As most tea enthusiasts already know, there are different ways of making tea. For example, you can brew it western-style or gongfu style (read more about the difference between the two). When talking about quality Asian tea, most of us might choose to make our drink the gong fu cha way. We can taste how it transforms throughout multiple brews when we make tea gong fu style.
For this reason, it’s also essential to understand how many brews each tea type can withstand. Furthermore, how to prolong the brew count of each variety. We’ll discuss this more in today’s article.
Some tea drinkers believe that the more infusions a tea can withstand — the better the quality. There is some truth to this. However, it goes much further than just that. It’s important to note that not all teas can handle multiple infusions. For example, we can only brew certain high-quality Japanese green teas perhaps two or three times. However, many might prefer not to take it past one good brew, even for those. On the other hand, certain types of Chinese teas, like dark oolongs or pu-erh, can last fifteen brews and counting! Let’s take a look at the factors that determine an infusion-enduring tea.
What Is An Infusion-Enduring Tea?
Well, first off, perhaps we should clarify what the term “infusion-enduring tea” encompasses. In short, it’s a tea that, throughout multiple infusions of the same tea leaves, won’t lose much of its taste or aroma. On the contrary, the smell and taste will change and evolve. Often times becoming more interesting with each infusion.
To compare, let’s take an artificially flavored tea or a cheap big-brand black tea. If we were to brew something like this, at first, we might get a cup of very intense liquor (sometimes too intense for good taste). However, once we brew this same tea a second time, we’ll immediately notice that the advertised “strawberries and cream” aroma is all but lost, and the taste is… bland.
Having an infusion-enduring tea means that the tea leaves are very rich in natural oils and other properties responsible for the brew’s overall taste and aroma.
Every tea will naturally have a different endurance to infusions based on many features. It’s not fair to judge its quality by the infusion count alone. On the contrary, we should consider many factors like the appearances of the leaves, the aroma, the color of the liquor, and of course, the taste. However, when we compare different teas within the same tea type, for example, two different grades of Ya Shi Xiang Dan Cong Oolong, the one with the higher brew count will usually take the cake.
How to Determine which Tea Can Stand More Infusions
1. The Tea Plant
We will examine three different types of tea plants — wild tea trees, semi-wild trees, and bushes. Bushes are the ones that grow in tended-to gardens, and if the farmers stop tending to them and let them grow as they please, they will become semi-wild, and eventually, wild. However, for a tea bush to become truly wild takes hundreds of years.
Quite frankly, a wild or semi-wild tree will generally yield a more infusion-enduring tea than a bush. It's because wild trees have the highest number of tea polyphenols, and the number of polyphenols dictates how many infusions your leaves will last.
When we look at Chinese teas, usually pu-erh (a fermented tea from China) comes from wild trees. This is because many pu-erh trees grow in a protected area of Yunnan, where farmers are not allowed to use pesticides or alter the teas in any way. In fact, the government and various organizations protect many of the ancient trees in China.
2. The Tea Garden
You probably already know that gong fu cha lovers particularly prize high-mountain tea. Well, generally speaking, high mountain teas gift us more infusions than their low-growing equivalents. If you’re choosing between a Milk Oolong that grows at 600 m and one at 1200 m, chances are the 1200 meter one (anything over 1000 m is “high-mountain”) will give you more infusions. Next time you consider these two options, keep in mind that a higher altitude dictates a higher price but also yields a higher number of infusions with a deeper taste!
Albeit, the altitude of the garden isn’t the only thing we can pay attention to. Other factors include the mineral content of the soil and the use of inorganic substances when tending to the garden, to name a couple.
3. The Age of the Tea Tree
Naturally, many cha enthusiasts opt for buying tea that farmers produce from ancient trees. One of the reasons is that, under the same conditions, an older tree will yield a more infusion-enduring beverage.
