Method 3: The ‘Gong Fu tea’ method
The kung fu method – 工夫gongfu – or old people’s tea is a complicated subject. There are many different ways of brewing tea gong fu style. Many people like yixing, chaozhou or jianshui clay teapots – and here at LLT we are partial to these too – but the simplest way to start your gong fu brewing journey is with a lidded cup – known as a gaiwan.
To get started, you will need a gaiwan, a tea tray or a cloth and a vessel to decant into. Our set is a good place to start, but all you really need to get started is a gaiwan, a cup and something to mop up spilt tea(!)
Gongfu tea brewing requires a lot more leaf to water than western-style brewing and brewing times are typically much shorter too. On the back of your lapsang or earl grey packet, you may read directions to leave the leaves in the teapot for two minutes. Gongfu brewing is more like 10-30 seconds and you will have multiple infusions. Each infusion has a different character. With good quality tea the second and third infusion can be the best – once the leaves are ‘woken up’.
How Much Tea Should I Use?
How much tea you should use really depends on the type of tea you are using, the quantity of water and your own preferences. We will give guidance for our individual teas on their respective pages, but between 3 and 6 grams per 100mm of water is a good ballpark.
How Hot Should the Water Be?
Often, when the tea is robust and high quality, the hotter the better. Certain teas take a lot of care and precision and can make a beautiful cup, but if you are not really really careful, you will ruin them. In general, it’s a good idea to keep the water temperature below boiling with most Chinese and Japanese teas. For green teas 80 degrees is a good target. If you go for Living Leaf Tea, you shouldn’t worry about the temperature too much. I regularly brew white tea at boiling or just below.
How to Brew?
Now here’s the key information. If you are a visual learner, the video below will be just the ticket, if you prefer to read, then skip the video!
If you skipped the video, the images above should be a helpful guide to how you can hold the gaiwan. One grip might feel more comfortable than the others, so take your pick!
Step one: preheat your tea brewing equipment.
Add hot water to each of the vessels you plan to use for your tea session.
This is not an essential step, but it can really help you to get the most out of your tea leaves – especially if they are robust and in need of very hot water. Having a hot cup also has the added benefit of not letting your tea go cold too quickly and it helps carry the smell of the tea for the next step.
Step two: enjoy the aroma of the dry leaves
After you’ve filled your gaiwan with boiling water, weigh out your desired quantity of tea. If you don’t have scales – eyeball it. The perfect amount of tea should prevent you from seeing the bottom of your brewing vessel. By now your brewing vessel will be nice and warm. Tip the boiling water into the cavity of your tea tray or somewhere else you don’t mind getting wet. Sinks are great for this…
Place the dry leaf in your gaiwan and breath deeply. The aroma carried by the steam will give you some hint at what you are in store for. Sometimes I like the fragrance of the slightly warmed leaves more than drinking the tea itself!
Step three: wash the leaves and smell the wet leaf
Now we are ready for the wash steep. This infusion should be as short as you can possibly make it. Pour hot water over the leaves making sure they are fully immersed and then tip that water away. We perform the wash brew – as the name suggests (!) – to wash the leaves. But this first rinse also ‘wakes up’ the leaves – it warms them and gets them ready for their first proper infusion.
Sometimes, especially when I am sampling an expensive tea, I drink the wash brew. However it is rarely worth it. The second third and fourth immersions are usually much better anyway.
Once you have tipped away the wash brew, smell the leaves again. They should now be producing a strong scent and you can start to really pick out some of the bassier notes of the tea.
Step four: first steep!
Now we are ready for your first proper taste of your tea!
The time of the step really depends on a few factors: the leaves – the temperature of the water and how the tea has been gown and processed – how thick the leaves are, whether they are rolled, the level of oxidation etc.
To avoid getting into the weeds here, a good rule of thumb is to start off with a short steep, and increase it for the next round if you are not getting enough flavour out of the cup.
Pour water over the leaves and leave them to infuse for 20 seconds or so. Once the time has elapsed, pick up the gaiwan – using your preferred grip – and pour out the water into your drinking or decanting vessel. Try not to let too many leaves escape from the gaiwan. you should adjust the opening of the gaiwan to account for the size of leaves you are brewing with – as gong fu tea is usually reserved for whole leaf (or bud) teas this shouldn’t be a problem.
After you’ve got as much liquid as you can out of the gaiwan, put the gaiwan down and leave the lid off. Leaving the lid off ensures that the leaves don’t over brew in the residual steam.
You are now ready to enjoy your first cup of gongfu tea! Sit back and enjoy the fruits of your effort!
Steps 5+: Subsequent Infusions
You can repeat the process as many times as you like. Just add on a little time for each subsequent infusion (5 or so seconds.) If you’ve used enough tea, the leaves should be able to be reinfused five or more times and still have lots of flavour. Even after all these brews, you can extract even more flavour by racheting up the temperature of your water or leaving the leaves in for a couple of minutes!
Tea brewing is as much an art as it is a science. While you can make an excellent cup of tea by following recommendations for different types of tea, you really need to get to know the idiosyncrasies of the harvest, the plantation, the water you are using and your own tea ware. This can only be done through experience. Start with these rules:
- 3-6 grams of tea per 100mm of water
- 20 second brew time (for the first brew – add a few seconds for each subsequent brew)
- Using water of a temperature high enough to extract the most out of your tea, but not so high that you scold the tea of choice
But after you have done that first base line steep, you will experiment with the length of time needed for a good cuppa and in subsequent sessions, you can adjust temperature, time and the amount of tea according to your taste.
Gong fu tea is a not for a quick caffeine fix. One of my favourite foodie YouTubers, James Hoffmann, said something about espresso nerdery which I think is relevant here – to paraphrase, “if you want to get a good espresso every morning, go to a cafe. If you want a hobby get an espresso machine.” Espresso machines require dialing in before they start producing a good coffee. That means 20 minutes fiddling each morning before you get your shot! Gong fu tea time is much like this. It is for the nerdy fiddlers amongst us who want to spend time experimenting with their tea of choice chasing the holy grail of the perfect cup. The pay off of time invested is worth it, though. When you are fluent in the process and you understand a couple of your favourite teas, there is no better feeling to sitting down at the tea table with friends or alone and enjoying the fruits of your skills.
If you do want a simpler, quicker way of brewing, check out our other two articles on leaves in brewing and leaves out brewing.