Monday, April 06, 2009

Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The MacGyver

Based on the ideas covered in previous installments of this series, I decided to write an article for the even-more-budget-conscious and the experimenters among us. It is not surprisingly called...

The MacGyver

The MacGyver is probably more difficult to use than The Spartan or The Lone Ranger, but it can be fun to cobble together your own teaware in lieu of a proper setup. You will need more than just a bobby pin and a match, but not much more. You will need to duplicate the following: 1) Kettle, 2) Teapot, and 3) Cup.

This setup is ideal for the following people:
The Starving Artist/Student
This is even cheaper than The Spartan, and possibly The Lone Ranger, assuming you already own a couple of the items listed here. Even if you don't, they are a sound investment as you can use them for things other than tea.
The ScienTEAst (ugh, sorry for that)
For the tea fanatic who just isn't happy using boring, real teaware.
The Globetrotter
If you are packing light, worry not! Make use of those odds and ends at friends' and family's homes. [The Lone Ranger is likely to be better for hotel stays and such.]
The Multiple-Family Man
Need a tea fix, but don't want to run the risk that your multiple wives may meet and discover your identity while discussing your unique teawares and brewing habits? Keep the good stuff at one home, and sneak in some tea while pretending to have another hobby at the other!

1. Improvised Kettle

If you have a basic stove-top kettle and a stove, you are set. If you have a stove (or a hot plate) but not a kettle, a saucepan will do in a pinch— just be careful when pouring, as it is not exactly a precision tool.

MacIf you do not have a stove, but do have a microwave and a microwave-safe liquid measuring cup (preferably with a spout), you can use them to heat water IF YOU ARE VERY CAREFUL. If your measuring cup is too smooth, bubbles will not form even if your water is heated to its boiling point. As soon as you give it something to form bubbles on (teabag, lint, finger, anything really), it will boil instantaneously and explosively. This is a bad thing. However, this can be avoided if you place a rough wooden item like a popsicle stick or wooden skewer into the measuring cup along with your water, as these items will provide nucleation sites— places for bubbles to form as the water boils.

Because of the potential hazards, and because microwaved water tastes funky, I highly recommend seeking out a kettle if possible. Please.

If you can't find anything to heat water in, you can try to use hot tap water. If you're lucky, it could be as high as 135°F (Or maybe even higher, but this is the hottest I've found. I can't say I usually carry a thermometer around with me, though). You probably won't have good results if you try to steep/decant with water this cool, but you could try glass brewing with it.

2. Makeshift Teapot

There are several common kitchen implements that can be readily converted into a makeshift teapot. Here are a few ideas:
French Press
It works better if the leaves are placed on top of the press— that way, the leaves are removed instead of squished. [A big thanks to Tenuki of TeaChat for that tip!]
Dale has pointed out that this is not the best way to use a french press for tea, and instead suggests the following. "When using a coffee press you never press down the plunger, just insert it enough to hold the tea back. Pour into a cup or thermos (you might have to pull the plunger slightly if tension hold the water in) and you're done. It's clean, easy and it works great for making tea, mixing cocktails or even brewing coffee." Thanks Dale! You can read his full comment at the bottom of this page.
A liquid measuring cup and any sort of straining device
Dump the leaf in the measuring cup, add water, steep, and pour through any kitchen strainer. If you can't find a measuring cup or a strainer, just use...
A cup and a small plate, spoon, lid, saucer, whatever.
This takes a little more finesse than the previous idea, but it's really not that bad. Add leaf and water to the cup, steep, then hold the other object up to the cup, leaving a small enough opening at the bottom to allow tea to pass but hold back the leaf. Try to duplicate how a gaiwan works. This is (pretty much) only feasible with whole or mostly-whole leaf teas.

3. Cup

Pretty self-explanatory. If there isn't a mobile, solid, concave, non-toxic, non-perforated surface available, there really isn't much I can do for you.

Stay tuned for the next installment, titled... The Orient Express

Friday, April 03, 2009

Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Lone Ranger

In the previous installment of Newbie's Guide to Teaware, The Spartan, I attempted to describe a simple, affordable, all-purpose set of teaware. However, for many of you, it can get even simpler and more affordable. Thus I present...

