It is possible to discern a Yixing Zisha teapot quality at the point of buying

Yixing Zisha teapot

Yixing Zisha teapotMany tea consumers are fascinated by Yixing Zisha (宜兴紫砂) teapots. The clay is believed to be the premium clay for brewing the premium teas, especially the fermented teas such as Oolong teas and Pu-erh teas. It is mainly due to the porous nature of the clay which facilitates the brewing process by being able to ‘breath’ through the teapot wall, thus bring out the best of a tea and eliminate certain not so desired elements if presented.

The original Yixing Zisha teapot is defined as the items made with the clay produced in the Huang Long Shan (黄龙山) area of the Yixing City. Due to the increasing demand of the product, limited mine deposit and human exploitation, the Chinese official has closed the area from mining since 2005. Any symbolic mining since has been on a very limited scale.

There are however similar mine deposits in the surrounding areas, which are now the main sources of the current Zisha clay supplies. This also opens up a discussion that if these can be called Yixing Zisha and if the quality is comparable.

Zisha products follow the following formula which applies to products of limited resources:

Increasing interest and demand -> increasing prices -> human efforts to increase the production -> substitute products

The Zisha clay itself is in many styles and quality grades. Discerning the quality of a Zisha item at the buying point today is difficult.

Substitute products

Following are some of the methods used to create the ‘substitute products’:

  • Using clays mined from elsewhere than Yixing
  • Re-composed Zisha using low quality clays mixed with artificial colouring and granule ‘ingredients’
  • False claims to appear to naïve Zisha consumers, including clay type, origin, quality and the maker of the Zisha item etc, who have difficulty differentiating.

Following are some of the techniques developed to make the Zisha items look ‘genuine’, which will only add to the confusion:

  • Super fine clay, which is lack of the quartz granules, is mostly considered to be of low quality (a topic for a different discussion). Some manufacturers have half fired these clays till they are hard, machine ground them into small particles and mix them with the original clays to achieve the ‘coarse’ appearance. The granules are not the quartz particles as in the genuine Zisha clay. It serves only the appearance but not the functionality of the quartz particles.
  • Certain producers mix sand particles and artificial coloring into low grade clay to produce the consistence and texture look like of the high grade Zisha.

As a tea consumer and Zisha lover myself, the one aspect that is of most interest to me above all others (design and details) is the quality of the clay, which is what makes the Yixing Zisha teapots different from others.

Going through a good number of the information available, from both Zisha producers and collectors’ perspectives, it appears there is not a defining set of criteria to guide the Zisha consumer to genuine Yixing Zisha. Experience seems to be the only reliable source. This however can take many years to develop. At the meantime, the ‘substitute products’ are getting better and better at mimicking the genuine products.

Many indicators, buy lack of defining criteria

There are many articles discussing how to differentiate handmade, semi-handmade and industrial machine made Zisha teapots. The implication is, if a Zisha artist is to spend the effort to handmake or semi-handmake a Zisha teapot, the quality of the Zisha clay he/she uses must be at least in reasonable quality to make the effort worthwhile. The quality of the Zisha clay is assumed to go down with the reduction of the level of the ‘hand work’.

This assumption leaves many unanswered questions, even confusions:

  • Let alone there are not objective criteria to measure the level of ‘hand work’, there is also not linear correlation between the level of ‘hand work’ and the quality of the Zisha clay.
  • What is the difference in the clay quality between the teapots made by different Zisha artists as they use different clays? (The Zisha artists are graded in China based on their experiences and skills. There is however not universal supply of the clays – they simply use what they believe is appropriate among what is available.)
  • How about the semi-handmade Zisha vs fully handmade ones? Some of the semi-handmade Zisha items on the current market can easily look as good, even according a pair of experienced eyes, as the fully hand-made ones if not better.
  • How about those teapots made by ungraded Zisha artists (民间艺人)? (Like craftsmen of all traditional products, the skills have been passed down by their ancestors. They use the family stock pile of the Zisha clays in their backyards to make the Zisha teapots - in other words the under marketed products.)

The list can keep expending.

The ultimate information and control

The only ones with the ultimate control appear to be the Zisha teapot producers. They decide precisely what goes into making a teapot and how to make them. Without being given the full information, it is rather difficulty for the consumers at the buying end to judgment the quality.

For example, it is relatively easy at the buying point to see the differences between a $40 teapot and $400 teapot, with a bit of the experience of course. It is however not so easy to answer the question if a $2000 teapot is worth of the price tag.

