I needed a break of the “genres of tea” posts I’m doing. They’re getting a little dry to write all at once, and they’re probably getting dry to read, too. For this reason, I want to give you a little variety. I want to touch on something more exciting and lively – casual gongfu tea preparation.
Gongfu shares the name with the martial art kung fu. The name means “with skill and precision” So, the gongfu tea preparation method means “tea preparation with skill and precision”
It’s one the the greatest ways to prepare tea, and I firmly believe every tea drinker should try it. It’s a lot of work and experimentation, so some may be adverse to taking up the art, but if you do, you will most assuredly not be disappointed. You get much better tastes and aromas, in a way cooler atmosphere. Plus, it’s fun.
I say it’s a lot of work and experimentation; however, this post will give you a considerable advantage, and will hopefully start you off in gongfu with a passion and excitement, rather than a frustration.
There are no set directions to do casual gongfu, but I am giving you a good starting point, and you will have no problem adjusting and growing from what this post will leave you with.
So, here goes.
The basic premise of gongfu steeping is: more leaves, shorter steeping time, accurate, consistent temperature, and a small steeping vessel.
You will need a certain couple things for the gongfu steeping method, though not as many as you might imagine. In fact, the only real accoutrements you need are a steeping vessel, and a small cup.
I also recommended a serving vessel to decant your steeped tea into, a cloth, as you will inevitably spill tea (A dark cloth is the best, as stains are less visible,) a tea board, which is essentially a flat surface to put all of your accoutrements when steeping, and a fine strainer, which will catch small tea particles when decanting. There are many optional accoutrements, but none of them are necessary for a casual preparation.
When choosing a steeping vessel, you should go for a gaiwan or a small tea pot. I use a glass tea pot I got at DavidsTea. I love it, as I can monitor the steep constantly if I choose to. You can get one here. You may want to invest in a yixing tea pot (later post will explain this fully in my own words,) but I would recommend avoiding them until you explore tea and know what you want; you can only steep one kind of tea in a yixing, and is not a good investment for newcomers.
Your steeping vessel should be between 90ml-160ml or so. If you are expecting to only prepare for yourself, a smaller vessel is better. For a group, a larger one. As I mentioned, you only need a vessel and a cup. This is a very small investment. Less than $10 if you shop wisely. My recommendation would be to go to China town and check out kitchenware shops.
To my Toronto readers: You can get a 150ml (or so) gaiwan and a cup for about $7. I can get you the exact shop name, even. It is seriously not a big investment.
Where it can get pricey is in tea. Chinese tea of all varieties is best for the gongfu method. Taiwanese tea is good for gongfu, also. Other growing regions should be avoided, honestly, unless you’re confident/willing to experiment. It may work, but there’s a good chance it won’t. The investment isn’t bad if you go the right shops. Even if it’s an amazing tea, it can be priced $0.50 per steeping session. Adagio Teas has extremely affordable, good quality tea. You can get some of this tea for $0.10 per steeping session.
Now, at a later post I will go into excruciating detail about proper water quality, but it is too intimidating for this venue, so I will spare you at present. To get a crash course, most tap water is too hard to use for tea. The best water comes from a natural spring source, but obviously that’s not available to most. I would recommend using filtered water or bottled water. Brita filters work lovely as an affordable, quality option.
Now that you have your accoutrements and the water, you need to consider the temperature of the tea. Sometimes the vendor will give you steeping instructions, but sometimes they won’t. If they don’t, fear not! I have prepared a chart for common ranges of temperature. All of these teas are approximate. If your tea tastes too bitter or burnt, your temperature might be too high. Adjust as necessary.
White: 80-90c (176-194f) is a good range for white tea. As I mentioned in the white tea post, it’s a resilient tea to steep, but you will enjoy it more if it’s within that range.
Green: 80-85c (176-185f) Keep in mind this applies to only Chinese greens. Japanese greens are usually steeped at a lower temperature.
Oolong: 90-95c (194-203f)
Dark tea: 90-100c (195-212f) I typically like to do 95 degrees Celsius (203f) Dark tea is post-fermented black tea like pu-erh.
