How to Brew Gongfu Style: An Expert Guide to Making Tea | blog, Tutorial and more | white2tea Blog blog

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April 10, 2024 19 min read

Gongfu style brewing is a technique that will allow you to experience the full range and complexity of flavor that an amazing tea can provide. You can think of it a bit like music. That Miles Davis record may sound fine on your bluetooth speaker. But a high-end stereo setup will let you hear new depths — maybe whole new melodies — even in a song you know by heart. 

Gongfu tea with a gaiwan, tea pitcher and teacup
A simple gongfu tea setup; gaiwan, teacup and tea pitcher

In the simplest terms, gongfu style brewing uses a one-chamber brewing vessel to produce numerous infusions of tea as part of a generally long and leisurely brewing process. While this style is often associated with raw Puerripe Puer, or oolong teas, the truth is that it works for any type of tea and any quality of tea, and it gives you the most direct and nuanced experience possible (including bringing out flaws in lower-quality teas, and highlighting special attributes of high-quality teas).

In contrast to western style brewing, where you generally add water to tea once, steep for 1-3 minutes, and drink the resulting brew, gongfu style brewing involves numerous short steepings that put you fully in control of the tea. It's not unlike shooting photos on a manual camera or driving a manual transmission: you're directly connected to the process. As many as 8-12 separate infusions are produced in succession, and each infusion has its own characteristics and nuances. 

gaiwan full of loose leaf tea

A celadon gaiwan full of loose leaf black tea from Fujian province

There is — potentially — a lot to learn about gongfu style brewing, so we’ll go in depth on techniques, equipment, temperatures and ratios. We’ll cover it all.

But all of that potential complexity is not the point here. In fact, one of our favorite things about this style of brewing is how accessible it is. You can invest in materials and accouterments that we think will ultimately enhance your experience. But you can also get started with gongfu brewing today with no specialized equipment. All you really need is a couple of decently sized mugs (and some tea, of course)

gaiwan and bamboo tea prepared using gongfucha

Gongfu style setup with gaiwan, teacup and tea pitcher, brewing a roasted bamboo tea

What equipment do you need for gongfu style brewing?

To brew tea gongfu style, you need a small brewing vessel (cup, bowl, teapot, or gaiwan), at least one small to medium cup to drink from, tea leaves, and hot or boiling water. You simply place the tea leaves in the vessel, pour the hot water on them, decant the liquid into the drinking cup, drink it, and repeat. The simplicity of the process allows for a lot of variation in equipment, and you can easily improvise at home if you don't have specialized gear.

As we mentioned up top, you can pull off gongfu style brewing with a couple of mugs and some reasonably good quality tea leaves. Simply fill the first mug with leaves and water, leave it a little while, then use a saucer or even a spoon to strain the leaves as you pour your tea into the second vessel to sip it. That’s it. It’s that simple.

But you’ll likely get more enjoyment out of the process if you invest in some basic teaware items designed for this purpose. Expect to spend about $25-$40 on a minimalist gongfu set up.

Are you drinking tea alone or with friends?

The first thing to decide is whether you’ll mainly be enjoying your tea solo, or plan to share with others frequently. That will help determine the size of the tools you’ll need. 

gongfu teaware and a banana

An example of gongfu teaware, small sized gaiwans and teapots w/ banana for scale

A good kit for a beginner would include:

  • Brewing vessel (roughly 70-150 ml: if you're 100% solo go with the smaller end of the spectrum, and if you're sharing often, 150 ml is perfect for 2-4 people; 100 ml is a good middle ground for both situations and our standard 100 ml ruyao gaiwan is a great place to begin)
  • Tea pitcher (optional if solo, but very useful if you want to share)
  • Tea cup (if you are skipping the tea pitcher this must be a similar size to the brewing vessel, otherwise you can get one or more smaller cups of around 30-70 ml each)
  • Electric or stovetop kettle (or some other way to heat water to boiling)

As you can see, there’s no need to spend a lot for a basic gongfu setup. We’ll talk more about optional equipment that may make your gongfu experience more enjoyable, but first let’s discuss the brewing vessel — probably the single most important component of your kit.

