A Tea Addict's Journal

Using yixing pots

March 5, 2011 · 12 Comments

I used to be a yixing skeptic.  I remember buying my first pot, mostly for fun, back when I was still in college.  I had no idea what I was doing then, and like many of us, paid some tuition along the way.  My first pot came from Tenren, of all places, and was far too large for anything decent.  Eventually, I forgot about some wet leaves in it one time (green tieguanyin) and the pot is now no more.

I remember that for the longest time I was a gaiwan user — I didn’t use pots because I thought they messed up the taste of the teas.  I want the pure, unadulterated taste of the tea itself, not whatever the pot is doing to it, so gaiwan it was.  There was also a practical aspect of it, since I was traveling a lot and carrying anything more than a gaiwan is absolutely insane.  So, for the longest time, there were very few pots in the picture.

Over time, however, I have come to appreciate them and have used them more and more.  Teas do taste different whether brewed with pots or gaiwans, and different pots do indeed do different things to the same tea.  I remember when I visited N in Paris, he remarked how his teas taste different — all because I was using a gaiwan instead of his usual pot for the tea.  I now rationalize my use of pots for testing new teas as this: if I normally use this pot for drinking this kind of tea, then I should use this pot to test it.  If it tastes terrible with my pot, then I am highly unlikely to enjoy the tea in the long run.

Recently though I have added gaiwan back into the mix of teaware I use with some regularity.  For example, I recently tried to drink a tea that I have a few cakes of.  It’s a Yiwu from about five or six years ago.  In the gaiwan, the tea was sour — enough so that it’s bothersome.  In my usual pot for it, the tea is not sour, and displays the characteristic “Yiwu” taste much more clearly.  Otherwise, they are similar in profile, but somehow, the tea is improved in the pot.

I’m still not quite sure how this is even possible.  I don’t really buy the theory that pots season significantly enough so that it affects the tea in question.  They do seem to soften the harsh flavours in a tea, for better or worse, and make the tea more enjoyable.  There are tangible benefits to using pots.

Then there are the more question benefits – for example, do older pots do better?  How much does clay quality actually matter?  Does a pot with bad clay do more or less the same thing as a pot with good clay?  How about clays from different places — tokoname, for example, rather than yixing, or shantou pots?  Thickness of the pot?  Pot collectors are, by and large, not really serious tea drinkers.  Like any type of collecting activity, they value the rare, the unusual, the famous, rather than the practical.  The best pots for brewing tea is often not the best pots for collecting (just witness the huge 400cc pots that these collectors love to buy).  I don’t know anyone who has actually tried to do this sort of study in any serious way.  It will be interesting to find out how these various factors play into the taste of the tea.  I have some ideas, but then, my ideas could very well be wrong.

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12 responses so far ↓

  • vladimir // March 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply

    Shape and temperature might have something to do with it too, not just the porous behaviour of the clay (which I too am somewhat skeptical about, maybe I just have bad pots, but I’m skeptical of the theory too). Also ones own subconscious behaviour when brewing, the small changes in time correctly made, etc, might alter the appreciation of the tea. I always tend to brew teas in a gaiwan which I would normally mistime in a teapot, e.g. today I was brewing some flakes at the bottom of the bag of aged pu, brewed that in a gaiwan because not only would the bits stick in the spout but I’d almost certainly get some undrinkable sour mixture :-/

    • MarshalN // March 5, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply

      Given the short duration of my steeps, I find the temperature theory pretty hard to believe too. The tea usually hasn’t been in the pot long enough for a difference of one or two degrees to be of meaningful difference, I’d think.

  • Martin // March 6, 2011 at 7:41 am | Reply

    As you suggest, systematically comparing gaiwan vs. pot or one pot vs. another is probably the only way to get some light into all those claims what different pots do.
    From erratic experience my gut feel is that the influence of pots is overrated. On the other hand – for example the first time I used a Jian Shui pot with a shu pu erh I really know well, I was quite amazed. Later on, I felt less impressed, but who knows, maybe I just got used to it. Or other parameters, that I had not paid that careful attention to, came into play. (In my experience, with shu it can be more difficult than with sheng to get reasonably similar results in different sessions). If I can manage to do a bit of comparative study the next days, I will post it here.

