Brewing tea for fun and consumption of copious quantities of time
The occasional visitor to or expat in China gets called something that translates to “more Chinese than the Chinese”. Context and tone are very important when you hear this phrase. It can be used in a derisory sense as it would be directed at, say, a westerner who walks around in Hanfu and tries, too hard, to act in the way he perceives the Chinese to act. It can, however, also be used in an admiring sense in which a non-Chinese demonstrates deep understanding of and appreciation for Chinese culture.
I have twice been called this in the admiring sense. The second time was in relation to making tea.
“Kung fu” tea
The term “kung fu” in China has little to do with martial arts (except that martial arts is one area in which one can show kung fu). Any skill that takes effort to master is, upon mastering it, showing “kung fu” (or, rather more accurately, “gongfu”). Making tea the right way is a skill that takes effort to master. There is, thus, a ”功夫茶” (literally “kung fu tea”) ceremony that is used to make, in my experience, the best tea even conceivable.
I thought I’d spend a bit of time today teaching how to make this tea. Of course, as with anything worth learning, this is going to be complicated, difficult and entirely worth your time to learn.
The tools of the trade
No, that photo is not of a set of torture utensils. That is a very complete tea set. For the full experience you will need a set about that complete. You can ditch the three figurines; you can lose the three-part cup at the right rear of the tray if you’re not making green tea; you can omit the bowl at the front left (although you’ll be happy if you have it).
In addition to the tea set, you will also need:
- a supply of good-quality water; it can’t be soft water and it can’t be too hard (spring water is ideal)
- a decent quality oolong or pu’er tea1
- a near-infinite supply of patience
There are two pots in the picture: one with a lid, one without. The one with the lid is the brewing pot. The one without a lid is the serving pot. You will need both for the full ceremony. Both pots should be made of terra cotta (Yixing’s “purple clay” is traditional, but any terra cotta should do fine). In a perfect tea-drinking world you’d have a separate pair of brewing and serving pots for every tea you brew. Realistically this isn’t likely to happen. Keeping a separate pair for each major grouping is fine: one pair for oolong, say, one pair for pu’er, etc.
There are six cups in this picture (the ones with tea in them). They’re very small. This is intentional. The kung fu tea ceremony is predicated upon frequently-flowing small doses of tea.
The cups should be made of terra cotta to help preserve some of the heat, but the best cups are terra cotta on the exterior and white ceramic on the interior. This permits people to more easily assess the colouration and quality of the ensuing liquor.
The drip tray (and optional waste bowl)
There will be drippings. You need the slotted tray to catch them. Some are just a tray and need to be frequently emptied. Others have a discretely-placed hose to redirect drippings into a larger container. If possible you’ll want one of those.
The waste bowl is an optional component. It is used at the beginning as part of the process of cleaning if present and it is used during the ceremony proper to dump tea leaves if you make a lot of tea and have to recharge.
Even the finest teas and pots will leave some unsightly grit in the liquor. The metal thing in the coiled stand is a filter. You generally pour the tea from the brewing pot into the serving pot through the filter.
The aroma cylinders
The mysterious cup-like objects that are narrower and taller than the actual cups themselves are aroma cylinders. Use of them is optional (but highly recommended for the full experience). If you choose not to use them, simply skip the steps that mention them.
The brush is used before starting to dust off the equipment. The towel is used during the ceremony to help keep the workspace tidy and free of unsightly puddles. Both of these are optional.
The wooden container with the implements of destruction sticking out are the tools of the trade. You’ll find a tea scoop (looking for all the world like an elongated baker’s scoop), a handle with a flattened end, another handle attached to a needle-like shape and a pair of oversized tweezers. The two middle components are for cleaning out the teapot (the flattened end is used to shovel out the tea leaves while the spike-shaped one is used to clean the spout). The tweezers are used to handle the components during the initial stages of the ceremony when all the equipment is going to be too hot to touch.
