This post is for my dear buddy Tiffany, who’s just discovered that she’s allergic to coffee and therefore having a minor drug-culinary meltdown. She asked for a guide into my most intense life-long culinary obsession, tea. Specifically: Chinese tea, done gong-fu style.
Gong-fu style is basically the hard-core Chinese tea addict’s delivery system of choice. Basically, you’re using a very large amount of tea in a relatively small brewing vessel, and doing lots of really fast steeps. I mean, a LOT of tea:
What you’re doing is cutting time-slices out of the tea. Different flavors extract at different rates and times. In normal, Western, throw-it-all-in-a-big-pot-and-brew-it-for-a-while, you’re taking all these different flavors and muddling them all together. When you do it gong-fu style, you’re separating it out and slicing it up – peering into this weird, fluid, ever-changing evolution and transformation of the tea. The tea above, for example, started out sweet and dairy and thick. Then around steep four, this weird glorious intense quinine-bitter took over. Three steeps later, the dairy was back and balancing out nicely against the bitter. Then around steep fourteen, this crazy apricot-hay flavor came out of nowhere. And then they all melded into this weird fuzzy happy meaty warmth.
In the piece of food writing I’m proudest of, I got my tea mentor totally shitfaced on good rum and got this quote out of her: “‘The evolving of it, it’s like old films,’ Shan says, ‘Like when it was slow enough you could almost see it frame by frame, moving’.”
I’ve gong-fu brewed other stuff – Indian teas like first flush darjeelings – and sometimes gotten good results, and sometimes unbalanced weirdness. That stuff wasn’t really bred for this style. But gong-fu brewing is what high-quality Chinese oolongs and puerhs were made for. When you’ve got some good tea and decent technique, it becomes this… drama. This journey through like a thousand weird transformations of flavor and texture, and all these strange intense little flavor nuggets will build on your tongue, and you’ll get this ever-shifting flowing glowing aftertaste.
Or it can be just be some shots of pretty decent tea that you slug down before you walk out the door. But even then: it still changes enough to be fun.
(PS: “gong-fu” means “mastery”. It’s the same Chinese word as “kung fu”. I suspect Western tea-nerds use the newer anglicization mostly because it would sound unbelievably dorky to say you were making kung fu tea.)
A whirlwind tour of tea types.
There’s like two billion and a half kinds of tea, and I don’t want to choke your brain. So here’s a quick run-down of some favorite styles. For the basic categories, green teas aren’t oxidized, oolongs are partially oxidized, and black (a.k.a. “red”) teas are fully oxidized. (Don’t confuse oxidization with roasting, which is an independent variable.) And then there’s puerh, which is a green tea that’s pressed into cakes and then stuck in basements and actually fermented. Sometimes for decades.
Green tea is surely fantastic, and most of it responds very well both to gong-fu brewing and longer, western-style steeps. But I’m going to concentrate on oolongs today, because they and puerh are what call to my soul the hardest. Green teas are capable of incredible delicacy and beauty, and long jian green was my first true tea love, but, over the years, I’ve come to feel that they tend to have less variability and drama. The best of the oolongs and puerh have this balance of delicacy and bottom-of-the-soul-pounding warmth, this indescribable life, this flux, that often enlivens, occasionally frustrates, frequently delights, sometimes overwhelms, and never bores.
Balled oolongs: the first kind of oolong I fell in love with. There’s a ton of styles here, split between the mainland and Taiwan. Tieguanyin is a lot of Westerners’ introduction to this sort of tea. The green unroasted kind is sort of this nuclear fresh vegetal jaw-punch. I tend to prefer roasted tieguanyin, which is an easygoing, warm, well-balanced, chilled out sort of tea. A close relative is Taiwan’s dongding. But if this kind of stuff floats your boat, a lot of people end up paying the big bucks for Taiwanese high mountain oolong. At its best – right off the springtime harvest, lightly oxidized, unroasted and virginally fresh – it’s basically throwing yourself headfirst into the oozing spirit of spring. Unbearably sweet spinachy flavors, like the umami part of fresh-cut grass, like dew and rain and moss and jungle and everything green, damp, glowing, and alive.
