Buying yixing pots

As somebody with a, er, teapot problem, which has only gotten worse since then, I thought maybe I should summarize what I’ve learned and unlearned through the years.

The first thing you learn when you set out buying yixing pots probably go something like this

1) You should only use one tea for one pot

Then there’s a whole slew of supposed “practical” advice, things like how the lid should fit well, how the spout and handle and top of the pot should be level, how things should all line up perfectly, filter vs no filter…. etc. This is before you start bothering with things like clay, which is a whole another hornets’ nest.

I think after having bought a whole bunch of pots, and using pots basically exclusively to brew tea for years, I can say that almost all of those beginner advice are bogus.

Take, for example, the bit about using only one tea for a pot. I suppose that’s sort of true, to a small extent, in that the tea does impart some flavour on your pot over long term use. The pot I usually use for my older, traditionally stored puerh, for example, smells like the tea it brews. When I pour water into the pot, it comes out brown. If I try to brew younger stuff in it, it’s going to get contaminated with the flavours of the storage heavy tea. So, in those cases, yes, you probably want to separate them to avoid too much interference.

At the same time though, it’s entirely pointless and silly to divide the teas into ever finer divisions and brew only that tea in one pot. For example, you can cut oolongs up into a million classifications – tieguanyin, shuixian, yancha, dancong, Taiwanese gaoshan, and within each of those big categories, you can further subdivide them into mountains, seasons, etc etc. The possibility is endless, and very early on I also thought maybe I needed to do that. Then it occurred to me – no, you don’t need to do that. First, the teas themselves, while distinct in taste, are not going to impart such a significant flavour effect on the pot that makes it easily distinguishable. Second, by doing so, you need a million pots, each of which see relatively little use. Third, observing others who have gone before me, such as folks who’ve been doing this for 50 years, they generally don’t care that much – oolongs go into the oolong pots, puerh likewise, and that’s that. So far, I’ve found that it works. You might, for reasons I already stated, want to divide them into two or three categories (heavy roast vs light roast, for example) but otherwise, just let it be.

As for the more structural things with teapots, I think in general those rule of thumbs are useless. Take, for example, lid fit. The easy version of the lid fit test says that you should be able to stop the flow of water if you hold onto the air hole. The more robust, and in my opinion silly, version of the test claims that the lid ought to stay in place and not fall if you fill the pot with water, hold the spout close, and flip the pot over. The idea of this is that this is a sign of good craftsmanship – that the lid fits well because the craftsmen make good pots. That’s true if your pot is made entirely by hand, like this video of master Zhou Guizhen. However, in these days of mold-assisted making (this is a nice series of pics that show how it’s done – and it’s an old technique), or much more likely (if you’re buying low priced pots) full on liquid-clay-in-mold pots (i.e. pouring a liquid clay into the mold, then remove mold after it dries a bit to reveal a pot) there is very little value in a well-fitting lid if it’s just the result of an industrial process that churns out massive amounts of pots. You can see the images here of a CCTV report on the mass manufacture of dubious yixing pots here (sorry, in Chinese, but you can see the images). Labour isn’t so cheap in China anymore. That $30 yixing pot you just bought is not going to be fully, or even partially, hand made. So stop imagining that the lid fit has anything to do with worksmanship.

Nor do things like this really help with brewing tea. A tight fitting lid doesn’t aid tea brewing in any real way. The same can be said of the level line between the spout, handle, and pot – you don’t want the spout a lot lower than the top of the pot, but it’s not going to kill you, or your tea, if it’s not perfectly level (and again, getting it perfectly level is a lot easier if it’s mass manufactured in molds). The value of these tests are dubious, at best.

What I think one should watch out for, insofar as structural things are concerned, generally have to do with pouring and the mechanics of water/tea going in, and water/tea coming out. I think a very important thing to watch for, when buying pots, is how long it takes for the tea to pour out. If it’s slow, then you’re going to be frustrated and have trouble using the pot. This has to do with the size of the airhole and the shape and size of the spout. Also, just testing it with water is not always good – tea has somewhat higher viscosity than water, and I’ve used pots before that seem to work well with water, but when you throw tea in it the pot slows to a trickle. It’s annoying, but it happens, and if you’re buying online, unfortunately you’re on your own.

