Monday, April 2, 2012

Tetsubin adventures

You knew it would happen eventually.  At some point along the way the quest for the quintessential puerh experience leads one into all sorts of mischief with new tea gadgetry.  Today was my first try with a tetsubin.

I'm a sucker for stories of how older, well-used teaware contribute something special to a tea session. I can't say for sure if this is really quantifiably true, but certainly for me it has an affect on awareness.  Knowing I'm using something that was either made during a time when mass-production was small scale compared to today's standards, or was well-used by a previous tea lover, somehow assures me.  But the case of this particular tetsubin has been a real test of my preferences.  It's one thing to sip tea from an old porcelain teacup, and quite another to use water from a rusty old kettle!  I don't know how old it is.  The guy who sold it to me said it was made pre-1900 but I take that with a very big grain of salt.  Regardless of it's true age though, it's clearly been well-used as evidenced by the very thick layer of mineral deposits on the interior.

And yes, lots of rust.  No doubt far more degraded than anyone in their right mind would ever think to use (I'm expecting commentary like "What the *!&$! were you thinking?" and "No way I'd have gone for that one").  But I was intrigued by the thick layer of mineral deposits, curious to know if and how it would affect the water (though the real test of this will be to compare it side by side with a new tetsubin, which I'll get to eventually).  It's thanks to articles like this one from The Leaf that got me curious about crusty old tetsubin, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding.  No way to tell if this is a good or bad thing until I try it out.

But let me tell you, it wasn't just the crusted interior that set me back, but even more so the smell coming from inside.  It smelled like an old railway station from the industrial age.  Off-putting to say the least. There was no way I was going to drink anything from it smelling like that.  Thus began several weeks of just boiling water in it, again and again.  Fill with water, boil, pour down the drain, repeat-repeat-repeat.  Before pouring the water down the drain I'd pour it into a large white ceramic bowl so I could see the color of the water and also check for what kinds of bits and pieces might be coming out.

Although the water poured colorless, there were initially lots of those bits and pieces.  These were from a few areas where the layer of mineral deposits had separated from the wall of the tetsubin.  Initially, I heeded the cautions I'd read online, telling you not to disturb the mineral layer.  But as I boiled the water I noticed that these separated areas would cause the boiling water to get particularly agitated, which caused chunks to break free.  Also, after pouring the water out and leaving the kettle to dry, those pockets were always the last to dry out.  It seemed to me these separated areas were only causing more degradation and rust, so I went ahead and pulled off the deposit layer where I could.  Interestingly, there were only a few places I could do this.  For the most part, the mineral layer seemed to be virtually cemented-on and an integral outgrowth of the walls of the tetsubin.  There was no way I could have pulled it all off even if I'd wanted to (short of using a jackhammer).  The one big chunk below (shown front and back) is from the area shown in the photo directly above.  Interesting to observe the rusted iron layer on the back which seems to lend credence to the idea that these deposits eventually become enmeshed with the iron, especially as the iron rusts and degrades --

After a full week of just boiling water in it, it still had an unpleasant old train station smell.  I was starting to think this would be one of those tetsubin that either needs to be seriously scrubbed out, reconditioned or just plain tossed, but went looking online for ideas.  I found a Japanese website that suggested boiling a piece of ginger in the tetsubin to get rid of off-smells.  It worked like a charm!  The railway smell disappeared.  Happily, it didn't smell like ginger either.  It just smelled like what you'd expect an iron kettle to smell like.  I did a second boiling with a piece of ginger a few days later just to make sure, but really didn't need to.  One of the interesting effects of boiling the ginger was that when the water was poured out it was a brownish yellow color (versus colorless water every other time I boiled in it).  I don't know if the color was just from the ginger, or if it was evidence that the ginger was somehow pulling dirt and impurities from the walls of the tetsubin.  Perhaps a little of both.

I've smelled a few different used tetsubin now and have been surprised to learn that each has it's own aromatic character.  The one this post is about has a mellowed old iron smell to it, but I have another who's smell is sharper, more pungent.  I'll be interested to compare these to the new one I'll be getting eventually.

I finally decided to give this tetsubin a go this morning and brew some tea with it.  Being the first time I've used a tetsubin I also boiled water in my stand-by electric stainless steel kettle so I could do a side-by-side comparison.  I chose one of my daily-drinker puers that I know well so I could concentrate more on the effects on the water.  But first I just tasted the water from each kettle.  No tea.  Side by side the SS water was definitely brighter and "ping-ier" with a slightly metallic taste to it.  The water from the tetsubin was sweet in comparison with a bit more smoothness in the mouth.  When I say it was sweet, I don't mean it had an obviously sweet taste.  If I hadn't tasted the two waters side by side I probably wouldn't have described the tetsubin water as sweet.  But tasting them one after the other, the water from the tetsubin clearly had a softer, pleasant, sweet-in-comparison taste to it.  Best of all, I didn't taste anything yukky or 'off' in the tetsubin water.  No hint of any 'old train station' in the taste.

