How Pu-erh Tea is Made - Part 2
Turning fresh leaves from a tea tree into a drinkable pu-erh cake involves many labour-intensive steps that need to be executed skilfully and under time pressure. Broadly speaking, pu-erh production can be separated into ‘rough processing’, which is the process of making loosely-finished tea (毛茶 máochá), and ‘fine processing’ which is turning the maocha into raw or ripe pu-erh.
This article outlines the steps involved in fine processing to make a raw (生 shēng) pu-erh cake wrapped in a traditional bamboo tong.
Read our first article which explores rough processing here.
7. Pressing tea cakes (饼茶 bǐng chá)
After huangpian has been removed, the leaves are ready to be pressed into cakes (饼茶 bǐng chá).
First, the roughly finished loose tea (毛茶 máochá) is weighed in a metal cylinder, often with an inner paper ticket (内飞 nèi fēi) nestled under the top layer of leaves. The cylinder is then placed over a jet of hot steam which softens the leaves and shrinks the bulk of their volume to a small, dense, and sticky pile.
Following this, the pile of shrunken sticky tea leaves is tipped into a cloth bag, wrapped into a tight ball, and tied together with a large knot on the outside. This tightly-wrapped ball of tea is then placed under a hydraulic press where it’s compressed into the traditional disc-like shape known as a pu-erh ‘cake’ or bing (饼 bǐng).
After a minute or so, the weight is removed and the freshly pressed cake is set aside on a rack to settle and dry. Once the cake is cool to the touch, the cloth wrapping is removed and the pressed cake is placed into a heated room to completely dry out over a couple of days.
Historically, pu-erh tea was compressed into cakes or other shapes for convenient transport and storage. These days pu-erh can be compressed into a variety of shapes depending on personal preference and intended use-case.
Other methods of pressing may be used to produce different shapes including bricks (砖茶 zhuānchá), bowl shapes (沱茶 tuóchá), decorative motifs (shapes of animals, fruits, etc) and many others. In these instances, producers will use steel plates or moulds to achieve the desired silhouette.
8. Wrapping tea cakes (包装 bāozhuāng)
After the cakes have dried sufficiently, they need to be wrapped. Traditionally, paper made from mulberry tree pulp is used, but these days there are hundreds of options for different types, thicknesses, colours, and treatments of paper.
First, the wrappers are stamped with the date of production of the tea. The cakes are then laid flat, front face down, and the paper is pinched and pulled toward to centre, with excess paper folded inside the hole left by the knotted fabric during pressing. The final corner is pulled and folded to seal up the cake, making a tidy package that protects the tea and makes it identifiable for sale and storage.
Sometimes a thin piece of tissue-paper is used as an extra first layer between the cake and the outer wrapper to provide more protection and longevity. Contemporary tea wrappers often feature unique designs, artworks, and branding in addition to key information about the specific tea, year of production, and origin.
In our experience, it is difficult to verify information provided on tea wrappers. Given the high prices of certain famous teas, brands, locations, and productions, there’s significant incentive for the creation of fake teas, re-wrapping lower-quality materials as counterfeit teas, and forging of famous productions.
Despite their various uses (or misuses) wrappers are not purely decorative, they play a crucial role in the preservation, transportation, and storage of tea. Regardless of the outer packaging, one thing that can never be faked is the quality of the materials when brewed.
Each cake is wrapped by hand. This is a raw pu-erh cake - ‘Parataxis’ from our 2023 Spring Collection - being wrapped in artwork by ERODUCTIONS.
9. Bamboo tongs (筒 tǒng)
After the individual cakes are pressed and wrapped, they are grouped in batches, usually of 5 for 200g cakes, or 7 for 357g cakes, where they will be wrapped in bamboo to form a single tong (筒 tǒng).
The cakes are traditionally encased in a sheet of bamboo and secured with cable-like strips made of hardened bamboo fibre. Custom text, logos, or other branding is then burned into the top of the tong by heating and applying a metal stamp. Alternatively, a sticker or stamp can also be used.
Groupings of 12 tongs are put together in a box or case, called a jian (件 jiàn).
10. Burning the tongs (筒 tǒng)
The final step of making pu-erh tea is burning the bamboo tongs (筒 tǒng). The bamboo tongs are quickly and carefully treated by fire to singe off any splintery fibres from the bamboo cable ties and to help dry the bamboo.
In addition to practical packaging requirements, firing is particularly important for hygiene too. The quick and repeated application of fire serves to sterilise the bamboo material of any organic matter including bacteria, microorganisms from the soil, insects, or wet bamboo pulp that may lead to mould growth during long-term storage and handling.
After firing, the tongs may be placed in a heated room for a couple of days to ensure there’s no residual moisture. The bamboo tong is now fully finished: dry, sturdy, and clean – ready to be shipped, stored, and eventually, reopened for brewing.