THE ACCESSORIES FOR PREPARING A GOOD CUP OF TEA

Gabriella Lombardi

ragazza che prepara il tè

If we’re in a hurry, all we need is hot water and a tea bag. 

But if we love tea, its rituals, and, above all, taking our time to prepare it properly, then having the right accessories is fundamental. Let’s start with the teapot. But the first and obvious question is: what kind is best? 

It’s hard to give an answer that excludes many materials or models that are on the market. There’s no such thing as the perfect teapot because each one satisfies a different need. Whether it’s for you or for someone else, every material has its strengths and its weaknesses. So let’s settle in and get ready to look at how the variables affect the end result. The search for your perfect teapot has begun! To each his own.

CERAMIC OR PORCELAIN TEAPOT

These materials are perfect for those who love tradition and those who are prudent. Prudent? Yes, because they don’t want to risk mixing flavors and, consequently, ruining the perfect tea.

Ceramic and porcelain are, in fact, materials that “have no memory”, or rather can be used for any kind of tea, both pure and flavored, because, being glazed, these teapots don’t absorb aroma, infusion after infusion.

It’s not easy to tell these two materials apart and, in fact, they are often improperly used as synonyms. Ceramic isn’t always porcelain, but porcelain is always ceramic! The difference is the type of mixture: ceramic is often used for teapots, but also for dishes, vases, containers, and other everyday objects. Porcelain, despite being a subset of ceramic, is reserved for more high end objects. Therefore, it sets itself apart from ceramic due to its different mineral composition (it contains quartz and kaolinite which make it white) and a much higher baking temperature (up to 1300°C). In addition to being true “jacks of all trades”, switching effortlessly from green tea to black tea, ceramic and porcelain teapots have a low degree of thermal conduction and are thus able to keep tea warmer than many other materials. Even cleaning them is pretty simple. To return slightly yellowed porcelain teapots back to their original white, all you have to do is delicately rub damp table salt on their surface, while ceramic looks almost as good as new with water and vinegar.

CLAY TEAPOTS

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a teapot “with memory”, you need to choose a model made from a porous material, like clay with an unglazed interior. With use and over time, the teapot absorbs and retains the aroma of the various teas and infusions. “Coated” teapots thus improve extraction, but, so as to avoid contaminating them, it’s recommended to use only one kind of tea for each clay teapot. To sum up, extreme purism is paid off with a flawless preparation. 

The most sought after clay teapots are the Chinese ones from Yixing, in the province of Jiangsu, where master craftsmen have been making them since the Song dynasty. Purplish in color (Jinsha) and with a high degree of heat retention, these are recommended for steeping the best Oolong and Pu’er teas, which require very high water temperatures and multiple infusions according to the eastern Gong Fu Cha method. To clean them, one must never use soap, but only boiling water, allowing them to air dry.

CAST IRON TEAPOTS

First of all, make sure that it’s a teapot, or in Japanese, a tetsu-kyūsu, literally an “iron teapot”, which is to be used for serving tea and not for heating the water directly, as can be done with the tetsubin, or “iron kettle”. How can we tell the difference?  Just open the lid and look inside: if it’s glazed and equipped with a steel filter, then it’s a tetsu-kyūsu, otherwise it’s a tetsubin.

In addition to its captivating design, cast iron teapots retain heat for a long time and, not having a memory, are suitable for preparing all kinds of teas or infusions.

The first time you use it, pour only boiling water into and out of it. Never use abrasive sponges and always dry it thoroughly with a cotton or microfiber cloth. After use, to avoid having water stagnate inside it, leave it upside down and without its lid. 

When using it daily, it’s always necessary to heat it with hot water in order to ensure that it keeps the tea warm for longer and, as was previously explained, never put it directly on a heat source: the direct heat could damage the interior glaze and even make it toxic.

If, on the other hand, you manage to purchase an authentic tetsubin, literally “iron kettle”, then you’ll be in a possession of a masterpiece of Japanese art. Created to heat water during the Cha No Yu tea ceremony, tetsubins aren’t glazed inside. Going back more than 400 years, the most sophisticated examples are from the prefectures of Iwate, Yamagata, and Tohoku, where this artisan craft has been passed down for generations. If you look closely, you’ll see that every tetsubin is engraved with the logo of its producer, like a guarantee of “Made in Japan” quality and originality.

teiera in ghisa

THE KYUSU JAPANESE TEAPOT

Also Japanese, the kyusu, miniature teapot, deserves to be mentioned as well. Made from different materials (porcelain, glass, clay), it’s equipped with a special mesh filter inside and a convenient and very ergonomic lateral handle.

The infusion method for Japanese green teas is somewhere between the rapid and repeated Chinese method and the longer but singular western method. For Bancha, Houjicha, and Genmaicha teas a single, but relatively faster infusion is done, like in the west. For higher quality green teas, like Sencha and Gyokuro, the 1’ to 2’30” infusion in the kyusu teapot is repeated three times. Its capacity is quite limited and usually contains between 10 and 30 cl of water.

