You heard about Pu-erh, the mysterious aged Chinese tea and finally decided to branch out and try some. But when your tea arrives, there are only a bunch of mini disks. What in the world is going on?
Pressed Pu-erh is usually the highest quality
Actually, all teas were pressed at one point. The reason behind this is simple. Pressed tea takes up less space. And when, 1000 years ago, transporting goods by caravan, space was at a huge premium.
But why press them now?
It has to do with the aging. Since premium Pu-erhs are aged from anywhere between 5 and 40 years, the pressing allows the tea farms to control the delicate aging process better than leaving the leaves loose in a pile.
Ever jump into a pile of leaves as a kid?
Then you know that a nice fluffy pile of leaves could be a mushy mess once you get to the middle. Now imagine trying to keep that pile of leaves at 75% humidity for 40 years. A little bit hard to think of, isn’t it?
Special machines create the disks
The process is actually quite complicated, involving different methods depending on the Pu-erh farmer. And the farms are quite secretive, to the point of putting people to death centuries ago for trying to steal the secrets. But, the short answer is that they take the tea leaves while still slightly damp and put them in a huge metal waffle press-looking machine. The press condenses the Pu-erh leaves, leaving them in a tight, condensed disk.
There are many different variations of pressed Pu-erh
Pu-erh can come in many different shapes, but the most common are:
- Bingcha – The largest of all the disks. Flat and round ranging from 1/4lb to more than 10 lbs.
- Toucha – Smaller, rounder disks. They are roughly the shape of a marble if it were cut in half. Each Toucha makes either a large cup or a small pot of tea
- Zhuancha – It looks like a brick. A block of compressed tea.
- Fangcha – A flat square.
Unless you have a lot of experience with Pu-erh, the pressed variety may cause a bit of alarm. But, consider yourself lucky if you do stumble upon one of these. It usually means you are in for some good tea.