Category Archives: Teaware

The Humble Tea Pet

I saw my first tea pet the first time that I saw someone brew gongfu tea. It was a smooth stone turtle, serenely resting on the bamboo brewing tray, the tea flowing gently off its back as the tea master doused it with a rolled oolong. “A gift for the tea gods”, he said, or something like that, and I could sense the beautiful humility of such a gesture. Since that day I have met many tea pets, from nosey water buffaloes to tiny stoic scholars, and they continue to be a small clay reminder that tea is meant to be shared.

If you have never encountered a tea pet, let me introduce you! Quite common in China and Taiwan, these little clay statues sit with the tea equipment and await a bath. They come in many shapes and sizes; often they take the form of a traditional good fortune animal like the pig, turtle, dragon, dog, or water buffalo, but sometimes one will find a lucky cabbage, a log, whimsical spider feet, or a tea master of old such as Lu Yu.

There’s even special versions of these unique items which are interactive. If the clay is carved just right, sometimes the water flowing over the mouth of the tea pet will form cute little bubbles. There are plastic-like tea pets that change color with hot water like the toys I used to get in cereal boxes. However, despite these fun mechanics, it’s important to understand that a tea pet is more than just decoration!

When preparing tea in the gongfu (essentially “with skill”) style, there’s usually a lot of water thrown about. Firstly the pot and cups must be warmed, then sometimes the leaves will be rinsed, and when the first infusion is steeping, some extra water is often poured over the pot to seal in its heat. At each of these stages, the used hot water or tea is poured out into a bowl or onto the table itself. Rather than simply waste that water, however, some can be poured on the head of a tea pet sitting nearby. Why would you do this? It’s certainly extraneous to the act of preparing the tea! Each tea devotee may have their own reasons, but in my experience this ritual serves the dual purpose of cultivating mindfulness and intention.

Firstly the action of allowing extra drops to fall on a specific target keeps the mind present on every act of making tea, including the rather mundane process of disposing of water down the drain which might otherwise be unconscious. And secondly, this gesture serves as a reminder of the intention of kindness toward others, even if only making tea for one’s self. “Sharing” some of the tea with the tea pet, perhaps even the last drops of each infusion, can give the practitioner of the leaf a sense of connection with all of the beings in the world.

With the extent of the Internet these days it’s much easier to find a Chinese-made tea pet than it once was, but I encourage everyone to find a tea pet that suits them from any source. A few of my favorite “tea pets” are just small artifacts made of clay, stone, crystal, and plastic that were never intended to be used in a tea service, and they perform the task quite admirably! Making a tea service your own is the highest form of tea art, in my opinion, and connecting with a tea pet is just one way to bring that experience to life. I hope you find a tiny friend to share your next pot!

How to pour a teapot

What a ridiculous title for a post, eh? “Grab the handle and pour”, is the expected response. However, as anyone who’s tried to use a yixing pot for the first time can probably tell you, there’s a little more to it than that.

First of all, let’s clarify that I’m mostly talking about fairly small teapots, in the smaller-than-400ml range. Those big heavy twenty-cup teapots are pretty foolproof and you don’t need an article on this blog to tell you how to use them!

Often, teapots of this size are called Yixing (宜兴, pronounced roughly “ee-shing”), even if they are not from the Yixìng region of Jiāngsū province which is most famous for the style. Debating the authenticity, usefulness, and naming of these pots is far beyond the topic of this post, but suffice to say if you have a small teapot made of clay, ceramic, glass, or even silver, these principles will apply.

Before anything else, warm the teapot with some hot water before using it (then pour it out). While this may seem like a chore if you’re really looking to dig into that first cup of tea, you can turn it into a pleasurable experience all by itself. First, some clay pots will make delightful bubbling sounds when they start to absorb water, and hearing that symphony is a great prelude to get my senses focused on the task at hand. Second, the tea will likely turn out better, since the water temperature can drop significantly when pouring into a cold pot. But third, and the most fun in my opinion, is that a warm pot can produce an amazing fragrance from tea leaves. As soon as you are done warming the pot, toss in your dry tea leaf and shut the lid. Give the leaves just a few moments to heat and then carefully (lest you burn your nose hairs) lift the lid and inhale the aroma. A good quality tea will produce a fragrance to stop time. You can also sniff the inside of the lid which will protect your nose from the hot steam.

