Tea Essentials: The Only Teaware You Really Need

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

So you've decided to get serious about your tea. You've ditched cheap, bland teabags for some premium, full-flavored loose leaves and you're ready to start brewing. (If not, here's why it's worth going loose.)

But what to brew with?

The tea market these days is flooded with gadgets that promise to make brewing tea easier, better, or more fun. There are sleek infuser wands. Gravity-defying mug-toppers. Lavishly priced automatic brewing machines. And of course the trusty tea ball.

If you're just starting out with tea, it's hard to know which of these gadgets you actually need and which ones only get in the way. Most tools, which some tea sellers aggressively push on customers who don't know better, fall decidedly into the latter category. This is a no-nonsense guide to the former.

What's Really Important for a Good Cup of Tea

Larger loose leaves make for a more complex, nuanced brew than teabags, but they require more care to brew right. Take a look at your tea leaves. Once steeped in hot water, they'll expand two to five times their dry size. You need to give them room to unfurl so they can release their full flavor, and you need to leave them breathing room, so to speak, for water to circulate around them.

The trouble with most of the small, tea ball-shaped infusers on the market is that they don't give leaves enough room to do their thing. A tea infuser packed to the brim with wet leaves won't deliver the full flavor and body that a tea has to offer, which is why Asian teaware designers tend to favor devices with larger infusion chambers. And what's the simplest approach? No chamber at all.

Keep it Simple

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Here are the only things you really need to make good tea:

  • Something to make water hot
  • A cup
  • Good tea

That's it. No filters, fancy pots, or special tools required. In fact, if you want to see how millions of people drink their tea every day, that list is pretty much it.

And it makes a lot of sense. A cup full of loose leaves has more room for expansion and circulation room than any enclosed infuser. Use your lips and teeth to filter out the leaves as you sip and you have the perfect no-nonsense cup of tea. Oh, and if a few leaves slip past your teeth? It's okay to spit them back out into the cup...or just eat them.

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Even if you want a brewing solution with more precision, keep this simplicity in mind. Tea doesn't need any ceremony or special equipment to taste great, and the more money you save on brewing tools, the more you have to spend on better tea.

Tier 1: The Basics

A Brew Basket

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There are two problems with brewing tea commando: you have to filter the leaves yourself and, if you sip too slow, you run the risk of the tea over-steeping and turning bitter. If you want more control over how long your leaves sit in water, ditch the tiny tea balls and novelty tea infusers and get yourself a brew basket, like the one in the photo above.

A tall, wide cylindrical brew basket allows for plenty of expansion and circulation, and it easily fits over a mug for single servings, or inside a larger teapot. I prefer stainless steel brew baskets; even though manufacturers of heatproof plastic versions say the plastic doesn't impact the flavor of the tea, I sometimes notice a distinct plastic funk in the tea. The discrete holes of the full stainless steel versions are also easier to clean than mesh.

A Good Kettle

Any pot can be a tea kettle, but an electric tea kettle that boils water fast and pours accurately will encourage you to make more tea every day. It's well worth the $50 or so it'll set you back. Look for a stainless steel or glass model with an enclosed heating element; even high-end plastic ones can leech subtle plastic flavors into your water.

My pick? The entry-level Bonavita. The interior is all stainless steel, it boils fast, and it automatically shuts off when the water comes to a boil. But the feature that really sets it apart from the competition is the spout: a long, curvy gooseneck that makes for a very precise pour that never dribbles. A little precious? Sure. But it's also handy for keeping neat when pouring directly into a small pot or a mug. The only downside is the one-liter capacity, which is plenty for me but may be too small for some; this gooseneck-less version is reasonably priced at nearly double the volume.

Tier 2: More Advanced

The deeper you get into tea, particularly East Asian styles, the more you see a trend toward smaller brewing vessels filled with more leaves. The tea brews for less time than in larger Western teapots, then gets re-brewed anywhere from once to a couple dozen times.

The idea, sometimes referred to as gong fu brewing in Chinese tea circles, is to coax the maximum flavor, aroma, and body from a tea in a skillful way that changes over time; the first infusion of a pu-erh, for instance, will taste totally different than the fifth and the ninth. Brewing this way produces powerful but balanced cups of tea that show the full range of what high quality leaves can offer.

You can brew this way simply by filling your basket infuser with more leaves and using it for shorter steepings, but there are also some key Asian tools designed for this sort of thing.

A Gaiwan

This classic Chinese brewing vessel is called a gaiwan, and it's nothing more than a cup with a lid that you fill with leaves and brew in, then decant, using the lid as a strainer. (Here's a step-by-step tutorial on how to use it.)

Gaiwans can brew any kind of tea, and when it comes to ease of use and cleaning, nothing's simpler. You can find basic models, made of thin porcelain, in most Chinatowns for as little as $7, and only a little more online.

