Brewing tea is an art. Read on to learn some of the common brewing styles. Already know the basics? We'll be posting some pro tips soon.
There are many ways of brewing tea, and we'll cover just a few here. Click the linked names to jump to that section:
- Gongfu style brewing, using a gaiwan (lidded cup) or small teapot, usually with a high ratio of leaves to water
- Western or English style brewing, using a large teapot/vessel, which uses a low ratio of leaves to water
- "Grandpa style" brewing, which uses an intermediate ratio of leaves to water
- Simmering, a style most frequently used for heicha/dark teas, which uses a low ratio of leaves to water
In addition to these, there are many other styles, like samovar brewing, bowl tea, Japanese styles like chado and senchado, Tang style preparation, etc.
The basic principle of gongfu tea brewing is to brew the best cup of tea. It's sometimes referred to as "Chinese tea ceremony", but its steps are more practical than ceremonious: each helps achieve the goal of making good tea. Any tea can be brewed gongfu style, but most common are heicha/dark teas like pu'er and liu bao, and also black tea and oolongs. Less delicate white teas, like shou mei and bai mudan, also do quite well brewed gongfu.
Features of gongfu tea, in brief:
- Small brewing vessels, small cups. Usually the vessel used to brew the tea is 300ml or smaller. The cups are small to match. For coffee drinkers, gongfu is a shot of espresso, not a venti drip. For booze drinkers, gongfu is a shot of overproof with no mixer, not a rum and 12oz of coke.
- High ratio of leaves (by weight) to water (by volume)
- Short infusion times. Much leaf and little water means if you don't steep and decant the tea quickly, it will taste bitter and unpleasant.
- Many infusions. As few as three for weaker teas, as many as 20 for durable teas.
The idea is that in a small vessel packed with a lot of leaf, you can brew many short infusions to get many delicious, flavorful and aromatic cups of tea.
Getting started with gongfu: equipment
You may see some pretty complicated setups for gongfu brewing with lots of various equipment. While each piece of equipment serves a function, at its essence, the only thing you need to brew gongfu style is a small brewing vessel with a lid, something to decant that vessel into (a cup, a small pitcher) and tea leaves.
Typically, though a gongfu setup usually has:
- A kettle and a way to heat it, either an electric kettle or a hotplate and clay or metal kettle
- A small scale, preferably accurate to .1g
- Small teapot or gaiwan (lidded cup), usually 300ml or less. For one person, I suggest one that's 80ml-100ml.
- Small pitcher that can hold the liquid from your teapot/gaiwan
- Filter for the pitcher, optional but helpful
- Small teacup(s), 20-50ml, or larger if brewing only for yourself
- Tea tray or bowl, this is to catch spilled water while brewing. If using a bowl, it's handy to have a second bowl available to pour the spilled water into to keep your station neat.
- Set of tea tools (usually a pot scraper/pick combo tool, a tea scoop, funnel, and tongs), of these I find the most useful are the scraper/pick and funnel.
- Bowl or plate for spent tea leaves, optional but handy for emptying spent leaves from the pot
- Tea leaf presentation vessel, usually these are kind of scoop-shaped with a funneled end, so you can pour the dry leaves into the small pot easily.
Western or English style brewing uses large vessels, sometimes as voluminous as a liter or more, with a relatively small amount of leaf, usually a tablespoon or two. This low water to leaf ratio means the tea must be steeped for minutes to make a rich brew, and usually those leaves are not reused more than once, if at all.
How strong you take your tea is a matter of personal taste, and it's hard to give direction about how much tea to use. Here's how I steep my tea when doing it Western style:
- Start your water to boil.
- Preheat your teapot with hot water, either the hottest water from the tap or water that is boiling. Let this sit for a minute or so to distribute the heat evenly. Then pour out all the water.
- Add enough leaf to barely cover the bottom of the vessel such that you can't see the bottom.
- Pour a small amount of water over the leaves, an inch or so, to rinse the tea. Let sit a few seconds (more if the tea is compressed). Pour out the rinse water.
- Fill the pot with boiling water and let the tea steep for three minutes.
- When serving the tea, leave an inch or so of water in the teapot and let that keep steeping. This helps guarantee a better second infusion.
- Brew the second infusion, making your best guess/using your intuition about how long to brew it.
Tea blogger MarshalN coined the term "Grandpa style" to describe the casual kind of brewing his grandfather did, and which I find is the common way in China I saw people consuming tea while at work, especially taxi drivers. It's similar to western style brewing in that it uses a larger vessel, but in practice it tends to use more leaves, maybe double what someone might put in their Brown Betty teapot.
Rather than repeat his instructions, I encourage you to read his original post and his tips for successful grandpa-style brewing.
An older and increasingly uncommon style of preparing more mellow heicha/dark teas like liu bao and Fu cha is to simmer them a short while. This is a great way to make tea to serve with a meal while still getting the most out of the tea. You want to use a low leaf to water ratio: start with 6g to 10g of leaves to every 500ml water.
You will need a vessel that you can heat on your stove or on a hot plate, so a glass kettle or even a clean cooking pot works. You'll also need a spoon, chopstick or ladle.
- Bring 500ml to a liter of water to a boil.
- Add a small pinch of salt to the water.
- Place the measured tea leaves in the boiling water and stir quickly with a chopstick or spoon to wet and distribute the leaves.
- Turn the heat down to a low simmer, and continue to simmer the leaves. The longer it boils, the thicker and sweeter it should taste. You can use a spoon or ladle to taste the tea and measure its progress. If simmering longer than 3-5 minutes, be sure to add more water as necessary.
- Serve the simmered tea using a ladle or by carefully decanting into cups.