Raising a yixing pot

How to season teapots? That was one of the comments on my last post. It’s actually not that difficult, although advice on the internet being what they are, and just from the first page of google results looking for “how to raise a yixing teapot“, I see some instructions that are of dubious utility (the first link, funny enough, has pictures of a ceramic cup, not yixing pot, and the second step of the second set of instructions is a death wish for a pot, as I will explain shortly). The basic premise is – keep it simple, and don’t do anything that will endanger your pot.

Before you use the pot, the instructions will tell you to do the following:

1) Clean the pot. 2) Boil it. 3) Brew some tea in it and then discard the tea. 4) Use

Now, the general outline of this I can agree with. Cleaning the pot is simple enough – wash it with water and clean out any debris that might be in the pot, which in brand new pots is often present. If you’re buying antiques or older pots, you may need to do more deep cleaning – ranging from acid baths to bleach baths. For pots that are new, that’s unnecessary.

I think I have, at some point in the life of this blog, also mentioned the need to boil a teapot. I have to say I no longer think boiling is a good idea, and since it is a very risky activity, I do not encourage people to do it unless they have a death wish for their pot. I have personally damaged two of my pots in the process of boiling them, and I am not sure if there’s any good reason to do so that cannot be achieved just by soaking the pot in very hot water for an hour in a pan/bowl that has been pre-warmed (along with the pot) and covered and perhaps insulated. The theory behind boiling the pot is that it opens up the (some say mythical) pores on the surface of the pot and “prime” them for seasoning. I’m not sure of the truth of this need – but if you believe in it, I think a hot soak will do the trick.

The problem with boiling is that even if you simmer, at the lowest heat, the water will still bubble up, unless your heat is so low that the water is kept only warm, and not hot, in which case you are doing what you can do with just a covered bowl with no heat source. When the water bubbles, however, the parts of the teapot in the pan will rattle, either a little or a lot, depending on your luck, and once in a while, it will rattle in such a way as to damage it – usually the victim is the tip of the spout or the edge of the lid. If you insist on boiling, start with cold water with the pot already in the pan and heat everything up, very slowly, together. Putting the pot in boiling water, like Verdant suggests, is extremely risky. Putting anything extra, like a spoon in the pot (as they also suggest) is even riskier – the less things the pot can knock against, the better. I know people here who boil with some elaborate contraption they’ve devised with wet towel lining the inside of a rice cooker or something along those lines. I, frankly, don’t see the point.

Whatever your belief regarding yixing clay’s porosity, I can personally attest that they do soak up smell very well. For example, the pair of pots in my last post – I just tried, for the sake of experimentation, to brew some tea in the relatively unseasoned pot the other day without doing any cleaning. What I got was a slightly salty and old-sock like smell from the pot and the tea – and the tea did not recover even when I transferred it to another brewing vessel. This tells me I needed to clean it, and it also tells me what many yixing users already know – the pots do, over time, take on smells. In this case, it’s the musty smell of whatever storage facility it was in.

So having picked a tea to use the pot with (I’d generally suggest wide genres – oolongs, pu, black, greens, and not be too fussy with specificity – as in a previous post) I normally will actually soak the pot in said tea – spent leaves are fine – for some time, usually a few hours at a time, and refresh if deemed necessary. This should drive away the fresh clay smell (a mixture of sandy and clay-y). Then, your pot is more or less ready to use.

When using it, I almost never pour water over the pot, nor tea. There’s a reason for this, especially if your water source is high in minerals – over time, there will be a nasty ring of mineral deposits on your pot, usually right around the edge of the rim of the lid. This rim will be difficult to clean. The point of using the brush, as some of you might have seen people do, is to distribute the water evenly throughout the pot, so that this line of mineral doesn’t form (or at least, form a lot slower). Also, as a good chemist friend pointed out a long time ago, pouring water over a pot actually helps it to lose heat faster – that water evaporating off the surface of the pot is taking heat away from your pot. I do not believe that there is any tangible and discernable benefit to pouring water over the pot. Some believe the extra heat (if any) will help get more flavour out of the tea, but since your infusions are quick (a few seconds) and the difference in temperature between water in the pot and water-on-pot is minimal (a few degrees, at most?) I have a hard time imagining a physical process that will help you extract meaningful amounts of flavour out of the leaves in that short period of time.

Now, you will often read about the need to polish your pot, usually with the suggestion of using a wet towel, maybe with tea, after every single use. I normally don’t do this either, for another reason – very frequent use of a wet towel to polish your pot will result in what people often call, derisively, “the monk shine.” 和尚光 This is in reference to a Buddhist monk’s shiny, hairless head (although in reality, any bald head will do). Pots that have been over-buffed will be really shiny. Some people prefer it that way, others think it crass. The right hand pot in my last post, in person at least, is borderline “monk shine.” Personally, I prefer my pots seasoned but not shiny – like the lion pot here. If cleaning is a must (and sometimes it is – because of stains, etc) wet a cloth with warm water, and wipe, gently, the pot while it is warm.

When done drinking, clear the pot of leaves and rinse it out if you wish. Whatever you do, please do keep the lid off until the pot is absolutely dry. I know people who close the lid while it’s still wet because they want to season the inside. Sometimes it’s tea in there, other times it’s wet with clear water, but even then, when I open the lid of those pots, sometimes I can smell a bit of an off smell – mold. It’s far too easy to grow something in a pot if it’s wet and closed. Dry it out. If you use your pot often enough, it’ll season through use. There’s no need to rush, and if you forgot to clear the pot just once, you’ll have to start over by cleaning it inside out. There’s nothing worse than realizing that you forgot some tea in a pot you left around because you wanted to season it, and to discover that what was tea has now turned into a gooey, sickly smelling gel-like substance. I’ve done it before, and it’s nasty. Clean, and keep the lid off.

