Solo Session Simple Gongfu Style Tea Brewing Basics

Tea is nought but this: first you heat the water, then you make the tea, then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know. ---- Sen Rikyu

I've had a few people ask how I've learned how to brew tea. Do I have a rule of thumb? Guidelines for tea styles? In this post, I will share my basic process for brewing tea by myself.

Before we begin, I will readily admit that brewing tea well is something that comes with experience-- and I still have so much to learn. You really do need to practice often and take note of how you like the results to improve. Even with the guidelines I provide in this post, there is no "hack" or "shortcut" to go from looking at a gaiwan for the first time to extracting the exact flavor elements you are looking for in your tea. 

Bare Basics of What You Need

The bare minimum setup for a solo session includes the items above: your tea kettle, an 80ml gaiwan, a 60ml teacup, and a waste water and leaf dump. You can even omit the waste water dump to further streamline your setup, but I find it nice to have a place to immediately strain off your rinse from pre-warming the cup.

Step 1: Choose Tea

Three-ish grams of 2017 Nepalese black tea from Jan Chiabari Estate.

Three-ish grams of 2017 Nepalese black tea from Jan Chiabari Estate.

Choose your tea. Think about how you feel, the season, the weather, and the time of day. As an example, most red (a.k.a black) teas are more warming while fresh greens teas are more cooling. Learn as much as you can from your tea purveyor about the tea to prepare you to make these decisions.

Now, portion out your tea. Some people weigh out exactly 4-7 grams (exact amount depending on many factors) or do it by look or feel. Start with your tea vendor's recommended amount before experimenting.


Step 2: Heat Water

Start with the temperature your tea vendor recommended. I use a candy thermometer slipped in to one of the steam vents on my kettle to check the temperature. While there are varying schools of thoughts on "bring it to a boil and let it cool" versus "stop the boil when it has reached your desired temperature" I will avoid this digression since this is a basics post.


Step 3: Warm Teaware

Pour hot water in to your gaiwan. Wait. Pour that water in to your teacup. Wait. Discard water. Why do this? The water temp can lower as much as 10 or 15 degrees F upon contact with the cold teaware depending on the material the teaware is made out of. Pre-warmed teaware will provide more consistent brewing results.


Step 4: Load Dry Tea

Now, I load my dry tea into the hot gaiwan and close the lid. I agitate the gaiwan just a little and then crack the lid open next to my nose. What I am smelling for here is a preview of the fragrances of the tea. What I am smelling here will help me understand what notes I can pull out of the coming brews. Are they floral? Fruity? Earthy? Mineral? Vegetal? Roasty? I will dedicated another post entirely to ways to use this step to learn about a new tea. 


Step 5: Water Meets Tea Leaf

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Brew the tea. Decant water in to gaiwan and begin to time your brew. Stay focused on the brew. Do not pick up your phone to check Instragram or turn to another task. The likelihood that you will oversteep your tea is a real danger. Stay with it. This is part of the beauty of tea practice is taking this time for yourself away from other distractions.

You have a lot of options as to what you do at this point depending on the type of tea and what you want to extract. If you are simply following the vendor's instruction, don't fuss too much with agitating the leaves with the lid. Do crack the lid to check on the tea liquor color and smell the fragrance as it is coming closer to the allotted steep time.


Step 6: Decant and Enjoy

Decant the tea liquor in to the cup. This step is an art in and of itself with many methods for holding and handling the gaiwan.

It's a small cup, but not a shot glass. Smell the resulting brewed tea before your drink. Then, enjoy your small cup over three sips, pausing after each one to reflect on the aroma, taste, and feeling. 

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Step 7: Return to Step 5

Enjoy many as many steeps of the tea as suit you!

How do you enjoy your solo gongfu session?