Gongfu (also know and Kung-Fu) is a type of Chinese Tea Ceremony. It uses a ritualized way of preparation and presentation of tea. Gongfu Tea Brewing became popular during China’s Ming Dynasty about the year 1500. This method is great for Pu’erh, Oolong and Black teas.
So let’s jump right in. At the basic level, there are 5 variables involved:
1. Quality Of The Tea
2. How Much Tea Do I Use?
3. Temperature Of The Water
4. Brewing Times
5. The Quality and Type Of Teapot
One difference between using the regular brewing method and the Gongfu tea method is in the amount of tea leaves used and the steeping duration of the tea. The Gongfu method involves using more tealeaves, but the infusion duration is shorter. This allows for multiple infusions. This method of brewing requires practice and the term “Gongfu style” literally means using great skill to brew tea.
Serving Pot or Vessel:
Once the tea is steeped for the desired amount of time, then the tea is poured from the teapot into this serving vessel. This is to stop the infusion process.
Chart – Teapot Sizes for Number of People Served
Quality and Type of Teapot
The teapot is another important variable that is beyond the scope of this guide, but touching on the basics is worthwhile. Serious Gong-Fu Cha enthusiasts spend many hours debating the virtues of their teapots, but there is universal agreement on these four points:
- Any tea is best made in unglazed clay teapots and the best teapots are made from “Purple Clay” (Zisha) from the Yixing (Yee-zhing) area of China
- Zisha clay has excellent porosity and heat handling properties that significantly improves the taste of tea when compared to tea made in a glass, porcelain or glazed teapots.
- A Yixing teapot should only be used for one type of tea
- High-fired teapots with a finer, thinner clay are excellent for use with any tea and a must for Green, White and Oolong teas. Low-fired teapots that use a thicker and more porous clay work best for Black Tea (called Red Tea in China) and Pu-Erh Tea.
Clay teapots of all types and qualities can be ordered from the internet but as with buying tea, this can be difficult for the beginner. The caveats for buying tea apply equally to buying a teapot. If you want to save money or are a traditionalist, you can use the traditional gai wan which is an inexpensive glazed porcelain cup with a lid and base that comes in many sizes and can be used for all teas as it can be rinsed after use.
Glass teapots are often used for Green, White and “blooming” teas as they do not absorb the delicate tea fragrance like low fired clay teapots and you can see the leaves expanding. But a quality high-fired, clay teapot is still superior to glass or porcelain and improves the taste of tea over time.
Selecting A Clay Teapot
Your teapot will be your friend for many years so make sure there are no cracks or chips. It should have a good weight and balance and feel comfortable in the hand. The handle and lid should fit your fingers and the lid should fit precisely in the top opening with the opening just large enough to accommodate the size of leaves you will be using. A smaller opening tends to keep the fragrance of tea in the teapot whereas a larger opening allows the fragrance to escape. So tea with small or rolled leaves and high fragrance (Green, White, Oolongs) will benefit from a smaller opening. A larger opening is better for tea with large leaves and low fragrance (Black and Pu-Erh).
The spout should be large enough to allow the tea to pour freely. Gong Fu Cha develops the taste of tea quickly with fast brew times so the hole of the spout needs to be as large as possible to not constrict the flow of tea being poured, which would make the brew times longer. Check other sized teapots to ensure the spout is proportional to the size of teapot. Many newer teapots come with a strainer built-in. If your teapot does not have a strainer, ask to have one inserted inside the spout.
The shape of a teapot is said to have an effect on the flavour of the tea, with different shapes of teapots accommodating the different shapes, sizes and expansion rates of tea leaves. Here are some well known shapes:
Chart: Teapot Shapes by Type of Tea
Taiwan Oolong (High Profile)
Green/White Tea (High Profile)
Tie Guan Yin (Gun Yam, Iron Buddha,
Chinese Oolong, Buddha of Mercy) (Low Profile)
Chinese Black Tea (known as Red Tea in China)
Pu-Erh (Bow Lay) (High Profile)
Da Hong Pao (Cliff Tea) & Phoenix Tea (Low Profile)
A Decorative Teapot (Low Profile)
- Finest quality new high-fired teapots have a clear and distinct ring like a little bell when you lift up the lid about a quarter of an inch and allow it to drop gently on to the teapot (make sure you are holding the teapot on the flat of your hand so it is not damping the teapot in any way). In most cases, the higher the pitch and the longer the ring, the finer the quality
- Teapots used for Pu-Erh tea are thicker and made from a more porous clay than other teapots and don’t have the distinctive bright ringing sound. These are selected by an examination of the clay which usually has a rougher texture than teapots used for other teas
- Older teapots have a distinctive patina from the infusion of tea oils and constant use which can dull the pitch. Many new teapots have a similar shine from a wax coating that is applied to protect the clay and make them look nice on the shelf. (see how to remove this coating below in Seasoning A New Teapot)
- If you like antiques, a Yixing teapot dating from the 1980’s, 1950’s or even late Qing Dynasty is a wonderful thing to own as they are often one-of-a-kind designs and older teapots are made from excellent clay. Some were made by very famous artists and can fetch big prices. Antique teapots have a history (verifiable or not) and have been infused with tea oils over many years. They can give a decided “thunk” rather than a clear ring because of the accumulation of oils in the clay but can still be of the finest quality. But remember, you are in the antique game now so buyer beware!
- Always pour any extra tea you might have over your teapot and give it an occasional polish with a soft dry cloth. This will help to build up the oils in your teapot, allowing it to contribute its own unique “taste” and gives the teapot a nice shine
- Unfortunately, just about every teapot for sale is claimed to be a Yixing teapot, so in short, when buying a teapot, deal with an expert you can trust
With all this talk about high quality and antique teapots, there are excellent and inexpensive Yixing teapots for every budget and taste, from original handmade designs to mass produced ones that will make excellent tea and serve you for many years. For a full discussion on clay and Chinese teapots, see our guide: How to Choose A Chinese Teapot by Daniel Lui.
Aroma Cups and Drinking Cups:
Each person is given an aroma cup and a drinking cup. The tea is poured from the serving vessel into the tall aroma cup. The tea is left in the aroma cup for a couple of minutes and then it poured into each individual’s drinking cup. The emptied cup captures the fragrance of the tea and can be enjoyed by putting the aroma cup under your nose. Finally you can enjoy the cup of tea from the drinking cup.
Gongfu Brewing Steps:
- The teapot should be rinsed with hot water. This is done to clean the pot and warm the pot in preparation for brewing the tea. After rinsing, the water should be poured out.
- Immediately, place the tealeaves into the teapot. Put in about two teaspoons or about enough to cover the bottom of the teapot. Fill the teapot to the rim with boiling water and quickly pour it out, this is done to rinse the tealeaves and removes the dust.
- Add boiling water to the rim of the teapot and let the tea brew. Cover the teapot with the lid and continue to pour boiling water on the outside to ensure equal heating of the tea. You may want to experiment a little to find the perfect brewing time with the specific teas.
- Rinse the aroma cups and the drinking cups with boiling water.
- When the correct amount of time has passed, pour the tea into the serving pot.
6. Pour the tea from the serving pot to the aroma cups.
7. Pour the tea from the aroma cups to the drinking cups and put the aroma cups under your nose.
8. Enjoy your cup of tea.
9. Repeat step 3 to step 8 for additional infusions. The infusion time should be a little longer for each subsequent infusion.
You can take free online lessons on the gongfu tea ceremony at the Teaclass website.
Watch a video tutorial of the gongfu style of tea preparation here on youtube.