Gongfu Cha is a tea culture originating from the southern Fujian province, as well as the regions of Chaozhou and Shantou in Guangdong province, which are the main Oolong tea production areas in China. In certain Chinese dialects, "Gongfu" means "time," so Gongfu Cha literally refers to tea that requires time and, by extension, tea that involves effort. This is reflected in two dimensions: the refined tea used in Gongfu Cha requires efforts in careful production, and preparing the tea with meticulousness also demands effort. Over its history of more than a thousand years, Gongfu Cha has developed into a complete art, encompassing the selection of tea, water, and utensils, as well as the skill of infusion and even the method of tasting. What we experience outside its original regions is usually a simplified version of Gongfu Cha, or more precisely, the Gongfu-style tea preparation.
This article introduces the mechanism of Gongfu Cha, which relies on three fundamental elements. To achieve a harmonious expression with beautiful color, good taste, and delightful aroma, a perfect tea preparation involves various factors, including high-quality tea, good water, and suitable utensils etc. Among all the factors, the tea/water ratio, water temperature, and infusion time are the three most fundamental elements.
In tea preparation, the tea/water ratio ("ratio" hereinafter) does not have a fixed rule, but it varies depending on the type of tea, as well as the habits and personal preferences of each individual. According to the latest national standard of China (GB/T 23776-2018), a ratio of 1:50 (1g of tea per 50ml of water) is applied to all tea types in tea grading, using high temperature (100°C) and steeping for a long time (green tea for 4 minutes, black tea for 5 minutes, etc.). However, the purpose of this method is to showcase the quality of tea, including both its virtues and defects, in a consistent manner. As a result, the tea will never be in its best condition nor tastes most delicious. It is advisable to be familiar with the usual ratios of each specific tea, for example, through the information provided by the store, and adjust them according to your personal preference.
The water temperature ("temperature" hereinafter) is where a significant difference lies between Gongfu and Western tea preparation. In order to achieve the needed concentration in very short infusions, Gongfu tea preparation requires higher temperatures. There is a positive correlation between temperature and the extraction of taste substances: at higher temperatures, the extraction is quicker and more complete; for example, at 60°C, the extraction is only 45% to 65% of what is obtained at 100°C. It is important to note that the extraction includes all kinds of flavors and smells present in the tea, both pleasant and unpleasant. Therefore, to avoid highlighting the negative aspects, it is necessary to use an appropriate temperature, as the highest temperature is not always the best option.
The required temperature depends on the specific properties of each tea, including the maturity of the harvest, the production process, and other factors. Here are some examples:
1. Generally, teas made from tender harvests require lower temperatures, such as green tea, which is often made from very tender buds and adapts well to lower temperatures.
2. White tea does not undergo the rolling process, which means that the cell walls of the leaves remain intact, requiring a relatively higher temperature for extraction.
3. Oolong teas with deeper roasting (Yancha, etc.) require high temperatures to activate the aroma, as low-boiling-point aromatic substances have been removed during the roasting process. In contrast, lightly roasted oolongs (such as high-mountain oolongs from Taiwan) can be prepared at lower temperatures.
Additionally, it's crucial to note that the temperature mentioned pertains to the water when it contacts tea leaves in the teapot, not the temperature in the kettle. To ensure the needed high temperatures, remember to preheat the teapot before adding tea. This prevents a decrease in temperature due to a cold teapot.
The infusion time ("time" hereinafter) in Gongfu tea preparation is also very different from the Western style, as a much higher ratio and higher temperatures do not allow for long steeping times in minutes.
Infusion time consists of two dimensions. One is the time for each individual infusion, and the other refers to the point where each tea reaches its best condition after certain infusions. It is not possible to define the time required for each infusion without considering the characteristics of each particular tea, the ratio, the temperature; and other factors, such as the shape and material of the teapot, can also affect it.
One detail that some drinkers may overlook is to completely empty the water from the teapot after each infusion. If some water remains in the teapot, the tea leaves will continue to infuse, resulting in unintentionally prolonged steeping and affecting the taste in the next infusion.
Interactions Between the Three Elements
In essence, tea preparation is always the combination of these three fundamental elements in search of the best balance. This principle applies not only to Gongfu-style but is a theory applicable to all methods of tea preparation. It is crucial to realize that these elements interact on each other, and we can always seek a balance by regulating these factors to highlight the best aspects of the tea and to avoid showcasing its potential defects. Some interactions between the three fundamental elements include:
1. To maintain a constant concentration, if the ratio is low, it can be adjusted by increasing the temperature and/or prolonging the time. If prepared at a lower temperature, it can be adjusted by using a higher ratio and/or prolonging the infusion time. Alternatively, increasing the ratio and/or the temperature can result in a shorter infusion.
2. High temperature increases bitterness and astringency. To reduce bitterness in a tea, it can be improved by using a lower temperature; and to decrease astringency, in addition to lowering the temperature, the infusion time should also be shortened. To achieve the desired concentration using lower temperatures, astringent tea requires increasing the ratio (more tea and/or less water), while bitter tea calls for an increased ratio or an extended steeping time.
3. Temperature determines the extraction efficiency. To achieve the desired concentration while maintaining the same ratio, the higher the temperature, the shorter the time.
4. High temperature helps to activate aroma and also reduces unpleasant odors.
In conclusion, Gongfu-style tea preparation is a practical method to highlight the virtues of tea while avoiding the manifestation of its defects. To make the most of this method, it is advisable to first understand the specific characteristics of the tea, such as the harvest, cultivar, production processes, and, if applicable, aging condition, etc. This will help in finding the best combination of the three fundamental elements in an expert way.