Gongfu tea (功夫茶) is not well-known in the West.
Using the same words as what we call “kung fu”, gongfu means performing a task with skill and effort. In the case of martial arts, it refers to wushi. In tea, we mean the mindful preparation of loose tea leaves in a manner designed to bring out the best flavor possible. While this practice has evolved into several ceremonial forms, it is the simple gongfu cha which is the most accessible to the student of the leaf.
The general idea is to prepare a relatively large amount of leaves in a small vessel (usually a gaiwan or yixing pot) with hot water for a very short amount of time. The hot water, small vessel, and quantity of leaves concentrates the flavors derived from the tea, while the short infusion prevents those flavors from becoming too strong.
An additional advantage of this method is that the leaves will generally produce many subsequent infusions that will shift and change in flavor and aroma. Although the infusion time may increase after three or four, it it said that a high quality oolong tea will give eight or more fully flavored cups. A good puer will often provide up to twenty.
Here are several guidelines to keep in mind as you try your own gongfu cha.
- Firstly, the quality of the leaves matters. This can be difficult to ascertain without experimenting, but if a tea gives out on flavor after the first infusion, it’s generally not a good sign. Any style of tea can be used. Green teas often make fantastic gongfu infusions with no bitterness, although they should be as fresh as possible.
- Second, make sure the vessel you are using is warmed first with some hot water. Discard the water before adding the leaves. This is also true for your pitcher and cups.
- Third, although a good amount of leaves should be used, be careful to leave space for the tea to unfurl and move about. Without movement, the tea may taste stagnant and the flavors will be inconsistant. This may take some trial and error, but remember that you can always add or remove a few leaves as you brew!
- Fourth, take care to steep the leaves only shortly, at least for the first few infusions: perhaps five or ten seconds. Sometimes these are called
“instant” infusions. Don’t be disappointed if your first infusion is quite light; this is often the case with a rolled oolong or brick puer. In this case, you may pour out your first infusion as a “rinse” or simply add more time. It is often said of oolongs that the third infusion is the best.
- Lastly, gongfu ceremony of any kind is a matter of experience and mindfulness. When tasting, remember to use all your senses. What is the sound of the tea pouring? What is its texture on the tongue? Of what does the aroma remind you? You may find in these steps that the tea ceremony finds you.