To understand the tea cake, we first have to look back at pu’er. Those of you who read my earlier articles know a little about pu’er, and might remember that for a long time it was traded with neighboring countries. Mules were loaded up with pounds of tea — about 132 pounds each, to be exact — in southwestern Yunnan province, and trekked along what is now known as the Tea Horse Road to countries like Tibet and Burma. 132 pounds of tea is a lot. How did they get all that tea onto the donkey?
The answer is that they pressed the tea into cakes. By condensing 357 grams of pu’er into each compact brick, traders were able to carry the tea, which now took up much less space, more easily. I personally learned this lesson firsthand when I almost threw my back out by lifting a box no bigger than a bread box, just to realize it had about eight pounds of tea that had been caked to make it more space-efficient.
But these days, tea cakes have taken on a life of their own. With the popularity of pu’er came the popularity of pressing all kinds of teas into cakes. Teas are now pressed not only to help with storage, but also for purely decorative reasons. In one case I even saw tea pressed into the shape of chess pieces.
Is pressed tea worth buying? In this article I’ll look at the pros and cons of pressed teas, and discuss the things that need to be considered when buying a cake.
The first, most obvious pro relates to storage. With people getting more and more into storing tea, it’s very convenient to have your teas pressed in order to save space. A large tea container that can hold one pound of loose tea can hold up to six cakes, depending on the size and shape. If the cakes are pressed in the traditional 357 gram weight, that is more than three pounds of tea per case. This is the best and most straightforward reason to cake your tea. Nobody can argue against this advantage, and it can apply to almost any tea you want to cake.
From here, the subject of caking teas become more complex, especially when it comes to aging.
The popularity of pu’er not only spurred the popularity of tea cakes, but also the aging of teas. Traditionally, teas were almost exclusively consumed while fresh, but the conversation around aging teas became more prevalent as pu’er became more popular. While it is a widely agreed fact that some teas, such as pu’er and white teas, can age, there is sometimes a false connection drawn between aging and pressing the tea into cakes.
Pu’er cake pressed into the shape of a music device
Aging a tea basically involves the continued metabolizing of enzymes. This process is stopped in most teas during the “kill green” (sha qing) step. Pu’er and white tea, however, either have a much softer kill green step (as is the case for pu’er), or no kill green step at all (the case for white teas). This means that the enzymes keep metabolizing, and this metabolic process is often aided by heat.
Understanding these two facts, people will often connect them and say that caking tea traps heat, which aids fermentation. To me, this seems like a stretch. Without having the instruments to measure the temperature of a pu’er cake, I would assume that a cake will be about the same temperature as the room it’s in. Saying that a pressed cake of tea holds enough heat to sustain fermentation over a long period of time goes against my (admittedly limited) knowledge of heat transfer science.
On a recent trip to the coastal Zhejiang city of Fuding, I asked a tea farmer if he’d ever put his best teas into cakes. “No,” he said, shaking his head. Other people in the industry who have talked to farmers from Yunnan and other areas have gotten similar responses.
The process of pressing tea involves steaming the leaf, pressing it and then drying it again. This is a risky process, moisture being the number one enemy of tea. When farmers are dealing with their most prized teas, they will often try to do as little extra work as possible, because each step holds the possibility of a mistake that will ruin the tea. (I have seen extremely high-quality dancong teas sold with one less roast because the buyer didn’t want to risk the farmer over-roasting.) The highest-quality teas are often not caked, because if the moisture does not leave the leaf, it will ruin a farmer’s most expensive tea — their biggest source of income.
I am not without some tea cakes myself. Last spring I bought three cakes of new pu’er for a producer. When I bought these cakes, though, it was because I knew I was not going to touch them for a while, and I did not want them taking up space.
When I worked for Tea Drunk in New York City, the owner, Ms. Teng, would buy both loose and pressed teas. Loose teas, she and other very well-informed tea drinkers have said, age better, as there is more exposure to oxygen. She bought cakes as well, because they were easier to store, and people preferred them to give as gifts.
Which leads to the other major reason some producers press teas: tea cakes sell. The popularity around tea cakes will make a medium- to low-quality tea more desirable if it’s in a cake. Cakes are in no way a bad thing, and buying cakes is by no means a bad practice. But it is important to have an understanding of cakes, and the level of quality involved, for when you are choosing between pressed and loose tea.