So you're interested in brewing tea like a pro, but don't know where to start. In Part I of this guide we'll learn what Gongfu style brewing is, and about the tools you need to get started.
Gongfu Cha, Chinese for "Tea With Great Skill."
The difference between brewing gongfu compared to standard tea bags is you use loose tea leaves, with a small amount of water, for a short amount of time (think seconds, not minutes). Then enjoy a small cup of tea for you and your guests. This becomes a sort of ritual, repeating that process over again using the same tea leaves.
The result? Full bodied, great tasting tea that has flavors that change with the number of infusions. You can even control the taste of the tea with the water temperature and amount of time you let it brew. The experience of tea brewed with skill will elevate your idea of tea as you know it.
Gongfu style brewing can be quite complicated, but as a Modern Teaist, it can be done with minimal tools. I recommend starting with the following:
Water (See this is easy!)
Tea is mostly water, so always use the best you can get. According to legend, natural spring water is best, but making the effort to use fresh filtered water, that hasn't been left in the kettle since the last time you boiled water, will suffice. Precise temperature of the water will be important, but if you don't have a way to measure the temperature of the water as it heats, we'll discuss methods to do so without any tools. Not to worry!
Loose tea leaves are necessary. Great quality teas generally have full leaves, less broken bits, and usually are more uniform in shape. A great quality tea by a tea farmer who knows his or her trade can last up to 8-12 rounds of steeps!
A Tea Tray serves as a base where you can spill extra tea, or overflow your cup, with no worry of making a mess. Our Tea Trays are made of natural bamboo tops with holes etched out so your tea will drain into a drip tray below, easy to pour into the sink later. Using a tray with a drip catch frees your mind from spills, letting you focus on preparing the tea to your taste.
Brewing Vessel - Gaiwan or Teapot
Certain teas will have a preferred brewing device, but for now, pick one of these to get started.
A traditional gaiwan is a 3 piece brewing device with a coaster, a brewing cup, and a lid. You put your leaves into the cup, fill with water, and place the lid on top. Then you lift the gaiwan by the edges with one hand, and using a free finger slide the lid slightly off center and pour the tea out, letting the lid act as a strainer so tea leaves don't end up in your cup. It takes a bit of practice, but offers a lot of flexibility with brewing.
Sound too complicated? A newer Gaiwan type brewer has caught my attention, and that's the Easy Gaiwan. These have just a brewing cup and a lid, but the cup has a built in spout and filter that interlocks with the lid, so you can simply place the lid on top and pour away. Couldn't be simpler.
A small teapot (made of clay, ceramic, or porcelain) can also be used. These will often have a filter built into the body or the spout, so you can pour your tea out without the leaves also coming along for the ride.
And that's it! There's a few more optional tools below that you might want to consider, but you can start to brew great tea with just those few!
Optional: Gongfu Teacups:
Small teacups bring a joy to about having tea this way. A smaller amount of tea in your cup lets you savor each sip and think about the experience as much as the the tea. These cups usually hold between 30 and 80 ml and are made of clay, ceramic, porcelain, or glass.
Optional: Strainer and Decanter
You may find that depending on the type of tea, your tea leaves may still be small enough to slip through the cracks of the teapot filter or gaiwan lid. In this case you might want to buy a small strainer that fits on top of a glass cup. You can pour your tea through that strainer and use the glass cup to pour into your teacups.
Optional: Variable Level Electric Tea Kettle or Thermometer
As I mentioned earlier, using precise temperature of water will let you hone in on flavors of the tea, so it may be worth picking one of these up. I can recommend the kettles by Cuisinart & Bonavita, and for years I enjoyed used a $12 infrared thermometer gun to get fairly accurate readings of the water temperature.
In Part II we'll walk through your first brew gongfu!