Things that matter, things that don’t

Over the years I’ve seen/heard/read many purported “rules” when it comes to buying yixing teapots. They all claim to help you buy a good pot. I’ve believed some of them at some points, although, increasingly, I no longer rely on any of them. I thought I will list a few of the common “rules” that people have developed – ones that I think are actually leading you down the wrong path, and offer up an alternative instead.

Keep in mind that everything written here is from the point of view of someone buying to use their pots, especially smaller pots that are for, at most, 3-4 people. If you are looking to buy things for your collection – then it’s mostly a question of personal taste and preferences. I’m also fully expecting to see people who think what I write here is wrong. If you disagree, let me know why.

1) The pouring test – basically, putting water in the pot and then pouring it out. This test is supposed to check, mostly, for whether or not the pot drips or not. It is true that pots that drip are annoying, especially if you pour slowly, but actually, I’d argue that dripping is not the worst thing that can happen. The thing is, when it’s a small pot and you’re using it mostly for personal drinking (as I think many of my blog’s readers do) it’s actually quite rare that you will use it for pouring into multiple cups – that’s when dripping becomes a serious problem. During my normal day to day drinking, for example, I’d pour the contents of my pot straight into a cup that’s large enough for the pot’s size. Also, when pouring, the pot is tilted basically 90 degrees so the spout points down. In that case, whether a pot drips or not makes very little difference – it will pour into the cup, regardless. The same is true if you use a fairness cup and you empty your pot into that.

Instead, something to pay more attention to is actually the speed at which it pours. Crucially, it’s the speed at which it pours when it’s tea that is hot, not water. I’ve used pots that pour well when it’s cold water (what you’d use to test in a shop) but do poorly when it’s tea – tea has slightly higher viscosity, and in some cases, it does seem to matter. If you have a slow pouring pot, it can kill your tea drinking experience using it.

2) The lid test – there are various versions of this out there. The simple one is just whether or not the lid fits well or not – if it wiggles, the theory goes, it’s a badly made pot. The extreme ones claim that you should put water in the pot, fill it to the brim, put the lid on, hold the pot by the handle and spout while covering the spout, and then turning the pot over. A supposed truly well made pot will have a lid that doesn’t fall out.

Aside from the very obvious problem of running the risk of having the lid fall out and break (and thus making it very unlikely that vendors will let you try this before you pay) it also serves no purpose in tea making. A tight fitting lid doesn’t actually make your tea better. It doesn’t really help pouring (in fact, it might exacerbate slow-pouring problems) and it doesn’t even necessarily denote good craftsmanship. Most pots these days are made with molds – which seriously lower the bar set for tight fitting lids. Just because it fits tight doesn’t actually mean much for the drinker. A lid that is a bit loose, as long as it’s not excessive, is perfectly acceptable. We are not talking about lids that are almost falling into the pot here – those are annoying (I have one). A bit of wriggle won’t really matter much though.

3) Factory 1 is everything – there is a certain fascination with factory 1 teapots. In case you missed the memo, Yixing factory 1 was the main factory for making teapots back in the state-controlled days. Many famous potters got their start there, and so many early period pots might have (emphasis on might) been made by said famous potters. There are various theories out there as to what the signs are for a master-made pot – seeing, for example, 宜興南孟臣製 as opposed to 荊溪南孟臣製 as the seal, for example. The idea is that factory 1 controlled the best clay, the best talent, and so the pots they made were the best.

Sure, that may be the case, and in terms of collectible value, a verifiable factory 1 pot is certainly worth more than one that isn’t. However, there’s a problem – it takes a serious amount of work to learn to distinguish what’s a factory 1 and what isn’t, and most people who sell these things haven’t a clue. They are just told by their friends (who sold them the pots) that they are, indeed, factory 1, and pass them on as such. There are probably way more factory 1 pots out there than factory 1 ever produced, just like there are far, far more Lao Banzhang on the market than all the tea Lao Banzhang has ever made in its entire history.

This is even more of a problem when you buy pots online, as many of my readers are likely to do. The signs of a well made pot – clay, craft, etc, are hard to discern through pictures alone. Unless and until you can handle the pot, or, if you feel adventurous, buying online is a real gamble. And also, given the cost of a real factory 1 pot these days, it’s a non-trivial amount of money (hundreds of dollars) to be gambling with.

