A Beginner’s Look at Tea Kettles
Although kettles are growing in use, American households have for generations not widely adopted this appliance. The US not being much of a hot tea culture is a pretty obvious culprit. But I have observed on many occasions confusion about what a kettle is and does. I suspect this confusion comes from the term ‘tea kettle’ itself being a misnomer. A kettle is a tool for heating water, whether you use that water for making tea is incidental. In a world with ubiquitous hot running water and dedicated devices for washing dishes and clothes, the kettle’s last popular job was making tea.
Now the budding tea enthusiast has a variety of specialized kettle options to choose from. There are budget friendly and top shelf options available in each category. I’m going to go over the basic strengths and weaknesses of each type and what kind of tea drinking practice they fit into.
My everyday goosneck kettle.
Modern, fast heating, and convenient. Electric kettles are the most popular choice by a mile. Electric kettles are great for indoor everyday use and can be as simple or offer lots of convenience features. Its very common now for tea focused models to have pre-set temperature buttons that read “green” “oolong”. Others have thermometers built into the base that display the water temperature. An electric kettle can be made from plastic, stainless steel, glass, and ceramic at the higher end. The material effects more than price. Plastic bodies or plastic windows will be noticeable in the taste of the water. Exposing plastic to repeated high temperatures will lead to degradation over time and poses a health risk. They might be cheap, but are a bad deal in the long run.
The best and most common materials are stainless steel and ceramic. The drawback to stainless steel will be that the kettle will cool down quickly. If you brew a lot of high heat tea like shou puer you might want another material. Ceramic will have better overall heat retention but this is only noticeable for technical brewing. If you are vaguely interested in making tea at home a stainless steel electric kettle is a clear winner. Some of the best picks in this category have a narrow spout. The gooseneck style looks good and makes pouring into small teapots and gaiwans feel smooth and precise. Wide edge spouts are fine for bigger pots but once I went with a gooseneck I’ve never wanted to look back.
The classic image of a tea kettle that pops into the heads of most folks is of old-school whistling kettle. When I was a college student my first kettle was a gently worn stovetop I found at Goodwill for a dollar. These things really mean business when the whistle gets going. If you only make tea in the kitchen and love the aesthetics they are a very effective tool that will last forever. They’re well designed for the kitchen but not for indoor tea spaces. You would end up going through a lot of butane in a camping stove to keep using it. I use mine now as a camping accessory. If I want to have a big tea session out in nature or in a park with friends.
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Clay and Cast Iron
Now we are getting into some specialized territory. Clay boilers and cast iron tetsubin both offer high heat retention and water enhancement. Clay boilers, like clay teapots, will soften and sweeten the taste of tea. This is a great way to have the effect of clay on tea while using ceramic or glass teaware. If you get a clay boiler be sure to know what its recommended temperature range is. Clay boilers work well with charcoal stoves or alcohol burners but some high temperature burners can cause cracking. FYI we sell a large teapot that doubles as a boiler. It works best under a gentle flame or electric heater.
Cast iron kettles, or Japanese tetsubin, have more visibility in the western tea world. Too often there is confusion about what tetsubin really refers to. Japanese Tetsubin are unglazed cast iron kettles. Some vendors have been selling glazed cast iron teapots under the misnomer of tetsubin. A good tetsubin enhances water by imparting a richer and fuller taste and texture. We’ve found this is especially desirable for aged puer and other complex teas.
Barry Donnelly, Mad Monk Tea
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