Gongfu Style and the Yixing Teapot

A Yixing Teapot with Stamp

Significant Artistry in Yixing Teapot Production

In previous posts we’ve highlighted just a couple of the many tea pots and vessels used to prepare tea (mugs, infusers, and teabags aside). We’ve touched a bit on using a Japanese kyusu for preparation of green tea. We’ve also touched on how using a Chinese Gaiwan can enrich the enjoyment of tea as well as bring out more subtle flavors in teas like Bao Zhong Oolong. In this post we are going to look at another traditional Chinese vessel for preparing tea; the Yixing Teapot.

The Yixing Teapot

Yixing (pronounced ‘ee-shing’) teapots, also known as zisha or ‘purple sand’ teapots, have been around for at least 500 years. While they are normally associated with preparing oolong and pu’erh teas, they really can be used to prepare any kind of tea while adjusting for temperature. An authentic Yixing teapot comes from the town of the same name in Jiangsu province in Eastern China (near Shanghai). Pottery has been made in this area for thousands of years though the development of the Yixing teapot design is a much more recent development. They are believed to have been created as a better vessel for tea preparation at a time when preferences shifted from powdered tea to that of loose leaf.

The Yixing teapots are quite small, generally sized for 2-4 people, un-glazed and typically found in red, green, or black colors. Being un-glazed these teapots become seasoned with use taking the aroma and flavors of the teas prepared in them. For this reason it is best to use one type of Yixing teapot for each type of tea. Additionally, since they are un-glazed Yixing teapots do a great job wicking remaining liquid away from tea after steeping keeping the leaves fresh and ready for many subsequent infusions.

Three Yixing teapot designs.

Yixing teapots come in many styles and colors though simple designs are better for making tea.

Yixing teapots are art in and of themselves. While some are highly decorated, the best and most valuable are typically quite plain in appearance. Highly prized, there are substantial fakes on the market which may be artificially colored, may not have the right density or porosity, and may have lids which don’t have the perfect fit known for this type of pottery. Knowing how to spot a fake is far beyond the scope of this post but do be careful if you are seeking to spend hundreds, thousands, or even more on one.

Gongfu Style Tea

Yixing teapots and the Gongfu style of tea preparation go hand in hand. Gongfu, aka Gong Fu or ‘Kung Fu’, actually means to do something with great skill, and represents a high investment in learning and practice. And while Kung Fu is often thought of in a martial arts concept, Gongfu style tea represents preparation of tea with great skill. Those who have studied Yixing teapots and practiced Gongfu style for many years are truly masters. They are able to quickly identify the best pots for a given tea. What’s more they have a feel for how long to steep, how to adjust steeping times between steepings, and ultimately how to extract the best taste and flavors from a tea.

Yixing Teapot and Two Small Cups

Gongfu Style Tea is an Art Form

While the full ritual of preparing tea Gongfu style has many steps its loosely distilled into:

  1. Rinse and heat the teapot and cups.
  2. Add tea and rinse the tea briefly.
  3. Steep the tea for 10-15 seconds and fully pour out the contents into a small pitcher.
  4. Serve the tea in small cups.

In this manner more water can be added for multiple subsequent infusions, each of 10-15 seconds, repeating five to ten times ore more.

Expand Your Tea Horizons

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the experience you can have with a Yixing teapot and an exploration of Gongfu style tea. However, if you have become a fan of straight teas, find yourself drinking some of the many wonderful teas less known in the west, and/or have discovered Oolong or Pu’erh tea then an exploration of Yixing and Gongfu has got to be next on your list.

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Tie Guan Yin (aka Ti Kuan Yin) – Iron Goddess Oolong

Tieguanyin, Ti Kuan Yin, or Tie Guan Yin are named  for the Iron Goddess of Mercy

Iron Goddess of Mercy – Guanyin – By Jakub Hałun (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0

Tie Guan Yin, also known as Ti Kuan Yin, Tieguanyin, or other variant, is one of the oldest oolongs produced in China. Originating in Anxi in the Fujian province of China in the 1800s, it is named after the Mahayana Buddhist’s Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. Tie translates into Iron, so the full translation is Iron Goddess of Mercy. Like other Chinese teas, its origin is tied to a myth.

