Gongfu is not always better

Gongfu brewing is quite versatile – you can control all the variables, including the amount of tea, the amount of water, the timing of the infusions, etc. You can adjust infusions as you go to try to get the best cup of tea from the leaves. However, it is not the only way to brew, nor is it always the best suited for whatever tea you drink.

These days I use a small pot to brew tea at work, with an electric kettle that has served me quite well. I mix waters so the tea is not suffering from the ultra-filtered water we use at work. It works reasonable well. At home, with kids, it’s difficult to do any kind of gongfu brewing. Instead, I grandpa everything. This may come as a surprise to some, but for some teas, grandpa-ing the tea actually produces better results.

I’ve talked about this briefly before. The thing you have to remember is when you brew teas in vastly different ways, the tea itself changes character in really obvious metrics. A tea you think you’re familiar with can appear wholly unrecognizable. The most obvious for these is aged oolongs. You might think that oolongs are best brewed in gongfu style. This may seem especially odd for aged oolong, which can be a bit sour. Wouldn’t grandpa-ing the tea make it even more sour?

Funny enough, the answer to that question is usually no. In fact, I’ve found over many years of drinking this stuff in various ways that grandpa-ing is often the best way to drink aged oolongs – even better than drinking in a small pot. If you gongfu an aged oolong, what often happens is the tea can be a bit thin, and a bit sour. There’s not a lot to recommend the tea. The same tea, however, throw into a big mug and just stewed for minutes before you even attempt your first sip, can be fragrant, full bodied, and quite pleasant. The acidity is now enhancing the drink, instead of making it worse – in the same way that acidity in a wine can make it a better experience. There are aged oolongs I’ve had that taste sharp and kinda nasty when gongfu brewing, but are an absolute delight when drunk grandpa style. I haven’t given up drinking aged oolongs gongfu style completely yet, because some teas do work better for that, but in general, I’d say it’s at best a tossup.

Even for semi-aged puerh, I think one should at least try drinking them grandpa style, or at the very least using a much lower tea to water ratio but with longer steep times. The result is usually a richer taste – I have some teas that appear thicker, and more fragrant, when I grandpa them. In gongfu style, they’re instead a bit weak and not terribly interesting.

I think what’s going on is that for some teas, the amount of time you need for whatever it is in the leaves to be pulled out of the water varies for different types of whatever proteins it is that is giving you that particular flavour. If you do short and fast steeps, as is pretty normal in a gongfu style brew, then they all come in succession – with none of the cups being particularly satisfying. Instead, when you steep them long and slow in a big mug and then drunk together, the result is far more interesting, and the individual elements – such as the sourness – blend into the tea in a way that is not obtrusive. As James said recently, drink with an open mind and don’t get stuck in the same routine. The results can be surprising.


Comments

Gongfu is not always better — 11 Comments

  1. It is a misconception to say that Gongfu brewing always means “making tea with skill.” In Canton & south Fujian, gongfu may simply mean “it takes time” or “effort.” For many teas, using gongfu brewing is the opposite of using skill; especially with too small pots & too little water. For those teas, using gongfu brewing is not practicing an art but is possibly showing an affectation instead.

    • In Chaozhou style tea – the original gongfu tea – high leaf to water ratio is used; but only for average to low quality heavy-roasted Dancong or Wuyi Yancha. They don’t even use rolled teas like heavy-roasted TKY; and doing that for high quality dancong or yancha whole leaves is wasteful. This makes sense. Anyway, in Chaozhou they do something else for anything other than average to low quality heavy-roasted Dancong or Wuyi Yancha.

      For people in the West, would you make espresso with anything other than espresso beans & espresso grind?

      For aged oolong… I guess you must have tried re-roasting/baking to get rid of the sour & the damp; like they do in Chaozhou?

      • Actually, I find re-roasting to be a terrible idea. While you get rid of some of the sourness, you also lose a lot of the aged taste. It’s not worth it usually

        • Marshal, I think you are correct with re-roasting as you wouldn’t dream of re-roasting tea like Liu Bao where its sourness aside is complex and highly prized. Equally, however, I spoke to a Taiwainese ooloong tea master who did re-roast but often very lightly and would then leave the tea another year to rest, to me this seemed to suggest the re-roasting was not a process to do with removing age/storage related dampness but to continue to effect change and development int he tea over time

  2. I whole-heartedly agree. I see people brewing black tea gongfu style and wonder how they are getting any deep flavor from the tea. Likewise, ripe pu-erh with a good 6-minute steep is generally wonderful. People put 7, 8, grams of sheng in a 90 ml. gaiwan and wonder why anything more than a flash steep is bitter.

  3. even moreso, I have been delighted by teas that I am brewing gongfu but add 4 or 5 steeps up together in one mug.

  4. in general, I think, leave takes always time to give some flavour, so the amount of leaves should always fit to the size of the pot including some time to let the water sit on it.

    For me it was a big step with ripe pu´erh, brewing it with much more time and fewer leave, such aromatic and enjoyable…

  5. I love this. I do gongfu many of my oolongs and puerhs, but there are times when I use a western method too for simplicity or to get a better brew.

  6. “Even for semi-aged puerh, I think one should at least try drinking them grandpa style, or at the very least using a much lower tea to water ratio but with longer steep times.”

    Resoundingly true. I’ve also found that stacking up infusions (in a mug) works exceptionally well for “gushu” of such age.

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