March 18, 2019

Gong Fu Tea

Simplify your approach to the gong fu tea ceremony. Go with my streamlined flow and you'll be serving gong fu cha in under 10 steps.

The Meaning of Gong Fu

If gong fu sounds like kung fu that's because the terms are one and the same. Kung fu is the Wade Giles spelling and gong fu is the Pinyin spelling of a Chinese martial art. Gong fu/kung fu means to exhibit mastery through hard work. What does gong fu mean in the context of tea? Delmas and Minet say it is “infusing tea systematically and diligently.”

The First Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

The gong fu tea ceremony emerged in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Gascoyne et al. note the earliest reference to the ceremony dates to early 17th century China. A paper by the O-Cha Tea Festival claims that the gong fu cha ceremony was developed specifically to prepare oolong tea. These two ideas about gong fu tea ceremony make sense in light of the fact that loose leaf was a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) innovation. Much of my experiences with gong fu cha has been with oolong. Oolong (and of course, puerh) is ideally prepared in multiple short infusions, the essence of the gong fu tea ceremony.

Teaware for a Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

The basic tools of a gong fu tea ceremony are:
  • Yixing teapot (or gaiwan)
  • A tray that drains water away from the serving area
  • A dish to display your dry tea leaves
  • A sharing vessel
  • Drinking cups
  • A strainer if you are steeping puerh

Steps of the Gong Fu Tea Ceremony

When I first witnessed a formal gong fu tea ceremony I found it quite complex. Honestly, I still find a proper gong fu tea ceremony intimidating. However, it is a beautiful process to watch and in which to participate. I've boiled down the ceremony to this gentle sequence.
  1. Gather your teaware and place them on a tray.
  2. Warm and cleanse your teapot with hot water. Pour out this water but don’t waste it. Cool it to room temperature to water your plants.
  3. Pour hot water into your sharing vessel. Pour this water into the drinking cups. Pour out excess water from the sharing vessel but don’t waste it.
  4. Add your tea leaves to the now empty teapot (consider a 1:15/20 leaf to water ratio). With the lid in place, shake the teapot. Smell the leaves. (Take moments to inhale deeply.)
  5. Pour water hot water (temperature appropriate for tea you are serving) unto the leaves in your teapot then put on the lid. Pour water over the lid and pot. While the leaves are steeping, discard the water in the drinking cups.
  6. Pour the liquor into the sharing vessel then pour the tea into the drinking cups.
  7. Repeat steps 5-6 until your tea leaves have been spent. 

If you’d like to use a gaiwan to prepare your tea, read my post about How to Brew Puerh Tea. If you select a Taiwanese oolong, you may want to add an aroma cup to your gong fu tea ceremony to further appreciate the scents of the liquor.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with gong fu tea -- share them in the comments.

February 14, 2019

Books that Inspired Tea Book Authors with Alexis Siemons

This review series brings you the books that have influenced some of my favorite tea book authors. Alexis Siemons is today's guest. Alexis is a tea consultant and writer, recipe developer, and photographer. Her latest publication is with tea journal ii.

with tea journal 1 is part of my cookbook collection. It is an elegantly designed recipe book. The recipes were created for the summer season. The ingredients are seasonal such as basil, mint and peas. The sips are cooling. Even the savories are refreshing with the focus on jasmine green tea. Alexis opens the recipe book with a story of her relationship with cookbooks and markets. She writes about her approach to using tea in cooking: "Throughout the years, I have coaxed out astringent flavors to cut through the fat of a whipped heavy cream, sprinkled steeped leaves on fresh salads as an unexpected garnish, ground the dry leaves to whisk into breads alongside flour, and subbed it in for water to brighten up a standard grain of rice." The recipes in with tea journal 1 rely on many of these techniques. The meat of the cookbook isn't a dry set of instructions. Alexis peppers the journal with stories about individual ingredients or about her first taste of a particular dish. One of my favorite recipes by Alexis is not included in this journal. It is Lapsang Souchong Tea-smoked Pickled Cauliflower. These pickles are incredibly flavor. I highly recommend this recipe.

Here are the writers and books that have influenced Alexis Siemons on her and tea and culinary journey.