Finally, the supposed value of a factory 1 pot is not really in tea making – and even if it does somehow improve your tea slightly, as I’ve stated a long time ago, the incremental difference (if any) is going to be pretty minor, all things considered. If you are hoping to buy one of these pots because you think it will dramatically improve the tea in your cup, you should invest the money in buying better tea leaves instead.

4) XXX clay is good for XXX tea – there has been an explosion of the names of clay types in recent years. An old teapot dealer here in Hong Kong who’s seen more teapots than I have drunk cups of tea tells me that until maybe 15 years or so ago, nobody cared what clay a pot is made with – the names are simply “red clay” “purple clay” or “duanni”. None of this “dicaoqing” “qingshuini” and a million different types of zhuni, etc etc. That, he thinks, is all just a ploy for sellers to get people to buy more pots – and I can sort of see why, as the completists in us want to collect something of everything. To him, the only thing that matters with the clay is whether it’s good or not – which is told not by the type (or more specifically, the name) of the clay, but rather by its texture and look and feel. He can’t name you what it is, but he can most certainly tell you if it’s good clay or not. Likewise, the idea that a certain type of clay, itself a dubious idea, is only good for certain type of tea, is a double dose of such myth perpetuation. Don’t buy into it. You don’t even need to use a pot with one single type of tea – using it with one family of teas is usually good enough.

At the end of the day, if you’re buying a yixing pot, just know that you’re not buying a power-booster to your tea – that’s not what it’s going to do. It may change your tea that you normally brew in, say, your gaiwan, but it won’t necessarily improve it – in some cases (depending on the pot) it may even make the tea worse. If you buy a pot, it’s because you want to use a pot and like to use a pot. If you want flexibility, stick with gaiwan. They’re cheaper and more versatile. Just don’t buy an expensive one – it will break.

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?

Separated by accident

Some friends have been saying I should post more of my pots online. Well, here’s one, or two, rather

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I’m a real sucker for these pairs with matching pouches, conveniently colour coded so that they are easily identifiable without needing to fish them out and check. There’s a reason that’s necessary

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As you can see, they are different – but actually, not that different. The two were clearly made the same way. The only thing is, the one on the left seemed to have, early in its life, suffered an accident. The tip of the spout seems to be filed down to give it the current appearance. It should’ve looked like the one on the right, but for reasons of accident, it isn’t (there’s some residual damage under the spout). As a consequence, whoever owned the pair probably never really used the broken pot, and stuck with the one that isn’t broken. So, now you have even more difference – one has a lovely, shiny patina, the other one has none. If you want evidence that Yixing clay seasons over time, well, this is exhibit A.

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You can see that under the lid the clay of both pots are virtually identical.

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You can think of these as identical twins who suffered different fates. One got an unlucky break early on, and as a result, is loved that much less and spent that much less time with the owner of the pot. Whoever owned it took enough care to fix the broken pot – it probably had an ugly break of the tip and so the tip was filed down for aesthetics, but for whatever reason, it never got the attention it needed. The other got everything – loving care, attention, all the tea it needed to nourish its surface. So, many years later, I see the end result of it. It is probably safe to say that most will find the seasoned pot much more pleasing to the eye, but now that I am the owner of these two, maybe I’ll try to right the wrong and give the broken pot some love. It deserves it after all these years.

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.

A small curiosity

Over the years I’ve collected some pretty odd looking teapots. This is one of them

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I have no idea what this is. The thing is tiny – it measures 8cm from tip of spout to end of handle. It is unglazed, and construction is Yixing-like – it’s clearly slab built, and probably molded by hand/fingers instead of using many tools. The thing probably leaks a little – there are some tea stains on the exterior of the pot that looks like minor bleeding that happens when you use, say, a Hagi cup. It has that Yixing sandy smell when you wet it. I’m inclined to believe this is a Yixing pot, although I don’t know of its origins or anything.

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Small pots like this always pose a problem. I know they have fans – people always ask me where to get these tiny pots, but I personally find that anything below about 80ml to be too small to be of practical use. First of all, leaves often don’t fit. Then the small size makes control quite difficult. I prefer things in the 100ml range, which puts this just below. I doubt I’ll be using this pot much, but it’s a lot of fun to look at and play with.

Zhuni

There’s a lot of discussion, everywhere, of what is zhuni and what is not. It’s quite easy to tell what isn’t, especially if you’ve seen enough of them, but what is, is harder to say. I think I am reasonably confident, however, in saying that this pot I bought not too long ago is, indeed, zhuni.

