A simple guide to making amazing tea.
This guide will cover the basics of brewing tea gongfu style. Gongfu brewing is a traditional method of making tea that involves steeping tea leaves multiple times in a row with a high leaf-to-water ratio. This is an alternative to the western style of brewing that we are all so familiar with: lower ratios of tea steeped only once or twice.
The term gongfu in this context implies this method requires skill and practice, but by the end of this guide you’ll have everything you need to get started. Jump to a section by clicking on a thumbnail below or keep scrolling and start from the beginning!
Most gongfu brewing is done with small vessels. The pot (left) and gaiwan (right) are two of the most common vessels. By using small vessels and filling them up with tea leaves, we can brew some teas even dozens of times in a row. This will help us notice all the nuances of flavor.
Before moving forward, keep in mind that none of these vessels are necessary for brewing tea; at the end of this guide I will explore other methods.
A gaiwan (left) is a cup (second from right) with a lid (right). It usually has a saucer (second from left) to catch any spills. Placing the lid slightly off center will create a gap that is big enough to let the liquor out but small enough to keep the leaves in.
A pot (left) consists only of the base (middle) and a lid (right). Clay pots, like the one above, will slightly alter the flavor of a tea, and are usually only used with certain types of tea. Ceramic or glass vessels won’t alter a tea’s flavor, so I usually stick to those.
Traditional gongfu ceremony makes use of a gong dao bei or fairness pitcher (left). Tea is poured here first, ensuring all of the tea liquor is of uniform strength, before being divided among tasting cups (right). Of course, there is no need to use this method - you can leave out the pitcher or pour directly into a larger tea cup (middle) if you are by yourself.
Now that we have a basic understanding of our vessels, let’s get our tea leaves ready. For small vessels, I like to use around 4-6 grams of tea. I usually estimate this amount without a scale, and I may use more or less depending on what type of tea it is. The best way to learn is practice and experimentation.
Pu’er will often be compressed to make transport, storage and aging more convenient. Compressions can be many different shapes and sizes - this shape is known as a bing cha and is commonly referred to as a “cake” in the west.
In order to break a piece off to make tea with, we can use a tea pick (middle). You are welcome to use any tool you like - a dull knife will work perfectly. There are two common methods (right) for breaking into tea cakes: from the inside out or the outside in.
To start, push in the tea pick 1-2 inches deep (left). Lift the tea pick towards you to pry the layers of leaves away from one another. Remove the pick and repeat the same method from a slightly different angle (middle). Repeat this process until you have loosened a small chunk of leaves, and then simply remove it with your hands.
We now have a beautiful chunk of raw pu’er to work with. This looks a little big, though. It would probably be a little too much to brew in our small gaiwan.
The piece we removed was indeed too large - it’s almost 12 grams! We can simply split it in two and use one half of it. A smaller piece weighing only 5.8 grams will be much easier to brew with. The other half can go back to storage with the rest of our cake.
Now that we’ve prepared our tea leaves, let’s focus on our water.
The water we use is equally as important as the tea. Your water should taste refreshing and clean. Water with too many impurities, such as some tap water, may unpleasantly affect the taste of your tea. Water without any impurities, such as ultra-purified water, may make your tea taste flat. The best water for tea is in the middle: it contains some minerals but still tastes good.
Spring water and moderately filtered water are both good places to start, but the best way to find good water is to experiment with a few different sources. It doesn’t have to be a treasure hunt, though - I use filtered water that comes out of my refrigerator! Using activated charcoal is also a great method for preparing your water.
The temperature of our water is also important. You are welcome to brew any tea at any temperature you like, and experimenting will help you understand the effects temperature has on tea. I typically brew green tea around 80°C and everything else around 90-100°C. Temperature is not an exact science the way some make it out to be.
There are ways to identify the temperature of water by the the size and pattern of the bubbles it creates while boiling, but for now a thermometer will do the trick if you have one. I use a variable temperature kettle for convenience.
Before brewing our tea, we can use water to warm up the vessels. I skip this step sometimes, but it’s easy - simply pour hot water into your empty gaiwan/pot, and then pour it from there into your other pitchers and cups. This will get everything clean and warm, so they are ready to accept our tea.
