Thursday, June 2, 2022

Basic gongfu brewing parameters advice


Two recent threads / questions on Reddit (r/tea) brought up the subject of gongfu brewing basic parameters.  Both work as a good intro to the basic starting points, and how minor differences in preference make it a quite complicated subject beyond that.  My own take is not presented as an objective best practice, or maybe even as a particularly good starting point, instead as just as one more opinion to consider.  The comments probably don't read like that, although I do mention that "it's all subjective" every time this comes up.

I wrote out a summary of how I brew tea gongfu style in one answer, which is such a basic approach that for some it wouldn't really count as formal or ceremonial enough to fit the form:

my own brewing approach:  I tend to use a high proportion, maybe 8 grams per 100 ml (I don't weigh it), water just off boiling point (for all types but green tea, but I drink the least green tea, and would brew most green tea versions Western style).  then I base every round timing on the results of the last. for some intense teas it's under 10 seconds, for others it's more like 20. I don't use a staggered time interval as is often shown (15 seconds, +5 seconds per infusion). teas don't seem to lose intensity that fast, or consistently enough that using a lower number works (+3 seconds instead).

The first post asked some pretty basic questions that outlined a standard approach (related to a gaiwan, but that doesn't matter so much, since a different device using the same proportion would be similar):

I'm new to brewing tea in the eastern style, and I struggle a lot with brewing good tea. I think it would be waaay easier with answers to these questions.

1. How do I keep the water the same temperature, in a thermal flask or something?

2. How much leaf do I add to gaiwan? I think mine is 120ml, is it scalable with proportions for a cup on the tea package? If so what are the proportions?

3. How long do I brew in the gaiwan, assuming that for a cup (250ml) I have to wait 1 minute?  Is that also scalable?

4. Do I keep the lid on, while the tea is brewing?

5. How many times do I brew the leaves, assuming that on the package it says that I brew it 3 times for a cup?

6. How much water do I add to the gaiwan?

I answered with my own thoughts on those points, as follows:

1. maintaining water temperature:  some people just use an electric kettle to heat water, or it can work well to use a thermos, so that you can take the tea session outside, or wherever else. it's normal for some people to always use water at or just off boiling temperature for most teas brewed gongfu style, or if you prefer the variable temperature approach a kettle designed to heat to a number of levels would help.

2. amount of dry leaf / proportion:  you will really need to experiment to see which parameters you like, related to proportion of tea to water and other factors, and those might not be consistent even within a broad tea type (eg. rolled oolong; it's possible that you could prefer completely different parameters for lighter or more oxidized and roasted versions). since online advice is going to span a broad range surveying that to find a median norm seems unreliable; it would depend on who happened to answer, which would vary in different places you might ask online. for 100 ml gaiwan a normal range might span 4 grams to 8 grams, and some people could go even heavier.

3. infusion time:  the other parameters define brewing time, since adjusting proportion will change the timing required to get to a certain infusion strength. brewing temperature shifts things just a little too, but that's more about altering the proportion of compounds extracted than serving as an input to the timing. preference for infusion strength varies this a lot, and that's completely subjective, probably varying some by tea version, not just type. 

4. brewing with the gaiwan lid on:  yes, you keep the lid on while the tea brews. it's common for people to recommend keeping the lid off or at least offset when not brewing, to avoid steaming the leaves, but I'm not sure if that really changes much.

5. number of infusions:  brew more rounds until the tea is no longer pleasant to drink; this part is subjective too. in cases where it's still pleasant into later rounds you might use long infusion times, out towards a minute, or potentially even longer, and go up to 15 infusions, or more. of course this depends on infusion time used, and how durable the leaves are (eg. even partly broken leaves brew out faster), and how pleasant late round results happen to be. 

if you do happen to be using cooler than boiling point or just off boiling point water you might experiment with bumping temperature to stretch number of rounds at the end of the cycle. a heavier range of flavors can extract at the end of a cycle, and feel can change, so that may or may not be as pleasant, it would depend on the tea.

6. amount of water used:  fill the water it to where it meets the lid, so that it's full, after the lid is replaced. if it's slightly too full water will collect just above the lid, and until you get the hang of how to hold the gaiwan that will make it harder to not burn yourself with the water or related to the top sides of the gaiwan being hot. it doesn't take much practice before it's easy to fill it to the same level every time.

