It’s true – yixing addiction is real, and it is affecting tea lovers near you. I am a confessed yixing addict, with no plans for rehabilitation in the near future. Maybe it’s the yixing speaking, but not only has yixing addiction made my life more fulfilling, but also… – well, yes, I could stop any time if I wanted to. From my experience with the dark underbelly of yixing, I have a few pointers on navigating this unknown world.
After all, you have to stay a step ahead of the dealers or next thing you know you will be peddling their wares to subsidize your own desires. (Why do you think so many people get into the tea industry?)
You know you are addicted to yixing when:
- You pack your yixing pot to go on vacation because “it just wouldn’t be good enough drinking tea out of those hotel gaiwans.” This need to bring the yixing along with you can manifest in even more dire ways, including, but not limited to:
- Constantly worrying about how your yixing is doing while you are away
- Setting up a skype line so that you can watch your yixing in real time while you are on a business trip
- Taking your yixing on carry-on luggage and asking for boiling water when the flight attendant comes by so that you can brew up gongfu tea en-route.
- Walking by your yixing collection and stopping in your tracks by a teapot that looks “sad” because it hasn’t been used for too long, boiling water, and making a tea that you aren’t even particularly in the mood to drink just to keep the pot happy.
- You have collected a pot for every major kind of tea out there, and then realize that it is “absolutely critical” to collect a second pot for every tea so that you can use it as a sharing pitcher while brewing.
- Whenever you are considering a major purchase (appliances, repairs, vacation, etc) you measure the expense in the number of yixing teapots that you could buy with that money. Then, you actually do go and buy the yixing pots telling yourself how much you saved by not getting the car fixed.
- Naming your yixing pots. In extreme cases, pots will develop personalities, likes and dislikes, and perhaps even form relationships with other teapots.
These are a few of the main warning signs. So, what does yixing do that makes it so addicting, so indispensable for its users? As an addict, I can share the inside scoop.
- It is your baby yixing to care for from day one. Anyone remember nanopets? They became so big in grade school that they were banned from the campus. Of course, the tragedy was epic – everyone’s nanopets “passed on” due to lack of food and attention during the school day. Yixing is demanding and rewarding in the same way. A baby yixing teapot is still full of potential. What career path will you choose for it? Oolong? Pu’er? Black tea? Once you choose a career, the pot needs to be trained in the ways of the ways of the world. A responsible parent carefully seasons the pot, and feels reward and satisfaction from their baby growing into a real pot.
- The thrill. Sure, it is no roller coaster ride caring for an yixing pot, but then again… Yixing will start to give back more and more flavor and texture to your tea, going through periods of being more giving and less giving (while the clay is absorbing the flavors you steep in it). Sometimes a pot will be getting more and more lustrous, and then suddenly look dull and dirty. Don’t despair – the pot has reached a plateau and a few more uses will allow it to burst forth into an even greater level of beauty. This is the fun of it.
- Brag factor. Yes, us addicts have to admit that one reason we invite people over for tea is to show off the tea wares. Would a parent not be ever so beamingly proud if their child won an award and got the attention that he / she deserves? Yixing is no different. When we care for yixing pots, we want others to see the results of our work. Having a beautiful collection will make you the coolest kid on the block.
- The tea. Yes, of course – yixing really does make tea taste better. Over time, yixing pots absorb intense flavor and texture from tea, and bolster everything you brew with extra complexity. Some teas are better suited to this kind of synergy: darker oolongs, black teas, and pu’er to be precise. Green tea, white tea and green oolongs will brew up fine in yixing, but their delicate aromas and aftertastes are bolstered by a more pure and unadalterated brewing material like glass or porcelain. (Just don’t tell my yixing collection that I said so.)
- Cash money. That’s right, yixing of the highest quality cared for over the years with a luster and good flavor imparted to the tea will fetch a high price. Yixing is an investment. That is what I tell my parents when they visit and ask how much I spent on my own collection anyway. Good luck tearing yourself from a piece that you have spent so much time with!
- They make a good secretary. Every teapot you season and grow will “take notes,” recording every tea you brew in it. When you drink a wuyi oolong in an old pot, you are drinking every wuyi oolong ever brewed in that pot. Yixing pots will reflect over time your personal preferences in tea. For example, if you like very musty pu’er, your yixing pot will start to give that particular flavor to everything brewed in it. Tasting plain water brewed in an older yixing pot of yours is a good way to quickly look back at your whole history of tea drinking from the flavors and textures given to the water.
