tea oils will be able to build up inside over time. This is what makes Yixing clay unique. Over time, the teapot will add its taste from the accumulated oils. After a while, people claim that they don’t even need to add the tea leaves to get the flavor.
All are hand-made as opposed to being thrown on a pottery wheel. The exceptionally hard clay is pounded with a heavy wooden mallet and then formed into a teapot by the use of three essential techniques. One way is called segmented teapots that are press-molded. Another method is to procure pieces of the teapot molded and then hand-assembled. The preferred method, which requires an enormous amount of skill and artistry, is to create the teapot entirely by hand. Round pots are paddled, and square ones are made by the slab method. Tools made from wood, bamboo, metal, or horn are used during the hand-crafted process.
Collector or Practical use
While collecting decorative, interesting looking teapots is an enjoyable hobby, when it comes to functionality and getting the best flavor from the tea, a plain-looking, well-crafted teapot made from quality Yixing clay is a better choice for everyday use. When a pot is heavily ornate, it will create heat fluctuations of cold spots and hot spots when using it for steeping tea. To get the best flavor, the heat needs to be evenly distributed like it is with a plain, Yixing teapot.
What types of tea to brew
There are some things to know about Yixing clay teapots before you begin brewing. The most important is that each clay teapot should be utilized to steep only one type of tea. The reason for this is that the pot will take on the flavor of tea that is brewed inside. This is part of the charm of Yixing clay pots.
Purple clay pots are meant to be used with black, Taiwan Oolong, and Pu-erh teas. The purple clay is porous and that it makes it perfect for muting the bitter qualities found in these types of teas.
It is not recommended to use purple clay with green tea, Oolongs that are greener or white teas because it is more satisfactory to bring out their delicate flavors and aromas. Red clay or a gaiwan works best for these types of tea. If you do use the purple clay teapot for these aromatic, delicate flavors, use one that has been high fired with thinner walls that work best with greener teas. Save the low-fired, thick walls for dark teas. The high-fired teapots will have a thinner, finer makeup making them perfect for green, white, and Oolong teas. The low-fired teapots will have a thicker, more porous clay makeup that is good for black or Pu-erh teas. In China, black tea is considered red tea.
Teapots are sized with numbers that typically correspond with the number of people being served. For instance, a #4 sized teapot is big enough to steep tea to serve four to six people. Likewise, a #2 teapot is fitting for two to four people.
Two basic teapot shapes include high profile and low profile. Determine the shape based on what types of tea leaves you want to use. A varied shape will allow certain leaves to expand. For instance, if you are brewing Taiwan Oolong, green or white tea, you will likely want a high-profile pot. Whereas, if you are steeping Chinese Oolong or Da Hong Pau, a low-profile pot will be more fitting.
Size of opening
Broader openings at the top will allow the fragrance of the tea leaves to drift into the air, while smaller openings will keep the fragrance of the tea inside the teapot. A broader opening is great for aromatic green, white, or Oolong teas, while a smaller opening works better with black or Pu-erh teas that tend to have low aromatic elements.
Seasoning the pot
Yixing clay teapots are going to first require that you season it properly before use. Since Yixing absorbs specific flavors and textures, before this can be undertaken, you will need to decide what kind of tea will be brewed in the pot. The pot must be handled for only one type of tea. Otherwise, the flavors will become muddled.
When you purchase a Yixing clay teapot, there may be a shiny wax coating on it that will need to be removed before brewing begins. Prepare a large, clean pot by filling it with water and bringing the water to a boil. Lower the teapot into the boiling water using a clean slotted spoon. Allow the teapot to rest on the spoon and not on the bottom of the pot filled with boiling water. Some use a towel to pad and line the bottom of the boiling pot. This is to prevent it from vibrating excessively. Boil for about 5 minutes, and remove the Yixing clay teapot from the boiling water. Allow it to dry completely before brewing tea inside of it. Select the type of tea you will be using in the pot and begin pouring a little bit out every 15 seconds into a larger bowl. Remove the tea leaves and let the pot soak in the bowl of tea with the lid soaking separately. When the tea has completely cooled, remove the teapot and allow it thoroughly dries. Now it is ready for use.
To clean a Yixing pot, never use anything except water. Soap or other scents will be absorbed into the clay to produce a soapy flavor that will last forever whenever you steep tea inside of it. Between uses, allow the pot to always completely dry before putting the lid it. If the teapot is wet with the lid on it, it could begin to mold. If this happens, you will need to conduct the seasoning process over again to try to save the pot.
Ultimately, the Yixing teapot you choose will either be put on display as a work of art or used as a cherished part of your tea-drinking routine. The latter will seem as if the teapot has become a loyal friend. Some even see their Yixing teapots as a priceless addition to their family.