Special thanks to Ari Fenimore (@teamogul) for the introduction to Sifu Wayne Belonoha, owner of Wai’s Tea House in Atlanta, and head instructor of Wai’s Kung Fu martial arts school. “Sifu” (pronounced “see-foo” or “she-foo”) means “teacher,” and we were eager students at Sifu Wayne’s tea table, where he served a traditional 21-step Gong Fu Cha (tea). Thank you for having us, Sifu Wayne!
Gong Fu vs. Western Brewing Methods
The biggest takeaway for Destination Tea readers is that the Chinese method of brewing tea uses four times the amount of tea leaves as the Western method (see our math below). This obviously creates a much stronger brew. How will your experience of the tea be different in the Gong Fu style?
- Tea leaves are steeped for seconds, not minutes, preventing an astringent brew.
- The first brew is discarded, thought of as a rinsing of the leaves, so that the first tea served is made with leaves that have begun opening, imparting maximum flavor.
- Tea leaves are always steeped free-floating in the vessel, so that they may completely open and infuse full flavor into each brew.
- Tea leaves are resteeped an average of 5 to 10 times, each brew slightly different but still flavorful.
- Smaller tea cups are constantly refilled with hot tea so there’s no need to keep a teapot warm, but there is a repeated need for freshly boiled water for resteeps throughout the teatime.
- Sugar and milk are nowhere to be found, as we are appreciating the delicious essence of the pure tea.
As he prepares and serves tea, Sifu Wayne patiently answers our barrage of questions. He explains that “gong fu” is a uniquely Chinese word that refers to any “artful skill developed through patient investment.” Regarding tea preparation, it indicates that “special effort and dedication is made by your host to maximize the taste, aroma and appearance” of the tea served. But here’s the best part:
Gong fu tea is used to self-cultivate, meditate and provide an experience that heals a special guest’s body and mind.”– Wai’s Tea House, Atlanta
When you watch the quick tutorial on Gong Fu tea preparation below (thank you Jesse’s Teahouse), you’ll see that experiencing Gong Fu Cha at Wai’s Tea House adds a level of beauty and ceremony to the tasting.
Gong Fu Tea at Wai’s Tea House
Sifu Wayne hosts tea tastings from 8 am to 10 pm daily, 15 minutes to 1-hour+ duration, priced from $15 to $60 per person, walk-ins and reservations welcome.
We spent about two hours at the tea table, trying multiple infusions of a buttery oolong and a rock tea puerh (“poo-ahr”), which I had to take home. During our time together, he described the different processing methods that create the various tea varieties. He taught us how to “give face” to others and show your own humility throughout the tea tasting, using the secret language of tea table etiquette. He introduced us to the special properties of Jian Zhan teacups, handmade from high-iron clay, each one uniquely glazed. Their high-iron content and firing at a high temperature make these teacups retain your tea’s warmth longer, and can smooth the texture and sweeten the taste of your tea.
On the martial arts side of the house, a Wing Chun Sword Experience is offered, reminding us that Sifu Wayne began his tea education while living in China for kung fu training.
Can We Ever Steep the Same Again?
We cannot ignore the beautiful and changing tastes of our teas at Wai’s Tea House, as we sampled infusion after infusion of the very same tea leaves. The Western method of brewing a much smaller amount of tea leaves in a big teapot clearly does not deliver the full flavor profile of the tea. Likely, this method was originally developed in non-tea-producing countries because imported teas from China were so expensive. You know, trying to make a little go a long way. Then they added milk and sugar to improve the taste. Anyone having tasted a Gong Fu Cha (tea) knows how delicious a quality tea is, without these condiments.
However, at afternoon tea, the serving custom is different. A hostess prepares the three courses of food and aims to serve these with a hot pot of tea upon guests’ arrival. Then it’s time to luxuriate and enjoy the meal and conversation. She does not continually resteep tea throughout the afternoon. Tea cosies and teapot warmers are used to keep beautiful teapots warm. Larger bone china teacups, though delicate and lovely in their design, hold more tea than Gong Fu tasting cups, allowing tea to begin to cool before a guest can empty her cup.
The Gong Fu style of brewing is very doable for oneself at home. Though you may go through your tea supply more quickly using the Gong Fu tea to water ratio, also consider that you can resteep that loose leaf tea all day long, rather than going through 2 or 3 teabags every day.
But what about at a traditional afternoon tea? We might just splurge on the larger quantity of good tea so that our guests get the full pleasure of the tea brewed with the Gong Fu tea to water ratio. To get your money’s worth, you could steep and decant three or four infusions ahead of time (remember to toss the first one, which is only meant to bloom the tea leaves, not to drink). Then just keep the brewed tea to temperature on warmers or on the stove, and you have multiple pots of a rich brew ready to serve. You could take your remaining tea leaves and cold brew them overnight to get even more delicious tea from your purchase. How would you do it, to make excellent tea a feature of your afternoon tea experience?