Steeped in heritage, there is so much more than meets the eye when it comes to one of the essentials in tea brewing—the humble teapot.
It is often said that antiques are great storytellers, and the teapot is no exception—having a history that is as exciting as tea itself. The story of the teapot tells the tale of its evolution that spanned different countries and cultures, and it also mirrors the way tea drinking and culture has progressed from its simple origins to the colourful diversity we have today.
Echoing the discovery of tea by the Chinese, the first written records of the teapot also stem from China. While tea was initially meant to be a medicinal drink and was mostly brewed in large, communal pots, the formal teapot was created during the Song Dynasty as it was necessary to match the refinement of the tea brewing process.
Originating from Jiangsu, China, the first teapots around were Yixing teapots, made with a unique clay called zisha, chosen for its heat durability and porous property that allowed the teapot to absorb the flavour and aroma of the tea better, enhancing the richness of each brew. What’s unique about these earthen teapots was that with more brews, more of the tea’s natural aroma gets absorbed into the teapot, and over time, one could simply pour in water without the tea leaves for a nicely brewed pot of tea.
These teapots were small, as they were designed for individual use and people typically reserved different pots for different blends. And in those times, people even drank their tea directly from the spout of the pot.
When tea was brought to Japan, the Japanese people fell in love with the beverage and invited Chinese artisans to teach them the art of making earthen teapots like the Yixing. Hence, the Kyusu was born, a traditional Japanese teapot made with high-quality fired volcanic clay, with a defining side handle characteristic. Just like how the Yixing allows absorption of the tea’s natural flavours into the pot, green tea leaves are brewed loose in Kyusu teapots to develop their aroma to its maximum. A clay or metal filter is positioned at the spout to ensure the tea leaves remain in the pot when pouring.
Eventually, tea became a staple good exported from China to Europe in the 17th century. Teapots were also exported with the tea, and most of the teapots were painted in blue and white, of the traditional Chinese Qing Hua style of painting. The Europeans later adopted this style, creating the signature China blue porcelain. Europeans continued to import teapots, until the discovery of creating porcelain by German alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger, who started manufacturing teapots.
Britain, another famed tea capital, also created their own teapot, Brown Betty, after they discovered a suitable red clay in the Stoke-on-Trent area in 1695. When tea reached its peak popularity in the Victorian era, the Brown Betty teapots were coveted as it was believed that the tea brewed in these were of top quality. Inspired once again by the Yixing teapot, the Brown Betty’s design provided more space for the tea leaves to swirl around in it, releasing more flavour and less bitterness.
From the dawn of the tea bag in the 1900s, there has been a decreased need for teapots, since tea could be brewed in cups and the strainer was no longer a necessary function for a teapot. With this shift, the purpose of the teapot has evolved to become more of a collectors’ item or art piece, as evident from the multitudes of colours, shapes and sizes present in the market. However, with an increased interest in specialty and artisan teas today, tea connoisseurs are popping up around the world and teapots are used for teas that require more specifics in their brewing.