20 April 2010


I'm a little teapot, short and stout.
Here's my handle, here's my spout.
When I get all steamed up, hear me shout:
Tip me up and pour me out!

The teapot, a hollow vessel in which tea is brewed and from which it is ultimately poured is now well-known around the world. Seemingly a boring, unremarkable and utilitarian item of pottery, one might feel it is difficult to get excited about the teapot. Well, even if becoming excited is out of the question, becoming educated certainly isn't...

The Origins Of Tea Drinking
(Or 'Who discovered that cows give milk, and what did he think he was doing at the time?')

There are two legends concerning the origins of tea. Shen Nong, a Chinese Emperor from the third century BC was sitting beneath a tree, boiling his drinking water when the leaves of the tree fell into his bowl. The taste, not unpleasant to the Emperor, quickly increased in popularity. A plausible tale, if you can get past the idea that the Emperor's mother obviously never warned him about eating berries, mud or, indeed, the liquid formed from brewing mysterious leaves.

Either way, the second legend is probably less believable, though it may possess a little more romantic appeal. It is the fifth century, and a Dharuma Buddhist monk has travelled fromChina to India, pursuing his faith. During the fifth year of a seven-year meditation he finds sleep is beginning to overcome him. Offended by his own eyelids, he cuts them off and hurls them to the ground. At this very spot, a tea plant springs, from which the monk cuts the leaves and brews them. The drink produced, he finds, keeps him awake, allowing him to pursue his spiritual studies.

Regardless of how, Camellia sinensis, the common tea plant, is now consumed all over the world. It was first cultivated in the 4th century when wild plants were taken from China toIndia. This evergreen tree is kept at a manageable five foot height, the leaves picked by hand, one worker picking enough tea per day to produce around 2800 cups.

Brewing Up: The Rising In The East
('If you have enjoyed this drink, why not share it with your friends?' - Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser)

Teapots were not immediately used upon the discovery of tea. Even in the 8th century tea leaves were hand rolled, dried and ground into powder. This powder, mixed with salt, was dried into cakes which were added to hot water, forming a thick liquid, prized for its supposed medicinal value. These cakes eventually gave way, in 9th century Japan, to the powder remaining in loose form, which was simply added to hot water and whisked vigorously. Indeed, it was not until the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, 1368 to 1644, that leaf infusion became commonplace.

It is from this era that the earliest examples of teapots originate. Made from the characteristic clay of the YiXing region of China, these strong yet delicate pots were used as both brewing and drinking vessel, each tea-drinker being provided with an individual-sized pot. Tea was sipped directly from the spout, making the transition from brewing bowl to teapot a smooth one.

Demand for teapots spread from China to Japan, and by the 15th century tea-drinking had evolved a complex set of ceremonies, drunk for social reasons rather than simply for medicinal beliefs. The teapot was no longer merely a brewing vessel, but had the added dimension of artistic merit. Teapots with themes were introduced; red clay or shudei teapots became prized as creative pieces, as did the well-seasoned YiXing pots. The Japanese province of Bizen became renowned for its earthenware, and new techniques were developed to produce these delicate and highly-prized vessels.

Brewing Up: Go West!
('Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.' - Alice Walker)

Tea, at this point, began to spread into the West. Mirroring the evolution of tea-drinking in the East, tea was first used in herbal infusions and tisanes. By the seventeenth century Europe had adopted the drink with enthusiasm, labelling it 'cha' after the Cantonese name, and a little later British inhabitants were showing increasing interest in the beverage, adopting theAmoy term 'tay'.

Teapots arrived in Europe with the first shipments of tea, however, and by 1883 the East India Tea Company, formed in 1669, was importing YiXing teapots. Portuguese traders also began importing teapots, naming the pottery buccaro or boccaro ware after the delicate red earthenware seen in South and Central America. These imports had an influence, of course, on European versions of teapots, which were quick to follow.

Initially, the European teapot, often constructed from silver or ceramic would also be used for coffee or hot chocolate, and the earliest known British vessel designed specifically for brewing tea is the silver ewer now featured at the Victoria And Albert Museum in London. It is inscribed '1670 - tea-Pott'. This dates it within ten years of a ceramic European teapot, made between 1670 and 1680 by Arij de Milde in the Dutch town of Delft. The European version, unlike the tall, silver British pot, retains the YiXing design with a short spout and loop handle.

Present Day: The Place Of The Teapot In Everyday Society
('Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company.' - Author Unknown)

With the advent of bagged tea, the teapot is in something of a decline at present. While, not so many years ago, the teapot was a revered item, occupying its own space in the kitchen and often equipped with its own set of clothing, there is something convenient about slipping a single bag into a cup, brewing the beverage and discarding the teabag before drinking.

Nevertheless, for those who prefer the ritual of making tea, or simply feel that a better flavour is produced from loose tea, the pot is still available in both traditional and more modern varieties. Bodum, popular for their coffee brewing equipment, make a clear glass teapot with a central reservoir for the leaves which can be sealed off once the optimum brew strength has been achieved. The more traditional earthenware pot does become seasoned over time, however, and many will swear by a decades-old pot despite the internal build-up of tannin. A glance inside a well-aged teapot can often be more scary than enthralling, though I recall my own grandmother complaining bitterly that the new pot didn't taste the same. Either way, radically different varieties of teas should be kept to their own pots - a green tea would easily be spoiled by brewing in a teapot that has been well-seasoned with black tea.

The teapot has, regardless, entered popular culture. The Utah Teapot is well known to anyone involved in 3D computer graphics work, and more recently a Malaysian cult, The Sky Kingdom erected a 35 foot tall pink teapot on its property. This 2004 addition was, apparently, symbolic of the life-giving properties of water, though it has caused much controversy with nearby residents.

Making The Perfect Cup Of Tea
('The perfect temperature for tea is two degrees hotter than just right.' - Terri Guillemets)

It must be said that I ignore the following advice completely when making my mug of Earl Grey, preferring instead to force a teabag to the bottom of a mug, pour on hot water and then, in a display of total ignorance and sacrilege, add a splash of milk before it's even had time to brew properly. For the perfect cup of tea, one has to be a little more pedantic:

A cup of tea is approximately 98% water, so for the best cup of tea one requires the best quality water. Bottled or filtered water produces the best flavour. Bear in mind that dissolvedoxygen content will affect the quality of the tea, as well; never draw water from the hot tap or use water which has been boiled for an excessive period of time.

Pre-heating the teapot is vitally important, too. If poured into a cold vessel the water will immediately drop a couple of degrees, hampering the brewing process. To pre-heat the pot simply rinse it out with boiling water and discard.

The recommendation is that three grams of dry tea leaves are used for every six fluid ounces of water. In practice, one rounded teaspoon per cup will do. Bear in mind, tea enthusiasts, that oolong teas may vary greatly in density, due to their large and wiry leaves. On the other hand, gunpowder tea is much denser than ordinary tea, and only two thirds of a teaspoon is necessary to achieve an ideal strength.

When brewing black tea, the water should reach a rolling boil and immediately be poured onto the leaves, the pot lid being placed firmly on for the five minute steep time. Green tea, which also benefits from slightly less brewing time, is better with water at around 70 degrees celcius (160 degrees Farenheit) - a good rule of thumb is to wait for the first few bubbles to rise from the base of the kettle and pounce, or even to leave the kettle for a few minutes after boiling before beginning to steep the tea...


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