Gongfu Style and the Yixing Teapot

A Yixing Teapot with Stamp

Significant Artistry in Yixing Teapot Production

In previous posts we’ve highlighted just a couple of the many tea pots and vessels used to prepare tea (mugs, infusers, and teabags aside). We’ve touched a bit on using a Japanese kyusu for preparation of green tea. We’ve also touched on how using a Chinese Gaiwan can enrich the enjoyment of tea as well as bring out more subtle flavors in teas like Bao Zhong Oolong. In this post we are going to look at another traditional Chinese vessel for preparing tea; the Yixing Teapot.

The Yixing Teapot

Yixing (pronounced ‘ee-shing’) teapots, also known as zisha or ‘purple sand’ teapots, have been around for at least 500 years. While they are normally associated with preparing oolong and pu’erh teas, they really can be used to prepare any kind of tea while adjusting for temperature. An authentic Yixing teapot comes from the town of the same name in Jiangsu province in Eastern China (near Shanghai). Pottery has been made in this area for thousands of years though the development of the Yixing teapot design is a much more recent development. They are believed to have been created as a better vessel for tea preparation at a time when preferences shifted from powdered tea to that of loose leaf.

The Yixing teapots are quite small, generally sized for 2-4 people, un-glazed and typically found in red, green, or black colors. Being un-glazed these teapots become seasoned with use taking the aroma and flavors of the teas prepared in them. For this reason it is best to use one type of Yixing teapot for each type of tea. Additionally, since they are un-glazed Yixing teapots do a great job wicking remaining liquid away from tea after steeping keeping the leaves fresh and ready for many subsequent infusions.

Three Yixing teapot designs.

Yixing teapots come in many styles and colors though simple designs are better for making tea.

Yixing teapots are art in and of themselves. While some are highly decorated, the best and most valuable are typically quite plain in appearance. Highly prized, there are substantial fakes on the market which may be artificially colored, may not have the right density or porosity, and may have lids which don’t have the perfect fit known for this type of pottery. Knowing how to spot a fake is far beyond the scope of this post but do be careful if you are seeking to spend hundreds, thousands, or even more on one.

Gongfu Style Tea

Yixing teapots and the Gongfu style of tea preparation go hand in hand. Gongfu, aka Gong Fu or ‘Kung Fu’, actually means to do something with great skill, and represents a high investment in learning and practice. And while Kung Fu is often thought of in a martial arts concept, Gongfu style tea represents preparation of tea with great skill. Those who have studied Yixing teapots and practiced Gongfu style for many years are truly masters. They are able to quickly identify the best pots for a given tea. What’s more they have a feel for how long to steep, how to adjust steeping times between steepings, and ultimately how to extract the best taste and flavors from a tea.

Yixing Teapot and Two Small Cups

Gongfu Style Tea is an Art Form

While the full ritual of preparing tea Gongfu style has many steps its loosely distilled into:

  1. Rinse and heat the teapot and cups.
  2. Add tea and rinse the tea briefly.
  3. Steep the tea for 10-15 seconds and fully pour out the contents into a small pitcher.
  4. Serve the tea in small cups.

In this manner more water can be added for multiple subsequent infusions, each of 10-15 seconds, repeating five to ten times ore more.

Expand Your Tea Horizons

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the experience you can have with a Yixing teapot and an exploration of Gongfu style tea. However, if you have become a fan of straight teas, find yourself drinking some of the many wonderful teas less known in the west, and/or have discovered Oolong or Pu’erh tea then an exploration of Yixing and Gongfu has got to be next on your list.

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Kickstarter Projects with a Tea Theme

A few weeks ago we discovered two great Kickstarter projects for ideas we love; MIITO and Imbue (Update: 4/12/2017 – The Imbue project ultimately released a product deemed unsafe and was shut down). These projects are to create products for boiling just the right amount of water for your next cup of tea and for the initial production run of a new tea infusing vessel. We’ll admit to jumping in and funding these early without looking around at other related projects or, frankly, reading up on Kickstarter generally. We had success with Bo and Yana (now Dash and Dot from Wonder Workshop) in the past and jumped right in. That said, we are curious and wanted to look a bit more at Kickstarter and tea themed projects.

What is Kickstarter?

There are many tea related projects on kickstarter.

Kickstarter provides a way to match ideas with backers to fund them.

