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Brewing Tea in a Small Teapot: Shape & Material

Introduction

Brewing tea in a small teapot is one of the best ways to unfold its true potential. Centuries of the development of tea culture have produced hundreds of variations of this vessel. You might feel overwhelmed with the different terminology related to the teapot. Kiln names, clay names, shape names... The Yixing teapots alone have over 120 famous shapes and over nine different known clay compositions. Yet, the main purpose of a small teapot is simple: to give you maximum control over the tea-making process. To make your start with the small teapot easier, we will focus on the two defining features of the pot: its shape and material.


different kinds of chinese teapots

The shape of the teapot

Let's start with the easier one. When choosing the right shape for your teapot, consider the following:

  • The number of people you usually make tea for. Most Chinese teapots have a water capacity of 110-160 ml, but some pots have 70 ml or even 320 ml. If you're drinking by yourself or with 2-3 friends, a capacity of around 140 ml would suit your needs.

  • The kind of tea you plan to use it for. Tea comes in various shapes. Pressed teas like pu'er and heicha (also known as dark tea in English) won't fit neatly if the pot has a small opening. While the tightly rolled Taiwanese oolong will do so just fine. However, the latter will have trouble unfurling its large leaves if the teapot's body is too narrow.

  • The overall ergonomics and esthetic value. Esthetic and emotional connections are important for Tea Art. Therefore, it is important that the teapot feels "right" in your hands and your tea setting. Hold it in your hands and see how it feels. The right teapot will speak to you; it will feel natural being handled by you.

  • The heat distribution. Pour hot water into the tea and see if you're comfortable handling it when it's hot. Does your hand get too hot for your liking? Or does your hand touch the hot material when pouring the water out? Fin the teapot that doesn't burn your hands when working with it.

  • The shape of the spout. The spout shape and filter affect the water flow. The flow should be consistent and not splashing the water. Some teas with shorter steeping times (like pu'er and dancong oolong) prefer a faster water discharge. A wider spout will allow for a faster water flow.

  • The filter. Some teapots don't have any filter, while others may have a flat or bulging filter inside. Smaller holes filter out finer debris but are harder to clean. Flat filters have a higher chance of being blocked by leaves than bulging filters.


The material of the teapot

The teapot material dictates the price, the heat distribution, and the versatility of the teapot. There are many articles about checking the authenticity of clay, but our focus here lies in the basic knowledge of how teapot material affects the taste of tea.


Glass


glass teapot

Glass teapots are cheap and usually have some sort of removable filter, which makes it easier to clean. They are also dishwasher-friendly and allow you to appreciate the tea leaves inside when making tea. The transparency also helps gauge the concentration of the tea if you're uncertain about steeping times. However, glass teapots have worse heat retention, which isn't great for some teas. I've also found that, for some reason, highly aromatic tea like oolong doesn't taste as good when made in a glass teapot.


Porcelain, stoneware, glazed clay


porcelain teapot and cups

Ceramics and stoneware can be found at all price ranges. They offer better heat retention than glass and come in a variety of beautiful designs and finishes. They don't impact the water's taste or texture, which may be a plus or a minus, depending on your preferences.


Soft (Porous) unglazed clay


yixing soft clay teapot

Soft unglazed clay like the ones used in Yixing and Chaozhou pottery is porous, which impacts the taste of the tea by rounding out the "rough edges". If the tea is too bitter, astringent, or has any other strong flavor, porous clay is meant to help smooth it out to some degree. Clay also has even better heat retention, improving the taste of aged, roasted, and post-fermented teas even further. Personally, I find that this quality of "smoothing out" the tea works against highly aromatic teas like the ones made in Taiwan because it strips away some of the aromas.


Unglazed clay needs to be rinsed with hot water after every tea session if you want to use it for different teas. Otherwise, the tea will start building up a patina inside the pores, which will affect the taste of the tea. This isn't a bad thing per se. Many prefer to use one unglazed clay teapot for a particular kind of tea and let the patina build up. This gives the tea made in that teapot a particular "character," unique to that teapot.


Unglazed clay teaware should not be washed in the dishwasher or with soap. Any chemicals used on the clay will sip into the pores, affecting the taste of the tea. They should also be looked after and be left to dry inside after every tea session. Leaving a wet clay teapot with a closed lid can lead to a buildup of mildew in the pores, which is very hard to get rid of.


Hard unglazed clay


jinashui hard clay teapot

Hard clay has smaller pores than its soft counterpart but maintains high heat retention. Jainshui teaware is one of the examples of hard unglazed clay. Because of the smaller pores, such clay has a lesser "smoothing" effect on the tea taste, which may be preferred for highly aromatic teas like the ones made in Taiwan.


Unglazed clay needs to be rinsed with hot water after every tea session if you want to use it for different teas. Otherwise, the tea will start building up a patina inside the pores, which will affect the taste of the tea. This isn't a bad thing per se. Many prefer to use one unglazed clay teapot for a particular kind of tea and let the patina build up. This gives the tea made in that teapot a particular "character," unique to that teapot.


Unglazed clay teaware should not be washed in the dishwasher or with soap. Any chemicals used on the clay will sip into the pores, affecting the taste of the tea. They should also be looked after and be left to dry inside after every tea session. Leaving a wet clay teapot with a closed lid can lead to a buildup of mildew in the pores, which is very hard to get rid of.


Final thoughts

A teapot is the centerpiece of any tea setup. One might be tempted to search for the most authentic clay, the most elaborate design, and be convinced that it is obligatory to spend a serious sum of money on a proper teapot... Remember that a teapot is only a helping tool for you to make tea. A teapot that feels comfortable in your hands and does its job well deserves all the love it can get, regardless if it was made by a master from rare clay or mass-produced at a glass factory. Take care of your teaware and hone your skill, and you will be rewarded with delicious tea.


In the next article, we will talk about another popular vessel for brewing tea: the gaiwan.

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