Tag Archives: tea preparation

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!

Tea as Meditation

Just this past week I was privileged to be able to prepare tea for a meditation group I attend weekly. Our practice is Insight Meditation or Vipassana, a very old Buddhist practice that migrated to the West through Thailand. Besides wanting to share some delicious tea, I also had an interest in discussing and experiencing tea as a meditation object. Tea and Buddhist thought have been intertwined for almost as long as Buddhism itself, and as tea made its way throughout the world becoming altered by the traditions of the cultures through which it traveled, so too did the practice of awareness travel and mold itself to fit each place.

I began the class with a quote by Sen Sōtan that I hoped would bring some mindfulness and curiosity to the sitting,

“If asked / the nature of Chanoyu / say it’s the sound / of windblown pines / in a painting.”

Tea, in my opinion, gives us the chance to honor this moment, which is unique and will never happen again. As written by Shunryu Suzuki,

“Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.”

“Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.” This was the advice I read to the group before I began preparing their first cup of tea. As they drank, I suggested one additional instruction: “Three sips, two hands, one cup.”

copper-chatakuTea can be a meditation object; just as the breath can be an anchor to our awareness, so too can the process of making and drinking tea. Just focus your concentration toward the tea, and when you find that your mind is wandering, bring it gently back to the tea again, without judgement.

Why tea? Because it lends itself to ritual and is at the same time a mundane activity. It is also a single beverage that exists in the experience of millions of people on this planet. It is perhaps one of the few unifying factors that lies between all countries and cultures. What is making tea? Simple! Heat water, infuse leaves, drink. And yet, when one cares to do so, it is possible to perform those actions with mindfulness, being aware of each step, each motion, fully in the present.

In one sense, tea is no different from any other familiar activity, but it can be used to create something special. After all, sitting is done without mindfulness many times each day, but when we sit to meditate, we tend to do so with a bit of ritual; a bell may be rung, a cushion may be used, or our hands may be placed just so. None of these things are necessary, of course, but they are aids to mindfulness. Such variation helps us remember that we are not performing an everyday activity. When making tea, through the use of particular tools, motions, or setting, one can also cultivate such a variation. Indeed, others have developed these variations into rituals and schools for hundreds of years.

chaxi-practice-setupThat is not to say that one must follow the rituals or use the utensils used by ancient masters. Far from it! Tea can be made mindfully using the simplest of tools. A cracked old teapot or a bowl can be just as satisfying a place for the mind to rest as a fine yixing Shuiping pot. Fine teaware or not, if the mind becomes attached to these utensils, then that is not the practice of meditation.

To quote Dennis Hirota from Wind in the Pines, “The practitioner eliminates all notions of utilizing the teascoop, or displaying it, or impressing the guests with deftness of movement; in this way the mind ceases to objectify it and becomes immersed in it. By entering into the teascoop and becoming one with it, the life of the teascoop is experienced from within, and this is also for the tea practitioner to become manifest with wholeness of mind and sincerity. ”

tea-on-zafuEven when one is not making or drinking the tea, the ritual of tea itself can be used an object of mindfulness. Visually, the beauty or interesting character of the tea tools can be an object to keep the mind present. The aroma of the tea in the air, the motions of the other guests, the sound of the water dripping into a cup. All these can be used as meditative anchors. Indeed, in the tea ceremony, one might say that everything is a meditation.

The important part is to set that moment aside, however short or long, as a moment of practice. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us,

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

Four Heavenly Hong Shui

For my birthday I ordered some lovely tea from Stéphane over at Teamasters. Most of what I ordered was one of my favorite tea styles, Hong Shui (“red water”) Oolong. 红水乌龙茶 is a style that has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in Taiwan some three years ago and it’s not a type of tea that’s found very easily, at least on the Western market. Apparently it’s a challenge to produce. Despite all the effort that several blog posts have made to explain the processing, I still have trouble putting into words what makes this tea so unique. Once you’ve tasted Hong Shui, however, you won’t easily forget it.

Based on my understanding (and I’m certain you can find something there to criticize), Hong Shui is a slow and careful roasting of a flavorful rolled oolong. The roasting lasts a long time compared to other oolongs, interspersed with several resting periods to avoid over-baking the leaf. It requires great skill to produce the stone fruit flavors of Feng Huang and the charcoal dryness of Wuyi-style Yancha in a Dong-Ding-style oolong, often from a High Mountain (> 1000 meters) garden, without losing the sweetness of the underlying leaf.

