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Why is there a difference between Gongfu versus Western-style brewing?

The basic definitions of these two brewing approaches are probably familiar, with the point here to consider why the outcome is so different.  In theory using higher proportion and shorter infusion times should be identical to using a far lower dry tea to liquid proportion and much longer timing if you combine the Gongfu set of infusions together (“stack” them).  In practice, maybe the separation does make the main difference: The experience of transition.  But the results seem quite different, so there could be more to it.  I’ll take two guesses here about possible additional factors.

Joshua Linvers initiated this subject, posting about experimenting with variations of Western brewing approach for Da Hong Pao (a Wuyi Yancha type).  He found that some seemingly equivalent but slightly varied proportion and time combinations gave relatively poor results, versus other trials standing out as much better, although there would be some relative optimum.  In message discussion he suggested that agitation could be a significant additional factor in Gongfu brewing.

Western Style Brewing 

Let’s run through a standard description of both for comparison, based on my own preference more than a standard definition.  Western brewing is most often described as using about 2 grams of dry tea per 250 ml, infused at varying temperatures per tea type, often for two rounds at about 4 and then 5 minutes. For here I’ll shift that to considering use of 3 grams per that 250 ml (8.4 ounces), infused for 2 1/2 and then 3 ½ minutes.  I might back off that time even further for some stronger flavored versions, like broken black tea, or use a third round for more durable versions.  Best brewing temperature depends on type, with variations in infusion time used more than temperature for Gongfu brewing to offset intensity and potential negative aspects (eg. astringency).

Gongfu Style Brewing

For Gongfu brewing I tend to use about 5 grams of tea per 100 ml gaiwan (device), infused for something like 10 seconds for the first few rounds, bumped up after 3 or 4 rounds to account for intensity dropping, then even longer later in the cycle.  It’s typical to use full boiling point temperature, or just off that, maybe only cooler for green tea.  But then it’s more standard to Western brew green tea, in general.  I tend to go through 10 infusions or more even with a quick breakfast, out around 15 rounds for more durable or better tea, or for when I use a slightly higher proportion.

Gongfu Versus Western-Style Brewing - Photo of a flight of compressed white teas

At a glance the first Western approach brews half a liter of tea using 3 grams of tea (although in practice that varies).  The second approach output might round down to 90 ml, considering space for wet leaves, with 10 rounds brewing 900 ml out of 5 grams of tea, with a typical slightly longer cycle extending past 1 liter.  

Timing for Western brewing was 6 minutes, in this example, but it’s harder to estimate the Gongfu total, since I vary each time based on last round results.  Guessing out one typical cycle might be (in seconds) 10, 10, 10, 13, 13, 15, 15, 17, 17, 20, adding to 140 seconds, which could easily round up to 3 minutes depending on tea version.  It’s worth noting that the Gongfu tea brewed (soaked / infused) for half as long, in total, in these parameter examples. Again variations complicate this; I might Gongfu a more intense tea starting out at 6-8 second rounds, and sometimes use longer later round timing.

Drawing Some Conclusions Between Gongfu versus Western Style 

It’s not so different, for total brewed tea production per dry leaf amount, within the range of normal variations for specific cases.  Looked at another way the infusion strength should be comparable.

In practice, to me, different teas provide much different results depending on which approach is used.  Sheng pu’er, twisted style oolongs (Wuyi Yancha and Dan Cong), and better whole-leaf black teas (like Dian Hong, or even whole-leaf Darjeeling) give better results brewed Gongfu style.  As I see it white tea, green, or shu pu’er often work out about the same, with broken leaf black tea as good or better brewed Western style.  I brew shu pu’er Gongfu style, almost exclusively, so I guess that implies I see it as preferrable, but Western style results are pretty good too. 

Why the differences in outcome related to approach?  I can only guess.  Maybe trying more infusions, seeing that ongoing variation / transition, is more positive in many cases.  It’s possible that I really am brewing teas lighter Gongfu style, in general, and that matches my impression (which would at least partly explain the total infusion time difference).  Two other factors might explain outcome differences, and also why the tea brews for half as long but is still roughly as “brewed out.”

Gongfu Versus Western-Style Brewing - Photo of a laptop and a cup of tea set up in the sun

All the pouring in and out adds agitation to the brewing process.  Swirling a Western infusion during brewing might be more comparable.  Also the leaves seem to not completely stop brewing between rounds, when they’re not actually in contact with water, beyond the leaves still being wet.  If you “flash brew” a round, only pouring the water in and right back out, over the 5 seconds or so that takes for two pours, the infusion strength is still significant.  Both factors would enable Gongfu brewing to use far less water contact time for similar extraction, with slightly different results.

This review goes no further than proposing these secondary causes for variation in results, versus drawing clearer conclusions.  Only experimentation with brewing approaches and parameters using different types would determine the best match to personal preference, which is the main goal.

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