Wuyi oolong (a.k.a. yancha): The cliff tea, the mountain tea, the old man tea. This is some of my favorite stuff in the world. The platonic wuyi is sharp and narrow, like a mineral scalpel delicately slicing into your tongue, which then will give way to all sorts of toasty, chocolatey, earthy, dried fruit flavors. Wuyi is a good place to take sort of the big leap into true Chinese tea appreciation, because it’s often so alive on the tongue, but fascinatingly thin, flavor-wise. A lot of people with a basically European culinary background hyper-focus on just the flavors of tea. They look for richness, complexity, tons of flavor-notes. But the deeper I get into tea culture, the more I think that flavor is only a part of a larger gestalt. There’s flavor, but then there’s the aroma, the texture, and the refined drug-effects. Wuyi is the place to appreciate texture. There’s this lovely dryness, this sharp, subtle razor-blades-dancing-on-your tongue, and then this slippery, oily sliding down your throat thing. Where the standard Western aesthetic in darker teas is, I think, to go big – big, bombastic flavors, tons of complex flavor notes – some of the best wuyi is gloriously lean and delicate. Wuyi: like a razorblade of dry toast, pushed through your tongue into your soul.
Puerh: is the weirdest and most fucked-up kind of tea – some fermented insane bullshit. I just had one that tasted like a cross between a tide pool, a honeycomb, and scotch. I love it so much that it deserves a separate post all its own.
The Basic Technique
First, you need a gaiwan – a traditional Chinese covered cup.
Everybody starts by buying them too way too big. When buying your gaiwan, look at the size and think to yourself, “Every time I put tea in this thing, I’m going to drink seven to twenty times that amount of liquid.”
You use the lid to strain the tea. And you can do that, because you’re buying good tea, right? Real, whole leaf tea, that looks like this once its been brewed:
Because you know that most of the tea that gets sold to American and Britain is total crap, right? It’s all tea dust and fannings and it’s basically the junk that falls onto the factory floor which they sweep up and foist off on the hapless west. Most of what the west drinks is, essentially, the particleboard of tea. All those broken edges will just extract overloads of horrible tannic crap. And even when you go into some fancy American tea shops with intricately labelled tea with flavor notes and romantic vaguely orientalized tales of wandering misty mountaintops, be wary and check the leaf. Sometimes it’ll be great. But a lot of times you’re still just getting a slightly higher grade of crap in lacy packaging. Like this stuff, which I got from a well-known “luxury” boutique American tea vendor:
Fuck this stuff.
Anyway: put some damn tea in your gaiwan. The dry leaf will tinkle a little, like crystal raindrops. The standard advice is to fill the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of your gaiwan with tea. It’s going to expand. Balled oolongs are denser and will expand a ton, so use relatively less. Wuyi is long and uncompressed, so use relatively more.
Water temperatures. Typical advice: green teas at 176 F, oolongs at 180-195 F, puerh anywhere from 190 F to boiling. As a very loose rule of thumb, the greener something is, the lower the temperature you should brew it with, and the darker it is, the higher the temps. I have a fancy electric kettle that hits temperatures exactly, but you can also count down from boiling. Boiling and then waiting for two minutes gives you approximately oolong temperatures. For the ultimate in vintage-y tea-hipster cred, you can do what young me did: the traditional Chinese thing of estimating temperature by the exact appearance of the bubbles in the water.
First, give your leaves a rinse. Just dump some water on it and then immediately pour it out into your cups and then throw that liquid away. This starts re-hydrating the tea and warms everything up. But don’t drink the rinse. When I asked one of my tea mentors why she was dumping the rinse-water and maybe wasting some flavor, she said: “Dude. I’ve toured the tea plantations in China. I’ve seen the shit they do over there. I mean, literally: shit. Rinse your damn leaves.”
The pour is basically this: cock the lid back a little to reveal a tiny bit of space between the lid and the side of the cup. Hold the lid down with one finger and the rim of the gaiwan with the others. Pour with commitment. (Check out this video instruction, too.)
For brewing: pour the hot water into the gaiwan. Try to avoid pouring hot water directly on the leaf, especially if the tea’s on the greener side. Put the lid on. A usual brewing schedule looks something like this: first brew, 5 seconds. Then 7 seconds, then 9s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 45s, 1 min, 1:30 min, etc. It’ll vary widely by tea-type, but you usually start going up by 2 seconds each brew, then by 5, then 15, then 30. You can also slowly start creeping up the temperature, too, if you want to be really fancy. But play around with it. Fuck up some tea and find out where its limits are.