The ceremony itself
Lay out the tools in a way that facilitates access. Make sure you have a steady supply of hot water (for oolongs you want it to be ~90°C give or take a few, and for pu’er as close to boiling as you can get without actually boiling). You then follow these simple steps:
Phase 1: cleaning
Fill the brewing pot with hot water. Put on the lid and pour hot water over the outside of the pot. Transfer the water from the brewing pot to the serving pot, swishing it a little as it drains to help dislodge any grit, etc. Again spill a little bit of the hot water over the outside. Fill the aroma cylinders from the serving pot, spilling, as before, some of the hot water over the outside. (Arranging the cylinders in a ring and pouring in a circle is a good way to do this.) Using the tweezers, pick up each aroma cylinder and pour its contents into one of the cups. Again using the tweezers, pick up each cup in turn and dump the water, into the waste bowl if you have one.
As an option, in place of transferring the water from the serving pot to the cylinders, place all of the cylinders and all of the cups into the waste bowl and douse them with the hot water from the serving cup, supplemented, perhaps, with fresh hot water if necessary. After this you would recover them from the waste bowl (using the tweezers) and place them on the drip tray after ensuring they’re empty.
Phase II: washing the tea
Using the tea scoop, fill the brewing pot roughly 1/3 full (!) of tea leaves. Pour hot water into the pot about half-way and then place the lid on top. Douse the exterior of the pot with more hot water (I told you there’d be drippings!). After about 15–30 seconds follow the procedure as for cleaning the tea set above, steps 2–5, only this time you will definitely have to transfer from the serving pot to the cylinders to the cups and out. Don’t use the waste bowl for this.
When you transfer the wash to the serving pot you will have to use the filter to catch the inevitable grit. Get in this habit because you’ll be doing it for all future steps.
Do not assume the wash is optional. Failure to wash the tea will lead to a very unpleasant brew and to future brews that will be more unpleasant as the tannins soak into the clay of the pot!
Phase III: Brewing and serving
Open the brewing pot and fill it with fresh hot water. Fill it to overflowing. Any unsightly foam or floating tea leaves should be swept aside by the lid as you put it on. You then once again douse the exterior of the pot to keep it hot (and wash off any excess leaves or unsightly foam). Once again you transfer from brewing pot to serving pot (via the filter).
Phase IIIa: First-time serving
This step is only performed if you use the (highly advised!) aroma cylinders.
The first time you serve, pour from the serving pot into the aroma cylinders. Fill each aroma cylinder about 3/4 full of tea. Place a cup on each cylinder as a lid and then turn the whole assembly upside-down so the cup is on the bottom and the cylinder, with tea inside, is face-down. These should then be given a minute to build up steam inside. When the time is ripe, the imbibers should pick up the cylinders (the tea drains quickly into the cup) and quickly transfer them face up to their noses. The concentrated aroma of the tea is then available for assessment and enjoyment.
Phase IV: Enjoying the tea
Once the tea is in the cup, the drinkers should take the cups and start with a small sip, their noses practically in the cup for the aroma. Experiment with swishing around the liquor and breathing deeply to get the aromas all over the sinuses. Any decent tea will give a large complex of flavours which will change as more sips are taken and swished around before being swallowed.
While the tea still has life (a decent oolong should last at least five brews!), repeat phases III and IV, bypassing the aroma cylinders. Generally drinkers will probably find either brew #2 or brew #3 (accounts will vary) the best, but all of the brews before the flavours grow flat will be a delight. Once the flavours do grow flat, if more tea is desired simply start over again from Phase II.
But what if I’m lazy?
The kung fu tea ceremony is simply the best way to make tea that has ever been created. Every step along the way enhances the experience of drinking the tea in some way. It is, however, as should be obvious, an extremely involved process that isn’t suited to a casual cup (nor to lazy people). So what do you do if you’re in a hurry or if you’re lazy? Well, do what I do. Buy yourself one of these and make your tea with it instead. It comes a fairly close second to the full kung fu tea ceremony in terms of tea quality, but is a whole lot more convenient.
Just remember that the key to good tea is in the wash (phase II above).
1 You can use this ceremony with some modification with black teas or green teas, but I’m trying to keep this under novella length.