I like how each steeping of tea tastes just a little different, because the tea leaves will release certain compounds first and other compounds later. Also, you can usually steep it anywhere from 5 to 9 times, depending on the tea.
You can use a tiny gaiwan teacup to brew tea just for yourself, or you can use a teapot. There are some teapots made specifically for gongfu brewing, although they tend to be very small, ranging from 200 mL to 300 mL (although there are some that are larger and smaller, of course).
There are a few teas at MastersTeas.com that I really love, but which are very expensive since they’re very high quality. However, some of them are on sale right now, and of course I bought them, which is why I was thinking more about gongfu tea brewing. (FYI, I do not get any kind of commission from Masters Teas, I just really like their teas, but when I mentioned to their marketing rep that I wanted to do this blog post, she very kindly sent me some Chinese teas to try, so I used them for this blog post.)
Gongfu versus regular tea brewing
I won’t lie, you use more leaves per cup when you do gongfu brewing versus regular brewing. For example, for a strip oolong tea, you could steep it the traditional method. You’d only use 0.8 gram of tea leaves (which is about a heaping 1/2 teaspoon) per 100 mL of hot water, steeped for about 2 minutes for the first steep. You can re-steep the tea two more times (increase steeping time 30 seconds each time) for a total of 3 steepings. That ends up being 0.8 gram of tea leaves which gives you a final total of 300 mL of tea. (However most people do a mug of tea, which is anywhere from 200-300 mL, so you end up using 1.6 to 2.4 grams of tea.)
With gongfu (and continuing the strip oolong tea example), you use 4.5 to 5 grams of tea leaves per 100 mL of hot water, steeped for 20 seconds for the first steep. You can re-steep the tea 8 more times (increase steeping time 5 seconds each time) for a total of 9 steepings. That ends up being 4.5 grams of tea leaves which gives you 900 mL of tea. (That’s almost a quart of liquid, which is why most people will use a 100 mL gaiwan or a small 150-200 mL teapot to make their tea for just themselves.)
Different teas will use different amounts of tea leaves, different steeping times, and different numbers of steepings. For example, for ball oolong tea, you need 6 to 6.5 grams of tea, steeped for 25 seconds for the first steep and increasing 5 seconds each successive steeping, and you can steep it a total of 9 times. For Chinese green tea, you need 3 to 3.5 grams of tea, steeped for 15 seconds for the first steep and increasing 3 seconds each successive steeping, and you can steep it a total of 5 times.
So with gongfu, you end up using much more tea leaves, and you’d need to do the maximum number of steepings to get your full money’s worth. But that’s why gongfu is typically small pots of tea or small gaiwans, so that you use less tea leaves.
What makes gongfu worth it, in my opinion, is that the tea tastes a little different in each steeping, and the flavors are stronger and richer. There are some other oolong teas (like Adagio’s Milk Oolong and Masters Teas’ Zhang Ping Shui Xian) that actually start to taste like jasmine or honeysuckle in later steepings, even though they are not floral teas. It’s because those compounds don’t release with the first steeping, and only come out with later steepings and more time in the hot water. You don’t taste them as strongly when doing a traditional steeping method because those compounds are mixed with everything that releases in the first 2 minutes.
For Muzha Tie Guan Yin oolong tea, the first steep tastes like a typical oolong tea, with that malty overtaste. But in the next steep, you start to taste a fire-roasted flavor, with a hint of plumeria flowers. The fire-roasted flavor is even more apparent at the 3rd steep.
With traditional steeping, the taste profile is the same in every cup, although successive steepings are lighter in flavor as the tea is expended. It is dependent on the type of tea, but most of the time (see below for exceptions), I find it less flavorful since you’re steeping less tea leaves, and there can be a bit of bitterness even in very high quality teas.
The flavor of gongfu is stronger, and much of the time I think it’s tastier than brewing these teas the regular way. Also, I find gongfu teas are not bitter at all.
Not every type of tea is suitable for gongfu steeping, although it’s up to personal preference. For me personally, for Japanese sencha or Chinese green teas scented with jasmine, I prefer them steeped regularly instead of gongfu style. I think that the teas are specifically made for a strong first cup, and the flavor markedly drops off by the second, so I don’t steep those using the gongfu method.
