Sunday, April 3, 2011
Harmonizing Water and Tea: Part 6- A Look At Silver, Ceramic, and Iron Kettles and Tetsubins
The type of kettle or tetsubin used to boil the water for tea has a profound effect on the water and therefore on the resulting infusion. There are only two moments during the preparation of tea where three of the Five Elements directly interact- while boiling the water and while steeping the tea. The boiling of the water is more yin and the steeping of tea is more yang. In the most basic sense they comprise a whole and result in the final product of tea.
These two instances are the points in tea preparation where there is the strongest exchange of energy. So in many ways these two points have a very strong relationship with timing (astrology) because over exposure to one of the three elements will create unequal balance and lead to inferior cup of tea.
The elements that deal with the boiling of water are Water and Fire. Water pertains to the water (of course) and Fire pertains to the heat source. Between them in the cycle of elements is either Earth or Metal- the materials of the kettle or tetsubin. Earth and Metal also lay between the water and the heat source when preparing tea. As such the interactions between these elements should be carefully considered when trying to harmonize water with tea. Metal is thought to strengthen Water (producing cycle) and Earth is though to moderate it (controlling cycle).
Silver is the colour white and is absolutely lustrous, this makes it the purist of all metals. It is light in nature and is therefore full of yang energy. In the cycle of elements Metal is thought to empower Water. The pure light energy of silver does just that. Much has been written about the benefits a sliver kettle and its effects on water throughout history and even on the blogasphere (See Marshal'N posts on silver, Stephane's post on silver and this wonderful article by Aaron Fisher). Even the Saint of Tea, Lu Yu, recommended its use (as discussed here in the bookclub) and the Japanese mastered the art, some of the most well made come from here.
Silver strengthens water because it is the purest metal. Silver imbues water with a light quality because silver is light in nature. It sweetens water because silver has strong yang qualities- it is light, shiny, and pure. The sweet flavour is yang in nature and is thought to strengthen. Silver is a sign of purity. Not only does it purify the water but also it helps cultivate the pure mind of those who boil water with it (In Steve Owyoung's translation of Lu Yu here).
Water boiled in silver kettles harmonize best with lighter teas such as white tea, green tea, and lighter oolong. The water boiled with a silver kettle doesn't restrain the light rising energy of these teas and augments their subtle, light nature. Silver kettles bring out more yang characteristics such as smells and sweet subtle tastes, qualities that are prized in these types of teas.
The downsides of silver is that it cannot withstand long periods of high temperatures and although it conducts heat quickly, it also looses heat relatively quickly. Silver can easily tarnish just as a pure mind can be corrupted. Silver is a very luxurious metal and should be only used for special occasions and for special guests otherwise it can impart those who prepare tea with pretentious attitude.
Ceramic kettles are composed of earth and carry with it the qualities of Earth. Earth is thought to carry harmonious, balancing, and neutralizing properties that are neither yin nor yang in nature. Water springs forth from the earth and therefore has a close relationship with it. Earth is thought to control Water, afterall, the rocks of the mountain once contained waters true nature. Reuniting water with earth helps to bring it stability, thereby strengthening the connection to its original nature. There are a growing number of tea bloggers out there that are using ceramic or clay kettles/tetsubins such as David and Phillipe, who use Taiwanese based Lin's ceramic kettles, Imen, who uses a Chao Zhou style kettle, and Stepahane, who has experimented with a zisha kettle, and the author of MattCha's who uses a Korean style ceramic tang gwan. Traditionally places such as Hangzhou (see Steve's Comment) and much of Chao Zhou (Teamasters Blog and Tea Obsession) in China, Korea (MattCha's Blog), and even Japan (Gongfu Girl) have used such kettles.
