Compressed Puerh vs Loose-leaf Puerh (7 December 2008)

按下圖片取得640x480解像度 Click to view 640x480        After setting up the Cloud's Tea Diary, Cloud often receives e-mails and private messages with questions related to Puerh tea. Those questions are good questions. Beginners may also have similar doubts when they start their Puerh tea journeys. Thus, Cloud decides to gather these Q&As to the Cloud's Tea Diary so that the later comers may make reference to my answers.


       The Puerh tea lover, M, raised a question, "Puerh tea is a kind of special tea which has both loose-leaf form and compressed form. Which one is better?"

       Cloud replied, "In fact, both of them have their own greatness and shortness. Different forms fit different customers' needs."

The Origin of Compressed Tea

       In Qing dynasty, the ancient Six Famous Tea Mountains were already well-known to the tea market. The ancient document, "A Survey of Mountains and Rivers of Yunnan" (滇海虞衡誌), recorded that "Puerh tea is well-known amongst the Chinese communities and yielded in the Six Famous Tea Mountains, they are Youle, Gedeng, Yibang, Mangzhi, Manzhuan and Mansa. The Mountains cover eight hundred li (里), the number of workers engaged in the tea business amounts to more than 100,000 people. Tea merchants buy the tea and deliver it to every city in China. (普洱茶名重於天下,出普洱所屬六茶山:一曰攸樂、二曰革登、三曰倚邦、四曰莽枝、五曰蠻磚及六曰漫撒。周八百里,入山作茶者數十萬人,茶客收買,運於各處。)" Owing to the fact that it was inconvenient for people to transport Puerh tea from Yunnan to other cities in the old days (because of lacking of highways and railways), the only possible way to deliver Puerh over the mountains was by horses. Under these difficult circumstances, delivering Puerh tea in loose-leaf form was extremely inconvenient:-
  1. Loose-leaf Puerh had to be packed in large soft bags made by cloth;
  2. Loose-leaf Puerh was bulky without compression.
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       In order to have a better transportation, Puerh tea was compressed according to the ancient method traditionally used before Ming Dynasty. After compression, it was much easier for packing and delivery.

       Puerh tea is an aging tea. That is to say, a Puerh tea cake has to be stored and hoarded for some years so that it can undergo the natural aging process after it has been compressed in the tea factory. Tea broth will give marvelous mellow flavor after many years of natual aging. In fact, the aging process is a long journey of Oxidization and Natural Fermentation. For raw tea cakes, it will normally take 20 or more years for its natural aging.

Compressed Puerh - The Beauty of Compression

       After knowing more about Puerh tea, you will notice the following advantages after compression:-
  1. The size of tea leaves is largely reduced. A standard 357g normal tea cake takes lesser space than the same amount of loose-leaf Puerh tea;
  2. It is easier to carry, transport and trade because people can count a tea cake as an unit;
  3. Compression will slow down the aging process in the middle of tea cake so that more tea flavor will be preserved. In a long run, it will taste better;
  4. The trademark ticket can be embedded into tea cakes for consumers' easy identification.
       However, tea leaves after compression will also bring some troubles:-
  1. It is inconvenient to brew tea directly because you have to use a tool to break it (however, it may be an amusement for Puerh tea fanatics to enjoy);
  2. Breaking a tea cake improperly with a sharp tool may hurt yourself;
  3. For impatient people, slowing down the aging process in the middle of tea cakes will deter them from enjoying the aged flavor in the first few years. Aging process takes longer time;
  4. More experience is required to determine how much tea leaves have to be put into the utensil. The proportion of tea chunks and leaves has to be balanced (Further Reading: 2008-07-09 Brewing Technique - Proportion of Tea Leaves)。
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Loose-leaf Puerh - Convenience

       By comparing with tea cakes, loose-leaf Puerh tea has the following advantages:-
  1. It is easier to get and brew because you do not have to break it;
  2. It is easier to learn how much tea leaves you need for a single brew because you do not have to consider the effect of chunks;
  3. Loose-leaf Puerh can age faster and become mellower in a relatively shorter period of time (However, too much ventilation will cause flavor vanishing);
       In the meantime, loose-leaf Puerh tea has the following disadvantages:-
  1. Loose-leaf form is inconvenient for storing and delivery.
  2. Loose-leaf takes more room because of the tiny space between every leaf. Overall speaking, Loose-leaf Puerh is bulky;
  3. It is inconvenient for trading as it needs electronic weight for measurement;
  4. Too much ventilation will cause flavor vanishing so that ventilation has to be monitored;
  5. No trademark ticket can be embedded. It gives less confidence to consumers that some bad vendors may blend impure Puerh tea from other areas.


       It is difficult to draw a line to conclude which one is better because both compressed Puerh and loose-leaf Puerh have their own greatness. If you want to have a wonderful flavor from an aged Puerh vintage, it'd better for you to buy a compressed tea cake. Also, it saves space. However, if you are an ordinary consumer who just wants to brew Puerh tea daily without being troubled by storing and aging, it'd better for you to buy loose-leaf Puerh for daily consumption as you can brew it easily and do not need any other tool to break it.

7 December 2008 wrote in Chinese
16 August 2009 translated into English
Cloud (Hong Kong)

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