There is nothing more mystical than the ceremony of kungfu tea (gongfu cha). It is both art and science – from the theatrics of rinsing the tea leaves to the precision of the water temperature. The ceremony is part of the philosophy of Tea, a small cup of which at any time of the day will make one feel that life is really just about tea.
Kungfu tea literally means ‘making tea with efforts’. It is a ceremony that brings out the full flavours of the finest tea. Its origins are often traced to my father’s hometown in the Chaoshan region of southern China, where it is part of everyday life.
As a science, the process depends very much on the right type of water (usually a clean local source of spring water) and the appropriate water temperate which will react with the tea leaves to extract their essential oils. The temperate will depend on the type of tea. The tea-making utensils go way beyond simply a teapot and a cup, with a fine-quality porcelain or clay teapot, pitcher, brewing tray, small delicate tea cups (you can physically fit one inside your mouth), strainer, tea holder, tea spoon, tea towel, a kettle and a timer! Beginners of kungfu tea should probably also throw in a cooking thermometer.
As an art, kungfu tea is an elaborate ritual. The first stage of preparation involves warming and rinsing the teapot and cups with hot water, appreciating the scent and appearance of the tea, filling the pot with tea, rinsing the leaves with hot water from a height above the pot until the pot overflows, scooping away any bubbles or tea fragments at the top before closing the lid on the pot.
The first brew is normally poured into the cups but not drunk. The pot is refilled with hot water at a lower height than the earlier step of rinsing the tea. This is because when the water is poured closer to the leaves, its force is softer to ensure the flavour from the leaves is not extracted too quickly. The tea is then emptied over the outside of the pot.
Tea is served after the second brew of around 15-45 seconds (depending on the tea), where it poured evenly into the teacups in a circular manner around the guests. A quality oolong tea can be brewed for around 5-7 times. Each subsequent pot repeats the same procedure but with longer infusion time. Some forms of kungfu tea involve an additional stage of aroma appreciation in a special scent cup.
The ceremony ends with placing the used tea leaves into a bowl for guests to appreciate its form.
Finally, the pot, cups and utensils are cleaned thoroughly and rinsed with hot tea, then polished with a dry linen cloth and dried naturally.
As with anything in life, the most important feature of the ceremony is the company of your guests. Good tea and good friends are essential parts of a good life.