Tea appreciation in China has, over the past several thousand years, evolved into a multiplicity of tea cultures across the vast country. From north to south, east to west, region to region, each place appreciates tea in a slightly different manner from the next. That said they all share one common thread: their appreciation for a truly magnificent cup of tea. Gong Fu Cha, traditionally from Fujian province in China and modified slightly in Taiwan (formerly Isla Formosa), is one method by which to truly appreciate a gourmet, specialty tea.
Included below I have outlined a common method by which to enjoy Gong Fu Cha. The reason I include this here is because drinking tea is not just a comfort drink at three in the afternoon sipped from a teacup and saucer. Tea, when experienced fully, is enlightening, revitalizing and up-lifting. However, the ritual involved in the pouring of tea is as important as the tea itself. To follow Gong Fu Cha, means setting time aside in your day, to sit and meditate over a cup of tea. The health benefits of the tea are therefore increased as the tea and the meditation complement one another to let the stress of the average North American day just melt away.
There are several components most commonly utilized to drink in the Gong Fu Cha tradition. A tea sink, whether made of stone, fired clay, bamboo, teak or even plastic (not recommended), catches the excess water and tea poured off. A small teapot (often of unfinished, fired clay) contains the leaves to be steeped. For pu erh and some oolongs the unfinished pot actually begins to take on the essences of the teas over time adding to the already wonderful flavours inherent in each great tea. If such a teapot has only been used for great teas it will, over time, actually begin to shine a little and increase in value!
The Taiwanese tend to employ a tea pitcher and separate strainer to filter out any loose particles, which contributes to an even clearer cup of tea. And in addition, if a glass tea pitcher is used, one can easily see the clarity and colour of the tea as it is prepared. Other necessary components also include a heat source of some kind and a kettle or glass hot water carafe to keep water constantly hot/warm. The best heat source is one that can be adjusted so that the water temperature is reduced for white and green teas, and progressively warmer for oolong and pu erhs (in that order!). A pair of cups for each person participating is the final touch for enjoying tea in this tradition. The pair of cups includes a flat, wide mouthed drinking cup (cha bei) and a taller, small mouthed smelling cup (shiang bei). Because the senses of smell and taste are so closely connected, having two separate cups to experience each tea is a wonderful way to more fully appreciate and understand the different flavours and aromas. Sometimes a tea will have a markedly different aroma to taste!
And now, the methodology: heat the water to the desired temperature. White teas the water is warm, green warmer, oolong warmer still (dependingon oxidation of the leaves), pu erh nearly boiling. With experience you will be able to tell the temperature of the water by the way bubbles form on the bottom of the container you are heating it in. Smaller bubbles generally mean a lower temperature and as they get larger and start to release from the bottom the water is heating. Eventually it reaches a rolling boil which is really too hot for any Chinese tea.
Select a teapot to match your tea leaves and place enough tea leaves inside to match the number of infusions you wish to drink and the number of people enjoying with you. Larger teapots generally serve more people but also require more leaves, because you have a pitcher, you can always do two infusions back to back and serve from the pitcher afterwards. Remember, tea leaves expand considerably, so don't put more than enough to about half fill your teapot. Once you've achieved the desired temperature of your water, pour enough into your teapot to cover the leaves and let steep long enough to rid the leaves of any impurities they may have collected. An interesting aside: this will also rid you of most of the caffeine as caffeine is water soluble. Pour off the first infusion, perhaps warm your cups with it. Once your cups have been warmed, distribute one pair to each guest, keeping one pair for yourself to enjoy your beverage!
For the next infusion, fill the teapot and pour through your strainer and into your glass tea pitcher. Examine the colour and clarity of the tea so you know if it has been steeped long enough and you can then adjust the next infusion accordingly. Lay the strainer aside on your tea sink and pour the tea into each person's taller shiang bei, finishing with your own. Then demonstrate for everyone present how to pour from shiang bei to the cha bei and inhale nature's aromas by placing the shiang bei near your nose. When you've smelled enough, place the cha bei to your lips and slurp (just a bit) as this will help bring out the flavours of your tea. Repeat the pouring process until the tea leaves have been 'poured out.'
When you are ready, retrieve all of your cups to the tea sink and rinse thoroughly with the remaining hot water before wiping dry and putting them away. The same applies to the teapot, strainer and tea pitcher as well as the tea sink (last). Because tea is organic and not oily, there is no need to use soap, and in fact avoid it at all costs. The hot water is enough to sterilize the cups for the next use, just make sure your wiping cloth is clean (again, avoid using soap).
The final thing I will say about the teaware you employ is to avoid the use of metals other than silver. Metals tend to change the composition of the water you use and thus the flavour of the teas. I shall expound upon this further in a later message.