The gongfu – sometimes spelt kung fu – tea ceremony is a ritualised preparation and presentation of tea. Gongfu is thought to have originated Fujian and the Chaoshan area of eastern Guangdong. It’s also one of the most aptly named ceremonies going around, with gongfu literally meaning “making tea with skill”. If you visit China you’ll find dozens of tea shops offering gongfu and it has become quite a popular tourist attraction, but tea connoisseurs still love to use the ceremony to enjoy a particularly fine tea.
A quick note, there’s also a very important Chinese wedding tea ceremony, which is a separate tea ceremony to gongfu.
Like having a sommelier decant a fine bottle of wine for you, Gongfu is all about enjoying the process of making and drinking tea. It’s elevating “having a cuppa” into something special, and it all starts with the equipment.
Gongfu tea sets comprise beautifully ornate – and small – pots and cups. Next, you’ll need a “brewing tray” – essentially something to catch all the spillage. Then there’s the pitcher or tureen, which is used to decant the tea before serving. and a brewing tray. You’ll often find strainers, tongs and fancy towels as well. If you’re dealing with a true tea drinker, you might even be able to smell the tea before brewing in a “scent” cup.
Temperature plays a very important role when it comes to brewing tea correctly, and the tea master will need to determine what is the appropriate temperature for the tea being used. This helps to extract the essential oils and true flavour of the tea. The temperature differs from tea to tea and tea master to tea master, but here’s a rough guide:
- 95°C for oolong tea
- 100°C (boiling) for compressed teas, such as pu-erh tea
Note: green tea is usually not used for a Gongfu tea ceremony.
The brewing and serving of the tea are where the ceremony separates itself. The tea master follows a precise set of instructions and uses rehearsed hand flourishes while dolling out the precious liquid. There are rules as to which fingers you can use to place the cups, and how to fill the teapot. There’re rules covering everything! But it’s well worth the time.