A guide to gong fu brewing
When it comes to tea, or “cha”, “gong-fu” simply describes the traditional Chinese method of tea making. Lesser known that the Japanese version, the Chinese tea ceremony is as much about brewing an outstanding cup of tea as it is about ritual. The “gong fu” in “gong-fu cha” is the same term as the “kung fu” in “kung fu fighting”, which literally means “skill”, or “effort”; gong-fu is something to be mastered. Brewing tea according to this ancient method is more demanding than simply filling a cup of tea leaves with boiling water (an option nicknamed “grandpa style” in China), but it also makes great tasting tea.
In fact, many tea aficionados claim that the short, intense gong fu brew is the only way to showcase a quality tea's subtle aromas. Using a slightly larger quantity of tea leaf than usual, gong fu brewing produces a strong, rich broth without the over-stewed bitterness associated with brewing your leaves for too long. If you want to finally understand how someone can detect a 'tropical fruit note' in an oolong, then gong fu is your best bet.
A real Chinese tea set
Gong fu brewing at its most basic requires just a gaiwan (literally a 'lidded bowl' used to brew tea) or a similarly sized tea pot, and a drinking cup. But if you're brewing for more than one you'll need something to pour the brewed tea into before serving between cups – a tea pitcher, usually called a cha hai.
Chinese tea cups are much smaller than your typical Western mug. Savouring your tea, rather than hydration is the goal here, but its also worth bearing in mind that a good tea can yield multiple brews, and you might end up drinking a dozen tiny cups over the course of an hour. Both your Chinese tea pot and cups may be made of purple clay from Yixing. A caveat here is that clay is traditionally used for oxidised, rather than green or white teas. This is because the heat handling properties of clay suits teas that require a high brewing temperature.
The dark mauve clay of Yixing is also renowned for its porous qualities, and the teapots it makes remain unglazed, allowing tea oils to build up inside the tea pot over time. Just as with an old wok, blackened from good use, Yixing teapots develop their own unique flavours and smooth the taste of the tea brewed within. For this reason, it's advisable to use only one type of tea in the same pot, so as to avoid an overpowering confusion of flavours.
A tea tray, to display your set and catch overflowing water, is an advisable addition to your Chinese tea set, but if you're really keen there are also tea holders, smelling cups, tea scoops, tongs and towels, as well as the lucky “tea pet” over which you traditionally pour your dregs.
The gong fu cha method in five steps
The basic how-to of the modern gong fu method is actually pretty simple.
- Warm up. First, warm your teapot (or gaiwan) and teacups with boiling water. Discard all water.
- Rinse. Fill the teapot with tea leaves in a 5g/150ml ratio. Rinse the leaves with boiling water, pouring until the pot overflows and then emptying immediately with the lid slightly open so as not to “cook” the leaves.
- Brew. Pour water into the brewing vessel. As a loose rule on temperature, the greener and fresher the tea, the lower the water temperature. 80C for green, 85-90 for oolongs, and anything up to boiling for black and pu-erh. Depending on the tea, brew between 10 and 30 seconds.
- Serve. Pour the tea from the teapot into the tea pitcher so as to equalize the strength of the brew, and then serve into cups.
- Repeat. Re-perform steps 3 and 4, gradually adding time to each subsequent brew until your tea either loses its flavour or becomes astringent.
As mentioned, a good tea can yield many brews, and each cup will proffer its own unique subtleties. Indeed, each brew reveals a different character of the tea, meaning that gong fu is truly the only way to really get to know a tea's “personality”.
Where do I start with gong fu brewing?
Here at TITC we believe that less is more. While we can certainly appreciate a beautiful multiple piece gong fu set, brewing quality tea should be about simplicity, without the need to clutter the desk or the kitchen table. Our modern gong fu set is an elegant two piece solution for brewing tea gong fu style, designed and manufactured by a small young company from Taiwan. The set is suitable to all kinds of tea and is available exclusively through our online shop.