However, a lot of Chinese green teas (non jasmine scented), and most oolong, pu-erh, and some unflavored black teas can taste really great with gongfu steeping.
Gongfu tea brewing for a beginner who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money
It occurred to me that if someone wanted to try gongfu tea brewing, especially with a really high quality oolong or green tea (like the oolong teas on sale right now), they might be overwhelmed by the different parts of the tea set that are usually listed in the articles on gongfu brewing. I wanted to write a blog post about the absolute bare minimum you’d need to buy in order to try gongfu tea brewing.
When I first started out with gongfu brewing, I had a really ugly set up because, well, I wanted to try it without shelling out money for a tea tray and sharing pitcher and those really expensive gongfu teapots made of Yixing clay. But my ghetto setup was good enough to try gongfu, and I found that I liked it enough to convince me to buy a cheap, usable Yixing clay pot and tiny Chinese tea cups from Adagio.com.
There are a lot of articles about gongfu tea brewing, but the majority of them talk about gongfu tea pots and sharing pitchers and tea trays. While I admit I have all of those, I realized that you really don’t need all that to enjoy gongfu tea.
Now that I have more experience in gongfu, I know that ultimately you can get away with very few things.
To brew gongfu tea just for yourself, If you don’t already have a tiny teapot (and I mean tiny, as in about 1/2 cup of liquid total), then it’s worth it to spend a little money on a cheap gaiwan, which is literally just a large-ish Chinese teacup with a cover and a saucer. You can find lots of cheap ones on Amazon (the gaiwan I linked to above is one that I bought which is less than $10). They sometimes call it kung fu rather than gongfu but it’s the same thing.
(For the photos below, I used my cheap $10 gaiwan because it is lined with porcelain and it’s easier to see the tea, but usually when making tea for myself in a gaiwan, I prefer this one by QMFIVE, which was a little more expensive, but it pours the tea a lot better than the cheaper one. At the time of this blog post, it’s no longer available, but QMFIVE has beautiful porcelain gaiwans that are only a little more than what I paid for my yixing gaiwan.)
Most gaiwans are less than 200 mL capacity (the one I used in the photos below is about 130 mL). When you use it, you will pour less than the maximum mL into it (you don’t want to fill it to the top because then it will be too hot for you to pour the tea). For my 130 mL gaiwan, since the tea leaves take up some space, the actual volume of liquid is around 100 mL. That’s a good size to do gongfu brewing just for one person, especially if you intend to do a full 9 infusions like you can with oolong tea to get your money’s worth out of the tea.
For tea leaves that unfurl a lot, like oolong teas, a larger gaiwan (like 160-180 mL) would be good. You can put in the amount of tea leaves for 100 mL, but because the tea leaves will unfurl and take up a lot of space, the steepings after the 1st or 2nd ones will be about 100 mL, even though the gaiwan is 180 mL. However, if you use tea leaves that don’t unfurl a lot, like many green teas, I’d suggest putting in a little bit more tea since the final volume of liquid that you pour out will probably be closer to 150 mL.
I would highly suggest that before you throw tea in your gaiwan, practice pouring hot water out of it because pouring tea from a gaiwan can be fiddly if you’ve never seen it done before. I wish I’d done this, because the first time I used a gaiwan I just put expensive tea in there and then oversteeped it because I had put in too much hot water and couldn’t pour it out of the hot gaiwan. Here’s a good video on how to do it:
Hot water kettle
An electric kettle is best, especially if it has temperature controls, but if you don’t have that, you can boil water on a kettle on the stove. Most oolong, pu-erh, and some black teas are steeped at 210ºF/99ºC, which is just shy of boiling, so you can totally use a kettle on the stove or an electric kettle that doesn’t have temperature controls. However, green teas need a lower temperature, so you’re stuck pouring the boiling water in a measuring cup and adding cool water until a thermometer reads the right temperature.
I happened to already have a Bonavita temperature controlled electric hot water kettle, so I didn’t need to buy one, but you don’t need anything that expensive. Just a cheap electric kettle with a few set temperatures will work fine. If the temperature of the water is a little off, it’s not a big deal, or you can figure out how much hot water and how much cool water to add to always get the temperature water you want.
