Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tea-totaled: Cast iron teapots not recommended

They are all the rage, and are offered by a multitude of manufacturers and retailers:
Seven different retailers are represented in this one Google shopping grab. 
So with that kind of market saturation, I find it highly unlikely that I'm the only consumer out there who has run up against this issue:
These teapots are sold with enamel coatings on the inside, coatings which are advertised as preventing rust.  But mine rusted out extensively within the first 18 months of its life, despite the fact that I followed the published care instructions.  It did get heavy daily use, but I took care of it. 

I'm not going to name the specific manufacturer or retailer associated with this example for fear of attracting attention from the wrong kind of corporate attorney.  But this teapot shown above is not a cheap knock-off.  It was a brand that cost over a hundred dollars.
I find it strange that there is relatively little information on the internet about this issue.  Tea sellers such as this one (which was not the source of the pot shown above) use phrases such as "in the unlikely event of rust...".  That same site uses the phrase "will afford you a lifetime of use".  Other retailers use phrases such as "heirloom quality" and "years of use" to describe the higher-end cast-iron teapots. 

Well, the last time I checked, an item of "heirloom quality" would be expected to last more than a year and a half.  With this in mind, I contacted the original retailer of my teapot, showed them photos of its current condition, and asked if perhaps my pot had been born with defective enamel, given that it degraded this much as quickly as it did. 

The retailer reported that they had no issues with defective enamel but was otherwise silent on whether or not rusting was a common problem.  I was not offered any form of compensation.  I was told that they only guarantee products such as this one for 90 days despite the fact that their own website explicitly states that these pots are expected to last for years. 

On the issue of complaints, I did find some evidence that this is a known problem.  This Yahoo Answers thread asks the question "How can I stop cast iron teapot rusting?" (sic) but mostly garnered questionable replies.  This site shows how to care for rusty edges on a teapot that appears to have received extensive use, but notice that the inside of the pot appears unaffected, unlike mine. 

There are some sites, including Tea Masters Blog, which concede that, yes indeed, these pots do rust, but they further state that the rust is actually good for you and improves the taste.  Well, apparently I'm not a big enough tea snob, because I simply don't want my green tea to taste like quench water from a cast iron bathtub foundry.
One of my favorite pro-tea memes, screengrabbed from this site.  I initially became interested in green tea after reading what Ray Kurzweil had to say about it, although I don't share his corresponding enthusiasm for supplements (I take none).  Supplements are a complicated and controversial topic, but there's little argument that tea is generally a healthy indulgence
So the obvious question becomes - if not cast iron, then what?? 

The answer is not as easy as you might first assume.  Cast iron teapots are popular for a number of reasons, including but not limited to these:
  1. Let's face it - they're gorgeous.  If you're going to enjoy tea every day, it's nice to have something pretty to use.
  2. They have built-in infusers, which are a must-have when using loose teas (I find that "tea balls" don't work well).
  3. Most importantly, cast iron offers an enormous convenience in that it holds heat for up to an hour.  You can sit quietly and sip your tea without popping up repeatedly to return to the stove or a microwave for a warmer.  This is not the case with any of the ceramic teapots I've found to date. 
I have researched "then what??" extensively but have not yet come up with a satisfactory answer. 

I've concluded that what would really help me here is a good old fashioned high-end brick-and-mortar where they're selling tea wisdom instead of tea hype.  Americans are not big tea drinkers, but greater Houston probably has close to a half million Asian immigrants by this time as well as tens of thousands of Commonwealth expats - surely we have a decent brick-and-mortar tea retailer somewhere in this town??  I have put this question before several of my contacts in the Chinese community, and in a future post, I will discuss the outcome of that search.  In the meantime, if any of you know of good local tea shops, I would value your comment below. 

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