One of the first questions people tend to have about Pu-erh tea is why it has to be pressed into cakes or bricks. Historically, this was necessary for the manufacture and transportation of Pu-erh tea. Even though times have changed and current techniques make it easier to produce loose tea, the tradition of making pressed shapes of Pu-erh tea remains unchanged. All throughout the world, Pu-erh tea is still sold in pressed tea cakes and bricks.
When the process of pressing Pu-erh teas was first innovated, it was used as a method to avoid loss during transportation. Pu-erh teas were pressed into cakes to be stored and transported. Traditionally, one tea cake was 357 grams, with seven cakes grouped together in what was called a tong, which was about 2.5 kg. This made the process of calculating the tea and transporting it via horses and mules more convenient. In ancient China, Pu-erh tea from Yunnan was transported to Tibet via the Tea Horse Road. Since the road was long and dangerous, people wanted to transport as much tea as possible in one trip, which is why they invented the shapes of tea bricks, tea cakes and tuocha.
Besides these historical factors, there are several other reasons why Pu-erh tea is still primarily found in pressed form. Pu-erh tea cakes, for example, have incredibly long shelf lives, and do not suffer from expiration dates. This has given Pu-erh tea the nickname of a “Drinkable Antique”. According to the Compendium of Materia Medica, a legendary book by Li Shizhen, “Pu-erh tea cakes are dark and good for sobering. The greener ones are better for reducing heat and cleansing the body.” Pressed teas are typically more mellow and pure.
These pressed shapes are also much better for retaining flavor. Loose tea not only takes up more space, but its original aroma will dissipate quickly after production. Pressed tea, on the other hand, can retain its aroma for a long time. In fact, with pressed Pu-erh tea, the longer the period of storage, the stronger the aroma. Pressed teas are also more suited towards storage for a number of other reasons. For example, after being stored for a long time, the pressed teas go through a process of fermentation and transformation. The elements that affect this process are water, temperature, oxygen and light. However, when Pu-erh tea is pressed into cakes:
- The absorption and evaporation of water doesn’t negatively effect the tea, allowing the aroma and probiotics to be better preserved.
- The temperature in the air doesn’t have a big impact on the inner part of Pu-erh tea, again allowing the probiotics to remain better preserved
- The exposure to oxygen and light is minimal, so the oxidation process is slowed down, and the taste of the tea is better preserved in this way.
The quality of Pu-erh tea after it has gone through its transformation and aging process will always depend on the quality of original tea leaves. However, when you start with high quality tea and put it through the meticulous process of being pressed into cakes, Pu-erh tea can reach the peak of its taste.
Generally speaking, pressed Pu-erh tea is better for collection, both due to its unique aesthetic and its capability for long-term storage. Finally, a deeper meaning for these brick and round shapes can be found in Chinese philosophy: That the dome-like heaven embraces the vast earth. Dome-like round tea cakes resemble the universe that creates sky (Tian)，the square Tea Brick symbolizes the earth (Di) that carries everything above. While drinking Pu-erh, tea lovers find themselves in harmony with the earth and sky. What could be better?