It is a crisp autumn day and the emperor’s cast bronze tripod is filled with sparkling spring water, slowly coming to a boil. The wind picks up and carries the leaves of a forgotten camellia sinensis bush in the corner of the imperial garden. The leaves flutter about before landing in the cauldron, boiling until they infuse the water. The first cup of tea is born and the open-minded emperor Shen Nong is the first human to enjoy the full effects of caffeine as he sips from a bamboo ladle.
The cauldron and ladle were for many years the prime implements of tea preparation. The leaf was boiled like any other herb. The brew was bitter and medicinal, usually mixed with goji berries, ginger, and even salt to mask the flavor. As tea evolved, it was the ceremony and the brewing objects that guided people’s’ relationship with tea. In the Song Dynasty the simple boiled leaf concoction was reformed into a ceremony involving a mortar and pestle, and grinding tea into a powder before whisking it in bowls.
Even today, the objects of tea ceremony that were born in the Song Dynasty continue to be used in Japan for Chado. The potency of the finished brew brought about the ritual of eating sweets between the bitter sips of ceremony-grade matcha.
Today there are countless ways to brew tea. Every year, new styles are being invented, and new forms are being explored. Modern tea lovers are free to play with our tea, brewing every way we please and finding the styles that suit us best. If we choose, we can tap into the implements and rituals of every culture and history. In this way, the tools we use to brew our tea are deep statements about our connection to the past and those that came before us.
The tools we use to brew our tea do not just connect us to the past. Every tea tool has a profound influence on the flavor and aroma of finished tea. Every tea reacts differently to different shapes and materials. The same tea brewed with the same water for the same amount of time will taste dramatically different in glass pitchers, yixing teapots, gaiwans, and brew baskets. With this in mind, it is no surprise that every farmer we work with has their own preferred way to present their tea, honed in through years of tasting. Every region has favored implements for tea ceremony that accentuate different qualities in their teas while building each region’s unique tea culture.
In general, tea wares and preparation play a huge role in the balance between aroma and flavor: on one end, you can brew teas with huge aroma and light flavor, or you can brew at the opposite extreme for huge flavor and light aroma. The secondary dimension of thickness/body is closely related to the aroma and flavor balance of a tea, as is the nuance of the aftertaste.
There are so many ways to brew tea it can be daunting to try to find the “right” technique. The good news is that in almost every case, any brewing style brings out something interesting and worthwhile in a tea, so they are all worth exploring.
To arm you for your own exploration of the “taste” of tea wares, it is worth looking at what qualities of your brewing implement affect your tea.
It’s All About Chemistry
On a basic chemical level, the material your teapot or brewing vessel is made out of will always influence the taste and aroma of your tea. Only glass and highly vitrified materials such as De Hua or Jingdezhen porcelain have zero chemical interaction with the liquid they hold.
Why is this so? It all comes down to chemistry.
Water is a solvent, and at high temperatures, the potential for interaction between the water in your tea and the material of your brewing vessel is high. This is why it is important to know how your teapot is fired and glazed.
Lead-based paints and other glazes with heavy metals are not suitable for regular use and will influence the flavor of your tea in a negative way. The minerals in Yixing teapots, however, can actually have a positive effect on the flavor of your tea. Metal tea pots are interesting for their ionic interactions. Silver in particular is known in the tea world to actually purifying water. Copper too is used for antibacterial applications in water treatment. Cast iron, on the other hand, can rust if not properly cared for and contaminate tea with an unpleasant metallic taste.
Don’t know where to start?
When it comes to choosing a material for your teapot based on chemical interactions, glass and highly vitrified porcelain are the safest bet across the board, with ceramic and yixing pottery being useful for more specific brewing needs.
Bring on the Heat (Retention)
Heat retention is an important part of brewing tea. The hotter the water, the more rapid the extraction of flavor compounds from a tea leaf. Too much extraction can lead to a bitter flavor, while too little extraction can be too light in flavor. Some flavors seem to come out best at lower temperatures, especially savory notes. Others such as vegetal and spicy notes require higher temperatures. Sometimes a tea needs a long infusion in cool water, while other times you may want to introduce the leaf to hit water for the vegetal notes and encourage rapid cooling for the sweeter and more savory notes.
As a general rule, the longer you brew a tea, the more flavor you get.