I just ran across a good video practice demonstration of this theme created by William of Farmerleaf.  It's not mostly about parameters, in relation to discussing proportion, temperature, brewing time, and such, but it does include recommendations about all that.  It applies more directly to sheng pu'er than other types, since he is brewing that, his comments there relate to that type, and he mostly drinks that.

William mentioned that he thinks green tea isn't suitable for gongfu brewing, and in general that seems to work.  It is possible to just use cooler water and still use the other parameters, and I probably would for good Longjing, but in general I brew green tea Western style.  I would add broken leaf black tea to that list, for not being suitable for gongfu brewing, and also flavored teas, and teas blended with herbs / tisanes.  To me shu pu'er turns out similar prepared both ways, maybe only slightly better gongfu brewed, so it would depend on the version I was using and my mood at the time which approach I would use for that type.

On the same subject, another question post asked Where to find gongfu brewing parameters?

For a year or so I've been brewing almost all my teas in a 100ml gaiwan. I love it, but I'm still confused about good starting point with brewing parameters (tea to water ratio, water temperature, steeping times)... 

I wonder: Are there some places you can find gongfu brewing parameters for different kinds of teas?

I know big idea around gongfu is experimenting and finding parameters that suit you personally. But having some starting point, especially when trying a new tea, is helpful nonetheless. Also you can always learn a lot seeing how other people do the same things you do.

Mei Leaf's guidance table was mentioned, and Yunnan Sourcing offering input per type they sell (just not in table form, I don't think), and a Steeped App developer mentioned it's part of their app function.  I'm just posted about discussing that app version with one of the founders. 

I mostly discussed the Mei Leaf table there, as comments on that post.  Their table is actually pretty good, as starting points go, probably the best reference for that I've seen, at least in that form.  That's not saying much, because I don't remember ever seeing a brewing table broken out by gongfu and western parameters, so it's also the only one related to detailed gongfu parameter advice, and therefore also the worst, but to be fair it's pretty good.  Varying temperature using a gongfu approach isn't necessarily standard, but it's hard to get a feel for preference by vote / uptake, by how many people prefer which approaches.  This is that table:

Right away one might wonder what information from this works really well, and what isn't as good.

On the positive side, using a 100 ml gaiwan is a good starting point, or using a small glass pot would be identical in practice, really.  Someone could scale that up or down based on minimal experimentation, and 100 ml is relatively standard.  I think some 100 ml gaiwans end up holding only 90 ml of volume in the brewing area part but again that can get sorted out in a testing against preference phase.

a friend's (Sasha's) gongfu brewing set-up, using small glass pots

The categories in that table seem generally ok, since it would be hard to keep breaking them down further.  For example hei cha was left out, and how broken leaf material is makes a difference, how oxidized an oolong version is, white and sheng pu'er are really diverse categories, etc., but still it's fine like this, the basics are there.  Skipping yellow would've made sense, for all the more often that comes up, but it adds a feel of completeness (making it odd that they didn't add hei cha, to lean into that).  

I don't care for the base time + added time per round approach; to me that doesn't work.  In comments there in that discussion about what doesn't work as well that was the main critique:

timing, the +5 or 10 theme: this is the biggest error on the chart, it seems to me. there is no way infusion strength fades as fast as many of those timing cycles. adding 5 seconds for small leaf black tea per round and 5 seconds for rolled oolongs is a good example; the black tea would actually lose brewed strength much faster than the rolled oolong, and I think in this case it's that the black tea instruction is closer to right, and the oolong advice is not as good, but I just don't use that general approach.  it works to adjust each round timing based on how the last turned out. 

proportions: a bit arbitrary, since it's not as if the lower range they specify seems to map to that working better for those teas, or why using 4 grams per 100 ml for most makes more sense than 6 for every tea type.  I prefer using 8 grams per 100 ml gaiwan, maybe even a little more (I don't weigh it), because that makes it easy to judge related short infusion times without timing them, most somewhere between 5 and 15 seconds, most not over 20 even for later rounds.  you could try to learn to internally time 30 to 45 second infusion times but you might end up using some sort of timer instead, which, to me, would be a far less organic and enjoyable brewing process.

white, brew at 85 C: white is a broad range; to say that you would brew aged and young (new) shou mei, buds only versions (silver needle / silver tips), white Darjeeling, or white Nepal tea at the same temperature might not be ideal. you could, but later after experimentation that might change.  I've shifted to the practice of using just one temperature for all tea types, pretty close to full boiling point, but that's as much because it's simple and easy as related to optimizing results.  Maybe some of the white tea I drink would be better brewed at 85 C, with extracted compounds and aspect balance shifted a little.