GLASS TEAPOTS

We love them for their minimalist and contemporary design and, above all, because thanks to their transparency we can observe and be mesmerized by the progressive release of the tea’s color in the hot water.

The benefits of a glass teapot are: 

  • it’s easy to clean (it can be put in the dishwasher);
  • it has no memory (therefore it’s perfect for steeping various kinds of tea).

The only drawback, if it can be called that, is that glass conducts heat rather quickly. This means that water cools faster in glass as compared to other materials. That’s why this kind of teapot is better suited to teas that don’t need to be steeped for a long time (in particular green and yellow teas) or that can be steeped at lower temperatures (white teas).

SILVER TEAPOTS

Once considered symbols of luxury and social status, today they’re less common. Due to their high thermal conduction, they get very hot and become difficult to handle. Furthermore, they could give a metallic taste to the tea. The Moroccan ones, used to prepare mint green tea, are visually striking. Holding them much higher than the glass, the long pour allows the tea to oxygenate.

Up to now we’ve talked about the various materials used to make teapots, but when it’s time to choose one, we can’t overlook details like:

  • thickness 

thick walls increase the ability to retain heat and, therefore, are suitable for teas which must be steeped for longer and at higher temperatures.

Meanwhile, thinner materials are perfect for more delicate infusions, like green or white teas.

  • shape and size 

Ideally, they should allow the leaves, while steeping, to almost entirely fill the interior space of the teapot. The circular shape is more or less universally suitable for all types of tea. For teas with a lot of buds, a taller and narrower teapot is preferable because the buds tend to occupy space while rising towards the surface rather than moving towards the sides. 

When we prepare our favorite tea, let’s remember that, in addition to the teapot, other accessories are also important.

CUPS

Cups are fundamental to fully appreciating the tea experience. When we decide not to use cups with a handle, as in the “British” tradition, then we can experience the eastern preparation. In this case make sure you have:

    • small, narrow, and tall cups, in order to capture and analyze the aroma of the infusion;
    • cups for taste which, with a squatter and wider shape, make it possible to sip tea at the perfect temperature, without waiting for it to cool.

tè e tazzina

TIMER

This is used to measure the exact steeping time. Always remember that tea doesn’t forgive distraction! The time, as well as the proper water temperature, is fundamental to preparing an excellent cup of tea.

THERMOMETER VS KETTLE

Both are essential tools for preparing a good cup of tea. Every tea has a recommended preparation temperature. Pouring water that’s too hot on the leaves increases the extraction of catechin and theine, resulting in a bitter and astringent beverage. Meanwhile, water that’s colder than the recommended temperature won’t extract enough compounds: the tea will have less flavor and color and the leaves won’t have opened up uniformly. When you purchase a practical electric kettle, you have to be sure that it has a temperature control, with intervals of 5°-10° from 40° to 100°, and a feature that maintains the heat once the preset temperature has been reached.

LOOSE LEAF TEA SPOON VS DIGITAL SCALE

I personally have no doubts: I choose the digital scale to precisely measure the exact amount of leaves. The tea measuring spoon is cruder. Every kind of tea has a different leaf density and that’s why the famous loose leaf tea spoon can measure either too little or too much of the product.

FILTERS

These come in different shapes, sizes, and materials, but what they all have in common is their function: to control the steeping. In fact, the tea leaves are placed inside the filter and, after the right number of minutes, the filter is removed from the teapot or cup, thus putting an end to the water-leaf contact. In addition to this practical extraction function, the filter must give the leaves enough space to expand and open up uniformly. The bigger the filter, the better it is to extract the taste and aromatic intensity of the tea.

STRAINER

This is an essential accessory when we choose a teapot (it doesn’t matter what material) without an internal immersion filter. This will prevent small leaves from falling in as we pour our tea into a small decanter (or pitcher) or directly into the cup.

dosa tè

GAIWAN

The Gaiwan, an alternative to a teapot, is the best method for preparing the purest, highest quality, and most delicate teas. This Chinese cup is actually made up of three elements: the container, the cover, and the saucer. The cover is used to keep the leaves inside, whether the Gaiwan is used as a cup or as a teapot for multiple infusions. It can be made from various materials, but for Chinese green tea and Oolong tea, glass or porcelain are recommended.

DECANTER (PITCHER, GONG, DAO BEI)

This is used primarily to halt the infusion and put a stop to the water-leaf contact when the latter are freely floating in the teapot. Furthermore, it guarantees that every guest will savor the same tea. In fact, when we pour tea directly from the teapot into the cups, it’s nearly impossible to guarantee the same intensity: the first cup will be more delicate and, little by little, the last will be stronger and more astringent. 

Regardless, always remember that whatever material or accessory you choose, what’s really important is relishing the moment. Enjoy your tea!

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