However, the more time a tea spends brewing, the less aromatic it will be. This is in part due to the voltaility of aromatic compounds in tea and their tendency to “burn off.” It is also due to the more intense and potent flavor making it difficult for the senses to pick up the more diverse aromatics. Different teas are at their peak at different levels of balance between aromatic and flavorful. Much depends also on personal preference.
Yixing teapots hold stable temperature very well as they are thicker than many other materials, and the clay composition helps with insulation, especially with iron-rich clays. While yixing needs to be “primed” with hot water before use, the pot will hold temperature long enough for very stable and consistent brewing. This attribute makes yixing perfect for teas that benefit from high temperature, or long steep times. For example, pu’er can be steeped so many times, and interesting late steepings can be had from long two minutes infusions. Yixing can hold water hot enough to allow for an effective infusion this long. Black teas may not require boiling water – in fact some black teas benefit from 175 or 185 degrees – but black teas do shine best with consistent temperature for a longer ten second brew.
Glass brewing vessels cool extremely quickly. The thin walls mean that even boiling water comes down to lower temperatures in a matter of seconds. More delicate green teas love this temperature variability. The high to low temperature brewing arc extracts both sweet and vegetal notes from the tea without over-steeping.
Porcelain vessels are a balance between the retention qualities of yixing and the cooling qualities of glass. Porcelain holds temperature reasonably well and it can be warmed before brewing to ensure consistent temperatures. It can also be used without warming or even without a lid for more glass-style brewing. Oolongs, white teas and scented teas benefit from this middle-ground heat retention.
Metal and cast iron teapots tend to hold too much heat for too long and over-steep many teas. These pots are suitable for brewing large pots instead of gongfu-style small cups.
Ceramic & porcelain tea pots and brew vessels have similar heat retention to yixing, and are suitable for any tea that you are looking to brew at a stable and consistent temperature.
Getting into Shape
Tea leaves need space to expand, and water needs space to extract flavor from every angle of a leaf. If tea leaves are too compact during steeping much of their potency is lost. Some leaves will over-steep while others will have given very little to the infusion. In almost any case, the ideal is consistent extraction.
The more surface area of a leaf that is exposed to water, the more quickly and evenly it can infuse.
This might make it seem like the bigger a vessel the better in every case. In fact, there is a sweet spot where a vessel is completely full of leaves but not so full as to restrict infusion. A vessel with too few leaves is not going to get even infusion throughout the pot. If you brew in glass, you can see this principle at work with the darker stronger infusion concentrated the most right around the leaves or brew basket.
The least effective way to brew tea in terms of even extraction is in a bag, which highly restricts water flow and the ability of the leaves to expand and spread out. Taller, more vertical teapots and brewing systems can run into issues too, especially with large leaf, expanding teas such as Tieguanyin.
The bowl shape, or any circular design that lets the leaves expand uninhibited by brew baskets and strainers is often best for extraction. Teas with very small leaves tend to do better in a gaiwan or even a test tube steeper because – when pouring with a teapot – the leaves all bunch at the spout instead of keeping even distribution. This can affect the later steepings and yield uneven brews. A gaiwan’s shape and functionality allows the leaves to stay spread out throughout each infusion.
Considering the speed of a pour is very important to a final brew. The time it takes to pour a tea will affect the total steep time of the leaves, and the fineness of the pour stream can change the temperature and aromatics of the final brew. A large teapot with a small spout will take much longer to pour than a small teapot. The longer pour can work very well for many black teas, roasted oolongs and shu pu’er. However, teas sensitive to steep time require a greater level of control.
Glass pitchers can be poured almost instantly, allowing for perfect and minute control over steep time. Gaiwans are similarly functional for controlling time. The quick fast pour will yield more precise tea, but a long thin pour from a larger yixing pot or porcelain pot can waft much of the aroma throughout the room, which makes the tea even more appealing at first sip. If you can learn to account for the pour in overall steep time, the long pour can be overcome and even used to enhance the brewing experience.
Put a Lid On It?
Brewing tea with or without a lid has a dramatic effect on the final flavor. So much so that our farmer partner Li Xiaoping in Dragonwell has appealed on video to her fans to brew however you want in whatever you want as long as you don’t cover her Dragonwell during brewing.
The most dramatic influence of covering a tea vs leaving it uncovered is the difference it makes in heat retention.
