I felt like a giant. Laid out in front of me on a grooved wooden table were unglazed clay teapots no bigger than my fist, a couple of 3-inch-tall pitchers, and a dozen porcelain cups that I wagered could hold a tablespoon of liquid at best.
Sebastian Beckwith, owner of the tea importing company In Pursuit of Tea and author of “A Little Tea Book,” poured hot water from an electric kettle into one of the small pots that was half full of ball-shaped oolong tea leaves. Just 20 seconds later he decanted the brewed tea into one of the small pitchers and from there filled two of the tea cups with some of the jade infusion. I took a sip. The piping hot tea was grassy, piney, toasted. Beckwith repeated this ritual over the course of an afternoon, each of the half dozen infusions slightly different than the one that preceded it.
That afternoon was my introduction to gong fu cha, often translated as “brewing tea with skill.” The gong fu method, as it is commonly referred to, calls for a high ratio of tea leaves to hot water and multiple short infusions. It originated in the southeastern coastal region of China that includes Fujian and Guangdong provinces, and is now popular across large swaths of Asia, with a smaller but devout following here in the United States.
In a video on his popular tea-focused YouTube channel Mei Leaf, Don Mei asks viewers to imagine that every tea leaf in a pot is a violin in an ensemble. Western-style tea brewing, which uses fewer leaves, is like a quartet, while the gong fu method is an entire string section. “The difference is the richness of the sound,” explains Mei. “No matter how much you turn up the volume you will never be able to get the same richness of sound from the four violins as you would from the twenty-four violins. It’s just not possible.”
Gong fu cha often involves special teaware of the sort Beckwith used—pots made of yixing clay, pouring pitchers, small teacups, and a wooden table or tray where water from the brewing process can collect—but it doesn’t need to. “You can start with your basket strainer. Fill it full,” said Beckwith. More important to him is the brewing process itself. “You are just refining this process of making short infusions...enjoying each and every steep.”
That refining can take years, even decades. Jason Chen, owner of CC Fine Tea in Seattle, WA, who learned gong fu cha directly from tea farmers in Taiwan, where he grew up, has been practicing the method for 40 years and says that his technique is still improving. “I get older and my experience is a simpler way,” he said. “In a simple tea pot, pitcher, and cup. We focus on conversation with friends. That’s my understanding of gong fu style.”