Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Compressed teas and tisanes beyond pu'er

First published in parts by TChing, with the last post of three in sequential order here

This subject is familiar to most related to sheng and shu pu'er; both have long since been pressed into cakes (bings), tuochas (dented ball shapes, kind of), bricks, "dragonballs," coins, and other shapes.  This will focus on scope outside of pu'er, since those are more commonly encountered.

The common understanding is that this form related to ease of transport from condensing the size.  Teas from Yunnan could be shipped across the Tea Horse Road to all sorts of regional destinations, processed to be easier to ship, distribute, and later store (with further reading about the modern forms of that history here).  Same for Hunan brick teas, and at some point the same compression process was also applied to shou mei white tea.

More recently compressed black teas and others have become somewhat fashionable.  Why press these, though?  We're at the stage now where modern packaging solutions can cover a lot of the same functional concerns with the tea still in loose form.  Pu'er needs air contact to ferment (to change over time), and to some extent that could apply to other tea types as well, even though the same storage approach and concerns are most typically only extended to white teas.  Compression isn't essential for aging but it does work well to store teas in that form and it helps moderate level of air contact at a suitable level.

Cakes of other tea types seem cool; that's a good reason.  To a limited extent the reshaping could also change tea character slightly, it seems, so there's a functional aspect.  For other teas "designed" for storage and aging it still makes sense on that first level.  Most recently I've tried two versions of this approach applied to tisanes (herbs and fruit), which I'll cover at the end.

shou mei (white tea), or other white teas pressed in different shapes:  really this form is common enough too, but it can be hard for one person to explore even the considerable list of most standard types.  Those teas can be mild but rich-flavored, including caramel or toffee tones with aging transition, evolving to include dried fruit or spice tones.  This post reviews two versions that seemed relatively standard, one from 2008 and 2012, along with a gong mei (same thing, different leaf grade), and candy-bar style pressed white.  Comparison reviewing four white teas together in that account turned out to be a bad idea; not so many rounds in I was blasted on all that caffeine.

Gong Mei cake, a Dayi / Tae Tea version

candy-bar style compressed white tea

a unconventional white tea cake described as pressed Moonlight White (details here)

Hunan region / Fu brick teas:  these seem kind of standard too, potentially very pleasant, flavorful, and typically relatively inexpensive compressed teas that are distinct in character from sheng and shu pu'er.  I've not experienced enough versions to generalize, but of that limited set I have tried pre-fermentation was either not used or not nearly as evident as in shu, and the teas didn't have the same intensity that younger sheng possess.

Then again I've not really tried new / young enough versions of compressed hei cha to really place starting points, related to typical use of a pre-fermentation step.  This Yi Qing Yuan factory version I reviewed with "yellow flowers" was produced in 2009, and this 2007 Xiang Yi "Hei Cha Zhuan" didn't have that version of mold present in it.  That general fungus category and specific "yellow flowers" input is identified in this reference passage:

...The genus Aspergillus is a group of filamentous fungi consist of more than 250 species, which is the most economically important of the fungal genera.  Many species of Aspergillus are used in biotechnology for the production of various metabolites, such as antibiotics, organic acids, medicines or enzymes, or as agents in many food fermentations. The fungal genus Eurotium, which is the teleomorph of Aspergillus, has been proved to be a rich source of novel bioactive metabolites. 

...species formerly included in the genus Eurotium  [a yellow-flowers related reference] are displayed with their Aspergillus name.. it is considered to be safe under low- and high-osmolarity conditions...

The typical hearsay account is that the various types of fungus are generally good for you rather than potentially harmful, not exactly confirmed in that research article passage but to a limited extent supported by it.

Hunan Fu brick tea with "golden flowers"

shai hong / Yunnan black teas:  now we're talking.  I first ran across a version of those and tasted it without reviewing what it was first two years ago, back in 2017, covered here.  Yunnan black teas / dian hong (or shai hong, a reference to versions of that being sun-dried) can vary quite a bit but the range is nice.

