Puer, Neither Loose Nor Compressed

This last weekend I took a little Canadian “vacation” to Vancouver, BC. I use the quotes because I spent nearly the entire weekend doing tea-related things, and in a sense that’s work as well. One of the many interesting things I saw, did, and learned was related to puer tea.

Puer Leaf BundleOne of my Canadian tea friends there has some contacts (and perhaps influence) in China with the folks who make and sell puer. He has been interested in puer for a long time, and said he likes to have a few new and interesting things for his regular customers (and tea educators like myself, apparently). This time, he had what might be called an historical recreation–a tin of puer tea made in an ancient style before tea leaves were compressed into cakes.  Note: loose leaf tea the way we know it now is a more recent invention, probably only about 600 years old.  Before that time, pretty much all tea was compressed into cakes, not just what we would today call puer.

Puer Leaf BundleHis limited availability product tries to reproduce, as well as the tea-makers knew, how tea was made in Yunnan before the widespread use of compression.  This would go back to when tea was considered a medicine, not a beverage.  It clearly draws on how herbs are collected and dried–the leaves are tied together by their stems in little bundles that were hung up to dry.  To use, just break the leaves off the stem bundle and put them in a bowl (or gaiwan, if you want a little anachronism with your tea) and add water.

Puer Leaf BundleI did this with a bundle to see what it was like, using my matcha bowl as the most historical kind of bowl I have.  As soon as I poured the hot water on the leaves, I could smell the fragrance typical of a young sheng puer, but the liquor got pretty dark rather quickly.  It was also fairly cloudy, something I wasn’t expecting.  Because it smelled like a sheng but was getting a dark color pretty quickly, I poured off the infusion into a gaiwan so as not to over-steep.  The leaves were a pretty wide range of greens, from pretty fresh-looking chartreuse to a fairly dark, almost black-tea color on some others.  The fragrance of the leaves was something slightly different than the typical (if there is such a thing) young puer fragrance–there was something a little woodsy about it, and a touch of…a little barnyard maybe?  Maybe it was the bias of knowing this was a more “primitive” style of tea, but it seemed somehow more primitive to me.  It seemed simple and down-to-earth; unrefined, in its best Daoist meanings.

Puer Leaf BundleTasting the brew told me that I’d over-reacted in pouring off the liquor.  It was fairly mild in taste, only strong in fragrance.  It had just the barest hint of astringency.  My tongue had the sensation of having something powdery in it, rather than the dry roughness of something really astringent, and it encouraged some saliva production.  The woodsy aroma was present in the taste of the liquor, but the barnyard or whatever fragrance in the infusion didn’t translate into the taste of the liquor, though there was something that seemed kind of soapy…an experience I’ve had with other young sheng puers on occasion.  Decent mouthfeel, but I bet if I’d brewed longer it would have been heavier.

Puer Leaf BundleI haven’t tried re-steeping yet.  I wanted to get this post up.  If future infusions lead to something surprising, I’ll include them in the comments below.

Also, Tea Geek members will have the opportunity to purchase the remaining bundles on a first-come, first-served basis as a members-only selection while supplies last.

3 thoughts on “Puer, Neither Loose Nor Compressed”

  1. A fascinating article. I’d never heard of tea prepared in this way. It much be ancient, indeed. Have been reading lately about Lu Yu and his “Classic of Tea”, written in 780 AD. But at that time they were preparing tea as cakes, then toasting and grinding into a powder before preparing to drink. Do you have any reference to when this practice of simply drying the leaves-on-stem was done? Just curious to know more 🙂

  2. You’re right. In Lu Yu’s time, caked tea was standard, so this leaf-bunch style is probably very ancient–and thus at least partly if not mostly speculative on the part of the makers. Several sources (including Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential edited by Yong-su Zhen) put the transition from medicine to beverage somewhere in the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 BCE).

    Tea drinking has been said to have started spreading beyond tea-growing areas during the reign of Qin Shihuang because of his massive building projects like the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors, which brought people from different regions of China together for the huge labor requirements. He was the first of the Qin dynasty, which followed the Zhou, starting in 221 BCE. As far as I can guess without further research, that would have been when the idea of packing tea for shipping to other regions would likely have started to make more sense. It wouldn’t surprise me if cake tea didn’t develop during the Qin dynasty.

    All that said, my guess is that this tea represents a style more than two millennia old.

  3. A fascinating post. As a frequent tea visitor to Vancouver, I don’t suppose you can share which tea shop you purchased this from? Stephen at Spring Cottage has something similar last year, but it was still more of an arboreal mao cha (Nannuo Shan leaves picked and processed by a friend) than aged sheafs of leaves.

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