Gong Fu in the Northland

There is nothing better than clutching a hot cup of tea in autumn: the air is crisp, the leaves are changing, and the world is readying itself for winter. One of the perks about living in Minnesota is experiencing all four seasons, and our famously long winters make tea a necessity. Whether I am sipping a cup of puer on Sunday morning or making homemade chai for my family at Christmas, tea will always have a seat at my table.

[caption id="attachment_249" align="alignright" width="300"]Oriental Beauty Supreme Oriental Beauty Supreme[/caption] Gong fu style tea preparation is a simple, comforting, and generous way to drink tea. Translated, gong fu means “to do something with great effort or skill” (not to be confused with “kung fu,” although the Chinese characters are similar). I also like to think of it as doing something mindfully. Gong fu is a traditional method of preparing, serving, and drinking tea in China and Taiwan, and has evolved over many hundreds of years. Some styles of gong fu can be described as an art form, and from an outsider’s perspective even the most casual gong fu methods may seem labor intensive and well, intimidating.  In reality, it is very simple and there is no rulebook. You get to decide what feels comfortable. [caption id="attachment_250" align="alignleft" width="300"]My personal gong fu set was a gift. My personal gong fu set was a gift.[/caption] I believe there is real joy in a cup of tea and gong fu embodies this to a tee (I’ll do anything for a good pun). Personally, I enjoy using a Yixing clay teapot with matching cups on a bamboo tray at home. I have been known to watch YouTube videos about gong fu to try and emulate the pros, and let’s just say there was a lot of spilled tea in the beginning (be sure to check out the links at the end). I am also starting to get comfortable handling a gaiwan, which is quickly becoming my preference. Admittedly, it has taken me years to adopt gong fu as a routine, and until recently I was always hung up on the idea that there was a “right” way to do it.  Well guess what? There isn’t. Gong fu isn’t meant to be stuffy or rigid – in fact, most often it is an informal gathering of friends and family who are enjoying tea together. It reminds me of the Danish word “hygge” (pronounced hu-gah), which means “to relax with good friends or loved ones while enjoying good food and drink.” In short, gong fu is that warm fuzzy feeling you get from a good cup. [caption id="attachment_251" align="alignright" width="153"] Lu Yu with his traveling tea kit.[/caption]

The first hurdle to clear if you want to start doing gong fu at home is getting used to a small teapot or gaiwan, which will typically hold 5-7 oz. of liquid. It’s hard for most of us to wrap our minds around the idea that such a tiny vessel can produce enough tea for one person, much less 4-6 people at a time. A good rule of thumb is to fill your teapot half full if you are using an open leaf tea (like Oriental Beauty) and about a third full if you’re using a semi-ball tung ting style leaf. Steep the tea for 30-60 seconds and decant it into a serving pitcher or directly into the cup. For subsequent infusions, add 30-60 seconds to the steep time. Over the course of 6-8 infusions, you will not only discover the wonderful nuance and complexities of a single tea, but you will have consumed a substantial amount along the way. I think you will find, as I have, that you are interacting with the leaf on a whole new level by preparing your tea this way.

If you’re a beginner, there are some common tools used for gong fu to get you started, from gorgeous porcelain gaiwans to handmade Yixing clay teapots. These beautifully crafted items add a true aesthetic element to the experience of drinking tea. I spend a lot of time reading about tea and have developed an insatiable curiosity for this incredible plant. I find it fascinating, for example, that certain tea implements have been used in China and Taiwan for thousands of years. The first major book on tea, the Ch’a Ching (The Classic of Tea), was written in 750 A.D. by the notable Chinese author and tea expert Lu Yu. This ancient text goes into great detail about tea cultivation, manufacture, and preparation (some excellent reading for any budding tea geek). Lu Yu used to carry a traveling tea kit containing many of the tea implements that are still used today: a tea pot, cups, a water bottle, and a fire fan. There is something so humbling about engaging in history with something as simple as a cup of hot water and a few tea leaves, don’t you think?

[caption id="attachment_252" align="alignleft" width="300"]Pearl Pouchong Pearl Pouchong[/caption]

TeaSource has been highlighting some exceptional oolongs from Taiwan this year, which work particularly well for gong fu because they are designed to be infused multiple times. Having the opportunity to taste these amazing teas has only spurred my interest in this ancient style of tea preparation. One of the unique things about gong fu is that it highlights all aspects of the tea leaf: the aroma of the dry and wet leaf as well as the aroma and taste of the steeped leaf. With each infusion these elements change and all of your senses are engaged. It is a wonderful educational and aesthetic undertaking to see how the layers of flavor shift over time. Taiwan produces some of the most sought after oolongs in the world, so whether you prefer the luxurious, woodsy-honey notes of Oriental Beauty or the sweet lilac aroma of Pearl Pouchong, you’re bound to fall in love along the way.

Want to learn more?

Read more about proper Gong Fu preparation and Yixing teapots.

Make sure to check out these videos of a traditional Gong Fu tea ceremony and a Taichung Tea Ceremony.

TeaSource will be releasing a step-by-step gaiwan instructional in the next couple weeks, so make sure to like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter!

-Sarah Cedergren TeaSource Manager


  • Posted by rjrugroden on

    Oooh, I’m excited for that step-by-step! I bought a Gaiwan not too long ago and I love it. I also bought a Gong Fu starter set complete with tray and tools, so this post was right up my alley.

    The Gong Fu set I bought claimed to be made from YiXing clay, but it is red in color instead of purple. Does that mean it is not made from YiXing clay?
    Also, the aroma and sipping cups are glazed on the inside (as is the pitcher) with white…doesn’t this prevent the tea from soaking into the cups and pitcher for a richer taste overtime?
    Should I plan on buying a better Gong Fu set?

  • Posted by billw on

    Not necessarily. But your question is a good one, but unfortunately more complicated than it seems. First, color is not a good sole indicator of Yixing authenticity, because it can vary quite a bit. It can be reddish, there is even some greenish Yixing. I am not an expert on Yixing, but the single best advice I’ve been given over the years is to buy from an established vendor you trust.

    In terms of the authenticity itself a good trick I’ve been taught is to check the interior of the pot and make sure there are no circular pattern marks on the inside of the pot. These would be an indicator the pot was made on a potter’s wheel—which Yixing teapots are not. You may even see scrape marks on the interior of the pot (not circular), this is a good sign.

    The best Yixing teapots sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. But there are also inexpensive Yixing teapots, with authentic Yixing clay, but in all probability made by apprentices, and they can still be nice pots.

    If you are buying a tea set and the cups are lined with porcelin or fired-ceramic I think it is likely that the cups themselves are not made from Yixing clay… why would they encase the Yixing clay with porcelin, and you’re right this would prevent absorption of tea flavor. But I don’t think this is a major issue, because the steeped tea spends most of its time in the pot, not in the cup.

    My bottom line advice is to find a teapot you like and makes tea you really enjoy. And use it for a while. With regular use, you can start to taste the mellowing/richening of the tea from a Yixing teapot after 8-12 months.

    I wouldn’t go out and buy a new gongfu set (unless you just want to, and that’s another issue entirely). Use the one you have for at least six months and see how it works and how the tea tastes, and how it makes you feel.

    FYI, for the last 10 months or so I have taken to steeping almost all of my teas in gorgeous Taiwan porcelin gaiwans, this includes, puers, oolongs, blacks, pretty much everything.

    There is no right or wrong.

    Jeeez, I really do go on sometimes, don’t I?

    Thanks for the question.
    Bill Waddington

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