To quote Stéphane:

High Mountain Hung Shui Oolongs are made with Oolong leaves that have been sufficiently oxidized to receive a slow and deep roast while preserving their mountain characteristics: freshness, lightness and elegance. Like for the best Wuyi Yan Cha, the roast is lightest and skillfully done when the underlying quality of the leaves is the highest! The leaves open up very well and turn green quickly again.

The taste of a Hong Shui is something between a great Da Hong Pao and a great Dong Ding: dry hay with an almond sweetness. Despite the name, the liquor of the Hong Shui that I’ve infused tends to be a light gold with only a hint of red. In fact, if I let the color get to a dark orange, the taste becomes overly strong.


I purchased four examples to taste and it was fascinating to compare the differences. My favorite of the bunch was the 2013 Winter San Lin Shi Hong Shui. The brownish-green leaves have a heavenly aroma when warmed. A little bit like roasting butternut squash combined with the sweetness of ripe pear. After a few infusions I noticed the taste of smoked wood. It was something like almonds or cinnamon bark: a delicate sweetness underneath a woody flavor that lingers in the mouth. My second favorite was the 2014 Spring harvest Hong Shui Dong Ding. This more recent harvest had a little more energy than the others, and its taste was also remarkable, though less dramatic.

yonglung-gaiwansThe remaining pair were 2013 Winter Hong Shui from Yong Lung (a village near Dong Ding mountain), both the “regular” and the “strong” style. These were surprisingly light bodied compared to the San Lin Shi. The “strong” version (“fort”, en Français) had a pronounced apricot aroma much like a Feng Huang. In fact, by smell alone I probably would have said “Phoenix” without a second thought. The taste of these teas was definitely in the Hong Shui category, though. A little bit of ash and hay in the flavor, sweet hidden under layers of toasted grain.

yonglung-liquorsOne thing I noticed when making these teas was that, just like Stéphane experienced, it’s definitely possible to brew them without bringing out the energy of the leaves. My first few infusions of the Yong Lung were very bland. The “strong” also had a notable sour taste, but that tea was rolled more tightly and with fewer full leaf sets, which might have added to its potency.

I quickly learned to use fewer leaves than my usual 4g and make sure my water was very hot. This is one of the occasions where the speed and energy when pouring the water into the teapot makes a difference in the results. My first attempts were poured from a thermos that spread the water flow out into a band, but when I used a strong water stream directly from the kettle both the Yong Lung teas tasted much better. Both took on a thicker mouthfeel and a sweet aroma. Clearly I still have a lot to learn!

The most remarkable thing for me (particularly with the San Lin Xi) was the comforting Cha Qi of these teas. That is what draws me to this style like nothing else. The smooth and relaxing feeling that permeates my body when sipping these Hong Shui is reason enough to choose this unique tea style out of my collection, and I hope you get a chance to try it as well.

Preparing Japanese Tea

Green tea from Japan differs quite a lot from its Chinese cousin. The different cultivars, harvesting, and processing provides a distinct experience. It can also be challenging to steep. Many folks I’ve encountered have found their first experience with grassy bitter Japanese green tea to be their last. With this post I hope to provide those people and others with inspiration to give this amazing style of tea a second chance.

While the steps below may seem complicated, if you understand some of the principles of how tea steeps, it all makes sense. First of all, Japanese tea tends to be machine-harvested, which results in smaller and more broken leaves. Broken leaves mean that the tea will infuse much more quickly and can become bitter in much less time than a full leaf Chinese green.

Furthermore, unless passed through a fine mesh strainer, it’s likely that many of the leaves will end up in the cup when it’s done. These leaves will continue steeping the tea as it cools and may cause unwanted strength even if the timing is just right.

Finally, Japanese green teas are generally steamed to fix the leaf rather than pan-fired or baked as they are in other countries. This results in a tea liquor that’s much more “vegetal” in the same way that steamed vegetables tend to be “greener” tasting than those same vegetables when fried. If the infusion is too strong, the result can not only taste bitter, but grassy as well.

In essence, Japanese green teas are much more delicate and need a little more care when preparing them. Here’s my suggestions for most styles of Sencha, as well as Kabusecha and Gyokuro (Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and Matcha are a different matter).

