Updated: May 19, 2022
The purpose of writing this is to bring forward information that will hopefully get somebody interested in drinking tea. Some of this information is debatable. It is based a little on opinion and much that I’ve discovered and heard.
PARTS OF TEA; INTRODUCING WHAT IS PROBABLY OBVIOUS
Tea is created by adding the dry leaves to hot water, which is thereby infused with what is contained in the leaves.
When someone drinks wine, in order for one to receive the smell, the taste, and texture of the liquid, one simply has to open the bottle. This is different for tea because in order to get those things from tea, then one has to go through a process of brewing the tea. Then many factors are introduced which determine the end result of tea. Those factors are all in the process of brewing.
WHAT WILL AFFECT THE END RESULT OF TEA
What will give you various results in tea is the amount of leaves, the temperature of the water, and the amount of time the leaves spend in the water. If you wanted to get the same results in tea exactly the same, these factors must remain unchanged. But, depending on one’s personal taste, this can be changed in order to suit the individuals desired result in their tea.
THE GONG FU CEREMONY IN TEA BREWING
The best method for brewing tea was developed and is called Gong Fu. This is a Chinese ceremony centered around optimal brewing of tea. Gong Fu tea/Cha roughly “means” brewing tea in a way that requires attention. The ceremonial aspect of this technique does not necessarily have to be present in the way one first assumes if one is simply trying to get a good cup of tea. Many of the actual ceremonial part of Gong Fu are simply added on to the more practical parts of Gong Fu, which I said before is simply brewing tea with the intention of getting the best result. It is not hard to see how this style of brewing very naturally has become ceremonial, or has contributed to religion and culture. The practice of the Chinese tea ceremony, the ceremonial drinking of milk tea in Mongolia, the Japanese tea ceremony, and the artistic philosophies of Wabi Sabi all have emerged from methods of drinking tea. And I will say again that it is not difficult, when one brews and drinks tea with focus and attention, to understand how all this ceremony has emerged from doing that. It is both scientific and artistic.
The way I’m introducing Gong Fu here now is an informal way. That is, a way that is without any steps that do not have anything to do with brewing tea (in a sense). I will stress probably multiple times that you can do this however you choose, in whatever setting, by yourself or with someone, with whatever means you desire. There are not rules. There are guidlines and there is information that you can follow and people will say, “This is the best way.“ This can be helpful, but can also hinder your experience with tea. Though some have gone deep into the science, there is still no way for them to say, “this is the way that will, with absolute certainty, be the best way for you to drink tea.” I am not saying that the information available will not help you at all. A chart that has the various teas and steep times and temperatures I would recommend for a beginner. But I am saying that there is a lot to be had in finding what works best on your own. In my experience, I feel like what truly has held people back from doing the Gong Fu ceremony is it’s self-described essence, it takes time (the patience) and it takes attention. When people say this I would say that if you struggle with being patient, sitting down, sitting still, focusing, then you would have that much more to enjoy by doing an activity like this. Another thing people might say is that they don’t have enough time during the day and that they are too busy. That, I think, is just the reason that they should be slowing things down for Gong Fu. Tea is very intelligent, very simple, and very meditative.
