We have seen them online, we see them in the malls- those humble clay teapots that look too small to use. Where did they come from, and what are they for?
The Yixing pot is not a toy, nor a miniature. It is a full-fledged brewing instrument that makes the best tea in the world. A little 4oz pot is enough to serve six people. The principle behind the size is that fine tea is best enjoyed when steeped multiple times instead of just once. If I take the 7g of leaves needed to make a pot for two or three big mugs of tea and stuff it into the little pot, I can steep those leaves 10 or even 20 times. Each steeping yields a distinctly different flavor. This allows the taster to experience all the parts of a teas flavor profile in time.
Tea enjoyed over the course of several hours out of little teapots used to be the pasttime for Chinese nobility. They would use solid gold pots, carved jade pots, or other fine decorative vessels. As often happens in Chinese history, the nobility was eventually forced to flee at the end of a dynasty to escape the wrath of the northern barbarians. These hostile troops occupied the forbidden city while the nobility went south. Of course, the conquerors wanted to enjoy the perks of leadership, drinking their own tea out of the golden vessels.
The former rulers became Confucian heros, protesting the excess of the government. They sought a symbol for their newfound humility, and it came in the form of a teapot. In the small township of Yixing, there was a monastery where the monks practiced meditation by centering clay on the wheel, and forming crude teapots. There was not enough money to have the teapots glazed, but they were fired and sold locally to support the monastery. When the ex-nobles came upon this monastery, they were touched by the humility of a clay teapot, and began to use them.
They found the pots held heat extremely well, and curiously, made better and better tea the longer they were used. It was then that they realized that since the clay was unglazed, it was absorbing the flavor of everything brewed in it, and giving some of that flavor back to future teas steeped. The fine, porous, and metal-rich clay of Yixing was perfect for making teapots. It held up to any heat, and even started to become more lustrous and beautiful the more it absorbed tea.
It did not take long for used teapots to go back on the market for more than their new counterparts. A ten or twenty year old pot was fetching a fortune. These pots were so well seasoned that they actually brewed tea from straight water with no leaves added. In just a few decades, Yixing caught on like a craze, and some pots were selling for more than their weight in gold.
Perhaps the Yixing pot did not serve the symbol of humility and protest, as its value far surpassed the excessive pots of the imperial court, but it did mark a turning point in tea culture. It was a departure from the flashy decorative service and a movement towards a more quiet tea set, where the history of the objects outweighs their sparkle value.
It seems sometimes that our taste buds trick us into eating and drinking things that are not healthy. Candy and fried food taste really good, but in excess, are toxic to the body. Fresh asparagus tastes really good too, but it just can’t stand up to the compelling taste of a Twix bar. This is our plight, living in a world where fat and calories are so plentiful that we don’t need to consume them at every chance we get like in prehistoric times. It would seem that our ability to grow our food sources has outpaced the ability of our brains to process taste differently to encourage us to eat less, or eat healthier.
Tea on the other hand occupies a different world. With tea, we can actually use our taste buds to judge what is healthiest. I want to get across the point that the healthiest tea in the world is also the best tasting. Skeptical? So is most of America. Market research surveys advise the retail industry not to use the word “healthy” in marketing anymore because it connotes bad taste.
To prove why better tasting tea is healthier, let me go over what exactly pu’er can offer in terms of tangible health benefits:
-First and foremost, it is a rich source of antioxidants, like all teas.
-Second, and more unique, Chinese medicine uses pu’er for its enormously positive effect on the digestive system due to probiotic qualities. It is said that this means pu’er can counter nausea and stomach aches and promote digestion, leading to more even absorption of nutrients and sugars into the blood stream, making it a panacea for diabetics in China. The probiotic qualities of pu’er are also said to keep cholesterol levels in check and lower risk of heart disease.
-Pu’er has a natural antibacterial quality, which helps keep teeth healthy.
-It also has lower caffeine levels as the aging process breaks down caffeine, making it ideal for even sensitive individuals.
-Pu’er contains vitamin C, essential for the immune system.
So, why does good tasting pu’er have more health benefits? Taste of pu’er is directly related to a few key causes:
-The specific growing region and conditions
-The leaf material picked
-The processing of the leaf material
The best pu’er comes from remote mountains in Xisuangbanna area of Yunnan province, far from the hustle of cities, and the contaminants that they spew into the air. The highest quality of all grows in the wild, not the plantations. Wild tea trees live in a balanced ecosystem, and draw more nutrients from the soil. They are not competing with thousands of other tea plants for the same resources. They thrive without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. The best teas, like the Banzhang Farmer’s Cooperative, grow high in the mountains, enveloped by mist for much of the year. This mist keeps excess sunlight from stimulating growth of leaves. This leads to more tender and sweet leaf material because the leaves do not expend all of the sugars and nutrients that they store up unless they are stimulated by excess sunlight. The result of tea from ideal growing conditions is one that tastes better due to more flavonoids, sugars, theanine, vitamins and minerals in the leaf, but also is healthier for the same reason. Free of pesticides and fertilizers, these wild teas offer all the benefits of tea in their most concentrated form.
Beyond the need for excellent growing conditions, we need a talented farmer to judge which leaves and buds to pick. All high quality pu’er is hand-picked. The best comes from downy buds and tender leaves from the early spring, when they still contain the largest amount of sugars and nutrients that they stored up over the winter. Summer leaves are too thin and depleted because all the nutrients were lost to put out new tree growth and flowers. You can taste a pu’er pressed from low quality summer leaf. Since the leaf is thin and depleted, it is more likely to break down as it ages, leaving a more composted brick, which tastes foul, sour and fishy. This is a bad sign. Instead steer towards Pu’ers made from full, high quality leaf. They only taste better, but because the integrity of the leaf is not compromised, the tea yields more of the natural benefits it has to offer.
Finally, the way that the leaf is handled after it is picked is going to determine what you get in your cup. Fresh produce, like apples, last for a reasonable amount of time when they are whole. Cut into an apple and you have to eat it in a few hours, or it goes bad. Tea leaves are the same way. Unbroken tea leaves hold the nutrients antioxidants, and flavor that the tea was meant to have much better than broken leaf. Pu’er made from fine broken leaf particles is going to taste bitter and sour because water gets into the tea so quickly that it burns and scalds the leaf, breaking down long molecular chains of antioxidants into shorter components that are bitter and not beneficial to health. Full leaf purer slowly and gently release all the goodness the leaf has to offer, and continue to release flavor and nutrients over many steepings. In addition to the handling of a leaf, the storage of the pu’er plays a role in its health benefits and flavor. A very young pu’er is going to be a little intense, because the large leaf green tea that it is made from has not had a chance to ferment. Fermentation breaks down caffeine, smooths out the flavor, and increases the probiotic qualities of the tea. Yet aging alone does not make good pu’er. More important is how it is aged. Something aged too quickly in an unclean environment will mold. This tastes fishy an unpleasant. It also hurts the stomach instead of helping. The best tea is allowed to age slowly, where it not only develops more complexity of flavor, but ferments in a clean way, free of harmful mold and bacteria.
It becomes clear after looking at what goes into a brick of pu’er that the higher the quality, the healthier the tea. Quality is something that you can taste. Good pu’er is sweet, deep and complex. It looks beautiful- with buds and unbroken leaves. It leaves only a delicate sweet aftertaste. This tea is also what the Chinese herbalists say will soothe the stomach, fight cholesterol, cancer and heart disease. For once, our taste buds are sending us information that we should absolutely listen to. So next time you are drinking a pu’er just relax and enjoy all the tastes it has to offer, knowing that in terms of health benefits, what you taste is what you get.