If the last steep tasted right, then bump up the time one step according to the standard schedule. If it was too weak, bump it by up two steps. If it was too strong, just repeat what you did last time. Don’t worry about being too precise. Especially in the later brews, I tend to get pretty sloppy. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Good tea will respond very differently to different combinations of variables, and you’ll find weird little corners – one tea will respond to lower temperatures by emitting a marvelous weird malty sweet; another will respond to a double-length steep by giving you a bitter backhand slap, but which will give way to ultra-long resounding aftertaste. Sometimes I get distracted and way overbrew the tea. Sometimes it’s awful, but sometimes it reveals something new and delightful. The dynamism and unpredictability is part of the joy.
Keep going until the tea gives out. It’ll turn either boring or horribly astringent. Some OK-ish teas will only go five steeps or so, but a lot of good oolongs will go ten, fifteen steeps. They’ll often keep getting better for a while, peak, then start a long decline. In my early days I used to give up too early. If the tea tastes weak and you’re about to give up, try blasting it with hotter water and a much longer steep. The really best stuff will just seem to give endlessly: I’ve had really nice aged puerhs go 35 or 40 steeps, just kept on emitting flavor through longer and longer steeps. The last steep was overnight, and might have given me one of the best cups of all.
Oh, and smell everything. Smell the dry leaf. Smell the leaf after the rinse. Smell the leaves between steepings. The tea was bred for this. Just smell that sexy leaf.
Wuyi has a particular love for being brewed very, very intensely. A lot of us will get a little teeny gaiwan (check out my 50 ml baby) and pack it completely full of dry leaf and brew it on a 1s/2s/4s/6s/8s/10s/12s/15s/18s/20s/25s etc. schedule. You’re basically making yourself lots and lots of teeny little espresso shots of tea. Especially good for getting that dry-mineral scalpel effect, with that ultra-long glowing aftertaste.
More fussiness: in the classical style, you pour from the gaiwan into a cute little pitcher, and then pour it out again into the cups. A lot of us just pour directly into the cups. But the first bit of water that comes out of the gaiwan is the weakest tea, and the end of the pour is the strongest, so if you’re pouring into multiple cups, you want to move the gaiwan back and forth to even it all out. Also: have a bowl or something to dump the dregs into. With the gaiwan, any loose bits of broken tea will go right into your cup. Don’t inflict that crap on yourself. Dump it. Preferably onto an adorable clay “tea pet” that you bought from some shady Chinese vendor on eBay.
Pay attention to: the aromas of the leaf in your gaiwan. The aromas in your cup. The physical sensations on your tongue, like various lovely pricklings or soft creaminesses or thick oilinesses. The texture in your mouth, in your throat. The aftertaste, which is where so much of the experience lives. Try breathing out to flare the aftertaste, like with scotch. A tea vendor once told me that there was a Chinese term for that flared aftertaste, which he translated as, “The Returning”. But from the twinkle in his eye, he just might have been bullshitting me.
Gong-fu style may seem like a lot of work and fuss. But you can internalize it quickly. And you don’t always have to be that careful. With really amazing tea, I’ll be really focused: counting the seconds out, watching the water temperature, coaxing the best I can out of the tea. But most of the time I’ve just got a tray and a gaiwan at my desk next to my laptop, and I’m brewing absentmindedly while I work. It’s really quite pleasant. There’s something about the very tiny packets of fiddliness that just helps me work and think. My lovely wife thinks it’s because sometimes your brain wants a break, but if you let yourself Internet then you’re doomed, because that shit goes on forever. But with gong-fu brewing, you’ve got charmingly packaged, closed-ended bits of fuss. You fiddle with the tea for like twenty seconds and then you have a nice little cup of hot tea in front of you and it’s over and now it’s time to get back to work.
Or, if this is all too much work, you can also do it grandpa style. Dump the tea leaves in a normal glass and pour hot water on it. Wait for the leaves to settle. Drink. When you’re down somewhere between the halfway or one-third point, re-fill it with hot water. Keep on going like that for as long as you want. Works great with green teas and oolongs.