All of that is well and good if you have a variable temperature kettle, but what if you don’t? Temperature is extremely important in gongfu, so are you out of luck if you don’t have a fancy kettle? Nope!
There is a way to “read the bubbles” in order to determine the temperature. it’s easier than you might expect (if you find someone like me to do the dirty work for you.) There is an actual Chinese system for determining temperature, but I find it sort of vague. I put together a system for you that I find more accurate, which is based on the Chinese system. No need to spend $100+ on a variable temperature kettle. Please keep in mind that these temperatures are approximate. Also keep in mind that I am not ragging on variable temperature kettles. I use one and I love it.
For this system, you need to be able to look into your kettle. This can be achieved either with a glass kettle, or opening the top of your electric kettle to peer in. You can even do this on a stove top with a pot of water. I hoped to be able to get pictures, but had some issues with lighting. Hopefully I’ll get them at a later date. These descriptions may seem hard to comprehend at first, but I trust you’ll find it easier if you attempt this system. I designed it to be pretty instinctual, so the first time you notice the description, you’re going to be safe to stop the kettle.
80° (176°F): At this temperature, small bubbles are just starting to form on the bottom of your kettle. There aren’t many, and they don’t break the surface. They just sort of appear, then disappear.
85° (185°F): Those same bubbles at 80° are still appearing at the bottom of the kettle, but in a slightly higher frequency. The temperature has been reached when the tiny bubbles are just starting to break the surface of the water. Just a few bubbles, though, not many.
90° (194°F): Bubbles between 85° and 90° are starting to get considerably bigger. All of a sudden, you will notice, there is an occasional few bubbles which appear to be 5x bigger than the first ones. 90° has been reached when the large bubbles have almost entirely replaced the small ones.
95°(203°F): Water at the top is now consistently “wobbly” The bubbles consistently break the surface.
100°(212°F): Usually your kettle will indicate when this temperature is reached, but if not, then get a better kettle. The water is wobbling out of control at this point, and even larger bubbles break the surface. If unsure if boiling has been reached, wait several seconds. If it’s still wobbling out of control, then boiling has been reached.
As a final note on this, it’s a good idea to bring the temperature a few degrees above the suggested steeping temperature. You’d be surprised how quickly tea temperature falls. If you have your kettle near the area you’ll be steeping, then keep the water in the kettle. If not, then decant it into a warmed thermos or teapot. If you’re in comfortable company, use a tea cozy.
Plus they’re adorable.
Amount of Tea:
As a rule of thumb, use 2g-2.5g of tea, unless it’s an oolong or dark tea, in which case use five grams. This is a good starting point. If you don’t have a scale, don’t panic! I have a solution for that, too. Simply, get your steeping vessel and scoop leaves into it, until the bottom is more-or-less entirely covered.
This system is an incredible starting point; almost on par with the weight. Take the leaves out, because it’s time for warming.
Let’s Get It Started:
It’s a nice thing to display the dry leaves to your guests, so they can admire the leaves.
It’s kind of a show-off-y thing if it’s an especially good tea, but in a good way. Like a “You’re so important to me, I’m going to serve you this great tea” sort of way. It’s also a good opportunity to do a dry leaf analysis, if that’s your thing. While you are passing the tea leaves around, you need to warm you accoutrements. Warm your steeping vessel, your serving vessel, and your cups. Again, consistent temperature is important in gongfu.
Now, dump the tea in and get r’ going. An interesting thing to note is that the leaves take on a much stronger scent in the warmed steeping vessel. If you put the lid on, make sure it’s secure, and shake it up, it will have a very strong scent. Feel free to pass that around to your guests, and smell the leaves again. You’ll be glad you did.
If it’s an oolong or a dark tea, you’re going to need to do a tea rinse. A tea rinse is where you pour water into the vessel over the leaves, then immediately pour it out. This “awakens” the leaves, and makes it taste way better. You might want to do a tea rinse if your tea is an older one – say, encroaching on a year – but besides that, it is not necessary.
This is the place where it gets a little fuzzy. The annoying answer is “it depends.” I’ve tried to give you a better answer than that, though.
