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Gongfu cha – the Chinese way of tea

 [IMAGE Gongfu cha with gaiwan ] 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)

 [IMAGE Gongfu cha with yixing teapot ] 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:

  1. Heat fresh water to the desired temperature (~85°C for most oolongs, boiling for most pu-erhs) and display the dry leaves (optional)
  2. 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.
  3. Empty all and fill brewing vessel with a lot of tea leaves (generally about 1/3 to 3/4 full!).
  4. 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).
  5. 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).
  6. 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.

10 Responses to Gongfu cha – the Chinese way of tea »»


Comments

  1. Comment by Petit | 2013/01/29 at 04:33:21

    I love infusing my teas with a gaiwan. It is nice and relaxing.

  2. Comment by gamma blue 11s for sale | 2014/08/23 at 21:50:11

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks »»

  1. Pingback by The Leaf magazine | Ya-Ya’s Tea-Board | 2008/01/16 at 21:20:44

    […] The other article that left me with a newly gained insight was Aaron’s conversation with Master Ling Ping Xiang about gong fu cha. I wrote an article on the gong fu tea ceremony here on this blog a while back, but I was focusing on the technicalities involved in the process. Master Ling’s advice doesn’t delve into the usual subjects of temperature, teaware or leaf amount but rather guides the focus to the person preparing the tea as the main vessel for the tea. Inner peace has as much of an influence as the preparation of the tea; and so does the company one enjoys the tea with. I can personally relate well to this concept although my science-trained brain doesn’t make it easy to accept these non-tangible influences. For years I have wondered why my favourite Darjeelings only sporadically produced the ethereal cup that I came to look for even though I didn’t alter the brewing parameters. After approaching the problem from a scientific angle (adhering strictly to brewing parameters) without any improvement, I attributed the lack of substance to different levels of humidity or air pressure (some more scientific stuff). In the back of my mind I suspected it had more to do with my level of comfort, concentration on the tea preparation and other, more emotional factors; but somehow I never allowed myself to fully believe in that idea. This article helped me change my mind and I will make sure from now on that my mind and heart is fully with the tea preparation. […]

  2. […] So what does all this have to do with tea… … you may ask. Well, I believe there really is much we can learn from tea in this regard. A tea is said to be patient when it stands up to many infusions. Generally, these patient teas have a lot of depth and subtle beauty to them. They don’t “show off” in the early infusions like, say a Lapsang Souchong would with all its thrills of overwhelming flavour. Patient teas actually require the tea drinker to bring some time, to be patient as well, to grant the tea the deserved attention to detail. The reward to be gained can be substantial, but it can’t be reached by any shortcuts. For example, many better shou pu-erhs produce the most delicious cup in later infusions, after some of the more distracting flavours have been eliminated in the early infusions. To get to the later steepings, there is no other way as to be patient and go through the initial infusions, knowing of the treasure waiting. Tea preparation also has an inherent aspect of slowing down, of exerting patience. Carefully preparing the pot, measuring the tea leaves, heating the water to the desired temperature, washing the leaves, going through multiple infusions: all highly enjoyable tasks once you commit yourself to them. Proper tea preparation is much more involved than pouring boiling water over a teabag, but again, the rewards are far greater than the hassle (if you regard it as such). […]

  3. Pingback by How-To Brew Tiguanyin at Twisted Stitches | 2008/05/24 at 04:48:45

    […] It is recommended that you use the small, traditional, porous Yixing teapot for gong fu tea. According to folklore, if you use one of these teapots for 20 years, you will be able to brew tea just by pouring in hot water! The folks over at Ya-Ya’s Tea-Board describe how to create your own gong fu tea ceremony: 1. Heat fresh water to the desired temperature (~85°C/185°F for most oolongs, boiling for most pu-erhs) and display the dry leaves (optional) […]

  4. Pingback by Website Directory – Tea Ceremony | 2008/11/23 at 04:23:09

    […] Gongfu cha – the Chinese way of tea | Ya-Yas Tea-Board reddit_url=’http://www.baby-parenting.com/lma/directory/Kids_&_Teens/School_Time/Social_Studies/World_Cultures/Asia/Japan/Food/Tea_Ceremony/Tea_Ceremony.html’ reddit_title=’Website Directory – Tea Ceremony’ […]

  5. Pingback by courtneymahaney » How To Brew Tieguanyin | 2011/09/13 at 10:13:22

    […] It is recommended that you use the small, traditional, porous Yixing teapot for gong fu tea. According to folklore, if you use one of these teapots for 20 years, you will be able to brew tea just by pouring in hot water! The folks over at Ya-Ya’s Tea-Board describe how to create your own gong fu tea ceremony: 1. Heat fresh water to the desired temperature (~85°C/185°F for most oolongs, boiling for most pu-erhs) and display the dry leaves (optional) […]

  6. […] 12. Brew your tea gong fu style For a detailed description of Gong Fu Tea, please read my article on the Chinese Tea Ceremony. Although I would recommend this method even for beginners, it requires a certain amount of accessories that a beginner wouldn’t own. It requires a little more time and effort than “regular” tea preparation, but the rewards are worth your while (especially if you like oolongs and pu-erhs). Basically, gong fu cha involves many short steepings with the same tea leaves in a small brewing vessel. These short infusions reveal the true soul of a tea, since you taste it at every stage of its flavour development. […]

  7. […] Size: The size of a Yixing tea pot depends on a number of factors like preparation style, amount of people to serve and intended tea. Most people use their Yixing wares to prepare gong fu tea. This preparation, which usually consists of many short steepings with a relative large amount of tea leaves, requires a comparatively small pot. To prepare gong fu tea, the pot is often filled to one third or halfway with tea leaves. Using a pot that is too large can result in some very expensive gong fu sessions (of course, depending on the price of the tea you’re drinking). Most often, the same leaves are steeped for 4 to 6 (but up to 15-20) times in one session and usage of a large pot would result in excessive amounts of tea! Personally, my recommendation to a beginner would be to start with a pot in the 150-300ml range, depending on the number of people you are usually having tea with (keep in mind that the cups you are drinking from are very small, too). Larger Yixing pots (say, 500ml and up) often brew very good tea as well, but are less practical for doing gong fu. Use them to prepare tea with longer steeping times (often refered to as “British-style brewing”). Recommended use for Yixing pots: Gong fu tea, mainly oolongs and pu-erh (raw and ripe), as well as some black teas (but can be used for virtually all teas). […]

  8. Pingback by Everyday tea | Ya-Ya’s Tea-Board | 2011/09/21 at 08:07:44

    […] The tea should be easy to prepare and fit our consumption habits. Another important point, since to drink a tea everyday, most people aren’t prepared to go out of their way to brew that tea. Gongfu requires time and practice and isn’t suitable for everybody all the time. Your daily tea should be easy enough to make so you don’t have to convince yourself to go through a major effort to get to the cup you are longing for. […]

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