A huge part of my job as a tea importer trying to establish Chinese tea service as a cultural practice in America is drawing analogies. This is quite easy when it comes to the tea itself – good tea, like good wine, beer, chocolate, coffee, liquor, or pretty much anything else, is sublime and exquisite, diverse and capable of being appreciated to great depth. The difference between the highest grades of gourmet tea and the bland dust found in most commercial teabags can be readily demonstrated by comparing low and high grades of items that American consumers are more familiar with. For example, someone who appreciates beer can understand the difference between a Trappist ale and a Miller High Life.
Finding an analogy for the art and discipline of gong fu cha, the Chinese tea service that is inextricable from Chinese tea culture itself, is more difficult, because the practice has no analogue in modern American society. For those unfamiliar with gong fu cha, it essentially involves the use of small, purpose-made teaware to produce a concentrated infusion of tea using a large dose of whole-leaf tea, with carefully controlled temperature, steeping time, and even pour heights to bring out the full flavor of the tea. Wine, beer, and chocolate are all ready to consume as soon as their containers are opened, so there is no equivalent “preparation” step. Liquor is made into cocktails by mixing it with other ingredients, which is not part of the practice of gong fu cha – this is a common source of confusion amongst people newly exposed to Chinese tea. People often imagine a masterful tea server as having knowledge of a broad variety of plants, and carefully combining leaves and flowers in precise ratios to make specialty blends. This is undoubtedly an art unto itself, but the person practicing it is an herbalist, and they are not practicing gong fu cha. Tea, in the gong fu service, is a pure substance, and is not adulterated with sugar, milk, lemon, or anything else.
The closest analogy found in modern America is the specialty preparation of very fine coffees, especially the making of espresso. Here, also, the grinding, tamping, timing and temperature of the brewing process have a profound effect on the finished beverage. The processes of pulling espresso and pouring tea differ in a few important aspects, the most obvious of which is the use of a mechanical intermediary – the espresso machine. Without falling down a linguistic rabbit hole, the term “gong fu” refers to a uniquely Chinese concept that can be roughly translated to “skill acquired through mindful practice.” When I teach gong fu cha classes, I emphasize that you cannot be “taught” gong fu, but merely the techniques of serving tea – gong fu is an internal quality that must be cultivated over time by the individual through patient application of those techniques. It is my personal opinion that the use of devices such as timers, scales, or thermometers hinders the development of gong fu. I even avoid water boilers with temperature settings for different teas – each tea requires a different temperature, even two teas within the same category, and one tea can require a different temperature on different days. These kinds of ineffable nuances can only be developed slowly, consciously, and without the aid of machinery.
Coffee is also less diverse than tea in the range of flavors and aromas that it can produce – no two coffees (the kind used for espresso anyway) are going to taste as different from each other as green and black tea, not to mention raw and ripened pu er, white tea, yellow tea, and the grand spectrum of flavors and fragrances found in oolong. None of this is meant to detract from the depth of coffee culture or the skill inherent in the art of pulling espresso – merely to draw a clear distinction. Additionally, a talented barista is not only able to pull a good espresso but to use that espresso to make a whole range of coffee drinks by mixing it with different proportions of milk, water, foam, and other ingredients. Again, the inclusion of ingredients other than tea is simply not part of the process of gong fu cha.
The closest analogue I can find for gong fu cha is alchemy – an archaic proto-science that essentially involves the transmutation of one pure substance into another pure substance. In the West, alchemists famously sought to turn various substances into gold, while in the East their aim was to achieve immortality either through the production of an elixir or the internal refinement of subtle energies. When I teach gong fu cha, proper posture, breathing, centering, and feeling throughout the process are much more important than the temperature, time, and dosage, which can be discovered through simple trial and error. The Chinese word for breath is qi, and it is indistinguishable from the Chinese concept of life force. At its highest levels, gong fu cha is the art of being receptive to the qi of the tea plant itself, as well as the water, fire, and clay used in the tea service, and of appropriately applying one’s own qi through breath, action, and focus to harmonize these energies. The finished product, imbued with this refined qi, reflects not only the quality of the ingredients (tea, water, clay) and the skill of the server (timing, temperature, dosage), but also the qi of the server as it comes to bear on the beverage.
Incidentally, there are some palpable, though subtle, indices of mindful brewing that extend beyond the physical parameters and that can be detected and sometimes tasted in the finished infusion. The most notable of these are the cha qi and the hui gan. Cha qi is, of course, the qi of the liquid tea, and it manifests itself as a subjective, somewhat psychoactive sensation – the “buzz” of the tea. In Chinese tea culture, this is one of the most valued and sought after aspects of the tea, and for the true connoisseur good qi is infinitely more important than the mere taste or fragrance of the brew. It is considered to be an attribute of the tea itself, rather than of the person preparing the tea, but it requires skillful and mindful preparation in order to bring it out. The qi is locked in the leaves, and it is the cooperation of fire, water, earth, and the person pouring the tea that makes it available in the finished beverage.
The second attribute I mentioned, hui gan, is much more distinct as it can actually be detected with the senses. It is also more apt to vary from one person to another preparing the same tea. Hui gan literally means “returning sweetness” and refers to the deep, lingering fragrance and sensation produced by high quality tea. A comparable English term is “aftertaste” although this falls far short of describing the complexity and dynamism of hui gan. Like cha qi, hui gan is inherent in the tea itself, and like cha qi it requires skillful brewing – not just perfect timing and temperature – to unlock. I have experimented with brewing identical dosages of the same tea simultaneously, using the same timing, water, and temperature in identical vessels. The general concentration, the simple flavor components such as sweetness or bitterness, and even the fragrance of the resulting brews are indistinguishable, but the hui gan is immediately and noticeably different. It differs from person to person, often with remarkable consistency, in not only degree but also the part of the mouth where it hits first, and how the sensation spreads through the mouth afterwards. I have done this even with identical twins, and found that no two people can brew identical cups of tea – it is the internal alchemy of gong fu cha that determines the deepest aspects of this infinitely complex beverage.
You can learn more about So Han Fan’s mission and passion at West China Tea Co.