Hi ho!
The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger setup is as easy as it gets. All you need is a 1) Kettle, 2) Cup, and 3) Strainer (optional). No teapot required!

I would recommend this setup to the following types of people:

The Starving Artist/Student
Is still broke, but wants to be slightly less broke than with The Spartan setup.
The Casual Brewer
Likes making tea for one on a regular basis and doesn't want to deal with extra equipment.
The Prospective Tea-Head
Friends think he/she is weird and routinely deny his/her offers of tea. Forced to make good tea in solitude.
The Globetrotter
Packs light, but wants to make his/her own tea while away from home.
The Cube Monkey
Wants to make tea, but doesn't want to be teased by coworkers about his copious teaware collection. Probably doesn't have space for much else anyway.

1. Kettle

See here for the nitty gritty on kettles. For The Cube Monkey, if your office's water cooler has a hot water tap, you probably don't even need a kettle. Still, I would recommend getting one if you can manage it.

2. Cup and 3. Strainer

Infuser cups

The easiest, and probably the most appealing to The Prospective Tea-Head, is to buy an infuser cup. These things are great! You just plop your tea into the infuser, place the infuser in the cup, and steep. When done steeping, remove the strainer and rest it on the overturned lid. Try to find one with a well-perforated infuser; infusers with few/small holes don't work as quickly or allow as much water to circulate.

Infuser mug
Though the handle-less models look really cool (see photo), you will probably suffer buyer's remorse after using it a couple times. They just get too darn hot, particularly if you use boiling water. So, when buying an infuser cup, look for a handle, a lid that can be used as a plate for the infuser, and an infuser with more than a few holes.

[If you are comfortable with trying out a gaiwan, go for that. I'll discuss gaiwans in a future post. However, infuser cups are more approachable for those without any experience brewing gong fu style, and these first few posts are directed toward those who want to start off brewing western style.]

Recommended models:

Imperial Tea Court's Dragon Mug with Infuser (or something similar, ITC carries a few different ones)
Solid design, large-ish size, and reasonably well-perforated ceramic infuser.
Any of the infuser mugs (with handles!) here
I've heard favorable reviews about Hankook's wares, and most of these look pretty cool.
Hankook's Toogak Mug with Infuser
This one is essentially "double-walled," so it should stay relatively cool (thanks to Victoria from TeaChat for pointing this out). It is the only handle-less infuser mug I feel comfortable recommending, though it is a little pricey.
The Revolve Cup (or similar, like the Tea-zer Tumbler; thanks Joe!)
This is a more portable version of the classic infuser mug.

Cheaper options

Though infuser mugs are pretty cheap, there are even cheaper ways of accomplishing the same feat. I have written about glass brewing before (here and here), but this doesn't work for everybody.

Not my mug
Want something almost as easy as glass brewing? Repurpose that evil infuser basket from your teapot. (If you don't already have one, just google "infuser basket" and look for something similar to the one shown here. They're only a few bucks at most places.) Just plop it in a coffee mug or cup of similar size and you're good to go. In fact, this will probably work better than a real infuser mug; mesh basket strainers drain faster and allow much more water to circulate through them than ceramic infusers.

But didn't I say basket strainers were evil? Well, yes and no. Though they do not allow a large amount of leaf (say, two or three cups worth) to expand, the amount you of leaf you would use in brewing a single mug should have plenty of room. Also, if you pick a mug that is about the same size as the basket strainer, the leaves can pretty much move around the entire vessel as though there were no strainer present.

Try to avoid those little tea balls. They are convenient, yes, and better than a teabag, but not by much. There is almost zero room for your leaves to expand, which is a bad thing. Besides, they really aren't that much more convenient than a basket strainer.

Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the next installment, titled... The MacGyver

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Spartan

Over on TeaChat, I often see questions like "Should I get a Yixing pot?" or "What kind of kettle should I buy?" It took me a long time to finally settle down with a basic set of teawares, and I would like to share some tips I've learned along the way for those of you who may just be getting started with tea.