Choose your gongfu vessel

Brewing vessels come in all kinds of styles and can range in price immensely. For our purposes, there are two broad varieties: gaiwans and teapots. This is where the steeping magic happens, and a gaiwan or a teapot can each serve that same purpose.

a gaiwan and teapot for gongfu style tea preparation

A gaiwan (left) and teapot (right), both suitable for gongfu style tea preparation

Gaiwans (literally "lidded bowls") have the advantages of being versatile, fast to pour, and extremely easy to empty and clean when you're finished. They do require a tiny bit of specialized technique — you will learn to hold the rim between thumb and middle finger while steadying the lid with your index finger for a one-handed pour — but are an excellent, economical place to begin your gongfu journey.

tea being poured from a gaiwan

Tea being poured from a gaiwan into a tea pitcher

Because they pour quickly, gaiwans are perfect for gauging a tea and getting to know it gongfu style (white2tea always travels with trusty gaiwans during tea purchasing trips in China). You can easily do short flash steeps, which gives you total control over the flavor profile and other properties of the tea.

The inherent simplicity of gaiwans lends to affordable pricing and wide availability, but don't be fooled, this is a highly refined tool, and subtle design variations can actually make a huge difference. Our go-to recommendations are the mini rainbow 90 ml gaiwan in butter creammint or sky blue; the trusty 100 ml pearl white ruyao gaiwan; or the Junyao coral 150 ml gaiwan for those who need the capacity.

You can also use a small teapot for gongfu style tea, and they're less demanding in terms of technique, making them a great choice for folks with less dexterity. Teapots also generally retain more heat than gaiwans, and you can shower the exterior with boiling water to keep them hotter while steeping, making them a great choice for brewing Puer. However, they do tend to pour more slowly, which can result in stronger-than-intended steeping if you aren't careful.

There's also something archetypal and aesthetically pleasing about a well-designed teapot, and the balance and functionality are a pleasure to behold. To that end, we're very proud of our affordable 70 ml pocket pipe kyusus in blackpeacock green, or light green; our 100 ml gold-flecked green ruyao pumpkin teapot; and our 150 ml ruyao triad teapot which has enough capacity to share with your friends but not so much you can't enjoy a solo session.

Disclaimer: Not your grandma's teapot, banana for scale (again)

Now listen up, these vessels (and accompanying cups) are probably going to look very small to you if you're new to gongfu, but there's a good reason for this. A 100 ml or 3.5 ounce gaiwan or teapot doesn't even hold half a cup of liquid, but you'll fill and empty it eight times or more during a single gongfu session. That means you're creating at least 800 ml or 28 oz of tea in total!

This means you can't use grandma's 20-ounce teapot for gongfu (unless you want to use 40 grams of tea leaves and end up with well over a gallon of tea to drink during the session) and while the 250-300 ml gaiwans you'll see when shopping around might seem like a good idea, they're actually a common rookie mistake unless you really need to serve a crowd

A tea pitcher, pouring into a gongfu sized teacup

Do you need a tea pitcher?

If you’re drinking tea with company, a tea pitcher is an important thing to have on hand. Because each infusion is carefully timed, you’ll want to empty each new “batch” into a pitcher for distribution to each drinker. Otherwise you risk having two cups that have steeped for different periods, and therefore don’t taste alike. It's also messy to try to pour directly from a gaiwan or teapot into multiple cups.

If you're solo drinking, the tea pitcher is not essential so long as you have a cup that's about the same size as your gaiwan or teapot. If you're drinking by yourself from a cup that's smaller than your brewing vessel, you'll need to pour the tea from the vessel into a pitcher, then transfer to your cup.

The added step of pouring into a tea pitcher helps the tea cool off a little faster than pouring it directly from vessel to cup. Having a tea pitcher also offers the added benefit of additional aromatics, as you can smell the empty pitcher between steeps to enjoy a wide array of fragrances.

blue ruyao gongu teacup
Pouring tea into a small gongfu teacup

Tea cup options for gongfu

Like the gaiwan and teapot, the humble tea cup appears simple, but it's actually highly refined in subtle and important ways. While you can certainly use any extra cup, mug, or ramekin lying around your kitchen as a drinking vessel, having beautiful and well-made tea cups will elevate your gongfu sessions.