Once the tea has infused for an appropriate amount of time (which can vary considerably based on preference), it’s best to pour it all out. If making tea for more than one cup, either pour the infusion into a sharing pitcher or fill each cup about half-way once before returning and filling each cup the remainder. In this way the strength of the infusion is more-or-less constant between cups. Having a pitcher requires much less practice than knowing how full each cup should be and avoiding drips on the table.

vertical-pourAs the teapot is being poured, the angle will increase from horizontal to vertical (and sometimes beyond) which can cause the most disastrous and unfortunately common type of broken teaware that I’ve seen: the lid will fall off, sometimes even cracking the cup as it lands. I think everyone who’s owned a small pot has gone through this experience or has seen someone who has. There’s no shame to not remembering to hold the lid, but there’s a few different ways to go about it.

Probably the most simple is to use two hands, placing one hand on the lid and using the other to grasp the teapot handle. The second method is to use a free finger on the pouring hand to hold the lid in place; this technique can be done with either the index finger (more traditional) or the thumb, depending on the size of your hand and your grip on the teapot. It’s best to avoid touching the lid itself which is likely to be extremely hot, but every teapot should have a knob or handle with which it can be held safely.

The trick with any method is to avoid covering the small hole in the lid which prevents a vacuum from forming inside the teapot that would stop or slow the pour. (In fact, a well-made lid will fit on the teapot so well that covering the hole should stop the pour of liquid completely.) If using the one-handed technique, this is generally accomplished by putting a little bit of sideways pressure on the lid’s knob rather than covering it completely.

Even though I’d say that a Gaiwan is worth ten teapots for its flexibility and convenience, there’s a definite aesthetic about a Yixing or Jianshui teapot that can really be pleasant to use. And with practice and an appropriate pot it’s possible to create infusions that bring out hidden characteristics of the best and least of the tea world. Not every pot will work well for every tea, so if you have a pot, give it a try with different leaves and different times to find what suits it (and your taste) best. Just remember to keep the lid on top!

The Size of The Teapot

Many months ago I wrote a post on Dobra Tea’s blog about tea pot sizes. This is an updated version of that post.

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I often joke that the more I learn about tea, the smaller my teapots become. There’s quite a lot of truth to this, and I thought it might be valuable to explain why. Here’s a brief primer on teapots that I hope will encourage your own pursuits.

Contrary to what seems popular in the US, cast iron pots are almost never used to brew tea in Asia. Traditionally, they are used to heat water over a fire, as in Japan’s tetsubin. In this case, however, the kettle must not be glazed on its interior, as high heat may damage the glaze and pollute the water within. Certainly water from these kettles is used to make tea, but the tea leaves themselves don’t enter the kettle.

Most tea-producing countries use clay or porcelain to infuse their tea. Unglazed clay, such as Yixing (宜兴) or Jianshui (建水), can absorb subtle aromas and release them into subsequent infusions. Ideally, these pots should only be used for a specific tea to avoid the flavor of a roasted oolong from affecting your light sheng puer. Porcelain is a little easier. Hard ceramics easily handle infusing many different teas as they clean easily and do not keep flavors around. In small sizes, even an English-style “Chatsford” pot can make a wonderful cup of tea (as long as you don’t use a tea ball!).

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Most of my teapots hold between 100 to 400 milliliters of water. That’s about 3 oz to 13 oz or 0.5 to 1.5 cups. Once a teapot is larger than 400 ml, it becomes difficult to ensure a well-timed tea. There are several reasons for this.

Most tea can become bitter or over-strong if infused for too long. Let us say that I have found a particular Green tea reaches its peak flavor at 1 minute. If I pour in the water to fill the pot, the tea begins steeping as soon as the water reaches the leaves. The longer it takes to fill the kettle, the less time remains. Then, when I begin to pour the tea, the leaves continue to infuse while the liquid is poured out. This means that if a pot takes 30 or 40 seconds to empty, at least some of the tea is steeping for quite a lot longer than I would like and may become unpleasant by the time it reaches your cup.

Certainly it’s possible to compensate for the added time by beginning to pour your tea early, but then the portion of the infusion that is poured first will be somewhat under-steeped, which when mixed with the rest of the pot will yield a watered-down cup. This is all complicated by the fact that some teas (particularly those with small or broken leaves) can be over-infused after only 20 or 30 seconds!