The worst happens when the naïve tourists buy from the shops at the tourist locations. The products are often overly decorated by fancy designs, most come out from machines. It is entirely up to the merchants how much they want to charge as there are not set criteria to label the quality.

Conclusion

Yixing Zisha teapot is fascinating. A good item is absolutely worth collecting. To know if one has a collection value and how to achieve a high money value ratio is however a tricky question for most of the consumers.

 

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Kung Fu tea vs English breakfast tea

Chinese tea setWe have been occasionally asked by surprised customers as why the Chinese teapots and accessories are much smaller in size in comparison to the traditional English teapots.

Tea in China is like wine in the west. The Chinese have had a love affair with their teas for more than two thousand years. After their discovery of this unique beverage, they invented all sorts tea ware and ways to explore and enjoy every aspect of it with all senses, to see, smell and taste.

A famous tea master from the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yi once put down this thumb of rule for tea brewing: Water – natural spring is the best; Fire – charcoal fire has the magic; Tea vessels – small ones are ideal.
Using a small Gong Fu tea set has the following benefits:

  1. Communal. A tea tasting section is often shared by a group, family or friends – great opportunity to chat, discuss or have a laughter. It is on opportunity to deliberately slow down (among the fast pace modern lifestyle) and appreciate some humanity like our ancestors did daily.
  2. Bring the best out of good teas. The Chinese believe the best teas are the ones freshly brewed and freshly served. A small teapot with frequent topping ups and serving minimises the chance of a tea being soaked and over steeped, where a bitter taste and rough texture is often introduced.
  3. Laying out the different layers and aspects of a tea. Premium teas have layers and angles that tea drinkers appreciate and enjoy. We often refer to them as tea tasting than tea drinking, for examples: shape, aroma and colour of dry leaves; aroma, colour, flavour, texture and aftertaste of a tea brew; the characteristics of the wet leaves after their brewing etc.
  4. Over and above, there is one distinctive character of a premium tea that is not talked a lot about, that is different infusions of a same tea have rather different natures in colour, taste and aftertaste. Only using a small teapot with frequent topping ups will allow these to be separated and appreciated individually.

A Gong Fu tea set therefore, apart from its authentic look and ceremonial significance, has also got its functional implications.

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Brewing loose leaf tea: better to learn the principle than step 1-2-3

More and more tea drinkers now are aware that you are in a better chance of getting a descent cup of tea by using whole leaf teas. Many inexperienced tea drinkers are however at loss when it comes to loose leaf tea brewing. 

Some tea suppliers seek to address this by offering step 1-2-3. Although these instructions could get you started if you are completely naïve to loose teas, they however can turn into restriction with time to stop you brewing a ‘real’ pot of premium tea. 

We therefore advocate to learn also the principle. Once this is understood, loose tea brewing is not such a myth really. 

Understanding loose leaf teas

Various teas are made of leaves of various degrees of tenderness (the focus here is of course the premium loose leaf teas):

  • Most of the premium green teas are made of very young and tender tip leaves
  • White teas are ranked according to the levels of the tenderness of the leaves (Silver Needle contains the tip needle leaves only which is the top of the range; White Peony contains the tip leaf plus a couple of leaves below; the lower grades contain more and more mature leaves and less tips etc)
  • Most of the Oolong teas are made of relatively mature leaves
  • Black teas vary, some made of tip leaves and others mature leaves
  • Most of Pu-erh teas are a mixture of both tip and mature leaves, and harvested from tea trees instead of tea shrubs. 

With this understanding, the thumb of rule for tea brewing is: the younger the tea leaves are, the lower the water temperature should be and shorter brewing time required. For example, always use 100oC water for Pu-erh teas, but only about 90oC for green teas. 

The principle of brewing loose leaf teas

The rest are quite simple: 

  • Always rinse the leaves (add hot water for about 5-10 seconds and dispose the water)
  • ½ - 1 minute for the first brew and increasing the brewing time for 30 second with each additional brew. 
  • The tea leaves can be used repeatedly until the flavour is no more: the mature leaf teas last much longer than the young leaf ones, eg some of the Pu-erh teas can be used up to 30 times while most the green teas can only be used for 3-4 times. 
  • Control you preferred tea strength by: the amount the leaves put in and brewing time. 

So, the thing to be avoided is to constrict yourself. Experiment with different tea varieties, the amount of leaves put in and tea brewing time, tea vessels to use etc. You will find your niche of brewing very soon and it is not nearly as hard as some make it out to be. 

Last thing to remember, loose leaf tea is a dynamic drink that what is perfect for someone else may not be even close to be ideal for you. Explore and enjoy the experience of exploring. 

 

 

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