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