Why Gongfu? A Practical Exercise for Better Tea Brewing
If you're learning about high quality looseleaf tea, you may have seen the term gongfu cha, which can be described as a method of brewing, a cultural tradition, or a ritualized ceremony. Sometimes romanized as kung fu, the term translates from Mandarin as "making tea with skill." In philosophical terms, it's about getting the most out of tea leaves by steeping them with care, and with all your knowledge as a tea maker. What kung fu mastery is to martial arts, gongfu practice is to making tea.
But what does that really mean, and what's it have to do with your teapot? Let us consider the value of gongfu cha through an easy exercise you can do at home.
A brief history of gongfu tea
To make a pot of black tea, you typically put a spoonful of leaves in a large pot, cover with boiling water, and steep for 3 to 5 minutes before decanting into tea cups. Gongfu cha is a different approach. The brewing vessel and cups are small—just a few ounces—and you use them to infuse a large proportion of leaves in a series of short steeps, which are decanted and consumed one after another.
The gongfu cha method was developed more than 100 years ago in the Chaozhou area of Guangdong Province. This mountainous region is the origin of famously fragrant Phoenix oolongs, and drinkers there developed special techniques specifically to meet the needs of this type of oolong tea. Phoenix oolongs boast incredible aromas and fruity flavors, but can turn dark and bitter with prolonged steeping. By making the tea in a series of short infusions, people found they could enhance the positive qualities of this style while avoiding its bite.
Gongfu cha is often exoticized as a ritualized ceremony, like the prescribed flourishes of Japanese chanoyu with matcha. In reality, though, gongfu is a deeply practical approach to using what you know about a tea to get the best cup possible. In other words, making tea with skill and control.
To be clear, gongfu cha isn't the be-all, end-all of tea brewing. Much tea in China is steeped in comparatively large pots or mugs the same way it is across the Western world. However, it's a powerful tool in a tea brewer's tackle box, and a gongfu brewing session may reveal something new about the taste of your favorite teas.
Gongfu vs. Western brewing
While gongfu brewing is most commonly used with Chinese oolong and pu-erh teas, the method works well across a wide range of leaf styles. By using a higher ratio of leaf to water, you can extract more flavor, sweetness, and aroma from the tea. Short steeps—usually under a minute—ensure the brew doesn't become astringent.
Instead, the tea is more dynamic: from the first steeping to the ninth, each distinctive cup takes you on a journey. Large teapot brewing condenses all a tea's potential into one serving. Gongfu cha elongates that experience into a series of cross sections, each with its own nuances.
You can experience the benefits of gongfu brewing even if you don't drink from a series of small steeps. Here's a way to try it with minimal equipment. We selected Himalayan Black, one of our favorite black teas; feel free to substitute with any tea you enjoy.
We measured equal weights of Himalayan Black to steep with equal volumes of water: one in a large teapot, the other gongfu style. While the large pot steeped once for three to five minutes, we brewed a series of 30-to-60-second gongfu infusions and mixed the multiple infusions together in a single pitcher. The result was the same amount of tea, steeped with the same amount of water, but brewed in different ways.
Our Western-style brewed Himalayan Black revealed cozy aromas of cocoa and malt with pleasing flavors of sugar cookie dough. Full and rich, as we expect from this tea, it also had some woodsy astringency. The stacked gongfu version was more surprising: a lighter, sweeter, more layered brew with notes of plum and warm spices. The aroma was more milk chocolatey, and the finish more pronounced. Any astringency from the Western version was absent from the gongfu cup.
We repeated this exercise multiple times with different water sources, teaware, and steeping times, and each session yielded distinctly different brews. Both were enjoyable, each with its own benefits, but more complexity was revealed with gongfu cha.
Does this mean we're going to toss our 20-ounce glass Mono pots and stick with 3-ounce gaiwans to steep everything into porcelain tasting cups? No way. Gongfu cha is simply one way to make tea. It can be impractical for large groups and demands more attention, which we're not always in the mood for. If you prefer your black tea with milk, the fuller, slightly more astringent touch of the Western pot could ultimately keep the flavors more balanced in the cup. But if you want to get more out of your leaves and explore a classic method of tea appreciation, gongfu cha is well worth your time. Like a Bruce Lee jump kick, it's a skill to learn and practice.