In short, Kickstarter is a platform playing matchmaker between people with ideas (they may or may not be great) and people to would love to see the idea become a success. You may make the mistaken assumption that the platform is for funding new technologies, products, or businesses and these are certainly a large part. However, the platform is also used as a way to fund single events, art installations, books, and more. If you have an idea, want to test the waters, and see if its got legs then Kickstarter is a platform to do just that.

According to their FAQ, the company is only about 110 people and is located in New York City. In exchange for a small percentage of money pledged, the project owner gets an easy way to publicize their idea and collect funds from backers. In order to reduce risk to backers, the company claims to keep an eye out for suspect projects and they use an all or nothing funding model to ensure that if a project doesn’t meet funding goals nobody gets billed.

Kickstarter claims (as of May 31st, 2015) about a 38% success rate of projects successfully receiving funding by their goal date. But do note that not all projects get funded, and even funding is no future guarantee of future products or business (see some of the projects below).

Tea Themed or Inspired Projects

In addition to MIITO and Imbue, which initially got us looking for other tea related projects, we found quite a number of others. Everything from WINKpen, which is a refillable pen for writing with naturally staining liquids (Wine, Tea, etc), to no less than three different tea infusers, to Barons of Tea which is a tea themed board game. We wouldn’t necessarily back all these though we did find some more interesting than others.

WINKpen

Created by Jessica Chan, this unique pen was designed to solve the problem of disposable ink pens allowing the user to fill it with natural “inks”. This glass pen can be filled with wine (the name comes from wine as ink), cranberry juice, tea, or any other substance which naturally stains. Having settled on a design this project is to fund a large manufacturing run allowing the dream to be turned into reality for those who want a unique and environmentally friendly pen to write with.  We would recommend using puerh or a black tea,if you where to fill the pen with tea.

HIYA

The premise behind HIYA is near instant cold brewed green tea. We love cold brewed tea (green tea or otherwise) and have blogged about it before. What HIYA was promising was essentially a tea bag with (we would imagine) very finely processed green tea. This project promised to bring green tea to those on the go with just a few seconds of shaking a water bottle containing the sealed and staple free tea bag. Despite having successful funding we aren’t quite sure if HIYA is still producing product as its been out of stock since at least November 2014 with limited Twitter or Facebook updates.

Tea Infusers

We found three different tea infuser projects on Kickstarter as of May 2015; VivaBoo, TeaDrop, and DunkFish. These projects all take their own unique spin on the tea infuser with DunkFish and VivaBoo being playful tea ball variations starring fish or platypus designs and offering built-in handles to remove them from water with reduced risk of burning your fingers. TeaDrop is slightly different with a combination infuser ball and built in timer to mechanically stop steeping when the timer stops. We haven’t tried any of these and hope they provide enough room for loose leaf tea to expand well, but they add both fun none the less.

Stock Certificate from The Long Dock Company

Is Kickstarter the replacement for issuing stock or soliciting venture capital?

Barons of Tea {The Board Game}

For those who are fans of board games and art, the Barons of Tea allows players to imagine they were alive during the time when England ruled the seas and competed to develop the tea trade world wide. This project was intended to fund the creation of a number of these board games envisioned by illustrator Gregory Snader. It was completed, and games were shipped back in 2012.

All in all Kickstarter does seem to be a great way for smaller ideas to get off the ground. In many respects it may even be a better way to prove a market exists than traditional market surveys or attracting venture capital investors. From a tea perspective, we love the creativity of the many ideas supported by the Kickstarter platform which may make our tea enjoyment just a little bit better. (And we can’t wait for our MIITO and Imbue products to arrive).

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Puerh Tea and an Introduction to Dark Teas

Pu-erh Tea is truly fermented unlike other teas.

Puerh Tea (tuo cha) – Fermented tea formed into cakes and producing a very dark infusion.

If you’ve been exploring tea for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard a bit about puerh (aka pu-erh), or fermented tea, though you may not yet given it a try. If you consider yourself a regular tea drinker then puerh and dark teas really are a must for your tea ‘bucket list’. Originally from China, puerh and dark teas offer a very different experience. Smooth and earthy, this class of tea is produced using a very different process from other teas and offers a different taste profile which may even serve a as a great entry for coffee drinkers looking to add tea to their repertoire.

Unlike white, green, black, and other varieties of tea which are oxidized and heated or fired to stop oxidation, puerh tea is truly fermented. It develops, usually in the form of compressed tea cakes over years, developing flavor and becoming smoother the longer it ages. Unlike other teas, puerh is produced by partially heating tea leaves to stop most oxidation. Then they are rolled and bruised slightly before being processed into compressed forms. The compressed forms such as bricks, discs or cakes, and small birds nest shaped, called tuo cha, are then either artificially aged or left to age naturally, sometimes for decades.

