Monday, July 27, 2009

Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Orient Express (Part II: Teapots and Gaiwans)

Continued from Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Orient Express (Part I: Kettles).

2. Gaiwan and/or Teapot

This is dangerous territory. It seems that there are about as many opinions on the gaiwan and teapot issue as there are tea drinkers (and that's not even counting the arguments over the various types of Yixing clay)! I'll try to explain the basics of both, but it's up to you to decide which you prefer. I also can’t promise that I’ll be completely neutral in my recommendations, so you should research elsewhere too.


Yixing size
If you are used to brewing tea in big honkin' two-cup or larger teapots, gaiwans and Yixing teapots are going to look shockingly small. The online pictures don't usually convey how teeny they are, so be prepared! If you are brewing tea for one or two people, 5 oz (~150 mL) is considered large (I promise you, it will feel that way after a few long sessions with it). I prefer something in the 3-4oz (90-120 mL) range, and some use vessels even smaller than 2 oz (60 mL).

You may be wondering, "Why so small? Do you just drink less tea this way?" The main difference is that typical Western brewing produces a large quantity of tea a few times, while Eastern methods produce a small quantity of tea many times. This is accomplished by using a lot of leaf per volume of water, compared to big-pot brewing, with shorter infusion times. If that doesn't make sense, mull it over a bit, you'll get it eventually!

What's all the fuss about Yixing?

If you believe what some have to say, this wünderclay has the power to call on ancient spirits, quell demons, restore the balance of one's four humors (that's right, I made a humorism reference), and grant godlike wisdom. However, many argue that this magical type of Yixing is extraordinarily rare, that 99.9% of what is on the market is dangerously laced with other clays and shoe polish, and that anyone who purchases teapots without the combined aid of the I Ching and a blind hermit is a buffoon.

Okay, so maybe I'm a little tired of hearing what seems to me like endless speculation about Yixing (What was it that I just said about neutrality?). For those who spend lots of time and effort studying the subject, know that this is all in good fun and I mean no offense. :) Moving on to actual information...

One of the main qualities Yixing is said to possess is a superior ability to absorb tea flavors. This "seasons" the pot and improves the flavor of the tea it brews by rounding out imperfections. It seems to be commonly accepted that some residual tea flavor remains, but there are those who are skeptical whether Yixing is significantly, if at all, better than other clays. Still, a well-seasoned Yixing (a long process!) is supposed to be quite a thing to behold.

Related to the flavor absorption issue is the practice of dedicating a pot to a type of tea. There is a large spectrum of beliefs here; there are those who will only brew Da Hong Pao in a certain teapot for fear of contamination with other yancha flavors, and there are those who will brew everything in one pot. It's up to you, really, but I advise a happy medium: avoid strongly contrasted flavors from colliding in the same pot. Yancha and roasted TGY? Not so bad. Baozhong and shu puerh? Oof.

It is commonly said that you shouldn't brew green or white teas in a Yixing pot. I'm going to rebel a bit and say that I really haven't heard any good argument other than "it just doesn't work." Some say "the clay doesn't work," but the next logical question to ask is, "Then why are so many unglazed clay teapots used exclusively for Japanese greens?" I have not yet heard a satisfying response to this question. It may be that Yixing is not the ideal brewing vessel for greens and whites, but as long as you watch your temperatures, they should come out just fine.

I feel I should mention one last thing— pour speed. Cheap teapots usually have terrible pour speeds, sometimes 30 seconds or more. Obviously this becomes a problem when you are trying to do flash infusions! It is difficult to determine pour speed by photos alone, but larger spout openings are a good sign. I don't know if this generalization is valid, but all the cheap Xi Shi shape Yixing pots I've handled are slowwwww, so avoid those.

Many, many books have been written about Yixing clay and pots, so there is no way I could explain everything. Notably absent here are discussions about types of clay and teapot shape; this information can be found elsewhere, but really isn’t important for first-timers.

Brandon (the creator of wikiCHA) also offers a good newbie tip: avoid duan ni clay for your first Yixing. It tends to be much more rounding and subtracting than other clays. Thanks B!

The Mysterious Gaiwan

Compared to Yixing teapots, this is easy. If you haven't seen one yet, a gaiwan is an elegantly simple two- or three-piece brewing tool. You can use it to brew tea, like a teapot, or you can drink directly from it, similar to how you would drink while glass brewing. These babies can brew anything, are often dirt cheap, and you don't have to worry about dedicating them to a certain type of tea. Gaiwans are usually made of porcelain, though glazed and unglazed clay (which you may want to dedicate) variants are not uncommon.

