TeaVivre said

How to properly break / flake and loosen compressed Pu erh tea

Recently, I have saw many videos on how to break and loosen the compressed pu-erh tea, many people have his or her way to break it. Even, some methods may need to be improved. As we know, the compressed pu-erh tea can be divided into three types, cake, bowl and brick. Each type of pu-erh tea has its own characteristic, and also has the similar way to break it.

So how to properly break a compressed pu-erh tea in order to keep its original taste and flavor seems very important to tea lovers. The following video is the way we break and loosen compressed Pu-erh tea:


And also here’s our article to show the detailed steps:

Meanwhile, I also wonder what methods you will use to break the compressed pu-erh tea. Hope we can share the experience on how to properly break the compressed pu-erh tea.

39 Replies

The Art of Coaxing Leaves Out of a compressed cake or brick of tea.

A simple, old-fashioned letter opener works pretty well for prying apart the leaves of a compressed, dried puerh cake or brick. Try to work the intertwined leaves apart without breaking too many of them … whole leaves make better tea. You can put some chunks of the cake into your teapot, or separate all the leaves until they look like loose tea. Discard anything which doesn’t look like tea leaf. The most common foreign matter will be parts of non-tea plants which were growing close to the tea bush or tree.

Whatever setup you use, BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL. It is very easy to injure yourself while performing this task. Take a deep breath, let go of your other concerns, and focus fully on the job at hand. Your practice of mindfulness is ideal for this situation … be ever mindful of the placement of your tool and your hands, etc, and of the path the tool will take when it moves forward. NEVER aim the point of your instrument toward any part of anyone’s body. Use only as much force as you absolutely need. When the cake loosens and gives way, the tool may suddenly slip, cutting or jabbing anything in its path.

There are specialized puerh knives and picks, but the letter opener or a blunted ice pick will do just fine. You can buy a 1-ft-square bamboo tray with a low rim which is designed to hold the cake or brick while it is being pried apart. Personally, I use an inexpensive, shallow wooden salad bowl. Layers of newspaper on an old table top will work, as will a cutting board. Work on a table or counter in a room free of distractions and interruptions. Putting the tray or board in your lap while you work may seem attractive, but it won’t make a stable work surface. You’d be more likely to jab your leg, or even your torso! (Please post your replies in this thread to share the methods which work for you, or not.)

Here’s my technique in more detail … I hope I can describe it properly. Holding your prying/piercing tool in your dominant hand, place your other hand flat on top of the cake to steady it, taking note of where your fingers curve down over the sides. Now, this is compressed tea geology, or maybe archeaology: observe the direction of the layers of leaves. Place the point into the edge of the cake and apply controlled pressure in the same plane with the leaf layers, aiming straight across or slightly down toward your work surface. Keeping the point in place, pressing mindfully forward between layers, work the handle from side to side (rather than up and down). Place your tool tip in another location and repeat. Surround a small area of the cake with your coaxing technique, relocating your working point often. Once some chunks of leaf begin to come loose from the cake, I use my bare hands and fingers to gently pull the loosened leaves apart, working them back and forth to untangle them. The finger movements feel sort of like untangling a clump of paper clips. Am I making any sense here? :P

Sometimes you will want to pry off a larger quantity of leaf than you will use immediately. Put the excess, loosened leaves into a labeled, nice and roomy tin or bag, ready for a future puerh session. With practice and experience, your control over the letter opener (or whatever you’re using) will improve. You may even come to see the task as an artful part of the tea ritual and enjoy the use of your newly acquired skills.

Voila! You’re ready to brew up some puerh tea! There is a lot of adventure and enjoyment to be found in those mysterious cakes and bricks. Maybe you’ll come to experiment a bit, tossing in a bit of ginger, mint, dried berries, or whatever strikes your fancy, along with the tea leaves. Root materials work well for this (burdock adds body and sweetness, for instance), where you will be doing multiple rounds of steeping on the mixture.

NOTE: The long info page at the link below contains a description of loosening up a cake by steaming it. Good for when you want to take the whole thing apart at once.

Reply here and track this discussion to get ideas from other members. Putting our heads together increases our chances of success with the particular challenges of puerh tea.

