Chaozhou tea setup

The Scientific Case for Gongfu Brewing

Gongfu brewing, or Gongfucha (工夫茶), is an act that delights and intimidates tea aficionados alike.

“It requires lots of skills (not really), it is ceremonial (no, read this), it is …… ancient (no, its origin is about 300-400 years, old but not ancient).” Detractors say.

Yet for connoisseurs, there is no better way to enjoy oolong tea.

Definition

Here’s a nutshell about what is Gongfucha. (A more complete explanation can be found here)

In summary, gongfu tea in its original form has 3 components

i)                    Small vessel and drinking cups

ii)                   Oolong tea

iii)                 Takes time and effort

In terms of parameters, it is characterised by:

i) Higher leaf to water ratio- e.g. 1 g per 22 cc of water as opposed to 1 g per 50 cc of water

ii) Multiple short infusions, generally in the range from 10 seconds to 1 minute for the first infusion

To novice weaned on the ‘golden rule’ of one teaspoon per person and one for the pot, infuse for two to three minutes, this sounds bizarre, but let us look at the chemistry behind it.

Aromatherapy

“先闻其香,后品其味”

Translated it means, first smell the fragrance then appreciate the taste {of tea}. Indeed, a major component of tea appreciation entails appreciating the complex aromas in tea.

Most of the various fragrances can be attributed to Volatile Fragrance Compounds (VFC) in tea. Though VFCs make up less than 0.02% of the dry weight in raw leaves, there are more than 700 identified varieties.

There are approximately 80 types of VFC in raw leaves, 260 in finished green tea and more than 400 in black tea. This huge range of VFCs has different individual characteristics such as the smell, melting point, intensity, vaporisation temperatures and how long it lingers.

In oolong tea appreciation, where Gongfucha was originally intended, the aroma is an essential part of the experience. This is where Gongfucha comes in.

Can you take the Heat?

This is a simple experiment you can try on your own. Try brewing two cups of Dancong side by side, with the same quantity, infusion time and vessel, but one with boiling water and another with water of 80⁰C. The Dancong brewed with boiling water will yield aromas that are absent in the later.

*See here for more details

This is due to several VFC in Dancong (and others teas, particularly in oolong tea) that are only diffused at near boiling temperatures.

Nothing Last Forever

The next thing to note is that VFC do not linger ad infinitum, being volatile (as its name suggests) in nature, they diffuse quickly. Short of making tea in a pressure cooker (or equivalent), there are bound to be certain aromas that will diffuse and be lost to the environment.

Having a shorter brewing time allows you to appreciate and savour the VFC before they are gone.

Different Strokes

Of the hundreds of VFCs in oolong tea, some are more intense than others, and overshadow the rest. On the other hand, some linger longer than others.

As you hold a small cup, approximately 30-40 cc, the changes in temperature is faster and hence the changes in fragrance is more readily perceptible. In fact, when the cup is empty and consumed quickly, there is a delightful lingering fragrance of the empty cup, known literally as ‘Cup Bottom’s Fragrance’ (杯底香). By the time you consume a big cup or a mug, this fragrance is long gone.

A small cup, as consumed over three sips (or so), can yield a myriad of fragrances as the temperature changes.

Don’t be bitter about it

As explained in this article (and more details in the upcoming book), different taste attributing compounds dissolve at different rates, as well as respond to different temperaments differently.

Polyphenols and caffeine, which are responsible for bitterness, dissolves slower than amino acids, which are responsible for the sweetness. In other words, while a higher temperature releases bitterness, this can be compensated for with a shorter brewing time, which is the case for Gongfucha.

Over multiple infusions, the ratio of polyphenols to amino acids changes and provides different tastes profiles and experiences.

So in essence, Gongfucha is about finding the balance of maximum aromas unleashed and preserved, with the desired taste profiles, pushing the tea to its limits- as much VFC/amino acid/tea polysaccharides, released without too high a weightage of polyphenols/caffeine/saponins.

Hence the multiple infusions of Gongfucha provide a multi-faceted experience to oolong tea, from the aroma to the taste.

What are you waiting for? Start your journey of Gongfucha now.

See more articles related to brewing tea

See here for more articles related to tea appreciation

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