Ti Kuan Yin Myth

A poor farmer named Wei who everyday on this way to the fields walks past a small run down temple to Guanyin. He stops and sweeps out debris from the temple and leaves burning incense each day. One night Guanyin appears in a dream to him and tells him there is a cave behind the temple that holds a treasure and that he is to take the treasure from the cave, plant it and share it with the other farmers in his village. The next morning, the farmer found a tea sprig in the cave, which he took to the fields where he planted and cared for it. When it grew into a bush, he discovered it made a very flavorful tea. He cut off sprigs and gave them to his fellow farmers to plant as well. Everyone in the village began growing tea and named it after Guanyin. The tea provided enough money for the farmers in the village that they restored the temple to Guanyin as a tribute to her sharing the tea with them.

Ti Kuan Yin Oolong Production

The production of Ti Kuan Yin is rather complex, like other oolongs, and can take anywhere from 3-5 days to complete. Like all teas, it is plucked and withered in the sun. Once withering reaches the desired level the leaves are lightly rolled/twisted to damage the leaves to help speed along the oxidation process. The leaves are usually left in bamboo baskets or trays to oxidize between 40-70%. The leaves are not fully dry but are damp. The leaves are then rolled/twisted into their desired form and may be returned to withering if it is determine to be necessary. This process can be repeated multiple times. Once the desired shape and flavor is reached the tea is then baked. It is the baking that creates the nutty flavor of a traditional Ti Kuan Yin.

Types of Ti Kuan Yin

Ti Kuan Yin (aka Tieguanyin) Loose Leaf and Liquor

Ti Kuan Yin, aka Tieguanyin or Tie Guan Yin – Iron Goddess Oolong Tea

There are a few different types of Ti Kuan Yin. The type is tied to the time of year the leaf is picked and how long the tea is allowed to oxidize. A traditional Ti Kuan Yin is picked in the spring and again in the fall. It is oxidized closer to 70%. A Jade Ti Kuan Yin is a less oxidized Ti Kuan Yin that is more like a green tea than oolong that is picked only in the spring. The Jade Ti Kuan Yin is more flowery in flavor while the traditional is nutty in flavor. In drinking any type of Ti Kuan Yin, allow the boiling water to cool to at least 180° Fahrenheit before putting the tea in the water.

As you explore the world of tea, pay tribute to the Goddess of Mercy and enjoy a cup of Ti Kuan Yin.

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History of Tea in Taiwan

Map of Taiwan relative to China

Taiwan is home to many of the best world’s best oolong teas.

Being an island 90 miles off of the Chinese southern coast, Taiwan was destined to grow tea and be a strategic trading and military port for several different countries. The tea trade in this country reflects centuries of constant change in rulers and customs. It is believed that there were Camilla sinensis plants growing natively on Taiwan, but they produced very thin leaves that were brittle and bitter (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011). Tea plants where brought onto the island in the mid-1600s from the Fujian province of China when Taiwan was controlled by the Chinese Qing Dynasty. As more Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan, the plants where moved to several locations throughout the island. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800’s, with European intervention, that a commercial tea trade was developed.

European Influence on Taiwan Tea Trade

The Europeans were looking for other ports to trade tea given the Opium Wars with mainland China in the mid-1800’s. The need to diversify tea ports away from mainland China, led John Dodd to start offering financing to Taiwanese peasants. This enabled local Taiwanese start tea plantations as well as build factories in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to process the tea. Prior to those factories, all the tea leaves in Taiwan where sent to Anxi or Fuzhou China for the final processing. By bringing the final processing to the island, Mr. Dodd put Taiwan on the US and European tea maps with Taiwan producing mostly black teas for those markets. The name “Formosa” was put on most of these teas, as Portugal was the first European country to stumble across Taiwan and that is the name they gave the island. It means beautiful, so it worked well for a marketing name at the time (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011).

Taiwan Tea Industry From 1895 to Present

Close up of Fanciest Formosa Oolong

Fanciest Formosa Oolong from Taiwan

Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895 and proceeded to invest heavily in tea production in the country, introducing new tea cultivars, fertilizer and mechanization of the processing of the tea. Very skillfully, the Japanese kept the focus on black tea so the island would not compete with the Japanese green teas. The Chinese took back control from Japan at the end of the Second World War. This shifted tea production from black to green as trade with Europe and the US was dramatically cut. Competition with Japan and China forced Taiwan to shift again in the 1970’s to the oolong production they are well known for now. Even today, most of the tea in Taiwan is consumed locally even though they are considered among the finest of available teas worldwide (Richardson, 2008). The tea industry in Taiwan is still dominated by small family owned farmers giving them control over both the growth and the manufacturing of the tea. This is a unique arrangement and is credited with creating the proper atmosphere for the creation of their diverse and superior oolongs. Below is a quick chart describing some of the better known oolongs which are exported from Taiwan. If you get your hands on one of these, drink them over multiple infusions to enjoy the full complexity of these wonderful teas.

