A Beginners Guide: How To Make Gong-Fu Tea!
Welcome to comprehensive guide on how to get into gong-fu brewing tea! Gong-fu brewing tea can be a lot of fun, but for someone whose unfamiliar, it may be daunting. While trying to make learning come with ease, use my guide as a starting point to get yourself familiar with gong-fu!
But first, what exactly is gong-fu?
Gong-Fu Simple Definition: Gong-Fu is the Chinese ceremonial way of making tea.
Gong-Fu More Detailed Definition: Gong-Fu is a ceremonial way of making tea by repeatedly brewing a large amount of tea in a given vessel to analyze the change in tea, and to maximize the wide-variety of tasting notes of a tea’s profile while getting as much out of a tea-leaf as possible.
Sounds great! But how would I do that?
Before I answer that, I’m going to give you a hot-take: You’ve probably already made tea gong-fu style tea before and didn’t even know it!
Let me ask you a question. Have you ever brewed a tea-bag a 2nd time? Or re-infused tea leaves in a teapot multiple times?
Wha-la! You’ve loosely made tea gong-fu style!
Although it may not be ceremonial to Chinese tea-culture, re-brewing already brewed leaves is the most basic way to complete gong-fu! However, the way of making it more-traditional may seem complicated, but in reality, it’s not! Technically, you only need one brewing vessel to make tea.
Everything else can be make-shift, or do without!
What's a vessel? What are the different types, and what do I need?
I’m glad you asked! A ‘vessel’ is a piece of teaware you make tea in! This can be a teapot or a mug! However, for gong-fu, there are several different kinds of vessels that you should familiarize yourself with
Gaiwan: The simplest way to describe a gaiwan is to say it’s a small handleless bowl with a lid. They sometimes come on a saucer, and can be made out of porcelain (the most common), clay, glass, or even silver! The basic idea behind a gaiwan is that you put your tea in the bowl, pour water over it, close the lid, and when you’re ready to pour it out, tilt the lid ajar to hold back the leaves and pour out the liquid! (See photos below). However, when pouring a gaiwan, pace fingers at the edge of the bowl to avoid burning yourself! (To pronounce a gaiwan, say ‘Guy-Won’)
Side-note. I see a gaiwan with a spout. What's that?
Great question! If you see a gaiwan that has a spot on it, that’s what you’d typically call a ‘Hohin’! They’re typically used for Japanese teas, and different variations of them have made their way to different tea cultures around the globe. They pour like you’d pour a tea-pot, but just without the handle.
Hold on, I’ve also come across a vessel that’s wide and flat in shape. Is that also a gaiwan?
Actually, that’s not always a gaiwan! What you’re probably looking at is a ‘shiboridashi’! Around the tea community, you’ll see people reference it as a ‘shibo’ (like she-bo), and are typically used for Japanese teas! Japan's teas are some of the most delicate teas in the world, and easily singe and get bitter quickly. A shibo’s purpose is to keep the water’s temperature from staying too hot when brewing, and also used to quickly pour the brewed tea out of the vessel to avoid over-steeping. The fast-pour also explains why they have such a wide-opening and such a large lid.
A tea-pot: For gong-fu tea, many places sell smaller tea-pots. They’re typically smaller than you’re average teapot, and unlike gaiwans, they have built-in filters! These tea-pots are famously made out of clay, however, they also can be made out of glass or porcelain.
I saw a tea pot, but it has a long handle and the spout is to the side. Is this the same thing?
Another great question! These work very similarly to a teapot, but they’re not. These have their own name, and they’re called a ‘Kyusu’! These are also used for Japanese tea, and have a much wider spout to quickly pour out the brewed tea to avoid over steeping. These pots are typically larger, and unlike using another vessel, these are typically used for only 2-3 infusions (whereas, in a traditional gong-fu session, you want to get more infusions out of it).
Starting Gong-Fu, The Tea Ware You Will Need
What to start with:
A Vessel: To keep it simple, you can start with just a vessel. That’s all you really need. You’ll also want to find something to pour your tea in and drink from. The most commonly-used vessel in the world of gong-fu is a gaiwan. However, when looking for a gaiwan, if you’re making tea for just yourself, I’d recommend using one that’s from 60ml-100ml.