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Another reason for a small teapot is something of a spiritual one. If a tea is prepared in a small quantity, it is much more likely to be appreciated by its audience. Throwing back a gulp of tea, you may never taste the subtle nuances, good or bad, that become obvious with a careful sip.

Ultimately, of course, tea is a personal experience, and the choice of teapot should above all be one that is comfortable and suits your own style. Don’t be afraid to experiment! I bought a small teapot in Hangzhou that I planning on giving as a gift. I didn’t have huge expectations for it. When I tried it out and made some shou puer, it poured terribly. However, I have since found that it makes an excellent Hong Cha pot and now I use it every week. It’s a learning process for all of us. Keep pouring.

Engagement Cha Xi

Yesterday my excellent friends Ben and Sarah joined my fiancée and I for an outdoor tea session to celebrate our upcoming wedding. The weather cooperated and we spent around four hours talking, sipping, and taking pictures.

Now normally when I get together for a long tea session like this one, we blast through as many infusions as we can make, savoring the contrast between each cup before moving on to a different tea. This time we only drank one tea, and although it made us a good 20 infusions, they were often spaced apart by 15 minutes or longer. The reason for this, besides various photo-ops, was the tea stove.


The tea stove and accompanying kettle are things of beauty hand crafted by a potter I cannot praise highly enough, Petr Novak. When my partner and I decided we wanted a tea ceremony as part of our wedding many months ago, I asked Petr to make this set for me. Our wedding will be outside and I felt that it would be a good touch to have a real brazier heating the water we would use. So, after much back-and-forth about the shape, size, and style, the tea stove arrived at my home to great fanfare. The only problem was that it was too cold and too rainy out to use it.

So for months I’ve been keeping my thoughts on the stove, waiting for just the right time to inaugurate it. After all, I’ve never used a charcoal anything before, let alone a small clay burner such as this. So when yesterday arrived, and we had set up the stove next to a handy pile of kindling and charcoal, the real adventure began.

First we got a small fire going with kindling and a little paper, then we added small chunks of charcoal over that, allowing the burner to heat up to a temperature we could use. The challenge, I suppose, was that the actual area where the charcoal sits is quite small, probably about the size of a cupped hand, so we had to tend the fire carefully. Naturally we made many mistakes, but eventually our first kettle came to a boil and began a series of really wonderful infusions.


To that end, I should mention the tea! Ben had provided a piece of a Red Mark (Da Hong Yin) Sheng Puer from the 1950s. What a treat! I think a little smoke taste had accumulated in our first cup, because we all thought it tasted a little like firewood, but after that the infusions were smooth and earthy with an aroma a little bit like dark cocoa powder. The color of each infusion was a transparent reddish brown that only started to turn yellow around number 10. Other than the first, the taste was also remarkably uniform and satisfying.


It’s important to have sessions like these to remind oneself that young flaxen sheng cha eventually matures into rich old cakes that could be mistaken at a glance for a shou puer. But of course, that’s what shou puer is often made to mimic in the first place! The real thing can’t be compared.


It turns out that I really enjoy tending a fire for making tea. Even though it took quite a while (especially when the fire died down) to boil the water each time, it made the whole experience more rich. I was always adding a little wood, some coal, and listening for the singing of the water. And it wasn’t without help! I am humbled to have such friends and such tea in my cup. More tea stove adventures to come!

Ways to Pour a Gaiwan

First I should say, do you know what a Gaiwan (蓋碗) is? Literally, it means “lidded bowl”, so there’s not a lot of confusion. Sometimes it’s also called a “Gaibei” (lidded cup) or “zhong” (Cantonese, if I’m not mistaken). They are made in different sizes and materials, but generally are between 100-200ml and made from white porcelain consisting of a saucer, a bowl and a lid. The porcelain means that heat will dissipate quickly, making it ideal for teas that are best infused with cooler water, such as greens.

In ancient China, tea was sipped directly from the bowl while the lid was used as a strainer. While it’s possible to find teahouses that still serve this way (I’ve seen it still done in Sichuan), most use of the gaiwan now is as a sort of teapot, allowing the leaves to infuse before straining into a cup (or pitcher) with the lid.

As I’ve often told people learning to use a gaiwan for the first time, straining the tea is similar to straining pasta or vegetables from a saucepan by tipping the lid slightly to allow water to leave and retaining what’s inside. And just like with a saucepan, the water inside is quite hot, so you need to take certain precautions.

