Tea Brewing and Tea Study: A Beginner's Guide
This guide is meant to answer some questions you may have about tea as well as give a practical framework for tea preparation and tea study. As there is no one correct way to approach your tea practice, this will probably all seem unnecessarily long-winded. Well, so be it. If you want to be Given the proverbial fish, maybe just start with a YouTube search for gongfu tea. (I mean that earnestly, by the way, not dismissively.) Here I am concerned with teaching you How to fish. This guide will be ever evolving and eventually populated with useful pictures and videos, and be converted into a knowledge base/ wiki. But today I offer you only this wall of text. I hope it is of some use to you. Or if this is all old hat, that you can one day share it with a friend who is new to tea.
Goals: brew tea that we enjoy, have fun doing it, and learn as much as we can about our tea leaves. If you come away from this guide with nothing else, please remember that joy alone is what really matters. Here at Spiritwood we talk a lot about Mindful Tea Practice and other funny sounding ideas. But behind everything, the fundamental basis on which all discussion rests is the fact that we are all individually just doing what works best for us. Fun, joyous, playful, curious, peaceful, loving, relaxing, grounding, centering: making tea can and should be all of these things. And so of course it’s all very personal. If anyone else’s favorite tea or teaware or method doesn’t work for you, that’s normal! I hope that you will never feel discouraged on your own Path of Tea. As for the “learning about our tea leaves” bit – know that everyone can learn to discern good tea from bad with enough experience. And if we approach our tea practice with an inquisitive, critical, and informed mind, we can greatly expedite that learning process.
The method of brewing tea that we’ll be discussing today is from China and it’s called Gongfu Cha (cha means tea). While the gongfu tea method is not the only way to prepare tea, it’s a great way to reach the goals outlined above. It’s infinitely versatile, adaptable to any tea and brewing preference, and, crucially, allows the most thorough inspection of the tea being brewed. In practice, the term Gongfu Tea has come to encompass any brewing style that fulfills the following conditions: repeated quick infusions in a small teapot.
Get a small porcelain gaiwan, 60-150 mL. All gongfu tea requires a gaiwan or a Chinese style (small) teapot. I’m going to insist on a gaiwan for beginners. The word gaiwan means lidded bowl. One reason we need a gaiwan first is that it pours much faster than a teapot (remember, we want quick infusions). Other important factors are cost and material. Teapots (especially unglazed) introduce variables that we're not ready for – the type of clay used, its thickness, and the type of firing will all have different effects on different teas. They’re also more complicated to shop for. A basic gaiwan is cheap, and porcelain gives a totally "unfiltered" brew. In the future, after you have added some raw clay teapots to your collection, you'll find that different pots suit different teas. But you'll always need the porcelain gaiwan for brewing teas with more delicate aromas, as well as for making head to head comparisons. It’s the most essential tool we have for learning about tea. After you acquire your gaiwan, practice pouring from it with cold water until you feel comfortable enough to begin brewing tea with it.
Also called a fairness cup (gongdaobei). This tool looks like a miniature pitcher. We pour the tea into it directly from the gaiwan. Then, it’s used to pour the tea into the teacups. In the interest of studying tea, I’d recommend a style that gives you a good view of the soup color, like clear glass.
The Chinese name for the tray (chapan) means “tea plate.” When brewing our tea, things are going to get a little messy. Think of the chapan as a tiny table that drains any spilled water/tea into a collection area. Some chapans keep the waste water inside, and some use a hose that you can direct to a bucket on the floor. At minimum, we only really need room for a gaiwan and a chahai on the chapan. Any size chapan will work, there’s nothing wrong with the larger models if that’s what you’d prefer.
Gongfu tea style teacups are small. They typically hold just 30-50 mL of tea. Like the other tools here, there’s nothing wrong with the cheap options. A white cup is useful for giving us a good look at the soup. Another consideration is thickness. Letting the tea cool is an important part of tasting, and having a thin walled cup means you won’t need to wait quite as long for the desired temperature. Cup shape is up to your personal preference. It took me a while to discover that the shape really does make a difference and I find some cups easier to sip from than others - it’s worth paying attention to.
Your little teacups will stand up much better on a hard surface, so we want any kind of coaster that’s flat, and not soft or squishy.
Find a small absorbent towel that you don’t mind staining brown.
A small scale with 0.1 g precision is the standard. If you already have a kitchen scale accurate to 1 g, it’s better than nothing. I have noticed that identical looking scales with the same precision can have different maximum loads. Take a close look when shopping because 200 g vs. 500 g makes a difference if you want to do things like put a teapot on the scale before weighing tea leaves or water.