I will now introduce what the tools are and how they are used in Gong Fu. In a Gong Fu set, the main vessel has a lid on top and that is the Gai Wan (Lid, bowl). This vessel is used to hold and manipulate leaves. Instead of a Gai Wan, you can also use a small teapot. There are cups, of course. There is a semi optional pitcher and filter which is used to hold tea liquid and distribute which is called the Gong Dao Bay (The way of the public, the way of justice). There is another optional vessel which is a small porcelain surface and this is simply to hold dry leaves before you begin. There is also a tray underneathe this entire set which is elevated and has slats, and this is used to pour the excess water (I will get to that). You will also need something you can heat water in. An electric kettle is ideal. Perhaps you can heat water on the stove. In China they sometimes heat water in a pot on a charcoal fire and I’ve heard this is a good way and will change the flavor of the tea. As we begin we will start with heating the water, and this is to a desired temperature. Once that is complete, we will pour that hot water over the tea set into all vessels (not the one that is holding the dry leaves though!) and then we will pour that excess water down into the tray beneath them. This process is to warm up all our tea ware and is called “waking up the tea set.” Then, we will take the dry leaves from the small vessel and place it inside the one with the lid, known as the Gai Wan. We then fill the Gai Wan most of the way full. Not entirely full. To pour from the Gai Wan one places his fingers over the lid. This vessel is going to be very hot so I will describe where your fingers will be going that is safe from heat: The Gai Wan is hottest on its belly, at the base where most of the liquid is being held. There is a lip at the top and it’s not as hot. Also the lid is a little hot, but least hot at the very top. The Gai Wan often sits on top of a small plate like a teacup and that is perfectly safe from heat. You can hold the Gai Wan in various ways. Hold it in a way you feel secure that you wont won’t drop it or burn yourself while pouring. The opperation of a Gai Wan consists of lifting it and pulling the lid away slightly to one side and then pouring the liquid out of the small gap. If you feel very unsure, the safest and most natural way works fine; lifting with 2 hands on the bottom (under the plate, holding like a reverse hamburger), securing the lid and pulling in back with the thumbs and pouring the vessel toward you. In this first pour of hot water over the dry leaves, you will actually, without waiting longer than a few moments, using the method I previously described, pour the tea liquid into the tray. This is called ”the rinse stage.” You are waking up the leaves a little before your first real steep. this also removes some of the bitterness that tea can have that was washed out in our rinse. The next step is a first real steep. you will repeat the same process only this time, you will steep the tea in the water for the desired amount of time and then you will be pouring this into either a cup large enough to hold all the liquid in the Gai Wan, or you will pour into the Gong Dao Bay. I have described these 2 different ways for different purposes; the Gong Dao Bay’s purpose is mainly for distribution of tea into more than one cup. This is for drinking with more than one person because if I were to distribute from the Gai Wan to multiple cups, then I would end up with different tasting tea in different cups because “my cup” received some of the first amount of tea and because “your cup” was next, it’s liquid was in the water for longer and it was also closer to the leaves, so “your tea” is stronger than my tea. That would be not fair. The Gong Dao Bay eliminates this unevenness, which is why it’s called “the way of justice.” The Gong Dao Bay is not just for fairness though, it also commonly has a metal filter above it. This will catch small tea leaves that slip from the Gai Wan and may make tea undesirably strong. But, if you are drinking alone and small leaves are not an issue for you, you can simply pour from the Gai Wan into a cup large enough to hold it’s liquid. After drinking the cup or cups of tea, the process of infusing the tea is done over and over again. This can be done almost up to 20 times (Whatever is your desired amount of times you are infusing). Over the course of multiple infusions this is where you have artistic say. Maybe you want your next steep to be stronger. the first few infusions tea will naturally get stronger as it becomes better saturated, even if you are using the same methods, steep time, and and temperature. Then it will kind of pan and progressively get weaker. If you wanted that next steep to be stronger you could increase The temperature of the water or steep the tea longer. This works well, but this can be not good if you expose tea to water that is too hot for too long and too early. It may bring out more bitterness. It also may seem stronger, but the leaves can be burnt in that hot steep and this will be tougher to get flavor out in later infusions. If you go through multiple infusions and you’re just not able to get what you wanted from that, then next time you are doing Gong Fu you could use more leaf. This will definitely make tea stronger. Strong tea is good, but with strength there can also be bitterness which can cover up some more delicate notes of tea.
THERE ARE VARIOUS TYPES OF TEA
There are various kinds of tea and they taste different and have different content of caffeine, and in most people’s standards, they are brewed differently. But, oddly enough, all these teas come from the same plant (for the most part). What makes them different is the process of which they are manufactured. I don’t know very much about how tea is manufactured hands on, so I will not dive deep into that part. Also, if you’re not interested in that part of tea it would be really boring. But, tea is all from the same plant which can be harvested as a small shrub or a large, hundreds of year old tree, and also grown in hilly valleys all together, or sparsely on rocky mountains. Tea is grown, picked, then processed. This process is more or less hands on. Good quality tea has (likely) been processed by hand and not by machines.
