02 Oct 2020

How to brew tea properly. Brewing methods in different countries.

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Perhaps, one of the most typical questions about tea is how to brew tea the right way. On the one hand, good tea can turn out completely differently, and it would be a shame, having spent a lot of money on it, to spoil all the pleasure by inept handling.

If you want a tasty drink, everything that makes tea tasty will be right. If you want to hold a beautiful and heartfelt tea event, everything that you personally need for this will be right — from white socks to belly dancing with a tambourine.

However, in the culture of tea clubs, there are several generally accepted formats of tea ceremony. Now, in contrast to the Japanese tea tradition, where everything that happens is strictly regulated, from the place where each guest sits to the topics allowed for conversation, Chinese tea drinking is eminently casual. They say that the main rule of the Chinese tea ceremony is that if a rule prevents you from having fun, it should be canceled! So the format implies only a certain procedure for making tea, and nothing more.

Gaiwan with Thai organic oolong tea

Brewing Thai oolong tea gongfu-cha style. Read more about how to make oolong tea in our brewing guide.

The easiest and most versatile method, since it is suitable for any type of tea, is pin cha (品茶, Pǐn chá). The word Pǐn chá means tasting (or testing) of tea, or just drinking tea.

What is its fundamental difference from ordinary tea drinking?

Its difference is that tea is drunk from small cups (on average 40-50 ml), but many infusions are made: from 5-6 to 15-20; brewing utensils — it can be a teapot or a gaiwan — are also small, but the tea leaves are not diluted with boiling water; for such a small amount of water, a great amount of tea is taken, but it is in contact with water for only a few seconds. Therefore, this method’s common name is steeps.

Usually, there is one more element of the tableware — chahai, or a “sea of tea” [茶海, cháhǎi], a vertical or, conversely, a squat jug. From the brewing utensils, tea is first poured into the chahai, and then into cups, thanks to which everyone has tea of the same strength – therefore, chahai is also called gongdao bei, “the cup of justice” [公道杯, gōngdào bēi]. Besides, the tea also cools down to a comfortable temperature. The toolkit is not limited to this: all manipulations with tea are performed on a special tea board — chaban [茶板, chábǎn] — or inside a tea pond, which allows you to boldly and generously wash the dishes with water; there is also a cha he [茶荷, chá hé] — a tea box, or tea petal, which all participants use to familiarize themselves with tea before brewing it; and a few more auxiliary tools, such as spatulas, forceps, funnels, etc.

Chahai and tea pot with ripe pu-erh tea from TEA SIDE

Casual outdoor Pǐn chá. Here we use a ceramic pitcher instead of a classic glass chahay.

What is the point here, and why make many short infusions for three sips, when it is much easier to prepare one half-liter mug and slowly drink from it?

Firstly, various qualities have developed in Chinese tea for centuries and even millennia, making it as tasty and useful as possible when brewed according to this method. For example, in most varieties, the taste and aroma change from brew to brew, and it is interesting to notice it; short brews help to extract the maximum of useful substances from the tea leaf, eliminating harmful ones. This is not true for all tea: Turkish or African tea will not taste good with this treatment.

Secondly, during such a tea process, something happens all the time; all participants constantly interact with each other, the guests hold out cups for new portion of tea, and the host fills them, the guests pass cha he and chakhai around to appreciate the aroma that remains in it, etc. If they look into each other's eyes, everything is clear without words, everyone receives a lot of attention, communication and care; and many tiny events happen to everyone.

Another well-known method is called “gongfucha,” which means superior tea skill, or high tea art. Formally, it differs from pin cha in that the participants drink tea not from cups, but from tea pairs, including pingminbei [品茗杯, Pǐn míng bēi], or chabei [茶杯, Chábēi], that is, a cup, and wen xiang bei — a glass [闻香杯, Wén xiāng bēi]. The tea is first poured into a glass and covered with a cup on top, after which the whole structure is turned over and separated; as a result, the tea ends up in a cup, from which it is convenient to drink, and the aroma lingers in the glass for another two or three minutes. It is easy to see that all this action also simulates the movement of energy from the male active pole of yang to the female perceiving one — yin. Only oolongs are prepared in this way, because only they have an aroma that is so long and complex.

Tea pair for brewing tea gongfu-cha style

Tea pair for brewing tea gongfu-cha style. The cup for infusion and the glass for aroma.