To that end there are several ways to pour a gaiwan. Probably the easiest is the two-handed method: one hand holds the cup by its rim and pours while the other hand holds the lid by its top nub at a slight angle to keep the leaves in. I want to emphasize holding the cup by the rim and the lid by the nub to protect your hands from the heat.


A more common technique is to hold the gaiwan edges with one hand, using the thumb and middle finger on the rim and the index finger or knuckle on the lid.


The third method that I use is more advanced in that you are much more at risk of dropping things. I find it most useful when infusing tea gongfu style in a gaiwan, meaning that the water is very hot and isn’t given time to cool before straining. In the other methods, sometimes even the rim is too hot to touch, so it’s possible to hold the entire gaiwan by gripping its saucer and lid between the thumb and the middle finger. Since the lid must still be tipped, this requires just enough pressure to avoid dropping anything, but not so much that the lid will go shooting away from the cup! In this method it’s also best to make sure the palm of your hand is on the side of the gaiwan while pouring, or else the steam escaping from the back of the lid can be very unpleasant.


While all this may seem like much more work than simply using a teapot, a gaiwan has two significant advantages that no teapot can claim. Firstly, the opening of the bowl is so large that it’s easy to see the leaves and the color of the liquor as they infuse. Especially when first infusing a new tea, this gives you a good way to judge the time of the infusion. Because of this, I would never suggest purchasing a gaiwan without a white interior. Secondly, a gaiwan can pour out its contents within a few seconds, much faster than any teapot, meaning that when you have decided that the infusion time is up, your tea will be poured and ready without any additional steeping that might occur during a long pour.


I highly recommend the humble gaiwan as a tool for beautifully making a cup of tea, especially for those new to judging infusion time. The methods listed above are just suggestions based on my own experience, so feel free to find your own way to pour.

2005 Six Famous Tea Mountain Shou Puer

This is an archived copy of a post that originally appeared on Cha Xi Collective.

Ruby red infusion. A salty, sweet taste almost like strawberries. I was getting worried because when I unwrapped the cake the edges were beginning to fall apart.

I thought at first perhaps it was a poor cake that I had gotten (although I had tasted it in Kunming). The edges of the Bing pulled apart easily at my touch, not needing a pick of any kind, but the appearance of the leaves, inside and out, was beautiful and without any obvious discoloration. The aroma was what I’d expect from a well-aged Shou puer.

The flavor is excellent. Mellow and soft compared to younger or lower-quality cakes, with a developing richness that I can’t wait to try as it continues to mature.

I bought a good deal of 2005 shou puer in Yunnan, which was mostly coincidence, but I guess it was a good year (for my taste, anyway). This bing I found in one of the massive tea markets in Kunming: great sprawling outdoor three-storied shopping centers. They were generally pretty overwhelming, especially in view of my very limited Chinese. Basically I would look for a proprietor who looked friendly and then go in for some tasting.

This Six Famous Mountains shop was being run by an older woman and her daughter. They didn’t speak any English, so we muddled through a conversation in bits of Chinese. Luckily tea is a language in which we are well versed. After sampling a few bings, sheng and shou, I decided on this one for its uniquely rich character while my friends both bought some similarly aged shengs. I think it may even be better now after riding around in my bag for a month.

For this Cha Xi, I infused the puer in a Jian Shui pot that I purchased during the first week of my travels in Kunming. A very kind friend of one of our tea suppliers in the area brought us to the unveiling of a tea and teaware expo that was about to open on the other side of the city. It wasn’t easy to get in, as most of the vendors hadn’t set up yet and the (somewhat bored-looking) security guards at the entrance were very strict about who was allowed through.

Fortunately for us, our connection paid off and we were rewarded with a tour through the half-finished stalls of the expo. We were mainly there for pottery, and we saw some great examples of celedon and yixing ware, but our main interest was this type of clay we had only heard about before, the local alternative to yixing: Jianshui.

The pots on display were beautiful and most of them were very functional as well (as with any good teaware shop, we were given a bucket of water to test the pour of any pot we chose). Jianshui (建水) behaves much like Yixing to my amateur eye. It is a bit heavier and darker, but absorbs water with the best of them. The clay is often polished with a hand file to an intense glossy shine that make the pots look like marble, although that style is not the rule. The pot I purchased was black matte with little swirls of grey running through it that give it the appearance of clouds on a dark sky.

As it is a Yunnan pot, I decided (after some testing, of course) to make this my shou puer pot; a role for which I think it is quite well suited.