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An Intro to Gong Fu Cha Brewing

Camellia sinensis (the botanical name for the tea tree plant), has been around for thousands of years, and is native to the mountain regions of East Asia. Across the world, tea has long been loved, enjoyed, and treasured by many cultures, with many different interpretations. One of these interpretations involves presenting tea preparation as an art, through the practice of Gong fu cha, which is the skilled, focused art of brewing tea in personal ceremony. 

The evolution and mastery of interpretations of brewing the Camellia sinensis plant over time is a beautiful story and one we are incredibly proud and happy to share with others. Experiencing Gong fu cha enriches the lives of those who take the time to feel the calm and meditative self-awareness it creates. The art is expressed uniquely by each individual brewer, and is a dynamic way of experiencing, appreciating, and enjoying fine tea. The style may seem intimidating to try on your own for the first time, but we assure you, it’s a whole lot easier than you might imagine!

There are many in-depth concepts of Gong fu cha that can be explored over many years, however the fundamentals are simple and can be easily integrated into your daily tea drinking routine. Don’t be shy to work with the tools that you already have around you to create this unique drinking experience.

There are three main concepts of Gong fu cha brewing that are important to consider in order to have the perfect tea session.

  1. Ratio of dry tea leaves to the quantity of water used (measured in grams and millilitres)
  2. Appropriate water temperature for the chosen tea
  3. Base steeping time for each infusion

NOTE: There are many other factors to consider when brewing tea Gong fu cha style, but all of these factors stem from the above three simple concepts and can be mastered with time and patience.

Leaf to Water Ratio

When preparing a tea, the amount of leaf needed to have a success depends upon the intention for the experience. To have the most full and rich experience that any given tea has to offer, it is best to use an average of 1g of dried leaf for every 15ml of water capacity in the chosen brewing vessel (such as a small teapot, gaiwan, or kyusu). More or less tea can be used, but the amount chosen heavily influences the strength and richness of a brew, as well as how many infusions can be successfully brewed in one sitting.

Lowering the leaf to water ratio (less leaf, more water), will result in your brews tasting weaker, if you use the same steeping times recommended below. On the other hand, if you compensate by increasing the length of each brew time, the tea will not steep out as long and will successfully infuse fewer times.

If too much dried leaf is used (more leaf, less water), it can become easy to over brew a tea very quickly into an uncomfortably bitter taste profile. It is true that different people prefer their tea at different strengths, and so even amongst very experienced drinkers, these ratios can vary greatly. For this reason, using the 1g per 15ml rule is a good starting point for beginners and can be modified to suit your personal drinking style as you progress and learn more.

Water Temperature

For most new tea drinkers, this is often the most unexpected and surprising concept. It’s not uncommon to believe that fully boiled water works perfectly well when brewing all types of tea. Boil, pour, and poof! You’re done. The truth of the matter is that different teas require different water temperatures and will taste quite different under varying conditions. Optimum water temperature varies greatly from tea to tea. Even for different teas within the same category there can be exceptions to optimal temperatures.

There are some basic guidelines that can help to simplify which water temperature works best for each tea type. For the perfect brew, please refer to the table below. It offers general temperatures that tend to work best for each individual tea category.

Tea Type

Black

Green

White

Lighter Oolongs

Darker Oolongs

Young Raw Pu’er

Older Raw Pu’er

Ripened Pu’er

Water Temperature

98

75-85

80-90

80-90

90-98

95

98

98

These temperatures mentioned above are very useful. However, without a variable temperature kettle or the experience to know the temperature of your water by sight and sense, there are two basic temperatures that will (for the most part) make any session enjoyable. As a general and loose rule, first look at the colour of the tea’s leaves.

The darker the colour, the more likely the tea is to stand up to high temperatures. For teas such as raw/ripe pu’er, black teas, and darker oolongs, use just off boiling water, between 95-98 degrees Celsius water for the best results. For lighter coloured teas such as greens, whites, and lighter oxidized oolongs, go no hotter than 80-85 degrees Celsius. 

Without the use of a fancy kettle or a thermometer, you can still achieve the lower temperature needed for greener teas by allowing freshly boiled water to cool for approximately 3-5 minutes. This will cool the water to an appropriate level and help to limit extraction of bitter and unsavoury flavours out of these more delicate teas.

Again, it is very important to emphasize that similarly to the other brewing variables; the necessary water temperature changes greatly from tea to tea. Time and experimentation are your best friends when it comes to this, and will help you find the best option for each tea.

NOTE: We recommend staging a lesson for yourself by purposefully brewing teas with the improper water temperature so that you can experience how it affects the flavour and mouth feel of a tea. Brew a delicate Chinese green tea with freshly boiled water and you will certainly understand why the lower temperature is best.

Steeping Time

The complicated, yet surprisingly least rigid variable of them all is steeping time. The amount of time that leaves are left in hot water to infuse varies the most widely from tea to tea, and from drinker to drinker. There are some simple guidelines to follow however, that can help anyone who is new to Gong fu cha to enjoy their first sessions!

When getting started, it is most important to understand the right timing for the first infusion. Ensuring the first brew is not over extracted is a great way to feel out a tea. After tasting the first infusion it is then possible to make any necessary modifications to the steeping time so that the tea’s flavour is more fitting to personal taste.

If the first infusion is too light, it can be disposed of or mixed with a second, stronger infusion to get a good cup. However, a bitter brew is a bitter brew, and cannot be saved. Start small while you get to know a tea.

As a general starting point for black tea, sheng (Raw) and shou (Ripe) pu’ers, as well as most oolongs, a nice beginning steep of 10-15 seconds should extract a good first cup. Green and white teas require a bit more time to extract a rich cup, so we recommend 20-25 seconds for the first infusion.

Moving forward, adjust each brew by feeling. This can be done by adding more time if the tea is weak. On the other hand, if you find the tea is brewing out too strong, bitter or astringent for your tastes, simply shorten the brew times to soften the flavour. Some teas even perform best by quickly pouring water into the brewing vessel and immediately back out without letting much time for infusing at all. The dynamic nature of timing for steeping is one of the most important things to explore and experiment with when getting into tea.

As you go through each steep, the flavour will inevitably begin to taper off. When you notice this happening, increase your brew time by an additional 10 seconds each infusion.

When brewed longer, a tea’s more delicate and softer flavours may be covered up. Since the aim of Gong fu cha is partially to experience all that a single tea has to offer, as mentioned above, it is best to start slow and light, working up to darker and fuller infusions. Taste the subtleties in the beginning, and then taste the deeper notes later!

Gong fu cha is a journey. Remember, there is no recipe for how to make tea. That in itself is the whole point. Gong fu cha is a uniquely expressed by each individual and is a dynamic way of experiencing, appreciating, and enjoying tea. There is an expression in China that tells us that when we drink tea brewed by another, we do not simply drink the soup, but rather a piece of the soul who prepared it. Take your time, experiment, make mistakes, and enjoy the beauty of the journey.