Puerh Tea History

The development of puerh teas dates back many thousands of years to Yunnan province in China. The necessity of trade led to packaging of tea in compressed discs which could be more easily transported along the tea horse road and other trade corridors. At the time tea was traded for war horses and other goods and often traveled hundreds of miles over long periods of time. During the this time, in hot and humid conditions, the tea naturally fermented and turned into dark tea by the time it reached its destination.

Puerh and Dark Tea

Its often stated that the types of tea include white, yellow, green, black, oolong, and puerh tea. However, this isn’t really accurate. Puerh is actually one variety of dark tea, albeit the most famous one. In 2008, China recognized dark tea from Yunnan as being geographically protected meaning this is the only dark tea that can be called puerh despite the fact that a number of other provinces produce fermented dark teas using much the same process and tea plant varieties.

Steeping Puerh Tea

Steeping your puerh tea is relatively straight forward but is slightly different than other teas. While you should steep with boiling water like a black tea, you will likely be able to steep puerh at least four to six times if not upwards of 10-15 times depending on the variety. Wake up the tea initially with enough boiling water to cover the leaf and quickly pour off the liquor. If you are steeping in a pot or mug with infuser then use 3 grams of puerh or dark tea and steep 3-4 minutes and re-steep another 2-4 times. If you are using a gaiwan, use a bit more tea, about 5 grams, and steep the first time for 2o to 25 seconds. For each additional steeping at about 5 seconds more steeping until it becomes thin.

Although dark and puerh teas are unfamiliar to many western tea drinkers they can be a real treat. Unlike the other teas in your collection, if stored properly, with fresh circulating air, away from other smells and aromas, these will keep and mature for many years to come. And for those looking to make a switch from coffee, you may find both the color and flavor to be a logical first step.

There is much to explore with tea, and puerh as well. This was only an introduction to the world of dark and puerh tea. In the future we will explore more to include the world of counterfeit puerh, other regions producing dark teas, and more so stay tuned.

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Trade as the Mother of Invention

Saint Emilion Grand Cru

Wine from the Saint Emilion region of France.

We are passionate about culture, history, and how many products and values are shaped by the interaction between people around the world.  This includes tea, and how it has shaped and been shaped by history and culture over thousands of years.  We referenced how the notion of terrior relates not only to tea but to wine and other products as well.

On a recent trip to France we were struck by yet another facet of history.  The notion that global trade, and the requirements associated with shipping products around the world have led to many of the great products we have today.  During our tour of wineries with TéléPro Tour in the Saint-Émilion region outside of Bordeaux, our guide noted that while wine has long been traded with England and others.  Over time, innovation led from clay vessels to wooden barrels and at one point someone noticed that the wine shipped from France to England tasted significantly better after shipment.  The difference forever changed wine production as producers determined it was the wine aged in oak during transport that produced exceptional flavors and aromas.  As a side note, the standard 75 ml bottle we see today came from the fact that the 225 liter barrel makes exactly 300 bottles if the barrel is full.

Men working on the Tea Horse Road carrying large bundles of tea.

Tea Porters by Ernest H Wilson, CC BY 2.0

For tea, much like wine, it was the necessities of transportation which led to the development of Pu-erh.  As early as 1600 BCE the road between China and Tibet and other locations was long and arduous, travelling over treacherous, high terrain.  It was used to transport goods for trade including sugar, salt, tea, horses, and of course culture and ideas.  Tea became important to the people of Tibet and similarly horses became important to China for military use.  Thus tea and horses were commonly traded via this road giving us the Tea-Horse Road by which it is known today.  This nearly 1500 mile journey would have taken a very long time to traverse and efficient transport of goods was a must.  So tea leaves began to be packaged into cakes.  This packaging allowed tea to be compressed and stacked for easier transportation by both man and horse.  Like wine, it was discovered that the tea actually had new flavors and aromas after the trip then at the beginning.  It turns out that time in the heat and humidity during the long trip along the tea horse road substantially changed the tea resulting in something like the pu-erh enjoyed today.

Tea bag.

