Gongfu Brewing, Explained
I’ve been talking about using the gongfu brewing method for the past couple of weeks, but it occurred to me that I haven’t really gone into the details yet. I tried to give some necessary information in the first post, but I decided it would be better to simply give my gongfu explanation to its own post.
I personally believe that gongfu brewing is the ultimate mindfulness exercise. For those who don’t know, mindfulness is the action or process of being present in the moment and becoming aware of something. Mindfulness can extend to the realm of emotions by helping people acknowledge and accept the way they feel, but it can also include acknowledging external phenomena.
In Mandarin, “gongfu” (功夫) simply means “skill” or “art.” In the U.S. (and in other western countries?) we usually say “kung fu.” There’s a reason Kung Fu is called a martial art.
When it comes to tea, I interpret gongfu to refer to the art of brewing. I use the full gongfu process to take notes and write posts about tea, but when I’m just drinking tea for myself, I use a simplified brewing process. The following are the steps of the gongfu brewing process, with the steps I use in the simplified process in italics. I explain each step below the main list. If you’re more of a visual learner, scroll down and watch the brewing video below.
- Weigh out the tea leaves and observe their appearance
- Heat the utensils
- Observe the aroma of the dry leaves
- Rinse the tea ware with the tea
- Observe the aroma of the tea liquor
- Observe the aroma of the wet leaf
- Serve the tea
- Observe the color of the tea liquor
- Observe the flavor of the tea
Step One: Weighing out the tea leaves and observing their appearance
I bought a pocket-sized kitchen scale specifically for weighing tea, though just about anything that’ll weigh leaves will work. You need something that can weigh in increments of grams (or ounces if you prefer, but I find grams easier to deal with since Chinese tea literature tends to use the metric system).
The amount of tea you need depends on the size of your gaiwan, the type of tea, and your personal preference. I use 5-6 grams for red tea, 5-8 grams for oolong, 1-2 grams for ripe pu’er, 5 grams for ripe pu’er, and 5 grams for white tea. Green tea typically is not brewed using the gongfu method. I’ll explain more in a future post, but basically you allow green tea to steep in a manner similar to western brewing.
Once I have weighed out the leaves, I place them on a small saucer (usually the one that comes with my gaiwan) and inspect them. I note the shape and color of the leaves, and check for broken pieces. Too many broken leaves means the tea is at best poorly processed and at worst poor quality. Broken leaves typically lead to bitter brews. There are many shapes and colors to look for, depending on the type of tea. I’ll give more information on that when I write posts about each individual type of tea.
Step Two: Heat the utensils
Usually, I start boiling the water before I weigh the tea. Since I’m using the stove, the water is just reaching optimal temperature by the time I write my notes on the appearance of the tea leaves.
After the water reaches the correct temperature (more on that later, in the individual tea posts), I pour some into the gaiwan then pour the gaiwan water into the fairness pitcher and swirl it around. Once I’ve heated the fairness pitcher, I pour the water into however many cups I need, then empty the pitcher and all of the cups. Warming the utensils prevents the temperature of the tea from dropping too quickly once it has been brewed. Temperature changes affect the taste of the tea. Sometimes I use a clay teapot instead of a gaiwan, but only if I’m in a tea house or if I’m brewing for company.
Step Three: Observe the aroma of the tea leaves
Besides keeping the temperature of the tea steady, heating the utensils also serves another purpose: it makes it easier to detect the aroma of the leaves.
To smell the tea, pour your leaves into the heated gaiwan (after you’ve poured the water out!), cover it, and give it a little shake. Carefully lift the lid and sniff the aroma that comes off of the lid. You can also sniff the bowl of the gaiwan directly, but exercise caution when doing this because the gaiwan is hot.
While it is certainly possible to simply stick your nose in the tea and sniff, the heat of a gaiwan “awakens” the volatile compounds in the tea that give off its flavor and aroma. Use your imagination when describing the smell of the tea, whether you’re making notes for yourself or talking to others. If you’ve read the tea reviews I’ve posted so far, you know I use descriptors such as, “it smells like setting berries on fire.” I’ve tasted teas that smell like warehouses, fireplaces, and milk coffee. Anything that has a scent can be used to describe tea. It’s a purely subjective observation.