1. Use a mesh strainer

Because of the small and broken leaves we ideally need to use a mesh strainer. Japanese Kyushu pots usually have these built-in, but such pots can be hard to find on the Western market. Another option is the ceramic “teeth” on the lip of a Shiboridashi pot which are designed to catch the small leaves as the liquor pours over the rim. Lacking these tools, any wire mesh strainer will do the job, even a large kitchen strainer. If you don’t have any strainer on hand, just be aware that the tea will continue steeping in the cup and you may want to reduce the infusion time to compensate.

2. Use fairly cool water

tama_setupSince the broken leaves will steep much faster, we need either a very short infusion time (which can be challenging) or we need to slow down the infusion somehow. More of the compounds in a tea leaf will transfer to the water if the water is hot, so using cooler water will slow down the process to make it more manageable. I usually use about 55-70°C (131-158°F) water for Gyokuro or Sencha. Within that temperature range, a steep of about 1 minute should result in a delicious brew. If your water is hotter, decrease the time. With 80°C water, a 20-30 second infusion should work, but it might taste a little scorched. The amount of leaves in the pot also makes a difference. I tend to use more than I would for a Chinese green; for a 300ml pot, I usually use about 8g of leaf.

3. Use fresh leaves

tama_dryThis step may be out of your control, since many vendors don’t list the age of their tea, but green tea (Japanese or otherwise) should be consumed within 6 months to a year of its harvest date. It should also be stored in a sealed package with no air or light reaching the leaves. Older leaves tend to be dull and flat tasting giving the palette all the tannin but none of the sweetness. For this reason be wary of stores that keep their tea in clear plastic or glass containers (I’m looking at you, grocery stores).

tama_pouredFollowing these steps should result in a deep and rich cup of Japanese tea. The qualities to look for in a good cup are usually a bright energy with seaweed-like saltiness and a satisfying Umami taste on the tongue. The aroma of freshly-cut grass is a good sign, but a “grassy” or bitter taste is not usually desirable. As always, your taste may certainly be different from mine, so experiment to find your preferred brew. Even so, hopefully the above guidelines will give you a head-start.

Moving Leaves and Tea Balls

Let’s talk about all the different shapes of tea pots that are out there. It’s quite an interesting artistic exploration to see how some teapots are designed. Now first of all, as I’ve often said, you don’t need anything fancy to make tea. A saucepan, kitchen strainer, and a mug will do. But what’s a little non-intuitive about that statement is that sometimes a saucepan would actually do better than a teapot.

Why is this? It has a lot to do with how the leaves come into contact with the water.

I’ve done some really terrible drawings to help explain this.

wide-tea-infusion-basketFull leaf tea infuses rather slowly, meaning that it takes some time for the flavors, aromas, and other properties within the leaf to be extracted into the water. This is a good thing. It’s what allows careful brewing to bring out the best balance of flavor and strength. The bitter properties of tea are generally the last to emerge, so they will appear only at very high temperatures or after a relatively long immersion time.

In still water, the (delicious) chemical properties of the tea leaf will expand slowly outward from the leaves themselves, concentrating around each individual leaf. If the leaves are just floating around, as in a saucepan, then this will ensure a fairly even distribution of tea taste in the water.


Tea infusion with leaves loose in the pot.

If instead, however, the leaves are held in once location and packed together, then that area of the water will become quickly infused with flavor, leaving the rest of the pot to be mostly uninfused. This is how a tea ball works.

As such a pot is poured, it’s likely that the tea area and the non-tea area will mix, resulting in a fairly weak infusion. To compensate for this, many people have taken to steeping their tea for a longer time, which does indeed make the average tea body stronger, but it also allows the bitter qualities of the leaf to be more prevalent, since it gives them time to be extracted from the tea.


Tea infusion with the Death Star tea ball.

But this problem is not only related to tea balls. Many tea pots include a built-in basket strainer designed in such a way that the leaves are also unable to carry their flavors around the pot. The wide, flat, cast iron pots that I’ve seen so much recently have this problem built-in. They have a tiny central straining basket, which acts like a tea ball to keep the leaves in the very center of the pot, and the wide internal area keeps most of the water away from the leaves while steeping. (Brewing in a mug can have the same problem if you use a basket strainer that is too shallow.)


Tea infusion with a shallow basket strainer.