For my on-the-go life, I have a tea tumbler: an insulated glass with a filter at the spout. Dump in your leaf, pour in some hot water, pop in your filter, and go.
You need a gaiwan. My two most used gaiwans are 100ml and 50 ml.
On tea pricing: don’t cheap out. Most people in the western world have basically only drunk Fifty Shades of Two Buck Chuck, tea-wise. So many people are so used to really cheap tea, and are absolutely unwilling to pay for anything past the particleboard, that they will spend their whole lives in a crap tea dungeon of their own making.
When buying tea, remember this: most times, you’re putting 3-5 grams of tea in a gaiwan, and getting, like, one or two liters of beverage out of it. Tea is extremely, extremely light. When you buy it, don’t think in terms of the actual weight, which might make you choke – think in terms of the price-per-drink. If you buy 50 grams of tea for $10, that’s 80 cents per session of tea. And really, really nice tea – the extraordinary stuff that’ll light your soul on fire – might be $30 for 50 grams. But that’s still only, like, $2.50 a session. Compare that to how much we’re willing to throw away on beer and wine and cocktails or even godforsaken Red Bull.
The best tea I’ve ever had in my life totally rocked my world and cost me a dollar a gram – so for $5, I kept myself and my closest compadres in a fascinated rapture for two hours. That’s not by any means the grade of stuff I chug in the morning on the way to work. But, as unbearable culinary glories come, it might actually be one of the cheapest.
Some favorite shops:
Tea Trekker recently beat out Seven Cups as my favorite US-based generalist. Tea Trekker has great green tea, great wuyi, and is generally trustworthy across the board. Decent prices for the quality, too. It’s the best place to start. And they’ve got some really nice white teas, too, for when you want that experience of drinking the purified sensation of light.
These days, I often order in bulk from China. Even with shipping, it’s often cheaper if you’re ordering large amounts. Jing Tea Shop used to be my go-to for wuyi, but it’s been recently displaced by the wonderful JK Teashop and an extraordinary new Boston shop, Tea Yuan.
For Taiwanese high mountain oolong, my favorite US-based shop is the superb Floating Leaves. There are several very good vendors in Taiwan, but if you really want to throw down the dollars for some serious high mountain vegetal glory, I’ve had truly incredible stuff from Tea Masters.
If you’re into erratic obsessed weirdos with barely functional websites but exquisite curation, check out Life in a Teacup. And if you’re feeling particularly rich, Tea Habitat – the place I wrote about in that article – still sells some of the best tea I’ve ever had in my life. It’s dancong oolong – a delicate, subtle, aroma-oriented style – and you can literally buy batches from specific, single trees and compare.
More: Den’s Tea is a good American vendor for Japanese greens. Thunderbolt Tea has awesome first-flush darjeeling. Oh man, there’s so much more. So much, so much more.
Uh, teaware. JK Teashop has a good spread of affordable cups and gaiwans. Jing Tea Shop and Tea Masters have wonderful stuff on the nicer end. My favorite gaiwan ever came from Floating Leaves. And Music City Tea sells good tea trays, to catch all your drips and drops. And when you really feel like you have more money than you know what to do with, you can check out the world of yixing unglazed clay pots which subtly modify your teas and sometimes improve them. But beware: that world is full of asshole collectors and fakes and dead-ends, and some of us have dabbled heavily in that world and eventually gotten fed up and ended up mostly just brewing tea with the neutral, true rendering of the gaiwan. Yixing pots can be great, but some people fall down the collector hole and turn into the tea-nerd equivalent of those audiophile assholes who spend more time obsessing over the impedance specs of their transistors than actually listening to music.
Which is not to say that I don’t also have an unfortunately excessive number of yixing pots:
What else? Greens fade quickly. They’re at their absolute best just after the harvest. Lightly oxidized oolongs, like Taiwanese high mountain, are also best fresh. More oxidized and roasted stuff, like wuyi, actually ages beautifully, getting softer and rounder and subtler and deeper over the years, if you’re lucky. And then there’s puerh, which some people think reaches its peaks after thirty years of aging in a damp Hong Kong basement, and is probably best appreciated after some poor collector dies and his hoard goes on the auction block. Puerh is basically my favorite thing, and its weird, druggy, euphoric dense bizarreness deserves a consideration all of its own, which will be Part II.