Introduction to Gongfu Cha

Today while having a tea session I was struck with how I need to return to the basics of tea and tea preparation. This is designed to be the "one stop shop" for an introduction to tea, tea culture, tea preparation, and a step into the vast variety of styles that are created from camellia sinensis.

The cornerstone of tasting and understanding the complexity of tea is through a tea session, or gongfu cha session, which is what I do during one of my tea classes. Simply put "gongfu" means to create or conduct with great skill, and "cha" means tea. This is the method of tea preparation which will unlock the full tea experience and really understand and enjoy a cup of tea. In basic terms, a gongfu session focuses on a brewing vessel (typically a gaiwan or small teapot) with a high tea leaf to water ratio, where short infusions are used to produce many steepings of the same leaves.

Note how I said in basic terms. Like any good hobby there's expensive teaware to purchase, rare teas to seek, and nuances of the gongfu session to add or perfect. Though I brew my tea at work with a basic filter, I do have gongfu sessions at home and during Tea Series events. Below I'll show you the basics of the gongfu cha experience:

The basic teaware needed: a gaiwan (or small teapot), a pitcher (for cooling tea and sifting out smaller bits of tea), and a teacup (usually smaller than the one I have here). The tea used in this demonstration is Shui Xian (Water Sprite) a Wuyi Oolong.

The basic teaware needed: a gaiwan (or small teapot), a pitcher (for cooling tea and sifting out smaller bits of tea), and a teacup (usually smaller than the one I have here). The tea used in this demonstration is Shui Xian (Water Sprite) a Wuyi Oolong.

For water temperature, I chose 190F. This is a dark, robust oolong that can take some punishment. For leaf ratio, remember that it is an experiment, so you'll learn each time what the ideal amount is.

For water temperature, I chose 190F. This is a dark, robust oolong that can take some punishment. For leaf ratio, remember that it is an experiment, so you'll learn each time what the ideal amount is.

Rinsing the leaves: this step is important, mainly for oolong and puerh tea. For teas that are tightly rolled, you want to pour water into your vessel then immediately pour it out. This will help to "open" the leaves and provide more surface area for a good first steeping. Also, rinsing warms up the gaiwan or pot for the first steeping.

Rinsing the leaves: this step is important, mainly for oolong and puerh tea. For teas that are tightly rolled, you want to pour water into your vessel then immediately pour it out. This will help to "open" the leaves and provide more surface area for a good first steeping. Also, rinsing warms up the gaiwan or pot for the first steeping.

Here is the Shui Xian leaves after a quick rinse. It opened up the tightly twisted leaves without wasting a good infusion.

Here is the Shui Xian leaves after a quick rinse. It opened up the tightly twisted leaves without wasting a good infusion.

The first steeping: Again, this is an experiment. Gongfu cha allows short infusions due to the high leaf ratio. I would err on the side of caution for the first steeping and have it be too short, than too bitter. It's better to ease into a tea, letting the second steeping be longer if you have a weak first brew.

The first steeping: Again, this is an experiment. Gongfu cha allows short infusions due to the high leaf ratio. I would err on the side of caution for the first steeping and have it be too short, than too bitter. It's better to ease into a tea, letting the second steeping be longer if you have a weak first brew.

Here's a better angle demonstrating the leaf/water ratio. Gongfu session duration depends entirely on the tea. Lighter white, green, and oolong teas might last up to 4 infusions, while some hardier oolongs, black, and puerh teas could last up to 9. Usually it's fatigue or taste that hastens the ending of a session.

Here's a better angle demonstrating the leaf/water ratio. Gongfu session duration depends entirely on the tea. Lighter white, green, and oolong teas might last up to 4 infusions, while some hardier oolongs, black, and puerh teas could last up to 9. Usually it's fatigue or taste that hastens the ending of a session.

Pour the gaiwan or pot into a pitcher. Not pictured (I couldn't find it!) a strainer that fits into your pitcher in order to filter out tea particles. The transfer to a pitcher allows the tea to cool down faster to an enjoyable temperature.

Pour the gaiwan or pot into a pitcher. Not pictured (I couldn't find it!) a strainer that fits into your pitcher in order to filter out tea particles. The transfer to a pitcher allows the tea to cool down faster to an enjoyable temperature.

Pour into a cup and enjoy!

Pour into a cup and enjoy!

Do you need a fancy gaiwan or yixing teapot to explore the world of gongfu cha sessions? No! You can use a brew basket, try a cup to cup transfer, or brew it grandpa style. For "grandpa style" put tea in a pint glass, fill it with water, and drink it halfway down. Then fill it back up. Try not to drink down too many leaves though!

For gongfu cha the name of the game is surface area. The more freedom that leaves have to move around the vessel, the better they will diffuse into the water and create the best possible tea.

Other Resources:

T-Ching: The Chinese tea ceremony - Gongfu cha