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

The style of this narrative cookbook inspired me to incorporate introductions to each recipe that lasted longer than a brief introductory headnote. She was also able to weave practical elements into such beautiful prose.

Ruth Reichl 

All books by Ruth Reichl.  Her tone and style of writing have always spoken directly to my soul. I have yet to find another writer who paints such alluring, evocative pictures that transport your state of mind and all of your senses.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto edited by Joan Reardon

This book is quite influential for two reasons. One, I like to reach back in time to words from another era as I am an old soul. Two, as I worked to create two mini journals I was always inspired by the process/attention to detail that Julia had as she created her masterpiece.

Thank you Alexis for sharing your writerly inspirations with us.

What are the books that have influenced your tea journey? Share them in the comments.

Image sources: An Everlasting Meal // As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

January 31, 2019

Tea Cupping Three Tillerman Wenshan Baozhong

I am having so much fun writing about tea preparation! So far I've shared a post about brewing shou puerh in a gaiwan and steeping Darjeeling in a professional cupping set. Today's post features the professional cupping set again but this time I used the tea cupping set to compare three Wenshan Baozhong oolong teas.


The Wenshan Baozhongs are courtesy of Tillerman Tea: Wenshan Bao Zhong Winter 2018 (farmer Weng Wan Dashi), Spring 2018 (Wong One Dashi), and Spring 2017 (Wang Han Yang Dashi). Read my review of the Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong and review of the Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong. Wenshan Baozhong also known as pouchong is a twisted Taiwanese green oolong. Baozhong teas are lightly oxidized anywhere from 10% to 15%. Their provenance is northern Taiwan in Taipei and Pinglin. The best harvest is spring and the resounding aspect of this tea is its floral aroma.


The professional cupping set was designed to compare Indian black teas but it has been used to evaluate similarities and difference among other types and styles of tea. For this tea cupping of oolongs, I steeped 3 grams of tea in 195F water for 3 minutes. After measuring the leaves of each tea, I placed them in the lidded cup then poured hot water to overflowing then replaced the lid. At the end of the steep time, I poured the tea into each drinking cup starting with the first cup to receive hot water.

Related - Tea Cupping - Three Chinese Spring 2016 Green Teas from TeaVivre

Before I even steeped the leaves I evaluated the dry leaf color and smell. I made notes about color and smell.
  • Winter 2018  Wenshan Bao Zhong - vibrant dark green leaves, no stems, floral and woody scents
  • Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong - duller dark green and brown leaves, stems, floral and buttery scents
  • Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong - similar leaf to the Spring 2018, woody and fruity scents

After pouring the each liquor into its respective drinking cup, one can smell the infused leaves to gauge consistency between these and the dry leaf. I did not. The floral steam coming off the Winter 2018 diverted my attention. Next one evaluates the color and taste of the liquor.
  • Winter 2018  Wenshan Bao Zhong - lively green-yellow liquor, floral, heady, buttery, thick (now imagine I had typed these words in caps!)
  • Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong - tending more yellow in color, also thick and buttery but the floral is significantly less unbridled than the Winter 2018
  • Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong - almost apricot colored liquor, medium-bodied, smooth, Baimudan-esque, fruity
You can resteep the leaves by adding 30 seconds to the initial steep time. The second infusion of the Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong was delightfully floral.

I did not evaluate the infused leaves as I was too busy slurping all the cups of oolong. By the time I had turned my attention, and camera, back to the wet leaves much of that immediate sensory information had evaporated.

Related - Tea Cupping - Tasting Two Oriental Beauty Oolongs


It's definitely worth reading my original reviews of the Spring 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong and the Spring 2017 Wenshan Bao Zhong. I stored both teas well but their profiles have changed since I first drank them. I enjoyed both teas then and now. However, my favorite of the trio presented here is the Winter 2018 Wenshan Bao Zhong. It's fresh and bursting with classic bao zhong flavors and texture.

All three teas in this post were provided by Tillerman Tea for review.

