Apr 20 2014

Brewing Oolong Tea in an Yixing Using the Gongfu Method

Oolong tea can be brewed in a variety of ways: you can use a regular teapot, a traditional porcelain cup known as a gaiwan or a traditional purple clay teapot known as a yixing. Most purists will tell you the last one is the correct implement to use when brewing this type of tea and they’re probably right. The yixing is used in the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and also by most tea shops and tea connoisseurs in Asia.

I love the traditional method, because it feels special to me. Kind of like listening to a classic rock album on an old vintage record player. I hope these never go out of style, because I love listening to my vinyl on my classic turntable while I brew distinguished tea using the gongfu method.

The method of brewing generally employed when using this type of clay teapot is called gongfu. This word literally means ‘effort’ and is actually the same word used for Chinese martial arts, i.e. kung fu. We simply pronounce it a bit differently, but it is the same. So basically, this method of brewing tea requires a bit of effort.

It came about over the centuries as tea masters looked to perfect the art of brewing. They looked at every aspect of the process and tweaked each one to get the maximum possible flavor out of the tea leaves. In order to brewed tea using this method you’ll need a number of things.

The first is, obviously, the leaves. Generally, you want to use distinguished leaves and not some kind of generic ones. This is more true for wulong tea than for any other type.

The next important thing you need is water. Seems simple to get, but you do not want tap water in most instances. It is usually too hard and it doesn’t taste pure enough. On the other hand, the water should not be distilled or purified either. This type of water lacks minerals and minerals impart an important characteristic on the flavor of the brew. Tea masters like to use fresh spring water, but you can employ bottled spring water, if that is all you have.

You also want water that is the perfect temperature. For oolong teas, it needs to be around 90 degrees Celsius, so not quite boiling. The easiest way to get the right temperature is a water warmer and boiler or an electric water kettle with a temperature setting. Even if you’re just using a small electric travel kettle, you can pretty easily estimate the correct temperature. Simply heat the water to boiling, then turn off the tea kettle and let the water cool for 10 to 20 seconds. That will get you there no matter what kind of electric kettle you are using.

Next, of course, is the actual teapot. As mentioned you’ll be using an yixing. These clay teapots take on the flavor of the tea leaves more and more with each use. This is their unique characteristic and what makes them perfect for brewing oolong teas.

gonf fu brewing tea set

Tea set used for a gonfu brewing ceremony

To begin with you want to preheat the teapot and the teacups. You do this by pouring hot water over them. Then you place some leaves in the teapot and pour hot water over them. The water temperature is very important and you want to make sure you use the right one for your tea. Once you’ve poured the hot water over the high quality leaves, close the lid and pour some more hot water over the pot. After 10 to 15 seconds, begin pouring the infusion into the little cups.

Most masters will pour out this first infusion and quickly repeat the process. This first one simply serves as a way to wash the tea leaves and get the teacups ready for the actual tea you want to drink. The second infusion is made the same way as the first, except this one is not poured out. This one is sipped from the tiny cups and enjoyed.

After this, you’ll make another infusion from the same leaves. This time, you’ll probably want to increase the steeping time by five or 10 seconds. Most good oolong tea leaves, especially the most distinguished leaves, allow for up to eight infusions. You want to experiment with the tea that you have, both in terms of steeping times and in the number of infusions.

Once you’ve gone through and made as many cups of tea as your leaves can handle, you need to begin the cleanup process. Your clay teapot should never be washed with soap or detergent. Instead it should be rinsed with hot tea and then left to air dry. This way the clay takes on the flavor of tea and not the flavor of soap or chemicals. The cups should be washed in a similar manner and also allowed to air dry. There you have it, the gongfu method of brewing oolong tea.