In a sense I’m not the right person to be writing about tea gear; I just stick to the basics related to what I own and use.
I usually use a French press to make tea at work (some of you can stop reading here), and usually a gaiwan at home. I own two clay pots I bought in Taiwan (almost certainly not yixing; they didn’t come with certificates). As is typical I only use those with one type of tea each (Wuyi Yancha and sheng pu’er), with a lot of people narrowing use down to one level below that, a certain tea or a certain aged range. I’ve not noticed they make a lot of difference in results, but I did brew a Rou Gui in the sheng pot once, and it did seem off so they must be contributing something.
It was just in the news that one of the better regarded, most expensive brewing devices (systems?) by Teforia has been discontinued. It seemed like spending $1000 on a way to brew tea isn’t in high demand (actually $1499 per this product review article, which more or less concluded “don’t buy it”).
Per my understanding at least one of their devices was based on a capsule system, and I really don’t have lots to say about those. I tried a tea made in one at an expo once, and even if it had been better I still wouldn’t be interested. The same is true of trying Thai tea—the orange spiced kind—prepared in an espresso maker. A lot of teas turn out better infused in water at temperatures under boiling point, and using 40 seconds of contact with steam doesn’t seem ideal.
An online contact developed an automatically timed version of a basket type infuser, under the brand name Teaflo. It’s the type where you push a button to allow the tea to drop into a mug, except in this case you don’t need to push a button. An interesting variation of this design based on an hourglass shape was first developed in 2011, the Tea Time Tea Maker, but apparently it still hasn’t entered into commercial production. Handmade brewing devices that combine function and artwork are another interesting sub-theme, but I’ll only mention in passing an Instagram profile of one well-known example.
Cost as a concern mixes with function. A $1000 solution seems like overkill but even an inexpensive infuser or French press is going to cost something. The standard rate for that Teaflo device seems to be $48 per that link; not so bad. The automated device that gets mentioned the most, the Breville tea maker, also covers the heating function (kettle part), and it “only” costs $230 at Walmart.
I usually spend around $10 on basic, inexpensive French press versions, but then I live in Bangkok, where some things can cost less. I bought a gaiwan for around $8 in Chinatown NYC last January, and one well-known vendor sells versions starting from there and up towards $20.
My parents bought me a really nice “For Life” infuser basket device for Christmas. It’s a bit of a gamble, them giving me that kind of thing, but it’s compellingly simple, effective, and nice looking. I just looked it up online; it goes for $26.50 on their website. That seems a bit much, but then it is nice. You could brew anything at all in it, probably even coffee. That’s provided you want to make a whole cup of it at one go, and use something like a Western-style brewing proportion (a part that gets complicated). It’s cool the way the lid serves two different important functions since you want to enclose tea that is brewing (to maintain the same temperature and reduce volatile component evaporation), and it helps to have a place to set the infuser basket.
I checked what a push-button drop-style maker might cost–the type of design the Teaflo is based on–and Teavana’s normally had cost $22.95, now down to $16.07, unless they’ve cleared all their stock as part of going out of business. Pushing that button yourself might seem no big deal, but that’s not really the point. It’s about not needing to time it, or forgetting to do that, about the tea turning out better, or being able to jump in the shower instead of waiting.
Right around this point, it would make sense to start in on a narrative theme. One possible version: each to their own; it’s all good to make tea in any way that works for someone. Or another: soaking dried leaves in hot water for three or four minutes really doesn’t need to be gear intensive, and people might be looking for solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist. A more subtle, developed version than those is possible. People seem to naturally transition tea interest preferences, related to both tea types and brewing methodology, and a sophisticated mechanical solution that “brews the perfect cup of tea” is not regarded as a natural end point by most tea enthusiasts. Let me explain.
Based on people having so many preferences (yixing or other clay pots, gaiwans, infusers, tea bottles/tumblers, etc.) “most” tea enthusiasts don’t agree on any one best approach. Many people gravitate towards a Gongfu brewing approach further along the experience curve (it seems to me), which is based on using a higher proportion of tea to water, and a higher count of short infusions. Some tea types give better results made in such a way, and most others just turn out about the same.
It doesn’t stop there; I’ve run across two other people with “the next best thing” ideas for brewing tea, and there must be countless existing devices and ideas out there. This article lists more than a dozen, but that’s only scratching the surface. Per my own take, someone should try out an inexpensive gaiwan before getting too far into other gear, to try out that other main process approach. If that timing step really is an issue for someone a $48 gear solution doesn’t sound so bad. Or in a pinch, someone could mix tea leaves and water in a coffee mug, and then strain those into a second one.
Images provided by author.