Making tea should always be easy. Pick a tea, heat the water, steep, and pour. For each particular tea, if you keep brewing parameters the same and use a neutral teapot, such as glass or porcelain, you’ll get consistent results.
For delicate white and green teas, glass and porcelain teapots are ideal because they are thin-walled and don’t retain the heat as much as thicker-walled clay teapots or those of glazed ceramic. Black teas and herbals, which can take the heat, do well in glazed ceramic teapots.
But you may have heard that oolongs and pu-erh do better in yixing clay teapots. That’s because clay retains heat, ideal when you are doing multiple infusions of the same leaves. But if you own several clay teapots, how do you know which one to use?
I ran up against this issue when I first tried a Dan Cong oolong, Ya Shi Xiang. It took several tries with different teapots before I got the flavor that the leaf aroma promised.
Knowing that the teapot’s material impacts the flavor of the tea, I was happy to come across Tea Crimes’ “Comparing Clay” post, demonstrating an easy way to compare multiple teapots simultaneously.
(See my earlier post on how tea reacts with the material it’s in and why your teacup matters.)
I decided to try this experiment out with some oolong from the Wuyi Mountains, as yixing clay pots are often recommended for these teas.
This leaves of this Da Hong Pao rock oolong tea, low fire grade one (from Whyishan, Fujian, distributed by April Tea) are largely intact, rolled and twisted lengthwise. They have an intoxicating sweet honey-spicy-floral aroma.
I prewarmed all vessels, and then steeped the leaves in a glass teapot. I used 1 tablespoon of leaves to 8 ounces of 195°F water, and did a 4-minute brew.
I then poured equal amounts into a glass pitcher (the inert control), a clay shiboridashi from Japan, a gray-buff clay pot from China (this was sold as yixing), and a purple clay pot (Chinese, but otherwise provenance unknown).
Tea Crimes says that the clay will affect the tea in around 10 seconds, but I left the tea in the vessels for a full minute before decanting each into identical, inert, china cups.
As Tea Crimes stresses, results are entirely subjective, but that’s perfectly alright because my purpose is to figure out which teapot yields the flavor that I most enjoy.
The control tea, the one in the glass pitcher, was toasty, whereas I thought that the gray-buff and purple clay pots brought out the mineral taste of the teas. I did already prefer the gray-buff to the purple clay pot. The shib seemed less smooth than the gray-buff pot, but with a longer aftertaste. But truly, I thought that any of these pots would be fine for making this tea.
After the first brew, one leaf has opened but the rest are just beginning to unfurl.
After a second infusion, you can see why you infuse oolongs multiple times. Only a couple of the leaves have opened, with most of them just starting to unroll.
Tasting the second infusion, this time I preferred that in the glass and shib, although at this point, my daughter came in and also tried each tea. She thought that neither glass nor shib were as flavorful as either clay pot, although she said that the flavor of the tea in the gray-buff pot lingered whereas the aftertaste was lost for the purple clay.
So moving to the third infusion, the leaves are still loosely rolled and the tea liquor is more yellow-brown, rather than orange-brown, in color.
I still think that any of these pots are fine, although my daughter vastly preferred the purple clay, saying the tea was sweeter, with more mineral component, and flavorful. She thought the gray-buff clay imparted a sharp note, the shib liquor was sweet at the end but barely perceptible, and the control tea was also sweeter toward the end. Da Hong Pao rock oolong would be expected to be complex and smooth, with a mineral component and a sweet aftertaste.
This is exactly why this experiment helps you find what you personally prefer. Which clay, if clay, do you prefer for a particular tea?
And as Tea Crimes points out, you might find substantial differences between clays with some teas and very little with others. Further, you may prefer the control pot, the one that has no impact on the tea at all.
Also note that teapot shape and size will also impact flavor. As we all learned in science class, you test only one parameter at a time, so here, I compared only teapot material. And by the way, the clay interacts with the water as well, so it’s important to do this test with the water that you generally use to make your tea.
Continuing on with additional infusions, I found I could be satisfied with any of these pots. Yes, that may mean that my palate is undeveloped, unrefined, whatever. But when I make this tea for myself, I don’t have to deliberate which teapot to use because any will work. If my daughter will be sharing, we’ll use the purple clay teapot.
I’m eager to try this experiment with other teas because why not get the flavor that I like the best for each of my teas?