The Tucker Max Guide to Gongfu Style Tea
In July of 2020, my wife and I were vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina, when we wandered into a tea shop called High Climate Tea.
Here we are at High Climate:
This guy explains gongfu tea really well:
It's now a major part of our life. We completely stopped drinking coffee or any other morning beverage. Tea has been an incredible addition to our lives, and a thing we cherish and look forward to each morning.
In this piece, I will (briefly) walk you through my tea knowledge. Much of this I learned from Hunter, but a lot is my own ideas, so don't blame him if I get something way off. Then I'll tell you where we buy our tea, and what we like the best.
Why I Drink Gongfu Style Tea
- The way Americans drink tea is fucked up (assuming you want to enjoy it).
- We mostly drink tea in tea bags with heavily roasted and chopped up, crap tea that no one wants, and its steeped for a long time--this is just about the worst possible way to experience tea.
- This is because tea bags force you to over steep it, and you only taste the worst part of the tea--the tannins, which is what makes tea bitter--and miss the best flavors, which are more subtle.
- But even if you use special steeping implements, if you are using boiling water and steeping for more than a few minutes you are losing the best part of the tea, and getting the worst.
- Furthermore, chopped up tea is the leftover dregs of the tea industry that no one wants, so they sell it to the cretins who don't know any better.
- To get the best our of tea you want to use WHOLE LEAF tea.
- Also, you want to steep the leaves for short periods of time, usually about 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
- If you do it this way, you can steep is anywhere from 3 to 6 times.
- Also, you have to use water that is NOT boiling, but instead between 165 and 195 (depending on the tea).
- This allows the subtle flavors of the tea to come out, without any of the bitter tannins.
- This is a fundamentally different approach to a tea bag approach to tea. Its like comparing chicken salad (gongfu tea) to chicken shit (tea bag tea).
- Gongfu style tea doesn't just taste better, it's also way more fun. You're supposed to be kind of sloppy and spill stuff, because the water all goes in the tray and you dump it later. You literally make a mess, but its all contained and easy to clean up.
- The other amazing and totally unexpected part is how relaxing the morning ritual is. You sit with your family, and enjoy the tea and their company. It forces you to slow down and be present with yourself and them. If you like your family, this is great.
- l'll admit, if you don't like your family, this may not be a plus for you. Stick to coffee if you hate your life and your family.
- There are a lot of little things that are fun too, like pouring the tea wash over the tea pets. Our kids LOVED getting to pick out their own tea pet, and every morning they get to give some tea to their tea pet. More on tea pets here.
- There are many types of tea--black, green, oolong, white, puerh. This is a good, short explanation of different types of teas.
- BY FAR the best tea is oolong. It's not even close. I really had no idea what oolong even was before Hunter taught me, but now I don't drink anything else.
- Yes, you can find really nice teas of each type, but the best black tea is worse than the average oolong. Same with the best green tea--worse than the average oolong. Yeah, I'm sure you love your matcha latte, but you can have it. And puerh is just awful. Its like drinking shoe leather. Don't @ me, I don't care if you like it, go enjoy your leather water and leave me alone with the good oolong.
- Oolong can be pretty complex. There are a TON of different kinds of oolongs, and they are expressed in three major ways: by place or region they were grown, cultivar they are, and how they are processed. First there are the major regions (just for oolong). Phoenix Oolongs, Wu Yi Oolongs, Formosa (Taiwan) Oolongs, Anxi Oolongs (and a few others). Then there are the major cultivars/styles. I won't even try to describe them all, this explains that well. Then there are styles of preparation like Blue People, Bug Bitten (its literally bitten by bugs, which creates a honey flavor), charcoal roasted, etc. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of styles of processing. Tea processing is an insanely complex art, like wine making.
- The craziest thing though? ALL tea is the same plant: Camellia Sinensis. It's just different cultivars that are picked at different times, grown in different places, and processed in different ways.
- Another great thing about gongfu tea specifically is that it is low caffeine. I am very sensitive to caffeine. I had to stop drinking coffee, it got me too jittery. Tea has about a third of the caffeine as coffee, and even less if you wash it first, like in gongfu style.
