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.
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.
While the full ritual of preparing tea Gongfu style has many steps its loosely distilled into:
- Rinse and heat the teapot and cups.
- Add tea and rinse the tea briefly.
- Steep the tea for 10-15 seconds and fully pour out the contents into a small pitcher.
- 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.