September 6, 2009

Test tubin'

Probably my most exciting tea purchase this summer was an old tetsubin (Japanese cast iron kettle) purchased with the help of the boys at Life of Tea. Funny thing is, nobody I know seems to know the word and everyone I've told about the kettle looks blankly back at me and says "Test tubing?" I haven't really made any efforts to discover the age of the tetsubin, but from what I've heard about tetsubins it's almost guaranteed to be older than the 1950's, with a potential age of well into the 1800's. After looking inside the kettle, the mineral buildup and rusting would seem to indicate that it's at least been around the block for a few pots of tea!

This kettle's not actually very big--around half a liter, I'd guess, but it's large enough for me to pour several infusions into my average yixing and still have enough water left to mix with a fresh supply. This way I don't bring one pot of water to boil too many times, and boiling the fresh water takes place while I'm drinking tea!

The great part about Life of Tea is that, within reason, you can say "I'm looking for a tetsubin. It doesn't matter what it looks like, who made it, or how big it is, I just want the water to taste good," and sooner or later you'll be presented with a range of pictured options with prices and short descriptions. Naturally, their selection isn't unlimited, but they generally do plenty of legwork to earn their commission. The only drawbacks I can think of is that the item descriptions can be fairly terse (which might leave pickier teaware junkies with more questions like--what's the exact capacity? how good is the lid fit and pour?) and that the website's general price ranges may need to be updated.

Back to the kettle, it's so far made a remarkable difference in the taste of my water. Immediately upon first use, I could taste the difference in the plain heated water--more mineral taste, perhaps even a blatant iron flavor, but it doesn't interfere with the tea flavor at all. That is, if I use it with the right teas. So far I've gotten the best results with pu-erh and oolongs with at least moderate roasting. A couple light dancong oolongs and a light roast Dong-Ding I tried with the tetsubin water seemed muffled, like the water dampened the bouquet a bit too much. With pu-erh and yen cha, though, the water bolsters the flavor and mouthfeel with a pleasant broadness. Luckily, I've still got a stainless kettle and a clay kettle that both work fine with lighter teas. The tetsubin's benefits come at the moderate cost of maintenance and the need for a hotplate or charcoal stove--obviously I don't have a charcoal stove, so I had to purchase a hotplate especially for this kettle. Maintenance consists of making sure the kettle dries after each use, or else it'll rust!

This last point is the primary inspiration for this posting. The above photo was taken a couple of weeks after I received and began using my tetsubin. You can see some slight rusting and also notice that a large proportion of the area is lighter-colored with whitish mineral buildup. I took this photo when I first started thinking that maybe the mineral deposits were starting to diminish. I'm glad I took the photo--now it's just about a month later, and there is barely any white left inside the kettle (see below)--it's now mostly on the upper insides, which don't get as much water exposure. Life of Tea's blurb explains that mineral deposits come from using the kettle with spring water and that continued use of spring water promotes mineral "growth." I didn't really realize that the buildup would go away so quickly--especially because I've been using the kettle for much the past month with actual spring water I've collected myself.* Perhaps the tetsubin's former owner's spring water contained different minerals--fortunately, the flavor of water the tetsubin imparts hasn't really been affected at all, though the change in appearance has been rapid. I've heard a few times something to the effect of "If you want your tetsubin to keep making good tasting water, you have to use mountain spring water!" It makes me pretty happy to report that Brita filtered tap water tastes pretty darn good out of the tetsubin as well--when somebody tells you that some aspect of tea preparation can only be done one way, it's almost never true!

To that end, my tea obsession led me to covet and purchase an old tetsubin and for me, it's been a worthwhile purchase and has made a noticeable difference to my tea. I do stop far short, though, of declaring that your tea's not really good unless the water comes from an antique tetsubin; the difference is only to a degree, and it's also a matter of personal taste. To be honest, though, the tetsubin has made more of a difference to my teas' flavor than have any of my yixing teapots, and I've owned and used a lot of different yixing pots. Sounds like there's more to my tea obsession than pure flavor--more of an all-around tea hedonism, perhaps.

*Sadly, the full "spring water" story won't get its due this year. In short, I went on a nice family vacation this summer to a place in high desert central Oregon with an incredible-tasting and very accessible spring. Needless to say, I spent the whole week imbibing delicious teas with delicious water in leisurely opulence before returning home with as much spring water as I could carry. I had originally planned a post with pictures of the spring, the tetsubin and the surrounding mountains, but I got too caught up with living the moments that I did a poor job of recording them!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very informative blog post. I've never heard anyone able to come out and say something like this. Can it really be true? Can the tetsubin really work better for Pu-erh and Yan Cha? The reason I take notice is that these are the teas I like. And indeed I don't want to drink any floral or really even lightly-oxidized Oolongs anymore. Dan Congs are too expensive for me. And right now I have a variable-temp kettle that is quite useful in preparing for different kinds of tea. But eventually I'm going to go with mostly Pu-erh at least for my everyday teas. I can see it'll be easy enough to just boil the water instead of being finicky about the temperature. Therefore if the tetsubin makes such a drastic improvement I'm going to basically need to end up going with one. And it'll simplify my life by getting rid of more of the electronic stuff if that hasn't improved the tea experience. --Spirituality of Tea

Zero the Hero said...

Hi again Jason,

I wouldn't call the tetsubin's water improvement drastic--just noticeable. I really do want to stress that I don't think a tetsubin is indispensable for brewing good-tasting pu-erh or yen cha--you just need clean water and a decent brewing device like a gaiwan, yixing pot or even a glass pot.

If you've got the money and tea is really a big interest, though, I think a tetsubin can add another dimension to those teas. I'm with you on avoiding more electronic devices too--they aren't especially gong fu! I'd also add that I use boiling water for every kind of tea except for Chinese and Japanese green tea, so I agree that, although variable temperature kettles are handy, it's a convenience that isn't a necessity for me personally.

It's also worth noting that there are a range of tetsubins available that are not quite as old and can be had for significantly less money!

Anonymous said...

Maybe I too could end up going with boiling water for just about everything except those greens. A tetsubin may be inevitable for me but I won't rush to get one. I'll give it a while. --Spirituality of Tea