Another thing is size – it seems like a lot of folks in North America and Europe love the smaller pots, especially things sized around 60ml. I, for one, cannot understand why. I find pots that sized far too small, and are not very good for general usage, even if just brewing for one person. Yes, using a small pot does reduce the amount of tea you use, which is a little more economical, but I also find that it makes controlling brewing a lot harder. I also believe that most of the stuff available on the market at that size tend to be mass produced stuff of low quality – it’s not economical for the producers to hand make these kinds of pots. My personal preference is for something around 100ml, which, after accounting for the tea, is usually one big cup per brew, or a few small cups.

Who made the pot also seems to be something folks worry about, a lot. I think part of it is just wanting to know about the product you bought – there’s a seal on the pot, so naturally you want to know what it says, which is usually some person’s name. Then, you want to know who that person is. In 99.9% of the cases, however, that person is basically a nameless craftsman who toils in the yixing teapot industry. Having someone’s name on a pot does not actually mean they made it – oftentimes (as the CCTV videos I linked to discuss) they are subcontracted out to lesser workers who use the seal of the slightly-more-famous person so that they can sell the pot, possibly using molds to aid in the uniformity of the product. So, while it’s nice to know “who made it”, the real answer is, sadly, a lot more complicated and a lot less alluring. When a pot is in the tiny fraction of pots where the maker is famous, there’s a high likelihood that it’s a fake. In cases where it’s not fake, you already know what it was because you paid thousands, if not tens of thousands or even millions, for the privilege of owning that pot.

All this and I haven’t bothered with talking about clay, which is another beast entirely and not something I want to touch on here. What I will say though is this – worrying about and obsessing over what type of clay a certain pot is is definitely a waste of time. Demanding vendors to tell you that sort of info will usually provoke some answer, but the answer, more likely than not, is probably just made up or at best an educated guess. It also is basically entirely meaningless in terms of what it actually does to your tea. I personally believe the density of the clay and the size of the particles have more to do with your tea’s outcome than the type of clay. Whether a pot is dicaoqing or benshanluni really makes very little difference to a tea drinker, unless the tea drinker also happens to be a big pot collector with the intention to collect different types of clay (in which case, buying over the internet is the wrong thing to do).

So, I suppose if I need to summarize my thoughts on buying yixing pots, it’s this: focus on the function and cut out the noise. The noise includes anything that forms a “background story” that helps sell a pot – name, clay, story of acquisition, etc. Instead, function – clay density, size and shape, water flow – are the things to watch out for. If it’s too good to be true – claims of fully hand made and the price is anywhere under, say, $100, or “Republican” or “Qing” and it’s only $300 …. you should think twice about the reliability of that seller and their value proposition. On the other hand, high prices don’t mean quality either. All this does mean that buying pots over the internet is generally not a great idea. Unfortunately, for most of my readers, that makes buying teapots a tough call. Try to find vendors who have good access, usually on the ground or have deep connections with suppliers, and don’t get too carried away like me.


Comments

Buying yixing pots — 19 Comments

  1. Really great post–very well written too! I like that you’re always impartial, even scientific, about matters like this. I am indebted to you pretty much forever for helping me find good, reasonably priced teapots that I use practically every day!

  2. I do not completely agree with the uselessness of asking for full details on the teapot before buying it. I think it can easily give you a very first idea on how much you can trust your shop and the orientation of the shop catalogue. Than you can focus on the brewing capabilities.

    With the difficulty to find a correct teapot and the associate budget to allow for the search, why not use a good gaiwan?

    Before buying a new teapot, do you need to consider the amount of time you can dedicate to each one you have or there is no consequence of the low rate of use of teapots.

    Thank you for this very honest and very pragmatic post. It should be printed and published in every teashop!

    • I think the problem with the information, such as who made it, what clay, etc, is that oftentimes it’s just fluff – it’s information that doesn’t actually help you figure out what the pot is. For people who don’t get to see a pot and who don’t really know that much, it is false reliability.

