Yixing and Puerh
When Canton Director Jennifer Wood visited China in May 2011, she brought back with her eight handmade Yixing teapots which are now available to buy in our shop. As a special feature, Tea expert Elliot Knapp has written us an article explaining how to brew the best puerh in Yixing teapots.
Guest blogger: Elliot Knapp
One of the easiest ways to get the best out of your puerh tea is to brew it in a Yixing clay teapot. The fact that unglazed Yixing clay absorbs tea oils over time is well-known among Chinese tea aficionados, but the careful pairing of certain clay type, pot size and shape with different puerh types can make a marked difference in the character of the tea and the experience when drinking it.
Probably the most important factor when it comes to Yixing and puerh is clay type. In my experience, the more porous clay types tend to brew the best tea – especially when it comes to aged sheng (raw) puerh and shou (cooked) puerh. In the case of aged sheng puerh, a clay like pin zi ni or qing shui ni will do the trick – the tender, porous clay breathes better than denser clays and softens the tea’s mouthfeel, sometimes drastically. This can help smooth the edges off an adolescent puerh that still exhibits astringency, or it can further broaden the thick mouthfeel that comes with aged tea. Some clays, like duan ni, can be even more porous than pin zi ni. Clays of such pronounced tenderness are traditionally paired with shou puerh. In practice, the effect on the mouthfeel is the same, but the extra porosity can also soften any flavors that remain from the shou processing, mellowing the flavor without having to further age the tea to take care of the off notes. Personally, I think duan ni can also be appropriate for sheng puerh, but some duan ni is so porous that the clay will draw too much out of the tea – if the pot has a sufficient level of seasoning, though, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Depending on your tastes, less porous red clays like hong ni and zhu ni are also acceptable for puerh. Though some hong ni is considered tender, usually red clays tend to not soften the mouthfeel but instead drive flavor and aroma out of the leaves. For this reason, the harder clays might not be a great match for aged sheng and shou puerh, as the processing and storage flavors might be too pronounced. Many puerh drinkers prefer red clays for unaged sheng puerh – the hard clay usually produces an accurate picture of the tea’s characteristics, which can be useful for assessing a tea sample’s potential for aging and purchase in larger quantities. Personally, I think pin zi ni also performs well for this purpose, but some puerh lovers prefer to use separate pots for unaged tea and aged tea.
Though clay type is the most important factor, the pot’s construction also factors into ideal puerh brewing. Since puerh often comes from tea plants with very large leaves, it’s important to use a pot that’s large enough to accommodate the leaves as they expand. Anything larger than 100ml should fit the bill – anything smaller and you’ll only be able to accommodate a smaller than average-sized leaf, which means it won’t be able to unfurl properly.
The pot’s shape can also affect ideal tea brewing. Puerh doesn’t transform quite as dramatically during brewing as something like pellet-rolled oolong, for example, but it does expand. Likewise, you’ll often be putting chunks of puerh into your brewing vessel, so the shape and opening of the pot need to be conducive to accommodating whole chunks and allowing them to separate as they’re saturated with hot water. For this reason, rounded shapes work well, as do most ovular shapes. I’d only specifically recommend against shapes that don’t allow expansion of the leaves and prevent their freedom inside the pot—shapes that are too tall and narrow sometimes contribute to this problem.
Finally, puerh tea usually needs to be prepared using water that’s as hot as possible. This means that the pot should be good at retaining heat. It’s important to use a pot with thick enough walls to keep the tea hot as it brews. Even though more porous clays tend not to retain heat quite as well as dense ones, ensuring that the walls of the pot are reasonably thick will make up for the clay’s relative lightness.
When pairing Yixing ware with puerh, it’s always good to have a glass or porcelain brewing vessel handy for comparison – like Yixing pots made from hard red clays, a good gaiwan or glass pot will accurately portray a tea’s characteristics, so you can brew the same tea using porcelain and one or more Yixing pots. You might be surprised at how much a different brewing vessel impacts the finished tea. Remember, the most important gauge of success with tea brewing is your own taste, so how your taste buds respond to a particular brewing method always takes precedence over what someone else’s advice may be. With the wide range of Yixing options available out there and a little bit of experimenting, finding an ideal Yixing to match your favourite puerh should be an achievable and enjoyable process.