Breaking Up A Pu-erh Cake: 5 Easy Steps

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

Breaking up a pu-erh cake is easy once you know how. Pu-erh is fermented and tightly compressed tea, therefor we need some skill to pry it loose. Furthermore, we can't simply do it with our hands. To break off a piece of pu-erh we must use a special pu-erh tea needle and carefully wiggle it loose. 


What Is Pu-erh Tea?

Originally from Yunnan province in China, pu-erh tea has an ancient history of more than 2,000 years. Similarly to Champagne or other regionally specific foods and beverages, pu-erh is a geographically indicated product. It can only be produced in southern Yunnan using maocha, a sun-dried green tea from specific tea varieties found exclusively in Yunnan, Laos, Burma and some parts of Thailand and Vietnam.


Why Is Pu-erh Tea Compressed?

Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea. This means that it goes through long periods of fermentation (ripe pu-erh tea undergoes microbial fermentation) and aging before being ready for consumption. 


Hundreds of years ago, pu-erh was Yunnan’s most important export product. Caravans filled with the earthy, sweet, and mellow tea would be transported on the Ancient Tea Horse Road primarily to Tibet and far-away parts of China where people depended on this tea. Read more.


The fermentation and compressed shape not only made it more convenient to transport large quantities of the tea, but also ensured the tea stays fresh during the transport, and furthermore, throughout decades to follow. 


pu-erh tea history


What Shapes Does Pu-erh Come In?

The most common shapes of pu-erh are as follows:


A cake of pu-erh is flat and disc-shaped. The sizes can range from as little as 100 grams to as big as 5 kg, sometimes even more. In general, a cake size of 300-500 grams is most common. 



In English, this shape is known as “bird’s nest” for its resemblance of such. A pu-erh nest can range anywhere from 3 grams to 3 kg. However, the smaller size of 3 grams is most common. A small tuo cha pu-erh is especially popular to have on the go during travels or work. It is also a common little souvenir from China that is easy to carry and gift to others. 


Many years ago, tuo cha pu-erh had a hole in the middle used to put a string through it and tie many of them together, making it easy for transportation. Now, however, the tea has evolved into a closed bird’s nest shape, and the original shape is no longer produced.



chinese tea used for meditation


Pu-erh in a rectangular brick shape. These can range from 100 grams up to 1 kg. This was the shape of tea that was transported on the Ancient Tea Horse Road. 

 Fengqing Raw Pu-erh Tea Brick, 2005

Pu-erh leaves packed into hollowed-out citrus fruit, most commonly tangerines. The leaves are packed while they are still moist, then left to dry under sunlight. Afterward, the tangerines are put into a dry warehouse where they continue to ferment. The result — an exceptionally delicious pu-erh tea with a delightful citrus flavor. This type of tea is seen to combine both the pu-erh tea benefits and the benefits of dried citrus peel, which are highly regarded in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  

citrus peel pu-erh 

Other common pu-erh shapes include melon — pumpkin-like compressed pu-erh; mushroom — literally resembling a mushroom, this shape is most often found in Tibet; square — the square shape usually has characters pressed into the tea, common as a gift; bamboo or "tong cha" — pu-erh packed into hollow bamboo, then baked over an open fire. The result contains both the delicate flavors and aroma of bamboo plus the pu-erh tea leaves. 


Lastly, we have pu-erh in loose tea form. This is maocha that never underwent compression. It is aged for a certain amount of time then sold as raw pu-erh. 


When first trying pu-erh, it is common to purchase pu-erh samples. 

These are usually broken off from a whole pu-erh cake or brick and come in the size of 25 grams. It’s a pity to purchase an entire cake and not be satisfied with its flavor. When we find the pu-erh that we wish to drink more of, it is best to invest in an entire cake. That way we can have plenty of tea that we like for a lower price. Another benefit of purchasing pu-erh in large bricks or cakes, is that unlike green tea, it won’t go bad for many years to follow, and sometimes will only become better with age (like often is the case with raw aged pu-erh). 


When we have purchased our own cake, it is important to break it up properly, that way we can extract the best taste. To break up compressed tea, we must use a special pu-erh tea needle. Never try to use a knife or your hands, not only can it damage the tea, but is also dangerous. 


Breaking Up A Pu-erh Cake: 5 Easy Steps

    1. Prepare your surface: get a gong fu cha pan and place your pu-erh cake on top of it. The chaban (tea tray) is excellent to work on since it can catch any loose pieces of the tea.
    2. Unwrap the cake and place it face down (the face is the smooth side of the cake, usually the side that has the paper on it)
    3. Take the pu-erh tea needle and make 3 holes in the cake, relatively close to each other. Try inserting it from the sides of the cake, trying to find the softest spot. Don’t apply too much pressure and be careful not to stab yourself with the needle while doing so.
    4. Once you have inserted the needle gently wiggle the tea loose at each of the three spots until you can easily separate a small piece.
    5. Place the tea inside of a Cha He (‘tea box’ – a vessel for the introduction of tea. It is customary in China to first look at the tea in the cha he and then ‘deep face’ into it; inhaling, exhaling, and inhaling once more, deeply through the nose) to prepare for brewing. 

Why Drink Pu-erh: Pu-erh Tea Benefits

Pu-erh tea has a bounty of benefits, including aid in digestion, weight loss, and detox. Aged Pu-erh tea caffeine is low enough not to inhibit sleep patterns, and many report that it even helps with sleep thanks to its aid in stress reduction. Read more.


Historically the monks of Tibet, as well as other neighboring countries, relied on this fermented Chinese tea used for meditation. The caffeine levels are such that they help to stay alert, yet calm and relaxed. Read more.


Breaking Up A Pu-erh Cake: Video