      And yes, gaiwan is so much easier and I generally recommend people to start with gaiwans.

  3. I won’t dispute it, but If this clay overscepticism was to be even half true, what is the point, then? Why not simply go to much cheaper and predictable glazed teaware of any shape, or any cheap mass produced zisha pot?

    • Well, there’s a reason I try to only buy older pots. Also, once you’ve handled enough pots you can tell which ones are made dubiously and which ones are less likely to be the case. The key is finding the right stuff, which unfortunately is hard to do on the internet.

      • Sorry, my friend, poor phrasing on my part. I meant where you imply clay is “entirely meaningless in terms of what it actually does to your tea” and dicaoqing and benshanluni being basically the same in practical terms. (I believe there are few zisha clays profiles as different as the two.) If that’s true, then what’s the point in using a zisha pot, leave alone spending considerable money on it? There would be much cheaper alternatives with glazed teaware which are morefar predictable/controllable in their variables and much more easily customisable. Not to mention clay from elsewhere, like those japanese ones.

        • I think the differences between clay is often over emphasized – many other factors, such as the shape of the pot and the fineness of the grain of the clay, affect tea more than the base clay itself.

  4. i think there are several aspects to what MarshalN says is true, but you have to (as well) take into consideration that there are the
    (1) mass produced pots that are meant just to sell for whatever be it tourists etc and even have paints on it that makes it stink when you make tea, these are meant for decoration;
    (2) the mass produced pots made for making tea, and reputable teashops will stock this based on their experience and knowledge of the dealer/manufacturer;
    (3) handmade pots which are sold for several reasons, some customers buy it for the art and hardly ever make tea with it as its so valuable, and others buy it because in their opinion/experience you get a better brew out of this.
    so whether a cover fits tight or not may or may not scientifcally hold up but it can detract from the craftsmanship of the pot and the appreciation of it … that is to imply, tea drinking culture in certain circles is not restricted to just the ‘taste’ of the tea. Its like Japanese Tea Art is not only about how the brew will come out of the bowl.
    As to the quality of the clay, it pays to get such so called ‘pedigree’ pots from someone reliable. What I hear is that the potters with families who were in the business or connections, they hoard their good clay, So good clay is not so easily available. Of course the entire business is rife with tales and myth, but if you drink tea from many pots and compare, you will find that good quality clay made by a good potter still makes a better brew.

    • That’s an entirely different argument, when you start talking about aesthetics. In that case…. it’s hard to say what’s right or wrong. Wabi sabi would dictate that pots that are imperfect are actually better. Who’s right? Everyone. I was arguing against people who claim that you need a well fitting lid for a good pot – I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t think the lid should be so loose that it is literally floating around, but it doesn’t need to be air tight either.

      As for clay…. it’s really a fool’s game.

  5. I think there is a certain important thing. When I buy an “Yixing” pot I definitely want the pot to be made of real Yixing clay, or more precisely one of the clays from Yixing clay family. All practical aspects aside, I believe this is the most important matter when we talk about “buying Yixing pots”. Lid fit, filters, speed of pour it all relates to any other pot, like a porcelain pot, tokoname pot or even a tin pot. I completely don’t agree when somebody says that if you can’t tell the difference then there is no difference for you. A novice can’t tell the difference because she probably never even got a real Yixin pot in her hands. And this is because a huge amount of cheaper Yixing teapots on the market are made of some other clay. Let’s say I want to buy a golden ring. Of course it must fit and look good but it has to be made of alloy containing a reasonable amount of pure gold. And this is how one can tell if a golden ring is not a fake. Does it contain let’s say 50% of pure gold? If it does then it’s real. So, when buying a Yixing pot we must be able to tell if it’s made of Yixing clay. This is where a serious question arise: what is Yixing clay after all? Is it defined by a mineral composition, by a geographical location, by year when it was mined etc. ? When we define all that we’ll be able to answer a question if a certain pot is made of such a clay (and I understand that it’s not an easy task, but it’s at least a well defined task so there should be a way to solve it). And that’s when we can finally buy an Yixing pot. And only after that a man can begin to study effects of Yixing clay on his tea.

