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, also, 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?)
First off, you know you are addicted to yixing when:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Brag factor. Yes, us addicts have to admit that one reason we invite people over for tea is to show off the 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.
4. 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.)
5. 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 anyways. Good luck tearing yourself from a piece that you have spent so much time with.
6. 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’ers, 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.
7. 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 might also want to get acquainted with the history of yixing: “The Legend of Yixing Teapots”
Next you have to decide what kinds of tea to brew in what pot. From “The Legend of Yixing Clay Teapots,” 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 good functional yixing pot made by a machine mold with a clay that is porous enough to build luster can be had for $40-$50. A handmade one-of-a-kind piece might start around $100, and quickly slide up towards $300 when you are buying from well-known artists. Forget about those $5000+ pots, most of which are antiques. 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. I am happy to break down my own tea pot use for reference:
Green tea: none- I brew all green tea in glass pitchers uncovered
White Tea: none- I brew white tea in gaiwans or glass pitchers
Green Oolong: Two- one grey clay pot which has taken on a beautiful green hue from Tieguanyin and one purple clay pot used as a pitcher, and occasionally for lighter Dancong.
Darker Oolong: Two- one for Wuyi oolong, and one for roasted Tieguanyin, sometimes used interchangeably, often with one acting as pitcher for the other. Both are also sometimes used for darker Dancong.
Black Tea: Two- one for Yunnan black tea and one for other black teas.
Sheng pu’er: Three- two to use interchangeably, and one tiny 1.5oz pot for small tastings to evaluate the way a brick is growing without using too much tea.
Shu Pu’er: Three- one for rich fruity shu, one for musty earthy shu, and one tiny tasting pot.
That is twelve 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 before moving into the $1000+ pots that you can find at galleries in Hong Kong and private museums among tea lovers across China. The low-cost yixing works just as well as the expensive stuff as long as you are not buying a pot that is glazed or painted. These pots won’t absorb flavor or become lustrous naturally. There is no practical reason to buy expensive yixing, unless you are comfortable justifying it on aesthetic grounds alone. (Which I absolutely am.)
If you are going to buy just one Yixing pot, get one for dark oolongs or shu 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 a cheap 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 spilled in your cup of Yunnan black? If not, 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, just do it. The yixing police won’t come busting your door down. 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 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, 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.
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. Just have fun! That is why you get addicted to yixing in the first place.