Most gongfu setups require a sharing pitcher, which is where you pour the tea from the teapot. This is because if it takes several seconds to pour the tea, the tea poured out first will taste different from the tea poured out last, and the sharing pitcher homogenizes the minute differences in flavors. Then you pour the tea from the sharing pitcher into tiny Chinese teacups, which hold literally only a few sips of tea.
But since you’re just drinking yourself, and if you use a small vessel like a gaiwan, you can just pour all the tea into a regular teacup. Try to make sure the cup doesn’t smell like coffee (I did that once and it ruined a steeping of expensive tea).
To be honest, the tiny Chinese teacups actually do make the tea taste better because of the way it funnels the scent of the tea to your nose just before you sip. But you can still drink the tea from a regular teacup to see if you even like gongfu style brewing, and if you later decide to invest in a gongfu teapot, you can buy a tiny teacup with it.
Bowl for tea water discard
Most gongfu setups also include a tea tray, which catches tea overflow from a Yixing teapot, or where you pour the rinse water from the tea leaves.
Since you’re only doing gongfu with yourself, and since you’re using a gaiwan and not a teapot, you can get away with a soup serving bowl for your discard.
If you really want to decide if you like gongfu tea brewing or not, start off with good quality tea. When I was first starting out, I bought several samples from Adagio.com and MastersTeas.com so that I could try different types.
Masters Teas sent to me two sampler boxes that are really great, the China May 2022 sampler, and the China Anhui 2022 sampler. They have a variety of high quality Chinese teas to try so you can see which types you like best.
In the China May 2022 sampler, I had already tried two of the teas before (when I didn’t have IBS), and I took notes when I tasted them. The Traditional Ti Kuan Yin oolong is good when brewed gongfu style—the first steep is slightly grassy, but the second steep has a faint fruity sweetness like apricots. The Anxi Wulong Low Fire oolong has a soft spinach flavor for the first steep, but later steepings have a warm mineral flavor. Before doing this blog post, I hadn’t tried any of the teas in the China Anhui 2022 sampler, so I was excited to give them a shot.
Both Masters Teas and Adagio have lots of other sampler boxes if you’d like to try other types of teas. For gongfu brewing, I’d suggest any of Masters Teas samplers EXCEPT for the scented and Japan samplers. From Adagio, I’d suggest Oolong Teas of China, Green Teas of China, Premium Teas of China (3 black teas and 1 puer), or Black Teas of China. At the time I was just starting out with gongfu brewing and trying different teas, Adagio didn’t have these sampler boxes, but I have tried most of the teas in each sampler box. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but you won’t know unless you try them.
I tend to like oolongs over Chinese green teas or Chinese black teas or puer teas, so if you know you have a preference, then pick that sampler box. Since then, I got IBS and can no longer drink oolong and black teas, so I’ve since started experimenting with more Chinese green teas, which are the only teas I can drink.
Lu An Gua Pian green tea from the Masters Teas China Anhui 2022 Sampler box. Here’s what the website description says:
Our Lu An Gua Pian offering, otherwise known as Lu An Melon Seed, consists of very young, tender leaves. The twisted leaf style yields a pale yellow, complex and layered cup. You can pick up the super quiet nut notes, which are there if you listen closely.
About the leaves:
Grown at 800 meters above sea level the 5 cm long leaves are hand-plucked in early May from 5 year old trees. The single leaf is then hand-fired by charcoal fire without any buds or stalks.
This tea contains a moderate level of caffeine | Steep at 170° for 2-3 minutes.
Gongfu brewing tends to be very short, sometimes as short as 15 seconds for the first steep. I use the timer app on my phone.
(Optional) tea strainer
If you happen to have one of those little tea strainers (the open ones not the tea balls), you can put that over your teacup to catch any leaves that might pour out of your gaiwan, but in general the gaiwan lid keeps the larger leaves out of your cup.
1. As I mentioned above, different teas require different amounts when you do gongfu brewing. I follow this really handy chart from MeiLeaf.com.