Thanks for the information. I encountered this problem just last night with a recently purchased tea cake.

Dorothy said

Thanks for posting the video.

I had no idea that you even had to break puer tea apart before brewing! Man, I’m a noob!

From watching the video, it seems like it’s important to break off a chunk and not little pieces. But the second poster says it’s fine to break the compressed tea apart into what resembles loose leaf tea. Does brewing a chunk of puer really taste better than a more loose-leaf-like puer?

Also, how large of a chunk should you be steeping in about 6-8 oz. of water? If possible, can you recommend an amount in grams? Thanks all!

TeaVivre said

We’d better do not break too many of the leaves, complete leaves can keep its original flavor, as for the amount, we suggest you can put 5-8 grams to brew it. This is also depend on your taste, if you have a stronger taste, you can put more amount.

Will said

Some people have different strategies about how much to break the tea up, and partly, it depends on how tight the compression is in the first place, as well as how much leaf you’re using — generally, you want to avoid too much breakage (which can cause bitterness / sharpness), but at the same time, you want the strength of the infusions (at least after a rinse or two) to be more or less even. So, while I don’t get as detailed as “60% chunks, 40% broken up” or something like that (see http://www.cloudsteacollection.com/html/weblog/weblog0003_e.html), I do think there’s a benefit to having some intact chunks, so that there is still tea to release in the later infusions. If you want the tea to last for a long time, you might leave more intact chunks; if you don’t want a marathon tea drinking session, you might break it up more.

With lightly compressed cakes, like many stone pressed cakes, you can usually just use your fingers, and the super OCD people will actually try to separate each and every leaf. While I am detail-oriented, I am not that detail-oriented.

What I do is to break the tea up into smallish chunks, trying to be fairly gentle. In the process, other bits of tea will usually come off too, so you can just mix the little chunks with the bits of tea that came off in the process of breaking it up.

Few other points:
1) In my experience, as well as the experience of many friends, a tuocha pick works better than a letter opener / oyster knife shaped tool (even for cakes).
2) With cakes that have a depression in the bottom, while many people start breaking the cake up on one side, if you want to save the nicer bits on the front to drink later (and make the cake easier to re-wrap in the process), you can start breaking the cake open from the depression — start taking off the bottom layer of the cake from the middle of the depression and work out / around.
3) If you have a very wet-stored cake and want to air it out to prepare it for drinking, and to remove some of the storage taste, you can brush off any mold / bugs / etc., and then store it (broken up) in a tin or stainless can or box. However, in general, you’re probably better leaving the bulk of the tea intact until it’s ready to drink (i.e., don’t break a cake up and then age it in a jar).

I’ll add also this video:
which I think is helpful, especially if you’re trying to break up a whole cake that’s ready to drink (vs. breaking off a bit to try).

And, also quite useful, how to wrap a cake:

I think you lost me at “brush off any mold/bugs/etc.” That should not be eaten!!

Will said

The white frost (vs. fuzzy mold or yellow mold of any kind) is generally Ok, and bugs / bug s#!t are not that uncommon depending with teas that have had some traditional / humid storage. But many people do like to brush off the surface of the tea with a (clean / unused) toothbrush before breaking up and drinking. In addition to these surface things, there are all kinds of weird things that you may end up finding in the cake itself, so if you’re really squeamish, you might consider just not drinking pu’er.

Javan said

I learned alot from the discussion and videos. Thanks!

TeaVivre said

thanks for all the sharings, I also learn the different ways to break compressed pu-erh tea.

can you just use a regular knife?

Teasenz said

Hi Madametj, a regular knife is not recommended, it will be too sharp and might cut the leaves.

Would a letter opener work okay?

@Lisa Lin – “might cut the leaves” — heck, it might cut my hand! =D But seriously, some cakes can be stubborn, so I try to arrange things so that if the instrument slips, it won’t harm me or anything else.