- Sheer beauty. Some teapots out there are stunning. Beautiful objects alone make tea taste better. A teapot with a careful hand-crafted beauty will enforce an appreciation of whatever tea is poured through its spout.
Of course, as a confessed yixing addict, I can only support safe and controlled use of yixing. There are some basic guidelines to follow that will keep your yixing happy and healthy, and make sure that you have the time of your life using yixing.
First, make sure that before you use an yixing for the first time you season it properly. Here is a short guide on proper technique to season an yixing teapot, and how to care for the pot: “How to Season an Yixing Teapot”
You will also want to explore just how tea ware effects the taste of your tea – get started with our in-depth introduction: Tea Ware and Taste.
Next you have to decide what kinds of tea to brew in what pot. From “Tea Ware and Taste,” you know that yixing absorbs specific flavor and texture. You have to walk a fine line between inevitable bankruptcy from buying fine yixing for every tea you own, and using an yixing pot for too many teas at once and muddling its flavors. The first consideration has to be financial. A small, functional, mass-produced yixing pot made by a machine mold with a clay that is porous enough to build luster can be had for around $100 – anything less expensive than this, and you risk sub-par clay and craftsmanship: at best, you’ll end up with a pot with limited capacity for growth; at worst, a pot made with unsafe clay not meant to use for food & drink or decorated and colored with lead paints. A handmade, one-of-a-kind piece might start above $100 if it is small and humble, or from an artist just beginning their career, and quickly slide up towards $500 and above when you are buying from well-known artists with highly desirable clay and intricate carving and sculpture. Forget about those $5000+ pots, most of which are antiques. Unless you are a die-hard collector and addict, you will want to grow your own pot from new, not use someone else’s. That is half the fun.
Your budget will inform how far you want to break down pot usage. Want to know about my own yixing obsession? I am happy to break down my own tea pot use for reference.
My name is David Duckler,
and I am an Yixing Tea Pot Addict.
My collection currently includes over a dozen yixing tea pots, and this is how I use them:
Green Oolong: three – one grey (qingduanni) clay pot which has taken on a beautiful green hue from Tieguanyin, one tiny green (antique luni) clay pot gifted to us by Wang Huimin – the woman who started our Tieguanyin journey – and one purple (zisha) clay pot. This last pot is used mainly as a pitcher, and occasionally for lighter Dancong. This pot was one of our very first yixing tea pots, acquired when we were just beginning to fall in love with tea; though it has great sentimental value, it doesn’t get as much use these days, as the higher quality clay and craftsmanship of its fellows tempts us to use them instead.
Darker Oolong: Three – one for Wuyi oolong, one for roasted Tieguanyin, and one very large pot used for brewing for large groups and gatherings. The two smaller pots are sometimes used interchangeably, often with one acting as pitcher for the other, as is common in Wuyishan.
Dancong Oolong: One – a gorgeous carved tea pot made with extremely uncommon and rare golden zhuni clay.
Black Tea: Two- one for Yunnan black tea and one for other black teas (usually Jin Jun Mei). Our little duanni Yunnan Black pot is another of our very first pots. Although it has great sentimental value to us, it was a very affordable machine-made pot; the quality of its clay means that it has very little potential for growth, and so is now most often used as a pitcher.
Sheng pu’er: Four – two to use interchangeably, and one tiny 1.5oz pot for small tastings to check in and see the way a cake is growing without using too much tea. Originally, our two zhuni sheng pu’er pots were used for all of our sheng pu’er. However, after years of use and many sessions with older sheing pu’er from the 90’s and beyond, these pots are now dedicated to brewing and growing with our oldest sheng. Our newest purple (zisha) clay sheng pu’er pot is dedicated to new sheng pu’er only, between one and four years old.
Shu Pu’er: Two – one zhuni clay pot for rich fruity (generally, younger) shu, and one antique shi piao for (older, mature) musty shu pu’er.
That is sixteen total, with about a year’s salary invested into the pots over many trips to China, and many ramen noodle nights to make up for the expenditure. When people ask for advice on buying yixing, I always endorse starting with a lower price functional pot ($100 – $400) before moving into the $1000+ pots that you can find at galleries in Hong Kong and private museums among tea lovers across China.
