Shopping for pu-erh can be confusing. With the added variables of age and fermentation, pu-erh is one of the most diverse categories of tea, and the growing popularity of the style only makes it easier to find bad examples. Since shopping for pu-erh can feel like a guessing game, it’s tempting to look for signs of quality in simple visual distinctions, like whether the tea is pressed into a cake or left in loose form. So what can we really tell about the tea from the way it is packaged?
Pu-erh Tea Cakes
The original purpose of pressing flat, round cakes of tea leaves was for ease of transportation. Tea grown in southern China, in and around modern Yunnan, was packed into bricks and carried by humans or mules to Central Asia, where it was often traded for Tibetan ponies. Later, in the 20th century, when immigrants from Yunnan began importing tea from their home province to Hong Kong, pressed cakes were also easy to pack on ships and store in aging cellars in the city. Their compressed format was not only space efficient, but also allowed for regular rotation to improve airflow during aging.
The culmination of these transportation traditions is what we know today as sheng pu-erh. In compressed form, it was easy for connoisseurs to store and age teas for decades, with the pressed leaves fermenting slowly but surely in the humid climate of Hong Kong. Here, cakes offered another advantage: with less leaf surface exposed to air, the fermentation process happened more slowly and allowed more flavor complexity to develop, with less risk for dangerous mold.
Today, pressed cakes are often preferred by connoisseurs because their labels offer valuable information about where the tea was grown and processed. Specific regions and factories of reputable quality can be identified by the wrappers and labels, and most cakes are even labeled with batch numbers, ensuring that experienced pu-erh drinkers know what to expect when they purchase a large cake of tea. But similar or identical designs can also be used on many different cakes, and storage differences can result in dramatically different flavors, even from the same batch of leaves.
Loose Leaf Pu-erh
Pu-erh teas can also be stored to age and ferment in loose form, without being pressed into cakes. This is associated most with shou pu-erhs, since these go through an accelerated fermentation process that must be completed before any cakes are pressed. This relatively modern crafting method imitates the effects of long term storage, negating the need to compress tea leaves in order to save space. Simultaneously, modern transport options make it significantly easier to transport bulky containers of loose leaves.
While generally accepted as a low-cost option for daily drinking, shou pu-erhs are generally less valuable in the collector’s market, since they are faster to make and harder to identify based on leaf appearance and packaging. Without batch labels or factory wrappers, it can be easy to get ripped off by unscrupulous vendors trying to make the greatest possible profit. But as importers buying directly from farms and factories, we actually prefer to purchase loose leaf batches. Large, whole leaves on the outside of a cake can conceal lower quality leaf in the center, but loose batches allow us to confirm that quality is consistent throughout.
In addition, we find loose leaves generally age better in our relatively dry climate here in California. Without the heat and humidity of traditional regions in China, some pu-erhs that have emerged from our long term storage have barely darkened from their “raw” green state. Rather than slowing the gradual fermentation process with pressed cakes, we prefer loose leaves that allow more airflow and slightly quicker flavor development. The end result of our dry environment is a clean finish with more notes of fruit, and less musk than examples aged in southern China. The additional surface area of loose leaves also means quicker brewing times, especially in early infusions when compressed leaves would only be starting to seperate.
We often recommend loose leaf pu-erhs to tea drinkers who are new to the style, as they can be purchased in smaller quantities for sampling and don’t require a sharp pu-erh pick to break apart. Cakes, on the other hand, are best for regular pu-erh drinkers who are ready to commit to a larger quantity of one tea, or those who want to manage their own long-term storage.
Ultimately, the way in which the leaf is packed or pressed has very little to do with the quality of the final aged tea. Good pu-erh flavor comes from quality leaves, careful craftsmanship, and mindful storage - not the label on the cake or the claims of shady tea sellers. As with any type of tea, the best way to shop for pu-erh is to buy from a vendor you trust, who can tell you where the tea comes from and how it was made and stored, no matter whether it is pressed or loose.
Are your favorite pu-erh teas pressed or loose leaf? What differences have you experienced between the two styles? Let us know in the comments!
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