Monday, August 6, 2012

Gong Fu Puerh Cha • 功夫普洱茶

Pu-erh cha, 普洱茶, is a type of tea that has been tightly packed, usually into disk, brick, or knob shapes, then fermented for several years. Though they are increasingly rare nowadays, it takes thirty years for pu-erh's cha-qi, 茶齊, tea energy, to be considered truly developed. A forty, sixty, or even one-hundred year old pu-erh is even better, as its character continues to mellow with age. Much of the tea trade revolves around pu-erh cha, and it's what you'll most likely be served when you visit a tea master.

More recently, an extra step of tumbling the wet leaves has been added before pressing the leaves to imitate the aging process. These teas are known as 'shou cha', 熟茶, 'ripe', 'cooked', or 'black' pu-erh, while the traditional aging process is known as 'sheng cha', 生茶, 'raw' or 'green' pu-erh. Sheng pu-erh is usually preferred for aging, though there are also many aged shou pu-erh on the market.

Though, Pu-erh can be quite a complex tea, it's actually the simplest tea to brew. It's almost impossible to ruin a pot of pu-erh tea, though you'll certainly notice when it's prepared with skill. I've chosen an 18 year old sheng cha, and an antique Yixing pear shaped pot, which wouldn't suit shou cha, but I find brews this sheng cha very well.

For gong fu cha, you generally want to fill the pot about a third with dry tea. With pu'erh you can add even more. It's good to add a balance of larger chunks with a bit of smaller bits, as the chunks will develop slowly and the small pieces will boost the initial infusions.

Once your water has reached a "crab-eye" boil (bubbles the size of crab eyes), the first step is to heat the pot and the cup(s). Fill the pot entirely, then returning the lid, pour water all over the outside of the pot. This also helps to wash any dust away. The water can be emptied out into the cups to heat them as well. Temperature is important, as the tea oils respond to heat, and a cold pot or cup will "steal" the fragrance of the tea.

Now you can add your tea, and if you like, let it sit for a moment in the hot teapot. Especially with aged pu'erh tea, it is important to quickly rinse the tea of dust. Fill the teapot with water, wait a few seconds and empty it. The first time you add water to the tea, it will be very bubbly and these bubbles will carry out the dust. Scrape them off with the bottom of the lid and then pour a bit of water over the pot once more. Rinsing the leaves also start to awaken them and you'll notice the scent emerging from the pot. I always enjoy smelling the tea or even the inside of the lid and getting a hint of what's to come.

Gong fu cha has very quick infusions, for pu'erh the first should only be about 10-15 seconds, depending on personal taste and the character of the tea. The second infusion is the shorter, only 8-10 seconds, since the leaves have further awoken. The third infusion is the shortest, 6-8 seconds, and the leaves are now at their prime. The third infusion is often considered the best. For the fourth and fifth add a couple more seconds to each brew, then a few more seconds after that. A good quality tea will continue to deliver about eight servings, though you can continue with brews a few minutes, an hour, or even day long infusions if you really want to get everything you can out of the leaves.

It's important to pay close attention to the brewing times, not to drain too much of the tea at one time, leaving it thin for the next infusions. Eventually, you form a type of "communication" with the tea, where your intuition begins to guide your hand. The tea tells you when it is ready.

Little things I enjoy while brewing tea are watching the water suddenly evaporate from the side of the pot, the smell of the cup just after it's been emptied, the warm feel of it in my hand, and most of all, the joy of serving someone a great cup of tea!

dry leaves

rinse, to be discarded
first infusion, full color 

second infusion, still lots of bubbles 

wet leaves
third infusion, some bubbles 
fourth infusion, no more bubbles 

my wife's untouched second cup compared with the eighth infusion 

used leaves


  1. Great article and photos, Joseph. Thanks!

  2. Joseph, while you were in Chiang Mai, did you check out Siam Celadon and Mengrai Kilns for tea cups and pots? Mengrai Kilns had some very nice and unusual tea cups.

  3. No I didn't, actually, this is the first I've heard of it. Thanks for the info!