An egg timer, a watch, a clock with a second hand – you know.
Any kettle will do. The teas I focus on – puer, red, white, and oolong – should be brewed with 100°C water. You will only need a thermometer or fancy electric kettle if you are making green tea, and that’s outside the scope of this guide.
The most important part of tea study is experience. There is no substitute for tasting a great number teas. Collecting our impressions and brewing parameters in one place is invaluable to our study. Get a new notebook and reserve the first page for your table of contents (teas). Then, number the pages yourself as you go. The page numbers will allow you to keep a Table of Teas on that first page. Handy, no?
And that’s it. Non-essential but popular tools include:
- a screen for filtering the tea leaf sediment when pouring into the chahai
- a small handled scoop for loading the gaiwan with dry tea leaves
- a larger handleless scoop called a chahe for the same function
- teacup tongs for handling teacups while you rinse them with boiling water
- a pick for clearing a clogged teapot spout
Now, you may be thinking: “Digital scale? Timer? You said we were here to enjoy ourselves, not go back to high school chemistry!” This is a valid concern. Why do we need to use technology to enjoy nature’s bounty as the ancients did? First, consider that every one of our essential tools is technology. Unless you are picking tea leaves from the tree and throwing them in a puddle of water on the ground, you’re using technology. But the point stands. Worrying over the second hand on a clock seems counter to the joyful and relaxed state of mind I spoke of before. There are a couple reasons we had best start our journey with a scientific approach. First, we’ll be plenty joyful and relaxed once the tea is prepared just the way we like it and we get to sit back and sip the fruits of our labor. The ends justify the means, as it were. Once you completely develop your brewing intuition and other advanced low-tech tricks, you’ll be free to eyeball the right amount of rolled oolong, sense when a brew needs to be poured, etc. In the mean time, we are chiefly concerned with good results, reproducibility, and efficiently learning as much as we can about every tea. If you enjoy baking bread or making pour over coffee, you’ll believe me when I say that employing modern technology doesn’t kill the magic. And even if you don’t believe me, you can consider these tools a stepping stone to a magical future.
So we have the tools, and we have the spirit of inquiry – what are we measuring? The results of every brew are based on two variables: leaf to water ratio and time*. This means we need to make three measurements: how much leaf, how much water, and how long. Not only are these three numbers important enough to employ modern technology to measure, they will be faithfully recorded in our journal. How many milliliters of water does your gaiwan hold? How many grams of leaf did you add? For how long did you steep? That’s the recipe for your perfect cup, every time. Water temperature would be another variable, but we’ll eliminate it by sticking to 100°C.
*These are far from the only variables, but we'll save the rest for another lesson
We first need to know the exact volume of our gaiwan. To measure this: put it on a scale, tare the scale, and fill the gaiwan with water. Don’t fill it all the way, only to the level just below where the gaiwan lid rests. That should be around 85%. One gram of water is equal to one milliliter. So if the scale says 100 grams, we have a 100 mL gaiwan. (Use the lid to check that the water is at the right level, but take it off to actually weigh the water.)
This is the time to decide on our leaf to water ratio and to think about a general game plan for steep times. I will refrain from giving you specifics here. Start with the vendor's recommendations and tweak them as you go. If a steep tastes too bitter, make the next one shorter. A tip: you can dilute/ rescue a too-strong brew in your chahai by adding hot water. For a young sheng puer tea, we may try a 1:15 ratio (ex: 6 g of tea in a 90 mL gaiwan) and steep times like 1st: 3s, 2nd: 5s, 3rd: 5s, 4th: 10s, 5th: 15s, etc. For a rolled oolong it may be a 1:20 ratio and 1st: 35s, 2nd: 25s, 3rd: 25s, 4th: 40s, 5th: 60s, etc. Notice how the first steep of oolong is longer than the second and third. That is to give the leaves a chance to open up. The same "longer first steep" principle applies to aged teas. Generally, the second and third steeps of a tea will have the most flavor. They are the truest and best representation of the tea. A perfectly timed first steep is a bit tricky and I consider it a bonus. It's just as likely to be too weak or too strong, especially for a tea I don't already know intimately.
Now we’re ready for our first journal entry. In order to refine our perfect brew, and learn about different teas in the process, there are some things we need to record in our journal:
- any product details: name, vendor, origin, cultivar, style, roast level, season and year of harvest, elevation
- amount of leaf brewed (grams)
- volume of our gaiwan (milliliters)
- steep times (best to fill these in as you complete each steep rather than beforehand, as your actual steep times are what’s important)
- water temperature
- notes on taste, appearance, smell, mouth feel, and the effects on our body and mind
Rinse the teaware
We begin every session by rinsing our tools with boiling water. Start by filling the gaiwan, then pouring the water into the chahai, then into the cups. This is where teacup tongs come in handy if you are afraid of burning your fingers. Discard the water. Now open up your bag of tea and take a good whiff of the dry leaf smell to record in your journal.
