Gongfu cha is a Chinese tea ritual that dates back over 700 years and offers a meditative approach to brewing the beloved drink. Here’s how to properly perform it.
For many people around the world, brewing tea is a simple process. Just throw in a tea bag and add hot water.
But for others, brewing tea is a ritual akin to meditation. There are guidelines that ensure the taste, temperature, and quality of tea are ideal.
In China, this is exemplified by a form of tea service called gongfu cha 功夫茶. Gongfu means skill, and cha means tea.
The ceremony dates back to the 14th century in Fujian, a coastal province famous for its tea exports.
Gongfu cha is a full experience that may seem daunting at first, but the key is to have the right equipment. A Chinese tea ceremony requires a tea infuser, small teacups (Chinese ones hold no more than an ounce of tea), a carafe, and a bowl.
The infuser can be either a teapot or gaiwan 盖碗, which is a lidded bowl used for tea infusion. The carafe, or gongdao 公道 cup in Chinese, is there to ensure tea is not oversteeped while serving.
Of course, the most important component is the tea. Loose-leaf, single-origin teas are ideal. No teabags, please. The reason is because loose leaves release their flavor more slowly.
Crushed leaves, on the other hand—such as those found in teabags—release their flavor immediately, meaning they can only be used once.
As for single origin, the specificity allows the drinker to appreciate the terroir and growing conditions of the tea, much like with a fine wine.
How to perform a Chinese tea ceremony
First, steep the tea leaves in the infuser with hot water. After a couple of seconds, strain the brewed tea into the carafe, making sure you keep the leaves in the infuser, and then toss out the tea into the bowl. You do not want to drink this first round because you’re just washing the tea of its impurities and dust.
Take this opportunity to smell the tea leaves in the infuser and take in the aroma. Then pour in hot water and wait for the tea to steep. You can look at the color to see how dark you want your tea to be.
When it’s done, strain the tea into the carafe and then portion out into teacups. Always pour facing toward you as a sign of politeness.
Drink, and then repeat the steps. Usually with one batch of tea leaves, you can repeat the process from start to finish up to four times. In China, the ceremony is considered an art form, meant to be admired.
Tips for making the best tea
While the process of steeping tea is straightforward, getting the temperature and duration right is the tough part. How hot the water should be and how long you should steep the tea depends a lot on what type of tea you’re brewing.
Teas that are less oxidized, such as green and white tea, prefer water around 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit), just below boiling. Any hotter, and the brew will be bitter.
Teas that are more oxidized, such as black tea and pu’er, want boiling water. The higher temperature helps extract the flavorful phenolic compounds found in fermented tea.
Here’s a general temperature guide for the most common types of tea:
White tea: 65 to 70°C (149 to 158°F)
Yellow tea: 70 to 75°C (158 to 167°F)
Green tea: 75 to 80°C (167 to 176°F)
Oolong tea: 80 to 85°C (176 to 185°F)
Black tea: 99°C (210°F)
Pu’er tea: 95 to 100°C (203 to 212°F)
But while gongfu cha is ritualized, the rules are also very lax. The goal is to appreciate the tea, and there’s no right way to do it—only guidelines.
(Read more: The teapot that can make tea taste better)
The daintiness of the teaware, which has to withstand multiple servings and brews, contributes to this mindfulness. Intentional pauses are encouraged to reflect on the taste, color, aroma, and turbidity of the brew.
At its core, gongfu cha is a meditation on the leaf.