By Alex Antrobus
At the risk of provoking outrage, I’ll start by saying this: for us Brits, there’s a danger of falling into the falsehood that the UK has a monopoly on tea culture.
I’d like to talk about something a little different to your usual milky brew. That is the Chinese tradition of the Gong Fu tea ceremony and the profound effect this method of tea brewing can have on one’s mentality.
OK, OK, I know what some of you are thinking already! “Tea ceremony? Sounds very ritualistic and spiritual…” Well, it can be both of those things. But it certainly doesn’t have to be intimidating or too serious! Ultimately, it’s all about getting the most out of high grade tea and living in the moment.
I found out about gong fu cha (roughly translating to “making tea with skill” in Chinese) and the world of “true tea” a few months into the first lockdown last year. I didn’t know my Oolong from my Pu-erh. So after several confused trips to my local Asian supermarket, I decided to do some research.
I came across the Mei Leaf YouTube channel and it snowballed from there. A few months later I’d added a gaiwan (lidded brewing bowl), gong dao bei (means “fairness cup” but is actually a serving jug) and a bamboo brewing tray to my arsenal.
So what’s the deal with Gong Fu-style tea? How is it different to western brewing and what are the advantages? The key factor in taste is the fact that the tea is brewed using a much larger volume of leaf. This may sound wasteful, but the other big difference is that instead of brewing the leaf once or twice, the tea is repeatedly brewed with smaller amounts of water and shorter steep times.
This is sometimes done more than ten times in what are called “infusions”. It is done in this way to get a lot more out of a single session whilst extracting more flavour into the “liquor” without overbrewing it. You also get to observe how the tea evolves with each infusion.
The beauty, I think, lies not only in the greater complexity of sensorial experience (which can be remarkable) but the attention one has to pay to the process. I find this to be very meditative and centreing. It definitely helped me take things one day at a time whilst stuck in the house. Well… after I’d scalded my fingertips a couple of times trying to get the hang of the gaiwan pouring technique, that is. Turns out there is some truth to the whole “with skill” part after all!
Despite my passion for coffee, Gong Fu tea has been the most gratifying experience I’ve had with a beverage. That’s because it’s not just about the drink.
There’s nothing more comforting than putting some Lapsang Souchong into a preheated gaiwan and breathing in its warm, chocolatey aromas before you’ve even wet the leaf – or as exhilarating as sipping on a raw Gushu Pu-erh and being transported to the ancient tea forests of Yunnan province.
The teaware itself can be just as elegant and pleasing in its design too. Not to mention the element of playfulness that little clay figures called “tea pets”, traditionally used as good luck charms, can add to your session.
I totally understand the trepidation many feel when it comes to things like flavour notes appearing intimidating or pretentious. However, it’s totally up to the individual how far they take that. I’m not saying everybody has to be a tea sommelier and I certainly wouldn’t recommend agonising about whether you’re doing it “right”.
At the end of day, this stuff is subjective even for trained experts. Personally though, I can’t wait to have some friends round for a session so I can finally play “tea master”. Don’t be surprised if the tea bug bites you like an Eastern Beauty (get it?).
Ultimately, the life lesson I learned from trying out Gong Fu brewing was the importance of having things you can set aside time to enjoy for their own sake. The Best Life Project’s Jacqueline Hughes Lundy recently posted in her Jacq’s Journal series about how she struggles with meditation because of the effort of emptying your mind entirely.
I am similar in that regard, and tea tasting acts as an alternative form of mindfulness for me. I feel like being able to focus on just one thing is a pretty good compromise for the high speed information age we live in.
Other important lessons I’ve learned include: “tea bag green tea is poison water” and “I absolutely need to visit that four-storey tea market in Beijing one day”.