To use a gaiwan, you'll place your middle-finger and thumb around the outer ridge of the bowl, and use your index finger to fold the lid down at a tilt. Then, lift the unit and tilt until tea pours out. See photo below...
If you’re comfortable with adding a few more things to get the ball rolling, here’s what else you’ll need…
A Kettle: You’ll want an electric kettle. The idea is, you’re consistently making tea. A kettle is great to quickly warm up your water and is easier to pour from compared to a pot on the stove-top. With an electric kettle, if given the option, you’ll want one that has a temperature reading on it. Since some teas are pickier to temperature than others (and to keep consistency with your tea session), it’s always good to keep up on the temperature of your water.
Gong-Fu Tea Cups: These tea-cups are typically smaller, and will typically hold between 40ml-100ml of tea. These can be made out of various materials, and are great for sipping and concentrating on the tea you’re drinking.
Cha Hai: A Cha Hai, also known as a serving pitcher, is what you’d typically pour your tea in! The idea is, you pour your tea from your vessel into a sharing pitcher and serve tea from it. This is so whenever you pour tea from cup to cup, everyone gets the same and consistent brew. If you poured from cup to cup, each cup of tea will have different strengths to it. This is important, especially for more delicate teas. However, If you’re drinking tea at home by yourself and you’re pouring directly into your cup, you might not necessarily need one. This is a personal preference.
Tea Tray/Tea Table: A tea tray, or also sometimes references as a tea-table, is what you serve your tea on. Tea trays typically have holes or slots, and a tray or cavity underneath to catch spilled tea and water. Gong-fu tea isn’t necessarily the cleanest way of making tea, and spills will happen. They can be made out of bamboo, wood, or clay. Some people even use drip-baking trays for an affordable version of a tea tray.
A scale: With gong-fu, you’ll sometimes want to measure out your tea. For this, I recommend getting a food-scale (or depending on where you live, you can find small scales at smoke shops). When measuring tea for gong-fu, you’ll typically measure tea in grams. However, you don’t necessarily need one, as some people just eye their tea. However, for people like me, a scale is always necessary.
A filter: A filter is sometimes used in gong-fu to catch any tea-dust of tea leaves. This is optional. For me personally, I’ll use a filter to pour the tea through when taking photos or making tea for other people. When I’m by myself, it doesn’t bother me if a few tea-leafs specs end up in my cup. However, most filters are made of metal (aluminum) and are very affordable.
So, I’ve also seen other tea-wares. What else is there?
For other tea-ware, it's completely optional. Some people go further and use tea-towels to clean tea-trays, use separate trays for measuring tea on, as well as using carved pieces of wood to present the tea-leaves on! To add, some people decorate their tea-teas with decorative ornaments called ‘tea pets’. We’ll dive into these tea-wars later on, as I don’t want to get you too confused when starting.
How to Gong-fu:
First, you’ll want to heat-up your kettle to your desired temperature.
How hot do I heat my kettle?
Many different places say many different things about what temperature to are your tea at. For some teas (like green tea), it’s recommended to brew them at 170ºf. For other teas, it's much higher and can go up to boiling. I will go further into this in a separate upcoming post, however, I start every single tea at 190ªf, and will raise or lower the temperature from there.
Note: Some people prefer to use boiling water for every single tea. However, in my personal opinion, I always steer away from doing so, as it will singe and burn most tea.
However, if you’re confused about temperature, you can always see what the vendor of the tea you’re drinking recommends.
I’m not trying to confuse you when I say this, but there is no right/wrong temperature to brew your tea at! You’ll read many different things, and above all, it’s up to you to experiment to see what you like best. For me, I always used temperature guides as a, well, guide. I actually implore you to venture out and see what you like best for yourself.
My kettle is heated up. Now what?
Next, you’ll want to measure your tea. For gong-fu, it’s important to stick with single-origin whole tea-leaves. Ground tea-leaves, or tea bags, will steep most of its flavor out almost instantly.
So now you have your loose-leaf tea, I always recommend measuring 1 gram of tea per 15ml of water.
What does this mean?
Your vessel is a specific size and is typically measured by how much water it can hold. If your vessel holds 60ml of water, and to use 1 gram of tea per 15ml, then you’d use 4 grams of tea.
I measured my tea. What next?
Next, put your tea in your vessel, and put your water over the tea. Pour your water to the top of the vessel, and place the lid on. Then, quickly, pour the now brewed-tea out. That's it!