    – Martin

  • flo // March 6, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply

    the difficulty of answering this question is that it very much depends on one’s references and . Now, beyond that, there are actually post that do better job than others, or, rather, pots that do a worse job –maybe because they are made of a material that is not suitable to different degrees. the type of tea and level of quality of tea is also to be considered.

    is age of a pot a criteria for quality ? per se, no. I think the criterion is more the material and the firing. Now it is more than likely (euphemism) that some very good material at some point is no more available, and techniques also change, sometimes for good and sometimes for not so good.
    Nowadays’ production is on a much bigger scale, so it is only logical that very different qualities exist.

    There are lost of myths or semi-myths about pots. “changes the taste”, “temp is the key”, “iron content is the key”, “interacts with water”, “interacts with aromatic components”, “porosity is the key”, “keeps memory of flavors” …

    Do you have to own clay ware when you are a tea amateur ? absolutely not. It is interesting to explore, because different vessels will give different interpretations, but the most important thing is the ability to brew. Some people brew wonderfully, others not. Most of us are in between.

    i think even if a tea drinker owns wonderful pots, the finest ancient zhuni or whatever, but is not able to use a gaiwan or to brew in a bowl, he really has missed something.

    oh, I was recently having a short discussion with tokoname vendors, and their opinion is that a tokoname clay is not a factor on taste, so much as brewing parameters (water/leaf amount, time, temp), and that the choice of clay ware is rather an esthetic matter.
    My little experience w japanese clay ware tells me that the best quality are good precisely because they keep close to what porcelain does.
    (which does not mean “neutrality”, no material is “neutral”)

  • John Grebe // March 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Reply

    I must say that I am finding myself becoming an increasing yixing skeptic as time goes on and in many ways I owe it to you in a good way. Lately I have been playing around with drinking many of my teas “grandpa style” and I was amazed at how much of a taste improvement I was getting with my Zhu Ye Qing and most of my oolongs. Which inspired me to conduct more experiments with my shu puerh and to my horror I discovered that a simple gaiwan brewed better tasting shu puerh than in my very well seasoned shu puerh yixing pot that I have been using on average for 1-3 sets of shu puerh leaves a day for the past 3 years. A well seasoned piece of tuition, is a very hefty price indeed, which makes me very hesitant to invest the time to work on seasoning another pot in the hopes of better results.

    • MarshalN // March 6, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Reply

      Grandpa style is indeed often the best for a lot of these teas. Sorry to hear your yixing isn’t working out though – how is it inferior, exactly?

      • John Grebe // March 7, 2011 at 1:31 am | Reply

        It is hard to fully put into words just that the more premium shu puerh cakes as I am now drinking taste a bit flat when brewed in my well seasoned yixing pot as compared to a bit more flavorful when brewed in a gaiwan. I’ve given it a lot of thought as I’m fairly confident about my shu pot as I had some help shopping for it with advice on the types of clay to stick to for shu puerh. The only possible mistake that I can think of on my part that might be making a difference is that I started out drinking really cheap shu puerh so maybe that somehow messed up the pot when it comes to brewing good tasting shu puerh of a higher quality. I also had a similar experience with oolong pots although they have less control as I got them given to me by other tea drinkers who had since outgrown them and tried to re-season them for oolong. Once again the oolong yixing pots do not match up the quality that I can get with a gaiwan where they come off as having a cleaner taste overall.

  • bev "learning to pull radishes" // March 6, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Reply

    Your second paragraph describes my current mindset to a “t”

  • Martin // March 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Reply

    Prepare for a lengthy post … I did four experiments in different fashions, using a Jian Shui Pot and a gaiwan of fairly matching sizes (not more than 5 ml difference), and an Yi Xing pot vs. Jian Shui pot.

    As anyone who ever attempted at such experiments will know, it is difficult to brew with exactly the same parameters AND in very short succession (because the resulting tea should be idealy the same in temperature when drunk). To check if this has an influence, I reversed the order of both brewing and drinking after two infusions and then back again, changing also the slighly different cha hai. Short infusions were done successively, longer ones in parallel with 20 s time lag (to allow for pouring).
    The Yi Xing has a little more volume; I filled it up to result in the same amount as the Jian Shui pot.

