I am by no means the expert here. I should probably include a list of links to blogs and videos of people who know more than I do. I can share with you the basics and my experience thus far. Gong fu is the same as kung fu (like the martial art) it means “with skill”, so gong fu cha (or kung fu cha) means to make tea with skill. There are many things that go into this, way more things than I intend to get into in this post, actually more things than I even know! This is a quick list of the basics as I know them.
1) Water quality – This is arguably the most important variable in the outcome of your tea (although, since this is a basics list, everything I am writing about here is very important to the result). Here is how I have noticed the effect of water quality in my tea practice. I live in Los Angeles, but I work in Riverside. Most of the tea drinking I do is during the day at work. Essentially, I have three different water sources available to me – LA tap water, Riverside tap water and bottled water (with several different bottled options obviously). I prefer the bottled water (at my work we have Sparklets). The bottled water gives the cleanest and brightest tasting tea of all the options. On the weekends however, due largely to convenience, I use LA tap water and find that it is good enough. The higher mineral content (I am speculating that this is the cause) of the tap water dulls some of the brighter, lighter floral/fruit notes in the tea, but helps to bring out the mineral and earthy flavors. I like to taste my teas with both water sources, as some teas work very nicely with the LA tap water. Riverside tap water however, has a very high mineral content, and really muddies the flavor of the tea (my opinion, of course). The Riverside tap water also dirties my tea ware very quickly. Qi Fine Teas in Portland tested various water sources available in the United States, and compared them to mountain stream water in China (I do not know which mountain(s) or which stream(s)). They made this list of good water sources for tea:
2) Tea – I guess this is obvious, but since I put water first, I didn’t want to move on until I mentioned the thing that makes tea tea… It’s pretty clear that the type and quality of the tea you are brewing is going to make all the difference in the world. I have a list of tea vendors that I particularly like on my page, but I recommend experimenting and sampling. Find what you like!
3) Brewing vessel – This can be anything that allows you to put your leaves in contact with hot water. I like to use a 100 mL gaiwan or a small teapot. The size of this vessel will depend on the number of people you are serving and your brewing parameters (next few sections). The material type, wall thickness, and shape of the vessel will also affect your outcome, but this is mostly outside the scope of this post on the basics. The main thing I will say here is that the two main options for the material will be porous (like an unglazed clay) and nonporous (like porcelain or glazed clay). The nonporous options are neutral, while the porous options will interact with the tea. Some (many? most?) people say that with porous vessels, you should dedicate each vessel to a specific type of tea. One last note on the vessel, take the pour time into account. If I am brewing 5 second steeps, but my vessel has a 10 second pour time, my tea may come out quite a bit stronger than I intended.
4) Water temperature – As with everything in this post (possibly every post on the internet) people will disagree with what is said here. With very little research you can find out what different people say the proper temperature is for each tea. White2tea sends a little card with their tea that list their suggested temperatures for each type of tea. Me, personally, I use boiling water for everything except green teas. I find the green teas get too bitter for me if brewed that hot, and have not had any bad results with any of the others. I have heard that some white teas will brew bitter if the water is too hot, but I have not had that problem yet (also have not had a ton of whites). Since it is really easy to just use boiling water that’s what I do. If I decide to start drinking a lot of green teas, I’ll invest in an adjustable electric kettle, and I would use water in the 160-170°F range. Again, like everything in this post (and most things in life) experiment, and see what works for you.
5) Leaf to water ratio – We are getting a little bit more technical now! Personally, I do not weigh my tea, I just eyeball it. Something like the first four or five times I weighed, just so I could get a good idea, and I just estimate from there on out. This is a trial and error process, and I have had teas that were way to strong doing it this way, but I have enjoyed learning it. Here too there are multiple schools of thought. My preference is the 1 gram per 15 mL water ratio, and I use this for all types of tea, but will sometimes adjust down for an individual tea based on experience (very tippy blacks and shous do well with lighter ratios for my tastes). There are other approaches. Denong Tea for example suggests using only three grams of tea when brewing.
6) Steep Time – If you haven’t anticipated that I am going to suggest that you should experiment and see what works for you, you should probably start over and read from the beginning. Here’s what I do. I rinse all my teas. This might not be necessary with all loose leaf teas, but I do it anyway (some sweaty person made this tea). For tightly pressed teas, I will go as long as a 10 second rinse, most pressed teas I give 5 seconds, and loose leaf I do a flash rinse (no wait time between putting water in the vessel and pouring it off). For tightly pressed cakes I will also use a 10 second steep for the first steep, everything else, I start at 5 seconds (unless the rinse was really dark, then I will start with a flash steep). Each subsequent steep I add 5 seconds, until the 5th, where I start going up by 10 seconds each time. If I make it past 10 steeps, which is fairly rare, I start increasing by 20 to 30 seconds each time. Of course your mileage may vary. Also, just like I don’t weigh my leaf, I don’t use a timer or count seconds I just estimate my times, and sometimes I screw it up.
7) Procedure – Some of this was covered under steep time, but I will just quickly run through the steps of a typical gong fu session for me. If I’m just making tea for myself, I just use a vessel with about 100mL capacity, and a cup that is just about the same size. If I am brewing for more than just myself, I will also use a serving pitcher, to make sure everyone is getting tea of the same strength. If im really trying to be fancy, I will use a filter also, but I have literally only done that twice! I start by boiling water… duh! I warm the vessel by filling it a bit over half way with the boiling water. I then pour that into the serving pitcher, and then the cups, so that everything is preheated and sterile. I then select the leaf, and allow everyone in the session to look at and smell the dry leaf if they like. Leaf goes into the vessel, lid goes on. The steam/warmth of the vessel at this point will wake up fragrances in the leaf. I then allow everyone to smell the warm leaf. Then I rinse the leaf (see above) and let it sit for about 30 seconds after the rinse to fully hydrate. Another chance to smell, this time usually just smell the lid, as the steam directly from the hot leaf can be unpleasant in the nose. I then begin session with the first steep. After several steeps, smell the dry pitcher and your cup. At the end of the session, look at the leaves once again. If you are so inclined, take notes on each step (and each steep) throughout the session.
As always, thanks for reading! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or comments you might have.