Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Heating water on charcoal- part one: Charcoal

 Lately, there were few people asking "how do you do it"? I also owe this kind of manual to several customers, who have bought from us stove, ceramic kettle or both. Whikle reading this post please keep in mind that all my advices and conclusions are based on my quite short experiences. I am still learning, but I am happy to share what I have already learned.

Warrning: This is the longest post in history of this blog. And maybe boring, but for some of you. hopefully helpful 

I cut this topic in two parts. In this part I am going to share my findings about charcoal itself. The part two will be focused on our braziers (stoves) and ceramic kettles.

But imporatant note first: Before I will start with the topic itself, I have to say: When using charcoal for heating, take safety precautions as with any other fire.


Why to use charcoal?

Why to use charcoal for heating tea water? To make it simple, I usually say that it helps to make our tea time complete. The quality of water, its composition and energy, is crucial. On the other hand, the way how we bring it to boil is more subtle. For me, there are few important points why I prefer charcoal to other sources of heat.

- I like to play with fire
- It improves my water
- It gives natural rhythm to my tea time

Choosing the charcoal

When looking for the right charcoal, you will probably have to hunt and make some tests first. I think it is always better to use a local product, especially if it is available in adequate quality. Historically, each tradition used charcoal which was, first of all, available. If there was choice then they chose the one which improved the water-tea most or/and which worked best for their way of brewing tea. Then braziers (stoves) were made in order to work with this charcoal. These days we can order a particular charcoal from all around the world, which is great. But I believe it is worth to try to follow the natural way. Before you order olive pits charcoal from China or cherry one from Japan, try ones from a local producers. Maybe you are going to be surprised how good one you will find.

After several tests of several different charcoals I keep using Czech oak one. The maker says that it is "exclusive, single wood charcoal with 80% of carbon". Truth is that, compare to cheaper and not exclusive ones, it is cleaner, produces less smoke, less smell and it burns longer. By cleaner I don't mean just coal dust. When I used some cheap (no name charcoals) there were always pieces of bark, resins and some kinds of gross (slag). And all those imperfections mean more smoke and less comfort.

Some people use a charcoal briquettes sold for water-pipes as CoCoBrico or Bamboocha. Those are clean, available in stable quality and are supposedly smokeless. Some tealovers like them very much. I prefer to use real pieces of carbonized wood then compressed pulp of some exotic material. But this is just my point of view...

Cleaning before using...

I find this step very helpful a I skip it only when I am really lazy or busy or both. When I open new bag with charcoal I proceed it this way: First I transfer charcoal into plastic crate (no in the house, much better to do it outside if it is possible) and brake all too big pieces. By too big I mean too big for my stove. I also try to trow away all suspicious ones - brown pieces (if there are any), bark, slags... Then I wash it under flow water. This is quite important part. By washing it, you will get rid of the coal dust. This will lead to less smoke and also you hands will be cleaner (when using it).

After washing, I pick up all nice pieces and let down those, which are too small. After this wet-step, it is necessery to make it dry again. When there is summer sun, it is quite easy. But remember - drier means better. After few tests I found out that when the charcoal is perfectly dry it not just work faster. It produce less smoke/smell, if any. My last batch of charcoal ended up in our kitchen oven - for an hour at 120°C. It is perfect now.

Lighting up

All of you are already anticipating - this is the tricky one. Or funny? Let's see...

There is, of course, many ways how to light up the charcoal. I will talk here about three, which I use. We can call them Natural, Gas and Electric.

By Natural, I call the lighting using just matches, knife, piece of dry wood and charcoal. It is much easier for Boy Scouts. Also if you are use to make bone fires, it is as easy as pie. I use knife to shave the wood. Then I make small fire in my stove and carefully combine wood with pieces of charcoal. After a while the charcoal starts to glow a bit. I stop with wood and just gingerly blow. When smoke from wood disappears and charcoal noticeably burn, I put my kettle on.

This way is for sure the smokiest. I use it just outside but I like it.

Then there is Gas. If you use gas stove in your kitchen you will probably try it. Also camping burners are useful. When I use my gas camping burner I just put few pieces of charcoal on dispersion grille. After few minutes on fire, the charcoal is ready to go, using locking tongs, to my ceramic stove.

Recently, I mostly use our kitchen cooking stove. We have the electric one with glass cook-top. I put several pieces of charcoal on the smallest hotplate. Two minutes are enough to light it up and I am moving it to stove. I realy don't play any games with it. After few more minutes I place the kettle on and I start to prepare  my tea setting- teaboat, leaves, teapots, cups and so on.

If you are going to light up the charcoal on glass cook-top you have to be aware of, at least, two things. First of all, the glass is going to be dirty from ash and fire. I use it like this quite often, and it is still not so bad. But if you like your kitchen clean and shiny... Second and more important thing: when you light up the charcoal in your kitchen: Keep your eye on it. You dont want to have real fire there!

Even when you have cleaned, sorted and dried your charcoal there can be some smoky pieces. So when I put the charcoal on the cooktop I watch out. If any piece starts to smoke I switch it with new one. Sometime there are two, sometime none.

Heating water, feeding the fire

How quickly it works? Well, it depends. I usually say that with some practice, there is not much of free time. I start my tea session with lighting charcoal. Then I prepare my tea table and I usually have just few minutes to calm down, examine leaves and the kettle already starts to sing. When I have started preparing this post I was curious and I used stopwatch. I fill my ceramic kettle with 0,5l of cold water. And from putting the first pieces of the cold charcoal on the cooktop till first cup of puercha it took 23 minutes. And it is really not so bad.

During these charcoal tea sessions I usually feed the fire few times. It is better not to let the fire fade. Time to time add a piece or two of the charcoal. When all is going well then you don't have to care too much about it. Especially, when you start to blow in to it, in order to speed it up, you will probably just end with white ash all around your room.