An uncovered tea brewed in glass vessels cools extremely quickly, a critical piece of brewing the perfect green tea. Most teas however so not perform as well as green tea does uncovered. This is because most teas require a consistent and higher temperature for effective brewing.
The other effect of leaving a tea uncovered is oxidization. The more surface area a tea has exposed to air, the faster it interacts with the air and oxidizes, just like a fresh cut apple turns brown. One of the major benefits of gongfu-style brewing is that you drink small cups of tea very quickly instead of leaving a mug out for hours to change its flavor. Greener teas left out too long start to taste almost metallic and lose all of their aroma.
Even when brewing green teas in glass, it is often best to leave a bit of water at the bottom of the vessel to protect the leaves from direct exposure. Other teas brewed covered are fine between steepings as long as they are left covered. Yixing teapots do a particularly great job of sealing a tea away from the elements between steepings.
The more porous a material, the more likely it is to absorb tea during brewing. The pores of an yixing teapot will absorb tea oils and aromatics for months before they are considered ‘seasoned’ and actually start giving back dimension and body to their teas. Any tea brewed in a porous vessel loses aroma. Much of the aroma is in tea oil which clings to the pores instead of mixing with the brew. The difference with yixing is that the absorption of aroma and flavor is controlled and trades high aroma for more body and more aftertaste.
Glass and high quality vitrified porcelain are completely non-porous and absorb nothing at all during brewing. This means that they yield the most aromatic and clean teas.
Lower quality porcelain, metal and ceramic absorb oils and diminish aroma but do little to make up for it in body and aftertaste like yixing.
To Strain, or Not to Strain?
The strainer has become a critical tool for Western and Chinese tea preparation. Whether brewing in a large pot with a built-in strainer or pouring through a strainer into cups or pitchers the strainer is an invaluable tool to stop you from getting tea leaves in your finished brew. Yet, is the strainer really necessary? We so often use it without thinking when brewing Chinese tea. An yixing teapot has strainer holes built in, and a gaiwan is designed to filter out most of the leaves simply through holding the gaiwan lid correctly.
Very small leaf tea or even broken leaf tea requires a strainer for sure. The strainer allows the finished tea to separate from the leaves and control brewing. Large leaf teas don’t necessarily need a strainer at all. Very few, if any leaves will end up in your finished brew when using teapots, gaiwans or glass pitchers assuming the leaves are large and whole.
Why not use a strainer? The finer a strainer the more it catches. The finest strainers actually filter out much of the down material on young spring green teas, Yunnan black teas, white tea and even sheng pu’er. This down, when suspended in the finished cup actually adds an immense amount of body and flavor to the tea. The difference is similar to filtered vs unfiltered olive oil. If at all possible, try brewing your tea without a strainer first. If leaves are still coming through, go ahead and add the strainer back in. It is valuable to try a tea both ways.
Share and Share Alike: Sharing Pitchers
The pitcher is a more modern addition to tea ceremony. Gaiwans used to be sipped from directly while teapots were used to pour directly into small cups for guests. This is still completely acceptable.
However, the pitcher allows you to first combine the first and last drops of an infusion so that every guest gets the same flavor. Otherwise your first cup is very light while the last one is quite strong. Consistency in a single steeping for all guests is often a more useful way to taste tea with friends since everyone can discuss a more similar tasting experience. Using a pitcher is almost always the right choice.
Through Thick and Thin
The cup you sip out of is just as important as the vessel used to brew your tea. Even something as seemingly unimportant in a cup like the material and thickness can have a dramatic effect on the taste experience. Since the cup is the main vehicle used not just for taste but also for smell, it is critical to have a non-porous material. The best options are glass and high quality vitrified De Hua or Jingdezhen porcelain. These materials do not interact with your tea and allow the aromatics to be released for your appreciation with each sip.
The thickness of a cup is also critical. It might seem that a thicker cup is better because of heat retention, but for gongfu tea, the small cup is meant to be consumed very quickly. In fact, the way that we sip out of a thin cup is very different from a thick cup. Thin cups encourage aerating while sipping tea, which allows far more aromatics to be delivered to your nose. A thick cup encourages drinking without aerating, making it easier to ignore aroma.
