The Four Types of Kyusu: Part I

We’ve written before about the kyusu before – a small, traditional Japanese teapot perfectly designed for brewing up sencha, konacha, gyokuro, and many other types of green tea. Kyusu have been around for centuries, having evolved from the Chinese Yixing teapot when Buddhist monks first brought tea into the country during the early Heian Period (794-1185 C.E.). As Japanese tea is hugely diverse in style and steeping requirements, the form of the kyusu has changed and adapted over time into several different subtypes: yokode kyusu, ushirode kyusu, uwade kyusu, or houhin. Although there may be some variation in the appearance of the kyusu depending on artisan or manufacturer, the word kyusu itself is still an umbrella term for any Japanese teapot of these four basic shapes. In this post, we’ll explore two of the most frequently seen kyusu in Japan: yokode and houhin.

Yokode no Kyusu

The simplicity of the Japanese Tea Ceremony has inspired other accessories.

Japanese Yokode Kyusu

Yokode kyusu are the most common type of kyusu used in Japanese tea preparation. Its name reflects its appearance – “yokode” (横手の急須), meaning “on the side”, refers to the large, conical handle protruding from the right-hand side of the pot. This design allows the tea to be poured quickly and easily from a kneeling position, and is especially efficient when pouring small amounts into multiple cups. Yokode kyusu are suitable for most types of Japanese green teas, especially sencha. In fact, it was the rising popularity of sencha in the mid-Edo period (1603-1868 C.E.), that brought about a need for teaware specifically for brewing leaf, rather than powdered tea. Inspired by the leaf teas currently popular with Chinese Ming dynasty officials, early yokode kyusu were likely modeled after China’s purple clay Yixing teapots.

Houhin

Japanese Teapot with No Handles

Houhin ‘Treasure Chest’ Kyusu

Houhin (宝瓶), meaning “treasure chest”, is a small kyusu with a wide spout and no handle. It is usually used for steeping gyokuro and high-grade sencha, like shincha, as its shape and size allow for very quick, highly controlled steeping and pour times. Although these kyusu do not have handles, the low temperature at which these teas are steeped means that the pourer does not have to worry about burning their hands. Like yokode kyusu, houhin usage began in earnest during the mid-Edo period, as tea merchant and monk Baisao began to promote and popularize sencha and other whole leaf tea traditions. The houhin vessels we see today are likely a modified offshoot of the Chinese gaiwan. This is the type of kyusu that we here at Dominion Tea prefer to use when steeping our gyokuro, konacha, and shincha, as the fine filter and rapid pour allow us to brew these teas perfectly every time.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at the two other types of Japanese kyusu: atode and uwade kyusu.

By: Jennifer Coate

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The Art of Preparing Tea for Use

“Tea being an infusion and not a decoction like coffee, it should be brewed not stewed, the chief object being to extract as much of the theine or refreshing principle as possible and as little of the tannin or astringent property as can be at the same time without either boiling or overdrawing it.”

Written by Joseph M. Walsh in 1896, Tea Blending as a Fine Art, provides a number interesting gems which stand out and make us appreciate the history, culture, and even the science behind the beverage. In this case, Walsh is making note that it’s important to revisit the basics now and then to ensure that consumers of tea are preparing it correctly in order to get the most enjoyment. Specifically, brewing or steeping tea is done relatively quickly, with the intention of extracting the various plant compounds which directly impart taste.

Theine (the Refreshing Principle) and Tannin

The theine or refreshing principle referred to by Walsh in 1896 was none other than caffeine and while it was eventually recognized as the same substance as any other caffeine, the extraction of caffeine remains a major objective for many of us who can’t pass a morning without at least one cup. However, tea, like grapes, contain tannin which in significant concentrations will yield a bitter taste. All true tea from the camellia sinensis plant contain both caffeine and tannin though the variety of plant, its growing conditions, and the contents of the soil (or terrior) have an impact on the amount. Additionally, the processing of the tea from a white through to an oolong and black significantly impacts the amount of tannin found in the leaves.

Extracting The Goodness from Tea Leaves

Steeping Tea Leaves Over Time

The Longer You Steep the More Flavor Compounds and Bitter Tannin Emerge – We Seek Balance

Apparently, back in the late 1800’s there were enough people steeping tea incorrectly that Walsh felt it was critical to teach consumers how it was done. First, he notes that “the consumer should purchase only the best tea, it requiring much less of the finer grades to make good tea than of the common kinds, and will prove the most economical in the end.” Walsh goes on to describe misconceptions that the strength of a cup of tea was measured by dark color, leading to practices like adding tea to cold water and bringing to a boil, or stewing tea in boiling water for a prolonged period of time. Both of these provide a dark liquor but also an extremely bitter infusion.

When steeping tea the goal is to use good quality water, at the right temperature, for just the right amount of time to get the best tasting cup of tea possible while minimizing the bitter qualities of tannin. For loose leaf tea this means three important things; using good quality water, keeping the tea in contact with the water for the right amount of time, and using the right temperature water for steeping. Good quality water ideally means soft water, freshly boiled. The water should certainly not be distilled nor should it have been previously boiled water that has been re-boiled.

Forlife Folding Handle Tea Infuser

Folding Handle Infuser

Separating the leaves from the water is also critically important. There are any number of ways to do this of course, using a reusable infuser or strainer or single use paper tea bag. For those more adventurous, a gaiwan, yixing teapot, or kyusu are great ways to steep tea in a more traditional way.

Finally, the right temperature is also very important. While boiling water works well for black tea and many oolongs, its isn’t the best for all types of tea. Using boiling water on green or white teas in particular will extract far too much tannin making your tea very bitter. With many teas, green, white,  and yellow in particular, steeping with cooler water often brings out far more favor.

Steeping Time and Temperature

Below you will find very general steeping times and temperatures when using a single serve tea bag or infuser. These are general guidelines however since, as we noted earlier, the amount of various flavor compounds and tannin can vary significantly from tea to tea based on plant variety, growing conditions, and processing.

  • White Tea – 170° – 185° for 1-3 minutes
  • Green Tea – 170° – 185° for 3-5 minutes
  • Yellow Tea – 160° – 170° for 4-5 minutes
  • Oolong Tea – 185° – 212° for 3-5 minutes
  • Black Tea – 190° – 212° for 3-5 minutes

If you don’t happen to have a thermometer readily available, fear not. Poured into a room temperature mug, boiling water will almost immediately drop the the high 190°’s. If you want to get water for green and white teas just wait 2-5 minutes before adding the infuser. For yellow tea, wait a bit longer, about 5-7 minutes before adding tea. Conversely, since boiling water will almost immediately cool, its best to pre-heat your mug for black and many oolongs by adding boiling water, discarding, and adding fresh water with the infuser already in the cup.

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