There is something so pure about raw puerh, the least processed tea of all, simply sun dried and compressed, not even pan fried like longjing, but allowed to remain “alive” with tiny microbes that facilitate fermentation and constant change. What I love about the idea of raw bamboo puerh is the contradiction of that purity with the elaborate process of making charcoal, packing the bamboo sections, steaming them, cutting away the bamboo, etc. This is tea dialectics! Simply complex. Fire and water. Heaven and earth.
As I understand it, there are a couple of different ways to make bamboo puerh: One is to roll or knead the fresh tea leaves, directly fill the bamboo tube, and oven bake; the other is to first sun dry the leaves, then steam them on rice, and compress the leaves into the bamboo while baking over fire. I think this tea was processed the second way.
I have only ever had the Wuyi Mountain bamboo tea from Norbu, which is subtle and very mild. This Dai tea (the Dai are one of China’s ethnic minorities) is an interesting comparison. First the tea tubes are much larger — two and a half inches in diameter. And the tea is much more tightly compressed; it was difficult to break off a chunk and, consequently, I crushed some of the leaves. I rinsed the tea twice to open it up, which it did nicely. The first tastes were of the familiar purity of green puerh, predominantly vegetal, no camphor. In the next infusions, floral notes appear (mushroomy magnolia perhaps) against a definite smoky background (pace the YS description). What I’m calling smokiness is very subtle and quiet pleasant and recessive — different from up-front roasted; others may call it woody but it was smokey to me. It adds further complexity. The spent leaves are amazingly whole; the smell of the leaves in the pot is more flowery than other shengs I’ve had.
I think the Dai simply put this tea in a bowl with hot water rather than prepare it in a pot and transfer to cups. I will brew and drink directly from a gaiwan next time, to try to emulate the Dai. Tea dialectics put me in touch with people I don’t even know. I can travel with tea if I concentrate. I can become very old and also very young. Raw bamboo puerh is particular good and helping me do this.