First off, consider capacity. For solo sessions with no tea pitcher, a large tea cup like the 100 ml black magda curved form tea cup has enough room to hold an entire steep (or the massive swirl blossom ruyao artistan cup for those stout souls who solo with a 150 ml brewing vessel).

If you're using a tea pitcher instead of pouring directly into a single cup, there are no rules about tea cup size, but most cups you'd use for a group session are around 30-70 ml. The rationale here is that the guests you're serving each get an equal amount of tea and you probably want their tea cups to appear reasonably full instead of mostly empty.

Beyond capacity, there are a number of cup characteristics that can enhance or change your tea drinking sensory experience, such as interesting texturesgentle outward-curving rimsstraight wallsinward curves, and wide and shallow bowls.

Water and kettle

It pretty much goes without saying that you need water and a way to heat it, but water quality is a factor to consider.

Tap water can work, but depending on where you live, your tap water may range from crisp and delicious to mineral-laden or even chlorine-scented. Keep this in the back of your mind as you experiment.

If in doubt, try using spring or well water. If your home has hard water, with lots of dissolved minerals, try mixing it 50/50 with distilled water for your tea session. The presence of too many minerals changes the extraction process and won't give optimal results in your cup.

Conversely, reverse osmosis water and pure distilled water generally won't perform well either, due to the lack of minerals.

A good electric kettle is a great way to speed up and simplify your water heating process, and you can have it at your table or desk without using a stovetop. Any inexpensive electric kettle will boil water faster than a pot on your stovetop, and higher end models allow you to heat water to precise temperatures, which can be helpful if you're experimenting with temperature as a variable.

Optional gongfu equipment

Keep these items in mind, but you don't need them to get started:

  • An inexpensive digital scale that you can use to weigh out tea by the gram, typically 6-7 grams per session (Our white2tea minis like Hypnotrain and Lullaby are usually pre-measured in 7 gram amounts so you can skip the scale)
  • A tea pick or "Puer knife" to pry leaves off the cake if you're drinking Puer or other pressed tea (if you don't have one, you can use a butter knife, paring knife, pocket knife, or break off chunks with your fingernails)
  • A discard bowl that you can pour your tea rinse and spent leaves into (no need for a special one, any small bowl will do)
  • Tea mat, tray or table (a nice way to keep your tea paraphernalia tidy, and many tea trays have reservoirs that can serve in place of a discard bowl)
  • One or more tea pets for companionship and good luck 

Lastly, a quality thermos can be very handy for outdoor sessions, on-the-go gongfu, or making thermos tea.

A 100 ml standard ruyao gaiwan full of loose leaf raw Puer tea called maocha

Gongfu tea technique 101

Gongfu style brewing isn’t terribly complex, but there are a few steps to keep in mind to get the most out of the experience.

Steps include:

  • Separating and weighing leaves to achieve a proper gongfu ratio of leaves to water (usually about 1 gram of tea per 15 milliliters of volume in the vessel you intend to use — which means 6-7 grams for a standard 100 ml gaiwan or teapot)
  • Rinsing Puer or other compressed teas to "wake them up" and help them expand for proper extraction
  • Nosing or smelling the leaves, brewing vessel, tea liquid, and cup to fully appreciate the rich aromas at each stage of rinsing and steeping
  • Infusing the leaves with boiling water: your first steep should begin around 5-10 seconds, and you can adjust with longer subsequent steeps to continue extracting more flavor from the leaves
  • Pouring from your gaiwan or teapot into the sharing pitcher or drinking cup after each short steep, nosing, and drinking the tea

The goal of brewing tea this way is to make sure you enjoy everything your tea has to offer, and these are all merely guidelines rather than rules. The best overall advice may be to take your time and relax.

weighing tea leaves for a gongfucha session
Weighing 6 grams of tea leaves on a scale for a gongfucha session

Separating and weighing the leaves

Many high quality teas (like our top-notch ripe puer) will come to you in the form of a compressed cake. What may look, in their compressed form, like shredded tendrils of tea are actually dried whole or nearly-whole tea leaves.

