Let's start with the obvious difference between the tea drinker and those who look at a teapot as a piece of craftsmanship: the tea drinker is not just looking, exhibiting or storing the teapot, he's using it! The value of the teapot is linked to its usage. A teapot that you don't use is worthless.
So, what do we, tea drinkers, appreciate in a teapot when we make tea? What are the qualities a teapot should display?
1. Conveying the taste and aromas of the leaves the best way possible and improve them compared to other vessels.
2. A certain ease in handling the teapot when brewing tea.
3. A sense of aesthetic beauty that doesn't compromise its functionality, but builds on it.
To summarize, a good teapot will make good tea with great ease and with a sense of beauty.
1. Good brewing.
The most important teapot factor that influences the outcome of the brew is the clay. A chop is easily faked, a shape is also quite easy to imitate, but quality clay makes all the difference.
Before we examine the characteristics of clay, I want to emphasize the concept of clay quality with an analogy to Yan Cha. The quality level for clays bearing the same name can vary greatly. And, like Yan Cha, top quality clays come from precise locations and are obtained through traditional methods of drying, filtering, resting... Such small extractions result in very pure clay. Then, as with Ban Yan Cha, there's clay made obtained nearby in great quantity and treated with more mechanized methods. Such clay is diluted and only average. And then, as with the countless copies of Yan Cha coming from other provinces, clays are imitated and often obtained through mixing of coloring elements. Such clays are not natural and often create a bad, artificial smell in the teapot.
The difference between good and average clay is often a matter of concentration. Good clay is usually finer and more compact. Between real and faked clay, it's often a matter of how natural the color and texture feels.
How does clay impact the tea?
a. Hard clays absorb fewer flavors. Zhuni, for instance, is known for being very hard, which helps extract all the scents, good and bad, from the leaves. Hard clay is also more difficult to fire : the kiln has to reach a higher temperature. Underfired teapots end up sounding dull as their skin is softer.
b. Retaining heat. Teapots are usually preheated to help them maintain the water brewing at as high a temperature as possible. Good clays retain heat longer and higher. This allows to extract more flavors from the leaves. Zhuni, iron rich clay and Yixing purple clays are good examples. Porcelain, on the other hand, drops quickly in temperature.
Thick walls also retain heat longer.
c. Porous clays help filter some bad flavors.
Silver and gold are pure, hard metals that retain heat well. They extract flavors with uncompromising sharpness. However, these precious metals lack the filtering capability of clay. The porous texture inside the teapot and the walls under the cover give the tea plenty of surface to interact with. A good clay can purify and add balance, depth to the brew. Softer clays are more porous than hard clays. Yixing zini and di cao qing clays achieve a good balance between hardness and porosity. Duanni, hungni and Chaozhou clays are softer and quite porous.
2. Ease of handling. The 3 major points.
a. The handle
It looks like a ear. Attached to the body of the teapot, its function is to let us hold the teapot without burning our fingers. the top of the handle is often thicker than below, so as to provide some resistance for our fingers.
And even though it looks like a curved cylinger, the shape is slightly
square where our fingers hold it. This improves the grip, making it
easier to hold with one hand. We feel very secure that the teapot won't slip if the handle is well designed.
b. the knob
Similarly, the knob helps us to open and close the teapot several times during a brewing without burning our finger. It doesn't just look harmonious with the rest of the pot, but is placed and shaped in such a way that it's easy to hold.
One way to improve the handling of the knob is to slightly increase the distance between the cover and the knob. If it were too close, our fingers would often touch the hot cover and get hurt.
Located on top of the teapot and in the middle of the cover, the knob is the central point of the teapot. Our attention is automatically drawn there. A well centered hole in the knob shows the maker's attention to important details.
c. The spout
The shape of the spout determines the strength, angle of the flow of the tea coming out from the teapot. A smooth flow is easier to control when pouring tea in the cups. It's also more peaceful to watch.
A well shaped spout won't be easily obstructed by tea leaves.
3. Functional beauty
Except for some decorations, the aesthetics of a teapot are not separate from its function of making good tea easily. That's the reason why we can combine the basic and the tea user's perspectives to see the deep beauty of a teapot. They complete each other.
The tea drinker will always try to imagine how a teapot would brew a certain kind of tea. Pairing tea and teapot is a real challenge. Great teas require particularly pure and hard clays to extract all their fine flavors. And average teas are better served by more porous clays that can hide their defects. So, it's not because a teapot doesn't brew one kind of tea well that it's not a good teapot. It could also simply mean that it's not well paired.
So, when you choose a teapot, keep in mind the teas that you drink, so that you can enjoy it as often as possible! And don't hesitate to try different teas in it to find out which tea your teapot handles best.
My name is Stéphane Erler. I live in Taiwan since 1996 and have been studying tea with Teaparker. He's a worldwide tea expert and author of over 30 tea books. The study of tea isn't just theoretical, but it's also rooted in daily practice. It's a path of continuous improvement. As my brewing technique improves I get access to better teas and better accessories. These things go hand in hand. My blog documents my learning since 2004. And I have set up an online tea boutique with my selection of top quality teas, accessories and tea culture.