Remember that all this is just the opinion of yours truly. You are more than encouraged to do your own research (searching the boards on TeaChat would be a good idea if you haven't done so already), but this should at least give you something to start with.

The purpose of this guide is to help you build a basic inventory of equipment that will allow you do brew any loose leaf tea and, if you want, experiment with alternative methods. Over the next few posts, I will outline three different setups suited to tea brewers with different needs and constraints. In this first post, I will begin with the most basic equipment you will need. I call it...

The Spartan

"The Spartan" setup is pretty much as basic as you can get while still being able to brew almost any tea out there (Yes, you can forgo the cup if you glass-brew or use a gaiwan, but that's another post). This setup only includes three items: 1) Kettle, 2) Teapot, and 3) Cup. Some may tell you that you need fancy equipment to brew teas like puerh and dancong, but this is simply not true. Fancy equipment will probably brew those teas better, but it is not required to make good tea.

I would recommend this setup to the following types of people:

The Casual Brewer
Is interested in exploring loose leaf tea, but is not ready to give up teabags. Wants equipment that can be used for both kinds of tea.
The Prospective Tea-Head
Likes the idea of loose leaf tea quite a bit, whether he/she drinks teabags now or not, and wants to find out whether this is something he/she wants to pursue. The Prospective Tea-Head needs a basic setup at low cost that can be built upon later.
The Starving Artist/Student
Is broke!

1. Kettle

Kettles should only be used to heat water (unless you're making Tibetan tea, but nobody in their right mind would)! You do not brew tea in a kettle; you heat water in a kettle and brew it in a teapot. In case you are wondering, yes, you need a kettle. I know, I know, you could microwave water in a cup and dunk your tea leaves in it, but if you want to do tea the right way, get yourself a kettle. Trust me, it's worth it.

There is a plethora of options when it comes to kettles, so no one blames you if you are confused about which one is right for you. There's always the the low-tech stove-top design, or you could splurge for a fancy electric induction kettle if you desire. You could also drop a bunch of cash on something ceramic, iron, silver, etc., but if you belong to one of the groups mentioned above, it will probably be more trouble than it is worth. For the sake of this article, let's focus on stove-top and electric models.

Stove-top models

They are cheap and plentiful, and you can often find one in an aesthetically-pleasing color or design. Unfortunately, they will more or less confine you to your kitchen unless you have an electric hot-plate, which makes little sense as electric kettles are so cheap. Cast iron kettles (NOT those enameled tetsubin teapots you find in the US) will keep your water hot for longer than aluminum or steel models, though they also take longer to heat.

Recommended models:

Just head over to Target or Walmart. They really aren't all that different functionally, so pick out something pretty.

Electic kettles

kettleMy favorite. All they require is a plug, so you can easily set one up in a home office or your cubicle at work, if your boss allows it. They tend to be very fast, shut off automatically once boiling, and some come with handy features like temperature control and a re-boil mode. Many of them are made out of plastic, but there are steel options if that concerns you. Cordless models allow the kettle to be lifted off the plugged-in base plate, giving you more range of motion.

As for the mechanics, there are two types of electric kettles: induction and conduction. Hobbes recently wrote a great article about how induction kettles work, if you are interested. Induction kettles are very fast, but their circuitry needs to be cooled by a fan, so they can be noisy. Conduction kettles are much simpler, as they are just heated by a resistance coil which converts electricity into thermal energy. They are slower to boil than induction kettles but are still relatively quick, and they do not need noisy fans. They are also quite a bit cheaper, which is a big plus. Note that conduction kettles are rarely advertised as such, but if it doesn't say "induction", it's a conduction kettle.

A quick note about electric kettles with the variable-temperature feature: they are rarely accurate. I won't say "don't bother," as some people still like them, but be aware that if you are trying to hit a more exact temperature, a fixed-temp kettle and a standard meat thermometer will do a much better job.

