Gongfu – The Art of Chinese Tea

Tea is viewed as a commodity in most places around the world; a functional beverage packed in a convenient bag-on-a-string. Served hot or iced, often with milk, sugar or honey to mask any bitterness, tea provides a caffeine boost to assist waking in the morning or staying up into the night. This strong and typically sweet drink can be comforting and stimulating, but for the tea enthusiast, there is a world of tea which transcends sugar cubes, cream and little paper sachets.

Gongfu, which translates to “with skill”, refers to the style of tea preparation which originated in China and has begun to grow in popularity throughout the West. Gongfu tea can involve an elaborate ceremony, but its essence is captured by three simple elements. First, quality whole tea leaves. The powder found in teabags rapidly infuses (releasing that sought-after caffeine right away) at the expensive of flavor and aroma; parts of the drinking experience which are emphasized by the gongfu method. Good tea generally eliminates any need for added ingredients – all you need are the leaves. Second, leaf-to-water ratio. Brewing gongfu is all about a large proportion of leaves to a small amount of water per steep. Five grams of leaf to 100ml of water is a good starting point for many teas. Finally, time. Teabags are often left to brew for up to five minutes – or never removed at all! Gongfu involves repeated short, or ‘flash’, steeps – five or ten seconds at the briefest. This allows for many brews from the same leaves which may evolve over the duration of a session to reveal all of the characteristics of the tea. Dedicated drinkers with a durable tea may get up to 20 or more steeps before they need to break out fresh leaves.

Why Brew Gongfu Style Tea?

Now, why should you bother with gongfu style when teabags are so convenient?

First of all, the difference in taste and aroma is unbelievable. The range of flavors and textures which emerge from a gongfu session will blow away any teabag. But also, perhaps more importantly, gongfu can transform your perception of tea as a nice, but otherwise forgettable, part of your day into a ritual which provides peace, energy and relaxation. Sitting, alone or with friends, and enjoying a gongfu session provides a calming experience which inherently encourages mindfulness through repetitive movements, focused appreciation and gentle stimulation.

A term often thrown around in discussions about gongfu is cha-Qi, or ‘tea energy’. Cha-Qi, frequently shortened to Qi, refers to a range of physical and mental sensations one can receive from consuming tea. Puer and oolong teas are most commonly know to provide strong Qi-energy, but all varieties can supply their own unique effects. Qi is somewhat of an abstract concept to westerners, but it relates to how energy moves in the channels in the body, and how tea can regulate and harmonise Yin-Yang. It isn’t so much about the get-up-and-go effect of caffeine, but instead a combination of the effects of l-theanine, an amino acid thought to promote feelings of calm, caffeine, and other compounds which naturally occur in tea. Although research on the effects of tea is limited, studies have shown that l-theanine is associated with increased alpha brain waves (which are an indicator of calm thoughtfulness) and is considered to balance out the jittery edge that sometimes comes with caffeine consumption.

Gongfu Tea Brewing Method

So, how does one actually go about brewing gongfu style? You’ll need a brewing vessel – such as a teapot. However, the most commonly used and simple device is called a gaiwan, literally meaning ‘lidded bowl’. Gaiwans are exactly that – small bowls with lids which can be shifted to allow an opening. Leaves and water go in, and a few minutes later, the cup is tipped and the lid is slid back to allow the tea to pour out. You can pour tea directly into your drinking cup from the gaiwan, but many people add in an intermediate step called a chahai, meaning ‘sea of tea’, or gong dao bei, meaning ‘fairness cup’. Fancy names aside, a chahai is simply a small pitcher which holds the tea before pouring into drinking cups. The idea is that when sharing with others, you don’t want to pour directly out of the gaiwan, because the first pour may come out stronger than the last. Additionally, a chahai can help to keep the tea warm until you are ready to pour more. Again, gongfu means working with small volumes, and so these pieces may only hold a few hundred milliliters of liquid. Drinking cups come even smaller, often somewhere around 50ml. This allows the drinker to appreciate the tea and notice subtle differences that emerge between steeps.

Image: Gainwan tea cup with lid


Learning the Art of Chinese Tea is Easy, just try!

All you need is a gaiwan and some tea. Fortunately, western-facing vendors have made it easy for English-speaking customers to access teas from all over China, as well as many other regions, each offering a host of teas which has resulted in essentially endless varieties to sample and experience.

Give gongfu a try – you won’t look back.



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