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Confessions of a pyromaniac tea addict

March 23, 2010

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After quite a bit of online searching for olive pit and other types of charcoal to use in my Chou Zhou tea stove, I finally stumbled upon a source locally for good, affordable charcoal. Pal-Do World is a chain of Korean markets, three of which are in this general area. They carry boxes of SaengGeo Jincheon charcoal, and from my experiments so far, it seems to be a really good product. I can’t read the Korean on the box, so I do not know what kind of wood the charcoal is made with, and I can’t find information about it online, but it’s branches/logs from some kind of hard-wood tree. The box for the Jincheon charcoal has a very cute little charcoal guy brandishing a flag as its mascot, which may have been what clued me in to the fact that the product was charcoal in the first place. The charcoal logs come in a convenient basket, with handles on the sides. H-Mart, another chain of Korean markets with locations in this area has this same brand listed as one of the products they sell, but I’ve never seen it there myself.

Averaging about 3″ in diameter and 10″ long, the individual logs of charcoal are way too large to fit into the tea stove, but charcoal is quite brittle and easy to break into smaller, usable pieces. I might also add a cautionary note that this type of charcoal can also be quite sharp. After bleeding a little onto the shards I more sensibly used an ax for the rest of the task, rather than my bare hands.

I can’t imagine trying to light little pieces of charcoal within the very small burning chamber inside of the tea stove. The charcoal would be almost impossible to reach with a flame. A propane torch might work for this, but I wouldn’t want to apply that sort of heat that close to the sides of the clay stove. Plus that type of tool, commonly used for soldering copper water pipes, just doesn’t have the right aesthetic for use in preparing tea. In any case, it’s considerably easier and more efficient to light the charcoal over a flame and then transfer the coals into the stove once they’ve established a stable level of burning. I used a butane-fueled, single-burner hob for this purpose, with a barbecue grate placed over the flame to contain the charcoal pieces. The one thing I found a little disconcerting during the lighting process was that the charcoal spewed quite a lot of sparks as it caught. I lit the charcoal outside so that I didn’t distribute sparks and ash all over my living room. Once I had placed the burning coals into the tea stove with a pair of brass charcoal chopsticks, I brought the stove into the house to use and the fuel burned completely cleanly, without sparks or ash, and I let them catch sufficiently so that there was no danger of them threatening to go out while I was using the stove to heat the kettle of water.

Alternately, a gas stove would work for the lighting stage, although even if my stove were gas intead of electric I think I’d still rather have this phase take place outside of the house. I also suspect that different charcoal types vary considerably in respect to sparks, smoke and ash. I’ll get some additional types and test them at some point.

I would hope that everyone already understands that unlike this type of charcoal, briquets are toxic and dangerous. Using them in any form to heat water for tea, or inside of a building is foolhardy and potentially deadly. This is due to the non-charcoal stuff they’re treated with to make them catch more easily in a barbecue (not that they do this without tons of lighting fluid anyway). But pure, plant-based charcoal is not poisonous. If it were, you would certainly never hear of anyone using it to purify water for tea or to neutralize amonia in fish tanks. It’s evidently not even repellent to curious cat noses. Pure charcoal is actually kind of a nice substance, clean burning and pleasant. I did not have the least bit of trouble with smoke, ash or a bad scent after I brought the burning coals inside.

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