Chaozhou in Guangdong province is an enticing area of China holding mountains of tea traditions, literally. The city of Chaozhou is near Phoenix Mountain, the birthplace of aromatic Dan Cong Oolongs. There, the tea bushes grow semi-wild on high elevations amid fragrant fruit gardens.
Gong Fu Cha is a Chinese tea brewing practice that emerged in Chaozhou during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It emphasizes small brewing vessels, a high leaf-to-water ratio, and several brief infusions using the same tea leaves.
In other parts of China, you may find plenty of people practicing various tea brewing methods, like grandpa-style tea or western brewing. However, in Chaozhou, tea drinkers prefer to stick to their roots. Even today, the province’s tea traditions are highly treasured and preserved, playing an integral part in the community's social life. If you happen to be in a locals' presence for long enough, they are likely to treat you to Gongfu style tea.
Phoenix Mountains, Guangdong
What Is Chaozhou Gongfu Cha?
For most of its history, until the mid-20th century, Gong Fu Cha was predominantly a Chaozhou regional practice. In the 1970s, it was rejuvenated and refined by Taiwanese tea practitioners that infused ceremony, elegance, and art into Gong Fu Cha practices. From there, this evolved Gong Fu Cha found its way back to mainland China, expanding beyond Guangdong and eventually reaching other parts of Asia and the Western world.
As we mentioned, Chaozhou strives to preserve its ancient tea drinking traditions. In Guangdong province, people prefer to do things the original way.
Gong Fu Cha once referred explicitly to brewing tea the way they brew it in Chaozhou. With the spread of Gongfu tea across the world, the lines became blurred. Nowadays, Chaozhou Gong Fu Cha is a term used to refer to the original Gongfu brewing methods.
Gong Fu is translated as “best-effort”. It is our best effort that we put into a tea session to gain the purest, most delicious, most aromatic brew we can get.
Nowadays, some people prepare their best quality teas for Gong Fu brewing, while the everyday or lower quality teas are left for quick western-style infusions. This was not the case with the original Gong Fu brewing of Chaozhou.
The brewing method was developed for steeping low-quality teas, putting your best effort forward to end up with something delicious. Making a fantastic tea taste good is much easier than making a low quality one taste amazing.
Chaozhou Gong Fu is a simple brewing method used by people living in Guangdong province. It doesn’t have as many steps as the Gong Fu brewing methods you are most likely acquainted with through videos, articles, and tea ceremonies. It doesn’t even require as many tea utensils.
Chaozhou Gong Fu Tea Steps:
Prepare boiling water.
People in Chaozhou are known for using boiling hot water to brew their teas. For boiling water they often use charcoal clay stoves with Chaozhou clay kettles.
Use high water to leaf ratio.
Approximately 1 gram of tea leaves for every 15 ml of water is used. This region is definitely known for tea drinkers who like their drink strong!
For this, make sure to use an appropriately sized round teapot or brewing vessel to allow adequate space for the tea leaves to absorb water and expand, opening up completely and freely. Don't let the leaves occupy over 80% of the teapot's space. Constricting the space will result in a tea without much flavor as the tea leaves didn’t have enough space to release expand and release.
In Chaozhou, most people will use Chaozhou teapots. These are unglazed teapots, much like Yixing teapots, however, they are made from local clay from the Phoenix Mountain instead of Yixing clay.
Read more: Chaozhou vs. Yixing Clay Teapots
Fill the teapot with tea leaves.
This is perhaps one of the most discerning steps of Chaozhou Gong Fu. First, sort through the tea leaves separating the fuller large ones from the broken, smaller ones. Try to fill the large tea leaves around the walls and the spout, while putting the smaller fragments in the center. Allow for the teapot to be approximately 80% full with tea leaves.
Close the lid tightly and pour boiling water over the teapot.
This helps to wake up and heat the tea. If the Chazhou or Yixing teapot is made correctly, no water will go into the teapot, keeping the leaves dry.
Some people replace this step with the roasting method. For this, you will need a small charcoal brazier that can fit comfortably on the table. The tea leaves are roasted for a short period until they become warm and fairly aromatic. This step is seen as crucial for releasing any unwanted astringency. Since most of us probably don’t have charcoal braziers on-hand, we can substitute by pouring water over the closed teapot, creating a kind of oven-like effect.
Fill the brewing vessel with water.
To do this, try to not pour the boiling water directly over the tea leaves in the center. Instead, use a swift circular motion pouring water over the tea leaves around the rim of the teapot opening. Scrape off any forming bubbles using the lid of the teapot.
Discard the first brew and repeat.
Steep the tea and pour out quickly.
Chaozhou Gong Fu steeps are very quick, usually lasting no longer than 5 seconds per steep. It is essential to have a teapot with a spout that pours speedily and freely to avoid over-brewing.
Fill the Gong Fu cups.
During Chaozhou Gong Fu brewing, three Gong Fu cups, with very thin walls are used. Three cups form the Chinese character for taste 品 – pin. Make sure to fill about 2/3 of the cup. Overfilling the cup with the iconic piping hot tea of this brewing style will make it impossible to enjoy without getting burned.
Note: a Cha Hai (bowl of impartiality) is rarely used for traditional Chaozhou tea brewing. Instead, the tea master will swiftly pour tea across all cups, trying to fill them as equally as possible, with all parts of the brew.
Sip the tea without putting your lips to the cup.
First, bring the teacup close to your mouth. Then, the tea is “sucked” out of the cups. This helps to aerate the tea, bringing out its full body and aroma. Many Gong Fu practitioners across the world prefer this method of drinking tea, although it may take some getting used to. Try both drinking methods side-by-side. You are likely to notice more aroma by using this “no-lip” drinking method.
Repeat the brewing method until you have reached a total of 3 brews. Unlike the Gong Fu Cha that we usually practice, which can last for 10-15 brews, Chaozhou style only lasts 3 brews. After that, the tea leaves are discarded. With each brew, make sure to brew the tea for the same period.
In the Chaozhou tea traditions, usually three cups are placed on the tea table. Three cups form the Chinese character for taste, Pin – 品
In actuality, Chaozhou Gong fu is much less fancy than the modern-day Gong Fu practices we enjoy. Simple utensils are used alongside local tea, which is not always of the highest quality. Although many of us will choose to see Gong Fu Cha as a ceremony, in Chaozhou, it is simply a means of brewing tea and making it taste good.
Enjoying Chaozhou tea for the first time, you may find it too bitter. The more you utilize this brewing method, the more you will get used to it. People from Chaozhou will generally find other tea brewing methods too weak and not fragrant enough. Drinking it long enough, you may find it hard to go back to your previous Gong Fu ways!