Modern Tea Bag

Like aged tea and wine barrels before it, tea bags were also developed by accident as a result of trade between people separated by distance.  A far more modern development the tea bag was created by Thomas Sullivan of New York.  Upon receiving tea, Mr. Sullivan began to package teas in small silk bags in order to send small samples on to his customers.  Not realizing they should take the tea out of the bags some customers simply immersed in water.  When they reported back to Mr. Sullivan that the silk was a bit to fine, he realized the opportunity, switched to gauze and the tea bag was born.

Yet again, we find ourselves fascinated with tea, how it has been impacted throughout history, and has contributed to global culture.  Are there other analogous inventions you might be aware of, tea or otherwise?

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A Brief History of Tea

Statue of Lu Yu

Lu Yu – In Xi’an on the grounds of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda by Nat Krause, July 26, 2005, CC – 2.0

The history of tea is too long for a single blog post, but here we try to hit the highlights and key milestones in time.  Tea has been consumed by humans for a really long time and has influenced international relations for centuries.  According to legend, tea was discovered in 2737 BCE in China when the leaves of a nearby evergreen fell into the boiling water of the Emperor Shen Nung creating a beverage that reinvigorated him.  The first credible texts referencing tea plantations and the consumption of tea appear around 1000 BCE.  However, it took until the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) for tea to become China’s national beverage.  It was during this dynasty that Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea called Ch’a Ching, The Classic of Tea.

Tea appears to have first travelled beyond China during the late 500’s CE to Japan by way of Japanese Buddhist monks who utilized tea during their meditation rituals to maintain alertness.  Tea was first offered to the Russians in 1618, but the Czar did not like the taste, so tea failed to take hold there until the middle of the 1600’s.  Once the taste did develop in Russia, tea traveled thousands of miles in a caravan and was most likely the same Pu-erh tea that was traded with the Mongolians and Tibetans. Even though European explorers like Marco Polo mention tea in their logs as early as the 13th century, Europeans did not come into contact with tea in any large scale until 1627 CE by way of a Portuguese trading vessel.  As an American, tea is considered to be British, but it was the mainland of Europe that adopted tea first and it wasn’t until Charles II married a Portuguese princess, some forty years later, that tea took hold as fashionable in Britain with the British East India Company placing its first order of tea in 1664 (UK Tea Council, 2014).  Today, Europe still maintains a significant role in the tea trade with parts of the continent exporting more tea than some of the countries that actually grow it commercially.

Painting by Lai Fong of an American Clipper Ship

Portrait of an American Clipper Ship by Lai Fong (Lai Fong of Calcutta, fl. 1870-1910) currently at Childs Gallery, Boston, MA

Tea traveled with the colonists to America and it is the tax on tea that is credited as pushing the colonists to their breaking point with the British monarchy, helping to instigate the American Revolution.  While America was trying to figure out how to be a country, the Chinese emperor decided that foreign trade was to be paid for with silver, putting a very large burden on the British East India Company.  In response, they began to heavily export opium to China at the time to off-set the silver requirement, since the Chinese government did not stop the merchants from accepting opium instead of silver.  Simultaneously, the British began trying to figure out how to cultivate tea in India.

At about the same time that the British had success in growing tea in the Assam region of India, 1839, the First Opium War broke out between the British and Chinese.  At the start, it was estimated that the amount of opium flowing into China had increased to 40,000 chests annually from the pre-silver requirement level of 4,500 chests, prompting the Emperor to have local government officials arrest opium merchants and seize their stocks to be destroyed (Greenberg, 1951).  In response, the British sent troops from India both decimating the Chinese coast and ultimately giving Britain control what is now Hong Kong.

It is the consumption of tea by the British, and later the thirst for ready-to drink and iced tea by Americans, that fueled cultivation of tea not just in India but into Africa and then South America by some of the largest tea producers in world.  While China and Japan may produce more tea, this is mainly for domestic consumption rather than export.

Timeline of Tea

A Brief Timeline of Tea by Dominion Tea

Since tea cannot be commercially grown in every country and it continues to be the second most consumed beverage on the planet, I suspect it will remain a factor in international relations.  I can only hope that it brings more peaceful relationships in the future.  Do you think it can?

Let us know by commenting here, or sharing on Twitter or Facebook.

Hillary

Works Cited

Greenberg, M. (1951). British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42. In M. Greenberg, British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42 (p. 113). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UK Tea Council. (2014, January 5). Tea – A Brief History of the Nation’s Favourite Beverage. Retrieved from UK Tea Council Web site: http://www.tea.co.uk/tea-a-brief-history-of-the-nations-favourite-beverage

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