green: I might brew Longjing gongfu style, but for most green tea types it's as well or better to use a Western approach. that's not a criticism of this chart, more a concern that the charts tend to drop out a lot of relevant context. I wouldn't brew broken leaf black tea gongfu style either, but this doesn't reference that, it only makes a distinction between large and small leaves.

oolong at 99 C: I think that's fine for a gongfu approach, but there's a reason why a lot of people back off that temperature for western style brewing oolongs. since personal preference is the final guide neither starting point is right or wrong. the quality of the oolong makes a difference, and these charts can only go so far in mapping out inputs.  one commonly expressed idea is that for better quality oolong using boiling point temperature water works best, and then for working around flaws the lower temperatures, that many parameter tables recommend, might work better, especially related to using a Western approach.  

related to them mentioning 99 C versus boiling point a little heat will escape related to cooling of a kettle, and transfer between devices, so it's as well to not overthink that.  pre-heating vessels would keep temperature higher, so that's not just a formality in the gongfu brewing approach.

oolong, infusion count per category: it's strange they are referencing 1 1/2 more grams per rolled oolong, versus twisted style, and saying that they'll both brew 9 infusions. timing is slightly longer for rolled versions, which do take longer initially to get started, and might brew a little slower later, but adding 5 seconds per the rolled version wouldn't even back out that proportion difference for durability. number of rounds relates to different factors, so that might be seen as minor, since it's a rougher than average estimate even within this starting point theme.

raw pu'er (sheng): actually not that bad, but the +3 timing change per infusion isn't right (per my opinion), it's better to brew based on how the last round worked out. many people prefer full boiling point and others 95 C, as shown, but that goes in their favor, since the point here is advising a starting point. "raw pu'er" is a very broad range of things, since aging changes a lot, and character varies quite a bit beyond that. I use timing differences to offset outcome differences, based of results of the last round, which makes it simple, but this approach of treating every version range as the same wouldn't work well.

shu, brewing for 20 infusions: generally not, and stretching timing by 10 seconds per round isn't how intensity difference progresses. it would work better to use more consistent timing for the first few rounds then stagger timing more after that, bumping it even more once it loses intensity past a certain point. temperature is ok, full boiling point, and the proportion and starting point at 10 seconds is ok.

So all in all those parameters are fine, for a starting point, just oversimplified or a bit off in those few ways, as I see it.  Others would see it all differently; gongfu approach is a subjectively guided process, steered towards matching individual preference.

There really isn't that much difference between what Don of Mei Leaf recommended, how I brew tea, and what William of Farmerleaf suggested.  Or related to placing more emphasis on finer points we are all preparing teas completely differently.

In terms of gear and steps I don't use a gong dao bei / cha hai, a fairness pitcher, as an interim step between brewing the tea and pouring it into a serving cup.  Of course that relates to using a larger teacup, one that matches the size of liquid volume the gaiwan holds, beyond the space the leaves take up.  William isn't using any sort of strainer for that step, which is a common practice (to use one), because he is using more whole leaf tea, is familiar with how to hold the lid to reduce material pouring out, and can just dump out a spare leaf fragment with the last of the liquid from the pitcher if it comes up.  

Functionally using some sort of sharing pitcher would absorb some of the heat, which is a good thing when it comes to trying to drink an already prepared tea at close to boiling point, after the concern of maintaining a brewing temperature at the earlier step has dropped out.  If I'm brewing tea gongfu style (or a variant of that) in a rush with a breakfast before work I'll use a similar step of pouring the tea from one cup to another, to remove enough heat to enable drinking it faster.  I'm not into smelling empty cups too often but when a particular tea leaves a heavy honey scent behind in an empty cup that can be nice. 

To me those details and mechanics don't matter so much.  Someone can keep smelling leaves and empty cups at different stages, as he recommends, or you can skip all that.  As with parameter specifics all that can be varied according to personal preference.

extra basic; just a gaiwan, cup, and thermos, for brewing outside

one of my introductions to tea interest was a Huawei on-site brewing demonstration, this

one of my favorite tea friends, Huyen, is into the more aesthetic and elaborate form

then she can  also scale that back when having tea in different locations

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