January 24, 2019

How to Brew Puerh Tea, the Shou Edition

The key to drinking shou puerh is to acquire good shou puerh. I do not recommend purchasing your shou puerh from a grocery store. My first experience buying shou puerh was just that. I bought what I now know to be a tuo cha from a well-known grocery chain. Maybe I didn't brew the tea correctly but I'm pretty sure my tasting experience had to do with poor leaf quality.

My favorite aromatic qualities in a shou puerh are earth and chocolate. Sweet potato is good. I like a full bodied, inkly liquor. I find it challenging to drink a shou with barn and fungal notes. And if it smells fishy, compost immediately.

Related - Learning to Evaluate Shou Puerh, a Review of Teanami Palace Mo Hei

So, how do I brew puerh tea? I use a gaiwan.


The leaf:water ratio is a must to make a good cup of tea. Too little or too much of one or the other and you get weakly flavored water or a bowl of bitter liquor. I find that shou puerh gives you a bit of wiggle room especially a good shou. If I err, I don't typically get something unsatisfactory. I tend to go a little leaf heavy for that thick soup. I came across a magical leaf:water ratio for puerh--it works for oolongs, too--by reading tea blogs. In fact, the tea blogger who hipped me to this ratio I am about to reveal is oolong owl. Others confirmed it. Use 1 gram of leaf to 15 grams of water. (If the puerh tea has a reputation for being a powerhouse, you can use 1:20.)

I like to use a gaiwan that's anywhere from 100 ml to 150 ml capacity. I actually don't have big gaiwans. I've only been tempted occasionally to invest in a larger capacity gaiwan.Much of the tea I make if for my own consumption so I smaller gaiwan is best. If you don't know the capacity of your gaiwan, fill the gaiwan with water to lid level. Pour that water into a measuring cup to find out your gaiwan volume.

My step-by-step guide to steeping puerh
    1. Set out the tea and teaware.
    2. Weigh your tea based on your gaiwan volume.
    3. Boil the water. You want to use 212 F/100 C temperature water to brew shou puerh.  
    4. Brew your puerh. You can do this casually, or more formally as follows:
    • Pour hot water into the gaiwan, replace the lid, pour out the water; 
    • Add the leaves to the gaiwan, pour enough water over them to cover them, wait for several seconds, then discard the water (I like to do this step twice for shou puerh); 
    • Infuse the leaves by filling the gaiwan with water to lid level and gently stirring the leaves with the lid; 
    • Steep for 5 to 10 seconds; 
      Drink then infuse repeatedly gradually increasing the steep time.
      You could increase the formality of your brewing session by evaluating dry, rinsed, and infused leaves as well as assessing the aromatic qualities of each infusion.

        Related - Puerhshop - 2007 Menghai Yunhai Puerh


        Full disclosure: I don't know the absolutely correct spelling of puerh. I have seen it written as puerh, pu erh, pu'erh, pu-erh, puer, pu er, pu'er, and pu-er. I know that the town of Pu er/Pu'er in Yunnan Province was a major tea trading center during the Song Dynasty (source: Tea by Gascoyne et al.)

        What I can definitively is that there are two types of puerh: sheng (aka raw) and shou (aka cooked). The former is a much older production than the latter. After plucking, both sheng and shou share the following processing steps: withering, panning, rolling, drying, and sorting. A sheng puerh is compressed and dried. A shou puerh is fermented to accelerate the aging process, sorted again, compressed, then aged for a few months. A sheng puerh is more complex for having undergone a much more gradual aging process and it continues to evolve its profile over time. A shou is more-or-less a drink now tea.

        I mentioned a tuo cha at the start of the post. Puerh is compressed into several forms one of which is a tuo cha or nest shape. The typical form is a 357 bing cha or cake. There are also mini cakes (see the first photo). 

        If you want to give shou puerh a try, I highly recommend my current favorite, Trap Bird by White 2 Tea. Let me know your favorite shou puerh in the comments.

        January 17, 2019

        How to Drink Darjeeling Tea

        There is no one answer to the question of how to drink Darjeeling tea. I have drunk many Darjeeling teas some of which I have reviewed on this blog. I have prepared Darjeeling teas using a cupping set, in a teapot/Western style, and with a gaiwan. I prefer to drink Darjeeling that's been cupped, i.e. prepared in a cupping set.


