The capacity of most popular Yixing pot sizes ranges from a few hundred millilitres (or cc, ml, etc) to 70 or 60 ml. Some readers may wonder if there is any real use for the minute sizes.
The answer is yes. Small sizes are important in preparing an infusion which can reflect the true taste character of a fine tea. A small teapot is as much as a test to the tea quality as it is to the skills of the person who use it. While some tea aficionados may have fully accustomed themselves with pots at around 150 to 200 ml, most still shun from using a 70 or smaller sizes.
Perhaps you have heard many times sarcastic comments about the use of small clay teapots, not to mention really small ones. Prejudice mostly comes from fear and ignorance so let’s all get better understanding of our own subject first.
A poor man’s daily teapot
When I was still quite young and enjoyed traveling to unknown places, I was once lost in a small town near Shantou (a city in the northeastern seacoast in Guangdong province) looking for a way to Chaozhou, the city near which Phoenix oolongs are made. Taxis were not in existence in suburban China then and there were no real highways from nearby cities yet. I was looking for a certain bus terminal and amidst the crowd in front of what appeared to be the entrance gate, in the middle of a small yard, filled with travelers hurrying around, mindless of the dirt and muddy puddles on the ground, sat an old man on a rattan chair that was so worn and broken that it seemed to have been forgotten in the garbage disposal for a few years. He was there absolutely in his own space, preparing tea with water from a small blackened kettle on a charcoal stove made from used tin. His tea table was a rectangular old wooden stool. On it sat his small lead tea tray, holding this 60 ml Yixing pot and three teacups that should have been white many years ago. These tiny cups were about the size of half a walnut shell. He was chatting with two men sipping tea standing by, in their local dialect, seemingly having a good time.
That was the first time I saw such tiny pot in everyday use. I approached them and asked what tea they were having. This old man switched immediately to Mandarin, albeit heavily accented, and apologized for not having with him better tea than what they drank daily. He poured water from his much reused PET bottle into the kettle and fanned the fire. The tea was a poorly stored rebaked style Tieguanyin, low quality one, but never had I tasted such texture and taste character so well rendered of such a tea. And it was strong.
Practicality of a small Yixing teapot
If sipping away an afternoon on a tiny cup of espresso is a way of life in Milan, the gongfu way of tea played much role in helping the drinker stay sane in the chaos of life through times of rapid changes and political turmoils.
So much for thoughts. Let’s get back to the practicality of using a small pot.
I suppose by now most readers with some practices know that using the same proportion of leaf to water ratio in a large pot is not workable because the convection of the water would not be enough to carry out an effective infusion and the resultant liquor would be poorly textured, the use of 160~200 ml pots is ideal for making satisfying strength while holding up fine textures and aroma. However, I hope you are also aware that the aroma of an infusion is maximised at around a minute after hot water touches the leaves. Texture of the liquor would also slowly degenerate upon prolonged infusion time, especially in larger containers.
Particularly for certain tea choices
This logically induces the ideal for shorter infusion time, higher leaf to water ratio and smaller teapots. However, how much shorter and how smaller? Well, that really depends on the tea. The effects on most green and black teas aren’t obvious because both require substantially longer time for truer rendition of taste profiles. The usual 200 ml or 160 serves them fine. Oolongs and pu’ers, on the other hand, shine with the smaller pots because these teas inherently require less infusion time to show their taste profiles. So does heavily twisted green teas such as gyokuro.
Convection is a lot more effective in the smaller pot size and so is the simple process of diffusion. When using a substantial amount of leaves, just the process of diffusion alone achieves the target for a fine liquor. That is why sometimes you may see pots jammed with tealeaves in it, particularly when one is doing Tieguanyin, which tealeaves expand dramatically upon contact with water.
The real drawbacks of a really tiny pot
The real drawback of the smaller size is quicker heat loss. To compensate for that an ideal Yixing pot of 60 to 80 ml capacity should have a relatively thicker wall and rounder body (for minimum surface area per volume). Keeping the infusion time below 3 minutes is also essential. Otherwise other devises may be needed, but that’s another topic.
One key thing to practice well is to preheat the pot enough to avoid dramatic temperature drop when the infusion water comes in. It is difficult to practice the top or middle-drop approaches with a pot at this size.
I normally raise the leaf to water ratio to as much as the pot can hold and infuse for 3 quarters of the time required when I am into something with a kick.
The other concern that certain people would have is the small serving size. They would say they are too thirsty for that. Well a good infusion like that isn’t for quenching the thirst; much as you wouldn’t eat Ibérico ham for your dinner steak. For those cynical red necks who do not even know the name of that Spanish delicacy, maybe you could say “much as you wouldn’t eat Lay’s alone for dinner”.