If you're just brewing for yourself, a 100-milliliter gaiwan will do you right; 125 to 150 milliliters are handy if you're serving multiple people. (Keep in mind you may be re-steeping a lot in a single brew session; I regularly go through a liter or more of water on a single batch of tea leaves.) You can spend a lot more for a fancier gaiwan if you want, upwards of a hundred dollars for fine ceramic work, but they all brew tea more or less the same way, so don't feel pressured by any upsell.

From there, you may want to pick up a serving pitcher called a chahai, designed to equally distribute your brew into multiple small Chinese-style teacups (or shot or sake glasses in a pinch). Specialty sites like Yunnan Sourcing have a far greater selection of gaiwans and Chinese tea accessories than Western retailers like Amazon.

A Kyusu

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If you want to brew larger servings of tea in one go, or if you're a really big fan of delicate Japanese green teas, you may prefer a Japanese-style kyusu teapot. These pots typically run a more ample 200 to 300 milliliters (about seven to 10 ounces), and they come with a built-in filter to strain out tiny leaves.

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As with gaiwans, you can spend a pretty penny on gorgeous kyusus, but a basic-yet-attractive version will cost all of $30 to $50. Some versions include a fine-mesh filter wrapped around the inside, but I actually prefer the larger holes of the pure-ceramic style filters, as the tiny, silty tea particles they let sneak into the brew add to the rich body that makes Japanese teas like sencha and gyokuro so good.

Tier 3: The Super-Serious

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Getting really into brewing tea? Starting to nerd out about the number of seconds you brew your sencha, and which cup better reflects the fragrance of a fresh spring harvest? Then here are some tools to help you up your game. To be clear, none of them are a magic wand to make your tea better; the best way to make better tea is to buy higher quality tea. But every hobby has its luxuries that make the whole process a little nicer.

A Variable-Temperature Kettle

Some teas benefit from tight control over brewing temperature, and unless you're using an instant-read thermometer, keeping track of temperature as you brew is tricky. The solution? Bonavita's deluxe variable-temperature electric kettle.

It has the same stainless steel housing and precise gooseneck spout as the basic version above, but lets you set any temperature between 140°F and boiling—and it'll even hold it at that temperature with the push of a button. So if you're brewing some finicky and pricey gyokuro, for instance, you'll always know exactly what temperature the water is in your kettle. Other manufacturers make variable-temperature kettles, and some also hold your water at a set temperature point, but they can't match the Bonavita's degree-by-degree digital input and its precise pour.

A Gram Scale

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Even when I'm sitting down for a serious brew session, I tend to eyeball the amount of leaves I use. But some people prefer the precision of weighing out their leaves to exacting brewing parameters, which is especially handy if you're experimenting with your tea and figuring out how small differences in brewing affect what's in your cup.

If that's you, pick up the same kitchen scale we recommend for all your cooking needs, which can measure ingredients in grams and has a handy tare function. With a scale, you'll always know exactly how much tea you're using, and once you dial in an optimal tea-to-water ratio, the scale will help you get back to it every time.

Clay Teapots

Dig around a little in the tea world and it won't take long before you hear the term "Yixing clay pots" tossed about. Simply put, these are small (gaiwan-sized) pots made of fine clay that are left unglazed, so the clay can directly interact with the tea while brewing. A good Yixing pot can subtly improve the depth, flavor, body, or sweet aftertaste of a tea, and some tea fanatics won't brew with anything else. Since the tea works its way into the porous clay, you typically pair a pot with a single style of tea, and over time that tea will form a distinct patina on the pot's interior.

If that last paragraph sounded a little abstract, it's because Yixing teapots are surrounded by more mythology than cast iron cookware. Different types of clay, different firing levels, and even different pot shapes can all impact how a tea brews in Yixing, which means it's hard to set stringent standards for what, exactly, a Yixing pot will do to your tea. On top of that, it's a field rampant with forgeries and upsells; even proven tea experts can get fooled into spending hundreds of dollars on a supposedly "antique" clay pot that's actually modern junk.

So why bother? Because my dahongpao feels so much more mellow and rounded when brewed in my cliff tea pot, and the little pot you see in the photo above adds an extra layer of depth and sweetness to even ho-hum fermented liu bao. Yixing pots can smooth out the rough notes in some teas, making them more rich, mellow, and harmonized. They're typically used with darker teas rather than greens or whites; think dark oolongs, black tea, and pu-erh. And while they're by no means a necessity, they're beautiful pieces of pottery in their own right, worth collecting for their aesthetics as much as their brewing prowess.

If you're curious about Yixing pots, do some intensive reading before you make a purchase, and strongly consider buying a pot in person so you can talk with the shop owner about it and get a feel for how it may work for you. If that's not an option, avoid mass-market sellers like Amazon and eBay, which are rife with junk obscuring the rare good deal, and hit up online tea specialists with a reputation for quality teaware. A great Yixing pot will stay with you for the rest of your tea-brewing life, its growing patina telling the story of all the teas you make in it. But you want to make sure you're getting what you pay for.