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Gongfu Tea Preparation

Generic Information

img-1541-51752-zooma.jpgThis is presented as more general information about this style of steeping tea versus our article “Pu-erh Tea Infusion Guidelines” focused on steeping pu-erh teas.

As premium teas become more mainstream, the term “gongfu” appears more and more as the preferred method of preparation. But what is “gongfu”?

Gongfu Defined

Strictly speaking, gongfu is not a ceremony but a method of doing something (not just steeping tea). The term generally means “done with skill,” and can be applied to any activity or endeavor.

[Note: The term 功夫 is translated from the Chinese in several ways: confu, gongfu, kungfu, or kongou. This is due to the difference in characters used between the Chinese language and English which is one of the “romance languages,” that is, based on the ancient Roman alphabet. Chinese characters can be quite complex and some are actually simplified images.]

For tea, gongfu (the spelling used most often when referring to tea) means that a small teapot (often a clay pot from Yixing) or a gaiwan (a steeping bowl with a lid and sometimes a saucer) is usually used. Many people, therefore, refer to gongfu tea (or gongfucha) as the “small teapot method” or “old man’s tea.” This style of tea preparation and enjoyment has remained popular in China since the Qing dynasty, and is still one of the primary methods of tea consumption there.

The Classic of Tea (Chinese: 茶經 or ; pinyin: Chá jīng), a Chinese book written in the 8th century by Lu Yu (Chinese: traditional 陸羽, simplified 陆羽; pinyin: Lù Yǔ; 733–804), is the first known treatise on the subject of the gongfu style tea method. It introduced the idea of preparing tea using whole leaves instead of ones that were ground up or pressed into cakes. As a result, potters in the Yixing Province started using the purple clay in the area to make small teapot suited to this style of steeping tea. The pottery quickly took on an artistic dimension and certain body styles became quite common.

Teas Suitable for Gongfu Method

While originally intended for brewing oolongs, the gongfu method is used for virtually all other tea varieties today. Oolongs and compressed teas (mostly pu-erhs) are the main teas used. There are even some teas developed especially for this type of steeping. They are labeled as “[tea type] gongfu [tea style]” — for example, “keemun gongfu black tea.” White and green teas are fine to use if you take care to use cooler water and not pour directly on the leaves so they don’t get singed or cooked.

Why Use This Method

Using the gongfu method to prepare tea (also called “gongfucha”), the goal is to infuse the tea in the best way possible to get the best flavors and aromas possible. Some will study for years to perfect the method for infusing tea. They become masters at it, but their skills still cannot guarantee a great cup of tea. The chemistry and physics inherent in the gongfu method are given credit here.

Getting Started

You will need a table large enough to hold the various implements: utensils, drip tray, and water. A peaceful and relaxing environment is also good and can be achieved with various elements: flowers, traditional music that is soft and played at a low volume, and possibly a “tea pet” or other iconic object.

Two essential items to consider

The right water quality: Water is not only the main ingredient in tea, it can make or break your tea experience. A bad taste or smell in the water will come through in the tea liquor. Water that is distilled or too soft (lacking various minerals) will steep up a tea with a fairly “flat” taste. The minerals are needed to interact with the tea leaf chemicals. Hard water has too much of these minerals, though. Your best option is spring water, either natural or bottled.

The right water temperature: Tea leaves contain certain essential oils that are extracted by the water during infusion. The water has to be at the right temperature for this to occur properly and is one of the key elements that tea masters focus on when performing the gongfu method.

  • Oolong (a semi-oxidized tea, also called wulong) — use water heated to around 95°C (203°F).
  • Compressed teas such as pu-erhs — use water heated to boiling which is 100°C (212°F) at lower elevations (adjust for your location since water boils at lower temperatures at higher altitudes).
  • Green and white teas — not prepared as often using this method, since they are more delicate and subject to burning or cooking the leaves; just be sure to use cooler water (about 160°F for green and 175°F for white).

Assemble the tea-making items:

  • A small clay teapot or gaiwan that has a capacity of about 150 ml.
  • 3 sipping cups that hold about 30ml of liquid each; if more people will be attending the tea session, you will need more cups and possibly another teapot or gaiwan.
  • The water (see tips above).
  • A kettle for heating the water. Clay is one option. Glass will help you determine the temperature. And some more modern tea masters even use an electric kettle.
  • A container to dispense water (Chinese: 茶缸, Pinyin: chá gāng).
  • A bowl or tray (sometimes called a tea boat) where the teapot sits; it will catch any overflow when filling the teapot with water.
  • A clean cloth, preferably cotton, for wiping up water from the table.

Taiwanese Method

For the Taiwanese Method (Chinese: 老人茶, Pinyin: lăorénchá), you will need these utensils in addition to those already mentioned:

  • A wooden spoon for measuring out the tea leaves (Chinese: 茶匙, Pinyin: chá chí).
  • A small pitcher (often made of glass) into which the tea liquor is poured when the infusion is done and from which it is poured into the sipping cups. This ensures a consistent tea flavor in each cup (Chinese: 公道杯, Pinyin: gōng dào bēi).
  • A strainer for the tea (Chinese: 漏斗, Pinyin: lòu dŏu).
  • A scent/snifter cup (narrower and taller than sipper cups) for each participant that they can use to appreciate the tea's aroma (Chinese: traditional 聞香杯, simplified 闻香杯, Pinyin wén xiāng bēi).
  • A pair of tongs (called "Jiā" (Chinese: ) or "Giab" in Chao Zhou and Min Nan dialects).