- Our personal favorite styles so far are Blue People, GABA, Dayuling, and Milk Oolong. We also like a few Dong Dings, Alishans, Four Seasons and the high end Iron Goddesses. There are also a few other of the medium and darker roasted oolongs we enjoy. I go over them all below.
- I would HIGHLY recommend you find a great tea shop that serves gongfu style oolong, and try a ton of them yourself to see which you like best. Gongfu style tea has legit changed our whole family dynamic.
- I'm serious. Even our youngest is into gong fu tea. He has his own tea cup and is involved each morning in the ritual:
Where to Buy Whole Leaf Oolong Tea Online
When I say I got INTO oolong tea, I'm serious. I've spent about $5000 over the past 4 months ordering and trying pounds of whole leaf oolong from every reputable online dealer we could find, in the US, Taiwan, and China. We ordered from at least 50 different places (far more than those ranked below), at an average of 5 oolong teas per store. We've tried at least 250 oolongs since October (but probably more like 300).
Sounds like a lot? It is. No seriously, it was insanity. Here is just one picture of some of the tea we ordered (those are from different places, not all the same):
If you want to try a bunch of oolongs for yourself, below are our assessments of the best places to buy oolong online. I can vouch for every shop I list, as I bought from all of them and tried tea from all of them.
I will tell you that virtually EVERY "oolong buying guide" I read on a tea blog was worthless. It would list only a few places, many of them BAD. Like seriously, some of them recommended buying fucking Twinnings or some other massive industrial tea company.
That's like a restaurant guide telling you to eat at McDonalds. WTF man, if you're telling people to drink tea made by a huge multinational conglomerate, stop writing about tea, you have failed at your only job.
This guide is also as objective as I get. I paid for ALL this tea myself. Unlike the tea blogs, I got nothing free and I have no conflict of interest, because I'm not selling any of their stuff (I will say that I really like Hunter at High Climate, even though that fucker has NEVER given me any free tea, lolol).
But remember that we ONLY ordered oolong tea, and specifically focused on Taiwanese oolong, which we tend to like best. Some of these stores specialize in other teas, so if you like black tea or puerh leather water for some reason, don't assume my rankings apply.
Consistently Excellent Oolongs
I labeled the Taiwanese vs American simply because it takes WAY longer for tea to come from Taiwan. If you want to order from both, that's what I did.
High Climate Tea: https://highclimatetea.com/
Tea & Whisk: https://teaandwhisk.com/
Aroma Tea Shop: https://www.aromateashop.com/
Tea From Taiwan: https://www.teafromtaiwan.com/
Pure Taiwan Tea: https://www.puretaiwantea.com/
The Jade Leaf: https://thejadeleaf.com/
Many Excellent Oolongs
Song Tea: https://songtea.com/
Vital Leaf: https://vitaltealeaf.net/
Zhi Tea: https://zhitea.com/
Red Blossom Tea Company: https://redblossomtea.com/
Upton Tea: https://www.uptontea.com/
Jojo Tea: https://sipjojo.com/
Eco Cha Tea: https://eco-cha.com/
Mountain Tea: https://www.mountaintea.com/
Fang Tea: https://www.fangtea.com/
Taiwan Leaf Tea: https://taiwanleaftea.com/
The Formosa: https://theformosa.com/
OK Oolongs (still very solid, just not my preference)
Beautiful Taiwan Tea Company: https://beautifultaiwantea.com/
Tea Forte: https://www.teaforte.com/
Tea Repertoire: https://tearepertoire.com/
Te Tea Company: https://tecompanytea.com/
Great Mississippi Tea Company: https://greatmsteacompany.myshopify.com/
Our Favorite Oolong Teas
So what were the best oolongs we tried? I am such a junkie for organization, I legit made a huge Notion database to track the 250+ teas we tried and find the best types of each varietal. Here is a snapshot of just part of it:
I will tell you our favorites, but first a few things to remember:
- We have very specific tastes in oolong, and it may not align with yours. We tend to like the more subtle, complex, high mountain oolongs. Our rankings ONLY reflect our taste.
- We also tend to favor Taiwanese oolongs. Many people like Chinese oolongs, which are not as much our style, and so we ranked very few of them.