Dong Ding (Tong Ting) Produced in the Dong Ding region (while most people refer to Dong Ding Mountain, most of the tea is not grown on the mountain side). This is a tightly balled oolong that should be brewed with boiling water. It produces a greenish golden liquor with heavy floral notes with a buttery cream finish.

Bao Zhong (Jade Pouchong) This 18-20% oxidized green tea – almost an oolong  but mostly a green tea (called Pouchong) is a full twisted leaf green that produces an amber green liquid that is delicate floral and sweet.

Oriental Beauty This balled oolong is famous for the green-leaf hoppers that munch on the leaves just before harvesting. Their biting causes the plants to release L-Theanine producing a complex flavor in this tea. It makes an orange-brown liquor with woody, floral notes followed by a creamy finish. This oolong is traditionally enjoyed with a Gong Fu set that allows for multiple small steepings of this tea to enjoy all the different flavors.

Fanciest Formosa This higher oxidized oolong is produced in the traditional Chinese method with twisted leaves instead of balled. It produces an amber to dark brown liquor with honey and peach flavors. It is the typical “first” oolong for someone wanting to experience oolong for the first time.

Ali Shan This high altitude oolong  is a tightly balled oolong that produces a yellow liquor with a sweet intense creamy flavor with some toasted nut notes. It is less oxidized oolong, so brew more like a green than black tea (not at boiling).
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Discover Oolong Teas

Oolong teas are actually some of the youngest types of tea.  It is believed that the Chinese started to really understand and control oxidation of tea in the 17th century, leading to the first oolong teas.  Given that the first teas in China where documented over 3,000 years earlier, a few hundred years old is still young.  Highly regarded Taiwanese oolongs only began to make an appearance during the 1960’s, when the Taiwanese realized they were losing market share to Chinese and Japanese teas.  Taiwan needed to do something different to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.  Prior to the 1960’s, Taiwan was producing mainly green teas for consumption by the Japanese.

Ti Kuan Yin Dry Leaf and Liquor

Ti Kuan Yin, Balled Style Oolong

What’s in a Name?  Origin of the Oolong Name

The name oolong literally means black dragon, which refers to the shape of the hand rolled oolong tea leaves.  There are other theories that the name originates from the Wuyi Mountains in the Fujian Province of China where it is believed that the first oolong teas where made.  There is an alternative theory that it is named after the man who made the first oolongs, Wu Liang, and was later corrupted to Wu Long before being anglicized into oolong.  No matter where the name came from, this type of tea is worth exploring for every tea drinker.

Oolong Flavors

Ginseng Oolong Dry Leaf and Liquor

Ginseng Oolong, Rolled Oolong with Ginseng and Licorice

As discussed on an earlier post which covered the broader types of teas, oolongs are partially oxidized teas.  They can appear both black and green given their level of oxidation.  Due to the wide range of oxidation, the range of flavors is truly wide and complex.  Some oolongs are now flavored or rolled with ginseng and licorice powder to form small pellets.  Taiwan is continuing to innovate in oolong production by taking the finished product and baking it again to enhance the flavor and aroma.  From teas with a delicate taste of flowers to spicy finishing notes, oolongs provide a nice variety for everyone to enjoy and is a type of tea production that occurs in many countries.  Also, with cold brewing, the complex flavors produced in this manufacturing process can be enjoyed cold.

Oolong Styles and Brewing

Oolong teas usually take on two shapes.  The first is the tightly rolled balls, or balled style, with a stem tail.  While the second is a long curly leaf shape, or open leaf style, which can look like the dragons in Chinese mythology.  To get these shapes, oolong is typically harvested from older leaves on the tea plant, so don’t expect two leaves and bud.  It is more common to find four leaves and a bud or what is sometimes five older leaves.

