What Is Gong Fu Tea?
Gong Fu tea is the Chinese tea ceremony, the Chinese way of drinking tea. Literally translated, gong fu cha means "making tea with skill" or "making tea the right way". Gong Fu cha is quite different from the western way of preparing tea. To make tea the Gong Fu way, we need a proper tea set. These are generally small tea utensils, like a teapot or gaiwan, small tea cups, and more.
Furthermore, we brew big amounts of tea leaves in the small teapots. Oftentimes, the teapot will be practically filled to the brim with tea leaves, although this will depend on the type of tea we're brewing. We also must pay attention to the proper water temperature and tea brewing times.
In many cases, this will be small intervals — perhaps 10 seconds per brew. We do all this to achieve the ideal cup of tea. To allow the tea leaves to offer us all their best qualities. Indeed, tea masters have studied the specific amounts of tea, the brew times, and the water temperatures for centuries. Now we are lucky enough to try the fruits of their labor!
The History of Gongfu Tea
Tea has existed in China for thousands of years. Since ancient times, medicine men have studied it, and poets have written about it. At some points, the Chinese tea ceremony was even the central part of the Chinese Empire, with emperors holding tea events and competitions. However, it took decades for the art of gong fu cha to fully develop into what we know it today. Unlike the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu), there is no one person to whom we can attribute its creation. Indeed, it came about after years of molding and evolution. In the same fashion, it is not nearly as strict as chanoyu. However, it does have some general guidelines which tea enthusiasts follow.
Chaozhou Gongfu Cha
Many gong fu tea enthusiasts believe that gong fu cha originated in Chaozhou, Guangdong province, in Southeast China. Merely a century ago, when people traveled to various parts of China, expecting to be served a wooden tray filled with small tea utensils and aromatic loose leaf tea, they would leave in disappointment after finding out that the locals had no clue about this so-called "gong fu cha". This is because gongfu tea was a regional practice, not a national one. Indeed, people would enjoy this type of tea ceremony only in Chaozhou or the Wuyi Mountains.
Furthermore, not every household would be seen enjoying this intricate way of brewing tea — it was only something that the occasional tea enthusiast would enjoy. Indeed, sitting down to enjoy a tea ceremony of many hours while being fully present and mindful was not something that any daily worker could afford. Not to mention, other parts of China would brew tea quite simply — perhaps just grandpa style, which means, in a big glass cup with loose tea leaves floating and then sipping tea directly from the cup.
Modern Day Gong Fu Cha
With time, the methods of brewing Asian tea known to Chaozhou tea lovers spread to other parts of the country, and even Taiwan and Japan. In the 1970s, Taiwanese tea enthusiasts put a hefty amount of work into establishing an intricate Chinese tea ceremony with an elegant tea aesthetic that could compare to the likes of Chanoyu. Indeed, nowadays, we know that gong fu cha is a beautiful melange of the tea practices common in all three countries.
Read more: The Evolution Of Modern Day Gong Fu Tea.
A Detailed Guide To Gong Fu Cha
Preparing The Tea Space
1 — Prepare your Gong Fu Cha space.
Many tea enthusiasts choose to dedicate a special tea space in their homes. However, you can simply devote a space to it per occasion. It can be your dining table, your coffee table, or an area in your garden. Anywhere you feel relaxed and comfortable. Once you have chosen the space, make sure to clear it of unnecessary items and distractions. Wipe the dust and make sure it's ready for your mindful tea ceremony.
Take the time to prepare everything you will need for the ceremony — your gongfu tea set with the tea table, all the tools, and utensils. Prepare the tea itself. And don't forget your tea pet!
2 — Wash your hands.
Washing your hands before handling teas and teaware is always a good practice. Not just for hygiene purposes but also for taking care of and honoring our teas.
3 — Burn some incense.
Burning incense is purely optional. However, many tea masters prefer to burn incense before tea ceremonies to set the mood for the room, clear it of unwanted energies, and set aside some extra time for a small mindfulness practice or meditation. Indeed, at this moment, you can let go of any pestering thoughts or worries and dedicate yourself to the world of tea. It's important to note here that the incense we find in China are pretty light and mellow. They are usually made solely from different types of wood without the addition of any strong aromas or spices. They are quite different from the Indian incense many of us are used to and set an overall different tone for the room. If you can, try getting your hands on some of the incense from China, Japan, or Taiwan.
Preparing The Tea and Teaware
4 — Present the tea leaves.
