If you are on the path of brewing loose leaf teas and learning Gong Fu Cha, you have undoubtedly heard of yixing clay teapots. You start browsing the subject and find bits and pieces of information full of marketing hype, that are often conflicting and leave you even more confused.
We hope that this article will help you better understand yixing clay and figure out what type of yixing teapot you need, why you need it, and what to pay attention to when shopping for one.
Please keep in mind that this is a vast subject with many intricacies, and we cannot cover all of them. To get a more profound and better understanding, do your own research, experiment, compare.
What is Yixing clay?
Yixing clay comes from Yixing town in Jiangsu Province, situated in the delta of the Yangtze River. It's a compound clay rich in minerals such as kaolin, mica, quartz and has high iron oxide content. Used almost exclusively for making teaware, it plays one of the central roles in Gong Fu tea culture. The umbrella name for all the Yixing clays is Zi Sha, which means "purple mud".
What makes ZiSha clay so popular among tea connoisseurs?
The unique mineral composition, the heat retaining properties, and air permeability that allows the clay to "breathe" enable this clay to interact with tea, transforming its taste beneficially (when used correctly).
How rare is ZiSha clay? Is Yixing clay extinct?
There are a few original locations of Yixing clay: Ben Shan, Huang Long Shan, Zhao Zhuang, and Xiao Mei Yao. In 2005, due to the growing popularity of Yixing teapots and to avoid depleting this unique clay, the Chinese government limited the excavation of clay from these prime locations.
However, this does not mean that Yixing clay is no longer available.
Firstly, though mass mining is restricted, some official mining from prime locations is still happening. Second, there is still unofficial mining going on. Thirdly, many manufacturers have stocked up. And most importantly, the production of clay from the surrounding deposits continues.
We can debate about the quality of the clay from the surrounding mines versus the clay from the original mining sites. But the main point is that Yixing clay from the surrounding area is still better than other clays from other regions (please note that although the most popular, Yixing clay is not the only Chinese clay good for tea. We'll get to it later). In addition, it is important to understand that not everyone can taste the difference between tea brewed in a teapot made of clay from the Yellow Dragon Mountain and a teapot made with clay from a nearby hill. To do this, you need to have a well-developed palate.
What are the main types of Yixing clay?
There are five main types of Yixing clay, within which there are many more sub-types, which we will not touch on in this article. These clays can vary significantly in their mineral composition and properties. Here is the list of the main types of Zisha:
• Zi Ni is purple mud, one of the most famous and popular Zi Sha variety. This clay is the most porous one and has very good heat-retaining qualities. High porosity and mineral composition mutes tea's high/bright notes and makes the taste more rounded. Therefore, this clay usually pairs well with darker teas, such as Yancha, Hongcha, Shou Pu-erh.
• Zhu Sha or Zhu Ni - the bright red hue of cinnabar with high iron content and medium to low porosity. Due to its qualities, it may pair well with lightly oxidized Anxi or Taiwanese Oolongs, Dan Cong, and Sheng Pu-erh.
• Hong Ni - also red clay. It looks very similar to Zhu Ni (though the surface is usually more sandy to the touch), but its characteristics are similar to Zi Ni though slightly less porous.
• Duan Ni - clay with medium porosity and good heat-retaining properties. The color varies from golden, beige, and light yellow to blue and green.
• Lu Ni is a very rare Yixing clay of green or yellow color with excellent heat-retaining properties. Only around 2% of all Zisha is Lu Ni.
How to tell fake Yixing teapot from a real one?
Firstly, let's get to the few technical aspects:
- Yixing clay is not very malleable, and its low plasticity doesn't allow it to be wheel-thrown. So, when you look inside of a teapot and see circular lines or other traces of wheel-thrown pottery techniques - it's not a good sign.
- Yixing often contains many impurities. So, if you'll look at the teapot from a close-up, you should be able to see small specs (though it's not always so straightforward).
- Overly-bright colors should raise a red flag.
But most importantly, as banal as it sounds, use common sense:
- Though a genuine ZiSha teapot doesn't always have to cost an arm and a leg, if a seller says that a beautiful fully-handmade teapot with intricate details costs only $25-50 – something (or everything) is off.
- Buy ZiSha teapots only from sellers with an established reputation specializing in selling quality teaware. The quality of the clay is probably the most important factor in yixing teapots. When buying a yixing online, you should be able to trust the seller on their assessment of the clay's quality. For this reason, we don't recommend buying your Yixing teapot from such sources as Amazon (or Etsy that is just a little bit more personal than the former) where you don't really know who the seller is and what they are about. The chances that you will receive a teapot made of good yixing clay are slim to nothing.
How to choose a teapot?
First, you should have an understanding of what you want to use it for. If all you like is green or yellow tea, then maybe yixing teapot is not what you need. Porcelain works best for such delicate teas with prominent bright notes, ensuring nothing gets lost, and tea doesn't get overcooked by heat trapped inside of yixing.
Generally speaking, the more porous clays pair well with darker teas that should have a more rounded taste, and lesser absorbent clays pair better with lighter teas.
Another critical factor is the level of firing. The higher the firing temperature, the lesser porous clay becomes. You can check the firing level by the sound of a teapot: clack the lid against the rim of the teapot's mouth (make sure to be gentle :) and the higher the pitch, the higher the firing. If the pitch is too high, you may be better off getting porcelain. If the pitch is too low, you risk losing too much taste to the pores.