Rinse the leaves
Use a cup or small dish to weigh the desired amount of tea leaves on the scale. Dump it into the warm gaiwan and close. Give the tea about 20 seconds to warm up. Our goal with the leaf rinse is to make it very short in duration – about 3 seconds. Using boiling water, fill the gaiwan up to that level just below where the lid rests, carefully set the kettle down, position the gaiwan lid so that there is a 3-5 mm opening on one side, and pour into the chahai while using one finger to hold the lid in place. If this was your first time handling a hot gaiwan, now is the time to congratulate yourself! Handling a gaiwan full of boiling water is tricky and nerve-racking for beginners. You deserve a mini celebration each time you do it without burning yourself. Now discard the rinse water. Finally, open the gaiwan and smell the wet leaves. The smell is likely quite different from the dry leaf smell, and something worth recording.
Make sure your water is still 100°C. Repeat the same process of filling, covering, and emptying the gaiwan, now with a timer. Pour the tea from the chahai into the teacups. There will be some sediment in the bottom of the chahai if you didn’t use a screen, and that’s fine. Try to pour the tea into the teacups carefully so that the sediment stays in the chahai. If a leaf or two came out of the gaiwan, fish them out with a pick or spoon and put them back. While you wait for the tea to cool, smell the leaves again. Is the smell different than the first wet leaf smell? Stronger or weaker? Do the leaves look different? Take a good look at the soup color. Now, when the tea has cooled enough, we’re almost ready for your first sip.
Sit up straight and relax the muscles in your head, neck, and shoulders. Take a few deep breaths through your nose. If you’re familiar with wine tasting or coffee cupping, you know that we can learn more about the drink if we aerate the tea in our mouth by slurping. Take a small sip and then quickly draw in air through a small opening in the mouth. Let the tea wash over the sides of your tongue. After swallowing, leave the mouth slightly agape and take a breath through your nose. There’s a lot to unpack in that sip, and I won’t get into it all here. But write down what impressions you can about the tastes, mouth feel, and after taste. If you are really focused, you may have noticed that the taste changed – more than once, even. Or that different parts of your tongue/ nose/ throat picked up different flavors. As you progress into the session, keep a focus on your body and mind. They have a lot to tell you about the tea if you can learn to listen to them more closely and increase your sensitivity. After tasting, look again at the color. If you thought the tea's strength tasted perfect, that color will be your new goal for the next steep.
After enjoying the tea from the first steep, you guessed it, smell the leaves. Besides your impressions, remember to record the steep time. I use a shorthand to record whether each steep was light (L), strong (S), or just right (✅). For example:
- 1st: 3s L
- 2nd: 10s ✅
- 3rd: 10s ✅
- 4th: 20s S
So that the next time I brew the same tea I'll know how to refine my times.
Second steep and beyond
The leaves are opening up, our spirits have been lifted, and our mind and body are focused on the beautiful nectar in our cups and bellies. The session is in full swing. As you continue, you may find the taste of the tea changing from steep to steep. That’s expected, especially for young teas. Besides studying the tea and recording our impressions, we can practice refining our movements. How slowly and accurately can you pour the hot water? How close are you to filling the gaiwan to exactly the right level? As you continue your steeps, keep a close eye on the soup color. That’s the easiest way to gauge how you ought to tweak your steep times. Steep times yielding the same strength tea will naturally increase after the third steep, though whether the increase is 5 seconds or 30 depends on the tea and how deep into the session you are. The point at which the leaves are spent will differ for every tea and every drinker. Expect a session to go at least 6 steeps, and up to 15 or 20, depending on the kind of tea and the ratio you chose. Quality leaves can be steeped for many minutes at a time once the session is winding down, or even hours. Spent leaves can be thrown into a pitcher of water in the fridge to cold brew overnight, or long steeped in a thermos of hot water. When you see firsthand how many liters of delicious brew you can get from just 6 grams of Good Tea, you may rethink whether the price was so expensive after all.
It’s important to rinse and dry all your teaware after a session. If you do it as soon as you’re finished, it’s much easier to keep your things from staining. Remember to empty and dry the chapan.
The end, for now. If you have any feedback regarding how this guide could be improved, it is more than welcome!