All that said, if you’re used to using tea bags, the same rules don’t always apply. Or rather, the rules do apply, but the infusion is so fast that there’s little chance for control or refinement anyway. The tea in most tea bags is ground up CTC (“crush-tear-curl”) or at least very broken. The result is that most of the possible flavors as well as the bitter qualities are released all at once, and the result is similar to the tea ball but much more blunt. If many tea bags are used or allowed to infuse for several minutes, the result is the same blunt, strong infusion spread all around the pot.

So, what can we do about this? Well the answer is to look back at the saucepan and the kitchen strainer. Putting tea leaves directly in the water without any separation will give you the best possible chance of finding the flavor of the leaves. Straining can come when pouring (in fact, the best tea pots in my opinion have strainers built into their spouts). The usual rules of time and temperature still apply, but experimentation will be much easier since you can much more easily see the color of the infusion as it progresses and you can even sample it without worrying that one part of the pot will be different than another.

Am I being too picky about my tea brewing? Oh, most definitely. These factors are only one of the ten thousand things that can affect the results of making a pot of tea. Don’t stress. Keep this piece of information in the back of your mind as you choose a teapot, but use your own experience as your guide for steeping tea. As the ancient tea masters wrote, “Tea is very simple… it is only to boil water, along with tea leaves and drink it. Anything else is superfluous.” The rest comes from within.

Gong-fu Cha

Gongfu tea (功夫茶) is not a well-known method of tea preparation in the West, but I think it should be. (A long time ago now I wrote something on Dobra Tea’s blog about Gongfu Cha. This is an updated version of that post.)

The words gōngfu, which is also sometimes pronounced “kung fu”, mean performing a task with skill and effort. In the case of martial arts where most Westerners have likely heard the term, it refers to wǔshù (武术), the skill of a martial technique. In reference to tea, gongfu means the mindful preparation of an infusion of tea in a manner designed to bring out the best flavor possible (and arguably the best experience as well). While this practice has evolved into several ceremonial forms, it is the simple gongfu cha which is most accessible to the student of the leaf and which I will discuss here.


The general idea is to prepare a relatively large amount of leaves in a small vessel (usually a gaiwan or yixing pot, but gongfu comes from the person, not the tools) with hot water for a very short amount of time. The hot water, small vessel, and quantity of leaves concentrates the flavors derived from the tea, while the short infusion prevents those flavors from becoming too strong. Small cups can help as well to focus the mind on the experience. It’s all too easy to gulp down tea from a mug without really tasting it, but slurping from a tiny cup requires concentration!

An additional advantage of this method is that the leaves will generally produce many subsequent infusions whose  flavors and aroma will shift and change. Although the infusion time may increase after three or four, it it said that a high quality oolong tea will give eight or more fully flavored cups. A good puer will often provide up to twenty!


Here are several guidelines to keep in mind as you try your own gongfu cha.

  • Firstly, the quality of the leaves matters. This can be difficult to ascertain without experimenting, but as a rule of thumb, mostly unbroken leaves without any dullness are a good sign. Any style of tea can be used. Green teas often make fantastic gongfu infusions with no bitterness, although the water temperature may need to be adjusted. I suggest that the beginner of gongfu preparation start with oolong or puer tea.
  • Second, make sure the vessel you are using (gaiwan or teapot) is warmed first with some hot water. Discard the water before adding the leaves. This is also true for your pitcher (if you’re using one) and cups. Water will cool very quickly if the pot is not warm and will usually change the infusion unfavorably.
  • Third, although a good amount of leaves should be used, be careful to leave space for the tea to unfurl and move about. Without movement, the tea may taste stagnant and the flavors will be inconsistent. This may take some trial and error, but remember that you can always add or remove a few leaves as you brew! I always have this problem with tightly rolled oolongs. They can grow to more than three times their size!
  • Fourth, take care to steep the leaves only for a very short time, at least for the first few infusions: perhaps five or ten seconds. Sometimes these are called “instant” infusions. Don’t be disappointed if your first infusion is quite light; this is often the case with puer or a rolled oolong. The tea needs to hydrate and release its oils. In this case, you may pour out your first infusion as a “rinse” or simply add more time. It is often said of oolongs that the third infusion is the best.
  • Lastly, gongfu of any kind is a matter of experience and mindfulness. Relax! There are no rules. When tasting, remember to use all your senses. What is the sound of the tea pouring? What is its texture on the tongue? What does the aroma bring to mind? In my experience, the results won’t ever be the same twice. Although you may not make gongfu cha for the ceremony, you may find that by practicing these steps that the tea ceremony finds you.


