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For many tea drinkers, owning at least one tea cup set to brew tea is common.
Aficionados may own a multitude of different teaware to enhance their tea experience, or they may be collectors interested in the beautiful design and craftsmanship that goes into the handmade teaware. Any way you look at it, teaware has been culturally intertwined with tea drinking for centuries and forms an important part of ceremonies worldwide.
In addition, an individual’s tea identity and personality are often reflected in the chai mug they own and use. Beyond aesthetics and personal preferences, the shapes, sizes, and materials of the teaware can all affect the final brew of the tea, and as such, certain handmade teaware better suits certain teas.
To help demystify this, we present an introductory guide to the right teaware for the right tea.
Firstly, each culture has their own traditional brewing vessels for their tea. In China, small, lidded cups known as gaiwans take their place beside clay teapots made by master craftsmen in areas such as Yixing, Guangdong, Guanxi, and Yunnan. In Japan, a side-handled clay teapot, known as a Kyusu, is popular for drinking fine sencha and gyokuro green teas. Larger, heavy cast iron tetsubins are also used in Japan as both as a kettle to boil water, and as a brewing vessel to steep tea.
In the West, porcelain and bone china teapots for 2-4 cups of tea are common for afternoon tea, while many individual drinkers simply prefer a chai mug with a tea bag or a brass tea strainer. In the Middle East, Persia, and Russia, Samovars can be used with concentrated tea brews to warm and dilute an infusion to an individual’s tastes.
Whichever teaware vessel you decide to use, there are some common questions you should ask yourself about the teaware: How well constructed is the vessel? How well-suited is the vessel to your tea-drinking preferences, needs, and budget? How well does the vessel retain heat? Does it provide enough space for leaves to unfurl? And does the material influence the flavor or texture of the tea in any way?
Putting aesthetics, build quality, and useability aside, the quality of the brew will mostly depend upon the size of the vessel, the shape of the vessel, and the material the vessel is made from. The size may be the most obvious consideration when brewing your tea. Are you trying to serve one person or many people? Tea brewing vessels can range from around 90 ml for gong-fu style brewing to 600 ml for a 4-cup teapot, and even larger brewing vessels can serve people en masse. One thing is certain: using a brewing vessel that fits the amount of tea and style you’re drinking is best. For example, using a 4-person teapot to brew just one cup of tea wouldn't be ideal. This is because the teapot would be mostly full of air, and so it would cool much quicker than if it were full of hot water. Thus, the temperature of the infusion is not as stable as it could be, and the extraction will not be consistent.
The shape of the vessel is also important. Is the vessel thin and tall? Or wide and shallow? Are the walls thin or thick? Vessels with large surface areas will generally cool more quickly than those with a smaller surface area, and those with thicker walls will retain heat better than those with thin walls but will also take longer to preheat (and thick walls can make a vessel unnecessarily heavy and unwieldy).
In addition, it is best to have a shape that allows as much water to contact the leaves as possible. This allows for an even flavor extraction into the water. You’ll also reduce the chance that some parts of the brew are weak in flavor and others are strong and pungent. You also want the volume of the vessel to be large enough that the leaves have room to expand and unfurl during the infusion(s). This is part of the principle behind the gong fu brewing technique, where a large amount of leaf is used in a relatively small, even-shaped vessel with a short brewing time used to compensate. High-profile vessels are known to be better for curled green teas and ball-rolled oolongs that need cooler temperatures and more room to expand whereas low-profile vessels are better for strip oolongs and black teas, which require higher temperatures and need less room to expand.
There are several common materials that are used for brewing vessels and handmade teaware, the most popular being glass, porcelain, and earthenware like terracotta kulhad cup (although stoneware, silver, and cast iron is also used). Our main considerations when choosing the material are three-fold: 1. What is the material's ability to retain heat and how fast does it cool? (Known scientifically as its heat capacity, and thermal conductivity respectively), 2. How porous is the material? (i.e., can it partially absorb tea oils), and 3. Does the material alter the flavor, aroma, or texture of the brew?
Glass is a non-porous material that is easy to maintain and will not impart any additional flavor to the brew. Glass is great for viewing the tea as it brews and watching the leaves unfurl (known colloquially as the agony of the leaves). However, glass has low heat retention and will cool relatively quickly. This makes glass good for delicate green teas that require relatively low temperatures but is not optimum for loose leaf black teas, fermented teas, or medium to highly oxidized Oolongs which require a consistent, hot temperature for good extraction.
Porcelain is a great middle ground. Porcelain has decent heat retention and it is glazed so it is easy to clean, maintain, and won’t alter the flavor, aroma, or texture of the brew. It is relatively cheap and can work for all types of tea. Porcelain makes a particularly good option for comparative tasting and as a ‘benchmark’ brew for any new tea you try. As with glass, porcelain will maintain the high notes, and ‘bright’ aromas of green, white, and lightly oxidized oolong teas.
Earthenware clays offer the best heat retention and the lowest rate of heat loss when compared to the other materials. This makes it excellent for teas that require consistent, high-temperature infusions such as black, medium to highly oxidized oolong, and fermented teas. Still, the high heat retention can also stew delicate green teas. The heat retention properties, however, are only half the story for these clay vessels. Unglazed clay is porous, which means oils and compounds from the tea are absorbed into the clay. This absorption means that the vessel can take on the ‘flavor’ of a particular tea and has a ‘memory’ of what has been brewed in it.
The flavor of a tea can then be compounded over time from the oils stored in the vessel if one consistent type of tea is used in the vessel. This process can lead to a more complex, rich tea experience. However, if several types of tea are used in one vessel, the flavors can become ‘muddied’, so it is often suggested that just one type of tea is used for each unglazed, highly porous teapot. Because of this porous nature, it is also important that unglazed ceramics are only washed with water and not detergent or soap (which will be absorbed into the pot). It is also important to air them out fully to dry, or mold can grow in the pores. The porous nature can also help absorb some of the harsher, astringent, and bitter compounds in tea, which leads to a smoother, softer, more rounded brew.
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However, the clay is also known for dulling the high, bright notes and aromas often present in spring green, white, and fragrant oolong teas. The clay can also impart minerals into the brew, which can change the flavor and texture of the infusion. The degree to which these minerals impact the flavor and texture of the infusion depends upon the type of clay and the minerals present in it. The minerals can act to increase the body of the tea, making it fuller and more viscous in nature.
Some of the most common handmade tea set clays used for tea brewing vessels are Yixing (Jiangsu, China), Chaozhou (Guangdong, China), Jianshaui (Yunnan, China), Nixing (Guangxi, China), and Tokoname (Aichi, Japan) each with their own mineral content and natural porous properties. To complicate matters further, the temperature of the firing (a manufacturing step in ceramic production) can affect the porous nature of the clay. A high firing can make the clay less porous, while a low firing will leave the clay porous. The walls of the clay can also be manipulated to be thinner or thicker to change the rate at which the vessel loses heat. Therefore, high-fired, thin-walled, less porous, high-profiled vessels are best for green, white, and lightly oxidized oolongs. In contrast, low-fired, thick-walled, highly porous, low-profiled vessels are best for fermented, black, and highly oxidized oolong teas.
Now you have had an introduction to how different vessels affect the flavor of your tea, try our black and green teas in different teawares you have at home and see if you can taste the difference.