Those leaves have likely made a long journey to you, having been carefully dried, rolled and pressed whole, so you should take care in separating them. The last thing you want to do is break those leaves up unnecessarily into a fistful of dust and shards.

A tea cake pick is the ideal tool for this task, but as noted above, a small knife will work too (if used carefully).

As you gently insert the pick or knife into the cake, you’ll quickly notice that it’s made up of distinct layers of leaves. Using a gentle prying motion, you should be able to lift a portion of leaves and separate them from the rest. Take your time and you should soon have a small portion of leaves that are ready to be weighed. If you break a few along the way, don’t fret. Compression varies from tea to tea and excavating whole leaves isn’t always an easy task.

The exact ratio of tea to water will depend somewhat on the variety of tea you’re brewing (see more specific advice below). But as a general guideline, aim for a 1:15 ratio of tea (g) to water (ml).

Precision will pay off when it comes to portioning tea, and a small digital scale is a perfect, inexpensive way to make sure you’re getting the right liquid-to-tea ratio. (A typical kitchen scale will work too, just make sure you get one that has sensitivity to the gram, as many kitchen scales are designed for larger weight capacities.)

If you don’t have a scale, you can also estimate the tea quantities you need, but this can be pretty tricky with compressed tea leaves. It’s best to assess after your first rinse, when the leaves have opened up. Then a good guideline is to have your 100 ml vessel about a quarter to a third filled with loose leaves. Though this really varies from tea to tea, in short, getting a simple scale will save you a lot of guesswork and missteps.

Rinsing the leaves

For compressed teas like Puer, the first water that touches your tea is not for drinking. No, there’s nothing wrong with that first infusion, exactly, but it’s best to discard this one (or give it to your tea pet). The reasons for this are twofold.

First, even the highest quality teas will arrive in your hands with some residue from processing, if only a bit of dust from pulverized tea leaves. So just as it’s good practice to rinse your vegetables or rice or any other agricultural product, you’ll have the best results if you give your tea a little bath.

The other reason to rinse your tea is to help it relax, and recover from being compressed for so long. As your tea rehydrates, the leaves will expand, exposing more surface area to water, and that will allow all of its flavors to come through as you start your infusions. You can rinse a bit longer (around 30 seconds) or even use a second rinse for really stubborn, compressed leaves to help them open up fully.

There are exceptions to this, like high-end loose teas. No need to throw away the rinse for a high quality yancha, but always rinse ripe Puer.

Porcelain gaiwan with banana for scale in the background (last time, we promise)

The importance of nosing 

Your tea is opening up and its aromas are coming to life. Because your tea will change with each infusion, it will never smell exactly like this again. Smell everything! The empty tea pitcher, the rinsed leaves, the lid of the gaiwan. There will be aromas everywhere and they’re part of the enjoyment of the tea brewing experience.

Time to infuse

After rinsing, your tea will likely have expanded to several times its original, compressed volume and you can begin your infusions.

There is no wrong way to proceed from here, and different tea varieties will benefit from longer or shorter steeping times. But a good guideline is to begin with a “flash steep” of about 5-10 seconds.

After your first infusion, you can add ten seconds to the steep time for every subsequent round. But you should also feel free to experiment. Try a 30 second steep, or a 2 minute steep. Your tea will take on new characteristics with each new incarnation.

Take note of your experience and adjust according to your own taste. If the tea is too strong, reduce the steep time. If you’d prefer it strong, steep longer. Learning to brew your own tea is like learning how to cook, with trial and error you’ll have your own signature style that’s just the way you like it.

pouring tea into a gong fu teacup
Pouring tea into a flower shaped teacup with an azure ruyao glaze

Pouring from the brewing vessel

Pouring from a gaiwan can take some practice, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself spilling a bit. There are two common techniques, one involving one hand and the other involving two, pictured below. In both cases, you'll hold the lid at a slight angle as you tilt the gaiwan to allow the tea liquid to pour out without pouring out the leaves.