    First a few obsevations that may seem trivial, but I noticed I tend to neglect these, when one probably shouldn’t:
    – Pouring from a pot is different than from a gaiwan. I couldn’t quite manage to pour evenly against the wall of the vessel (rather than into the liquid) when using a gaiwan.
    – Fragrance of the tea leves after brewing is very different in a gaiwan than in pot. In a gaiwan the fragrance will often be weak and somewhat more light, as opposed to darker and fuller tones in the pot. For me the smelling of the vessel is an integral part of tea enjoyment.
    – A gaiwan cools off much faster, which is certainly one reason for the difference in fragrance. Maybe a gaiwan is not the best for comparison after all, but I personally don’t have a suitable porcelain pot right now.

    (1) 2004 You Le Raw Pu Erh: After 8 infusions in a pot transferred to gaiwan for 2 infusions, then back. (Why after 8 infusions? Simply because this was what I had at hand.)
    Results: Fragrance in the brewing vessel much subdued and of a “higher pitch” in the gaiwan. Taste seemed fruitier, with a certain aggressiveness. From the pot I got a cup with more of the typical aromas, even in the infusions following the gaiwan.
    (2) 2010 Hai Lang Hao Yiwu Raw Pu Erh (“Lasting Fragrance”): After 15 infusions in a pot shared evenly into gaiwan and pot (usead a balance), brewed side by side. At this point the tea had a tendency towards sourness. This was more pronounced in the gaiwan, to the point of real unpleasantness, while from the pot I got a lovely sweetness, at least enough to balance the fruitiness. For the last cup I put everything back into the pot and got a quite agreeable cup.
    (3) 2008 Menghai loose shu pu erh (relatively small lef grade) – brewed side by side (from the beginning). Fairly obvious differences in taste, aroma and mouthfeel. 2nd, 3rd and 4th infusion were decidedly more bitter/ sour in gaiwan, while the mouthfeel was more slimy (sorry, I couldn’t find a nicer word – it is not meant to convey a sense of revulsion). The mouthfeel of the brew from the pot tended more towards flour or chalk, with a slightly sparkling feel, but in an unobtrusive way. Also there was a sweetness and distinct aroma when swallowing which I didn’t find in the gaiwann session. The bitter-sourness of the gaiwan session I did find at times very unpleasant, to the point of being nauseating.The differences were easily noticeable. I could feel my body shrinking at times from the gaiwan session and relaxing with the pot session.
    (4) Yi Mei Ren (yunnan black tea), Yi Xing vs. Jian Shui pot, brewed side by side.
    Different fragrances in the pot: This tea reminds me of certain hybrid roses. The Jian Shui highlighted this, while the Yi Xing brought more of a vegetal fragrance (i.e, like cooked vegetables) to the foreground. Yi Xing brought out more of a bitterness when entering the mouth. Jian shui highlighted sweet, and in later infusuions chocolaty elements when swallowing. This impression was consistent over 8 infusions, with change of the order of brewing and drinking after each infusion.

    So what was all of this good for?
    I am now confident that different brewing vessels can make the difference between an enjoyable and not so enjoyable cup. So if a tea does not come out well with different parameters, maybe another vessel will be worth a try.
    I’m not sure it means a gaiwan brings inferior results – maybe it means that brewing in a gaiwan needs different parameters, or that I simply haven’t quite gotten the hang yet how to brew well with it.
    My personal predilection for Jian Shui pots was up to now a more romantic one (I like things unusual …), but I found that I really prefer what it brings out in a tea.

    And if nothing else, the comparison alerted me to details in brewing that I normally tend to overlook. Not as relaxed as I like my tea sessions, but worth while learning!

  • Yixing vs gaiwan vs Jianshui | A Tea Addict's Journal // March 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Reply

    […] pot (most likely from YSLLC, I’d iamgine).  It’s well worth reading, so please take a look. This entry was posted in Information and tagged teaware, yixing. Bookmark the permalink. […]

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