I remember taking early lessons, the only structured class I ever took on tea, when I first got seriously interested in tea. One of the sessions was about how to care for your teapots, which, of course, is just a vendor’s way to sell you some pots. The sessions were led by a more experienced drinker, a disciple, so to speak, of Vesper Chan, owner of Best Tea House. I still remember it was held in the Causeway Bay store of the chain, which is now long shuttered because the rent was supposedly too high. There were maybe four or five of us in that class, with the teacher showing us different kinds of pots, among which was one that she owned, something she called “Beauty’s shoulder”, which is really just a modified shuiping, similar to my dancong pot. It’s funny how important some of these early lessons in tea are, because for the next few years, at least, you’re pretty much stuck with them as the most important ideas you have about tea. They guide you through your early steps, and most likely, your early missteps as well. Like a toddler just learning how to talk, you first start by imitation, and then slowly, learn how to form your own sentences, and then your own train of thought. I was very much still imitating.
What I was told to imitate was the following:
1) Use only one type of tea per pot
2) Do not leave any tea leaves in a pot once you’re done with it – clear it out quickly, for fear of mold or bacteria
3) Clean the pot out with warm water
4) Never ever use detergent
5) When pouring water over the pot or pouring tea out of it, afterwards use a brush to brush off the excess tea/water so that you don’t find white mineral deposits around the lids, edges, or body of the pot
6) While the pot is still warm, use a damp cloth to rub the pot to clear it of stains, and also to make it shiny
7) Leave the lid open until the pot is completely dry, at which point close it
I think this more or less sums up what I was told. Now, of these rules, I really only follow 1, 4, 7, and only do 5 when I don’t feel too lazy. I find 2 to be only somewhat important so long as you clear the tea out soonish – say, within a day or two of finishing a session. 3 is completely unnecessary, I think – I just clear out all the tea leaves to the best of my abilities, and let it air dry. 6 I never do, because I feel that a shiny pot is an ugly pot.
On the other hand, of the rules that I do follow, 1 I mostly follow out of habit, and I no longer believe there’s any real reason to do it. Perhaps the residual taste of the last tea does affect what you’re brewing now, but I think that’s, at best, a very minimal effect, not enough to really affect anything. Rule 4, on the other hand, is cardinal, and shall never be broken, because a pot with an artificial detergent lemon aroma is really not what you’re after. Rule 7, likewise, is extremely important – I have been to teashops where the shopkeeper do NOT keep their lids open when the pot is still wet. I open the pot, and smell the empty and still damp pot, and oftentimes I can detect the smell of mold. Trust me, it’s not pretty, and yet when I tell these shopkeepers, they usually just ignore it. I cannot understand why, but I don’t think I’ll ever bring myself to use a pot like that.
I have also learned the hard way why one should never leave spent leaves or just liquid tea in a pot to season the thing – because you will, inevitably, forget about one of them, and they will fester, and grow mold, and when you open that pot, with that gooey, three weeks old oolong sitting in there, smelling like a really sickly sweet smell (which, by the way, almost tempted me to try it) and then coming out looking more like glue. It’s not pretty.
Ultimately, all of these rules are just so that you can make a better cup of tea. For things that I think are superfluous, such as rubbing the pot and such, I no longer practice because I think they achieve nothing (in the case of rubbing, they achieve the opposite of what I want). So, these lessons do offer something, but at the same time, there are no lessons like the ones you learn on your own.