Pouring from a teapot is a little more straightforward: you'll grasp the handle in your fingers while holding the lid in place as you pour, usually with your thumb. The main thing to keep in mind if you’re sharing is to use your sharing pitcher, to ensure all participants get a cup that has steeped for an equal amount of time.

Nose and sip

The fresh tea you just infused and poured is going to be steaming hot, and the first thing you want to do is inhale deeply to appreciate the aromas. Your nose and palate work together, so use both to fully experience your tea.

Because tea is best drunk hot, don’t be afraid to go for a hearty slurp. Oxygenating that tea liquid will help open up the flavors (and maybe keep your tongue safe from scalds). If you find that the tea liquid is too hot for your comfort, adding a sharing pitcher to your process allows it to cool a bit faster as you pour from vessel to pitcher to cup.

A ruyao glazed gaiwan filled with Fujian black tea

Gongfu tips for each type of tea

As with every other part of this process, you should make room for your personal preferences, and nothing here should be taken as a hard-and-fast rule. But still, different tea varieties have different qualities, and small variations in brewing techniques can make a noticeable impact.

As a reminder, we recommend a 1:15 ratio of tea (g) to water (ml) as the starting point for any variety. When in doubt, use that as your guideline.

Likewise, virtually any quality tea can withstand boiling water gongfu style, but we've provided additional temperature suggestions below. Using the lower temps can mellow out strong teas and coax out more delicate notes you might miss with full boiling.

Sheng puer

Young sheng puers are bold and brash with a big flavor profile. For this reason, we generally recommend shorter steeps of 10 seconds or so. You’ll likely notice sweeter notes appearing after the fifth or sixth infusion. As a Puer, these teas have significant endurance, and you’ll easily get 8-10 steeps out of a single serving.

Temperature suggestions: 95° Celsius (203° Fahrenheit) foryoung raw Puer or 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit) for aged raw Puer

Ripe puer

With its deep complexity and long fermentation process, ripe Puer will reward longer steeping times, and it's the least bitter tea, so it's also very forgiving. Don't be afraid to try 30 seconds or more to see what flavors and textures you uncover. Just like its sheng counterpart, ripe Puer has serious staying power, and you’ll get a satisfying experience through 8-10 infusions. You can also experiment with ultra-concentrated leaf-to-volume ratios around 1:10 to 1:12 if you crave thick-bodied tea.

Temperature suggestion: 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit)

Black tea

Tea drinkers accustomed to the richness of black tea will be blown away by the new dimensions gongfu brewing unlocks. The infusion cycle is similar to Puer, with a flash steep to start, and then adding about 10 seconds for each new cup. You may also find that a lower leaf-to-water ratio of 1 gram of black tea per 20 ml of vessel capacity highlights subtler notes of the tea.

Temperature suggestions: 95° Celsius (203° Fahrenheit) to 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit)

Oolong tea

Oolong varieties are the most aromatic of all teas, so take special care with nosing the leaves, vessel, pitcher, and cup as you brew this style of tea.. The variation in oxidation levels is responsible for much of that complexity. Like black tea, you may discover that a lower leaf-to-volume ratio of around 1:20 is suitable for quality oolongs.

Temperature suggestions: 95° Celsius (203° Fahrenheit) to 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit)

White tea

White teas have exquisitely delicate flavors and aromas, and sometimes benefit from higher than typical ratios of about 1:20 leaf to vessel volume. This style of tea is also minimally processed, meaning the leaves are not rolled or compressed at all after harvest. Consequently, the correct amount of white tea may look like too much, even filling most of your gaiwan. While some white tea drinkers prefer a lighter experience, our white teas can handle boiling water. This will come down to personal preference.

Temperature suggestions: 85° Celsius (185° Fahrenheit) to 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit)

Green tea

Keep your steeps shorter with green tea to avoid oversteeping and bringing out overly bitter and astringent notes, particularly if you're using boiling water for your gongfu session. You can also use a lower leaf-to-volume ratio of around 1 gram of leaves per 20 or 30 ml of vessel volume to appreciate the delicate subtleties with fewer overpowering vegetal notes.