4. The Leaf
You might have noticed that many appreciate a tea made solely from the buds of the tea plant. Pure bud teas are indeed delicious and have many exceptional properties. However, we do not know them to be brew-enduring. If you want your gong fu cha ceremony to last for hours, we recommend using a tea that’s not only bud but bud and leaf or purely leaves.
The buds are the youngest part of the plant, and naturally, they have yet to develop the properties of a mature leaf. On the other hand, leaves store up many substances and oils that only start releasing with the second or third infusion. Thus, a tea ritual with buds and leaves, or just leaves, can last through many infusions on end.
To illustrate an example, many delicious green teas comprise of buds and very young leaves. Their taste is brisk and refreshing, their aroma pleasant, grassy, and floral, their amino acid content high. All this creates a most enjoyable ceremony! However, it might not be the way to turn if your goal for the day is to have fifteen brews without needing to switch out the beverage of choice.
For the above-mentioned experience, we recommend sticking with teas that have a higher ratio of mature leaves. Perhaps even some twigs! For instance, most oolongs work wonders in this scenario.
Yet another thing to pay attention to is the final state of the leaves. Are they thick and whole, like in the case of a Dong Ding Oolong? Or are they slightly broken, like in the case of a Keemun black tea? We adore an excellent Keemun, with its soft taste and sweet potato aroma. Indeed, this is a very noble hong cha. However, for the purpose of infusion endurance, yet another variety would work best.
When it comes to tea processing, there’s a myriad of ways farmers can choose to process it! Steaming, pan-firing, roasting, oxidizing, rolling, twisting, compressing, fermenting, aging… and the list goes on! For example, leaves that farmers roll quite heavily will produce fewer steeps. When the farmers roll the leaves, more juices come out of them. Consequently, when we brew these leaves, they will release their flavors more quickly.
At last, here we are! While all the previously mentioned factors are definitely crucial in determining brew-endurance, it is how we finally choose to brew the leaves which will make or break the deal.
Now to determine how our gong fu cha ceremony will turn out, we should counter-in the ratio of leaf to water, the brewing vessel (i.e., a more miniature Chinese teapot versus a big western-style one), the brewing times, and the water temperature. Furthermore, the first steep or two are essential in determining whether or not we can continue getting multiple delicious infusions out of our tea. In other words, if we can’t brew the first round properly (for example, by over-brewing it or burning the leaves with extra-hot water), most likely, the rest will turn out poorly as well. Consequently, the brews will be tasteless and lifeless because the leaves have lost all their potential.
The Way of Gong Fu Cha
Our best advice to you when brewing your favorite tea according to gong fu cha's ways is to stay present and stay in the moment. Determine the amount of tea leaves, water temperature, and brewing time your tea needs.
Perhaps, start with the lower temperature and flash-steepings, and see how your tea reacts to it. Then, adjust accordingly. Lower the water temperature and make your steepings quick if the tea is too bitter or pungent. Or, if there is not enough taste, raise the temperature and prolong the brewing times.
If you feel like experimenting, you can go with the flow and switch up the instructions a little. All the while paying attention to how your brew turns out. As long as you don't neglect your brew, you might very well end up with something delicious and extraordinary!
Help! I’m Tea Drunk and Can’t Handle any more Infusions
Fear not, our tea friend.
Say you decided to brew a very brew-enduring tea, and somewhere into the eighth infusion, you realize that you’ve had enough for this session. However, you can taste that the leaves have much more potential, and rather naturally, you don’t want to waste them. We don’t recommend leaving them out for more than a day, especially not overnight. Nonetheless, there is a special trick we enjoy.
Cold-brew your unfinished tea leaves!
That’s right. If you have some leaves with more potential, grab a container (water bottle, jar, pitcher, what have you!), put the leaves in there, and fill it up with some cool water. We recommend not using more than a liter of water if your leaves have already gone through some steeps. Pop the container in the fridge overnight, and by the morning, you’ll have a delicious cold-brewed tea waiting for you! By the way, if you’ve been brewing multiple teas in one gong fu cha session and they all still have potential, feel free to mix them in one cold brew for some new and interesting flavors.