The Stages of Preparation

There are several stages to preparing the tea. Some have an imagery to them that comes from Chinese culture and general philosophy.

Step Name
(English)

Step Name
(Chinese/simplified/Pinyin)

Description

Warm the pot and cups

溫壺燙杯
壶烫杯
wēn hú tàng bēi

Lay the cups and teapot (or gaiwan) on the table; use hot water to warm and sterilize them and then pour out the excess. (Taiwanese style: use the wooden tongs to handle the cups.)

Appreciate the excellence of the tea

鑒賞佳茗
鉴赏佳茗
jiàn shǎng jiā míng

Examine the tea leaves’ appearance, aroma, and other qualities and thus appreciate the skill of the tea master who processed them.

Black dragon enters the palace

烏龍入宮
乌龙入宫
wū lóng rù gōng (this term in particular is used when Oolong tea is being steeped)

Put tea leaves in the teapot (or gaiwan). The amount used will vary according to the size of the teapot/gaiwan and the desired strength of the tea. While 1/4 full is usual, you could fill up to 2/3rds full.

Rinsing from an elevated pot

懸壺高沖
悬壶高冲
xuán hú gāo chōng

Put the teapot (or gaiwan) into the catching bowl. Pour   hot water over the tea leaves in the vessel from a high spot (whatever you are comfortable with) and continue pouring until the water overflows slightly, taking care not to have all the tea leaves float out.

Spring wind brushes the surface

春風拂面
风拂面
chūn fēng fú miàn

Use the lid of the teapot (or gaiwan) to gently scoop away errant tea leaves around the opening and to clear away bubbles. This will ensure at tighter fit when using a teapot but is good for a gaiwan also.

Bathe the immortal twice

重洗仙顏
重洗仙
chóng xǐ xiān yán

You can either steep the tea briefly and discard the   liquid as some tea masters suggest (assures that the temperature inside and outside the pot is the same) or immediately pour the first infusion into the cups without allowing the tea to steep.

A row of clouds, running water

行雲流水
行云流水
xíng yún líu shǔi

The first infusion being poured into cups but not drunk   (basically, an extended washing of the leaves).

Direct again the pure spring

or

Pouring from a low height

再注清泉
zài zhù qīng quán

or

回旋低斟
húi xuán dī zhēn

Refill the teapot (or gaiwan) with hot water up to the vessel’s mouth. You should pour from a height closer to the leaves to avoid forcing   the flavor from the leaves too rapidly.

Remove surface bubbles

刮沫淋蓋
刮沫淋盖
guā mò lín gài

Again use the lid to remove surface bubbles so the lid sits on tightly. Pour the hot tea from the first infusion over the teapot (or gaiwan) exterior. Wait for 20-50 seconds, depending on the type and quantity of the tea used, and then serve the tea.

Serving

 

Pour the tea evenly into the teacups, going in a circular order from one guest to another. (Taiwanese: empty the tea into the tea pitcher and serve it to the guests from there.)

Enjoy the Aroma and Leaf Appearance

In the Taiwanese style ceremony, at its highest form, the aroma of the tea is enjoyed as well as its taste.

Step Name (English)

Step Name (Chinese   / simplified / Pinyin)

Description

Bathing the snifter cup

毆杯沐淋
殴杯沐淋
ōu bēi mù lìn

Pour the tea into the pitcher first, and then into snifter   cups (聞香杯) to assure an even flavor/aroma.

The dragon and phoenix in auspicious union

龍鳳呈祥
龙凤呈祥
lóng fěng chéng xiáng

Place the drinking cup upside down over the top of the snifter cup and balance it there (a ritualized action viewed by some as a prayer for prosperity, well-being, and happiness of the guests).

The carp turns over

鯉魚翻身
鲤鱼翻身
lǐ yú fān shēn

The two cups are inverted. The snifter cup will be upsidedown inside the drinking cup.

Respectfully receive the fragrant tea

敬奉香茗
jǐng fěng xiāng míng

Lift the snifter cup and release the tea into the drinking   cup. The guest can enjoy the aroma of the tea from the snifter before sipping the liquid from the drinking cup using no fewer than three sips (a small one, a main one, and an after taste).

Appreciating the spent leaves

 

The used tea leaves are put into a clean bowl for guests   to appreciate, who then make appropriate comments regarding the choice of tea.

Cleaning Up

An important step in the ritual is cleaning up everything and making sure it is ready for the next use.

  • Start with removing the used tea leaves from the pot or gaiwan. Spent tea leaves and any remaining liquid should not remain in the teapot.
  • Sterilize any utensils used with boiling water. 
  • Never wash the teapot with detergents or soaps, but a good rinsing with water or tea is strongly advised. A gaiwan can be washed with detergent or soap but should be thoroughly rinsed.
  • After rinsing the teapot, rub and polish its outside with a good linen cloth. 
  • Let the teapot (or gaiwan), utensils, and serving cups air dry.

This gongfu method of tea infusion is the best way to truly enjoy premium teas. We hope this information helps you give it a try. We carry the teas, gaiwans, Yixing teapots, and other utensils that you need to get started.