Tea-making technology steeped in tradition

Future Tense for 27, 2007

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

My wife’s favorite beverage is tea. She prefers it unsweetened, but she’s from Missouri and friends here in North Carolina have learned to accept her eccentricity, even if they don’t understand it.

There’s always a jar of freshly made sun tea on our kitchen counter and a teapot on the stove. Look around our pantry and you will find bags, boxes and cans of Tazo and Lipton’s, Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, Constant Comment, etc. and even a few herbal teas.

Despite tea’s constant presence in our household, I can’t remember ever thinking much about teapots until Californians Sonny and Gloria Kamm began talking with officials in Sparta, the county seat of neighboring Alleghany County, about creating a Teapot Museum.

According to the invaluable Wikipedia, the Chinese have cultivated tea, the leaves of an evergreen tree, since 400 years before the birth of Christ. But teapots did not appear until the beginning of the Ming dynasty around 1400 A.D. Before that time, the Chinese rolled the leaves by hand, dried them and then ground them to make a powder they boiled in water.

The oldest teapots came from the YiXing region. They were designed to brew the tea and also serve it. People drank directly from the spout while using the handle to avoid burning their fingers. As technology goes, this was a perfect combination of form and function.

“Japanese demand for teapots created a growth in the industry of this new form of pottery,” the Wikipedia says. “Chinese scholars and intellectuals involved themselves in the design of teapots. The ‘cult of tea’ in Japan ... became an impetus for stylistic and artistic evolution in YiXing teapot designs.

“Teapots detailed with themes from nature or sutras were desirable adjuncts to this art, and YiXing pots themselves became prized as creative works. The Japanese began making red clay or shudei teapots; they imported Chinese artists to teach them potting methods, and developed new techniques for creating these delicate wares.”

Around 1700, Europeans discovered the secret of making porcelain (a process known in China since the 9th century) and soon turned it into teapots and cups.

Sonny and Gloria Kamms’ collection includes a porcelain teapot dated 1745 and made at the Chelsea Factory on the outskirts of London, the first shop to produce porcelain in England. Shaped like a man holding a serpent that serves as the spout, the “Chinaman teapot” is, according to Sonny Kamm, “one of the most famous teapots in captivity.” Only five exist.

Teapots have been made from many materials. Connoisseurs say stoneware is best for black teas, metal (pewter, iron or silver) for strong teas like Assam and Ceylon, the afore-mentioned YiXing clay for oolong and porcelain or fine chinaware for green tea and Darjeeling.

By the way, there is a technical difference between tea kettles and teapots. The former boils water to be poured over tea leaves in the latter. Boiling the tea itself would cook off volatile oils that give tea its complex aroma and flavor (and making sun tea, unless the water heats to at least 130 degrees, does not release enough of those oils).

Teapots have been styled and also decorated for centuries. However, as the Kamms explained when they created their traveling exhibition, “The Artful Teapot,” the teapot became a true showcase for artistic expression in the 20th century.

“These works address multiple issues of beauty, portraiture, social concerns, irony, politics, narrative, pure abstraction and, of course, the rituals of tea,” according to the exhibition catalog. The exhibit showed pots from 100 prominent artists and designers, including painters Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney, sculptors Michael Lucero and Arman, architects Michael Graces and Walter Gropius and ceramicists Betty Woodman and Beatrice Wood. “Together these individuals redefine the teapot as a provocative, playful and profound work of art.” They redefine the price of teapots, too. Some artists’ one-of-a-kind teapots sell for $10,000 to $15,000.

You can buy teapots for $5 or less at the flea markets on U.S. 52. And, as with almost all collectibles, you might find a valuable antique. A humble little teapot, “short and stout,” sitting neglected in a dusty bin might be worth up to $100,000. An original Paul Revere teapot has sold for $600,000.

You don’t need teapots to make great tea. A trained geisha prepared the best I’ve ever had during a Japanese tea ceremony in, of all places, Billings, Mont. She ladled the hot water directly over tea leaves in my cup.

At last report, Sparta planned to cut back on its grand dreams for the Teapot Museum. Both private and public supporters could not raise enough money for what had swelled to a $15-million project. It didn't help their fundraising efforts when some state and federal politicians held up the Teapot Museum as an example of wasting government funds -- and never mind that Alleghany County truly needs more investment to make up for the loss of textile-manufacturing jobs.

Whether and how the Teapot Museum becomes a reality is a story yet to be written. However, it doesn't take a careful reading of the tea leaves to predict that tea-making technology will continue to evolve ... in the future.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/37. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net