Dancing pigs and a handful of clay

– or how to find the perfect teapot.
A scene of frolicking pigs accompanied by a cheeky poem.

“Pig’s in the mud
When he tires
Pig’s in zen
Pig’s in zen
Pig is nude
Pig’s in zen
Pig’s in zen”

This humorous instagram post of dancing tea pets (little figurines, traditionally adorning tea trays and tables and are ‘fed’ tea during ceremony for good luck), announcing the ‘Year of the Pig’, was my first point of contact with Bitterleaf Teas.
On following the post back to its feed, I discovered a stream of beautiful teapot and tea set images. Coomi and Jonah are the two humans behind Bitterleaf Teas, who are taking pride in documenting their hunt for exquisite teaware and authentic tea throughout China.

This summer I am in the market for the perfect teapot for the puerh cake I had recently discovered in the depth of my tea cupboard, so I decided to visit the beautiful (online) teaware shop with the frolocking tea pets.

Meeting the vendors

When it comes to anything tea-related, transparency and trust are a high priority for me because I want to make sure that what I am getting is ‘the real deal’. So getting to know my vendors is the first port of call when getting my tea paraphernalia.
And what better way to meet new Tea People than having tea with them.

Sitting down for tea in front of the computer seems very timely, and so Jonah and I start our tea hangout. As someone who has turned his passion for gongfu and puerh into a full time occupation after having worked a soulless 9-5 job in Canada , he knows that selecting teaware is more than picking a pretty design. Price and convenience are usually the deciding factors for those looking to get their first tea set-up.
He recommends: ‘Before you ask yourself : What is the perfect teapot?, ask ‘Who is a tea seller I trust?’ Because aside from being able to select beautiful artisanal pieces, finding teaware that is safe and not saturated with impurities is not just a matter of aesthetics but also safety: paint and clay can sometimes contain poisonous components.
So before you start ordering the next best teapot online from a random tea brand, look for reviews and recommendations to find your vendor. (Below you will find a list of my favourite suppliers).

What’s in a teapot?

After nerding out over which brewing vessels we prefer for preparing green or aged teas we settle on the fact that once you have decided to take your ‘strainer-in-mug situation’ to the next level there are two options depending on your brewing habits: pot or cup?

If you are wanting to brew many different types of tea, a simple Gaiwan (a small cup-shaped vessel with lid) or the Japanese equivalent, Shiboridashi or Hohin will work best, as long as the vessel is glazed. They allow you to extract the ‘pure’ flavours of different types of tea without taking on the oils of each tea, and flavouring the subsequent brew.

Jonah explains that a teapot is a great option when you decide to dedicate the brewing vessel to one specific type of tea. Start talking to your vendor about teapots made from unglazed clay. Because clay is porous, it allows for the tea oils to build up and allow for an even more refined brew. Debatably, the best teapots are made from “Purple Clay” called Zisha from Yixing (pronounced Yee-zhing) which is located close to the east coast of China, on the edge of Tiahu lake. This region is famous for their superior clay ores and consequently their high manufacture of teaware. Each clay has its own particular quality, composition, colour and subsequent heat- handling properties. This enhances the flavour of your tea remarkably, when compared with other material like glass, porcelain or stoneware. Aside from that: the size, shape, manufacture and clay firing have an impact too.’

Yixing vs. Jenshui teapots

It’s a bit unsubtle, but ‘What does a good teapot cost?’ I ask.
Jonah smiles and says: ‘As a general rule if the deal looks too good, it probably is. You can easily find Yixing style 20-dollar teapots anywhere online, but you are pressed to find any decent clay pot for under 80 dollars. Of course you always pay more the more exclusive the lot of clay and well reputed the artisan who made it.
‘If you are on a budget, you can start out with pieces from Jianshui, an area which prides itself with much more affordable options than their priecer counterparts from Yixing. This does not mean they are of inferior quality… similar to wine places in France. In China the reputation of certain areas always demands a higher price.’

‘Do I get what I pay for?’
‘Yes and no. This is the part where you want to talk to trusted vendors who specialise in finding the best teaware, ensuring quality. A decent clay pot comes at a price but doesn’t need to cost the world.’

One size (doesn’t) fit all

When it comes to picking your perfect teapot (or just tea) it boils down to three things:

Finding the vendor you trust

Setting your budget

Finding what works for you

Here are a few spots that I enjoy browsing when I feel flush and also a little list of questions that might help you to find what you are looking for.

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