Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 1- Introduction

There is little to no literature in English on the use of charcoal to heat water for tea, yet it was done this way for hundreds even thousands of years before. It is quite humorous that one English site claims that there once was an Tao of Charcoal- although this is meant to be a joke there is a measure of truth to it. There is a traditional Way of Tea that sees the use of charcoal as an essential component to harmonize the energies of the tea room while imparting the best possible taste to the water. Few people who have tried tea made with water boiled over charcoal heat deny that it creates the best possible water for tea. Current scientific research in Japan suggests that the benifits of infrared heat might have something to do with slight changes in the water's structure under infrared heat (see comments section here).

Fire is thought to be the most yang of the elements. Fire is active, vibrant, hot, and ascends- this is natures law. Water is thought to be the most yin of the elements. Water is passive, nourishing, cool, and descends- this is nature's law. In the traditional movement of the Five Elements, Water is thought to control or balance Fire. When Fire becomes relatively more abundant Water can pacify its energy. Conversely, an overabundance of Fire can pacify Water. When we make tea, the goal is harmony between these Elements.

Wood also plays an intermediate roll between Water and Fire. Wood is nourished by Water. Water's nourishment is necessary for Wood to grow and become strong. In this way it is said that Water is the mother of Wood. Wood generates Fire. Wood acts as fuel which is necessary for Fire to burn and become powerful. In this way it is said that Wood is the mother of Fire. This is the way of nature and the way of the Dao.

Throughout early tea history wood was likely used as the primary source of heat for making tea, old images and poems describe the use of wood when making tea while enjoying the vast beauties of the outdoors. It is important to note here that the heat given off from wood and traditional charcoal are energetically different- traditional charcoal burns as pure infrared where as wood heats with the gases released from the wood itself as well as infrared. As a result burning wood and burning charcoal each impact the boiling water and the resulting tea infusions slightly differently.

Over the years wood was slowly refined into higher and higher quality charcoal. Charcoal had an advantage over wood in that it could burn longer and more controlled. Gradually charcoal was refined to the high quality traditional grade that is used today- reaching its zenith only 300 years ago.

Due to the convenience and consistency of modern heat sources, the use of traditional charcoal in the preparation of tea has declined dramatically. The use of traditional charcoal has always been to create harmony in the tea room and within the teapot. It should be noted that in today's world the use of charcoal is often not appropriate and could create more disharmony in the tea room especially if not used mindfully.

In the following weeks and months this series will focus on how to achieve harmony when using traditional charcoal to boil water for tea. It will cover topics such as: the different cultural traditions of using traditional charcoal to boil water for tea, determining the quality of charcoal, making your own charcoal, methods and theories of starting a charcoal fire, safety issues when using traditional charcoal, and the energetics of traditional charcoal.

So, as the chill of Winter sets in, gather round and feel the penetrating warmth as we discuss in detail the harmony that traditional charcoal brings to the preparation of tea.


Disclaimer: Using any flammable substance such as charcoal comes with some level of risk. MattCha's Blog takes no responsibly for any harm done by readers of this blog. Please use common sense and take reasonable safety precautions when using charcoal. Always make sure there is adequate ventilation if burning charcoal inside.

Double Peace


Petr Novák said...

Hi Matt,

Thank you for starting this charcoal serie. I think I am not alone who see it as sincerely helpful. Also thanks for your patient answers to my questions like here

Enjoy your day

Matt said...


Had prepared pages of notes on this topic over the years. Its good to put them out there for others to enjoy.

Please don't hesitate to ask any more questions or to clarify any details or specifics on this topic.

Still waiting to see your kettles and stoves that you've pulled out from the kiln.


Unknown said...

I agree with Petr - your writing about charcoal is a great idea. I am not enough sensetive to fell a big difference betwen water prepared in different ways but I love
the ambience around that kind of heat. Waiting, smell, sound. I am sure you will not forget about 4th element- earth. I hope to learn here about charcoal stoves (like furo and ryoro), and kettles like bofuro and their Chinese and Korean "grandpa". Thank you.
btw if anyone use iron tripod and terracota kettle there we have all five elements
Best. Andrzej Bero

Matt said...

Andrzej Bero,

The ambiance around a charcoal stove is part of what is missing from today's tea experience. As you mentioned the waiting, the smell, and the sounds of charcoal heat can not be replicated. There is simply something about gathering around the heat given off by traditional charcoal on a cold day that can't be captured in words. Thanks for mentioning that.

Here are some older links to some ceramic tea stoves and ceramic kettles you may find interesting:

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on charcoal.


toki said...

Great Post as usual Matt. Can't wait to see how you start the fire. Which I call it Kung-Fu Charcoal : )
Best ~ Toki

Unknown said...

Thanks for links - very inspirational.
I love Lee Tae Ho kettle.
And a question came to me. Most of ceramic kettles I know (both from China and Japan)are not glazed. As I can see on all your pictures, Korean pots are glazed. Do you know the reasons of that disparity? or I just do not see whole elefant.
best, andrzej

Matt said...


"Can't wait to see how you start the fire"

With lots of "Kung-Fu" propane. Hahaha

Andrzej Bero,

Yeah, you lookin' at the elephant all right :)

They do have glaze on them- sometimes even thick gloopy glaze like that Kim Jeong Hoon kettle and stove! Korean pottery is an amazing thing- the glaze definitely adds a certain aesthetic to them.


A Student Of Tea said...

Really looking forward to this ... Bought a small charcoal stove earlier this year, but used it only a few times outdoors.
It will be interesting how you get charcoal started and how you handle faning. I wouldn't want to do it indoors because there was always ash flying.

Great idea!


Matt said...


Oh, please share! What style of stove did you purchase and how did you decide on that stove?

Looking forward to hearing from you throughout this series.


Anonymous said...

Dear Matt,
How important is the kettle in this endeavor? For example, does a tetsubin impede the absorption of charcoal essence or denature the infrared heat?

Matt said...


The material of the kettle does impact the qi of the water. See here:

However, it doesn't denature the infrared heat given off from charcoal but instead imparts its own character derived from its materials (iron in tetsubins, minerals in the clay for ceramic kettles, ect) into the water.

Hope this helps.


David said...

This is a nice thread, i'm also looking forward to my first attempt to prepare some tea with charcoal.
What i am missing though is a stove for my tetsubin. Any recommendations where to get something decent?


Matt said...


Try giving Petr from Pots and Tea blog an email he has been experimenting with them lately:

Imen from Tea Obsession blog also stocks Chao Zhao style tea stoves on occasion, you can also try her: