Gong fu cha—“right way tea”, or “tea with effort”—is a tea making method used to appreciate tea through several short steeps. It's sometimes thought of as a ceremony; fundamentally it's just a tea making technique. Gongfucha originates in China and Taiwan, but a casual rendition (simply referred to as "gongfu") is more popular with tea drinkers in the west. For specialty tea drinkers, gongfu is a verb, and to "gongfu" a tea is an everyday thing.
It’s not unlike pulling an espresso shot: using specialized tools, plant material is dosed, parameters are dialed in, and the result is a fine-tuned extraction. In contrast, modern steeping is more like making a big pot of coffee. One method is not better than the other. We’ve all had amazing cups of drip and lackluster shots.
We use “gongfu” here as shorthand for steeping tea several times with more leaves and less water.
– Tea (loose whole leaves, preferably larger and less broken)
– Small steeping vessel (gaiwan or teapot, 100-200 ml)
– Tea cups
– A way to heat water
– Tea tray*
– Gong dao bei (fairness pitcher)*
– Variable temp kettle*
– Tea pet*
*technically optional, but highly useful
Steeping a white tea, darker oolong, black tea, or any pu'er? Use 195ºF - 212ºF water.
For green teas and lighter oolongs, use 170ºF - 185ºF.
Follow the instructions provided by your tea vendor when possible. Use a variable temp (temperature controlled) kettle for best results.
– Use a variable temp kettle for precision control.
– Heating water with no thermometer? Just off the boil is good for hot water teas (pu'er, black, high oxidation oolong, white). Let cool 2-3 minutes for cool water teas (green (especially steamed green), light oxidation oolong).
This is where a tea tray comes in handy. Pour hot water generously over your tea wares to preheat and clean them. Preheating your vessels helps prevent spotty extraction from hot water entering a cool steeping vessel, washes dust away, and increases heat retention.
– Use a tea tray. Gongfu-ing gets splashy.
– Preheating wares is always a good idea in all forms of tea making.
The standard gongfu dose is 1 gram to 10-20 ml of water. For most teas in most small steeping vessels, this equates to 5-8 grams. Use a measuring cup with milliliter markers to find out how much water your teapot or gaiwan holds.
Alternatively, just fill the bottom 1/3rd of your vessel with a pinch of tea. Use a scale for best results.
– Gongfu tea making is not a science like standard modern brewing. Experiment with your dose.
– Always measure in grams. Tea is in metric.
Pour hot water over the tea, and quickly decant into the pitcher (or directly into tea cups). Discard this steep.
This removes any "dust" or other material your tea may have collected over its long journey from field to cup. It also "wakes up" your tea leaves—compressed teas (cakes, bricks) especially benefit here.
– Not every tea needs rinsing (don't rinse Japanese green teas like sencha or gyokuro). Some teas benefit from 2-3 rinses (shou pu'er, some black teas).
– Even organic teas benefit from a quick rinse. From field, to factory, an entire shipping network, and through us to its package, tea leaves are liable to pick up some stuff.
After a rinse, the first steep should be the fastest. With a higher leaf-to-water ratio, tea should be decanted even sooner.
– Steep with lid on to lock in volatile aromatics and maintain proper temperature for extraction.
– Some delicate or bud-heavy teas (even ones that prefer high heat, like silver needle) benefit from a gentle adding of water; pour the water along the walls of your gaiwan or teapot and don't agitate.
After your 10-20 second first steep, quickly separate the tea liquid from the leaves into your fairness pitcher. This ensures everyone receives equal steepings. If you pour directly into teacups, the first cup will hold a lighter steeping, while the last a heavier.
– Fully decant your tea; any water left in the pot will continue to extract your tea leaves and bungle your next steep.
– Leave the teapot or gaiwan lid off after decanting. Leftover steam can collect and cook / continue extracting your tea leaves.
Once the tea is collected in your pitcher, pour an equal amount into as many tea cups as you're serving (could be 1 or 8!). If decanting from steeping vessel directly into tea cups, use a back-and-forth motion to defeat the effect of under and over steeping.
– Pour from a modest height to aerate and cool down the tea.
– This is more gongfucha than gongfu, but always serve guests first, and keep their cups filled.
Gongfu is about appreciating a tea's finer points and its development through a session. Resteep tea until it stops offering flavor, color, and aroma.
Quality whole-leaf teas can be steeped upwards of 10 times. Later steepings can last several minutes or longer.