25 February 2011

My system of breaking pu'er cakes

I wanted to post a photo of a cake I recently broke into for drinking, the 2008 Lancang 0081 shu blend. I thought this might be useful to people who love the fascinating beauty of pu'er tea wrappers as much as I do, and want to preserve them. I have also updated my tasting notes at the original post.

When I remove a chunk of tea from a pu'er cake, I begin at the center dimple of the cake and work my way around it and outwards, a sort of spiral from the center. I have several reasons for breaking the tea this way:
  1. It slices off half the thickness of the cake, making the cake easier to break later with fewer broken leaves.
  2. It gets the hardest chunks to break off out of the way first, leading to more whole leaves later.
  3. It keeps the face whole. This has two benefits, one purely cosmetic and one practical. Aesthetically, the face of a cake looks better than the back. The practical reason is it that it avoid the neifei (the inner label), which I get to last. By the day I get to the chunk of tea around and under the neifei, the tea around the neifei has had time to breathe and the neifei comes off with less damage to it.
  4. Most importantly, it keeps the cake round. When a cake is rewrapped, the most taught areas of paper are on the edge and face, jagged tea leaves and stems left sticking out when breaking tea off the edges and faces of cakes can cause the cakes' wrappers to tear, which has several drawbacks. Torn wrappers look sloppy, and the holes in the paper often spill dust out onto the tea table, floor, etc.
After I have completely removed the back, I take tea off the edges of cakes in a reverse spiral, moving from the outside inward to keep the cake round. I rewrap the cakes very loosely to avoid tears in the wrapper.

There is one drawback to this method, which is that for cakes with "pretty faces, ugly butts", where the face of the cake has different material from the back of the cake, taking leaves only from the back (or, later, only from the front) does not yield a 100% representation of the blend. In my experience, those prettier face leaves are not very important to the overall taste of the pu'er cake at hand, so I don't suffer the loss. But, your mileage may vary, and the information may prove useful.

So, a question to you: do you have a preferred method for breaking up cakes, bricks, tuo, etc.? Please share!


Brandon said...

Wow, never thought of starting at the pit. Any "method" I have is rooted in laziness. With 'boutique" sort of cakes you see these days made with large, whole leaves, and looser stone compression, I use my hand to wiggle off the first servings from the edge of the cake - easy. Then I wiggle those pieces apart into component leaves in my gaiwan.

For machine compressed cakes, I usually risk my fingers by holding it between thumb and forefinger tightly with one hand, and working a sharp-ish knife into the cake sideways. to flake off a piece from the 'butt' side. I repeat this until the butt side is removed of about 3" of surface area, and then start in on the other side - the outer 3" of the 'face' side of the cake. after this is gone, and the cake is much smaller, I make another two pases (butt and face) around until it is all gone.

Will said...

I've been trying this since we were talking about it the other day, and I was just thinking about the exact same thing you mentioned -- that a lot of times, the heaviest-compressed and most broken-up parts of the tea are often going to be near that pit. While it's maybe good to get that stuff out of the way, I feel bad sending people samples of it.

BTW, does anyone wear gloves? I always thought that was a little too much, but I'm thinking that all the contact with finger grease probably isn't ideal.

Jason Fasi said...

@Brandon I have stabbed my fingers too many times to do it your way; you must be much more dexterous than I am! So if I understand it correctly, you take leaves off in a spiral from the outside inward, "butt" side first?

@Will I once received a sample from a vendor that was the dimple itself and was none too happy. I find that the tea around the dimple I can keep whole using the multi-angled approach to knife entry. The dimple itself is usually the last or next to last part of the tea I break, so it's generally consumed by me.

Sometimes, though, the neifei chunk is last or I don't drink the neifei chunk at all. I'm starting to keep and age jars of just neifei chunks as a sort of "grab bag" for the future.

Brandon said...

I have one prize scar from this.
But just the one.

The Tea Urchin said...

I have also stabbed myself in the finger attempting this method. I find chipping in from the edge towards the dimple is much easier and allows you to break off decent sized flakes with whole leaves. The dimple is the most compressed part of the cake due to the cloth knot getting in the way, and you get a lot of broken leaves if you start from the inside out. That being said, many of the vendors I frequent in Shanghai follow your process to the T.

MarshalN said...

Tuo pick, guys, tuo pick. They are far, far, far superior to the knives -- any kind of knives, really.

I generally break mine apart bit by bit, but not from the center, and not only from the back. Ideally, I'd break them all apart at once -- so I'd have a completely loose cake, but that's a pretty difficult thing to do, space wise :(