Lion select said

Why, why, why?! Gongfu-d for thought.

I would like to start a rousing (and amicable) conversation about the often debatable “whys” of Gongfu style tea preparation. Some aspects seem to be well-accepted and practiced by nearly all Gongfu practitioners, but there are some out there that just seem arbitrary or even weird, at least to me.

Skimming the bubbles? What’s that about?

Rinsing the leaves? Why?

I’m interested to hear your perspectives on this and please feel free to bring up any aspect of Gongfu tea preparation that you feel is debatable and doesn’t make total sense to you. That’s what I’d like this discussion to be about!

As for me, the two questions I posed are some of my biggest curiosities. They plague me. The rinse is such a necessary step to a majority of Gongfu practitioners, and I find that those who do not rinse the leaves are in the minority. The general argument seems to be that it preps the leaves for a “better tasting” first infusion. Some other arguments have to do with cleansing the leaves of toxins or dirtiness. In any case, most of these arguments tend to be really unscientific and based more on tradition and perception of the act of rinsing as having value more than a provable result.

I have experimented quite thoroughly with rinsing and not rinsing teas when prepared gongfu style and I have found that only some teas really need it. A puer tea and sometimes a heavily roasted tea may have somewhat of a harsh or bland tasting first infusion if you don’t rinse it. With those two exceptions, I’ve actually found that most teas have a better first infusion if you don’t rinse them, even with tightly rolled ones like the bead-shaped Taiwanese style oolongs. Scientifically speaking, this makes sense to me because sugars dissolve in hot water almost instantly, so other than some sugars trapped well within the interior of the leaves, you are basically rinsing off a great deal of the natural sugars in the tea leaves in that initial rinse. Skipping the rinse step, in my experience, unlocks some nuances you might never experience otherwise in a tea, and they often tend to be on the sweeter side. Yet I have seen opinions as strong as “In China, they say the first brew is only served to enemies,” implying that it is basically rude not to rinse tea you are serving to your guests. Of course priming the leaves with a rinse allows them to infuse more deeply and quickly on the second go, but I find that simply allowing them to steep a bit longer on the first infusion can yield the same effect without a rinse. And let’s not overlook the fact that you are likely dissolving and throwing out many of the substances that contain healthful benefits in tea if you do a rinse. It seems like a waste to me except in the case of Puer tea, which there are various practical reasons for rinsing before drinking.

As for skimming the bubbles off the top, I have no idea what purpose this serves and I have yet to find a source that really attempts to explain it. I have seen vague mentions of removing toxins or bad flavors, but this is something that seems to make zero difference in taste to me, so I perceive it as sort of a ceremonial aspect rather than practical. I could be wrong, of course, and wonder if any of you can explain this phenomenon.

So there are my thoughts and please, I encourage you to share yours!

9 Replies

The teas I prepare gong=fu are usually the ones that require rinsing. Roasted oolongs and Pu-erhs. That’s why I do it. I’ve not ever heard of skimming the bubbles before.

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SarsyPie said

Skimming bubbles… never heard of that.

I do a rinse on mainly on pu’erh, and the primary reason is because I am way too lazy to break apart the leaves. I pry pieces off cakes or bricks and they are usually still compacted.

If I give the leaves a quick rinse, then let them rest (ALWAYS rest!) for 2-5 minutes, then the compressed tea expands on it’s own nicely for me.

When it comes to shou pu, I rinse to get rid of some of the fermentation flavors, though it seems I am getting more used to the earthiness as I find myself rinsing less. I started with up to 5 rinses LOL. Now I just do 1-2. Boychik will be proud of me.

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I’ve read that wiping off the bubbles and then pouring hot water over the pot is to ensure that the temperature is consistent on the inside and outside of the pot, for whatever reason.

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Angrboda said

I never rinse anything ever normally, but I don’t normally gong fu either. I usually prefer western style brewing. The times I’ve tried it (gong fu), I’ve done a rinse first to get the toucha to start breaking up a bit, but then I usually drink the rinse so I’m not sure it can really be called a proper rinse. The first time I didn’t taste the rinse I found that it had diminished the earthy note which I rather enjoy, so rinsing wasn’t a particularly good experience for me.

Gong fu brewing has deep roots, so I can easily imagine that dirt on the leaves was a bigger problem a hundred years ago than it is today and rinsing was actually necessary in order to produce something drinkable. These days it has a much diminished role but is still done because of tradition and it having been ritualised. (This is merely guesswork, mind. I like the idea of it possibly being true though.)

I’ve never heard of the bubbles before. It’s possible that it serves a purely aesthetic function, which also ties in well with the gong fu brewing process being quite ritualised.