How Much Tea?

With all of these posts about my tea making process, I realized that I hadn’t ever said much about the amount of tea that I’m using. Time and Temperature are very important factors when making tea, as well as the tools you are using. But the amount of leaf in your pot can have just as much of an effect on the finished product and the steps you take to get there.

My general guideline for a 150-200ml pot or gaiwan is about 4g of leaf. Ah, but what if you don’t have a scale? In fact, I almost never use a scale myself, so not to worry, with some experience you can make a pretty good guess.

The first rule of thumb is to just cover the bottom of your brewing vessel with a layer of leaves until barely any of the surface is showing. This is almost always an accurate measure for a gaiwan (of any size!). Secondly, you need to think about the tea leaves themselves. This is the part that trips up even the seasoned tea devotee.

Why the difficulty with this measure? Because different teas are dried differently. A full leaf white tea takes up about 5 times the volume of a rolled oolong. And a small chunk of Puer can weigh as much as a whole package of black tea. A finely cut Japanese green tea can weigh twice as much as a green Chinese leaf.

To help with this conundrum, I’ve taken photos of different teas, each measured to 4g for comparison.

Tai Ping Hou Kui, a "Fluffy" Green

Tai Ping Hou Kui, a “Fluffy” Green

The key to getting the right amount of leaf is just considering the density of a tea before you brew it. These are the density categories I use: Fluffy, Fine, Twisted, Rolled, and Dense.


Bai Mu Dan, a "Fluffy" White

Bai Mu Dan, a “Fluffy” White

Full leaf white tea, many full leaf Chinese greens (except Liu’An Guapian), some Chinese (generally Yunnan golden needle) black tea, a few oolongs (Bai Hao).

Use more leaves than you think.


Ping Shui Ri Zhu, a "Fine" Green

Ping Shui Ri Zhu, a “Fine” Green

Japanese greens, any broken tea (a damaged full leaf tea or tea bag tea no matter how high quality the bag supposedly is).

The trick here is to use more leaves than you think but brew them very gently. Use cooler water around 70c or lower and keep infusion times very short (5 seconds to 1 minute).


Bao Zhong, a Twisted Oolong.

Bao Zhong, a Twisted Oolong.

A few Chinese greens (notably Liu’An Guapian), many Oolongs from southern China and Taiwan (not rolled into balls), some full leaf twisted black tea (notably no. 18, Sun Moon Lake, Qi Men, Dian Hong, Darjeeling first flush). I also put loose Puer in this category.

A medium amount of leaf, just covering the bottom of your infusing vessel.


Ali Shan Jin Xuan, a Rolled Oolong.

Ali Shan Jin Xuan, a Rolled Oolong.

Most Taiwan oolong (except Bai Hao and Bao Zhong), a few Chinese greens that are rolled into balls (except Zhucha/gunpowder).

A small amount of leaf, not quite covering the bottom of your infusing vessel. These teas tend to expand a lot (I’m always surprised how huge they get) and if the leaves become so packed that the tea cannot move around, the flavors will be blunt, strong, and boring.


Lao Shu Bing Cha, a Dense Sheng Puer

Lao Shu Bing Cha, a Dense Sheng Puer

Brick Puer, gunpowder green (Zhucha).

While it’s certainly possible to use a small volume of leaf for these teas and steep for 2-3 minutes, I prefer to use a medium amount and do very fast infusions (5 seconds to 1 minute).


As you might be able to tell from my notes, the more leaves (by weight), the faster and stronger the tea will infuse. Using lots of leaves just means that you may need to decrease the infusion time (or the temperature) to keep the tea from becoming overly strong. If you steep a tea for 10 seconds and it’s unpleasantly bitter (something that happens to me all the time), then you really just have too many leaves in the pot. Similarly, if steeping a tea for 3 minutes gives you no flavor at all, you may want to add some more leaf.

As with any “rules” surrounding tea brewing, keep in mind that these are just suggestions based on my experience. Your taste may vary considerably and so it’s vital that you experiment to find the time, temperature, and quantity that fits you best.