The Influence of Brewing Vessel on Tea Quality

For years and years, I’ve been hearing stories of how important the brewing vessel is in producing an excellent brew. Lots of different reasons have been given for why a particular method or material is the “best”. Unfortunately, very few of the claims are consistent. As an example, cast-iron tetsubins have been touted as being the best for brewing tea because the metal keeps the tea hotter longer. They’ve also been reviled for not keeping the tea hot enough because metal radiates heat too quickly. Some say they’re good for you because the iron they are made of conditions the water and acts as an iron supplement. Others say that the metal makes the tea taste metallic (even in ones where the water and tea never touch the metal because they’ve been enameled on the inside).

So how important is the container on the flavor of the tea? That depends. It depends on whether you think quality of the brewed tea is an objective thing, or if it’s subjective. Essentially, you’re delusional. Yes, I’m talking about you…the one reading this. I’m delusional, too, of course. Think about it. The standard human comes with two separate eyes and two separate optic nerves. How come you don’t see two images of everything? Because your brain takes actual objective information about the world and interprets it. And the human brain does lots of automatic interpretation—which sometimes isn’t accurate. If it was, there’d be no such thing as an optical illusion.

But what does that have to do with flavor? Plenty. I’d talk about it myself, but an article I read a couple of days ago does it far better than I ever could. It has to do with an analysis of the claim that different wine glasses make a difference in tasting wine. I encourage you to read it, keeping in mind any opinions you have about the suitability of a particular type of brewing vessel—tetsubin, Yixing clay, porcelain gaiwan, glass or silver teapot, etc.

Shattered Myths
by Daniel Zwerdling
published August 2004,

(Link opens in new window)

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so once you’re done reading the article, please come back and comment.

6 thoughts on “The Influence of Brewing Vessel on Tea Quality”

  1. Nihao Tea Geek, Thanks for finding this interesting article. I usually can’t tell the difference between similar teas without using my eyes so I laughed while reading about those wine pro’s drinking the same wine but rating it so differently based on the description.

    A “tongue map” sounds like a tattoo that a hardcore pirate might want to get to protect his treasure. But he’d want to get it done so that he could look at it in a mirror.

  2. I see what you are saying about our perceptions of quality as related to subjective taste, but you seem to be confusing what actually happens in the steeping vessel with what happens after steeping as our brains taste the tea.

    We could actually study things about tea vessels- the extent they hold or dissipate heat, mineral release or effect on water purity, even how vessel shape facilitates the release of aromatic and flavor compounds of the tea.

    However, even if you looked at the more objective aspects of tea steeping, I’m not sure how good it would do. There is still an intuitive element of preparing tea. Environment, age of tea, and the physical condition of our bodies leaves our subconscious minds with the final task interpreting these factors and telling us: “now the tea is properly steeped.”

  3. Well said, Jason. I also got drunk at Monell Chemical Senses Center, last October. Apparently smelling alcohol gives your stomach an early cue to start digesting it, so I swallowed a couple dozen alcohol pills with clamps on my nose, and was breathalyzed at intervals. Michael, you’re starting to sound nihilistic. Does your tea have not enough/too much iron in it? Do some blind trials, get a spectrometer, find us some objective results!

  4. Seems to me that there’s a difference between a brewing vessel like a teapot, tetsubin or gaiwan, and the cup you pour the tea into then drink it from… I’m prepared to believe that the former potentially makes a substantial difference especially when you consider the effect of glazing etc… although I’m sure oodles o unscientific nonsense has been spouted on this front too!

  5. I’d heard some time ago that the whole “tongue map” thing was debunked. The other rationale that I have heard for the various glass shapes has more to do with controlling the wine’s exposure to oxygen and either concentrating or dispersing the wine’s scent. I confess to a preference for Riedel because their stemware has very thin rims which allows the wine to flow more smoothly into my mouth.

    As for teaware, I think that the quality of the tea, the water, steep time, etc, are probably more important to the way tea tastes than the brewing vessel. But I do think that brewing vessel has some impact: A well-seasoned Yixing pot does seem to produce a richer, more flavorful tea. I also find that delicate white and green teas often do better steeped in a thin porcelain gaiwan.

    I suppose the only way to determine whether my preferences are “delusional” would be to do a blind taste test.

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