Oriental Beauty Oolong Wet Leaf Up-Close

Oriental Beauty Open Leaf Style Oolong, Wet Leaf

Given the oxidation level of the oolong, it can be brewed with water ranging from 185-205 degrees Fahrenheit and for anywhere between 3-5 minutes.  Like any good tea, oolong deserves fresh water in the kettle to allow the oxygen in the water to carry out the complex flavors of this tea.  Also, this tea should be steeped multiple times to enjoy the wide array of flavors with each steeping.  So drink this tea when you have time to stop and enjoy the flavors being presented to you.

I like to think there is an oolong tea for everyone, whether you prefer subtle green or forward blacks.  So when you are looking for something new, oolongs are the best place to look and they rarely disappoint.  It’s unfair to pick a favorite oolong because there are so many to enjoy.  Is there one that you are curious about?

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Beyond the Teabag – 5 Things To Upgrade Your Tea Experience

For so many Americans, our only exposure to tea is from teabags, the tea served at Chinese restaurants, or those few selections offered at one of the nationwide chains.  Are you aware that there are 6 major types of tea and hundreds of options when you consider growing conditions, manufacturing methods, and local variations?  Unlike other beverages there is something for everyone, however too much choice can often be overwhelming.  Here are a few of our thoughts to simplify your early experience with loose leaf tea and tisanes:

  1. Start simple with a black, oolong, green or blended tea.  If you prefer no caffeine then consider an herbal or rooibos.
  2. Loose leaf tea is easy to make:  Start with a good infuser or use a good paper filter.  Avoid the stereotypical tea ball and go with something large to allow room for the tea to move around while steeping.
  3. If making black, oolong, or pu’erh, use boiling water and steep 1 tsp per 8 oz mug, no longer than 5 minutes.  If you are like us, you use a large mug or travel tumbler, so make sure you know roughly how much water is in your mug of choice and adjust the amount of tea accordingly.
  4. When steeping green, yellow, and white tea, allow boiling water to cool 3-4 minutes before adding tea.  Never use boiling water with these.  Use 1 tsp per 8 oz of water for green tea or 1 Tbsp per 8 oz for white tea or yellow tea.  Don’t steep any longer than 3-5 minutes.
  5. Steep 1 tsp per 8 oz of water for pure herbals (those containing no tea at all), rooibos, and honey bush for 7-10 minutes with boiling water.

More Ways to Upgrade Your Tea Experience

If the top five list above doesn’t quite satisfy your need, here are a few other things to be aware of.

Re-using an infuser after simply knocking out the prior tea leaves yields a mixture of the old and new leaves.

The result of adding boiling water to an emptied, but not really clean, fine mesh infuser.

  • Green tea really does not need to be bitter.  The key is to make sure you do NOT use boiling water.  With green tea you really want 170-185 degrees Fahrenheit and you don’t want to steep longer than 5 minutes.  Steeping at a lower temperature is often better.
  • If you use a fine mesh infuser, be sure to at least rinse it with boiling water before adding a new tea.  If you are like us, you are very busy and it’s so tempting to just knock out the last tea leaves and refill.  Without rinsing with boiling water you end up with lots of contamination from the last tea you brewed.
  • It pays to pre-heat your mug when steeping black, oolong, and pu’erh teas.  Adding boiling water to a mug, especially a ceramic mug, will almost instantly drop the temperature below 200 degrees.  If you add boiling water to your mug first, discard, and refill a second time for steeping you will keep the temperature higher for a longer period of time adding to the intensity.

Start Simple Then Experiment

Most teas do come with recommended times and loose tea per 8 oz serving size.  These more specific suggestions are certainly a better starting point than the general guidance above.  However, if you are new to loose leaf tea there really is no need to make it overly complicated.  Find something you like, use a good infuser or single use tea filter, and follow the general time and temperature guidance above.  As you drink tea more often you might try to start varying the amount of tea you use, as well as temperature and time to see how the taste varies, perhaps finding a combination more to your specific taste.

Clay Yixing Teapot in Hot Water

Yixing Teapot by Flickr SOLO-ASSA, CC BY-SA 2.0

Making tea can, of course, be a lot more involved if you want it to be.  We didn’t talk about specialty teapots, gaiwan sets, or the myriad other accessories and techniques for steeping.  Nor did we talk about making your own blends or baking tea on your own.  These are all topics for another day if and when the curiosity arises.

Know someone who could benefit from this post?  Please share and help others experience loose leaf tea.  And be sure to like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for more information on tea, its history, and culture.

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