I sat, perplexed. It was pouring rain outside, and before me in the small, cozy teahouse was a tray, and on said tray was a tiny, little mahogany teapot. It looked like a decoration, like something you’d see on a shelf in an old relative’s house. The tea master lifted the small brown vessel and tipped it, pouring the deep, purplish-brown liquid into a glass pot, before dumping the liquid onto the spaced surface of the tray, pouring the liquid into the reservoir at the bottom. The purple-brown liquid was pu’er, and one of the finest I’ve tasted at that. The vessel that made it all possible, was the vivid Yixing pot. A small vessel for dynamic brews.
Tea has been a way of life in China for thousands of years. But when it comes to the pots we know and love today, these are relatively recent in comparison. From steel cauldrons to brewing straight from one’s drinking cup or bowl, the teapot is but one way to prepare the camellia sinensis. One of the most antiquated and mythic of all teapots and tea ware is by far the Yixing style. But what exactly is Yixing?
During China’s Song dynasty, Yixing clay was already being used to produce quality utensils and clay ware items, including tea pots. The invention of the Yixing tea pot we recognize today, is usually attributed to a monk. This monk was skilled in pottery production, and he came from the Jinsha or “Golden Sand Temple”. The zenith of popularity for the Yixing was during the Ming and following Qing dynasties. The Yixing gained renown with its simple and humble design and ease of use. During previous dynasties such as the Tang, tea preparation was very formulaic and required the grinding of leaves and preparation of other necessary accoutrements. But, as tea preparation became simplified, and the use of whole leaf tea increased, the Yixing tea pot rose in popularity. Especially given it’s special ability. Because of the porous clay that is used to craft these pots, the interior of the pot’s body captures and imbues every subsequent brewing, applying every brew’s taste, aroma and feel to every next brew of leaves. Many Yixing pots were also crafted to be small so they could be used for transport and being carried when traveling. The Yixing’s simple, small and unpretentious exterior fit the aesthetic tastes and philosophical views of the Ming and Qing eras, which found the Yixing to be an exquisite and coveted item.
Yixing is also the name of the city in Jiangsu Province in eastern China, where the clay to produce these exquisite pots comes from. The Yixing region is in the Yangtze river delta, which may contribute to the richness, color and quality of the soil found there. When it comes to Yixing clay, there are actually a few different types one may find. There is the Zhi sha (Purple Sand) variety, which, as it’s name suggests possesses a purple-brown hue. Next there is the Zhu sha/zhu ni (Cinnabar Sand). This type has a high iron content and a reddish brown color. It is a very popular style and a limited amount of these pots are produced for the commercial market. Then there is the Duan ni (Fortified clay). This vibrant style is created using other stones and minerals mixed with the clay to produce brilliant colors and textures for the pot. This style transcends the typical brownish-maroon hue of the Yixing to display fantastic other colors such as blues and greens.
The clay itself usually contains iron, mica, quartz and various other minerals. The Yixing clay is found deep underground under larger sedimentary rocks. The process of refining the clay for tea ware involves drying it under the sun, smashing it up into fine particles (a fun process to relieve stress, I’m sure!), screened to grab clay particles, mixed with water and then vacuum pressed to get all the air bubbles out, an important process when it comes to firing the clay. The clay’s color and texture can further be altered by mixing in other metals and through certain firing techniques. The finished product can range in size, color and shape. From the diminutive little pot like the one I saw in the tea house on a rainy afternoon, or much more robust pots sporting calligraphy and various images and designs. When looking for Yixing pots, try to avoid pots that appear too shiny, glossed or glazed. A new pot’s exterior should be a bit grainy to the touch. But not too smooth or bright. All authentic Yixing should be handmade, so avoid machine or mass produced pots. Many of these pots use clay that is mixed with some dubious chemicals that may be hazardous and affect the taste of your tea in a bad way! A pot’s lid should fit perfectly, and not rattle or make sounds when turned. An authentic pot will also have some handcraft marks inside. In addition to these warning signs, fake pots are usually painted. Yixing that have alternate or different colors uses clay that has been mixed and imbued with other stones, metals and minerals.
If you are lucky enough to grab a brand new Yixing there are some steps to prepare it for the perfect brewing!
As mentioned above the Yixing has a bit of a magic ability. The Yixing’s aesthetic appearance is quite striking, the exterior is rough and sandy. Whether the pot is embellished with designs or calligraphy, or crafted with extra ores and minerals to take on a different color, the pots have a natural and congenial draw to them. This does not mute the ancient and grandiose stature and gravity these items also possess. But, as for their magic, that happens inside the pot. The porous nature of the clay can absorb and trap in the aroma, the flavor and the essence of a tea. Yixing are not glazed. And so the soul of the tea stays within the pot. Even when your Yixing is emptied. The tea I enjoyed with the Yixing at the rainy tea house was pu’er. Usually Yixing and pu’er are inseparable. If one is being served from an Yixing, it is probably pu’er. If one is about to be served pu’er, chances are it will be from a Yixing. The symbiosis between the two comes not only from Yixing’s ability to retain aroma and taste, but the deep, bold, all encompassing aroma and taste that Pu’erh also possesses. A Yixing can be used to brew white or green tea as well, but usually black, Oolong and pu’er are the teas of choice. Only one type of tea should be used per pot. And some purists prefer to only use one type of leaf at that. Do not clean your pot with soap or detergent. To clean a Yixing, one should rinse it with warm or hot water and wipe it with a tea cloth and leave it laying upside down to dry. While the absorptive ability of the clay is ideal for tea, it will also unfortunately absorb the taste of the detergent too!
To experience the Yixing is an otherworldly activity to take part in. A new Yixing will be fresh and crisp with its first brewing. And a well seasoned Yixing will have the aura of an ancient item. An heirloom that has served tea for centuries. The tea that it brews will be like no other. A pu’er or a black tea brewed in a veteran Yixing will have an aroma that is amplified. It will have a color that is vibrant. It will have a taste that is marvelous. So too, was the pu’er I tasted. The deep, rich flavor. Enhanced by the earthy clay of the pot. Possessing an almost umami taste that made the tea experience like enjoying a meal.