The city of Yixing in eastern China is synonymous with teapots.
Here, virtually ever street corner has an artisan specialized in the craft of making teaware.
Their most well-known export is the reddish-brown Yixing teapot. Often found in curio stores and specialty tea shops, they’re ubiquitous in Chinese communities around the world.
In Yixing, their hometown, the teapots have been popular for over 500 years. Tea connoisseurs believe that the porous pots can absorb and enhance the flavor of tea, particularly black and pu’er varieties.
(Read more: Why do green and black tea taste so different?)
“The best thing is to have one teapot for one type of tea,” says Yu Ping, who has been making teapots in Yuxing for some 20 years. “A lot of people tell me that they have a teapot that just sits on a shelf. I tell them that if you store it, its inherent value is gone.”
Like a fine bottle of wine, a Yixing teapot gets better with age. Conventional wisdom says that it should never be washed with soap to allow the remnants of each brew to stick to the pot.
“An aged teapot is quite beautiful.”
The longer a teapot is used, the smoother it becomes and the more flavorful the tea gets.
“The teapot is a luxury, a practical tool, and a work of art,” Yu says. “An aged teapot is quite beautiful.”
Steeped in tradition
What makes the teapots unique is the material used to make it: a local clay known as zisha.
Fired without glaze or paint, zisha has a sandy texture and porousness that is said to help absorb and enhance the flavor of tea.
“Zisha teapots breathe very well,” Yu says. “They have a lot of minerals in them like iron and mica.”
The clay also contains significant amounts of quartz and kaolin, the same substance used to make porcelain. It’s what gives the pot a stone-like quality.
The high iron content contributes to the signature red-purple hue.
Demand for these teapots is high, but so is the sheer level of skill that goes into making just one.
Unlike other forms of pottery, where clay is thrown on a powered wheel, Yixing teapots are shaped by pounding the clay piece by piece. It can take up to a month to make one teapot.
As a result, a fully handmade Yixing teapot usually costs no less than $60.
But zisha as a natural resource is becoming harder to come by, and the market is saturated with fakes and cheap clay.
With the advent of 3-D printing and widespread use of molds, a truly quality pot is an increasingly rare find.