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[Photo: Liz Clayton]

For a drink as broadly sipped and versatile as tea, there are unquestionably more vessels for its preparation than most of us can get our heads around. But whether you're a gong-fu warrior or an absolute beginner, it's useful to distinguish why each style of pot is different from another. Enter the houhin.

For brewing delicate, high-quality teas that prefer a low steeping temperature, the houhin (or hohin or hou-hin, or any number of other English interpretations, and loosely translated as "treasure pot") is an excellent choice. For fine Japanese greens like sencha and gyokuro, it's ideal. Only slightly more complicated in construction than your workaday gaiwan, houhins incorporate the addition of a small strainer and spout, though don't get bogged down in any of that handle nonsense like their big brother the kyusu.

Fabricated in glazed porcelain or earthenware (artisanal houhin pots are available in Banko ware, Tokoname ware and other clays), your houhin will either have a ceramic strainer built into the pot itself, or it may have a mesh sieve.

The size of the pot—usually around 3 to 5 ounces—is integral to its utility as a vessel perfect for steeping high doses of leaves for repeated infusions. Its walls may be thick enough to maintain temperature for short, controlled steeps, though you won't be brewing any teas that require any super-hot temperatures (like black tea, for instance) or your houhin will be too hot to touch.

Its size and construction therefore make it perfect for steeping teas like sencha and gyokuro, which want to be brewed in small quantities at low temperature, and may benefit from a small amount of fine-leaf sediment to making it into the cup.

First, rinse your houhin with warm water (helps clean and preserves temperature). Measure out your tea, between a teaspoon and a tablespoon for every 8 ounces of water.

Bring your water to no warmer than 175 degrees F. Lower temperatures will produce a more "mellow" flavor, which is characteristic of the houhin brew.

Fill the houhin and allow your tea to infuse for 1 to 2 minutes. Pour off the tea slowly, refraining from any alarm when small particles make it into the cup. Note variations in flavor, from sweet to umami, grassy to brisk. You may infuse your sencha about three times, going shorter for the second infusion and hotter and longer for the third.

For delicate teas the hardness of your water will have a strong effect on the final result. Look for a source of soft, non-mineraly water to get the best flavor from sencha and gyokuro teas in your houhin. As always, experiment with dose, temperature, infusion time, and reinfusion.

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