For the Lu An Gua Pian I’m brewing, since it’s a green tea, I put 3.5 grams of tea. It’s quite a lot of tea leaves, and you might think that would make the tea bitter, but it totally doesn’t. Instead, you get lots of different flavors from the tea with each successive steep.
2. Heat your water to the recommended temperature for your tea leaves. For the Lu An Gua Pian tea, the MastersTeas.com website recommends water at 170ºF, so I heated my water in my tea kettle.
3. Next, you are going to do a rinse of the tea leaves. It enables you to wash away the little bits of tea dust that might make the tea bitter.
Pour some water heated to the right temperature (in my case, it’s 170ºF) into your gaiwan over your tea leaves. Immediately put the lid on the gaiwan and pour the water out into your bowl for water discard.
Many gongfu instructions say to heat the gaiwan before you throw in the tea leaves, but I don’t bother because I think the gaiwan is heated enough when I do this step.
Here’s a picture of the gaiwan and discard bowl after the rinse.
If you end up having some tea dregs in your cup, go ahead and dump those in your discard bowl. (Isn’t that nice to have at the table? I love that concept.)
6. Green teas can be steeped a total of 5 times (more or less depending on the tea and your preference), but each successive cup will be a few seconds longer. For my Lu An Gua Pian green tea, the first steep was 15 seconds, and each additional steep will be 3 seconds longer. So my second steep will be 18 seconds, my third steep will be 21 seconds, etc. My fifth steep will be 27 seconds.
Re-steep the tea the same way you did the first steep (make sure the water is the same recommended temperature), but for a longer time.
Here’s a photo of my second steep. You might not be able to tell in the photo, but it’s just a teeny bit darker. With oolongs and black teas, the second steep will often be darker than the first as the tea leaves unfurl and other components of the tea release into the hot water.
Here’s a photo of my third steep:
For this tea, the first and second steeps seem to be strongest while the later steepings are lighter in flavor. This is in contrast to ball oolong tea, where the first couple steepings are light and then the tea darkens for a few steeps before it lightens again. Different teas really do taste different when you brew them gongfu style.
Different tea leaves will steep for different times, obviously, but also some teas (like oolongs) can be steeped 9 times rather than 5. So when choosing a tea, if you’re conscious about the cost, also factor in how many cups you’ll get from one gaiwan of tea leaves.
Gongfu during the day
I don’t usually drink all 5 steepings at once. I will typically steep my tea 2 or 3 times for breakfast, and then 2 or 3 times for lunch. If what I’ve read about caffeine in tea leaves is correct, the later steepings have less caffeine than the earlier ones.
In between, I just leave the tea leaves in the gaiwan with the lid off, on my dining room table. Leaving it for a few hours is fine.
Mei Leaf teas even suggest that you can spread your wet tea leaves on a towel and let them dry, then steep them again later, picking up where you left off the last time. I’ve done this a few times, and sometimes it works fine and the tea tastes great the next time, but once in a while the tea tastes a little funky if I’ve left it overnight. So I just leave the leaves in my gaiwan or teapot and try to drink it before the end of the day.
Cost of gongfu tea
The cost of tea varies depending on the type, but you also have to take into account how much tea you’ll need for each time you drink it, and how many times you’ll be able to steep it.
For example, before I got IBS, when steeping the everyday oolong tea I liked the most, Fujian Rain oolong, I used 4.5 grams of tea per 100 mL water each time I brewed it gongfu style. I could get 9 steepings out of it, so the cost was $0.48 per 900mL (if I bought the large 8 oz bag, which is $24 at the time of this blog post).
Now that I can’t drink oolong tea, my everyday green tea is Gunpowder, and I use 3.5 grams per 100 mL. I get 5 steepings out of it, and the cost is $0.22 per 500 mL (if I buy the large 16 oz bag, which is $29 at the time of this blog post).
I tried the sample sizes of lots of teas on the Adagio and Masters Teas websites before I decided upon my favorites, and then bought them in bulk so they’d be cheaper.
That’s my Ghetto Gongfu setup! If you’re at all interested in this style of tea brewing, I hope you give it a try. Let me know what you thought about it!