Yixing stoneware

I mentioned Yixing in this post on ceramics but these stoneware teapots warrant their own post. Yixing teapots (zisha) are unglazed porous stoneware teapots made from clay that comes from the region of Yixing in Southern China. The Yixing clay has a very unique, iron-rich composition and the resultant stoneware is durable and a good insulator. More importantly, Yixing clay absorbs the flavour of its contents and over time develops a lining of tea deposits that enriches the flavour of tea.  Over years of use, the teapot changes in colour and flavour and these teapots are valued because of the fine teas they have brewed. Each Yixing teapot can only be used for one type of tea and it needs to be seasoned before it is used to clean it and to remove any firing/baking smells.

Yixing teapot

Yixing teapots date back to the 11th century but became popular in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when tea leaves instead of powder become popular. Today they are mostly used for pu-ehr and oolong tea and there is no doubt that tea from these teapots is noticeably richer and more interesting. Making pu-ehr in a Yixing teapot is a little bit like serving white wine (or champagne 😉 ). Of course you can serve white wine warm in a plastic cup but if you have spent good money on a nice bottle, you will want to put in an effort to chill it and serve it in a proper wine glass to bring out the flavour.

 

Judging the authenticity of a Yixing teapot can be difficult. For this reason, I tend not to buy expensive Yixing (especially online). The tell-tale signs of real Yixing are solid dull colour but with sparkling flecks throughout. It has a rough surface (not smooth or shiny) and the inside should smell of earth rather than chemicals.

 

There are a huge variety of shapes and sizes but generally speaking they fit into three categories.

  1. Geometric forms – this is the most popular category and cubes and spheres are the most popular geometric forms
  2. Natural – these teapots incorporate elements of nature either by sculpting the teapot based on a natural element or by decoration
  3. Striated – usually the body resembles a flower by building symmetrical segments (petals) into a unit

Decoration (if used) usually takes the form of engraving, inlaying or slip painting.

The price depends on the quality of the clay (zisha or mixed), manufacturing (handmade or moulded), age, size and shape. It will range from €20 for a basic moulded teapot to hundreds of thousands for antique artisan teapots.

The video below shows Chinese yixing artist, Zhou Guizhen, creating a teapot:

 

 

Steeping tea

I realise that my last post where I describe the preparation of Tieguanyin was probably confusing (my readership of two lodged their complaints!) so I’m going to try to clear things up today. The preparation of tea is called steeping and involves soaking the tea leaves in water to extract the flavour.

Yellow teapot

Traditional style teapot used here in Ireland

Here in Ireland (and in all Western countries that I have been to) steeping involves putting tea leaves (or tea bag) into a large teapot and then adding in boiling water. The tea is served from the teapot into cups after around two minutes if you like ‘weak’ tea and or after several minutes if you like ‘strong’ tea. After about five minutes, the tea leaves and the liquid need to be separated or it will over-steep and becomes bitter. If this happens, it is usually addressed by either adding more water to dilute or starting over and making a ‘fresh pot’. I’ve seen variations on this process where people add the tea leaves, add the water and then heat up the teapot on a gas hob. The teabag-in-a-cup is a another variation – the teabag  is put in the cup, water is added and the teabag is removed and discarded once the tea looks strong enough.  There are lots of variations but the basic process is consistent – the flavour of the tea is extracted by steeping the tea once (i.e single steeping).

Yixing Clay Teapot [Source]

Yixing clay teapot [Source]

However, in China, Taiwan and other parts of Asia, there is a different way to prepare good quality tea that involves several short steepings rather than one long steeping. To do this we add the tea to the teapot (usually a very small teapot) and add the water but instead of steeping for ~five minutes, we steep for maybe 30 seconds (it depends on the tea). After the 30 seconds, we separate completely the leaves and the water by pouring off all the tea from the tea pot into cups. It may seem like a short time at first but don’t worry, it works. When we are ready for more tea, we re-steep the tea by adding water to the teapot again (with the same leaves). This time we will wait a little longer – maybe 40 seconds before pouring off all the tea. This is the second steeping and will taste and look different to the first steeping. We can repeat this several times, increasing the duration of steeping each time. During each steeping the water opens the leaf a little more and the colour, smell and taste of the tea will vary. Eventually, it will start to loose taste and colour and then we know to stop. Using this method we get smaller cups of tea but more of them with a variety of flavours and the tea does not over-steep. It is not unusual for a good quality Pu-erh to have ten steepings and it can go to 20 steepings or more.

Brew basket

Brew basket

The re-steeping technique does not need a teapot. The same result can be achieved if we put a brew basket in a cup, add the leaves and water and then wait thirty seconds before removing the brew basket. When we are finished drinking the first cup we put brew basket back in the cup, add water again and wait say 40 seconds for the second steeping. Again, this can continue for multiple steepings, increasing the duration with each steeping.

I hope that helps to clear up the difference between single-steeping and re-steeping. When I post about individual teas I’ll describe the steeping preparation that I’ve used, including timings. I have deliberately left out factors like water-type, temperature, rinsing, utensils and volume of tea. I’ll come back to those in future posts.With all that said, tea is meant to be enjoyed so don’t feel under pressure to prepare your tea a certain way. Experiment and see what you think!