Learning to brew tea is like a learning to play a great game - easy to learn, hard to master. In this blog post, we're going to focus on the basic methods of brewing which are easy to learn. For the purposes of this post, I'll deliberately keep things as simple as possible and avoid discussing the 'hard to master' details. I'll likely expand on this topic in the future.
There are different methods of brewing tea, often simplified as western-brewing or gongfu-brewing. For these methods and some variants, I'll mention the equipment needed and recommended method used.
All explanations in this post will assume that whole, loose-leaf Puer tea is being used. Adjustments to brewing methods are recommended based on personal taste, but the below methods are good reference points to start if you have not brewed before.
1) you have a clean water source and
2) a functional kettle to boil your water!
3) you will remember to 'rinse' or 'awaken' the tea - i.e. pour enough boiling water to cover the dry leaf, and then immediately empty the liquid (not the leaves!) from the vessel.
4) you start steeping the tea after the rinse
If these assumptions are not true, then you'll need more help than I can provide in this post!
Example full gongfu-brewing setup pictured below:
Pouring with a large 'fairness cup' into small serving cups. Tea was gongfu-brewed in 180ml Yixing clay teapot with roughly 12g of leaf material.
On the left is a decorated porcelain strainer sitting on a matching stand.
On the right side are some larger clay teapots of 250ml and 400ml capacity that are typically used for large group sessions or western brewing.
Stone tablet table with tubing to bucket underneath to filter off excess or spilt liquids.
(note: cups are over-filled for aesthetic purposes only - normally 70-80% full is better to help the tea cool and let the cups be easier to pick up without spillage or scalding your fingers.)
Western-brewing (aka. Grandfather brewing) methods
Western-brewing is a generic term for long steeping times with a high water to leaf ratio. Most western tea companies that blend their teas do so in a way that is generally more suited to the western-brewing method. The majority of tea brewing in Asia is still done this way, although the rising popularity of gongfu tea is notable due to a growing interest in premium teas and tea culture. Here are three methods for western-style brewing:
1) Large Mug (w/ optional lid)
Pictured: A traditional design of a 'Chinese Grandfather Cup' - i.e. lidded mug with traditional Chinese decoration.
This is the simplest method - typically put 1g of tea leaf per 100ml boiling water and drink when cool enough to do so, normally after 2-3 minutes. As most of us don't measure in grams, just enough compressed dry leaf to fully cover the bottom of the mug is normally enough for Puer. Add more boiling water as necessary. Using the lid helps keep the water hot longer and makes for a stronger overall brew.
Pictured: 3 grams of Puer maocha - typical amount for western brewing in large mugs or small western teapots, i.e. 250 to 300ml
If you can't/don't want to measure your tea in grams: Check the reference picture. If using mao cha or uncompressed leaf, start by using around 15-25% of your cup's volume in dry leaf including unfilled space. Larger, longer leaves will take more space than the small-leaf variants. For example, compressed or gongting grade Shou-Pu is a finer, more dense material than any maocha and you may only need just enough to cover the bottom of your cup/mug for a reference brew. If your first few sips are too strong, you can add more water to dilute the tea in the current brew, and reduce the amount of material in your next brew.
2) Tea Pot
Typically used for small groups and served in smaller cups, this is basically a large-scale version of brewing with the large mug. Again, roughly 1g of tea leaf per 100ml, boiling water. Typically, a traditional western-style medium-sized tea pot will hold between 400-600ml - enough for four western tea cups. Again, ensure that at least 3 minutes have passed to release enough flavour before serving. A tea cozy will also help retain heat in the tea pot, aiding the steeping of the tea.
As with brewing in a mug, if the tea brews too strong, consider adding extra hot water to rebalance the flavour. Although the taste will be slightly different than an 'ideal' brew, it's perfectly possible to make an over-brewed tea more than palatable this way.
