Recently on this blog I’ve focused a great deal on tasting different kinds of tea in order to find teas that are clean and enjoyable. However I have not spent as much time discussing methodologies of brewing tea, or the different kinds of tea wares that can be used. These factors are also important because they can alter the final qualities of the tea that we drink.
For example, in one of my past blog posts I mentioned purple red tea from Yunnan. If this tea is brewed in a slightly larger teapot with fewer leaves it can be very rich, mellow, and sweet. If it is brewed in a smaller pot with a greater concentration of tea leaves it can be pungent, bold, and a little astringent. Although being the same tea, the differences in tea ware and brewing yielded final results in the cup that had very different qualities.
For today’s blog post I pried off some chunks of a 5 year old raw Pu’er tea from Baotang village (保塘村) in the Menghai county of Yunnan province. After drinking a few cups and writing down some quick tasting notes, I felt inspired to write a bit in greater detail about my favorite kind of tea ware – Chinese purple clay teapots (紫砂壺 or Zi Sha Hu in Mandarin).
I used approximately 6.5 grams of the 2012 Baotang in my 140 ml tea pot. This is a relatively high concentration of tea leaves for a small amount of water, so I brewed the first few infusions as quickly as 10 seconds or so. After these initial infusions, I started to add about 10 – 20 seconds per infusion so that the flavor would stay strong. I let the last infusion (roughly #10 or so) steep for about 1 – 2 minutes in order to coax the final life out of the tea leaves.
The Baotang had an aroma that was complex, vegetal, and musky. There were also some slight fruity and sweet qualities in the aroma. The brewed tea was very smooth and fully coated the mouth and throat. It had a complex flavor that reminded me somewhat of grass and mushrooms, yet also had a slightly sweet aftertaste somewhat similar to raisins. There was a low to medium bitterness in this tea, but it was well balanced by the tea’s sweetness. I felt like someone who has never tried raw Pu’er could drink it and not be overwhelmed by the bitterness. The final thing I wanted to mention is that the Baotang had a very relaxing effect on the body and mind. It felt like a tea that would more likely promote feelings of tranquility rather than arouse feelings of caffeination.
What are Purple Clay Teapots?
Purple clay teapots are also known as Yixing teapots (宜兴壶 or Yi Xing Hu in Mandarin). This name comes from Yixing city – a city where craftsmen have become famous for producing these teapots. These kind of teapots are a style of unglazed teapot that have been produced using Purple clay since the Ming dynasty (approximately 500 years ago). Purple clay refers to a whole family of clays with different amounts of minerals and colors caused by temperature and pressure differences as the formed underground over many years. The clay is mined, filtered, and aged before being used to make teapots. The pots are then shaped by hand using a wide range of wooden tools, or slip cast before being fired in kilns.
If pure clay is used to make these teapots the clay will be lead free, and will also have different natural levels of aluminum, iron, magnesium, titanium, mica, kaolinite, and other elements / minerals. Some newer teapots may have artificial compounds such as iron oxide added to the clay to influence its color. However if a purple clay teapot is made from a good quality clay, it is supposed to make the tea brewed in it smoother and more enjoyable. The teapot will also slowly accumulate tea oils in the pores of the clay, because it is unglazed. For this reason tea lovers usually choose to brew one kind of tea in each individual teapot.
Why Use a Purple Clay Teapot for the Baotang?
I chose to use a Purple Clay Teapot to brew the Baotang for the following reasons. The clay is slightly
thicker, and the shape of the teapot is round and symmetrical. For this reason it may be better at retaining heat than some of the porcelain tea ware that I use, and also may help apply heat more evenly across the tea leaves. I’ve also dedicated the teapot I used for brewing only raw Pu’er teas. For this reason the teapot may gain more tea oils from this session, or improve the quality of the Baotang by giving back some of the tea oils left over from previous uses.
After a few years of trying different teas I’ve gotten the general impression that the clay has helped to make the final brew a bit more smooth and sweet. I wonder if this may be due to how the clay interacts with the well water at my house, which can tend to run a bit hard. I’m not a chemistry major, and have not tested my water before and after boiling it through a Purple Clay Teapot however. For this reason these thoughts are more based on speculation rather than concrete evidence.
Whatever the case, I think that these teapots can be a beautiful expression of craftsmanship, and that they also have an interesting history. I enjoy finding a teapot with care and with the intent of using it as a lifelong addition to my tea drinking routine. In this way I think the use of a Purple Clay Teapot may have some other merits outside of just a scientific effect on the water. Using them may also be a way to feel more connected and devoted to your tea practice, and may also help you learn something about the history and culture surrounding this specific craft.
Some Random Final Thoughts Related to my Teapot’s Calligraphy
The photo below shows calligraphy on the bottom of my teapot (春风引诗，故人来) which translates roughly to “spring winds invite poetry, and old friends return.”
My family just had a small get together at a lake house that was recently built by my aunt and uncle. After our trip I was reflecting on how lucky we were to be able to connect with our family members while being surrounded by the natural beauty of the lake. Although it is not currently spring, I appreciated the message on the teapot because it reminded me of how uplifting it can be to be with friends or family in such a place. I think this is one of the big reasons I enjoy living in New England so much – because we still have access to a lot of simple and natural beauty that hasn’t been polluted as much as some other parts of our country or the world have.