Step Four: Rinse the tea ware with the tea
This step is the true beginning of the actual brewing process. To brew tea using a gaiwan, fill the gaiwan with water (the tea leaves should already be in it), cover it, wait a few seconds, then pour the brew into the fairness pitcher, using the lid as a preliminary strainer. Once you are finished pouring, you can either remove the gaiwan lid and put it off to the side or simply slide it so there is a gap between the bowl and the lid. You do not want to leave the gaiwan closed; leaving it closed essentially cooks the tea. It’s not uncommon for some leaves to slip out of the gaiwan, which is why some people put strainers over their fairness pitchers for cleaner pours.
Rinsing the tea ware is essentially repeating the process in step two (heating the utensils), this time pouring water over the tea leaves in the gaiwan and using that first brew instead of pure water. This process reheats the tea ware and makes it easier to detect the aroma of the tea liquor.
Step Five: Observe the aroma of the tea liquor
Some gongfu tea setups include aroma cups, which are smaller but taller than tea cups. After rinsing the tea ware with the tea, flip the aroma cup upside down into the tea cup. When you lift the aroma cup slightly and bring your nose to it, you should be able to smell the tea. I don’t own aroma cups. Instead, I just sniff the fairness pitcher. You can also try smelling the tea cup, but because they are so shallow, the scent escapes quickly. As with smelling the leaves, let your imagination run wild.
Step Six: Observe the aroma of the wet leaf
CAUTION: STEAM CAN BURN YOU. To smell the wet leaf, bring your nose to either the lid of the gaiwan or the bowl and take a whiff. Because steam will still be rising off of these objects, be very careful.
Step Seven: Serve the tea
This is the fun part, brew the tea as you did in step four, this time waiting a few seconds longer before pouring it into the fairness pitcher. Pour the tea from the fairness pitcher into the tea cups. Tradition suggests you should pour the tea from left to right, but this matters less in informal settings.
Step Eight: Observe the color of the tea liquor
This step is somewhat self-explanatory: use your eyes to determine the color of the brew!
Step Nine: Observe the flavor of the tea
Even though the cups are called three sip cups, you can take as many or as few sips as you like. I like using three sips when I first try a tea because I can assess different things on each sip. The first sip is for gauging the texture of the tea. Is it thick and syrupy or thin like water? I use the second sip to thing about the flavor. Does the flavor make me feel warm inside, or do I get chills? Does it taste more like grass or like roses? The third sip is for the after taste. If I hadn’t been slurping the tea on the first two sips, I definitely slurp on the third. Slurping aerates the tea which changes the flavor slightly, especially if you’re drinking a phoenix oolong. After the last sip, I close my mouth and “chew” on the flavor. At this stage, the after taste starts dancing in my mouth. Is the after taste bitter or salty? Is the tea drying? Do I detect something surprising?
I’ve had trouble converting some of my friends to loose leaf tea. They insist that tea is bitter, but they’ve only tasted cheap tea bag teas. There’s a huge flavor difference between bagged teas and loose leaf teas. If you must buy bagged tea, try to get one with a fuller leaf. Tea is varied and complex. I often taste more flavors than I have words to describe. That’s partly why I decided to start posting tea reviews online, to try to put words to what I taste. I welcome additional opinions on all of the tea things I post.
One of my friends once described a tea as tasting like “tires covered in honey.” I can’t remember what tea it was, but I vaguely remember agreeing with her once I worked out in my mind what tires might taste like.
At the end of the day, tasting tea is fun. The above method may seem like a lot of work, but once you get the hang of it the steps go quickly, and you will find yourself opening your senses to the colors, smells, and tastes of the world. If you’re a coffee drinker, perhaps you can use a similar observation method for your brews, or even compare a light coffee to a strong tea. The possibilities are endless. Hopefully you’ll stay with me on this tea journey.
I do most of my shopping on amazon, so I’ve selected a few items that may help you get started. I haven’t picked any tea from amazon; I have yet to find one that’s actually worth recommending.
A note on the video: I do not own the rights to the video, nor am I affiliated with chinalife or Mei Leaf. I simply enjoy the content they produce.