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The Subtle Art of Gongfu Tea Brewing

Posted by Derek Poskin on March 9, 2015 at 5:40 PM

First and foremost, Gongfu tea brewing is a method of infusion that favors high leaf to water ratios and short steep times.  This yields several small but invigorating cups of tea.  The history behind the term Gongfu and its origins are very interesting, and intertwined with the evelotion of tea culture in China, both shaping the culture, and being shaped by it.


Gongfu, literally Extreme Skill, may conjure up images of martial arts and incredible acts of physical prowess; however, in the tea world, this term has a quieter, more refined meaning. Gongfu is a brewing method in the Chinese school of tea. As the name suggests, this brewing method places a great deal of virtue on the ability to brew the best cup(s) of tea possible from the processed tea leaves. Thus, with great skill, one can pull out the best qualities of a tea, while avoiding and playing down the flaws a tea may come to possess in its processing, such as its bitter potential, an overpowering roast, or even the inferior nature of tea tea itself (yes, sometimes gongfu is called for as a necessity to turn low quality tea into a drinkable, healthful tonic). Brewing tea in the Gongfu fashion lends many benefits to the taste of the tea itself, but also has the potential to vastly improve the experience of drinking tea.


A gongfu session is far from a fast means to get caffeine into the body; rather, it is more of a meditative art form that focuses on a long succession of short infusions and small sipping cups, while attempting to maximize the beauties found in every aspect of the tea, (e.g. the aroma of the unbrewed leaves, the scent of the freshly brewed leaves, the empty cup aroma). Many aficionados do not feel that they understand a tea until they have put it through a few gongfu sessions, for gongfu is a means to intimately understand the potential of a tea as well as the means to bring out its best attributes. The means of bringing out these attributes includes altering water temperature, steep times, brewing vessels (porcelain vs yixing, gaiwan vs pot).


Although there appears to be a rather rigid procession of actions involved in gongfu brewing, each action is tied to the utilitarian end of enhancing the flavor of the tea, rather than to abstract ritualistic gestures of respect toward guests, gods ect. Despite the absence of overt spiritual symbols in the gongfu session, the amount of skill and effort required to brew a single cup of tea is so great, that one must maintain stillness, presence and awareness of mind throughout the session. Thus, since there are so many consecutive actions imploring the brewers full attention, stray thoughts dissipate like storm clouds in a fierce wind, and the mind, so focused in the present moment has no room for worries about the past or future. In this way, and in the way of many folk Chinese religious practices, gongfu does not claim an abstract esoteric meaning, but rather, through a series of mindless, repetitive tasks implores the activation of pure-mind consciousness and utter awareness, acceptance and presence of mind.

 

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