While green tea can be incredibly rewarding, we always recommend they be drunk when as fresh as possible. We only sell green tea once during early spring and then we are finished for the year. If you join our tea club, white2tea will deliver some of the best green tea on the planet to your door on a seasonal basis, so you receive it in its freshest state.

Temperature suggestions: 75° Celsius (167° Fahrenheit) to 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit)

Heicha and fu zhuan

Heicha, also called dark tea, is a post-fermented tea that is typically aged. A tea style that hails from many different provinces, such as Anhui, Guangxi and Hunan, heichas benefit from full boiling water. When preparing gongfu style, especially with aged teas, rinse to remove any dust from age and to help "wake up" the tea, and then proceed to brew normally.

Temperature suggestions: 100° Celsius (212° Fahrenheit)

Shou Puer tea prepared gongfu style with a ruyao teapot
Shou Puer tea prepared gongfu style with a ruyao teapot

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about gongfu tea

Is gongfu tea a ceremony?

Drinking tea gongfu style is sometimes called a "tea ceremony" in China, but this doesn't necessarily mean what you may imagine. Tea and tea drinking are central to the cultural identity of China (itself the birthplace of tea as we know it today), and formal tea ceremonies are one expression of this.

But while tea also has historical ties to multiple religions, gongfu primarily exists in a non-religious context (though not always). It's a way to make really damn good tea, and in that sense, it's no more and no less a ceremony than pulling a shot from a high-end espresso machine or pouring yourself a single malt scotch.

If you are a Westerner like we are, we recommend you explore gongfu tea to honor the experience of drinking tea and enhance your appreciation of the leaf, not because you associate it with imperial dragons, mystical monks, or wise sages.

That said, many people who pick up gongfu style brewing may find that they develop their own personal ceremony or ritual of sorts. At its best, brewing a pot of tea gongfu style can provide a chance to take a few steps back from your day and focus on something outside of your busy life. It can be relaxing, meditative, invigorating. Maybe transportive. Or maybe you just brew some delicious tea.

What tea is best for gongfu?

Virtually any tea variety will be more rewarding if drunk using gongfu style brewing. Gongfu is essential for Puer teas, but oolong teas, black teas and basically every other style will reveal new nuances when prepared with this method.

How long to steep gongfu tea?

Start with a flash steep of just a few seconds, and then a 10 second initial infusion. After that, you can increase by 5-10 seconds with every new cup. We also encourage you to play with your steeping times. No two teas — or two cups of it — are exactly alike. 

What temperature should gongfu tea be steeped at?

It’s our opinion at white2tea that every tea worth its salt can withstand boiling temperatures, but some teas are also interesting with a lower temperature. Green teas will shine at temperatures as low as 75°C, while Puers will do best at the 100°C (boiling) mark.

What is a gongfu tea tray used for?

Some gongfu tea trays have built-in reservoirs that make discarding rinse water and waste more convenient. They also help store and organize tea gear. While they are far from essential, they can enhance your experience significantly.

gongfu teapot and raw Puer tea
A gongfu teapot filled with aged raw Puer tea

How do you know when a gongfu session is over?

Almost any tea can last for at least 5-6 gongfu infusions, and many raw Puers can go for 10-12 infusions — or even more in the case of really high quality leaves. But at some point you'll notice that the tea liquid has become less colorful, paler, and less flavorful, and that's a sure sign your session is nearly over.

However, before you call it quits, you can do several super-long infusions to extract as much goodness as possible. Steeping for 2-3 minutes or longer will allow you to get even more out of the leaves, and in some cases, you'll discover a whole new side to tea you thought was finished. Keep up the long steeps as long as they're interesting, then you're ready to discard the leaves.

Can you stop and restart a gongfu session later?

Yes, you can pause your session and come back later. A gongfu session can take some time, and if you find you need to step away before you finish, that's perfectly fine. We've found that the wet leaves seem to stay plenty fresh for about 24 hours, but after that, you may want to discard them. If you're debating whether to leave a session to resume the next day, you can also do a short boiling steep in the meantime to help preserve them longer.

white2tea co.
white2tea co.

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