Gongfu brewing is a style of brewing that originated in China. In Chinese, the term means “with skill”. Sometimes you may hear it referred to as Kung fu brewing. Despite this name, it is a simple process once you understand a few easy steps. Often people will incorporate a gongfu brewing ceremony into a grounding, mindful or focus period, I use it when I am doing deep work, like blog writing. Gongfu brewing is used when you have a high-quality tea that you want to make sure you squeeze every last drop of flavour from. So what’s involved, what tea do you need and what equipment do we recommend?
What equipment do you need to Gongfu brew your tea?
- Kettle - to boil water, ideally one with adjustable temperature
- Brewing vessel - Gaiwan or small teapot. A Gaiwan is a lidded bowl ideal for getting a high tea-to-water ratio while making sure you drench and drain all the leaves each brew. These brewing pots can be glazed or unglazed. If your pot is unglazed it is important to use it only for one type of tea and only wash it with water.
- Filter - To strain out the tea leaves, more experienced practitioners using only larger leaves may not need these but they are recommended for beginners.
- Sharing cup - if making tea for more than one person this simple vessel will make sure everyone gets the same strength of tea.
- Small drinking cups - one per person drinking tea
Additional tools that make things nicer
- Tea tray - this has a wooden grill over a plastic tray. Gongfu brewing is a bit splashy and this keeps all the mess contained
- Tea pet - These tea mascots are often based on the Chinese zodiac and are chosen to bring, happiness, wealth, good fortune or health. Although some of them are just cute or funny. They are usually made of unglazed clay and will change colour as they are fed tea.
- Tea spoon/scoop/tongs - This will prevent your tea from being contaminated with grease or moisture from your fingers
Which teas work best for gongfu brewing?
Larger whole leaves with a good depth of flavour work best. With these teas, you can get 10 - 15 steeps from every gongfu session.
Oolong teas like Ti Guan Yin are my personal favourite. The way the large leaf unfolds and gives out the flavour is a real pleasure. These teas are best brewed at 80 - 100 degrees depending on the style of oolong
White teas like Pai Mu Tan usually start unfurled and therefore release flavour quite quickly. Do not be fooled into thinking they will run out of steam faster though. Especially in bud heavy pickings, the complexity is astounding. White teas experience minimal human processing but tend to undergo more oxidation than green tea. For this reason, they can stand up to slightly higher temperatures of 80-90 degrees.
Pu Ehr, known for its deep, rich, complex flavours, thrives in this style. Throughout multiple steepings, you go on a flavour journey with this tea as its complexity unfurls and softens at different rates throughout the process. For ripe pu ehr it is recommended to use 95-100 degree brew water. For raw, use 80-90.
Green teas are perhaps better suited to pitcher brewing but you can certainly experience some wonderful flavours when brewed gung fu. Full leaf green teas, set and roasted in the Chinese style work the best. Be sure to use cooler water for green teas. Anywhere between 65-85 degrees can work well depending on the tea
Red teas are usually drunk by the west and are less common in china. They do exist and brew well in the gong fu style. We would strongly urge using full, whole-leaf teas from Chinese provinces such as Anhui or Yunnan, as opposed to broken black teas from India, Sri Lanka or Kenya. Always be sure to use 100-degree water when brewing red tea. The hotter the better.
Which water makes the best tea?
When gongfu brewing the tea flavour is paramount and often people spend good money on these teas. Given that you can get 10 -15 brews per portion this can still be very economical. Most of your cup of tea is water and if you have poor-quality water it will spoil your whole brew.
Many of us in the UK (outside of London) have excellent quality tap water. Some people may need to filter their water and some may need to resort to still spring water (not mineral water). This water should be freshly drawn and boiled for the gongfu brewing. Repeated boiling of water leads to flat water lacking in oxygen.
7 steps to a great gongfu brew session.
- Prepare your space. As you set up and arrange your brewing equipment, take a few deep breaths to fully arrive in the moment
- Wake up your vessels It is good practice to rinse all your brewing vessels and cups with a little hot water before you start. This ensures they are clean and warm so as not to steal heat from the brewing water
- Wake up the tea We are now ready to brew! The first steep is very short and usually discarded, I like to pour mine over my tea pet as an offering. The idea behind this is to rinse small or broken bits of tea away and also to partially rehydrate and unfurl the leaves in anticipation of the second brew.
- The main event! It is now time to take the first true steeping of your tea. Pour the water over your leaves and allow them to sit for no more than 30 seconds. Gently swirl the gaiwan to mix the tea and water. Then pour the tea into your sharing cup. Ensure that you have poured out all the water so that the leaves don't stew in between infusions. Leave the lid off the gaiwan so the leaves breathe
- Serve. Now that your tea has been mixed evenly in the sharing cup you can serve it to your guests. As we are using such small amounts of water per steeping it is usual to drink from small cups. With many more rounds to come you will not be thirsty, we promise
- Experience every sip and smell. Gong fu tea brewing is meant to be a leisurely and enjoyable experience, so take your time to savour the tea and appreciate its aroma and taste.
- Go with the flow. As you move from brew to brew you will start to notice a natural flow to proceedings. As steepings progress, you may discover that later infusions need longer to brew. Perhaps you need to change the temperature of the water a little. You might slightly over or under-brew the leaves. Not to worry about any of that though, just proceed onto the next brew and make changes as necessary. Always trust your gut and don't get too caught up in a rigid structure. Keep going for as long as you like. So long as you and your guests are enjoying the company of each other and the leaves then let the good times keep on flowing.
It is important to note that gong fu tea brewing is a highly ritualized and traditional art form, and there are many variations and specific techniques that can be used to brew tea in this way. If you are interested in learning more about gong fu tea brewing, you may want to seek out a tea master or other expert who can guide you in the proper techniques. There is often a club at the local university or even online.