Thursday, September 22, 2005

Brick Tea

A lot of peple have a fascination with brick tea. And a lot of puer is made into brick tea. But many other teas are also made into compressed tea bricks. In fact, compressed tea is one of the oldest forms of tea, dating to the Tang dynasty. The popularity of loose tea came much later. Loose tea is a Ming dynasty tea drinking custom. So too, are gaiwans a Ming dynasty tea custom.

There was still some loose tea available in Tang China. But it just wasn't as popular back then as brick tea.

Today, you can still find compressed teas made from green teas, black teas, red teas, oolong teas. So there are quite a variety of brick teas other than puer.

It's puer (the modern, Pinyin spelling), or puerh (the older Wade-Giles spelling). In Cantonese you would spell it polei or ponei.

Actually, puer has been around since the Tang Dynasty. But there are so many other kinds of brick tea, that we shouldn't overlook them when discussing brick tea.

Do you know the proper way to brew compressed tea is to simmer it, not steep it? This is because the leaves are so tightly compressed together; they need the gentle force of simmering water to express the essence in the leaves.

You could still steep it to get a decent cup, but you will see a color change at the bottom of the cup, because the essence is still trying to be expressed from the leaves. So infusion is just too weak a method to brew brick tea.

Anyway, brick tea is popular with China's ethnic minorities that live in the mountainous areas. And at high altitudes, water boils at 80 C, instead of 100 C. So the water is much cooler - too cool for effectively steeping brick tea. Therefore, they have the practice of simmering their brick tea. That's another reason why brick tea enthusiasts simmer their tea – in accordance with the custom of the ethnic minorities who live in the mountains.


corax said...

warren, this is absolutely fascinating. as you can see from elsewhere on this blog, with puers i am in the habit of using below-boiling temperatures and gongfu-style infusions. are you saying that i could have perhaps a more 'authentic' experience by simmering a compressed tea than by infusing it as i have been doing? is simmering *not* a common practice in more urban areas like, say, kunming?

if i should try a simmered tea, is there a recommended time-limit that i should try with a puer? do simmering times differ for sheng and shu? is there a danger of 'stewing' the tea somehow, as can happen with other types of tea?

i'm really interested in knowing more about this topic. the standard western references [norwood pratt et al] have very little to say about it.

Warren said...

Yes, you would have a more authentic experience by simmering compressed teas rather than infusing them. For compressed teas, simmering is the common practice, rather than infusion - even at lower elevations. Because the leaves are so tightly compressed, it's the best way to bring out the flavor of the tea. But the type of pot you simmer the tea in may be a factor. I suggest using a porcelain clay pot, which you can buy in Chinatown. Or maybe you could use one of those tempered glass pots for stove-top use. Metal pots may not be ideal for simmered tea. But, if you don't have anything else, it's still worth a try.

Try simmering the tea for 5 minutes. I don't know if simmering times differ for sheng and shu. You would have to experiment.

There is a danger of stewing the tea, which is why you really have to watch what you are doing. You need to experiment with the quantity of leaf to the quantity of water in order to have a decently simmered tea.

Simmered tea can use other types of teas also - like oolong, red, and black teas. Any of those kinds can be simmered - and some people today do make tea this way. It's an interesting experiment. And the result will be different from "steeped tea"

corax said...

warren, you are rocking my world here. this opens up a whole new vista of possibilities on puer cha, both sheng and shu. i'm particularly excited about trying the simmering technique on the latter, as i tend to appreciate it less than a good sheng. this might be precisely *why*: i'm not using the proper technique to prepare it.

and think how many people turn their noses up at puer cha! this might revolutionize the way they think about it.

the simmering vessel is indeed going to be an issue in this regard. i have more brewing vessels than common sense, as they say. but in middle america, the first *ceramic* vessel-type that comes to mind, when one talks about direct heat, is of course corning ware. those are relatively cheap, and easily available. haven't had any in my house in a long time, but maybe that's what i should go for. i do worry about putting porcelain on the stove-top; i know it's fired very high, like 1700-1800F, but still. [incidentally, for the record, i will be doing this on a gas range, so there will be actual fire directly underneath the vessel, but minutely adjustable.] have you used porcelain over direct heat like this gas range? i actually have a cheap porcelain teapot [yes, china-town style] with a chipped nose; i could sacrifice that to this experiment, if it were a question of sacrifice. but best of all would be if one could know for sure that one could use the vessel reliably and repeatedly. [particularly if this becomes an addiction.]

finally: when you say 'simmer,' can you give me some sense of the actual temp you have in mind? to me, 'simmering' [of cooking liquids other than tea] might look like 'fish eyes' or 'string-of-pearls' bubbles. is that about right? definitely not 'old man water,' what westerners would think of as the 'rolling boil'?

an exciting prospect ahead of me here! xie xie warren!

Warren said...

You could use a small Chinese clay pot like one of these to simmer tea:

They're good for making a tasty soup or stew too.

But, I never use one of these. I just use a stainless steel pot. However, I'm sure the taste of the tea would be much better simmered in a non-metallic pot.

I'm sure there are all kinds of other non-metallic utensils that would be suitable too - like tempered glass pots, or glass or porcelain kettles that use an alcohol burner.

When I say simmer, I mean bring the water to a boil first, then, reduce the heat. Add the tea leaves, and let it simmer for the desired period of time. This is simmer as in the western sense of the word - not full boil.

I'm not that brave to use a porcelain teapot on a stove; afraid it might explode.

Michael Plant said...


This is COMPLETELY new to me too. I would have scoffed, but I know you as a serious tea guy. So tomorrow, I'm off to simmer some Pu'erh. I can see this working for Shu, but my imagination won't carry me to Sheng. Now, wouldn't simmering do unto a truly beautiful young Sheng what it would do to a truly beautiful fresh Dragon Well? Spinach juice, anyone?

Please advise about perameters in this method. How much tea and time do you recommend? Warren, are you saying that brick tea cannot be properly brewed in the more standard non-simmering way? I'm simmering. I thought there were so many "proper" ways to prepare tea.

With thanks aforehand,