Although not crucial, many tea masters store the tea of choice in a designated tea jar before the ceremony to suit the overall tea aesthetic. During the start of the ceremony, use a tea scoop (cha shao) to scoop the tea leaves out of the jar and into the Cha He (a small, irregularly shaped contianer for displaying the tea leaves). From here, take the Cha He and inhale the aroma of the leaves, taking time to admire their shape and color. Tea masters also believe that the tea leaves will begin to wake up with our breath from this point. Then, if you are enjoying your tea ritual with other people, pass down the Cha He to the next person. At this point, you can also take the time to explain this tea to your guests. You can share the name of the tea, the type of tea, and some facts about it. Furthermore, you can share some personal stories and associations.
5 — Heat the teaware.
We then pour hot water over the teaware, starting from the teapot or gaiwan and going to the cha hai and teacups. Warming up the teaware is a crucial step to prepare it for the reception of the tea leaves. Also, it improves heat isolation and is also a way to show guests that the teaware is clean.
6 — Add the tea leaves into the brewing vessel.
Before the tea ceremony, you can check how much tea leaves you will need. It will always depend on the tea you are brewing. However, for most teas, you will generally need about 4-5 grams of tea per 120ml. When you measure the tea leaves, it may seem like a lot. However, keep in mind that a tea session can last well over ten infusions, and people can enjoy many tea infusions with you!
7 — Rinse the tea.
Make sure you got your water to the right temperature for the tea that you will be brewing, and fill the brewing vessel to the brim. You can even let it overflow a little. Then, pour it out into your tea table after a few seconds. Rinsing tea is a somewhat optional step that not all practice. However, many will rinse their tea before drinking it. The rinse will rid the tea leaves of dust and moisten and awaken them for further infusions. In any case, we always recommend rinsing your pu-erh tea and tightly rolled oolongs. You can also use this rinse to "bathe" your tea pet.
Beginning to Brew
8 — Brew the tea.
Now, brew the tea according to the tea's directions. The first infusion will be around 10 seconds for most teas but always check your specific tea first. As before, fill the brewing vessel to the brim with water, even letting it overflow a little. If using a teapot, pour water over the teapot once you close the lid. It will improve heat isolation for a nice brew.
9 — Decant the tea.
Now you can pour the brewed tea into the bowl of impartiality (cha hai or gong dao bei). Having a cha hai is a special step in Chinese tea ceremonies so that everyone gets the same brew. Imagine you are pouring tea directly from the teapot and into the small tea cups. Naturally, someone will get a weak brew from the top, while the last person to receive tea will get the most potent last bit of the brew. Furthermore, when pouring tea from the brewing vessel and into the cha hai, make sure to pour every last drop, even if it seems like a slow process. We do this to honor the tea and prevent the tea leaves from over-steeping in leftover water.
10 — Pour the tea into the small tea cups.
The next step will be pouting the brewed tea from the cha hai into everyone's teacup. Make sure to do this quickly and evenly.
11 — Serve the tea.
Pass around the teacups to each guest. To do so, some use their hands, while others might use specially designated tea tongs or a particularly shaped teacup holder.
Enjoying The Tea
12 — Admire the brewed tea.
Sometimes we might choose to take some extra moments to admire the color of the brewed liquor and its unique aroma. Indeed, the smell of tea gradually transforms throughout the tea ceremony. Dry tea leaves, wet tea leaves, and every single tea brew — they all have a different scent.
13 — Taste the tea.
Finally, now you can sip the tea and admire its unique taste. When tasting the tea, take small sips. Try not to drink it all at once. Let the tea sit in your mouth and notice its mouthfeel. Perhaps you will notice that it will never be quite like the previous time you brewed it, even when brewing the same batch of tea leaves. So many factors will impact the final taste of the tea, and it's always an interesting phenomenon to witness.
14 — Enjoy the aftertaste.
Now, after you have drunk the tea, enjoy its subtle aftertaste.
15 — Enjoy the aroma.
It's a common practice to smell the aroma of your teacup after sipping the tea, albeit usually after the end of the ceremony. Sometimes guests will even exchange and smell each other's teacups. You will be amazed to find out how different and unique each teacup can smell!
16 — Continue the ceremony.
Now, continue enjoying multiple infusions of the tea and noting how the taste and aroma transform with each brew. Some teas might last for about five brews or so, while others can stretch as far as 15+ infusions!
Finishing The Chinese Tea Ceremony
17 — Turn over your cup.
When you finish drinking the tea, it's a common practice to turn your gongfu cup upside down and leave it on the tea table. This way, the server will know not to pour you any more tea.
18 — Give gratitude.
Now the server and ceremony guests exchange words of gratitude. This is an excellent time to share your personal experiences of the tea and beyond.