When choosing the right teaware for our tea ceremony, we may be faced with a common pondering. Porcelain or glazed stoneware? Or perhaps a non-glazed ceramic material like Yixing clay? Ultimately there exist many different types of clay, and on top of that, glazes that influence the final look of the teaware and even the taste of tea.
This post will discuss all ceramic teaware and how its unique composition can alter the final tea drinking experience. You can use this guide to choose the right teaware for yourself or friends or simply get acquainted with the different pottery styles.
It is important to note that keeping the brewing vessel consistent with your teacup can be an essential factor in the tea's final taste.
To fully understand what alters our delicate loose leaf tea's taste, we must get to the core of the teaware material.
What makes the various clay bodies so different is their mineral content. At their core, stoneware, porcelain, and Yixing clay all have a similar base clay material. However, it is the addition of the different minerals that alter the final product. Also, of course, the glaze composition and firing temperature.
We can divide ceramic pottery into three main groups: earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. With each category, the specific clay materials increase, and consequently, so does the firing temperature.
Clay contains several compounds that affect the taste—for example, Iron, Copper, Zinc, and Tin.
The Different Clay Bodies Used for Drinking Tea
It only takes 10 seconds of contact with the clay to alter the tea brew's taste.
For convenience's sake, we organized this post in terms of the teaware style, which alters the tea the least, to ones that offer an altering taste to our final sip.
Porcelain is a ceramic material with a high content of kaolin (a white clay mineral). It is fired at very high temperatures of 1,200 to 1,400 °C (2,200 and 2,600 °F). The final result is a very strong, yet also sometimes translucent teaware.
Porcelain was invented in China and dates back to the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BC). By the early Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), porcelain increasingly rose in popularity, and strict porcelain-making standards were achieved.
Manufacturing porcelain is more complicated than other types of pottery. It is highly revered for its durability and genuine beauty. The glossy, pure white color is iconic porcelain. Because this material combines very well with both glazes and paint, there is usually a wide artistic variety of porcelain teaware available.
Porcelain is not as porous as Yixing clay. Instead of absorbing, porcelain highlights the tea's subtle flavors.
Overall, porcelain is a great material to use for gaging the initial qualities of the tea. For getting acquainted with the tea.
Read more about porcelain teaware here.
Glazed Earthenware and Stoneware Pottery
Stoneware is a broad term for pottery fired at high temperatures. Historically, stoneware was developed after earthenware and before porcelain. Earthenware is usually fired in a kiln at temperatures in the range of about 1,000°C (1,830 °F) to 1,200 °C (2,190 °F), while stoneware at between 1,100 °C (2,010 °F) to 1,300 °C (2,370 °F).
It is important to note that in East Asian pottery terminology, porcelain falls into the stoneware category (since it is high-fired), while these two are distinguished in the West.
However, stoneware differs from porcelain because it is more opaque and cannot achieve the same translucency as porcelain. It is usually has a darker or "dirty white" color due to impurities in the clay. The clay itself is more rustic and easier to prepare than porcelain.
The raw material in stoneware is naturally occurring stoneware clay and minerals such as kaolin, mica, and quartz. Although these minerals are relatively minimal, stoneware also usually has iron and carbon, which add to its "dirty" look.
Simple glazed earthenware and stoneware are great to use with any tea type, as they do not alter the flavor.
Jian ware is a category of stoneware pottery. What makes it unique is the clay and glaze composition.
Jian Zhan pottery originated in Jianyang, Fujian province, China, and uses local iron-rich clay. It is then fired at 1,300 °C (2,370 °F).
Jian ware is sometimes also referred to as Chinese black porcelain. It is very popular in Japan, where it developed into its own style known as Tenmoku.
Proper clay is one of the most decisive elements of Jian ware. The clay found in Fujian province is remarkably high in iron content. Many potters have tried to replicate Jian ware with local clay from other regions, all without luck.
To make the Jian Zhan pottery glaze, an iron-rich glaze is mixed with plant ash. Furthermore, getting the glaze recipe right is very challenging. Many potters spend years experimenting until finally getting the right recipe.
The alkalinity of the tea improves thanks to the high iron content of Jian ware. The freshly brewed tea becomes smoother and more aromatic.
Pair Jian Zhan teacups with a simple brewing vessel, like glass or porcelain. This way, you can clearly taste the Jian ware teacup's difference without imparting any other qualities during brewing. Chinese green teas really benefit from Jian ware.
Read more about Jian Zhan teaware here.
Yixing pottery is considered stoneware, and the final product is usually very porous and unglazed. Yixing, Jiangsu Province, China, is where Yixing pottery originated. While Yixing pottery is a broad term, there are actually various clays from which the teaware is made.
Zisha clay is a mixture of kaolin, quartz, and mica. Plus, high content of iron oxide and a sandy texture. It requires a long time to prepare the clay, and the recipe was originally regarded as a trade secret. The typical firing temperature is between 1100 – 1200 °C.
There are a few types of Yixing clay (ZiSha):
- Zi Ni – purple clay. The most widespread Yixing teaware due to its relatively high plasticity and low shrinkage, which makes it easy to produce. But most importantly, because of its high porosity and the way it transforms the tea.
- Zhu Sha or Zhu Ni – reddish-brown clay with high iron content, low porosity, and iconic glossy finish. Due to high shrinkage in a kiln, Zhu Ni teaware is hard to produce; therefore, it's not very common.
- Hong Ni – red clay. Also a rare and sought-out yixing clay, high in minerals and only slightly less porous than Zi Sha clay.
- Duan Ni – fortified clay. Duan ni is a compound clay made using various minerals in addition to yixing clay. The result is various textures and colors—for example, beige, blue, yellow and even green.
- Lu Ni – green clay with excellent heat retaining properties, but extremely rare with only 2% of the production of yixing clay.
The unglazed teaware absorbs the tea's taste and becomes coated with the tea leaf's natural oils. You'll notice how after many gong fu cha ceremonies, the teaware will have its own flavor. Many tea connoisseurs seek this taste and go as far as buying very expensive vintage Yixing teaware. Even when pouring hot water into a well-seasoned yixing teapot or teacup, the water itself will have a strong tea flavor.
We recommended sticking with one type of tea when using yixing teaware so the complex flavor profiles don't end up masking each other.
Read more about Yixing teaware here.