Lion select said

I do feel that the rinsing step of Gongfu and skimming the bubbles off the top with the lid are something that have maybe lost their original purpose and have become more ritualized than necessary.

Maybe I should start directly asking the people who run websites that suggest these steps. I know for some, for example Teavivre, they recommend rinsing teas other than green and white teas. Some websites/vendors recommend rinsing all teas, and some don’t mention rinsing at all. A local tea vendor for me, Shang Tea, does not mention it in any of their literature and when they brew up their tea gongfu style in the shop they never rinse it first. It all seems very preferential, but it is such a strong part of the tradition that I just feel like there has got to be some compelling reason to do it. I wonder if it’s kind of been lost in history.

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Cwyn said

It depends on the tea type. I definitely rinse puerh and aged oolong, usually twice. These teas are in long-term storage and we don’t know about the storage history.

I would not rinse a fresh green tea or Korean oolong.

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Lion select said

Oh! I found a video which I think at least explains well why you should rinse Puer tea. It makes sense that sense the tea is often somewhat exposed during storage it can accumulate dust and other foreign particles that you just don’t want.

As for “activation” rinses on tightly rolled teas, I am still not sold on that one. Yes the second cup (or the first one after rinsing) will usually taste better in Gongfu style but to me not doing a rinse actually makes the Gongfu style more of a dynamic experience. I enjoy that first subtly-sweet almost clear infusion you get from brewing a gaiwan of dragon pearls that haven’t been rinsed. I feel like it’s sort of a lead-in or preview of the tastes to come. The second infusion will usually be one of the most flavorful. I don’t feel the need for the first infusion to always be one of the best in a Gongfu session. In fact, to me that feels like kind of a let-down, since it can often kind of be “downhill” from there. I’ve really only found that to be the case with green or yellow teas, though. They tend to yield their best on the first steeping. As for tightly rolled oolongs, I still don’t prefer a rinse. I steep mine for 30 seconds to start, and this is plenty of time to get a nice strong flavor out of the leaves if you use enough of them (I use about 4.5g to 100ml water). I used to always rinse teas as a matter of practice, but after a while I wondered if I wasn’t just rinsing off some of the wonderful front-end flavors and tried not doing a rinse. So far, I have enjoyed the results of that better. I do have to wonder if this would make my Gongfu practice “rude” to some who are more accustomed to the traditional way. That’s part of why I asked the question about rinsing, as it does seem as if it may be considered a courtesy to guests to rinse the tea just as you’d rinse the teawares, to ensure cleanliness and purity. I wonder if there are some who would scoff at the idea of not rinsing the leaves you are about to serve to them?

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Lion select said

I guess part of what I meant to say in this last comment was that to me I feel the Gongfu style of tea preparation is sort of an arc, and I enjoy the arc, and not rinsing helps to preserve the experience as more of an arc. With most teas you will get a somewhat light first infusion, a nice round second infusion, and in my experience the third infusion will be one of the most well-rounded and complex (sometimes the fourth), then gradually the later infusions tend to diminish or homogenize the flavor a bit, but you will still see certain aspects of the flavor dip in and out of later infusions, so it isn’t entirely just downhill from there. Still, you can see how this is kind of an arc leading up to the best, most complex or well-rounded infusions being around a few infusions in.

With green and yellow teas, however, I find that the brewing style that gets the most full and well-rounded flavor out of them actually involves steeping the first infusion a bit longer than with other teas. It’s sort of a “semi-Gongfu” style, I would say. If you try to use a large amount of leaves and really short 10-15 second infusions like you might with some other teas Gongfu style, you either end up with several similar infusions that aren’t particularly complex or full-flavored, never really tasting the full robust nature of the green tea, or you can overbrew really easily after the first infusion. For me, brewing green teas around a minute with a smaller amount of leaf seems to work best, but the repeated infusions are less flavorful as a result.

I guess I just feel though that with some teas rinsing the leaves first will drain some of the good flavor early on. I have particularly noticed that with Taiwanese style oolongs the first infusion is always much more interesting to taste if you don’t rinse it. There is usually some element of sweetness or creaminess that wouldn’t be there otherwise, and it still builds to a more complex and well-rounded nature in the next few infusions.

I had a Tie Luo Han Wuyi oolong recently that I brewed using a large amount of leaf and 10 second initial infusions with flash infusions after that. I did not rinse the leaves. I found that the first infusion was absolutely to die for! All the infusions after it had quite a different flavor. There was this wonderful berry-like sweetness in the first cup that almost reminded me of a strawberry Starburst candy. Everything after that was more mineral and roasty tasting. I would never have experienced that if I had done a rinse infusion and likely would have thought that tea was not all that unique.

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Lion select said

Here’s another nice source I have found that covers arguments both for and against rinsing tea leaves.

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