        Before I dive into the teaware, here's what is Darjeeling in three sentences. Darjeeling teas are produced mostly from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plants grown in Darjeeling region of India. The word Darjeeling translates to "queen of the hills""Land of the Thunderbolt"* and Darjeeling the tea is known as the "champagne of teas." By the way, Darjeeling teas were the first Indian product to receive the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (Geographic Indication of Goods) designation.

        Steeping Darjeeling in a professional cupping set yields the perfect (small) cup of tea. (I drink mine without milk.) There's a historical connection between the cupping set and Darjeeling. The professional cupping set was developed to evaluate Indian (and Sri Lankan) teas. Tea heads will tell you that the gaiwan (and gongfu method) is the way to prepare loose leaf tea. This is hard dispute in the case of Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs and puerhs. But the cupping set works better for Indian teas. If you have both a cupping set and a gaiwan, pause here and place them side-by-side. See a resemblance? The professional cupping was inspired by the gaiwan! (I didn't know this until I took the ITEI tea sommelier course.) In the same way that the gongfu method with gaiwan of small volume, heavy leaf, and short infusions highlights the transformation in oolongs and puerhs, the cupping process of small volume, light leaf, and long infusion plays to the best of a Darjeeling and other Indian black teas.


        Like a gaiwan, the cupping set is challenging on the pour. This is wear the lid can slip and the liquor and leaves spill. The cup handle does give it a leg up on the gaiwan and the thick porcelain of the cupping set doesn't transmit heat as quickly.

        Related - Cupping Smith Teamaker's 1st Flush Darjeeling Tumsong

        Step-by-step guide to cupping
        • Weigh 2 grams (or your choice) of tea and add it to the infusion cup.
        • Pour hot water in a swirling motion into the cup until it brims then cover with the lid.
        • Infuse the leaves for 3 minutes (or to your preferred time).
        • To pour, hold the bowl in your hand and tip it 90 degrees. Fit the lidded cup into the bowl then flip the bowl 90 degree counter clockwise and set it down. Or, you could pour the liquor directly from the lidded cup into the bowl as you would a gaiwan or teapot. Either way, drain completely. Flip over the cup to dislodge the leaves so they fall onto the lid.
        • Smell the infused leaves, then place the lid upside down on the infusion cup to display them, if you like.
        • Smell the liquor.
        • Sip, or more accurately slurp, the liquor with a spoon or directly from the bowl.
        • Drink!
        There are various ratios for leaf:water:steep time. The key is to be consistent. As you prepare tea in a cupping set, you'll figure out if your preference for these variables especially the first and third ones. The typical cupping set includes a cup with a 4-ounce capacity in addition to a lid and a drinking bowl. I like to use 2 grams of tea and infuse for 3 minutes. You can resteep your leaves 1-2 times more adding 30 seconds each time. I use 200-212F for second flush Darjeelings and 195-200F for first flushes. More on the Darjeeling harvests below.

        Tea Flushes in Darjeeling

        After numerous enjoyable cups of Darjeeling teas, my preference, for now, is Darjeeling Second Flush.There are four harvest per year of tea in Darjeeling. The first flush is in the spring, February to April approximately, and is fairly limited in production. The liquor is light colored and bodies with smell and taste of vegetables, almond, flowers, and fruit. The second flush or summer harvest of May to June is much higher volume production wise. The liquor is dark and copper colored. The tea is malty, woody, fruity, full bodied, and astringent. I don't have much experience with the the fourth (autumn) flush and even less with the third (monsoon) flush. The latter is supposedly woody and spicy with forward ripe fruit and a full body. 

        While I've used my cupping sets for comparative tastings as the cupping set was designed to be used, I've also used a set to prepare a Darjeeling to enjoy on its own terms. And without milk! Let me know how you drink your Darjeelings.

        In closing, I'd like to give a shout-out to the International Tea Education Institute (ITEI) Tea Sommelier course I completed. I learned so much. You can use the NOTESONTEA10 discount code if you'd like to take a course with ITEI.

        *The revised translation was provided by Lazy Literatus.
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