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The walls of this pot is quite thin, and it is a nice build. It’s slightly large for one person use, but I think its shape and size works well for oolongs. A Taiwanese oolong should do quite well in it, and I am quite excited to try it out.

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There are little problems – like the little chip in the base that you see here. Can’t complain though, as perfect condition ones these days are astronomical in price. These days Chinese buyers are hoovering up everything, from pots to tea to supporting teaware. It’s getting harder and harder to buy things now, and until the China bubble bursts (if it ever does) I think high prices are here to stay.

What’s in Yixing clay?

So, what’s in Yixing clay anyway?

Last year I got in touch with Professor NH Cheung of the Department of Physics of Hong Kong Baptist University, because they have this technique that they have been using to do spectroscopy on various things – forensic analysis on ink toners, for example, among others. They can use it to figure out what elements are present in any given substance without causing damage to the material itself. Well, what better than this to test if Yixing clay has lead or not? After all, that’s what everyone’s worried about, it seems, and this method seems infinitely better than the rather dodgy lead test kits that you can buy. So we got in touch, and Professor Cheung’s PhD student (soon to be Dr) Bruno Cai conducted the tests. You can read the full report here: 2012.12.31 Report of PLEAF analysis on yixing tea pots-1

I asked them to take samples from both the lid and the base of the pot, so as to get a more general sense of whether there are differences. I also gave them two pots – identical ones from, presumably, the same batch, which are here listed as “sample 1 and sample 2″. I thought it might be interesting to test to see if they share similar characteristics. In case you’re wondering, they’re the same as these ones:

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The quick summary is – no lead (Pb). Among the elements present are: Aluminium, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Silicon, and Titanium. We don’t know in what quantity they are there, but that’s a start.

We might try to do more tests on different pots. They have also done tests on yixing ware previously – some reddish yixing cups, to be precise. The signatures are a bit different. This could get interesting.

An international pot

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The potter Petr Novak has been making teaware for a while now, and offering them to us who are interested in something a little different. A while back, I bought a shiboridashi, which is a style of Japanese kyusu that looks a bit like a gaiwan with a spout, from him, intending it to be a gift. I haven’t gifted it yet, and am not sure if I want to. The pains of a hoarder.

Yesterday I got the above pot in the mail, one of the last of the Yixing pots in Czech Republic series, I believe. I found the experiment fascinating, and right up my alley of the kind of things I’d like, so I asked if I can get my hands on one. Here it is.

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The pot is shiny. It’s much shinier than your usual yixing pot, which in my unqualified, ignorant view of pottery is probably attributable to higher temperatures. The surface of the pot is not quite smooth – it feels slightly sticky, actually. The clay inside the pot looks visibly different from the outside, which I guess is because of the firing process and the difference in temperature, or something along those lines. The same can be said of the base of the pot, which doesn’t have the same colours or texture as the body, and is closer to what’s on the interior. The grains of the clay are larger than what you normally see on Yixing clay these days, but then again, these days they’re so fine I actually don’t like them.

I haven’t had a chance to try these yet with tea, but this should be pretty interesting!

Ugly, dirty ducklings

Or are they old ducks?

I love ugly pots. If you’re generous, you can call them rustic. Less generous souls will call them poorly potted, with bad craftsmanship and bad form. Either way, I love them.

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Buying pots like these though entails some risks and problems. The most annoying and difficult to deal with are dirty pots. There are two kinds of dirts that you can encounter. The first is easy – just tea and other sundry dirt that can be easily cleaned. Then there’s another kind of dirt which is extremely difficult to clean. They appear as a sticky substance that clings strongly to the pot’s inner surface (always inner, never outer). Then on top, there’s often a white, limescale like substance. It’s nearly impossible to remove, with vigorous scrubbing necessary.

With bigger pots, scrubbing is at least possible. With small pots though, that’s really, really difficult. Both of these pots are infected with this unique brand of substance.

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Keep in mind what you see here is already after three cleaning attempts – I’ve already removed a lot of the residue, but much remains. I honestly don’t know how anyone or anything can get that dirty. The spotted pot, especially, is puzzling. It’s part of a pair. The other pot in the pair is in great shape – stained, but doesn’t have this white stuff. This one, however, is covered in it.

I have some inkling of what this might be. I think water does eventually leave some residue in a pot. For example, my most often used young puerh pot has some of this white stuff too after years of use.

