KYUSU: The Side-handled Teapot of Grace and Style
In Japanese, the word kyusu means teapot no matter the style or shape or materials it is made from. In the West, however, a kyusu has come to mean a side-handled teapot. It is most likely that this style was adapted from the Chinese chasu pot developed during the Tang and Song dynasties. At that time, the Chinese used it for powdered green tea and, like today, for herbal infusions. It is believed that Korean tea masters of that era also used side-handled teapots and it remains their most frequently used style of teapot.
In both the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, and in the community of geishas, the side-handled pot, yokode no kyusu was and is used prepare tea while the hostess sits, her calves tucked under her legs, sitting on tatami mats. Because of the physics of pouring water from a teapot held near one’s legs while sitting on the floor, this poses different demands for grace and elegance in pouring tea than when pouring tea while seated on a chair at a conventional table.
To use a kyusu while on a tatami mat, choose one with a handle that is slightly elevated. It can rest on the mat or on a footed tray. You will need use both the arm and shoulder to pour the tea gracefully because you’re pouring from a level lower than usual. Feel free to practice using only water in the pot until you get the rhythm necessary for an excellent pour.
To use a kyusu at a dining table, choose a pot with a side handle that is horizontal, although the angled one, with practice, can be used.
The kyusu side-handle teapot needs to be held higher over the cup so that the water does not dribble. The higher position allows more of an arc of water to be expelled and is both graceful and efficient. The added benefit of a Japanese side-handled pot is that the presentation enables the server to display the pour that can be seen across the table and its typical decorative features can please the eye.
IDEAL FOR GREEN TEAS
Traditionally, kyusu is used for brewing green teas and the kyusu does much to enhance the inherent sweet grassiness of Japanese greens. Typically, Japanese kyusu have interiors that are coated with a thin glassy glaze to hold in the heat and enhance the flavor profile. The glaze allows the pot to brew a variety of teas without compromising the flavor of any as opposed to an unglazed Yixing pot which should be dedicated to one particular tea type.
Kyusu have a wide mouth opening and the body has either a wire mesh to filter out the leaves or an area of tiny holes carved into the body in back of the spout to strain out the leaves. Some pots have removable mesh filters. It is critical to have a filter to prevent tiny leaf pieces of leaves from clogging the spout. Gyokuro, Sencha or similar beautiful leaves versus teas that tend to have dusty leaves like fukumishi, are ideal for small kyusu.
PREPARE YOUR TEA
Brewing green teas in a kyusu, especially one made of clay, helps to concentrate the flavor and bring out its innate grassy sweetness. To prepare a kyusu, you will need: kyusu, tea, gram scale, tea scoop, tea kettle, water cooling pitcher (yuzamashi) or any small heat-proof pitcher, thermometer, and teacups. Make sure the teapot and cups are clean and dry of any previous leaves or dust.
Heat the water and swirl into the teapot and all the cups to preheat them. A minute or less is fine. Empty them completely of the hot water.
Next, heat fresh water in a temperature controlled kettle or, if you do not have one, boil the water and allow it to cool, to the proper temperature, in the water cooling pitcher (yuzamashi.)
While it cools, measure the tea. Kyusu have a wide mouth top which can easily accommodate a pinch full of tea or a more traditional scoop of tea to be added into the pot. Typical measurements are 5g or 1 tablespoon of tea for 200 ml of water. If your pot is large enough, you can double the quantity to 7-8g or 2 tablespoons for 300-400 water or 2 cups.
When the water has cooled, slowly pour it into the open teapot, to about 90% capacity, and cover with the lid. By not filling up the pot to the top, this allows for a neater, more complete emptying of the teapot. Time the brewing and prepare to decant the tea.
Holding the handle securely in your palm, wrap your fingers around it and use your thumb to held onto the lid. This allows your wrist to facilitate the pouring with comfort. Note hole on lid; this is important to allow air into the pot to increase flavor and unfurling of the leaves.
PERFECTING THE POUR
Pouring tea with the kyusu may take a little practice. You want to use your palm and the four fingers of your hand to hold the handle and your thumb, to hold the lid down securely. If necessary, you can use the index finger of your other hand to hold down the knob.
Hold the pot slightly higher than usual over the cup. By doing that, you will avoid dribbling the tea. Ideally, you should pour the tea in an arc at approximately a 45-degree angle. Using your wrist, make a gentle rocking motion back and forth as you pour the tea into the waiting cups, filling them about one-third the amount at a time. Move left to right then right to left while pouring the tea into the cups when using several cups. Do not rush. Repeat until every drop is decanted from the pot. This assures that the next infusion is clear and clean. Re-brew as desired but allow slightly longer brewing times.
Remove all the leaves and rinse the kyusu with hot water after each use. Allow to dry thoroughly, upside down if possible, and do not replace the lid until the pot is completely dry, especially the spout. Store in a well-ventilated area.
HOW CLAY KYUSU ARE MADE
Although sometimes found in porcelain, the primary material for kyusu is a mineral-rich clay, usually from Japan’s volcanic areas. The clay’s minerals react with minerals in water to enhance the flavor of the tea. Different colored clays have predominant minerals. For example, black clay has more manganese; red clay has more iron and other minerals like zinc, copper, and chromium can be predominant.
Potters make clay kyusu by molds or by hand on a potter’s wheel. In the mold technique (ikomi) each part of the teapot is made separately (body, filter, handle, lid, spout) then smoothed and finished so that the pot as a whole is seamless, thus avoiding any rattling, space, or unmatched joints. Better pots have a small hole on the lid to facilitate easy pouring. By turning the lid around during the pouring, one is assured of air and water unfurling the leaves evenly. Whether made by hand or molds, Japanese clay teapot lids are always made afterward to insure it is tight-fitting. Both lid and pot are fired together for additional precision.
Do not be alarmed at all the accessories mentioned in the directions above. You can easily use a kyusu without most of these, especially if you have a temperature-controlled kettle, you don’t need a thermometer or water pitcher and you don’t have to wait for the water to cool. A scale is always useful when measuring in grams, but measuring spoons or tea scoops are fine; use 1 scoop for each 2-3 oz of water.
Top and back-handed styles are comfortable for both left and right-handed people. The Japanese make ushirode/atode kyusu or back-handled teapots and the hohin kyusu, which have no handles. One pours a hohin kyusu by picking it up with your hand.
Top-handled pots are made in porcelain (uwade kyusu) or iron (tetsubin or dobin). If glazed inside properly, tetsubin can be used to brew tea, however, many people use it as a container for hot water only because it retains heat so well.
Alas, the side-handled kyusu is most comfortable for those who are right-handed. If you are left-handed, practice with the pot filled with only plain cool water. In no time, you will do it quite well. They are rare, but left-handed kyusu are made. The hunt is on!