Some tea manufactures keep their ways of producing tea very secret.
Some tea has been aged and old tea was used as medicine. This tea is now prized for it’s matured qualities, but in it’s day, it was not difficult to find some very old tea just laying around. Tea is sold in it’s leafy form, but it also sold in large pucks that are usually 9 to 11 inches wide and maybe 2 inches thick. This is especially common for aged tea. This puck is called a Bing, and each Bing weighs 357 grams (regular sized Bings). To press tea leaves into a Bing, usually massive weight is pressed down on the leaves for a period of time. This is done for easy trade for a high quantity of tea. Tea can also come in a few other forms. A ”Dragon Ball,” which is a small ball of roughly 5 grams of tea, and a Tuo, (spelling is probably wrong, pronounced “‘twah”) which is close to 5 grams or more of usually Pu-Erh and these are pressed into small nuggets with divots, or are pressed in the shape of chinese coins. Sometimes tea is produced in bricks and those bricks can be cut into smaller chunks.
Everything that happens to a tea plant from seed to cup will determine how the tea is when it’s drank.
THESE ARE TYPES OF SOME TEAS AND WHAT THEY ARE OFTEN DESCRIBED AS
Green tea, it’s fresh and grassy tasting.
White tea, it’s delicate, complex.
Oolongs are often rich and bready, oolongs vary between green and black.
Black tea is strong and dark. Flavorful and sharp. In China, what we refer to as black tea is actually called “Red tea.” Black tea, (Hei Cha in Chinese) is in reference to a much more specific fermented tea.
Pu-Erh tea varies between raw and ripe, both have a mushroom taste, raw is delicate with rainy wood notes, ripe is dark like coffee, strong and buttery.
All these teas are made very different from each other. They are all commonly brewed differently. But you can brew them however you like.
YOU ARE SHOPPING FOR LOOSE LEAF TEA
Try lots of tea. That will tell you a lot about tea and what to look for in quality. The supermarket probably does not have the best tea. Try good quality tea, maybe from a shop that sells tea or through an online distributer. Try and be open to different teas. Good quality tea is “meant” to be drank by itself without sweetener or cream. There are teas that are naturally sweet, or thicker In texture. Tea with artificial flavors added are not good in quality. When shopping for tea you may notice that often people smell the leaves, or shop employees will offer the open leaves to you maybe with the intention for you to smell them. This is a somewhat mediocre way to determine quality of tea. How the leaves look will actually tell you significantly more. What will tell you the most about a tea is tasting it. If you can, maybe ask if you can have some made before you buy it. Smelling the wet leaves of tea will tell you much, much, much more than smelling the dry leaves of tea. It is worth encouraging you to drink on a tea further even if you decide you don’t like it, maybe if there’s a taste that you just can’t quite put your finger on. If you keep trying, you may find that this is a tea you actually really enjoy. Maybe it needed to be steeped a little longer, a little shorter, or using less leaf. It takes time to really know a tea and first impression isn’t everything. I’ve even heard that tea may taste different at different times of day.
YOU ARE STORING TEA YOU’VE BOUGHT
Store tea in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight in a sealed container or bag. Do not store tea together or open or it will absorb aromas from what is inhabiting it’s nearby space.
MAYBE YOU ARE GOING TO GO LOOK FOR A GONG FU SET
There are many kinds. One that I would like to recommend for a cheaper and efficient one, is a travel set. They fold together, and if you saw one, you would be able to see this one represents the Gai Wan and a way to sepperate the tea from the water, and this is what is drank from. There is often no tray. If you wanted something more elaborate and involved for your home I would suggest getting a tray and the set I describe in the standard Gong Fu ceremony. All this depends on how you might go about Gong Fu. There are a few different ways using variations of how I described in the standard ceremony.
