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Fall, 2001 Newsletter - "Curious Teapot Designs"
  The "Anti-Tannic" Air-valve Tea Infuser

   The world of fine teas is often compared to that of fine wines. The analogy is especially appropriate for the so-called single-estate teas from northern India, and rare China teas that are so prized for their complex aroma and flavor. The tea-wine analogy is often used as a marketing strategy or even as justification for selling a $12 Darjeeling tea for the price of a bottle of 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild! Consequently, one might think that this analogy is strictly a contemporary marketing phenomenon. It actually has existed for over a thousand years, and was even apparent in Lu Yu's Classic of Tea, published in China in the 8th century.

   As tea connoisseurship evolved, the method used to prepare and serve tea became refined and perfected. The original teapots were actually wine vessels, but it was soon discovered that tea deserved specially crafted pots with a spherical shape (i.e., short and stout), which is the ideal shape for heat retention and thorough flavor extraction. Besides artistic variations of shape and exterior decoration there has been little change in teapot design in hundreds of years. The design feature that has received the most creative attention has been that of controlling the steeping time. As most tea lovers have learned, you cannot allow the tea leaves to steep beyond a certain time limit without adverse consequences.

   Ukers' All About Tea, Volume II (The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935), illustrates a number of infuser teapots. Figure 1 is an illustration from that work depicting the "Anti-Tannic" air-valve tea infuser. This is one of the more fascinating examples of the endless variations of infuser teapots that have been marketed over the decades.

   The strainer basket for the "Anti-Tannic" air-valve tea infuser is an ordinary ceramic canister with small perforations (i.e., like the strainer basket of a contemporary Japanese version sold today). What makes this infuser teapot unique is the method of removing the tea leaves from the water when the steeping has finished. As illustrated in Figures 2 and 3, the function of the air-valve tea infuser is to actually lower the water level below the level of the tea leaves!

   Integral to the design of the teapot is a long ceramic sleeve (detail A in Figure 2), which traps air in the top of the teapot, confined to a chamber (detail B) which is separate from the infuser chamber. Trapped air keeps the water level from rising into the air chamber (B). Once the tea has steeped for the desired period of time, the infusion is halted by opening the air valve (detail C, Figure 3). This allows the water to enter the air chamber, automatically lowering the water level in the steeping chamber (D).

   The design of the "Anti-Tannic" air-valve tea infuser is certainly clever, but there are a number of shortcomings in the overall design that prevented it from becoming a widely used product. The teapot was expensive, as necessitated by the complex construction, but this was of minor consequence compared to the other limitations imposed by the overall design. In order to allow the water level to settle below the level of the infuser basket, the depth of the basket was severely limited, thus impairing the potential for full leaf expansion. It is obvious that the design requires that a full pot of tea be made with each infusion, yet the full pot is not really a full pot once the air valve is opened, as shown in Figure 3.

   In the final analysis, the "Anti-Tannic" air-valve tea infuser is an intriguing invention, but as with a number of infuser teapots that have come to market in recent years, the product was destined to become more of a curiosity than a fundamental improvement over the wine jug for preparing a connoisseur's cup of tea.

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