    • Yes, you’re right that it is most important if it’s Yixing clay – if it’s not Yixing clay, we’re not talking about the same thing at all. I’m afraid I don’t have a good way of explaining what I have learned about what’s Yixing clay – I know it when I see it, and it has to do with colour, work, texture, feel, etc, but those things don’t translate easily to words.

  6. Thanks for confirming a few hunches. I do think the whole thing about the spout and handle being the same height has something to it, but I think it only keeps one from buying the most lousy of teapots.

    If the spout is mounted too low and its top is well below the top of the handle, tea would start flowing the moment the pot is tipped even slightly (i.e., tea on table, not in cup!) A terrible flaw, and I think one that even the most mediocre potter would quickly learn to avoid, so the advice is nearly pointless. That said, I had a beautifully designed stainless steel watering can for houseplants that was completely flawed in this way, so I guess when beauty pushes practicality aside, there is a chance of this happening. I suppose anyone interested in a good pot would ask to at least pour water from it to see that it pours well, without excessive dripping, etc.

    I, for one, have left the world of pots until later and have stuck with a gaiwan, since I’m relatively new to the world of serious tea drinking, with just over a year under my belt. What’s the rush? It’s not a race or competition after all! :-)

  7. Don’t think you can really tell “authentic” based on texture, because texture in clay is a processing issue, not an inherent quality of the material itself. Clay refining in the period where “authentic” yixing pots were made, were not done via screening. They ground up the material, and then put it in sloped pits to mix with water to make a slurry. The coarser bits settle to the bottom/deep side, and the finer bits settle on top. The water leaches out of the slurry, and the clay set’s up. It then either naturally cracks as it dries, or is cut. The top layers are used for fine clay, and the stuff at the bottom is used for things that need coarse clay, like roof tiles, or larger structural pieces. So.. the stuff at the bottom of the pit and the top of the pit came from the same material but have vastly different texture.

    Also…. burnishing.. changes the texture depending on how it is done. If you rub something hard and smooth, you get a very smooth surface. If you then wipe it with a damp cloth, or sponge, you wipe away the small fine surface clay and reveal more coarser textures.

    Texture and the feel of a surface is also determined by the temperature at which it was fired. Hotter temps make for harder clay, with more shrinkage. The ones that ring like a bell, are fired hotter. In pottery it’s called “maturity” or vitrification.

    Period pottery was not fired under controlled conditions. They were fired in dragon kilns, which were long tubes built into a hill. The slope of the hill draws the heat from the bottom up the hill like a chimney, which allows the kiln to get hotter. The thing is.. that tube is long, and the fire is at the bottom, so different parts of the tube reaches different temperatures.

    Also.. the surface texture is affected by how much smoke/ash it is exposed to. When you fire a wood kiln, stuff in the wood vaporizes, not just carbon. Ash flies, and other stuff is in the gas that’s inside the air. The clay is affected by how much oxygen is in the kiln, and how much vaporized stuff it comes in contact with, and that’s if it’s fired in a box to prevent ash settling on the surface, which also changes it.

    So.. starting with the same material, your texture will be different based on:
    1) which level of the clay pit the clay came from
    2) how it was burnished/finished
    3) where in the kiln it sat when it was fired
    4) how the kiln was fired that particular time.
    5) what was in the “air” in the kiln when it was fired.

    Starting with a raw material of stuff dug out of a hill… you can get anything from brick like surface, to glassy smooth.

    That being said.. I think I’ve concluded that pots… are pots. If it doesn’t leach something bad into your tea, it pours nicely, and maybe changes the texture of the water in a good way… then you’ve got a good pot.

    Anything else.. is an exercise in aesthetics, or collection, or culture. I’m not saying those aspects are bad, but I don’t think they really affect the tea. There’s an enjoyment from drinking from a piece you like for non-flavor reasons, and I understand that aesthetic.

    But to say a rougher pot… makes a different tea… I’m not sure I’d agree. Seasoning after alot of use, makes it’s own surface.

  8. Pingback: Raising a yixing pot | A Tea Addict's Journal

Leave a Reply