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Our Bulang Mountain Pu-Erh tea cakes are a unique offering reminiscent of the beginnings of Pu-Erh tea itself. According to legend, Pu-Erh tea was discovered when green tea cakes were loaded onto pack horses by merchants who trekked through the mountains to exchange their tea for goods.

Over the perilous journey, the tea was exposed to rain and dried out over and over. This resulted in a distinctive earthy flavor profile in the liquor when the tea was steeped. Because this flavor was so well received, the process was replicated intentionally. Over the years, this process has been refined many times, evolving from a happy accident on the tea horse road to the modern manufacturing process used today.

Have you ever wondered how tea cakes are made?

The Harvest

Each year in Yunnan province, the harvest begins in February or March. While tea leaves continue to sprout throughout the summer, many Pu-Erh tea manufacturers consider that the spring harvest produces the best quality, finished product. This may be due to the temperate weather, which produces optimal conditions for the moisture content in the leaves. For many teas, the perfect plucking is two leaves and a bud. However, when harvesting tea for Pu-Erh production, workers will often pluck a few more leaves.

Sorting the Tea

Broken or imperfect leaves are removed during this important stage. Tea leaves are the only ingredient in tea cakes, so they must be high quality to produce a high quality beverage. Different sizes and shapes of leaves are filtered into different lots during this step to produce tea cakes of various grades.

The “Kill-Green” Process

This stage halts the oxidation process and discourages the enzymes in the leaves from breaking down and changing the color of the leaves. Different levels of oxidation produce different types of tea, and Pu-Erh tea requires a limited level of oxidation. While there are many ways to heat the tea leaves, or “kill the green,” Pu-Erh tea is stir roasted. In this traditional method, fresh tea leaves are deposited into large woks heated by wood or charcoal. Workers skillfully turn the leaves, with long bamboo sticks or their hands, until the color and quality change. Today, this process is accomplished with precision by machine. Modern technology has simplified many of the elements of the traditional Pu-erh tea making process.

Rolling the Leaves

Next, the tea leaves are rolled to accomplish different shapes. This prevents the leaves from breaking and ensures that they stay crisp. Rolling the tea can also influence how the flavors are released when the tea is steeped. Originally done by hand, this is another step that is now most commonly done by machine.

Fermentation

The leaves of Sheng (“raw”) cakes are compressed after they are rolled. However, Shou (“cooked”) cakes undergo an extra step: fermentation. During this process, the tea leaves are piled indoors and covered with a cloth. The pile is monitored closely over the following weeks under specific temperature and humidity levels. In the past, Pu-erh tea had to be aged for 20-30 years to achieve its iconic earthy flavor. The pile method was developed to speed up the process by which the tea attained its signature qualities. In attempting to mimic the traditional aging of Pu-Erh tea, this technique developed new flavors and has become a separate type of tea entirely. The pile is turned over periodically to achieve even fermentation, and the process is complete when the tea has achieved its desired flavor.

Fine Processing into Cakes

This is the step of the process where tea is compressed into cakes. An old-fashioned method of processing involves wrapping steamed tea leaves in a cloth and compressing them under a stone press while someone stands on top to weigh it down. Tea pressed by this stone method is occasionally still employed today. However, most cakes are compressed by machinery in tea factories. The rolled tea leaves are weighed and placed in metal containers. Then, the containers are placed on top of a steamer to loosen up the leaves, which need to be damp and flexible for pressing so they will adhere together. A worker places a round cotton bag over the top of the metal container and flips it over to release the leaves into the bag. By hand, the worker twists the bag to form a rough tea cake shape. The bag is tied into a knot which, when pressed, creates an indentation in the center of the cake. Finally, the cotton bag is placed in a hydraulic press. When the tea is solidly pressed together, it is removed from the bag and placed on a drying rack.

Drying the Tea

Compressed tea cakes are dried in the sun or baked by the heat of a fire in a large oven. If a manufacturer decides to age a particular lot of tea cakes, they are moved directly from drying to storage for an extended period of time.

Were you surprised to learn how tea cakes are made? We hope you found this entertaining and enlightening!