Jingdezhen and De Hua porcelain outshines glass in terms of thinness. It is an incredible material that can withstand boiling water, even when thinner than a crystal wine glass. This makes it the most perfect material for any tea drinking.
In general, it is good to have a variety of cup sizes. The smallest cups are perfect when sharing a gaiwan or teapot with a group of friends while larger cups are a good choice for drinking tea alone. In general, the larger a cup, the less likely we are to register what we are drinking as something precious and worth appreciating. The smaller cups reinforce the idea of scarcity and value, which can lead to more thoughtful and deliberate tasting.
The wider a cup, the more surface area is exposed to air and the faster a tea cools. However, the wide cup also creates a bigger more aromatic taste experience for the nose by directing the steam. Narrow and tall cups keep a more consistent temperature but often need to be tilted back to far to get the last drop, which makes it impossible to sip from these cups while the tea is hot. Without sipping, the aromatics are diminished.
The color of a cup is the backdrop for your tea. White or light neutral colors allow the natural color of the tea to be appreciated most fully. Dark colors can be interesting for show pieces but tend to be less useful for everyday drinking.
Age Before Beauty
Some tea wares have the unique quality of changing over time and becoming more beautiful. Bamboo becomes more lustrous and red. Yixing gains patina and adds complex flavor to tea, and many glaze styles such as Jian Zhan gain beautiful depth over time. These wares may be more porous than porcelain, but they balance this with adding a dynamic and changing element to your tea set up. It is worth acquiring at least one or two pieces that can age over time to mark your own explorations with tea and have a reference object that grows with your own knowledge and experience.
Technical details aside, brewing with objects that you have formed a personal connection with can yield the best tea by far because those objects bring a greater sense of ritual and deliberation to brewing.
All in the Eye of the Beholder
The finest teas in the world are precious and worth approaching with a deliberate and thoughtful tasting. People go to school and train for years to plate dishes at a restaurant in a way that emphasizes the quality of what is being served. Families spend hours polishing the silverware and setting the table for a big family holiday feast. Presentation is a deep and ancient part of the human psyche. There is no escaping the fact that we experience something more positively if it is presented well. Tea is no different. The beauty of the objects used to brew a tea influence the brain’s preconceptions about the taste experience ahead. Even more important if guests are over to communicate to your guests that they are about to taste something different and worthwhile.
The thoughtfulness necessary to appreciate tea to the fullest is reinforced by surrounding the tea with objects of beauty and value. Some of these may be antiques, and family heirlooms. Others may be gifts with sentimental value. Others yet may be hand made pieces that resonate with you personally. Just as tea is hand processed, the bets tea wares are hand-made, from gathering and mixing clays to shaping, painting and firing the final pieces. Over the years, the hand-made pieces will be more meaningful, and indirectly, they will brew better tea.
Getting Started: Basic Set Up Guide
With all these technical considerations, what do you need to be set up for success no matter what tea you are brewing?
Here is our guide to the best foundations for tea making:
Use glass or porcelain. Double pitcher brewing is by far the best way to make green tea. When not brewing green tea, you can choose which pitcher to use for holding finished tea from a gaiwan or teapot. Glass is great for showing off color, while porcelain is great as an accent or contrast to your other equipment.
One Yixing Pot
If you have to pick only one piece to grow and age over time, a high quality yixing pot is the way to go. If cared for, these can become the lustrous and stunning highlight of your collection. A word of warning- don’t get a cheap yixing pot. Cheaper pots are machine molded and made from clay that is often mixed with paint to get the desired color. These have no aging potential and can be dangerous for brewing depending on the chemicals used. Wait to get the one yixing pot of your dreams instead of getting lots of low end pieces. The best clay ages spectacularly and adds so much depth to you tea.
Even if you usually drink tea alone, it is important to be ready for guests. Tea is all about hospitality and having a set of beautiful cups lets you rotate which one you use based on the tea and the time of day. If you can only have one set of cups, make it De Hua or Jingdezhen porcelain. If you can have a second set, get glass cups for green tea. It looks beautiful in the light.
Make sure you have tea equipment you are comfortable taking on the go. Whether that means your office set-up or your set for camping and travelling, you will want to have a way to bring the beauty of tea into your life even when you are away from home. The travel set can be very simple and utilitarian- either a self contained brewing vessel and cup, or an a la carte selection of basic cups, glass pitchers and a simple gaiwan.