Learn to Steep: Gongfu Style

What is gongfu steeping? Gongfu, also known as kungfu, literally translates to “effort” or “skill” – and it is a steeping method that comes from Ming Dynasty, China.

Gongfu steeping involves a gaiwan, or a similarly sized teapot – which typically holds approximately 100-150mL. A gaiwan is a porcelain vessel that translates to “lidded bowl” – and consists of a saucer, bowl, and lid. The big difference between gongfu steeping and a western style of steeping is the size of a vessel (I have teapots that can hold up to 1L!), the ratio of tea leaves to water, and the length of time for a steep.

A gongfu steeping session begins with warming up the bowl with some heated water, so the porcelain retains heat better. Then you pour the water out, add tea leaves in (~5g of tea leaves), and then add water into the bowl. You’ll want to put in more tea leaves that you’d expect – there’s room for the tea to expand in the bowl!

The type of tea leaves to steeped gongfu vary – I use my gaiwan to steep green, white, and oolong teas – and I stick with traditional/straight teas (no blends!).

Each steep in gongfu steeping is short – think 5 to 10 seconds. Basically, as soon as you’ve poured water over your leaves, you should be thinking about pouring the tea back out. Because of the multiple short steeps, you’ll be able to get many steeps out of the same leaves – upwards of 10-20 resteeps of the same leaves.

And with each steep, the leaves will open up even more.

You can drink directly out of a gaiwan, by using the lid to keep the tea leaves in the bowl. But for gongfu, you’ll pick up the bowl (with the lid) and quickly pour the tea into a cup or a (small) pitcher to share the tea from.

In some tea sets, this is referred to as a fairness pitcher and you should be able to fill multiple (small) tea cups from it. Chinese tea cups are significantly smaller than mugs or tea cups, they can hold about 25-50mL each.

Depending on your practice, you might spill some tea. If you’re going to pour the tea, commit! And hope for the best. I do keep a tea towel within hand’s reach when I’m practicing gongfu steeping. It’s a process that takes some practice, especially with holding the gaiwan, so I’d recommend practicing the hold when it’s empty (so you don’t spill hot tea on your fingers).

What’s your preferred style for steeping your tea?

Learn to Steep: Grandpa Style

Grandpa style of tea steeping is one of the easiest methods, and also the least immersed in a sense of ceremony – a fantastic point that makes it truly accessible for basically everyone… provided your tea can hold up to the method. One could consider the grandpa style of steeping tea to be one of the purest methods of tea steeping, because it really doesn’t require you to do a lot. And if you’ve been drinking tea for a while, you may have already done this method of tea steeping and didn’t even realize it had any sort of name. I’ve definitely steeped my tea this way before and experienced tea steeped this way for literally decades, thanks to going out for weekend dimsum growing up.

Arguably the easiest way to make tea, grandpa style is also the simplest. In a large cup, add some tea leaves (preferably whole leaf tea), add water, and drink. No infusers, not strainers, no methods of pouring the tea out into another vessel within 15-30 seconds. When your cup is running low, you top up the water and then continue to drink. This method of tea steeping works the best for whole leaf tea because you have the best chance of not swallowing the leaves if they’re full and intact versus the dusty tea bits that come out of a tea bag. You could also use a tea pot, add some leaves, and pour in water and keep refilling the pot whenever it gets low in volume.

While you could use this steeping method with any tea, grandpa style of tea steeping really lends itself well with whole leaf teas, particularly those without flavourings or blended ingredients, and also ideally works the best for teas such as pu’erh, oolongs, green and white teas (basically, most Chinese teas will work great with this method, as has been my experience when in restaurants). My preference when doing the grandpa style is to drink oolongs or white tea (silver needle never lets me down), and I actually utilized this steeping method a lot when I was most recently in school again (2019-2021), because it’s really the laziest steeping method that ever did exist and just fit well with my study method. I could study, drink tea, and not have to fuss about it too much.

“Grandpa style” tea steeping is a phrase coined by Lawrence Zhang (marshaln), which very closely mimics the style of tea steeping that I’ve seen my parents do at home basically all of my life. The tea leaves get left in the strainer in the tea pot at home. The tea leaves get left in the tea pot at the dimsum restaurant. It’s very much the Chinese way of steeping tea, and something that I find myself gravitating towards when not steeping a blended tea or a tea for a review (because I like to follow the steeping instructions).

Learn to Steep: Western Style

The western style of steeping is one of the better known methods of steeping tea, especially if you grew up drinking tea outside of Asia, but it’s also the steeping method that I’m starting off with in a mini series of steeping methods.

Traditionally, the western style of steeping utilizes a tea pot (or cup), and generally a small amount of tea to large amount of water. Think a tea bag with a mug of hot water, or a teapot with a teaspoon or two of tea into a strainer. In contrast, a tea pot of Chinese or Japanese origin is typically smaller in size, and the method of steeping uses more leaves and less water in comparison to steeping in a western style method.

Teapots that originate from Europe or North America tend to hold much larger volumes of water in comparison to teapots from China or Japan. For instance, some tea pots can hold 2 to 4 cups of water (or more!). There is a wide variation from western style teapots in terms of style, shapes, and designs. These teapots can come with strainers (or not), but you can also use a strainer over your cup of tea to catch errant tea leaves that might escape.

Western style teapots are typically ceramic, porcelain, metal (think silver!), or glass. The cost of a western style tea pot, depending on where you live, may be fairly inexpensive. I’ve seen teapots priced anywhere from $5 to over $50, and I have purchased teapots anywhere from specialty tea shops, thrift stores, and stores that sell home goods. This also holds true from tea cups/mugs – there’s a variety of materials that are used, styles and sizes. I personally like cups that fit well in my hands, and have a wide selection in my personal collection ranging from vintage tea cup and saucers to double walled borosilicate glass. I’m also a fan of ceramic/porcelain, as I find that they retain the heat decently well enough for me to finish the tea.

Using the tea pot is fairly easy. All you need to do is place leaves inside of the tea pot, add the appropriate temperature water, remove the leaves at the appropriate time and pour a cup of tea. some people do an extra step by pouring water into the teapot first and then pour it out, to warm the vessel prior to steeping the tea. If you are choosing the option of steeping directly in a tea cup or mug instead, the leaves are contained in a tea bag or a tea strainer. Tea strainers come in many options as well – from metal baskets or novelty plastic/silicone designs. I like the basket strainers the best because it allows space for the leaves to expand and unfurl, a fact that is particularly important when it comes to steeping compressed teas like oolong or pu’erh.

Teas steeped western style will likely be successfully resteeped a lower number of times compared to teas that are steeped gongfu style, if only because of the length of time the leaves are steeped in its entirety. Western style of tea steeping is one of my preferred styles of steeping, primarily due to the ease of steeping. The majority of steeping instructions for most teas, blends and tisanes that I have come across is for a western style of steeping (typically minutes instead of seconds).

What’s your preferred style for steeping your tea?