@Lariel – A letter opener works for me — very smooth, it doesn’t have the serrated (rough) edges that some do. Also, it is very strong and the blade is not completely flat. In cross-section, it has more of an ovoid shape, which makes it less likely to bend than a flat blade. Its increasing thickness, moving back from the tip, aids the loosening process. This blade shape is used on the better puer knives, too. Waggling the handle left-to-right and then very slightly up-and-down will help separate the layers.

Thanks. I’ve since purchased a pu erh pick and use the “3 hole” method in the video linked above. Works great.

Zennenn said

Feeling very proud just now. I had a very compressed 100g cake that I’ve only been able to chip crumbs from. I steamed it over boiling water a total of 20 minutes over 4 sessions. Worked beautifully. I now have a mass of mostly whole leaves in clumps and broken down. It smells wonderful. Very intrigued to see the difference it makes to the taste of the tea.

TeaVivre said

How about the taste?

Zennenn said

I will be trying the broken down cake this week and will post the results!

AllanK said

I have always wondered if doing this would lead to mold. My solution to hard to pry apart cakes has been generally to use an awl. Bought a custom made one on EBay a while ago. It even looks like a tea tool. That or a chisel works for those impossible to break cakes. You just have to be very careful if you use a chisel or you can end up with a bloody hand.

Zennenn said

Yes, drying carefully was critical for me, I’m sensitive to mold. I wish I had thought of using an awl! Next time.

AllanK said

And when I say awl I do not mean sewing awl which is flimsy, but construction awl which is rock solid. Just get a new one.

Zennenn said

Tried the broken down cake today and the taste was rounder than it was before. This is probably due to steeping whole leaves rather than bits. I do think it needs to rest longer, because it also tasted a little muffled. I’ll be opening the bag and letting it rest a bit, then I’ll try it again.

horan_ said

I’ve never been so much of a fan of steaming compressed puers. Whet thinking in the long run, puer teas has their own ageing ‘system’ (/process/life/or call it whatsoever you’d prefer). It’s known that this system does not end when one opens a cake. Therefore, when one does so, and does it with steaming, this long-term process going to be quite messed up and won’t go on the way it would’ve gone otherwise. Of course, it’s not necessarily bad but it’s not the natural process, not anymore. Thus – again – thinking in long-run it’s not the best choice because its ageing process becomes (much more) unpredictable, which is something we scarcely want.

I’ve been tempted to try steaming Xiaguan products, most recently a fangcha that I almost exhausted myself breaking up dry. I think I will look into this construction awl suggestion.

Dr Jim said

@Allank. I’m with you on the awl. When I first got into puerh, I went down to the cellar and dug my Craftsman awl out of the toolbox. After a very thorough washing it’s given me yeoman service for several years now.

Zennenn said

I love this. Do you guys use a hammer to drive the awl in? How do you keep the cake from shifting and tea from flying everywhere? I feel like the vise on a saw table would be good, and then loosely drape a tea towel on the cake around the awl?

AllanK said

@Zennenn No I don’t use a hammer. I find the awl by itself works well on very compressed cakes. Where cheaper products will actually break the awl is rock solid. I also have an ice pick that I use on some cakes. It is actually much better than a flimsy tea pick. But mostly now I use a tea tool I bought from Teaware.house for average cakes. It has a real blade on it and is quite solid. For the really hard to break cakes I still break the awl out though.

Dr Jim said

I first used a Swiss army knife but found I was creating too much dust. The awl goes in easily and then I just split off layers. For really tough cakes (Xiaguan Tuos) I rest the cake on a table and apply some weight behind the awl, but most cakes don’t need that.

Zennenn said

Next time I face off with an extremely compressed cake, I am awl over it.

AllanK said

When you don’t quite need an awl but you need more than a tea pick an ice pick is really good. They are cheap, only a few dollars on EBay or Amazon and very sturdy.

Zennenn said

Reporting back after a tea leaf rest. The broken up cake tastes fabulous and is no worse for the wear. I think the key was steaming in stages, only long enough to make the cake easier to break apart. Also, it was a dry day.

MrQuackers said

I suggest washing hands, tools, plates etc to avoid mold.

The hands are certainly the big ones. You can prove this to yourself by handling a loaf of bread with unwashed hands, and then putting in a bag and waiting a few days.

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