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Gongfu Brewing

Gongfu Brewing

Although we prefer to drink nearly all green teas in the stream-lined, simplified grandpa style (just leaves in a tall glass of hot water) for almost all other teas, we prefer to brew gongfu.

 Gongfu Brewing in Chaozhou, unglazed easy gaiwan overflowing with dry dancong leaves

Gongfu is a style of tea brewing that supposedly originated in the home of Dancong Oolong teas, in a small city in the Northeast of Guangdong known as Chaozhou.  Although the style has since deviated far from the traditional methods, some standards persist, and can help anyone get the most out of their tea.


First there are a few things to consider:

  1. The Tea
  2. The Vessels
  3. The Water
  4. The Temperature
  5. The Time
  1. When deciding to go gongfu, it is important to consider the tea. Some teas, like green teas, can taste very good when brewed properly in a gongfu fashion, however they have a shorter life than some more roasted, shaped and oxidized oolong or black teas.  Other teas can appear rough and bitter when brewed in western methods, but when brewed in a controlled gongfu session, they can be transformed into bright, sweet and fragrant gems.  That said, essentially every tea can be brewed gongfu; however, we find ourselves most often using the gongfu method to enjoy oolong and puer teas.
  2. Picking the proper vessel to brew gongfu is also essential to the style. As the idea behind gongfu tea relies on the heavy leaf to water ratio (somewhere between two grams of tea to one ounce of water), you can already see how using a big 16-ounce western style teapot can use up quite a bit of tea.  Thus, when picking the vessel, consider first the size.  We prefer to use a smaller gaiwan or tea pot, usually with the capacity of between three and four ounces.  In case you're interested, we have a lot more to say about common gongfu vessels and their uses.
  3. Water quality has been a topic of long debate in Chinese tea culture. The tea Sage Lu Yu claimed that the best water comes from melted snow, the second best comes from mountain springs, the third from the river deeps, the worst from well water. In the modern world, most of these sources are either compromised, or no longer accessible.  That said, in modern terms, the best water is spring water, the second best is distilled (and remineralized) water, the final being tap water.  (note, using totally purified water, such as distilled water, can create a very thin tea that tastes lacking, this is due to the hungry water having been artificially robbed of all minerals and naturally occurring nutrients).
  4. Temperature is another large factor in accentuating the best aspects of a tea. A simple break down looks like this (though keep in mind, these temperatures are not fixed, so be sure to experiment with each tea):
    1. Green tea - 80-degree water
    2. Red tea – 85-95-degree water
    3. Oolong tea – 90-100-degree water
    4. Aged White tea – 100-degree water
    5. Puer – 100-degree water
  1. The final consideration in gongfu brewing is the time of each infusion. By infusion, we are speaking of the time in which the tea leaves are submerged in the water.  As mentioned, gongfu brewing is defined by fast infusions and drinking several cups of tea over a long period of time, or a session.  Thus, although one only makes 4 ounces of tea at a time, and drinks from 2-ounce cups, over a session with 12 infusions, two people may drink up to 24 ounces of tea each.  That’s a lot of nice tea!  While the timing of a gongfu steep is certainly something that becomes more and more accurate with experience, here are a few guidelines.  The first half-dozen infusions are often flash infusions, this means something like, pour the water, take a few breaths, then pour out the tea into the gongbei.  Once the strength of the tea peaks and subsides a bit, begin adding time to each infusion, we usually start adding 10 seconds per infusion at this point, until we hit the minute-long infusions, then the time lengthens even more. Think of it graphically: the steep time rises exponentially with the number of steeps.

 A grandson brews from his grandfather's gongfu set up, the student becomes the master

Thus, following our pattern for a Dancong oolong from Chaozhou, the list would be as follows

  1. The Tea - Yashixiang Dancong oolong (8 grams)
  2. The Vessels - Glazed ruyao gaiwan (4 oz capacity) with a glass gongbei
  3. The Water - Spring water (4 oz)
  4. The Temperature - 90-100 degree water
  5. The Time - after 5 or so flash infusions, add 10 seconds to each steep