There are four main methods of steeping Chinese tea, two conventional and two traditional. Since at Golden Teahouse we are only referring to Chinese loose leaf teas, the principles behind all these methods need a bit of further explaining for those crossing the bridge from tea bags to fine loose teas. Remember, tea is still always a matter of letting leaves sit in water and then enjoying, so don’t be put off by all the methods written below for making a cup of tea – It’s still a cup of tea!
The first principle of tea steeping to remember is that the few leaves/pieces/bits/rolls of tea that you start with can be used to produce dozens of rounds of tea. How many rounds is dependent on the type of Chinese tea and often the quality as well. Each time you brew one round of tea, it is called an ‘infusion’. Once the liquid is removed or ‘decanted’ it can again be used with more hot water and ‘reinfused’; creating another infusion. All of these main tea methods exist as ways for infusing tea, decanting, and then pouring into cups. The idea is to preserve the leaves while you drink the tea to allow them to resist further infusions and continue to properly let out flavor. For example, if you are planning on drinking tea alone and make a whole pot for yourself, without decanting the pot of tea, the leaves will let out their entire flavor into the first infusion while you drink your first cup! That isn’t to say that decanting is 100% necessary, just as long as you have enough tea drinkers to empty a pot.
The Conventional Method
All teas can be steeped with conventional methods, by which we mean a teapot and some cups.
A second conventional method is for those with only a standard mug or large cup.
The GongFu (kung-fu) method
Gongfu methods are all based on the idea of getting the full flavor and subtleties from each variety of tea while serving it in small portions. Also, when brewing Chinese tea, usually more tea leaves are used than in other methods, allowing the tea to last the longest it possibly can. Through each infusion, small changes in the flavor can be appreciated by accustomed tea-lovers. The Gongfu approach is meant for high quality teas and is the only method for tea ceremonies and competitions, however, it is also meant for enjoyment and experimentation, so don’t be put off by what the name implies – keep reading and enjoy!
The tools necessary for Gongfu steeping are all the same aside from the brewing vessel, which can either be a small china pot, or a traditional Chinese lidded pot called a Gaiwan, or a genuine Yixing clay teapot (for Oolong, Puerh and Black teas). Yixing clay is the finest for dark tea brewing and actually improves the taste and aroma of each infusion. Its internal surface is porous and over time takes on additional complex flavors that get added to each new infusion of tea. Additionally, you will need some good quality glass china for appreciating the color of the tea and containing it after steeping, small tasting cups, taller cups for containing the aroma, a tea tray, a towel, and a ready way to dispose of hot water and flushed (discarded) tea as well as older tea leaves.
Steeping tea in the Gongfu method begins the same way as in conventional methods but using more leaves.
The second traditional tea steeping method is the tall glass method. It is very simple and intended for fine Green teas and White teas so that the beautiful unfurling leaves can be watched and appreciated as they impart their delicate flavors. All that is needed is a tall glass which can be used exactly as the conventional mug method. Once the leaves are steeped and have fallen to the bottom, either decant the tea or simply drink right from the glass.