Ceramics harmonize water rounding the bad edges of the water and augmenting the good. This is the function of Earth- keeping things in harmony and balance. If the water has manged to pickup strange odours and tastes, a ceramic kettle will round off these unpleasant characteristics. The porous nature of clay acts as a sponge and filter- removing these undesirable qualities. On the other hand, if the water is flat and lacks vitality, a ceramic kettle will regenerate the lost vitality. The exchange of minerals, substances, and energy of the clay will leach into the water. If the water is too heavy with a mineral content that is too high, it will remove some of its weight. Conversely, if the water is too light with a mineral content that is too low, it will augment the water with weight. In this way Earth is said to control Water by bringing it closer to its true natural state, the way it was when resting amongst the earth and rocks before it was extracted.
Earth is grounding and centering in nature. Not only does it even out the water but also it helps ground and center the minds of those who boil water with it, cultivating the Middle Way. Boiling water from a ceramic kettle can also connect us to nature.
Water boiled in ceramic kettles harmonize best with most teas. Almost all tea will benefit from the harmonious nature of water boiled in ceramic kettles. Very deep dark teas such as aged high quality puerh and very light subtle teas such as first pick, early spring, premium quality green teas are best not brewed using water from a ceramic kettle. This is because the water from a ceramic kettle has subtle moderating properties, centering the deep yin nature of an old puerh and the light yang nature of the lightest greens. Earth is moderating in nature. This is only for the purest of tea though, most old puerh and early spring green will actually benefit from water boiling in a ceramic kettle.
The downside of ceramic kettles is that they can easily break if care is not taken. In this way, they cultivate a mindful practice when preparing tea.
Iron is a deep lustrous grey colour and is quite heavy. These deep, heavy characteristics give iron a strong yin, sinking quality. Metal is thought to empower Water. The heavy, deep nature of iron does just that. Its deep yin nature strengthens the true yin nature of water. Iron gives water a certain full, round quality to it- a diffuse, subtle, or deep sweetness is also added to the water. It makes water more heavy in the mouth with an enhanced mouthfeel. Deep full flavours are yin in nature. There is still some diffuse deep sweet tastes (yin within yang) because Metal strengthens Water. Iron tetsubins are very durable and often reasonably priced which makes them practical. Many tea bloggers use iron tetsubins (Hobbes, Stephane, Marshal'N, Zero The Hero, Aaron Fisher, Toki). They follow good company as Lu Yu must have appreciated these characteristics because he also used a iron tetsubin and reccomended its use for everyday tea.
Iron is also a relatively reactive substance, infusing the water with minerals (see HoJo's thorough article here). Water boiled in iron therefore carries some of this element into the body. Because iron is heavy in nature, water boiled in an iron tetsubin sinks to the deepest levels of the body. It is even said that iron can reach the deepest, blood level of our body (deep yin), nurturing it. This is how iron is strengthening. It literally strengthens our blood of which iron (and oxygen, its yang component) is a major component. Iron is therefore said to be strong and enduring in nature. Not only does it strengthen the water but also helps cultivate strength and mental endurance of those who boil water with it. The heavy nature of iron is thought to suppress elevated moods, emotional outbursts, tempers, and other boisterous behaviors. These states of mind should be reined in during the calm mindfulness of a tea session. Water boiled in an iron tetsubin helps bring us down, into the moment with tea.
Water boiled in iron tetsubins harmonize best with darker, deeper teas such as red tea, black tea, darker oolong, and puerh tea. The water boiled with an iron tetsubin sinks harmoniously to the deeper levels with these teas, guiding them deeper, and augmenting their deep, rich nature while sweetening them slightly. Iron tetsubins bring out more yin characteristics such as deep, rich, full tastes and mouthfeel qualities that are prized in these types of tea.
The downside of iron tetsubins is that they can easily rust. Even strong minds can waver, if they are careless. Iron is also very heavy in weight especially when full of water. Those who are weak can be overwhelmed by the heavy weight of these tetsubins. This can lead to jerky movements restricting of the qi of the person preparing tea and interrupting the smooth flow and ease of interaction in the tea room.
The next part will look modern issues with the kettle/tetsubin and other factors that should be considered when using a kettle/ tetsubin to harmonize water with tea.