How to Brew Tea

There are nearly as many vessels in which to brew tea as there are kinds of tea in the world. Collecting different types of teapots, cups, mugs, bowls and gaiwans is fun! Although there is nothing that says you must use a particular vessel to brew a specific tea, there are some guidelines which might explain why there are so many different kinds, and some of the benefits to each. Much in the same way you select a style of wine glass based on the style of wine, becoming aware of the functional nuances in brewing vessels will guide your choices in matching tea styles with vessels.
First please remember the difference between a teapot and a kettle. Kettles are for boiling water and can withstand direct heat. Teapots are for brewing and with the exception of some Japanese Tetsubin should not be placed over direct heat.

Glass(image 1) Allows us to see the leaf and the liquor, does not absorb flavors so many different styles of tea can be brewed using this teapot. We recommend using glass teapots that do not have an infuser but rather a tiny coil which is placed in the base of the spout to hold back leaf. In this way, the full beauty of the leaf dancing in the water, or herbs twisting and turning or artisan teas blooming can be fully appreciated without the restriction of an infuser. We believe the meditative benefits of using your glass in this way far outweigh the “hassle” to clean, brewed leaf, however using glass with an infuser certainly works!

Porcelain (image 2) Appreciated for not absorbing flavors, making it possible to use with several different styles of tea. Considered collectable, you can often find artistic work done in porcelain. An old porcelain piece even when painted or decorated often has an eggshell quality allowing light to pass through the piece, adding an extra dimension. Porcelain and china are often used for the beauty and style of the teapot.

Yixing (image 7) pronounced E sing is a porous red clay pot. These pots are normally smaller than glass or porcelain and absorb flavor. The cups which accompany these pots are small and sometimes there will also be a serve pot. ONLY ONE type of tea, should be used in each Yixing pot. This is why many aficionados will often have several Yixing pots in there collection. Oolongs are exceptional in Yixing teapots however Chinese greens and herbals can also be very nice. It has been said that once a Yixing pot is fully “broken in” (used daily for 6 months or more) you can make a nice pot of tea, by simply adding boiling water to the teapot. Please note there is a specific seasoning that must be done to “prepare” your Yixing for brewing tea. Ask your provider how to perform this very necessary step before using for the first time. WARNING Yixing pots should never be washed with soap. Empty your pot and then simply wipe dry or leave to air dry. Using soap or other products will result in an after taste and even residue of these products in your tea.

Metal (Iron) or Japanese Tetsubin (image 4) Metal holds heat and since Japanese teas are brewed at a much lower temperature maintaining the temperature is important. Tetsubin are iron with an enamel lining on the inside. Enamel prevents rusting and limits the amount of iron transferring to your tea. You will see metal teapots with a Tetsubin style that have not been lined with enamel. Be aware of the difference and make your choice based on how you will use it. If you intend for your pot to be only decorative then perhaps the copies of true Tetsubin would be fine, they certainly are less expensive. However a true Tetsubin cared for by simply wiping the outside dry between uses should last a lifetime.

Gaiwan (image 3) pronounced Guy-wan is a Chinese brew/serve piece. Place the leaf in the cup, add the water, cover. After the brewing time has past, move the lid ajar to hold back the leaf. Take in your hand, the saucer, holding mostly with your pinkie and ring finger, with the cup sitting on it, place your thumb on the top of the lid and then with only one hand tipping towards your lips, sip from your gaiwan. After only a few cups, this motion will be very natural and you will enjoy like a “pro”. The advantage to using a gaiwan is the ability to inhale the aroma so directly with each sip and to continue to use it as your brewing/sipping cup. Gaiwans are particularly nice for Oolongs, herbals, and scented green teas. They are not suitable for tiny leaf Japanese teas or many small leaf black teas. Let your experiences be your guide.

Matcha Bowl (image 6) Matcha is a powered tea in which you use a whisk, often made of bamboo to “froth up or whip”. This tea is prepared one bowl at a time and enjoyed immediately. Used for formal tea ceremony in Japan, many are hand thrown and have a wabi sabi* beauty and regal feel to them. Using this type of bowl to enjoy matcha does not require any type of ceremony other than your own personal ritual of enjoyment.

Kyusu (image 5) Japanese style teapot with the handle coming off one side. Kyusus have tiny holes on the inside before the short spout, normally requiring no infuser. Some do however have a stainless basket/infuser to aid in cleanup of the tiny leafs. When serving Japanese teas pour into the cup by filling each a little at a time, going back to add more to each cup. This is to ensure the liquor in each cup is the same, as Japanese teas steep very quickly and can change within seconds. You would NEVER leave any tea liquor in your kyusu once it has steeped as you will instantly turn a good tea bitter by doing so. All high quality teas can handle multiple infusions and Japanese teas are no exception. However these are perhaps the “touchiest” teas in terms of water temp and time. Infuse your leaf in a kyusu, then decant all of it into your cups and repeat until you no longer enjoy.

Brew Pot/Serve Pot (image 8) Prepare you tea by using the brew pot for steeping then decant fully into the serve pot for cooling and serving. This style of service works particularly well for Oolongs, blacks and some herbals which are brewed at higher temperatures.

Mug with Infuser (image 9) For individual serving, add your leaf to the infuser, pour water into your mug cover and steep. Once complete remove the lid, place it upside down and use it to hold the infuser which you just removed from your cup. For those “on the go tea times”

Regardless of the type of vessel you use a couple of practices will enhance your enjoyment. First always pre-warm your vessel. Do this either by adding boiling water which you swish around and return to your kettle allowing you cooler water to steep with. OR simply pour hot water into your vessel, swish and toss out, if you are steeping a tea which requires the full heat of boiled water. Either way by heating your vessel and cups you will ensure both a hotter cup of tea and a properly brewed cup. Be careful not to introduce multiple flavors in pots which absorb and do not wash this type of teapot with soap. Try to match your teapot with your mood and style of tea you plan to drink. Of course brewing tea is very simple, a vessel, leaf and water, and you can prepare tea just this simply. But it also remains very complex in terms of creating YOUR “perfect cup”. Remain mindful that tea is an artistic expression of impermanence, humility and imperfection!

* Wabi Sabi, Is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional …
Leonard Koren author

May not be reproduced without the permission of the authors: Nozomu and Donna Tokugawa. All Rights Reserved.