There’s a million different ways to prepare tea. And you should ultimately prepare whatever you like most. But for me, it’s all about gongfu brewing. Gong fu or go home!
What is Gongfu style brewing?
“Gongfucha” or Gongfu style tea isn’t all that ancient of a tradition as you might think. I was certainly surprised to learn that it started sometime in the 18th century. While tea had been important in China for quite a while before then, and other tea ceremonies existed since at least the 12th century, Gongfucha is pretty new.
This style of tea preparation places a special importance on the experience of having tea. Everything you do is thoughtful and intentional. The teaware, the water temperature, the leaf-to-water ratio, the infusion time, the preparation rinses, the tea pouring, the cleanup. Everything is important.
I love doing a proper Gongfu session at least once a week. But I want to drink my tea more often than that, and sometimes I don’t have the time or desire to sit down for two hours with my tea. So if you’re ever like me and just looking to spend 30 minutes drinking some really good tea, here’s my opinion on the most important aspects of Gongfucha and brewing the perfect cup of tea:
The general rule is to fill your pot 1/3 of the way with tealeaves. A lot of leaves means a lot of brewings though! You can get anywhere from 6-10+ pots of tea when you brew Gongfu style. This is why a lot of Gongfu style teaware is very small. 80-250ml is the usual size for pots and gaiwans.
Lots of leaves means short brewings. Let your tea steep for 10-30 seconds depending on how strong you want it.
If you pour boiling water on white or green teas, you’ll burn them. Likewise, if you don’t use boiling water on puerh or heicha, you won’t get to properly taste it. Google what temperature you should be brewing at for each tea you use – or just experiment yourself and see what you like.
I personally like to experiment. For example, it’s typical to brew oolongs at 90 degrees Celsius. Especially if they’re roasted. But I have one roasted oolong (Thai ‘Bai Yai’) that I think tastes best when brewed around 85 or even 80 degrees Celsius. The lower water temp keeps the astringency in check and lets the nuttiness shine through more.
Additional important aspects
Once you get the above things down pat, you should start to care about what you’re brewing your tea in (your pot, cups, and fairness cup) and doing a quick preparation rinse to “wake up” your tea and warm your teaware.
Having proper teaware isn’t just a matter of “looking legit”. What you use actually affects the taste of the tea. Porcelain and glass are ideal because they don’t affect the taste of the tea at all. They can be quite cheap too, so you should pick up a small pot or gaiwan, fairness cup (also called a “gong dao bei”), and tea cup that are all made of porcelain or glass as soon as you can!
Clay pots are also a popular (and expensive) option. But unglazed clay absorbs the nutrients in the tea it comes into contact with, so you need to be more intentional with it than glass or porcelain. People typically dedicate one type of tea – anything from “ripe puerhs in general” to “Taiwanese rolled, heavily roasted Assamica oolongs” – to their clay pot in order to keep the brews consistent, predictable, and pleasant.
Rinse before you repeat (and repeat and repeat…)
This improved my tea time immensely. Let your first infusion be for 5-10 seconds, then fill your gong dao bei and cups with the tea/hot water, and then THROW IT ALL AWAY. Seriously. Dump it down the drain. Now smell the leaves in your pot/gaiwan. Mmmmmm. Okay, now you’re ready for action. Pour fresh water over your tea leaves, do a proper infusion time (10-30 seconds), pour your tea, and ENJOY.
You do this rinse for two reasons: 1) It heats up your teaware. Which means your first cup of tea won’t be lukewarm, it’ll be piping hot. 2) It “wakes up” the tea. You get rid of some of the excess dust on the first rinse and get the tea flavor profile to shine through better.
It’s such a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.
How is Gongfu different from “Western” style tea brewing?
“Western style” tea is very different from Gongfu style. Not just the experience, but the brewing method. Like we said earlier, the three most important aspects of Gongfucha are leaf-to-water ratio, infusion time, and water temperature. Western style tea takes a different approach to those first two things.
Western pots are typically much bigger than pots made for Gongfucha. Like three or four times bigger. It doesn’t make sense to fill an enormous teapot 1/3 of the way with tealeaves. Who’s gonna drink all that, right? So you put a spoonful or two of leaves in your pot and let them steep for 2-4 minutes. And instead of making a dozen pots of tea, you make two or three. There’s no shame or feeling of waste if you only make a single pot, though.
I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison (yet) of Western vs Gongfu style, but the first time I tried Gongfu in December 2016 changed me forever. I can never go back.
Gong fu or go home, ya’ll!