Finally, a word of etiquette – I was chided a long time ago for doing this by friends with far more experience. If you are drinking tea with friends and you want to admire someone else’s pot, ask before you pick it up, and when you pick it up, keep either the lid or the body on the table when you look at the other part of the pot. Never, ever hold the pot in one hand while you hold the lid in the other (or worse, the same hand) when you’re peering into the pot. Even if you think you have steady hands, all it takes is one accident. Two hands on one pot or one lid is far better than thumb and index on the lid’s knob while your hand holds the pot itself. It’s someone else’s pot, and someone else’s effort – the pot might not be worth a lot, but the time and effort and the memory it comes with are not replaceable. Minimize the risk to others by respecting their wares. You can always break your own teapots.

Addendum: A friend also suggested I add two things to the etiquette section. The first is don’t knock someone else’s pot against itself – in other words, don’t use the lid and hit the body of the pot with it. Yes, some people do that to test to see if the pot rings, but yes, it sometimes can damage the lid or the body of the pot. It happens, and you don’t want to be the one doing it. The other thing not to do is to start doing water tests or whatever else tests you do with pots as if you’re buying them – it’s someone else’s pot. They already bought it. Unless they asked you to evaluate it, don’t. You don’t size up someone’s kid (or cat, or car) and start testing their IQ or kicking the tires, so why would you do that with a teapot?


Comments

Raising a yixing pot — 12 Comments

  1. If you’re not watering your pots for reasons your chemist friend mentioned, what will cause the pots to have a patina in the long run?

  2. I’m curious about thinking the shiny pot to be crass…? At one point I didn’t realize my pot was getting a patina until I rubbed it down with a microfiber cloth (dry), and it started to shine up a bit. It’s not glassy (yet), but it’s the main kind of patina that has developed without even trying.

    Is it just thought of as flashy/tacky?

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. The funny thing is, when I posted my usual method that didn’t involve boiling I was lambasted on Reddit for being overly cautious. I’d rather be safe than sorry, especially with something like a high end yixing.

  4. Hot damn! Thanks for posting this! I do have a nasty mineral ring around my favorite pot but other than that sounds like I’m doing most things right.

    The etiquette section was interesting. One thing that was new and surprising to me when I got involved (peripherally) with Japanese chado people is that when you are admiring a piece you 1) hold it with two hands, always, as you mentioned and 2) hold it very low off the table (or floor, if you’re in a tea ceremony), and bring your face to the piece instead of the other way around, so that the consequences of a slip are minimized. That had never occurred to me and I found it really sensible – it made handing very valuable objects a lot less stressful for me personally and I’m sure even more so for the owner.

  5. All sounds good, but… how do you know what kind of tea to soak a pot in before you’ve used it? Are your pot/tea pairing skills that highly developed that you can tell before actually tasting the tea from the pot, or do you simply think it doesn’t matter so much?

    • I don’t, and honestly, it doesn’t matter that much, I think, as long as the clay is good. What’s the point of figuring out a pot is great for, say, black tea, when I rarely drink it?

  6. Sometimes people forget they want, do they want to drink tea or fxxk around? I totally agree that people makes too much fuss over the pot. How can the pot be more important than the tea?

    In a way, how the pot looks is a by product of how you drink your tea, it shouldn’t be the other way around.

  7. MarshalN,

    I have been reading your blog posts for over a year now. I really respect your knowledge on tea. You also broke me away from originally buying all of my tea solely from Verdant, which was good for me in not only realizing what multiple vendors have to offer out there, but also didn’t hurt my bankroll either. For that, thanks.

    With regards to yixing, I’m interested in buying a 100ml teapot. I’ve only used glass teapots for brewing tea up until this point, a 100ml and 200ml pot, and two gaiwans without success (too hot for my fingers and simply not comfortable to use on a daily basis). Do you have any recommendations where I should buy my first yixing pot, and what price range is suitable? For seasoning a teapot, what proportion of water do you put the actual teapot in (certain stove pot size)? When you ‘soak’ it in a chosen tea, do you maintain the water at a certain temperature or just steep and leave in as you would when drinking tea? The issue here is the tea would get cold over the course of an hour and therefore I would think it is no longer seasoning the actual pot.

    As a Starbucks barista in my former life and avid coffee drinker for a decade now, I’ve grown an aversion to drinking large amounts of coffee in a given day. Simply, it’s difficult for me to do without feeling ill. I have a weak stomach, as many in my family line do, and similarly feel unwell when drinking green tea, unroasted oolongs, and young puerh. With your help, I’ve found roasted oolongs most suitable and enjoyable to my system. I bought my first aged oolong this past week, supposedly from the 1970s, and am very curious to try this out for this first time. Perhaps, I can share and send some your way if you’re interested. I’d be very curious to see your take on it. Cooked puerh is pretty good, but still growing on me. Most taste very similar. Raw puerh, even aged 5-10 years, I can only do in small doses and very infrequently.

    Sorry for the lengthy post, but I just wanted to say thanks again for all of your help over this past year. Take care.

    Regards,
    MikeF

    • Hi there, glad to hear you’ve found the joy of experimenting with other vendors. Sometimes even when they turn out to be duds, you learn something, which is part of the fun.

      If you feel like your fingers are getting burned, you might be holding your gaiwan wrong. I made a video a long time ago (you can search for it on this blog) and see it helps. You are probably using either 1) a gaiwan that’s too thick or 2) filling it too full. If you fill it a bit lower you should be ok. Gaiwan is the most versatile and it’s what I normally recommend.

      If you want a yixing, and if you only want a functional one with decent clay, I know Origintea.net has some that are good clay, not sure what he has in stock though.

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