What Is Pu-erh Tea?
Originating in Yunnan, China, Pu-erh tea has an ancient history of more than 2,000 years. Like Champagne or other regionally specific foods and beverages, pu-erh is a geographically indicated product. This tea can only be produced and fermented in southern Yunnan using sun-dried green tea from specific tea varieties found in Yunnan, Laos, Burma and some parts of Thailand and Vietnam.
Pu-erh is a post-fermented tea. And although nowadays it’s possible to find pu-erh in loose form, it’s most common shape is in brick, cake, or “bird’s nest” form.
This helped to not only preserve the tea through the span of many years but also to transport it through the Ancient Tea Horse Road to far away parts of China and Tibet where the tea was especially popular with monks for staying awake during long meditation hours.
If you are only starting to get into the vast and somewhat mysterious world of pu-erh, chances are you’ve been purchasing samples. The samples are an excellent way to get acquainted with the tea and see what you like before investing in a whole cake. An entire pu-erh cake can be pricey, but it is well worth it if you found one that you want as it will last you for many months, if not years, and in many cases only gets better with age.
After you have purchased your first cake or brick, the next step is breaking it into a size suitable for one tea session. For this, we use specially designated pu-erh tea needles.
First, make sure to never break a pu-erh brick by hand. Not only will it be challenging, but it will most likely result in the brick breaking unevenly in disproportional pieces, and this will not end up in a tasty brew.
How To Properly Break Pu-erh Tea
A pu-erh brick or cake has two sides to it — the front and the back. The front side usually has the tag showing the manufacturer, while the back of a cake has a hollow in the middle.
Many prefer to start from the back as it will keep the front of the cake looking nice.
front size of a pu-erh cake
back side of a pu-erh cake
Steps for breaking a cake:
- prepare your surface (this can just be the pu-erh wrapper laid out to catch the small leaves and crumbs from the cake)
- find the softest spot around the hollow on the backside and try to carefully stick your needle in through the side, not directly in the middle (you may need to try several spots before finding the easiest, loosest one)
- once you found the right place, insert the needle and gently wiggle the tea lose (try not to force it)
- you may have to insert the needle one or two times more close to the first hole and repeat the previous step
Take your time and be patient, the piece that will break off should ideally resemble a pu-erh tea sample in size. If the tea leaves break off in one big piece with little crumbs falling the resulting brew will be better and smoother.
the sample size. this is approximately how it should look
Steps for breaking a brick:
The technique is similar to breaking a cake.
- first, find which corner of the brick is the softest and try inserting your needle into that corner
- if the needle goes in try to gently wiggle it to loosen the tea
- next, insert your needle 1-2 more times close to the first place of insertion and repeat the previous step
- Many pu-erh bricks and cakes are well-compressed and could be pretty hard to break, especially if it’s your first time. The most important thing is to be patient and gentle, try to find the softest spot first rather than forcing it to break.
- Be very cautious of the positioning of your hands! Needle accidents are not uncommon when trying to break pu-erh. Just make sure you are not rushing and place your hands somewhere they can’t easily be injured.
- Never stick the tea needle directly into the tea cake or brick from the top. Ideally, it should be inserted in the direction that the leaves are layered. Each layer of pu-erh is different, a well-broken piece will offer you the biggest variety and depth of flavor.
Most importantly — be patient, and practice makes perfect!