The longer version is that it depends on the amount of leaves, the type of tea, and the size of the steeping vessel. Since we’re using my standardized amount of leaves, don’t worry about that part. Also, we’re not going to consider the types of tea right now, either. So, what is left, then, is the size of your steeping vessel. For my 150ml vessel, I steep my leaves for around 1 minute and thirty five seconds. If it’s an unknown tea, I pour a bit out to check how it’s tasting. This is totally acceptable, though if you are in a group, puts some pressure on you because your guests are now expecting utter perfection. Usually it isn’t exactly that time, so I adjust as I see fit. For subsequent steeps, add five or ten seconds. After three steeps, you may want to go steep even longer, as the time will increase exponentially. Basically, use it as a guideline, and practice. This is the hardest part of gongfu, in my opinion.
For vessels not of 150ml, adjust to scale. For instance, for my 90ml vessel, I steep about 55 seconds, and adjust to scale for subsequent steeps. Use this method as a starting point. It won’t always be identical to this scale, but think of it as a recipe. Start to scale, and make notes. Adjust as you see fit.
Finally it’s time to serve and drink! Decant your tea into your serving vessel. If you’re a show-off, you can do what I do.
Annnnnnnd a video.
Be warned, though. You will probably burn yourself when attempting this for the first little while. Also, not all vessels are appropriate for this, If your tea leaks everywhere (and it wasn’t just because you burned yourself,) then maybe don’t do it the flourish-y way.
Fill their cup up, but not to the very top. They’ll burn their hands if there’s no cool place to grab.
If you do not have a serving vessel, you need to decant the tea directly into their cups. You do this by lining up the cups, and running the stream of tea back and fourth between all of them. You need to do this because otherwise your guests will get a different concentration of tea. You can’t fill up each cup individually. Here’s a video demonstration of what I am blabbing about.
If it’s a gaiwan, be ready to spill things everywhere while you’re learning.
When serving your guests, hand them their cup with one hand. Psychologically, this is a nice subtly. If you hand them their cup with both hands, many guests will actually pick the cup up with two hands, which is an awkward way to drink. If you have some tea tongs, you may use them instead. They’re nice to use because your fingers don’t get in what they’re about to drink.
But they’re not necessary.
If you’re wondering what the proper grip for the cup is whilst drinking, by the way… Thumb and index finger go on the lip of the cup, and middle finger supports the bottom of the cup. You may choose to curl your other fingers in, or you may choose to extend them.
Traditionally, men curl their fingers in, and females extend them outward, but in my opinion that’s an arbitrary gender role. Do whatever feels comfortable.
Fill up your guests’ cups whenever they are done with the tea, but avoid rushing it. If you jump every time your guest finishes their cup, they’ll feel pressured and uncomfortable. Gongfu is supposed to be comfortable.
Here’s a nice final note to this section. Your guests might feel obligated to say “thank you” every time you fill up their cup. Since you will be doing this many times throughout your visit, it can really break up the flow of conversation, and break the mood – similar to how it can feel awkward when a waiter comes and interrupts your conversation in a restaurant.
To this, I offer a solution. In gongfu, “thank you” is simply replaced by tapping the table or tea board three times such as this.
You may want to inform your guests of this, as a replacement to a “thank you”.
As a side note, you can do this in traditional Chinese restaurants, as well. You’ll notice Chinese service method is different than that of the Western world. They can seem curt and impersonal to us westerners, but they aren’t. They just don’t want to break the flow of mealtime conversations. So, just tap the table three times if you want to say thank you.
Some Final Notes:
All of my guidelines are simply just that. Guidelines. You will need to troubleshoot your steep, depending on your tea. Standardization does not always apply. That’s why tea is an art and not a science.
To address some common problems, if your leaves taste burnt, try a lower temperature. If your leaves taste bitter and leave an unpleasantly dry taste in your mouth, lessen the steep time. What your tasting are known as tannins, and they’re pretty yucky. If your steep is too strong or not strong enough, and you have already tried the adjusting the steep time, you have a problem with the quantity of leaves. Adjust as necessary.