However, in gong-fu fashion, you don’t stop there; you keep going! Next, you repeat the process by doing the same thing again, except adding a little more time to it!
For every pour you do, which is called an ‘infusion’ or ‘steep’, you slowly add more time to compensate for the tea leaves diluting with every pour.
Now I poured the tea, what else do I do?
Once you pour your tea into your sharing pitcher (or cup), then it's time to drink and enjoy! You can continue with infusions, and keep the session going.
Below are some FAQ’s, and other helpful tips, when making gong-fu tea!
Q: Is a gaiwan specifically used for only Chinese tea? Can I use the same vessel for different kinds of tea? 3
Of course, you can! Most tea-drinkers use a gaiwan for everything from green tea, all the way to herbal blends! For me, I use my gaiwan and teapot for every single kind of single-origin loose leaf tea. It may not be the most traditional, but it’s up to you. Everyone tends to have their ‘one’. By this, I mean their ‘one’ go-to vessel they use for everything.
For your tea vessel, you should connect to it like you would a pet. Some tea wares are a life-long connection.
Q: I’m still confused with infusion times. What do you recommend?
For most teas, I brew with the following,
Infusion 1: 10 seconds
Infusion 2: 20 seconds
Infusion 3: 30 seconds
Infusion 4: 40 seconds
Infusion 5: 50 seconds
Infusion 6: 1 minute
Infusion 7: 1 minute and 20 seconds
Infusion 8: 1 minute and 40 seconds
Infusion 9: 2 minutes
Infusion 10: 2 minutes and 30 seconds
Infusion 11: 3 minutes
Infusion 12: 4 minutes
Infusion 13: 6 minutes
Infusion 14: 8-10 minutes
However, depending on how strong the tea is, I will repeat infusion times, or skip some. This is largely dependent on the tea, and also dependent on personal preference. I highly recommend you test out times of your own, and come up with a system you like!
This may seem stressful, however, this is the perfect opportunity to explore your personal likes and dislikes.
Try and have fun with it and make it your own!
Q: Do I really need to measure my tea?
Not necessarily. Like I said above, you can measure it by eyeing it, and add/take away infusion times based on taste.
Q: How much water does my vessel hold?
When ordering/buying a vessel, it should already say.
If it doesn't, wanna know a neat trick? Place your vessel on a scale and tare to zero on grams. Pour water until the vessel until it’s full, and the amount of grams you see is the same amount of milliliters of water it holds! If it says your gaiwan holds 60 grams of water, it means it holds 60 milliliters of water.
Q: I have a flavored tea-blend. Can I gong-fu it?
Well, in theory, you can. However, most flavored teas are made with the intent of being brewed in a mug or a larger teapot.
Gong-fu is mostly intended for loose-leaf tea, typically single-origin, so you can taste the different complexities and notes within a tea.
Q: Can I add sugar/milk to my tea?
You could, but I say no. I mean, the idea of gong-fu is to quickly pour it out, and to experience a tea as-is so it would defeat the purpose.
Also, when making tea gong-fu, a tea's natural sweetness and creaminess can make itself known! Some tea's natural sweetness and creaminess can easily get lost when making tea in a mug or larger tea pot.
Q: Where can I buy these teawares?
I can’t recommend anyone specific (in the spirit of being non-biased for this specific post). However, I would browse a web-search, or even social media, and look around. Many tea vendors carry different tea vessels, and they shouldn’t be hard to find.
For starting, I do recommend going with affordable options, until you decide to treat yourself to something expensive. Especially with starting, you’ll likely break something very easily. (No worries if you do! Everyone at every stage of their tea journey has broken their teaware).
Q: I only have a mug and a defuser. Can I still?
No worries! You can also infuse a tea bag or infuser multiple times. It wouldn’t be anywhere near tradition and wouldn’t get as much out of the tea (tease, profile, etc.), however, that doesn’t mean you can’t join in on the fun!
However, just know that you’re limiting yourself to what you can get out of a tea, and highly suggest getting a vessel (like a gaiwan) geared towards gong-fu.
Overall, keep in mind that this is supposed to be fun and meditative!
Try to make this your own, and make tea in a way that makes you happy :)
— The Oolong Drunk
“Blissfully Tea Drunk”