NO! I did not steam a pu erh cake.
Look at the enclosed information and instructions that came with this 2006 Mengku cake (click pix 2 for enlarged view). The instructions to break up the cake was "Shell the tea biscuit first, steam and knead it in loose state ready for use". This "steam" instructions were clear and not a mis-translation from Chinese to English.
So is 'steaming' to break up a tea cake correct? The instructions did came from a renowned tea factory. I asked many pu erh tea drinking friends in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Guangzhou. This is what I found out.
You do not break up a pu erh tea cake by steaming the tea cake.
All my tea drinking friends and proprietors of tea shops I know do not steam their pu erh cakes. This is what I surmised after talking to them about this steaming method - Adding moisture deliberately to a tea cake by steaming is not good. This excessive moisture will affect and 'spoil' the tea leaves and would make brewing tea with these leaves unpleasant. Moreover, if this steamed tea are not drunk and kept in a tea caddy, the tea may turn moldy due to the higher moisture content in the tea leaves.
You will not see this 'steaming' instructions in newer cakes.
Old traditional Hong Kong storage of pu erh cakes are different. Here the tea is stored in warehouses that are slightly more humid. The storage time of the tea are controlled and checked..... and are taken out of the warehouses when the desired level of storage is achieved, about 6 months to a year (I will verify this again).
I break open a tea cake with just my hands if possible. If the compression of a tea cake is high, I would use a metal letter opener or a pu erh pick (resembles a mini ice pick) and gently pry open the cake into smaller pieces so I can loosen up the tea leaves.
Anyway, back to this cake. I had enjoyed this cake and I am happy I had purchased a few of these cakes when I had visited Guangzhou back in 2009. I normally use 8g to a 180-200g teapot but for this tea, I add 2g extra to make a brew. This enhances the strong chinese herb aroma. I particularly like this comforting tea and would brew it just before my bed time.
This is a Kamjove Press Art Tea Cup 500ml. This 'apparatus' can brew an excellent cup of Chinese tea. This Kamjove would make a very nice conversation piece when you brew tea with it for your friends. The brewing method looks high-tech but it is easy to use.
This inexpensive (about US$10-12) Kamjove comes in 2 parts. One is the glass jar with handle and the other part; a brewing food grade plastic brewer that rest in the glass jar. Brewing tea is very simple. As illustrated in the 2nd pix, scoop the tea leaves into the brewer (scoop is provided as well), pour hot/boiling water. When tea is ready, press button,which releases a valve below the brewer and your tea will pour down into the glass jar. Lastly serve and enjoy the tea.
You will notice in the last pix that there is a fine mesh in the brewer. This will prevent any tea leaves from clogging or blocking the pour out valve. Cleaning this Kamjove is relatively easy and detergent can be used to wash this tea making set.
This Kamjove does brew Chinese tea satisfactorily in the sense that you can control the brewing strength and prevent overbrewing simply by judging the color of the tea in the brewer. When the tea had been 'released' in to the tea jar, the tea leaves remained separated from the tea and kept 'dry' for subsequent infusions. (see pix 1)
This Kamjove appears fanciful but it does make a good cup of tea. In fact, Mr Lau of Hong Kong's Lau Yu Fat teashop used a similar set to brew tea when my Singapore tea friend was at his shop last month.
Inexpensive and I would recommend you get one. Easy and fun to use.
I bought this brick during my recent trip in Guangzhou. This is a 2003 Xiaguan raw brick 250g. From what I gathered about this tea, this Xiaguan brick was not individually wrapped. No wrapper - naked, and placed in a carton of 80 bricks (if memory serves me correct). My Guangzhou teashop people told me that such tea were meant to be shipped to Hong Kong, which was the main export market for most of the pu erh tea, but some cartons were purchased by local tea shops in Guangzhou as well. These tea bricks were very inexpensive during that time with no premium prices attached to such tea.
But I digress. It has been 4 years ever since my first visit to the Guangzhou tea markets. I had noticed a few significant changes. There are even more teashops at the Fangcun tea markets. Most importantly, prices of tea had gone up.....a lot!! The general cost of living had risen significantly these past 4 years; labour costs doubled, rents and property prices more than doubled, raw commodities are more expensive partly due to the higher standard of living, higher demand and the not too good weather China had experienced these couple of years. In other words.....tea prices are up. Add on the fact, there is some speculative elements these 2 years due to the more affluent consumer, new prices of tea like new pu erh cakes can command as high as US$80-100. I would argue that the tea shops are not making a killing of us, the tea buyer. The teashop owner is now faced with higher tea prices, higher staff costs and rentals and may not have much of a choice that the new tea sold today are significantly more expensive. Many smaller Guangzhou tea shops are family run business, and their livelihood are solely dependent on selling tea. Prices have to be competitive as there are thousands of similar shops in the tea market.
However, this situation had caused an anomaly - the older teas that are unsold and/or still on display at the teashops may be cheaper or compare favorably (price wise) to the new teas.
Back to this tea. This is a 10 year old tea. When I brew the tea, there were slight hints of an aged tea. Nice light woody notes of sandalwood and camphor with a mild fresh herb aroma. I could sense this pu erh tea brick when new was a smoky tea, but this smokiness had dissipated, over time and perhaps the brick was packed without a wrapper. Quite a mellow tea. This tea had exceeded my expectations. It is made more pleasant that it was sold at a faction of the price of a new tea. Don't forget; you would, for your new cakes, store it away for 5-10 years to achieve some aged tea taste.
However I would like to warn my readers not to jump for joy and start twerking when you come across such good-priced 'older' teas. It is very important that you sample the tea before you purchase. Make sure you like it.
During my recent trip to Hong Kong, I managed to arrange to fly home via Guangzhou - which allowed me to spend half a day at the famous Fangcun Tea Village.
One of my stops in Fangcun was at my favorite teapot shop. It is always stocked to the brim with teapots. I would just stand at the shop and stare at the huge assortment of teapots. Its like a candy store. I had known the proprietors for a few years, and I normally make a purchase every time I visit this shop.
Walking in Fangcun requires some endurance by me not to be tempted by the various tea and teaware that are for sale. Holding tightly to my wallet, I managed to get to another store that specializes in floral tea (last 2 pix). I purchased some chrysanthemum flowers, the mini flower type 1 kg worth.....which my family enjoys during a hot day. The proprietors there had also recommended me to buy their dried carnations, which they claimed make a sweet floral tea. I then spent the rest of the day drinking tea with my Guangzhou tea friends. An intoxicating tea session.
I will tell you in a later blog what I had bought during my trip, but meanwhile I will let the pix do all the talking.