Garrett is a local tea friend of mine who I drink pu’erh with regularly for the past two years. He’s appeared in a few inbetweenisodes and you can follow him on Instagram at islikewater.
Maybe you have tried a few samples of pu’erh, scoured the internet for articles on brewing techniques and want to brew gongfu style but you don’t have the necessary equipment. Maybe you want to move away from that big 300ml+ tea pot you’ve been using and you’ve seen starter gong fu sets for sale. Are these good deals? What do I really need to get started with gong fu process of brewing and enjoying pu’erh?
With the idea of smartly, offsetting costs, in favor for money savings which then can be reinvested at a later day, here are the top ten non-tea items to help you get started with pu’erh when gong fu brewing:
Electric Kettle – If you are getting into pu’erh and don’t already have a reliable hot water boiling device that doesn’t keep you tethered to the kitchen, consider getting a simple electric kettle. Many kettles will have a dial or button temperature setting, with some having buttons that even go as far to indicate the type of tea you are brewing. With the kettle I use, one setting is enough for my daily pu’erh brewing ritual. I keep my kettle on hot. If I need colder water I will wait longer after the boil instead of fussing with the dial each time. Building this type of temperature awareness keeps me less focused on kettle and more focused on the tea I am brewing.
Most kettles come in stainless or plastic. Some prefer plastic because unlike stainless there’s less of chance of burning your hand, while with stainless there’s less of a chance of premature death from cancer because you drank plastic infused water for over a decade of your life, or so says the online sentiment. I live on the wild side and use a plastic electric kettle I have had for years. Gooseneck stainless steel hot water boilers help control flow and add cost as well as an interesting complexity to cleaning that usually includes some kind of pipe cleaner. Tetsubins along with hot plates do not need to be heated as often but add cost and complexity. For starting out, keep it simple and stick with a basic electric kettle.
Gaiwan – A small, 75 to 100ml, ceramic light colored gaiwan is the best device to use when starting out. A gaiwan offers superior versatility, control and temperature regulation compared to other brewing devices like pots or gravity filters. Gaiwan’s provide access to the leaves while brewing allowing you to respond to changes in the liquor color and giving you a way to agitate highly compressed leaves over the course of a single brewing session. A small gaiwan is the perfect size for brewing alone while also giving you the option to stack infusions when serving multiple people. Ceramic gaiwans are not as prone to slippage as there glass brethren, and a light color makes it easier to gauge liquor color when brewing.
Cha Hai – Brewing pu’erh gong-fu style means you are dealing with a lot of hot water. By pouring directly from your brewing vessel into your cup you run the risk of burning your mouth. Using a cha hai cools the tea and glass ones allow to you to observe the liquor color before consumption. There are many glass cha hais out there, often I have found those which are sold at tea shops tend to be more fragile. I opt for a 250ml Pyrex measuring cup. My pyrex is more resilient when knocked over, dishwasher safe, and is more insulating than some thinner walled alternatives found on ebay or western-facing tea shops. Additionally, Pyrex can often be found at thrift shops along with gravy boats and other clear glassware which all usually can be had for cheaper than most shipping costs at major online teaware retailers. Whatever your choice for Cha Hai it is helpful for it to have a directional spout, be made of glass and to have a handle of some sort.
Cups – Small, 30ml – 100ml, ceramic cups are what I recommend. Keeping cups small also keeps them cost effective when inevitable breakage happens, and keeping them ceramic allows for some heat retention. An additional consideration when choosing cups is color. A light color is helpful when brewing pu’erh with a dark liquor, you’ll be able to gauge how far along you are with the tea. While granted you would also be observing liquor in the cha hei and gaiwan, a light colored cup offers yet another point of observation which in turn keeps you aware of the minute changes in tea.
A brewing surface – Some folks will want to go out drop 70 dollars USD for a cheap bamboo tea table right off the bat. I would like to encourage you to explore what you already have at home, shallow and wide bakeware could be used as a substitute and provide the water containment you need. I use a rimmed ceramic plate and Pyrex pie plate, along with a couple mason jars for waste leaf and water disposal. These are all things I already had in my home. I still haven’t found the need to invest in a tea table.
A pu’erh tea pick – For a long while I used an old butter knife to break pu’erh up, but as I drank more and more I found the knife to woefully ill equipped to handle the denser factory productions, like Xiaguan iron cakes. The design of a pu’erh pick often comes with a small divot towards the end. This divot along with a mildly sharp point allows you to leverage your strength inside the cake rather than just having your attempts to bounce off the sides.
Jewelers Scale – A scale with a tenths of a gram ability is important for measuring and learning about proper leaf to water ratios. You might think you’d be able to just eye the amounts dry leaf that you need but 5 grams of iron cake Xiaguan pressed over a decade ago looks way different from 5 grams of boutique raw pu’erh pressed this year. A jeweler’s scale is able to measure tenths of gram where some kitchens scales designed for dieting or measuring baking ingredients do not.
Bamboo Board – The design of the bamboo board with the corner cut out, is versatile. This device allows you to protect your surfaces from being poked by pu’erh picks when breaking up cakes and allows you to funnel pu’erh into small bags or vessels without getting as many crumbs all over the place. Instead of owning a ceramic presentation vessel, I use my bamboo board to transfer dry leaf between my scale and my brewing vessel.
A non-musty, closed space for storage – A space away from cooking odors and light is best. If you are going to store inside a cabinet or drawer give the inside a good sniff to make sure there’s no left over varnish smell or worst, mold. Pu’erh, like other types of tea, takes on the odor of spaces.
Squatty Potty – It is a known fact in the pu’erh tea drinking community that pu’erh facilitates release; a squatty potty, basically a stool with divot which allows it to wrap around your toilet, in turns facilitates a more ergonomic posture when engaging in release. Surprisingly, very helpful.
- Hygrometer – Understanding humidity is important when considering potential for aging and storing pu’erh long term. Engaging with your indoor humidity is the first step to understanding if you would even like the tea that you could conceivably age in your home. Perhaps you only enjoy Hong Kong traditional stored pu’erh yet your indoor humidity never gets above 45 percent relative humidity, a far cry from 70 percent or higher required to emulate wetter conditions. While it is helpful to have hygrometer that can be calibrated, it is not necessary because once you complete a simple salt test you could manually subtract or add the percentage that your device is off.
- Your local thrift shop/Goodwill is your friend, especially if you live in a multi-culturally diverse or large metropolitan area. You can find a great deal: pie plates, glass measuring cups and waste water bowls, and occasionally small cups.
- Give frugal ways of brewing a gentleman’s try before moving on to the big/top-spending items. One way I think about it: every ten bucks saved is a sample of a new type of tea I haven’t had.