Today I had a lesson in older teapots. I went to the Best Tea House today, as my usual haunt in Hong Kong after doing some errands. Tiffany was there, along with some other tea drinkers who frequent there and whom I’ve met before.
What’s different today is that somebody brought with him two teapots he recently acquired, both with claims to old age. He brought it for another tea drinker to evaluate, since he’s known as an experienced collector of particularly zhuni pots. It was really an eye opener for me, as there were things that I didn’t previously know that he told me about how to check for older teapots. For example, he thinks (from all the pots he’s seen) that the clay and the way the clay behaves under fire is really important. It’s interesting that he brought with him a 30x magnifying glass — the kind jewellers use to evaluate precious stones. He uses it to examine the surface of the pot and to see how, semi-microscopically, how the teapot reacted to the heat. By looking at that, he thinks that both pots are of an older age — one being a late Qing pot, while the other one being an early Republican period one. It’s difficult to explain everything he said without having a real life example, but it goes to show that much of it has to do with simple experience and having seen a large number of such things.
The other thing interesting is that we talked about the art of making tea — or the lack of an art of making tea. After all, what we’re doing is to make the best out of every tea we’re presented with. So, for example, with inferior quality tea, you want to use lower temperatures with longer steeping time, because if you use high temps with short infusion time, the tea won’t behave well — it will become bitter, astringent, rough, etc. Whereas with a good tea, you want to maximize the good qualities by pushing it as hard as possible. Using lower temperatures and longer steeping times is simply wasting the leaves — you’re not getting the most out of them.
So to illustrate, one of the tea drinkers talked about how one time he tried a tea made with a 12 minute infusion in a small yixing pot. 12 minutes… is a long time. It was, as he said, a brew of a really low grade tieguanyin, but that doesn’t matter, because the resulting cup was excellent. The long time, the relatively low temperature, and the expert manipulation by the brewer made sure it was a good cup.
That’s something we can all aspire to — again, it’s all about experience and knowing what to do with what you’ve got in your hands.