If you ask me, gongfu tea is the best method for brewing many Chinese and Taiwanese loose leaf teas.
Brewing tea in the gongfu style reveals the depth and complexity of flavor inherent in quality tea, as the nature of the tea changes with each subsequent infusion. Certain types of tea in particular (pu-erh and oolong) are known for sustaining multiple brews/steeps/infusions (you’ll see these words used interchangeably). Not only that, but many teas are actually meant to be brewed/consumed in this fashion. To do otherwise is to erase all the time and effort that went into making the tea itself.
For some teas, it’s a shame to throw some leaves in a cup, drink it once, and be done with it. It’s like you’re only listening to the wind section at a symphony and ignoring the rest of the orchestra.
What is gongfu tea?
First let’s start with what gongfu tea is not:
- The “gongfu” in gongfu tea has nothing to do with kung fu or fighting of any kind. The Chinese term gongfu in general terms describes something requiring time and skill to master.
- Gongfu tea is not the Chinese equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony.
- Gongfu tea is not nearly as scary as it looks! Yes, it can be a bit daunting when you’re staring down the barrel of a full gongfu set, but it’s actually easy to get started with a humble set of tea ware.
Now on to what gongfu tea is:
- Gongfu tea is (strong opinion incoming!) simply the best way to enjoy certain types of Chinese and Taiwanese teas.
- Gongfu tea is easy to get into if you know a few of the basics.
- Gongfu is an exploratory process that will help you learn about every aspect of your tea. From water, to brewing time and temp, to the way tea flavor develop with subsequent brews, there is a whole world to explore with gongfu tea!
Which teas can I brew gongfu?
Technically you can brew any tea gongfu style. From white to black and everywhere in between, some believe any and every tea is improved with gongfu brewing. I have personally experimented with white, green, oolong, black, and puerh (fermented green/black tea), and I can say each tea offers its own unique experience.
That said, based on my research it seems the consensus is oolongs and puerh lend themselves best to the gongfu method. My own experience confirms this is true, though I find gongfu green Dragonwell absolutely delightful!
You’ve convinced me. How do I get started?
If you’re talking about the bare minimum, you need the following things:
- A way to make hot water. A variable temperature kettle is the most ideal, but they’re generally not cheap so with a little patience any garden variety electric kettle will suffice.
- A glazed tea pot of any almost any kind. Try to keep it on the smaller end of the spectrum (~4 ounces would be best) since you won’t be using huge quantities of water.
- Some kind of straining device (some kettles have this built in) to keep leaves from pouring out of the brewing vessel into your cup.
- A drinking vessel. Any kind of cup suited to drinking hot liquid works. Clear glass cups are very nice because they allow you to enjoy the color of the tea liquor. In terms of size, I personally favor my 2 ounce (60 mL) cup because I’m sensitive to caffeine and a smaller cup means more brews for me to enjoy when I’m drinking strong tea, such as oolong, which is basically every day.
- Filtered water. Avoid tap water if at all possible. Mineral content or flavors of any kind in your water can skunk good tea even more so than over-brewing it. I use a simple PUR filter pitcher to give my tap water a once-over before I use it to brew.
- Decent tea. I’m sorry, but your bagged tea will not suffice here. It’s actually shockingly inexpensive to get good quality loose leaf tea and can be very competitive in pricing with the bagged stuff when you price it out per cup.
(Note: if you want my recommendations make sure you read to the end of this post!)
I got the goods. What next?
You’re ready for action!
The process of gongfu is simple: lots of leaf and short steeping times. Of course the devil is always in the details.
I personally do not subscribe to any “standard” approach to gongfu, though in general I always heat my brewing and drinking vessels and wash my tea. Here’s how it usually goes:
- Put the kettle on to get the water started. I use a variable temperature kettle so I can set it exactly how I like it.
- Measure out the tea. I use a 1:15 tea-to-water ratio, so that’s 1 gram per 15 mL of water, or 2 grams per ounce of water, but you should experiment to see what you like best.
