tales and legends abound in connection with these pots. my favorite is the one about how the emperor of china, traveling [as he was wont to do] incognito, was received in the humble cottage of a peasant, who of course hastened to serve tea as he would to any guest. he took his old zisha pot from its stand and filled it with boiling water. when he filled the cup, the brew was so astonishingly good that the emperor could not contain himself. 'this tea is extraordinary!' he exclaimed. 'where did you get it?' to which the peasant replied, 'i used no tea at all. i am too poor to buy more tea. but this pot has been in my family for generations; over the years, it has seen so many potsful of tea that now, i merely have to fill it with hot water and it makes tea.'
the tale, while surely apocryphal, is ben trovato. whether or not this incident ever actually occurred, the narrative serves to remind us that zisha is highly sought after on account of its porosity. traditionally unglazed inside and out, it indubitably does absorb the essential oils [and some of the pigmentation] of the liquor -- and arguably, thus, some of the flavor of the tea brewed in it. those who love zisha teapots swear that once they have been 'cured' [or 'seasoned' or 'raised'] with one particular type of tea [shu pu'er, say, or da hong pao], each subsequent potful of that tea is noticeably richer, more nuanced, and just better than a tea made in a new pot [or in a non-porous vessel such as one made of porcelain or glass].
these pots come in a myriad of sizes, from very small -- an ounce or two in capacity -- to great family-sized pots. they come in even more shapes: indeed it is no exaggeration to consider their making as an art-form in itself, a type of ceramic sculpture. anything that can be fashioned of clay, and fired successfully in a kiln, is fair game for a zisha teapot. these creations will range from the purest, simplest, and most austere shapes to the extremes of fanciful and outlandish.
they also come in a variety of colors. the commonest are, well, what you would call 'clay-colored': hongni [红泥] or 'red mud,' and zini [紫泥] or 'purple mud.' but one can also find pots made of duanni [缎泥], usually yellowish; luni [绿泥], 'green mud'; and heini [黑泥], 'black mud.' [these colors can occur naturally, but the occurrence is rare, and the pottery is correspondingly expensive. more commonly the colors are the result of, shall we say, chromatic enhancement by the potter.]
the famous 'vermilion' or zhuni [朱泥] clay, so prized for the making of unglazed teapots in yixing, is now reported to be extinct [though some potters are rumored to be hoarding unused stores of it still]; but other types of zisha, as mentioned above, are still commonly dug and used for the pots, and it's quite possible to purchase one, at a reasonable price, that will perform very well for you. indeed you can do so without leaving your computer: a simple search on ebay will direct you to numerous vendors, including yunnan sourcing, 5000 friends, chinese teapot gallery, and pots & else. [off ebay, be sure also to check out jing tea shop, teaspring, silk road trade, and asia chi -- just for starters.]
have you ever wondered what sort [or sorts] of tea the potters of those pots prefer to drink from them? i suppose it doesn't necessarily follow that those who craft the pots will infallibly know which tea is best brewed in them; but i surmised nevertheless that those who are around such peculiar teapots all day, every day, might know a thing or two about how to take them out for a spin.
it struck me that if the good potters of yixing should happen to favor one particular type of tea, this would be almost the 'eponymous' tea of yixing pots. i consulted a colleague, a true aficionado and collector of both china teas and zisha teapots, and sure enough, it turns out that the yixing potters do in fact drink one tea almost exclusively. it may surprise you to learn that it is neither a wulong nor a pu'er cha, but in fact a hong cha: a 'red' tea [what the english call 'black']. it is known [by one of yixing's ancient names, 阳羡] as yangxian hong cha. this tea is generally not even available outside of yixing itself; there is indeed little call for it except to stock the private reserves of the yixing potters, as this region of china drinks mostly green tea.
my colleague, who is as generous as he is learned, went further still, and supplied me with yangxian hong from three different sources: grand tea, taishuanhe, and a third unnamed source [call these #1, 2, and 3 respectively]. i thus had the luxury of undertaking a cup-to-cup comparison of three different yangxian hongs.
<<< yangxian hong no. 1
the dry leaf was worth inspecting. you will see from the photos here that #1 and 2 look remarkably alike -- enough so that i could believe they came from the same garden. #3 is noticeably different -- the leaf-size is smaller than in the other two, and there are gold tips in it, whereas #1 and 2 are pretty much monochromatic.
<<< yangxian hong no. 2
i prepared all three at the same time, each in a porcelain gaiwan [not a yixing pot -- i wanted to experience each one on equal ground, as it were, its own flavor pristine and unmingled] -- four grammes of tea to four ounces of water. the temperature was about 185°F. the infusion was for a full three minutes. they were immediately decanted into good-sized plain white porcelain sipping cups.
<<< yangxian hong no. 3
with three or more exemplars of any given type of tea, it is possible to look not only for what distinguishes them one from another, but possibly also what is the common thread that unites them in their genre. in my tasting, i was indeed able to discern a common flavor among these three teas. and, not surprisingly, some differences as well. all three of them evince the sort of nutty/toasty sweetness that one finds in a good keemun, but not that 'dying rose' fragrance [to borrow a metaphor from norwood pratt] that characterizes the high-end 'hao ya' keemuns. #1 and 2 shared a nutty flavor, though this was more pronounced in #1, whereas #2 had rather [or was it my imagination? i did go back and forth between sipping cups, several times, to check this] a floral note not noticed in #1. and #3 had the most vivid cocoa flavor of any of them.
interestingly, despite the markedly different appearance of the dry leaf in #3, all three teas produced a liquor of virtually identical color: a strong dark-red brew, somewhat duller than the sheen one finds on a top-grade dian hong. the infused leaves brought yet another surprise: #1 and 3 looked more alike than #2, though [based on the dry leaf] i would have expected identical aspect for #1 and 2. the one thing that did remain the same in #1 and 2 is that one can see some of these leaves are a bit longer. those in #3 are uniformly quite small.
this is not the most distinguished tea to come out of china. true to its quotidian employ, it is an honest workaday red tea. apart from the keemun, i was reminded of other fairly ordinary hong cha, the kind one might source from sichuan or fujian. i could happily drink this one daily, though i am sure i would also find myself yearning for other flavors as well. but it was a memorable experience to be able to taste the tea that the potters of yixing insist on brewing in the very pots they make. it was like a wee trip to yixing itself, a momentary journey to the pottery markets where, surrounded by shelves and boxes of pots, cups, trays, and other unglazed ceramic teaware, i might glimpse the potter pausing to refresh himself with a cup of this fragrant red tea.
it also made me think back to the legend of the emperor and the peasant. in pondering this oral tradition about the special virtue of unglazed clay teapots, so imbued with tea essence that just to fill them with boiling water will induce them to create a pot of tea, i cannot help but wonder whether it reflects the practice of using zisha pots to brew this very yangxian hong cha. certainly the residue from a tea this rich, thick, and dark would infuse hot water with something more immediately recognizable as 'tea' than a paler wulong, for example; more so still than a green or white tea. but such speculation must forever remain precisely that. what is possible for us is to enjoy our tea daily in such a pot, and to observe how patient daily use will, over time, turn it into something entirely different: a vessel capable of affecting the very brew it produces. in that way, it can become an integral, and beloved, part of the tea experience.