In the process of gongfucha, you can organize several exciting games for guests. For example, offer them to make a wish and count the “gurgles” when taking the glass out of the cup; or exchange glasses and be amazed to find that each of them has a different flavor, etc. But apart from the external component, gongfu [工夫 or 功夫, Gōngfū] means the level of skill that is achieved only by long conscientious work. Gongfu is not transmitted through a magic ritual and is not bought for money; it is a skill that embodied the abyss of your personal time, which you spent generously and irrevocably. In this sense, gongfucha refers to the situations when tea is prepared really skillfully — without tension, but with deep understanding, and masterfully received — respectfully, joyfully and gratefully. So it’s not about playing with glasses.

And, finally, there is also brewing tea over an open fire, which is commonly called the Lu Yu method. Although, at the time of Lu Yu, the author of the Tea Canon, i.e. twelve centuries ago, there were no glass teapots or gas burners, and the tea itself was different. Careful observation of the heating water is what makes modern brewing similar to the way that Lu Yu described. After reaching a certain stage, part of the water is taken away, and at the end of the second stage it is returned again; this helps to preserve the “youthfulness” of fresh water in boiled water. And finally, when the water is almost ready to boil, a funnel is stirred in it with tongs and tea is thrown into these funnel. After that, it is time to turn off the fire and wait until the tea begins to fall to the bottom (and in some cases — until it completely settles), and then pour it into cups and drink. At every stage, brewing tea is a fascinating sight, but it requires participants to be able to wait calmly without losing contact with what is happening. Pu-erh tea, red and black teas are well suited for brewing; white teas, yellow teas and some green teas can be brewed, but this takes skill. This method is much worse for most oolongs, although there are exceptions here. All these are ceremonial ways, in which not only the drink is important, but also the action into which its preparation and use are transformed.

Boiling tea Lu Yu method

Pu-erh tea, red and black teas are well suited for boiling. These teas are also good to warm up in cold weather.

Understandably, the procedure can be much easier in everyday Chinese life. Although it would be a mistake to consider the abundance of unusual objects and actions as excess and a tribute to aesthetics and ritual. I think every lover of Chinese tea will agree that, for example, chaban does not complicate, but — on the contrary — greatly simplifies life. Perhaps the most minimalist option is to drink tea directly from the gaiwan in which it is brewed, over the edge, slightly sliding the lid. This is a very old and traditional way in a sense but has nothing to do with a ceremony. On the other hand, there are more sophisticated ways of making tea than the classic club formats. For example, different types of tea ballet, a show organized for tourists. Or the tea ritual “wu wo” (無我, Wú wǒ), in which 15 people take part. Five sit down at tea tables, set in a circle facing each other, and each makes three infusions of three cups. Everyone has the same tea. Guests get two cups of each tea, and the master gives the third one to his neighbor master on the left. Thus, no one drinks the tea they make themselves. After the third infusion, five masters get up and turn into guests, and the next five sit in their places, and this is repeated three times. This is an unusually beautiful ritual that fosters an exceptional feeling of love and belonging.

I often say that China is very large and very diverse. In its various regions, one can find unusual local ways of brewing tea. Probably the most famous of these is the Chaozhou tea drinking. Chaozhou (Cháozhōu) is an urban district in Guangdong province, famous for its oolongs. This extreme option is suitable only for them; you cannot do this trick with any other tea.

So, for this you need twice as much tea as for gongfucha. For example, for five people, you need 15-20 grams. On the contrary, the teapot and cups are 2-3 times smaller than the standard ones. Moreover, the duration of each infusion is not “three inhalations, three exhalations,” but 5-7 minutes. But there is only three of them — each of 2-3 tiny sips. One can only imagine the gustatory and state-of-the-art effect. It is unforgettable. Words can’t describe it — you have to taste it to understand. Moreover, this is not a show organized for the sake of tourists, but a true folk custom. In Chaozhou, you can often see a couple of dozen people with tiny cups flocking to a man with a teapot, and twenty minutes later the street is empty again.

