Last summer marked my fifth year in China. A lot has changed in my life since I first arrived in Kunming, and my relationship with tea is no exception. For example, five years ago I could hardly imagine spending a day without several cups of dianhong or some other black tea. I also used to drink a fair volume of ginseng-scented wulongs and other savory, strong-tasting blends. These days, I only get to drink these teas while at a tea market or a friend’s place and someone is making tea for me. I still think highly of black tea, but ever since I learnt to select and appreciate sheng puer, I’ve found it difficult, if not troublesome, to drink anything else.
But it is the way I make my tea that has changed the most. I came to Kunming in 2008 to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By that time, the Yunnan TCM University had already moved most of its premises to Chengong – a township about 40 km away from Kunming, and that’s how far away the nearest decent tea market was from our campus. So I’d go there about once a month and stock up on two or three of my favorite teas.
Plastic: I had to start somewhere…
I didn’t have many subjects the first year, but they were all in Chinese, so there wasn’t much time to play around. ‘Efficiency in everything’ was my mantra, and that meant using Tupperware mugs with clasp lids and built-in metal filters. From the convenience standpoint such mugs are superb. In fact, I used to have so much respect for them that I’d sent a few to my friends and relatives. As you can imagine, they were very, very happy.
Clay: I maybe onto something!
As I was drinking more and more tea, I started to notice the thin coating that it was leaving on the surface of the cup and the filter and how good plastic is at retaining fragrance. I was still hooked on convenience, so I opted for a structurally similar solution – a ceramic pot with a slide-in filter and a matching lid. The lid wasn’t tight and the filter holes were large enough to let through even large fragments, but the overall feeling of making tea in a clay pot was so great that I never used plastic again.
After my first clay mug broke, I bought its porcelain equivalent and used both types for a year or so. Apart from the large holes in the filter, such mugs have a number of other design flaws. First of all, there is a lot of banging, and ceramics cracks easy. Second, once the brew is done, you have to take out the filter and place it in the turned up lid, which means that some tea will drip on the table. Finally, such mugs are usually quite large, thick, and clumsy, which limits significantly the range tea brewing options.
Cast iron: I maybe onto something!
I’d seen cast iron teapots before, but somehow they never took my fancy. One day however, as I was browsing a tea market for new ware, I came a cross a display of various cast iron pots that seemed very well designed and were quite affordable. The decision was made quickly, and that same evening I gave my new teapot its first run.
What can I say? Nothing beats metal. Literally. Just handling that dozer of a teapot and rubbing the fingers against the ochre-tinted patterns of its exterior instills in me a sense of undeterred optimism. ‘You got some tea for me?’ ‘Bring it on!’ ‘Let’s brew the qi out of this sheng!’, and so on and so forth. Even though I later acquired a very nice tea tray, various gaiwans, and tea sets, for the next couple of years I made most of my tea in that very first cast iron teapot.
The key to using iron pots is padding. Since I spend so much time in front of my laptop, I need to keep the teapot right by my side. You could buy a special tea towel, but a densely knit serviette is perhaps an even better choice. Due to its rough texture and low pliability, a serviette can double as a mouse pad. Provided that it’s big enough of course.
So, what are the benefits of using cast iron teapots? First of all, they are durable. If you drop it, you usually don’t worry about the pot, but what it might destroy under its weight. Second, the enamel lining the inside of such pots is almost as good at repelling fragrance as porcelain. Third, the stainless steel strainer is fine and functional. Finally, iron pots make great gifts and can outlive even the healthiest of recipients. Bear in mind, though, that metal plays tricks with temperature, so it’s a good idea to rinse the pot with hot water shortly before brewing tea in it. Unless it’s midday in the tropics or something.
Glass: fragile excellence
The next important stage in my teavelopment was glass. Despite it’s fragility, glass is an extremely pleasant material to use for tea drinking. A simple glass teacup, for instance, might feel better in your hands and on your lips than a fancy porcelain masterpiece with an insane price tag. I spent many a day looking for a suitable glass teapot, but had to give up eventually. Most glass pots are made for herbal infusions, not tea, so they are usually quite big and have lousy filtering systems. The other downside is that glass heats up very fast, which is OK for cups, but not so for a teapot, since you often have to pick it up seconds after the hot water is poured.
The solution came in form of a set of glass mug, lid, and filter. Its design was identical to that of the ceramic mugs I used at the very beginning of my tea career with one major exception: instead of gigantic holes, the filter had four sets of very thin slits cut neatly at 90° degrees through the bottom and the side of the filter. Such a setup is great for keeping out all but the tiniest leaf fragments. I loved the concept and ordered a few hundred such mugs for Daoli. The Daoli glass mug is thicker than usual and has a body curved inward, which makes pouring from it much easier.
The greatest advantage of using a glass mug is perhaps the ability to observe every change in the tea leaf shape, texture, and color. Some tea are so beautifully crafted that watching them transform be just as fun as drinking the beverage that they yield. That’s when glassware comes in handy.
Clay pots: BINGO!
Recently, however, I’ve been making most of my tea in ceramic teapots. It all started about four months ago when I bought a cheap second-hand pot from a street junkman. The man had a few pots for sale, but the one I liked had a bird nest filter and an upbeat hippy appearance. I brought it home, cleaned it up with soda, and started using it for sheng puer. I was only impressed with it for a little while, right up until the moment when I poured myself the first cup of tea. It was a disaster: the lid came off and hit the teacup and some tea spilled on the table. I tried again and, although I managed to keep the lid in place with my thumb, the tea was still leaking through. So, it was only for use with a tea tray.
Despite its sheer design flaws, the pot was making pretty good tea. I knew there had to be more to teapots and decided to procure a better-quality pot soon. A few days later, I went to my favorite market to search for the right item. I’ve touched, sniffed, and tested dozens of teapots that day and finally decided to buy a stout designer teapot that twice exceeded the price that I’d been hoping not to go over. It was absolutely worth it!
My new teapot was amazing in great many ways. It didn’t leak at all! The lid fit so well that I didn’t have to hold it even when the pot was tilted at 90-110º. The nose was shaped in such a way that the last drop almost always stayed in it. Very good clay was used to make the pot, so handling it was a treat all by itself. The bird nest bulb performed so well that I never used a separate filter. Perhaps most amazingly, I could just let that teapot hang off my index finger and let it pour the tea steadily with the lid staying in place simply by virtue of good design.
There’s more to be said about that teapot, but as you can infer from my use of past tense in the previous paragraph, it is no longer with me. I’ll never know what caused that crack in its nose. All I know is that one day I saw that part of the nose was missing. I tried to file it down to smoothen the edges but ended up causing more damage and eventually had to give up.
The teapot is dead! Long live the new teapot!
In a matter of days, I was at the market again, looking for a worthy replacement. I had the tea tray, gaiwans, and other ware at home, but I really wanted to make my daily brews in a nice teapot. This time I got myself a shipiao (石瓢) – a sturdy pot with a wide base and a straight short nose that shoots up from the oblique body at about 45º. The pot doesn’t have a bird nest filter and contains a bit less tea, but it surely has a thick mean nose, more of a pit bull snout, actually. Its lid fits just as well, so I can still impress my guests and my self with the index-finger trick.
As I’m writing these final lines, my tank-shaped clay buddy is waiting patiently just a few inches away from my right hand. He and I know that finishing a post this long requires a celebratory brew. And I think that he and I agree that it should be sheng puer again.
This post was written by Roman.