If you are not willing to spend at least $100-$300 on a pot? Wait. Do not buy an yixing tea pot.
Only purchase yixing from someone you trust, and only when you are ready for the investment. This introductory range ($100 – $300) of lower-cost yixing work just as well as the ridiculously expensive ($1000+) work, as long as you are buying a pot from a source you truly trust. Painted and glazed pots won’t absorb flavor or become lustrous naturally, which means you may as well purchase an intentionally glazed ceramic tea pot. At best, your pot will not grow over time, and you may find yourself falling out of love with pieces in your collection. At worst, you will waste money purchasing something dangerous to your health, and meant only as a cheap souvenir for gullible tourists.
Some clays will always fetch a higher price than others (zhuni, I’m looking at you!), while others are more common and affordable (purple zisha, common zini). Some artists are nationally and internationally recognized for their innovation and skill, which means their pots will command higher price tags, while other artists are just getting started in their careers. Some pots are simple and unadorned, while others feature complex carving from renowned calligraphers & carvers, or unusual sculptural details. Some tea pots are tiny; others are as large as Western style tea pots. Some pot designs are award winning innovations, unique to a specific artist, while others are meditations on classic designs. All of these elements effect the price of the pot: rare clays are in short supply with higher demand; larger pots require more clay; complex designs and shapes require more skill to create; renowned artists and designs are highly sought after by collectors.
These must all be taken into account and balanced when building a collection of your own. There is no practical reason to buy expensive ($800+, $1500+) yixing, unless you are comfortable justifying it on aesthetic grounds alone. (Which I absolutely am!)
Whatever you acquire, make sure you love your tea pot. A tea pot that is not loved will not be used.
That is why we will never offer a tea pot that we do not love. Every tea pot we share is a tea pot we would love to have in our own collection, if only we had the space.
If you are going to buy just one Yixing pot, get one for dark oolongs or pu’er, as these will have the most satisfyingly rapid results for growing the pot. A dark oolong pot can even be shared with black teas and dancongs if you aren’t too picky. It will give back a dark sweetness and add more body and texture, though not a tea-specific texture. On a budget, simply buy an everyday gaiwan for all your other teas until the funds come together for your perfect second yixing pot.
As a rule of thumb, only use an yixing pot for teas that you would be comfortable mixing together.
Would you mind if a few drops of Wuyi oolong spilled in your cup of Yunnan black? What about a little Wuyi black tea in your Wuyi oolong? If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then don’t let them share a pot. If you wouldn’t mind, then go for it! It is your tea and your pot after all. If you think it would interesting to mix green tea and pu’er in one pot as an experiment, don’t feel guilty: try it. The yixing police won’t come busting your door down. It is simple enough to reboil a tea pot and re-season it, especially if the tea pot is still young and new. In general, it is easier to move from light teas to dark teas, but much harder to reverse! A tea pot used for musty shu pu’er will not be much effected by a session of green tea, but a green oolong tea pot may be greatly effected by a session with a smoked Wuyi black tea!
However, since yixing does absorb so much, never use soap to clean it. Just boiling water please! I also don’t recommend brewing artificially flavored and scented teas in the same pot as your traditional teas, as the oils and extracts used in flavoring are very strong and will stay in the yixing forever. Once again though, it is your teapot. If you like the taste of key lime pie in all your tea, and you want to season and raise an yixing tea pot dedicated just to that tea, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
As for what type of pot to pair with what tea? Everyone has their own two cents to put in. Ultimately, you want to pair a tea with whatever pot you find most beautiful, as the beauty of the pot will help you better appreciate the beauty of the tea. However, some clay types tend to grow faster if you pair them up with certain teas. Light yellow and grey clay really shines with lighter teas like sheng pu’er or dancong. Purple clay loves shu pu’er for the color and luster, while red clay does well picking up the warmth of black tea and Wuyi oolongs. Some tea pot shapes are also more versatile for certain kinds of tea. A rolled oolong needs space to expand; long twisted leaves need an opening that is wide enough to accommodate the dry tea without breaking; etc.
Importantly, don’t get caught up in the snobbery that yixing culture can inspire. Remember, somebody got their hands and clothes caked in mud making your pot. The origins of yixing are humble. The tea farmers and the yixing craftsmen would be much happier to see you taking sheer delight in your yixing brewing instead of worrying and fussing about doing everything right. Have fun! That is why you get addicted to yixing in the first place.
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