- There are dozens of MAJOR oolong styles we did not rank, because we just didn't like them. Even within Taiwan, there are oolongs from whole mountain ranges we don't really like that much (Li Shan and Yu Shan, for example).
- What you see below is what is in the pic at the header and the bottom, these are the teas we drink in our house.
This is probably people's most favorite oolong, because it is mixed with ginseng and licorice root, so its really easy drinking. One of the best oolongs to start with, though it is very different from all other oolongs.
This oolong tastes a little like condensed milk, in the best way possible. For most people, Blue People and Milk Oolong are great places to start.
A great simple tea style that is really pleasing. If you want a lighter oolong this is a good choice.
One of the most popular tea styles in the world. If you want to start with a greener oolong, start here.
High Climate Tea (the Cloud Mist is my favorite, but the Supreme and regular are both also really good)
In my opinion, the best of the high altitude teas (except the highest altitude tea, dayuling). This is pretty green.
This is unusual, not everyone likes it, but we love it.
This is like a black tea almost, but better than any black tea you've ever had.
Dark Roast Oolong
Also sort of like black tea, but much smoother. If you like heavier roasted teas, these two will make you very happy.
A Taiwanese staple, but probably our least favorite style that we still drink consistently. Its a medium roast tea, with a lot of subtle depth. This is a medium roast version, though you can find lighter roasted Dong Ding.
This is our very favorite style, but I would not order this unless you REALLY know tea. It's quite expensive, and you might not like it. You kind of have to know tea and like subtlety to really like it. Dayuling is like the Burgundy of tea--you can't begin here. End here.
The Dayuling from Mountain Tea is not what I think is the very best, but its Top 3, and the best place for a beginner to start.
Our Austin Set-up
Here is our setup at our house in Austin. I labeled each of the main parts of our gongfu set up, which you can see covered in that video. Most gongfu set-ups are way too complex:
Our Tennessee Set-up
We have a place in Tennessee we go during breaks and summer, and that place has a much better tea set up.
What To Buy To Do Gong-fu Tea
These are the essentials. You can definitely get more fancy, but this is the minimum you need to do gongfu tea:
There are so many electric kettles for sale on Amazon, just pick any that have good reviews. The ONE thing you MUST have is the temperature setting. The specific temperature you steep tea at is CRUCIAL. White tea is steeped at around 165 f, whereas most oolong is 195 f. That is a massive difference and your tea kettle needs to account for that.
I use the Fellow Stagg kettle, because it gives you precise temperatures, heats very fast, and looks awesome. But honestly, you can get the same quality of kettle for half the price if you look around on Amazon or places like that.
You need a specific, dedicated tray for gongfu tea. This is because, like I said, you are supposed to spill water everywhere. A good gongfu tea tray has slats in it for the water to run down, and then a tray beneath it to catch the water. Then you just dump the water every so often. Like this:
This is what you brew the tea in. Seems simple right? Not so fast. The design of it is ingenious, and reflects the wisdom of thousands of years of drinking tea. This is a gongfu, and I know it looks basic, but its very effective. Trust me on this, start with a basic one. Porcelain, standard shape and design, all of it. You could even do glass if you want, but don't get any of the other things that look like teapots or whatever:
Fairness Cup + Strainer
After you steep the tea in the gaiwan, you pour it into the fairness cup. So this is the thing that confused me the most, and at first I didn't think I needed this. I was wrong.
You need this for two reasons: 1. it stops the tea from steeping, which is crucial to making great tea. You only want your tea steep for 30 seconds to 2 mins max, any more than that and it starts to get tannic. 2. By pouring it through the strainer on the top of the fairness cup, you ensure not little particles go into your tea cup. If you pour straight from the gaiwan into your tea cup, you will get tea particles with it.
This is what you drink your tea out of. The conventional wisdom is to have very small tea cups, but honestly, that drives me nuts, because I have to refill it constantly. I like tea cups a little bigger.
Buy Gongfu Tea Sets
You can buy entire sets that have everything you need. Just go to Etsy or Amazon--or better yet, some of the tea shops I linked above--and see what they have. It's almost always better to start with a small, cheap gongfu tea set, and then see if you like it.