Highly Skilled Tea

Cam Loeschmann // Columnist

As a tea drinker, there is a special kind of joy in buying a new teapot. You have your tea, you have your cup, but there’s something about brewing in a pot that makes the tea experience perfect. I prefer a glass vessel, so I can see what the leaves are up to in there. The capacity has to be under a litre because I take a long time to drink a cup of tea and I don’t want the second cup getting bitter or cold while I’m still working on the first. As a tea seller, I can say for certain that my experiences are far from universal. From stoneware pots the size of my head—that need an extra handle above the spout in order to hold its weight when full—to tiny, fragile bone china sets that hold enough for a single cup and no more, every pot has someone who thinks it’s perfect.

It is the tiniest of the tiny teapots that we will be looking at today. If you have ever seen small clay teapots at a Chinese teaware shop, a Westerner like myself might wonder why one would bother with such a small pot. Can the tea leaves even fit in the mouth of such a small pot? But, these pots are perfect for a type of tea brewing that is almost the opposite of the typical Western method. This is called Gong Fu Cha, which roughly translates to Highly Skilled Tea.

Western tea brewing varies from person to person, but most often it looks like this: a small amount of leaves, five to fifteen grams, and a steeping time of about two to five minutes. As tea is drunk, more water might be added, until teatime is over or the leaves lose their flavour. This method is wonderful for the 21st century and our busy lives. I can pour the water, do any number of small tasks that build up during the day, and come back to a perfect cup of tea. Gong Fu brewing works in an entirely different way. It is a ceremony that one takes time out of their life to complete. 

Daniel Liu of The Chinese Tea Shop in Downtown Vancouver has written extensively about this process. He says: “Gong Fu Cha is as much about escaping the pressures of life for a few moments as it is about enjoying every drop of tea.” Every aspect of the tea brewing process is controlled, and from the beginning to the end the brewer must keep their focus solely on the tea and their guests.

The most noticeable characteristic of Gong Fu brewing is how the tea is steeped quickly, over and over, with much more tea (often up to a third of the brewing vessel is just the leaves), adding ten or fifteen seconds to the brew time with every steep. The reason for this, according to Shang Tea in Kansas City, Missouri, is “when you brew using this method, you get to taste each individual layer of the tea, each of which will have a different, unique flavor profile.” Steeping all at once loses distinction between layers of tea and reduces it to one flavour profile.

With Gong Fu brewing, lots of leaves are brewed repeatedly for short amounts of time in a tiny vessel. This is just one way that every single variable in brewing tea is controlled precisely during the brewing. The teapot itself, of course, is vital to the process. The type of teapot has a profound effect on the taste of the finished tea. 

Yixing teapots, named for the “pottery capital” of China from where they originate, are made from a slightly porous clay that holds onto flavours between brews. For this reason these teapots are each reserved for only one type of tea, such as green, black (known as red in China) or puerh. 

“With continued use, a layer of tea sediment forms and one is actually brewing tea within tea. This is ideal for enhancing the flavor, color, and aroma.” This is from an online resource that was the first in the world to sell authentic Yixing teaware online.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) the art of making Yixing teapots was developed. Before the Ming Dynasty, Chinese tea looked a lot more like matcha. Steeping tea from the leaf as opposed to suspending the powdered tea in water opened up opportunities for more specialised pots and teas. “Yixing enjoyed long periods of prosperity during the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 CE). During the early Republic (1911-1938) Yixing wares were exported in quantity to Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States of America. The great turmoil of war and revolution in China during the 1930s and 1940s brought the manufacturing of Yixing teapots to a halt.” Only in recent decades has the art of Yixing teaware flourished again.

The ancient art of Chinese tea could fill many libraries. Hopefully this brief overview offers some insight into what can be a daunting topic of study. For further reading, I suggest Warren Peltier’s The Ancient Art of Tea. However, studying and contemplating tea will only take one so far. In the words of Lu Yü’s Ch’a Ching, (“The Classic of Tea”), “There are no shortcuts. Merely to pick tea in the shade and dry it in the cool of the evening is not to manufacture it. To nibble it for flavour and sniff at it for fragrance is not to be discriminating … taking prodigious amounts of tea in summer and none at all in winter are not drinking tea.”

In other words, think about your tea, but also simply drink and enjoy it. Drink enough to fall in love with it repeatedly. Drink what tastes good to you—simply drink. This is skilled brewing of tea.

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