A recent article on T-Ching – or more specifically – the ensuing discussion has inspired me to explain the basic concepts of the Chinese tea ceremony – gongfu cha.
If you dwell in tea culture every day, it is easy to forget how much of what we regard as the basics is everything but common knowledge and actually something very few people are familiar with. I talk about gongfu, gaiwans, yixing, etc. all the time to our customers and very few ever ask what these actually are. This creates a false impression because I just realized that most people are probably just polite or don’t want to appear ignorant by admitting to not being familiar with these terms. Hence this article which is meant to shed some light on the exotic world of the Chinese tea ceremony. Future articles will focus on some of the accessories mentioned in this article like Yixing teapots, gaiwan cups, tea-trays, etc.
While gongfu cha is mostly practiced with oolong and pu-erh, every tea can be prepared this way. It lies in the complex flavour profiles of these two tea types that they are best enjoyed this way. Many subtleties would be lost in a traditional English-style infusion.
The Chinese term gongfu (which is actually nothing but a different spelling of the more familiar kung fu) does not only refer to tea, but means that something is created or conducted with great effort or skill. In connection with tea, we speak of gongfu cha (cha is the Cantonese word for tea). Some people argue that gonfu cha starts with the cultivation of the tea plant, involves its harvest and processing and finally culminates in the act of enjoying the result of all these efforts in the form of a cup of tea. For practical purposes, however, it mostly refers to a particular style of tea preparation.
What do I need?
To prepare your tea gongfu-style, you’ll need a few essential accessories:
- – a small brewing vessel, usually a Yixing teapot or a gaiwan cup with 70 – 250ml capacity (yes, that is small!)
- – a set of small (thimble-sized) teacups
- – a shallow bowl or tea-tray
- – a set of smelling cups (optional)
- – a pitcher (optional)
Unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, gonfu cha can be practiced by anyone and at different levels of sophistication. It is geared towards the sensual experience of all aspects of tea rather than being a mainly aesthetic act. While it can be conducted by anyone and in many different ways, scholars devote a lifetime pursuing the perfect cup of tea.
The different steps involved in gongfu cha aim at stimulating all senses: sight, smell, touch and taste (sound as well if you judge water temperature by the noise your kettle emits!).
Preparing multiple short infusions with the same tea leaves lets you experience different stages of the infusion individually, rather than “integrating” these infusions into one resulting flavour with a 4-minute infusion. Ball-shaped oolongs for example take a long time to unfurl and in the earlier infusions, the hot water interacts with a much smaller surface area of the leaves as in later infusions. This creates very different tastes in each infusion. Aged pu-ehrs require a few infusions to “clean” the flavour and reveal more subtle notes.
How do I do it?
Conducting your own gongfu tea ceremony involves the following steps:
- Heat fresh water to the desired temperature (~85°C for most oolongs, boiling for most pu-erhs) and display the dry leaves (optional)
- Place cups and brewing vessel on your tea-tray or a shallow bowl. Preheat the gaiwan or Yixing pot and cups with hot water from the inside and pour some hot water over the outside as well.
- Empty all and fill brewing vessel with a lot of tea leaves (generally about 1/3 to 3/4 full!).
- Washing/waking up the leaves: Fill brewing vessel with hot water, close lid and pour hot water over the top (this helps to keep the temperature just right). Empty after 5-15 seconds. Pour away this first infusion, it isn’t for drinking. It’s intended to rinse dust off the leaves and helps to re-hydrate the leaves (waking up).
- First infusion: Fill brewing vessel with hot water again to the brim, replace lid and pour hot water on top. Steep for 10-30 seconds (depending on tea and personal preferences). Pour infusion into the cups in a circular fashion, each one a bit at a time; DO NOT fill them one at a time since you’ll end up with different strength tea in each one. Alternatively, pour all tea into a serving pitcher and fill cups with this pitcher (Taiwanese method). OPTIONAL: Fill smelling cups first, empty them into the drinking cups and smell the empty smelling cup (this step is there to separate the smell of the infusion from the taste that inevitably involves our sense of smell).
- Repeat step 5 as long as you enjoy the flavour of the tea. You will have to adjust the water temperature and steeping time for later infusions (a slight increase from steeping to steeping).
That’s it! All pretty easy to get started with, but it leaves endless possibilities for experimentation and enjoyment. Do you have any tips you want to share with us, any experiences or insights. We would love to hear about it, so please leave a comment.
We carry a broad range of Yixing pots, gaiwans, small cups and cha dao (tea utensils). Please email us for inquiries. For our list of teas suitable for gongfu cha, please have a look at our current tea list.