Rinsing Our Tea
Place the tea in your prefered vessel - we will be using a gaiwan. Five grams of loose leaf tea may look dramatically different depending on how it’s processed. If it’s rolled tightly into balls it may only cover the bottom in one layer, but if the leaves are large it may overflow out of the cup. Five grams of the oolong tea above fills about 1/3 of our gaiwan. As you gain more experience it will be easier to estimate your prefered amount of tea without a scale.
Here is the pu’er we weighed out earlier which we’ll be brewing. Since it’s compressed it will take up significantly less space than the equivalent amount of loose leaves. As we steep it, the leaves will come apart and fill our gaiwan.
We’ll start by rinsing our tea. This first brew just serves to “wake up” the tea leaves and more importantly helps to clean any pesticides or unwanted residue off the leaves. We will not drink it.
Immediately pour the tea into your pitcher or cup. By pouring the rinse into our other vessels, we are ensuring that that any unwanted flavors are washed away and our vessels will all taste like the tea we are brewing.
Pour the rinse into your remaining cups, if any, and then discard it. Our tea and teaware are now ready. We will be repeating roughly this same process for the first brew.
Brewing Our Tea
Pour the hot water into your gaiwan. You could go down a surprisingly deep rabbit hole about how exactly to pour the water, but as long as it makes it into the gaiwan you are doing great!
Wait 10-20 seconds before pouring your tea out. It may be helpful to use a timer at first, but after enough practice and experimentation you will understand how long to let it steep intuitively.
Our tea is finally ready to drink! Enjoy it slowly and pay attention to how it tastes, how it feels in your mouth, and if there is any noticeable aftertaste. As you drink more tea, noticing the nuances of flavor, texture, mouthfeel and aftertaste will become easier.
Repeat this brewing process as many times as you like. Some teas will start to lose their flavor after 3-4 steeps, while some teas will last more than 15 steeps. Adjust your steeping times as necessary - usually the deeper into a tea session you are, the longer your steeps will need to be.
Ultimately, it’s all about personal preference - was the previous brew too light? Brew the next one it a little longer. Was the previous brew too strong? Brew the next one a little shorter. How many leaves you used, how hot your water is and how big your vessel is are all factors that play a role as well.
After a few steeps you’ll start to notice the tea leaves unfurling and opening up. Hopefully they will be beautiful, unbroken leaves. Many people don’t realize that all tea originates as leaves on a plant - we’re just used to seeing them crushed up and placed in tea bags. Preserving the integrity of the leaves will lead to a sweeter liquor with more complex flavors.
Our demonstration used a gaiwan, but a pot works perfectly well. The process would be identical. As I mentioned earlier, pots will generally pour slowly - so make sure to take that into account when steeping your tea.
I use porcelain most of the time, but when I do use clay teaware it’s only for highly oxidized or roasted oolongs, black tea, and pu’er tea. The clay will help smooth out a tea’s flavor and soften any bitterness, but it will also dull any high notes.
Don’t have any fancy teaware? No problem! An infuser will do the trick just fine. Use the same amount of leaves and simply place the infuser into any old mug.
Even though we have a mug and infuser, we’ll be using roughly the same method as with a gaiwan or pot. Rinse and steep your tea as you would normally, but instead of pouring the liquor out, just remove the infuser.
As you continue to steep the leaves, adjust the brewing time to suit your preferences. The concept remains the same, only the tools are different.
Don’t have an infuser? No problem! All you need is a cup. Simply add about 1/4 to 1/2 the amount of leaves you would normally use and pour water on them. Sift the tea leaves with your teeth as you drink it. This is the oldest method of drinking tea in the world - no one is above its simplicity and elegance.
Making tea is simple.
Drinking good tea is easier than you think. Many people will tell you that you need special tea pots, special water, special brewing methods, and special tea. You don’t.
You don’t need teaware handcrafted by masters with volcanic mud. You don’t need spring water from the peaks of mount everest. You don’t need tea picked by monkeys from ancient trees. And you certainly don’t need years of experience.
The only thing you might need is tea.