The next factor is the shape of a teapot. For example, a round teapot will give ample room for the tightly rolled Taiwanese oolong leaves to open up fully. A more elongated shape is more favorable for larger, longer tea leaves, such as Dian Hong or Dan Cong. Flat teapots, due to larger surface, cool down faster than the round ones, and therefore are preferable for more delicate teas - white, yellow, green. Thick walls keep warmth for longer than thin walls.
Symmetry and air-tightness are, indeed, a good indicator of craftsmanship. On the other hand, these two factors don't play a crucial role in tea-brewing. One can argue that the lack of air-tightness may reduce pot's heat-retaining abilities. In my opinion, the potential temperature loss is relatively negligible. After all, I have a couple of pots with lids that are a tad loose, but both of these teapots do wonders for tea.
Jet head and jet consistency. Many have seen a viral video demonstrating the difference between teapots with good and with the bad flow. – Bad teapots had an inconsistent jet, breaking too soon, while a good pot's jet was going in a silent continuous flow even from a significant height. It is, of course, stunning. And it is terrific when a master is so good at his craft that he can create such flawless things, which are indeed very pleasant to use. But does it play a significant role in good tea brewing?
The quality of the jet matters when the force of its pressure should be able to "pierce" the tea leaves, extracting the taste from them. A jet that breaks and thereby loses pressure cannot accomplish such a task.
But when we pour from a teapot, we decant the already-made tea. The water that should be able to penetrate tea leaves should be coming not from a teapot but a kettle. And even then, often, we prefer to be more gentle with leaves and not to pour water on them directly.
So, in my opinion, this factor is more significant for choosing a kettle than for a teapot.
On the other hand, one of the most important factors when choosing a teapot is the draining speed.
The higher the maximum draining speed, the more control you have over the brew. Otherwise, you risk not being able to decant the tea on time while it continues to brew as you pour.
Please note that to test the pour speed properly, you must use hot water and ensure that the pot is pre-heated and wet (including the lid).
One of the most common questions that we see is, "what tea should I use with such and such yixing teapot?". The question itself is flawed.
Once you get the teapot, try brewing various teas in it, and you'll see which pair best. As one fellow tea-head said: "a tea should be choosing a pot, not the other way around". You can be making educated guesses based on various characteristics mentioned above, but at the end of the day, you won't really know until you'll test it. Tea and clay are, in a way, a living matter, full of surprises.
Should I be looking only for a fully handmade teapot?
By itself, "fully handmade" means precisely that: made entirely by hands. But what if the maker is not well experienced? What if his (or her) craftsmanship is not on the level yet? On the other hand, when it comes to yixing teapots, half-handmade means that the teapot was made with the help of a mold. And if the mold is well-made, so is the teapot that comes out of it. Not to mention that it takes skills to finish the model that comes out of a mold. Even distinguished artists make half-handmade teapots alongside fully-handmade ones.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter whether the teapot is fully handmade or half handmade. What matters is whether or not it does a good job transforming tea taste.
Getting a teapot made by an established artist usually ensures that it is made of good clay. Due to the relative scarcity of good yixing clay, it is naturally distributed among teapot makers based on their ranks. A well-established artist (or an established studio) has better connections and means to source better quality clay than a no-name that doesn't even want to work with expensive high-quality material.
Having said that, don't go crazy on looking for famous masters working with old clays unless you can really feel the difference that it does to a tea. To notice such intricacies usually requires a developed palate and experience.
How to take care of Yixing teapot?
First of all, season it (you can but don't have to season it with tea). Boil water in a larger clean pot. When the water boils, put it on low heat so that the water does not roll too hard. Carefully submerge the teapot entirely (and separately the lid) in the water. Leave it there for 15-20 minutes. Make sure that the teapot is not hitting the pot. That's it. Your teapot is ready for use. Seasoning not only will clean your teapot but also will seal the pores just enough not to be absorbing too much taste.
Most would recommend dedicating each teapot to a single type of tea. For example, one yixing only for white teas, another yixing teapot only for light oolongs, and another for dark oolongs. While it is, indeed, a good idea and we also recommend such an approach, it is not strictly necessary. If you take good care of your teapot by thoroughly washing it (using just water. You must never use detergents. If you absolutely must, you may use baking soda, but better if you don't), you can safely brew various teas in it without afflicting their tastes on each other. If anything, you can re-season the pot, and you'll be fine.
Important note: don't brew tisanes in unglazed teapots that you are not planning to dedicate strictly to herbal tea. Many non-camellia sinensis plants have very potent oils that will be impossible to remove.
Is Yixing clay teapot a must-have?
While yixing clay is, indeed, an amazing clay, it's not a must to practice Gong Fu Cha. In fact, the origins of the modern Gong Fu Cha come from Wuyi Shan and Chaozhou. While Wuyi Oolongs (Yancha) were introduced to yixing pretty early on, they didn't have yixing teapots in Chaozhou. Instead, they have their clay which they've been successfully using with Dan Gong Oolongs for centuries. The other famous Chinese clays are Ni Xing clay from Guangxi, Jian Shui clay from Yunnan, and Rong Chang from Sichuan. Each has its own characteristics beneficial for tea. Also, as mentioned above, some teas may benefit more from being brewed in porcelain, glazed teaware, glass, or even in silver teapots. Tea should be choosing a pot, not the other way around.