THESE ARE SOME VARIATIONS OF STANDARD GONG FU
A convenient approach; they make a pitcher with a button. It has a unit on top that holds dry leaves. Water is poured inside. Then, by pressing the button, the water is separated. Very easy, but not very involved. Fundamentally, it will still give you the same quality tea as from a whole Gong Fu set.
Chaozhou is a style of Gong Fu. It is practiced often in a tea house. From what I gather, it is mainly a serving style for multiple people. It’s difference from standard Gong Fu is that, in a set for Chaozhou, you will notice there is no Gong Dao Bay, and there are 3 cups. Chaozhou is most often served from a small, clay teapot. Chaozhou is commonly using particular kinds of oolongs, but there is room for experimenting with different oolongs or different kinds of teas. In Chaozhou, the amount of tea one would use is nearly doubled from the standard amount used. This mass of tea is sometimes even crammed down into the small vessel, breaking many leaves. This is a practice that is often strictly avoided for standard brewing. In Chaozhou, boiling hot water is used in every infusion. After adding our water, without waiting, the liquid is poured quickly into all the small cups, without pausing on any cup (quick circling motion). The quicker the better, and it is done like this for every infusion. This way of brewing preserves the richness of the first steeps to all the steeps that are done in the brewing. By pouring quickly, the 3 cups should have close to the same strength tea (I’m saying this because you might be thinking this style contradicts what I was saying the whole purpose of the Gong Dao Bay was for. If poured very skillfully in the Chaozhou brewing style, there will not be AS MUCH unfairness between cups.)
Gong Pao is another style of Gong Fu. Gong Pao was developed in Taiwan, which is also where the Gong Dao Bay piece originates from. What you will notice in this kind of set is no tray. There is no tray in Gong Pao for excess water. This style means “dry pouring.”
In place of this tray is probably an embroidered mat. All the other pieces are the same. There is also an extra vessel usually, a large bowl (I will explain this). Why this brewing style is dry is because there is no excess water being poured freely. Water that is used to wake up the tea set and for the rinse is carefully poured into the bowl, without spilling any. This way takes much more precision and focus, being slow and careful not to spill even a small drop of water through the whole Gong Fu ceremony. It’s kind of a game in this way. Gong Pao is much more parallel to the Japanese tea ceremony. In regular Gong Fu, it’s very messy and fun. It makes serving guests easy for washing out cups where you can simply dump hot water over the used cup. In tea houses for Gong Fu, sometimes they will throw water across the whole table theatrically after doing this. This is not so in Gong Pao, where every drop of tea has a place.
Western Gong Fu. Western style brewing has a standard as well, even though, by now, we think of western style brewing with a tea bag. Here we are still talking about brewing loose leaf tea. Western style is in reference to tea drinking nations in the west. This, like eastern Gong Fu, has a set of standards as well, and requires focus and attention so that is why it’s still Gong Fu. But, in this style, we are using much less leaf in our standard and brewing for not a matter of seconds but a matter of minutes and only infusing a few times. This is still a valid style of Gong Fu tea brewing.
BREWING THAT IS NOT GONG FU BUT WORTH MENTIONING
There are other ways of drinking loose leaf tea, outside of Gong Fu. One is simply infusing and separating. You probably know of this way, but this can be done with an infuser and a vessel for tea. This can be done with a French press.
In Russia, Turkey, and few other countries, they have a large vessel that keep a concentrated brew hot and distributes the brew mixed with water. The name escapes me though.