- When the water is ready, pour it into the brewing vessel (with tea in it) and immediately pour it out into my drinking cup. This is to “wake up” and clean the tea as well as clean and heat the tools. Discard the water.
- Pour more water into the brewing vessel. Most teas come with brewing instructions from the vendor so follow those. If not, a Google search will usually uncover various opinions on how it should be brewed. Pick one and try it. If you don’t like it, try something else.
- From here on out it’s pure experimentation. Sometimes I go with very rapid brews, sometimes I go with longer brews. I adjust to taste as I’m drinking. I also keep a Google sheet to keep track of my notes easily.
And that’s it!
Personally, I like to keep brewing until I feel the tea has lost it’s flavor. Sometimes that’s 2-3 steeps, sometimes it’s 4-5+. Puerh tea in particular is known for having a ton of mileage on it. If you’re ever wondering if you should brew another cup, do it and see how it tastes! The only way to learn the limits of your tea is to surpass them and then adjust accordingly (a tea journal comes in handy here, by the way).
This is it for the meat of the post, but read on below for some of my recommendations on gear to get started.
What are your recommendations for gear?
You really don’t need to be fancy in order to brew gongfu. A few simple items is all it takes to get started!
Unless your tap water is completely odorless and flavorless, I highly recommend against using tap water to brew tea. Even if you think it’s fine, there may be subtle mineral content or pH imbalances in the water that will ruin tea. Try the following options instead:
According to the ancient tea scholar Lu Yu, spring water is the best water to use. If you’re lucky you, might have access to a nearby natural spring you can use to fill up. Check out this nifty website to see if there are any springs near you.
Hoping to get to try real spring water with tea in the near future. I’ll be sure to report back!
A friend of mine told me a tea mentor told him (and so on) Alkaline water is best for brewing because tea is acidic so this water evens out the pH levels of the brew, resulting in an overall higher quality beverage. The International Tea Masters Association (ITMA) also discusses pH levels in water here.
I have not put this through a rigorous taste test so take it with a grain of salt.
My usual method. I have a filtered water machine at work and a simple PUR filter pitcher at home. You might try this 11-cup pitcher ($30 at time of post). More environmentally friendly than alkaline water (no bottle to discard) and much less troublesome than getting your own spring water, it’s definitely good enough in my experience.
I use a Bonavita variable temperature kettle ($77 at time of post). It’s a little on the pricey side so if you’re balling on a budget any old kettle will do. You’ll just have to wait for your water to cool down properly.
The leaf-to-water ratio matters, so weigh your tea. Too little tea or too much water makes a thin and unsatisfying brew. Too much tea or too little water means the leaves can’t release all their goodness because the water saturates too fast.
I use a simple porcelain gaiwan, like this one.
If you’re going to use a tea pot instead, try to aim for one in the 3-6 ounce range (roughly 90-180mL). If you’re drinking alone get something in the 2-4 ounce range (60-120mL). Amazon appears to have ~4 ounces as its smallest size. This Hario tea pot is beautiful, has a built-in strainer, and is the perfect size (UPDATE: I bought it and I love it!).
When brewing with a teapot without a built-in strainer, it’s good to have some way to capture leaves in case they come out in the pour. To stop this, if your tea pot doesn’t have a built-in strainer then look at a strainer such as this one or this one.
I do not recommend tea balls in general and especially not for gongfu tea. You’ll be using a high amount of leaf and it needs space to properly expand, which is something tea balls likely will not provide.
You can drink tea out of literally any container that safely holds hot liquid but if you want my recommendation, try an insulated glass cup (small example set). I love these cups because they keep tea warm and allow me to appreciate the beautiful color of my tea. Make sure you get one that’s a suitable size for the amount of tea you plan on brewing!
If you want something a little more visually appealing then get something that you enjoy. I have a beautiful glazes clay cup from Yunnan Sourcing. My personal cup isn’t there anymore so my guess is they sold out.