3) Thermos or Kettle brewing
Typically used with 'spent tea', thermos or kettle brewing keeps the leaves in boiling or near boiling temperatures for extended periods to release flavours that can't be released otherwise. Normally, brewing in this manner for 10 minutes is enough to extract flavours that other methods cannot, but this can be extended to hours for a much thicker fuller brew. You can also brew this way with fresh dry leaf, although this can result in too potent a brew unless using small amounts of low bitterness tea e.g. aged Yiwu Huangpian. The tea is best served by pouring out into serving cups and adding extra water to dilute only if necessary.
Western-brewing or Grandfather-style is generally much more convenient and often results in very strong initial brews. Time usage is mainly in waiting for the intial brew/water to cool and drinking the large cup. Overall, there is less control over the flavour, especially if re-steeping the teas, and this can bring out too much bitterness in many Puers.
Most experienced Puer drinkers will recommend gongfu-style brewing as it allows for greater control and therefore appreciation of the tea, especially since the best Puers are packed with long-lasting flavour and aroma. Typically, more equipment is used, but a simple setup is possible too.
Normally, a gongfu-setup will require access to consistently boiling hot water typically from an electric water kettle or a thermos of preheated-to-boiling water. The water will need to remain hot for the duration of the tea session which will likely be 30 minutes or longer.
There are actually many videos of this online already but here are some of the basic details on gongfu-style brewing:
1) Small gaiwan (bowl with lid) or mini-teapot and individual serving cup
If you are drinking alone, starting with small 60ml gaiwan or teapot and 80+ml cup is the best way to brew gongfu style. It is standard to have a cup larger than you need to help cool the tea faster for drinking. Around 4g of dry leaf is typical for brewing a 60ml gaiwan or enough compressed leaf to fill the first third (in height, not volume) of the gaiwan. For maocha or uncompressed leaf, just enough leaf to fill the volume of the gaiwan with plenty of space for leaf expansion. Another indication of ideal leaf quantity is that once the wet leaves are fully unfurled, they should almost touch the lid.
Carefully add boiling water to fill the gaiwan, avoiding to pour past the lid, and put the lid on, slightly off-center. Pick up the gaiwan by holding the sides and keeping the lid in place with your index finger, then pour out swiftly and carefully into your cup. Doing this in one clean motion will avoid spilling and reduce the chances of scalding your fingers. Make sure to pour out all the liquid and avoid accidentally over-brewing the bottom leaves in your gaiwan. Practice makes perfect, and expect to scald your fingers if you make mistakes or have bad equipment.
2) Large gaiwan or small teapot with fairness cup (a.k.a. Gongdaobei) and small cups (as pictured above)
Pictured: 7 grams of dry Puer maocha in a 100ml gaiwan.
With more people, brewing tea with a large gaiwan and many small gongfu teacups is more effective. A 100-120ml gaiwan with 7-8g of tea is the most common setup. The tea is steeped then poured into a fairness cup (pot) which makes sharing the tea easier. Most small teacups are 30 to 50ml in size typically being filled to 20 to 35ml - we avoid filling the cups to the top to help cool the tea and avoid scalding the fingers that pick up the cups.
When steeped well, each steep is full of flavour and aroma as they are small in size, can be enjoyed hot each time. Things to consider are that handling the gaiwan requires some practice and controlling the steep times requires some experience. Steeping in a gaiwan can result in a large number of good steeps. Low quality plantation teas or very young trees will often struggle past 5 to 10 steeps, mature arbour trees holding well between 10 to 20 steeps and ancient trees material able to hold past 20+ steeps.
Western-brewing is generally more convenient as it requires less time investment and equipment. Gongfu-brewing has more controllable variables due to the variation of equipment and steeping time and allows for tea to be enjoyed while hot more often than not.
While others can share their experiences, it's important that you find your own preferences. It's important to start brewing your tea the way you like it best. On the other hand, you won't know your true taste preference until you've tried a variety of methods, so it's worth experimenting if you haven't already done so.