Recommended models:

Upton Tea Imports Variable Temp. Electric Kettle
A well-built, variable temperature kettle. Again, don't expect much precision from the temperature dial.
UtiliTEA Kettle from Adagio (Variable-temp.)
Adagio's electric kettle. More expensive than the Upton model, but better looking (and probably higher-quality, but I do not know from personal experience).
Kamjove Electric Kettles
These are not always of the highest quality but they work well enough, have a nice pour, and have a re-boil feature. For what it's worth, I love my Kamjove. I believe the induction model also has a variable-temperature setting, but I'm not 100% sure.

2. Teapot

Simplicity is the key when it comes to picking out a good basic teapot. Buy something simple, small-ish, functional, and with as few moving parts as possible.


Smaller is usually better. Not only will it make you learn to re-use leaves (a good habit to learn if you are a Prospective Tea-Head), but you will go through less leaf (good for the Starving Artist/Student), and your tea will still be hot from the first cup to the last (good for everyone; re-heated tea is not very good).

When brewing tea Western-style, which you are probably doing if you are reading this, a good rule of thumb is 8-16oz per person. E.g. If you just brew tea for yourself, a one- or two-cup teapot is a good size; for two people, try a three- or four-cup teapot, etc. If you usually drink tea by yourself but occasionally brew for others, just get a somewhat larger teapot and not fill it as much when brewing for yourself.


tetsubinChoose something made of porcelain, glazed clay, enameled cast-iron (shown here), or glass. Glass isn't nearly as good at retaining heat, so unless you really like watching tea leaves unfold, or plan to make mostly green and white teas, I'd avoid it.

Also avoid un-glazed clay teapots. They are great if you don't mind dedicating them to certain types of teas, but strong flavors (particularly Shu puerh, Lapsang Souchong, Earl Grey, and other artificially flavored teas) can stick around and ruin your more delicate brews.


These are hotly debated. They are convenient, yes, but most strainers (particularly those evil little basket strainers) do not allow tea leaves to expand enough. This may not bother the Casual Brewer, but if you really care about the quality of your tea, just dump the leaves right into the pot and pour the brewed tea through your strainer to keep leaves out of your cup.

Another kind of strainer, often found on teapots made by Bodum, is a little like a french press. By depressing the plunger, you squeeze the leaf into the bottom of the strainer where there are no holes, which basically stops the infusion. This works okay, but it isn't perfect. If you leave it sitting there long enough, it will continue to infuse (slowly) and will eventually over-steep your tea. I'm also not wild about squeezing tea leaves like that; not only does it force out some nasty flavors, but I can't imagine it makes subsequent infusions any better.

Some teapots, typically Japanese ones, have strainers built into the teapot. This allows leaves to expand and prevents them from escaping, but it can make cleaning more difficult. Still, I think it is the best option if you really want a strainer.

Recommended models:

Adagio's PersonaliTea Ceramic Teapot
I have no personal experience with this one, but it would be first on my list if I were in the market for a new basic teapot.
An enameled Tetsubin teapot (see photo)
Originally, cast iron tetsubin were used as kettles by the Japanese, but almost all American imports are enameled and cannot be used to heat water. The enameled versions make pretty good teapots though.
A glazed Kyuusu (Examples: 1, 2, and 3)
These make fantastic basic teapots. They are a bit small for group brewing, but they are probably the best choice for personal use. They look cool, have built-in strainers, and are made of glazed clay. Perfect! [Thanks to El Padre of TeaChat for finding this gem.]

3. Cup

cupYou're on your own. Cups are the easiest— just make sure that you can decant the entire volume of your teapot into your cup(s), so you avoid over-steeping any tea left in the pot. If you insist on using one of those diabolical removable strainers, you don't even have to worry about this— but you aren't going to use those, are you? Didn't think so.

Just find cups you like. It could be handle-less, like the one pictured here, or not. Actually, I'd probably recommend getting something with a handle if you are brewing large amounts. It's just more comfortable. Alternatively, you could check out those double-walled glass cups made by Bodum; they stay cool to the touch and look pretty awesome. They are fragile though, so be careful when washing them.


I hope this helps answer some of your questions about what kind of teaware to start out with. If there's anything I missed, or if you have a more specific question, please ask!

Stay tuned for the next installment, titled... The Lone Ranger