They are a little tricky to use at first, but you should catch on pretty quickly, especially if you study this fantastic instructional video made my MarshalN. If you find that you really can't handle a gaiwan, you might look for a gaibei, a commonly used (if not entirely accurate) name for gaiwan with a handle and spout. Kind of a teapot/gaiwan crossbreed.

While some prefer thicker stoneware gaiwans, I think porcelain is a better material for most purposes. Some complain that porcelain heats up too quickly, making porcelain gaiwans difficult to handle. Their response is that stoneware gaiwans are thicker and heavier, so they do not get unbearably hot as quickly.

There are two problems with this argument. First, it is true that stoneware won't heat up as quickly. However, the other side of that coin is that stoneware will store more heat, so when it does heat up, there is no place to pick it up that will not burn you. Second, if you are preheating effectively (not just dumping hot water in and out, which has no effect on a big heat sink like a stoneware gaiwan), the stoneware automatically loses any advantage it may have had.

There are times when a hollow cup-shaped block of magma is an appropriate gaiwan material though. If you want more heat retention for a particular tea, stoneware is better than porcelain. I just hope you can pick that sucker up—if only it had a convenient handle. Oh wait, there is something just like that! A teapot!

Here is the secret to not burning yourself with a porcelain gaiwan. Hold it by the very edge of the lip (where heat dissipates rapidly into the air) and don't pour hot water on your fingers. This does take a while to learn, but until then the easier way should work. Shorter infusions also help.

Quality or Quantity?

If you are buying your first gaiwan, get something cheap. The odds are in favor of breakage. Once you feel more confident, step up and buy something nice— I promise you will enjoy it more.

Yixing teapots are another matter. The cheapies are almost always terrible, and quality really does affect performance when it comes to teapots this tiny. Do yourself a solid and pony up for a $30+ teapot. Think of your blood pressure.

Gaiwan or Yixing?

Both! If budget is a concern, buy a gaiwan now and save for a Yixing later.

Recommended models:
Any cheap gaiwan in the 90-150 mL range. Look at these from Dragon Tea House or Yunnan Sourcing.
Buy something cheap so you won't be too sad when you break it. Don't be concerned about these vendors being on eBay— they have very good reputations. Be aware that they are located in China, so shipping will take a long time if you don't pick the expedited option.
Quality gaiwans from The Tea Gallery
I have heard nothing but praise for these. I don't own one quite yet, but it should be here in a few days! [Edit: Just received it. It's all true! If you don't mind a plain white gaiwan, the construction quality of these is spot on.]
A Yixing teapot, also in the 90-150 mL range. Try Nadacha, Dragon Tea House or Yunnan Sourcing
I wouldn't spend too much on your first teapot, just in case. If you don't want to spare $40 + shipping for a teapot you won't curse at, it might be a good idea to stick with a cheap gaiwan for now.
It's not over! There's more to come in the next post!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Newbie's Guide to Teaware: The Orient Express (Part I: Kettles)

Though the previous few articles have been revolved around basic Western brewing methods, the purpose of this guide is to outline a basic inventory of teaware you will need for some more Eastern brewing methods. Because there is so much to say, this article will be broken up over a few posts. I hope you're packed, because it's time to take a ride on...

No murder included
The Orient Express

Okay, so maybe the Orient Express only went as far east as Istanbul. Give me a break.

For some of us, Western methods of brewing just don't cut it. Whether it is the appeal of the foreign and strange, the beauty of age-old techniques (be they simplistic or extravagant), or the usually superior tea they produce, Eastern brewing (often called "gong fu," though this is really a more specific thing) fascinates us. Though the items I will describe here are not enough to follow Lu Yu's complicated protocol, they will be enough to get you started and keep you going for a while. You will need: 1) a Kettle, 2) a Gaiwan and/or teapot, and 3) One or multiple cups. Some optional items include: 4) a Faircup, 5) a Tea tray, and 6) a Waste bowl. There are many many other items that you could get, some of which others may insist on, but for most of you the extra tools will probably just get in the way.

The Orient Express is ideal for the following people:
The Starving Artist/Student
Needs something cheap, but more interesting/advanced than the previous guides.
The Prospective Tea-Head
Wants to move past basic Western brewing methods and explore gong-fu.
The Sinophile
Loves anything and everything Chinese.
The Cube Monkey
Wants something relatively low-fuss, and doesn't want to deal with changing leaf every few infusions.
The Flavor-Craver
Wants the very best that his/her tea leaves have to offer.

1. Kettle

Any kettle will do (see here for the full guide), but certain features become much more important when dealing with Eastern brewing.

