Sunday, September 22, 2013

Steaming A Puerh Cake

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. 


Anonymous said...

I find that steaming tuochas and bricks is the easiest and safest way to disassemble a tightly compressed tea. It keeps the leaves intact and whole while reducing the amount of dust and fragments. I have done this with cooked and ripe teas and I feel it has negligible effect on flavour. After the cake is steamed and broken up I ensure it is completely dry before I store it by laying it out on a tray and baking it in a low oven (100°c) for 30 minutes.

wilson said...

Thank you for your very interesting comments. Do provide more information about your method; how many minutes you steam the tea and any pictures will be appreciated. I will dedicate a blog entry on your method if you permit. I would like to personally try your steam/baking of tea but I do not have a dedicated oven and afraid that my tea will catch the aroma of baked cinnamon buns and honey baked chicken, if I use the family oven. Also I find that older pu erh teas especially ripe cakes will lose their compression and sometimes these older cakes can be pried open with just my hands. Thank you and I salute you for having such passion for tea - spending considerable time and care to steam and then dry the tea by baking them.

Anonymous said...

This method is really only necessary when you have a really tight, solid cake that resists breaking up by any other method (manually or with a sharp implement). I would only do this to a tea cake I wanted to drink now. I am not sure how this procedure would effect the aging potential of the tea, obviously only time and experimentation will answer that question. I too was concerned about the tea absorbing foreign aromas so I only use scrupulously clean utensils. I steam the tea inside a stainless steel vegetable steamer for about 20 - 30 minutes over a low setting (this seems to be necessary to fully soften the interior of the cake and make it friable/crumbly. I placed the tuocha on a small plate inside the steamer to give it some protection and prevent it from becoming too damp. Then I transfer the tea to a large ceramic dish and briefly let it cool. I carefully break up the now softened tuocha by hand trying not to break too many leaves and also trying to avoid burning my fingers. Once the cake is broken into large pieces it cools rapidly and is safe to handle. When it is reduced down to my satisfaction (individual leaves and small clumps) I spread it out to make more or less a single layer and place the dish in an quite standard domestic electric oven heated to 80-100c. Wedging a wooden spoon or something similar in the door of the oven to create a gap helps any moisture to escape. After about 30 minutes I take it out and let it cool completely before stashing it in a metal tin. Alternatively, buy loose ripe tea or some maocha and save yourself about a hours work in the kitchen!

wilson said...

Thank you Micheal for sharing your very interesting method of breaking up a tuocha.