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But it should really come with dark tea stains, like this

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Not some sticky substance that clings tenaciously to the clay. Sigh, I just wish I can find that perfect chemical that will melt this stuff away.

Essential teaware

Let’s say you need, at a very minimum, a kettle, a pot, and a cup. If we start with the kettle, you need at least something to heat the kettle with, and maybe different kettles for different purposes. Some people prefer electric water boilers that have temperature control settings, others opt for more fancy setups with charcoal burners and clay kettles, and still others fuss even about the type of charcoal they’re going to use for aesthetic purposes or some pseudo-practical reasons. Still others think it is imperative to buy, say, a clay kettle, a tetsubin, maybe a silver kettle, and a number of heating mechanisms to match. Kettles are pretty simple, so there isn’t a lot of variables there, and I think we have exhausted most of the possibility and the baseline of what might be considered essential.

Then you move on to the pot. Here’s where it gets complicated. Obviously, as everyone surely knows, you can only ever use one kind of tea per pot, otherwise the apocalypse will hit and humanity will end. So, for every kind of tea you drink, you need a different yixing pot. That will easily end you up with a dozen or more pots, one for green, light oolong, dark oolong, aged oolong, raw puerh, aged puerh, cooked puerh, maybe subdividing the oolongs into different regions, and reserving a few of different sizes for the times when you have guests. Some will most certainly tell you that certain kinds of clay are only good for certain kinds of tea, or better yet, that having different clays brew the same tea will provide different results. If you’re serious, then, you need more than one per tea type.

You also clearly need a gaiwan, since without it you cannot possibly test out teas in a neutral way, so you need at least one, maybe multiple, of those. If you’re serious, you may also need a cupping set, or three. Likewise, if you want to drink sencha, a kyusu with a yuzamashi and some yunomis are indispensible. Or if you want to have any matcha, then you need a chasen, a chashaku, at least one chawan, a natsume, a sieve, and a chakin. You also need a decent kama, probably with a matching furo, if you want to play seriously. Now, so far we’ve only covered Chinese and Japanese teas. If you want to, say, do an English tea service, well, the list goes on and on.

Of course, we haven’t even gotten to cups yet, not really anyway. There are many, many theories out there on cups, but everyone who has ever done one of those taste comparison test will almost always tell you that different cups will make things taste different. A general rule of thumb I have encountered is that smaller cups are for oolongs, bigger, wider cups for puerh, but then you need to consider issues such as the thickness of the cup, the glaze, which affects the cup’s tactile feel on your mouth and possibly the tea, as well as the shape and curvature, which will influence how the tea flows to different parts of the mouth. If you are into smelling, you need a wenxiangbei to go along with that. Cups that are naked without chatakus, however, look funny, so you need those too.

Now we’re getting into the territory of accessories that are necessary, and the list here can only grow ever longer. For example, how can anyone make any tea without the aid of the toolsets that you see selling in Chinatowns everywhere for $14.99? Or, for that matter, what can you do without that tea tray of yours that holds all of your waste water? You also need a fairness cup, which will help you dispense the tea, especially if you have a lot of guests and you want to get your tea to them in a reasonable manner. Pouring each cup individually directly from the pot, unless you’re doing a traditional gongfu style pouring which is uninterrupted by lifting and moving, is going to be disastrous. So you need one of those chaozhou trays as well in additional to your regular tray. If you’re one of those people who are into setting up endless arrays of similar looking but slightly different tea settings (chaxi) then you clearly need many variations of teawares that do the same thing, otherwise it gets boring very fast. You may also find it essential to have items to hold the dry leaves, to showcase the dry leaves, etc

We haven’t even talked about implements that store leaves, or store water, or store teaware. But I think you get my point. After all, instead of having all that stuff, you can just do this

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As I’ve mentioned long ago, teaware is probably the last thing you should be spending money on, given limited budgets, in terms of how much it can improve your tea. Once you’ve moved past the basics, such as getting a proper gaiwan or a yixing pot or some such, additional money spent on teaware is almost always a waste, if your goal is a better cup of tea. Now, of course, there are other reasons why one might want to buy teaware, as I know full well. However, don’t ever let anyone tell you that any piece of tea equipment is essential – it’s not. For example, I use a toothpick to clear my spouts when they’re stuck. I find those to be far, far more effective AND safe for my pots than the implements that come in those teasets and will damage your pot. I also rarely use many of the pots that I own. Sometimes, less is really more.