SS tea on the top, tetsubin on the bottom, very slight color difference
I brewed several side-by-side infusions and clearly (no news to many of you) there was a difference in the taste of the tea.  In general, the tea brewed with water from the SS kettle tasted flatter, with less coherence and mouth activity, and a persistent metallic ping-iness that I'd never been able to detect before.  The tea with the tetsubin water was, like the plain water itself, somehow 'sweeter', with more dimensionality in the taste and more activity felt in the mouth and throat.  The various flavors and elements seemed more integrated, too.  For instance, the tea I chose today has a bitter (ku wei) element to it which is subtle but enjoyable.  When made with the tetsubin water the ku wei would emerge from a smooth beginning and grow throughout the sip, while in the tea from the SS water it appeared immediately on the tongue and felt more like a separate, distinct element in the mouth.  A good analogy is like making soup.  The first day you can taste all the ingredients separately as each makes it's presence known in the flavor, but on the second day the different flavors have somehow merged and integrated, so instead of acting on the palate with their own separate hits, they've "married" and move together in a flow of flavor.

hmmmm maybe I should have titled this post "Scary tetsubin adventures?"  :)   I'll keep you posted if I end up in the hospital with high levels of strange and dangerous minerals in my body..


  1. I bought an "antique" tetsubin from a local Japanese store a few months ago. It had a bit of rust on the inside but not much mineral build up so i scrubbed it clean. I love it so much that i use it daily and cant picture myself ever going back to SS. Glad you took the plunge too! - Ge-off-re

  2. Hmm, never tried the ginger trick, I should use that. I have two that have some persistent rust/issues that need to be cleaned...

    But yes, your experience with the tetsubin sounds about right. Water is sweeter and fuller, and teas come out better. I never drink tea using the stainless steel, at least if I can help it.

  3. Very interesting post Bev. At Phoenix we have a stainless steel electric kettle that gets used everyday but we also have a hot plate and several other kettles to choose from. One is thick black ceramic from Taiwan, the other is an antique copper kettle. I'm often playing around with each of these options in hopes of better understanding their effects on different teas. I need to start journaling about it because so far the results seem "varied and random."

    I've only had a handful of experiences drinking tea made from water heated in an old iron kettle, all of which have ranged from good to great. My entirely unprofessional opinion is that consuming small amounts of rust (aka iron oxide) is fine as long as your not already overdosing on iron (which is pretty hard to do, especially if you're not a young kid). A lot of great info about this metal/nutrient can be found here:

  4. Ge-off-re, thanks for the note :) Sure would love to know how you got your tetsubin scrubbed out! I was considering doing that with this one, but it seemed like a potentially daunting task.

    MarshalN - I remember reading something on your blog about smell issues with a tetsubin. I'll be interested to know if the ginger trick works for you, too.

    Brett, I'm thinking we should have a Seattle gathering of serious tea-heads to try this out - SS kettle, tetsubin, clay kettle and silver (would be interesting to add the copper one in, too). You game?

    1. Absolutely! I'll email you to talk logistics.

    2. I love the contrast between your perfectly manicured hand and the wabi-sabi charm of the piece of rot it is holding....

    3. If you go for a new tetsubin I highly recommend Hojo tea's hand crafted kettles here. They are apparently made the "old" way the same way they made them hundreds of years ago with hand carved clay molds held together with iron pins that leave holes in the bottom of the kettle. They seal the holes with urushi, made from a type of tree sap mixed with iron sand. Same stuff they used to make Japanese lacquer.

      They are pricey but I absolutely do not regret the investment. I also noticed that my tea is much sharper, more clear. Trying to use only spring water so as not to get any funky deposits built up on the inside..Drinking tea made with this new tetsubin is like hearing a muffled sound in a barrel and then suddenly hearing it clearly. I have also noticed that the surface tension changes significantly after brewing water. I noticed the water "clings" to the side of the tea cup much more. Looking down at the water with a strong light shining overhead you can notice a good 1/8 inch more of shine from the curve of the water clinging to the sides.

      But your kettle definately looks old and well used.

  5. Patrick -- I'm afraid that just happened to be a rare day when that single fingernail was looking well manicured :) As someone who's always getting her hands dirty with clay and materials, I fear that my fingernails are usually looking pretty ragged!

    James -- Timely comment! I have a new tetsubin from Hojo's line up on the way as I type! I'm very excited, and working with Akira on choosing a good model was an all around pleasant experience. I was going to buy a Kunzan one, but when I discovered that Suzuki Morihisa is a woman I bit the bullet and picked up one of her models (gotta love those female artisans in a male-dominated craft). I'm very glad to hear of your experiences with your tetsubin. Interesting about the change of surface tension. I'd be curious to know which manufacturer you chose. It sounds like each of the three on Hojo's site contribute in different ways to the water.