Pour quality

Eastern teawares are generally much smaller than their Western counterparts, so a smooth and accurate stream of water from one's kettle is important. A well-designed kettle is also helpful for varying the strength of your pour (some teas tend to do better with different pouring methods— I'm usually skeptical of the abstract hocus-pocus stuff, but this really does matter) and targeting certain points on a gaiwan. These qualities are especially important for brewing delicate green teas, so I hear, but can have a dramatic effect on other teas as well.

How do you know if a kettle has a good pour? Spout design is obviously the main factor, but it isn't always easy to tell without trying it out first. Some things to look for are a somewhat long spout, a narrow spout opening, and a protruding lower lip at the end. You really don't need all these things to produce a serviceable pour, but in my experience, they help. Ultimately, you just want a kettle you can control.

You don't need a terribly long spout, but you will want something that is at least a bit off the body of the kettle. Think of how much easier it is to be precise with a watering can vs. a big liquid measuring cup (you also don't have to worry about dripping as much). The simplistic designs with a notch in the body of the kettle are okay when you're aiming for a 2 cup teapot, but are a little harder to work with when you're trying to delicately fill a 3 oz gaiwan.


The narrow spout opening allows you to stop the pour when you want, and makes it easier to maintain a thinner laminar stream of water. I prefer spouts like the one on my Kamjove, which is wide at the base, slightly curved, and tapered at the opening.

This spout rocks.

The protruding lower lip at the end of the spout helps to prevent dripping. My guess is that it takes advantage of water's strong surface tension, but I don't think I could explain precisely how it works.

Still, the best way to know whether a kettle has a good pour is to get user feedback. If you can find the kettle online, chances are someone on TeaChat owns it. Search the Teaware forum, then ask around or start a new thread if you don't see a pre-existing discussion on your kettle.


Owners of silver, cast iron, and ceramic teapots often tout the superior qualities of these materials over stainless steel, glass, and plastic. I don't doubt this, but they are much more expensive, so you will want to weigh the cost and potential benefits after some research. Also be aware that silver and cast iron usually require more maintenance than the others, and that neither silver, cast iron, glass, nor ceramic should be heated over a strong open flame (like a gas range). If you're just starting out, I would go with stainless steel; it's cheap and flavor neutral, as far as I can tell. If you upgrade to a more expensive material later, the cost of your stainless steel kettle will likely be negligible anyway, so don't worry about starting out cheap. Glass is great too, but expect to pay slightly more than for steel.


Electric kettles are cheap and easy to deal with, as are non-electric kettles on a gas/electric range or hot plate. Alcohol burners and charcoal are preferred by the same people who use silver, cast iron, or ceramic kettles, though I suppose you could use those fuels with a steel kettle if you wish. Alcohol burners are relatively easy to use; you can pick up denatured alcohol at most hardware stores, and they burn cleanly. They do take a while to heat up full kettles, though. Charcoal is the pinnacle of kettle fuel, but is way out of my league, so look elsewhere if you are interested in that. :) Don't even bother with those tea candle things.

Variable temperature

If you brew a lot of green teas, this may be a useful feature. I don't drink many greens and use boiling water for pretty much everything else, so I don't need this. This is a pretty rare feature to find in conjunction with a good spout design.

Recommended models:
Kamjove Electric Kettles
These are ideal for budget gong-fu setups. They aren't the highest quality, but they are cheap enough to be replaceable. Mine is still going strong after roughly a year and a half. The auto re-boil feature is handy, but some kettles have been reported to stop short of a full rolling 212°F boil when set to auto.
Induction Kamjove w/ variable temperature control
One of the two kettles I know of with a gong-fu appropriate design and variable temp. control. It is an induction kettle though, so be aware that it is loud (a fan is needed to keep the electronic components cool) and not exactly conducive to a peaceful tea session.
Glass Electric Kettle w/ Variable temperature control
The other one with temp. control. Made of glass, obviously, but also pretty expensive. I don't know if it uses induction or not, but my guess (because of the size of the base) is that it does.
The Orient Express will keep chuggin' along with the next post. There's a lot to say!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Untitled, as always | Poll Results


I don't like to title my photos, unless it's a simple description like the name of the place or the item in the photo. To me a photo title is suspiciously similar to the foreword of a book; it really only exists because the author wants to tell you how to read the book. The other reason is that the only clever titles I can ever come up with are cynical ones like "Self Indulgence" or "Cliché." (See?)

[First: Tri-X @ EI 320, Rodinal 1:50, Yashica 12. Second: Fomapan 100 @ EI 80, Rodinal 1:100 (50 min stand), Yashica 12.]


The poll results showed that around half of you (47%) don't mind seeing the occasional unrelated post, like this one. For the 35% of you who would like me to relate these posts back to tea somehow: I'll try to do that most of the time. For the 17% who don't like these posts at all and are now reading this: that wasn't so bad, was it? :)