After I purchased my Chou Zhou stove from Tea Habitat several months ago the biggest obstacle I faced in learning to use it for tea was finding appropriate charcoal. As Imen of Tea Habitat wrote in this article on the Tea Obsession blog, good charcoal has been hard to get in the United States for some time. But as I wrote a while ago, I was able to find what will hopefully be a reliable source for good quality charcoal. All experiments with this hardwood charcoal so far have been quite successful. It is completely odorless and smokeless and burns long enough for a slow session of tea brewing.
In preparation I read as much as I could find about use of these stoves, and other people’s frustrations and successes. I recognized that one of the most important factors in using the stove successfully would be getting the charcoal pieces into a steady, reliable burning state before placing them into the burning chamber of the tiny stove. So before I even attempted using the tea stove for the first time I purchased a butane-fueled portable burner to use for lighting the charcoal. I have used a couple of different objects as grates over the flame to keep the charcoal from dropping in, but the most effective is a small enameled steel basket intended for use with foods inside a barbecue grill. Using it directly over the flame has warped it, but it works well. One of the other things I tried was a combination of two grills at right angles to each other, but this was awkward and not fine enough of a grate to prevent enough of the small pieces from dropping into the burner. This method of lighting the charcoal with high flame over a burner works quite well and must be done outside, unless you don’t mind sparse flights of fine sparks and ash inside of your house.
After the coals are sufficiently lit, I use a pair of brass chopsticks to place the smallish pieces into the stove. I’ve found that since the stove itself is small and lightweight it’s easiest to fill it with the burning charcoal outside and then bring it inside of the house for tea. One important thing to remember is that the ceramic kettles that come with these stoves need to be filled with water at least a half hour before placing them onto the stove so that they do not crack.
After the water-filled kettle is settled onto the top of the stove it proceeds to heat up steadily to a full boil. I haven’t timed this exactly, but the volume of the kettle is fairly small, so it doesn’t take very long. As it approaches boiling, steam pours out of the spout and swirls around the lid. The design of the kettle lid makes it possible to pick it up to check the water without getting burned. In my brewing sessions with the stove I keep a pitcher of room temperature spring water close at hand to top up the kettle with fresh water as necessary. It is important not to let the water level get too low or shock the ceramic with water that is too cool when it’s over the burning charcoal, but adding water a little at a time is not a problem.
For more on the technique, read Tea Habitat’s Guide to using a Chao Zhou Stove Set.