Monday, May 21, 2007

Infusion Methods

There's a new article up on Vee Tea today! It's all about infusion methods. Here's an excerpt from the section on teapots. Enjoy!


It is important to consider the material of the teapot you select for brewing your tea. In this section, I’ll cover glass, iron, silver, glazed ceramic, and unglazed ceramic pots' regions of use, impacts on the flavor and temperature of your tea, common infusion methods, selection considerations, and care.

Glass pots are rapidly increasing in popularity in the U.S. and Europe. They have no discernible impact on the flavor of your tea, except that they influence its brewing temperature. If they are insulated, they will keep your tea hot longer; otherwise, they are less efficient at holding a temperature than other type of pots. (Insulated pots have two layers of glass with a pocket of air in between. It is the air rather than the glass that holds the heat in.) Insulated glass pots are suitable for all types of tea, including ones that require higher temperatures, such as tisanes, blacks, and pu-erhs. Non-insulated glass pots are best for white and green teas. They have metal basket strainers, perforated glass basket-style strainers, or (if they are for artisan flowering teas) forgo the strainer altogether. If they have a glass basket or no basket, they can be a lovely way to watch your tea unfurl as it infuses. When selecting a glass pot, make sure it is suitable for hot tea (many hand-blown/"mouth-blown" pots are just for serving iced tea), check to see if it is microwavable (most handmade pots are not, most Bodum glass pots are), and consider its breakability (does the handle look like it is seriously considering leaving the rest of the pot behind any time soon?). Glass pots can be washed with an unscented soap and hot water, or just with hot water.

Iron pots originated in Japan. The method for making them was born out of the casting of samurai swords. The aesthetic was developed from pots used to boil (and, ideally, sanitize) water. They remain very popular there today, and their use has spread (in a lower concentration) around the globe. Iron pots hold a high temperature very well, especially if they are filled with hot water for a minute or so before the leaves and brewing water are added. Iron pots usually have a basket strainer. If an iron pot’s interior does not have a finish, it can be seasoned over time and will develop a taste specific to the type(s) of tea you brew in it. (If you choose an unfinished iron pot, I recommend staying within a particular flavor family when using it. You wouldn’t want the smoky taste of Lapsang Souchong in your delicate new Shincha.) Unfinished iron pots also supply small amounts of iron in the diet, just as iron skillets do in my homeland (the southern U.S.). Finished iron pots will not affect the flavor or iron content of your tea, and they can be used with a range of teas safely. Rinsing with hot water is safe and will not affect the flavor of your tea, but do not use soap on your iron pot.

Silver teapots were invented in Europe in the 1730’s and spread in popularity throughout Europe and the U.S., where they were viewed as a status symbol. Their heat retention characteristics are similar to those of iron. Unlike iron, silver is a stable, neutral element, so it will not affect the mineral content of your tea. Silver pots may have a basket strainer, or require a teaball/teabags. When selecting a silver teapot, consider whether you prefer a footed design or a trivet (to protect your surfaces from burns). You may also consider the pot�s engraving possibilities, as silver lends itself to etching. Over time, silver pots will tarnish. Use silver cleaner to polish the exteriors AND interiors, and then rinse well and dry with a cotton cloth. (Tarnish is toxic. Sadly, so are silver cleaning chemicals.) Everyday maintenance is as simple as rinsing them with hot water and drying with a soft cotton cloth.

Glazed ceramic pots are most popular in Europe, but can also be found easily in parts of the Americas, Africa, India, and Japan. They do not affect the flavor of the tea. If they are Chinese clay, they hold high heat very well. If they are porcelain, they hold heat moderately well. You can use them with a variety of teas without flavor interference. They may be used with teabags, teaballs, basket strainers, or built-in ceramic strainers (usually at the base of the spout). The main selection considerations for glazed ceramic pots are the infusion method, size, and visual aesthetic. If you have children or are clumsy (like me), avoid the more delicate pots on the market. Many people report that washing glazed pots with soap does not affect the flavor, but I prefer to use only hot water unless there’s a build-up of tannins from brewing lots of black tea.

Unglazed ceramic pots are most popular in China, where they originated, but they can be found all over the world. They hold a high temperature well. Like unfinished cast iron pots, they are seasoned with each use. This means that they are not suitable for brewing a variety of types of tea, but if you stay within a small flavor family for each pot (for example, smoky black teas for one pot, mild/low-oxidation Oolongs for a second pot, and fresh-tasting steamed green teas for a third) you will be rewarded with a wonderfully flavored and complex tea. Many unglazed pots have a small perforated ceramic wall over the base of the spout. If not, you can use a teaball, an in-cup strainer (when pouring), or teabags. When selecting an unglazed teapot, consider the size, visual style, breakability, and what you intend to brew in it. If you lean toward high-quality teas, I suggest investing in a Yi Xing teapot. They are widely reputed to be the best unglazed ceramic pots in the world and can be surprisingly reasonable in price. The clay found in the Yi Xing region of China comes in a range of natural, beautiful colors, the most noteworthy of which is "pear-skin," a deep violet-brown color that is only found in Yi Xing. Yi Xing’s clay has a beneficial mineral balance (in terms of both the taste of the tea and as a supplement to your diet) and has large air pockets that absorb the tea each time it brews (which give it its excellent seasoning capabilities). It is even said that if you brew the same type of tea for many years in a Yi Xing pot, it becomes so well-seasoned that you can brew tea simply by adding hot water to the pot. NEVER wash an unglazed teapot with soap, as the soap will stay in the clay’s pockets and damage the flavor of tea brewed in the pot for years to come. Plain old hot water works well and does not damage the flavor of your tea."

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