Another very notable way of tea brewing that is not Gong Fu is called “Old man style” or ”Grandpa style.” It is called this because it is the traditional way of drinking tea. I have heard people say this way of brewing is only for very specific teas, in the green and white teas. It IS traditional, and was once used to drink all the available tea. The style is done by simply adding loose leaf to a cup or bowl, then pouring hot water over the top of the leaves. Then you can drink the tea and add more water when it’s needed or when it’s too bitter (this style makes strong tea). In a cup you may notice it takes a few minutes for all the leaves to sink to the bottom, and it’s sometimes very annoying to take a sip and get a stem or a leaf involved. You can eat the leaves that get caught in your mouth. For using a cup or bowl, I would suggest using a “heavy” leaf tea. a lot of oolongs work well, as well as pu erh. Some white and green tea is just very light and fluffy and will never sink. But we can actually use something else as a vessel; the Gai Wan. This is actually what the Gai Wan was originally developed for, to drink from. The leaves that might trouble you from drinking in a cup are no longer an issue because the lid of the Gai Wan actually separates the water from the leaves just like in pouring for Gong Fu. You may not have seen many people drinking from Gai Wans but in China this style of tea drinking is really popular (So I’m told.) Though this is a legitimate way to drink quality tea, this style is not Gong Fu because there is not any skill or technique involved.
Tasting notes are very useful for tea. I have a tea tasting journal that has a wheel for each page, and that wheel has different tasting
notes written on the outside with nexus points coming out of the inside of the wheel. These points signify how present this note there is in the tea. An example of what these notes are like is woody, sweet, peaty, citrus, and toffee. All of them are different ways that tea can taste. To use this as a beginner is tough, but with drinking more tea, one can really start to pull these tastes out of tea. There are even more in-depth wheels, like for the dark fruit category, that defines what kind of fruit is being tasted. This can become
a useful language for a tea drinker. Now, one can determine what flavor profile they are looking for in a tea. They can ask other tea drinkers or shop employees about teas. “I am looking for a black tea that has a lot of sweet potato flavor.” This practice of discovering notes will really pull you into the tea drinking experience. It will help you overcome strange flavors you’re not quite sure of or used to.
SOME TEA SHOUT OUTS
Here are some teas that I really believe are worth mentioning. That doesn’t mean that if I don’t mention a tea or forgot, that it’s not worthy of any attention. This is not just teas that I enjoy, but teas that are pretty important or might be a good place to start trying. most of them are common teas that can be found in tea shops or online.
Jasmine- Most people have heard or tried jasmine green tea. It’s an extremely popular tea. You can find it at a grocery store, but I am mentioning this tea as the quality loose leaf jasmine that comes in “pearls.” I have discovered that, to most people, jasmine flavor is actually quite particular. It’s often loved or hated.
Tie Guan Yin- “Iron Goddess Of Mercy,” Iron Goddess Of Anxi.” This is a green oolong tea that is rolled into tight balls. It is one of the most popular Chinese teas. It is simple and well rounded. If possible, one should be looking for the most traditional Tie Quan Yin. Traditional Tie Quan Yin is charcoal roasted.
Darjeeling- I’m not sure how to exactly describe Darjeeling in a practical way. It is much like regular black tea, but deep in complexity and very strong.
Ripe Pu-erh-“Shu Pu-erh.” This tea is just very potent and rich in all aspects.
Moonlight White- “Yue Guang Bai.” This tea is a white tea that is unique. It’s called ”Moonlight” because in the process of drying out the tea in the open air, it has spent a “night under the moon.” Lapsang Souchong- A smoked black tea. Powerful smokey aroma.
Tai Ping-“Monkey Picked.” This green tea has been pan-fried and flattened with wood blocks.
Genmaicha- A green tea from Japan that is mixed with brown rice. Probably not a tea for Gong Fu but other styles of brewing work well.
Da Hong Pao- ”Big Red Robe.” A rock oolong. Rock oolongs are grown in rocky areas and have a mineral water texture. Da Hong Pao is bold and full of complex flavor.
Silver Needle- White tea with pine needle shaped leaves.
Jin Xuan- A Taiwanese “Milk“ oolong. This tea is a thick black tea with a milky texture. There are some oolongs that are just flavored with something to give them the same qualities as this tea. Jin Xuan is the real deal.
Yi Mei Ren- “Beautiful Minority.” Grown by the Yi minority people of China. An interesting black tea.