Thursday, November 30, 2017

Tea gear; on brewing devices

In a sense I’m not the right person to be writing about tea gear; I just stick to the basics related to what I own and use. 

I usually use a French press to make tea at work, and that or an infuser or gaiwan at home.  I own two clay pots I bought in Taiwan (almost certainly not yixing; they didn’t come with certificates).  As is typical I only use those with one type of tea each (Wuyi Yancha and sheng pu’er), with a lot of people narrowing use down to one level below that, a certain tea or a certain aged range.  I’ve not noticed they make a lot of difference in results, but I did brew a Rou Gui in the sheng pot once, and it did seem off, so they must be contributing something.

Teforia; it is / was cool looking (from a review mentioned here)

It was just in the news that one of the better regarded, most expensive brewing devices (systems?) by Teforia has been discontinued.  It seemed like spending $1000 on a way to brew tea isn’t in high demand (actually $1499 per this product review article, which more or less concludes “don’t buy it”).

Per my understanding at least one of their devices was based on a capsule system, and I really don’t have lots to say about those.  I tried a tea made in one at an expo once, and even if it had been better I still wouldn’t be interested.  The same is true of trying Thai tea—the orange spiced kind—prepared in an expresso maker.  A lot of teas turn out better brewed infused in water at temperatures under boiling point, and using 40 seconds of steam contact doesn’t seem ideal.

An online contact developed an automatically timed version of a basket type infuser, under the brand name Teaflo.  It’s the type where you push a button to allow the tea to drop into a mug, except in this case you don’t need to push a button.  An interesting variation of this design based on an hourglass shape was first developed in 2011, the Tea Time Tea Maker, but apparently it still hasn’t entered into commercial production.  Hand made brewing devices that combine function and artwork are another interesting sub-theme, but I’ll only mention an Instagram profile of one well-known example (Petr Novak's artwork / teaware), and then move on. 

Petr Novak teaware; more or less functional artworks (photo credit)

Cost as a concern mixes with function.  A $1000 solution seems like overkill but even an inexpensive infuser or French press is going to cost something.  The standard rate for that Teaflo device seems to be $48 per that link; not so bad.  The automated device that gets mentioned the most, the Breville tea maker, also covers the heating function (kettle part), and it “only” costs $230 at Walmart.

Breville One-touch (credit this product review article)

I usually spend around $10 on basic, inexpensive French press versions, or even less on basic gaiwans, but then I live in Bangkok, where some things can cost less.  I bought a gaiwan for around $8 in the Chinatown in NYC in January, and one well-known online vendor (YS) sells versions from that range up towards $20.  

My parents bought me a really nice “For Life” infuser basket device for Christmas.  It’s a bit of a gamble, them giving me that kind of thing, but it’s compellingly simple and effective, and cool looking, easy to like.  I just looked it up online; it goes for $26.50 on their website.  That seems a bit much, but then it is nice.  You could brew anything at all in it, probably even coffee.  That’s provided you want to make a whole cup of it at one go, and use something like a Western-style brewing proportion (a part that gets complicated). 

infuser at local cafe, like Teavana's (it might be this Mei Leaf version)

I checked what a push-button drop-style maker might cost--the type of design the Teaflo is based on--and Teavana’s normally had cost $22.95, now down to $16.07, unless they’ve cleared all their stock as part of going out of business.  Pushing that button yourself might seem no big deal, but that’s not really the point.  It’s about not needing to time it, or forgetting to do that, about the tea turning out better, or being able to jump in the shower instead of waiting.

a clay pot (not yixing, but along a similar line)

Right around this point it would make sense to start in on a narrative theme.  One possible version:  each to their own; it’s all good to make tea in any way that works for someone.  Or another:  soaking dried leaves in hot water for three minutes really doesn’t need to be gear intensive, and people might be looking for solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist.  A more subtle, developed version than those is possible.  People seem to naturally transition tea interest preferences, related to both tea types and brewing methodology, and a sophisticated mechanical solution that “brews the perfect cup of tea” is not regarded as a natural end point by most tea enthusiasts.  How dare I speak for everyone that likes a certain beverage?  Let me explain.

There is some leeway related to the qualifier “most” in that sweeping claim.  Based on people having so many preferences (yixing or other clay pots, gaiwans, infusers, tea bottles / tumblers, etc.) “most” tea enthusiasts don’t agree on any one best approach.  It’s probably not a radical claim that many people gravitate towards a Gongfu brewing approach further along the experience curve, based on using a higher proportion of tea to water and a higher count of short infusions.  Some tea types give better results made in such a way, and most others just turn out about the same.

It doesn’t stop there; I’ve ran across two other people with “the next best thing” ideas for brewing tea, and there must be countless existing devices and ideas out there.  This article lists more than a dozen, but that’s only scratching the surface.  I’m reminded of someone recently asking in a tea forum if a tea mat that includes a timing device seemed like a good idea.  Everyone there said no.  Of course brewing devices are a real thing, they’re practical, but per my own take—which is only one of many—someone should try out an inexpensive gaiwan before getting too far into other gear.  If that timing step really is an issue a $48 gear solution doesn’t sound so bad.  And it’s worth bearing in mind that in a pinch someone could mix dry leaves and water in a coffee mug, and then strain those into a second one.

lots of teaware at the Lin Mao Sen shop in Taipei

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