First, please note that I will be talking about Yixing teapots in terms of improving tea taste. This is not about Yixing teapots as art pieces and collector items.
I am a tea newbie, and I am trying to learn. Part of learning involves checking if Yixing teapots are superior vessels for brewing tea.
I bought a few Yixing pots, in different clays and at different price levels. Then I tested various permutations of teas and pots. I found it true that some unglazed clays alter the taste of tea, often in a good way.
Actually, I am now dedicating a Yixing teapot to Bai Ji Guan (which I found tastes completely unlike other yancha).
I wrote some unglazed clays alter taste
and not Yixing on purpose. Because I have doubts about Yixing being unique. Why should it be unique? There are many million tons of clay on earth and many thousand quarries.
A lot of the terminology explaining Yixing quality (porosity, thermal conductivity) is exactly the same as the one used in refractory science. I have some contacts in the refractory business (eg http://www.refra.com/). Talking to them, I have no doubt that if there was money in it, a company would be able to create "synthetic" clays with similar kiln outcome as "natural" Yixing (in terms of porosity, thermal conductivity, iron content...).
So here was my first doubt. My second doubt is due to the fact that I could not find any serious academic studies about the impact of Yixing on taste. Where are the controlled experiments (same water, same pot shape and thickness, same temperature, randomized tasting order)? Where are the blind tests? Where are the control groups? Where are the statistical analyses?
Without those, there is no way you can tell for sure that Yixing is superior. In particular, there is no way to factor out placebo effects.
This situation reminds me a lot of wine. I am a tea newbie, but I am French, which means I know a bit about wine
(including some elective classes in oenology and wine tasting). Blind tests can be pretty sobering for so-called wine experts. Most people can't even tell the difference between white and red wine when they taste it blind (tea is different, it is easy to recognize, but I am not talking about tea here, I am talking about the effect of Yixing).
A lot of wine rankings are just plainly wrong (like the 1855 Bordeaux wine classification). Those French wine rankings are just hype, marketing tools.
Hype brings me to my third doubt. Two Chinese persons taught me something about Chinese marketing.
First one is a local tea shop owner I buy tea from. She knows tea well, because when I tell her about a tea I like, she is able to find a similar tea I will like too, albeit from a different region.
She is selling Yixing pots but she actually discouraged me from buying any from her, saying she does not understand why people buy her pots, unless it is for decoration. According to her:
- there are many crappy pots in which never to brew tea.
- pots with good clay will indeed brew good tea when well-paired.
- but past a certain level of quality, it is stupid to overpay, because no one can actually tell the difference (just like expensive wines!), and opinion will vary from person to person.
- exact Yixing clay quality is hype, most clays are mixed.
- clay pots are not the best choice for some teas (e.g. Gao Shan Cha)
Her conclusion was: a lot of marketing.
Second Chinese person is a Chinese trainee at work. I was talking about Wuyi yancha from Fujian. She is from Jiangxi. She told me the Wuyi mountain range extends to Jiangxi, which produces tea just as good as Fujian tea. The difference is that the Fujian guys are great marketers whereas in Jiangxi they are not. Maybe she was only being patriotic about her province. But then I asked about Yixing clay and she said the same thing: cute pots and lots of marketing (I should know, my Chinese grand-father was a serial entrepreneur).
We are at the end of this long message. To summarize my three doubts about Yixing being a uniquely superior clay type for brewing tea:
- I am pretty sure similar clays can be found in nature or manufactured
- Where are the scientific studies?
- Some people can be pretty good salesmen