There is a very beautiful custom in Taiwan among the Wakka people, it is called Da Wang Pao Cha or “Big Cup of Tea.” In the mountainous area along the trails, shelters are arranged at some intervals, in which the traveler can recuperate while admiring the surrounding landscape. In the morning, farmers living near such a place put a large bowl with boiling water and a few leaves of tea. they also put some rice husks in the bowl, so you won’t be able to drink the tea in one gulp — perforce, you will have to stop and rest. There is no ceremony here, the traveler does not even know who prepared the tea for them, but it doesn't matter. In this case, the tea is a symbol of kindness and willingness to help anyone without expecting a reward.

The tourist demand for exoticism and diversity, in turn, stimulates creativity. In Hangzhou, next to which the famous Long Jing (龍井, Lóngjǐng) is produced, it has become very fashionable to serve it in tall glass glasses, just pouring hot water over a couple of grams of tea. It is even claimed that this is the authentic ancient way of making Long Jing. Although it is hard to believe that glasses were used in ancient Zhejiang... But it looks really mesmerizing!

If you do not limit yourself to China, then the variety of recipes and approaches to making and drinking tea can exceed any understanding. Japanese tea culture is a topic so vast that I will not try to cover it in a few sentences. Let me just say that you shouldn’t see it as an exclusively original phenomenon. The roots of the modern Japanese tea ceremony are in the Chinese tea rituals of the Song dynasty, from which it originated, thus becoming a time machine tuned to the eleventh century…

Tea has long been an integral part of Tibetan life. But the harsh conditions of their life force them to look not for sophistication and refinement in tea, but for the ability to warm, restore strength and provide with microelements and vitamins. In Tibet, tea itself is different from the assortment of tea clubs — as a rule, it is cheap coarse black tea and pu-erh. The way it is prepared may seem strange to us. In addition to a large amount of tea and water, cha süma, a Tibetan tea drink, or rather a dish, contains salt, yak oil, and sometimes milk, cereals and spices. All this is cooked for at least half an hour, and sometimes even several hours. In theory, this recipe does not look tempting, but in practice, I can say that rough middle-aged sheng and butter have an amazing combination of tastes. The Mongols, Tuvans, Buryats and Kalmyks prepare tea in the same way. It is understandable; both the climate of their steppes and their way of life are in many ways similar to that of the Tibetan. Except that there is less butter but more milk in their recipes.

As for Turks and Arabs, they are passionate about red tea. Chinese, Indian, Ceylon — doesn’t matter; it must be rich and strong. At the same time, the Turks are very proud of their tea plantations. But the problem is that Turkish tea is rather weak and expressionless. To make it delicious, you need not one teapot, but two! Two metal teapots stacked on top of each other form a “tea pyramid,” çaydanlık. In the lower one, water boils, and steam comes out through a small hole, and in the upper one, which is a lid for the lower one, tea is stewing. After half an hour, it turns out pretty good! Turkish tea glasses — armuds — are also delightful; they are very beautiful and also flawlessly functional. Turks love hot tea, and to keep it warm, the glass has a rounded bottom and a narrower top. But it would be inconvenient to hold such a glass, and therefore it expands again at the very top; you’re supposed to hold it by this rim. This whole structure looks like a rose starting to bloom.

In northern and western Africa, colossal amounts of inexpensive coarse green tea are consumed. It is not surprising: for a Senegalese attai, one teapot with a capacity of 200 ml will require 30, or even all 50 grams of tea and the same amount of sugar — for starters. When the mixture of tea, sugar and water boils, it is poured from a great height into small glass cups, and then back to the teapot, until thick foam forms — that’s when you can drink it. While guests are enjoying the first brew, the second is being prepared. Water is added to the teapot, and then — twice as much sugar as the first time and a hefty bunch of mint. The third time, there will be even more mint and sugar. In Senegal, they say: “Attai is like friendship: the further, the sweeter.” Senegalese are the main extreme lovers. If caffeinophobes had been at least partially right, Senegal would have long been depopulated.

But in Morocco, the proportions are much more acceptable. And the teapots are more beautiful... The list of tea brewing methods can be very long. But I hope that after what has been said, you’ll know that with tea you can realize your wildest fantasies. The more you try, the more you experiment, the better you will understand what is right for you.


This article is scripted and translated from Russian issue No.15 of the online podcast of Pu-erh FM Radio created and hosted by my fellow tea specialist from Russia Anton Dmitraschuk. In view of the long duration of the issue, it is provided here in a somewhat abridged form.

Source: TeaTerra.

Read more: Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony rules described by NW Wu-Wo Tea Association


Gongfu-cha tea ceremony


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