The Rhythm

In my tea philosophy, the rhythm is what makes a difference. You can have great tea leaves in precious tea ware, but still end up with nervous running around...paying attention to so many things around that you will miss the tea on your tongue. So keep in mind, the preparing water on charcoal is here to help to be in the rhythm, not to disturb. Burning charcoal heats water in ceramic kettle. So natural. It mean four elements in actions: Fire and Air, Water and Earth. It needs some prectice but it is worht it.

If you have anything to share on this topic, please feel free to do it.

And for those who have missed it, Matt´s excellent posts:

Thank you for reading!


  1. I have a Chao Zhou stove, and source my Olive Pits from spain.

    Spanish Olive Pits are smaller than the Chinese ones and would fall through the clay grating at the bootom of the stove. I purchased some stainless steel mesh and cut a circle to go over the grating.

    I also cut a strip of mesh to fashion a basket and handle, I heat the basket over my gas cooker and transfer outdoors to the stove to get the fire started.

    What sort of grating do you have in your stoves?

    1. Herb Master- big thanks for sharing you way. I was looking for the Spanish Olive Pits charcoal and without success. So thanks for the link- I will definitely try it! Have you compare it with Chinese ones?

      As for the grates, we make few different depending on style of the stove. But sizes of holes are usually like this
      I will try to show more in my next post

  2. Petr,
    23' is a comfortable result, 45' it was my first time and I think I am still around this:)
    My "Urasenke" firends do the same with washing charcoal and I have to try it sometime.
    Very good idea to shere your experience in a step by step way. Looking for next part, I am curious how looks your session (especially in a case: to stop permanent boiling do you refill a kettle with cold water or you take it from a stove for a while?)

    1. Hi Andrzej, 45'is still not so bad- you can make some teapots in that time:) I find out that if the teapot is really porous then the heating is slower...Does you teapot suck in the water?

      To stop permanent boiling, well, I use both- more water and putting the teapot aside when it is necessary.

  3. ha ha, really you can do seriously anything else during your charcoal sessions?

    "Does you teapot suck in the water?"
    no, I fire kettles high but stoves low. I see you glaze some of your stoves - is there any difference between glazed and not(more or less cracks)?

    1. Yes, it was joke:) It is better to keep an eye on it for whole time.

      On low fired stoves there are rather slips then glazes so It doesnt matter. But the tall, black-shiny one was fired to 1250°C in wood kiln and this is more tricky. There is grate inside, which is low fired. It protect the body of the stove so it works! Those are all Mirka's works.

  4. I have no experience with heating tea over charcoal so this made interesting reading. How do you feel prepairing tea in this manner affects your mindfulness of the tea and the process? Thanks!

    1. I am glad you enjoy the reading. Your question is about the whole point of it. As I said, it helps me to be in natural rhythm with what I am doing. When one stays focused on the simple process of heating water- brewing tea then whole time is improved.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Great post Petr! There are many informative facts from your experience which can be used by others who just started experimenting with charcoal stove like me. I had only few sessions with new stove from you always using a bamboo charcoal. If the stove is filled up to 3/4 the heat is very high and first infusion coming about 25 minutes. From my experience the first boiling point depends on the amount of hot charcoal used in stove.


    1. Hi Ondra,

      You are right, of course- amount of charcoal makes difference...How do you light up those bamboo charcoals?


    2. Well, lighting up is a little bit tricky for me. First session I lighted up the fire with simple lighter but it took a lot of time and blowing. I also tried fambé burner which is very good and fast way to light up the charcoal and we use it in tearoom. Now I am experimenting with camping burner and it’s very comfortable and fast way to use at home in this part of year. When the weather allow to have a outside session on the grass I will also try make a fire from pieces of dry woods like you described in the article.

      Today I tried light up bamboo charcoal on glass cook and it works very quickly. Of course there is an ash but it’s not in the big amount.

  6. A possible idea for you with regard to the kettle boilimg away between your sessions.

    The Chao Zhou stove comes with the cut out section of clay from the air intake, this can be inserted between brews to slow down the fire.


    1. Herm Master- Thanks for sharing. Nice pictures. I was also wondering about making some kind stove door there, it is a good idea. Those olive pits are quite expensive, arent they?

    2. Yes, expensive - not intended for burning, aimed at removing mal-odours from food, clothing etc. You could put a few in your tea cabinet to stop any smells reaching your precious tea!

  8. Hello Petr,
    What beautiful stoves! Such a coincidence to find your post. I was just about to post a similar topic on my blog, but you've done such a great job here :) Great info! I don't have a gas or electric stove, but have been using this great new camp stove to light the charcoal -- It's based on the rocket stove idea, and the company that makes them is doing great work in developing countries, distributing similar stove for home use.
    By the way, I've fallen in love with the little "Petr yixing pot" you sent me. It has such an affinity for the tea! I hope to post some beautiful pictures of it very soon :)

    1. Hi Bev,

      Thanks a lot. I realy looking forward to read your charcoal post! AndI love those biolitestoves:)Thanks for the link. IS it realy working as good as they promise in the ad? without smoke during lighting up? it is almost hard to belive. I am just afraid that, with shipping to EU, it is going to be too expensive. But I like the idea...

      Happy to hear about the CzeXing teapot:) As I saw your stack of cakes , It has a lot of work in front of it!


  9. It is all surrealistic to me or perhaps not understanding of something so very simple and lovely. Bare essentials perhaps!

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Please, dont put links to comment section of this blog. Thanks.


  11. Great information sir, if you want buy wood charcoal you can visit :


  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic.

  14. The post is written in very a good manner and it contains many useful information for me.

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