That version reminded me a little of those Hunan brick teas for character, beyond being compressed, for being so mild, and for including pleasant dried fruit, rich sweetness, and other earthy complexity.  I've tried a couple of other compressed Yunnan black teas since and they just vary.  This other version was pleasant, and included a bit of tartness, which can be nice in the right balance.  The two main US pu'er vendors are now producing versions, Yunnan Sourcing and White2Tea, with one of the latter's versions boasting the catchy name of Natural Redhead, and the former's branded "Drunk on Red."  The marketing factor being an input seems to show up in the product names.

This video interview with a Yunnan black tea specialist (conducted by William Osmont of Farmerleaf, a Jing Mai based producer and vendor) sheds light on the processing differences in various types of black teas, it just doesn't get into the factor of pressing those.  One take-away from that matching conventional understanding:  Dian Hong, the conventional Yunnan style black teas, are oven dried, and Shai Hong are sun-dried versions, which are milder in fragrance and said to possess the potential to improve with age.  I've tried the same versions across a broad span of time before (a year or more), and they did seem to gain depth and intensity.

chunk of compressed Shai Hong (sun-dried) Yunnan black tea

compressed oolongs:  I had heard of these long before ever trying one, and did get a chance to in the form of a Moychay (Russian vendor) Da Hong Pao roasted oolong bar.  You could tell it wasn't the refined and subtle style of Wuyi Yancha that leans towards an aromatic liqueur or perfume-like aspect range, more flavor-forward and roasted to include sweet, rich caramel flavors instead, positive in character but limited due to being comprised of relatively broken material.  It worked well for me.

I have no idea if the unusual character in that product is somehow common to other compressed oolongs, if others are as flavor-intense and distinctive as that version was.  Some are probably great and others terrible, and all probably vary in taste and other aspect range; that's how that usually goes.  This looks like an interesting version of one (that I haven't tried), a 2006 pressed Da Hong Pao brick from Wuyi Origin, a well regarded producer who sells directly.

one chunk (square) of the Moychay DHP oolong bar

tangerine or orange peel stuffed shu pu'er or black teas (chen pi):  I don't want to add too much about these versions because they really deserve more background discussion and description than I have space for here.  I've tried shu pu'er and black tea versions (and have a white tea stuffed citrus peel at home yet to try), and the were nice, unique and pleasant.  And supposedly very good for health, bordering on a form of Chinese medical practice input.  I'll leave off at citing a reference to claimed health effects, framed in Traditional Chinese medicine terms.  The tea could have positive effects without that description framework being the most accurate model, or some of the benefits could be valid and accurate even if some others aren't:

Actions: Regulates Qi; adjusts the middle Jiao (acrid lifts the spleen Qi, bitter descends the stomach Qi); dries dampness; resolves phlegm; helps the spleen to transport; relieves the diaphragm; directs Qi downward.

shu pu'er stuffed tangerine (I think; could be a mandarin orange)

compressed tisanes:  a final frontier not everyone even wants to venture into, or would have heard of.  Again I tried two completely different tisane bars from Moychay (they sent me quite a few samples to review last year, and I've even started contributing some review-article content to a their website).  One was compressed fruit that seemed to contain a bit of spice, really far from standard tea in character, but pleasant.

One was a pressed version of willow herb, which also goes by fireweed, and is also called Ivan chay.  This herb is really unique for being able to oxidize, in a way similar to tea (Camellia Sinensis), although the couple of versions I've tried wouldn't get mistaken for tea.  The other was a pressed version of dried fruits, definitely different.  A version I didn't try is made of rose petals and cherry leaves.

If the way it works out similar to "real tea" versions pressing the herbs would only change loose material character a little.  They're not the same as Camellia Sinensis but the wider range of materials input enables a different range of potential.  Any herb, flower, or fruit blend could be combined and pressed that way, in theory.  Or mixes of teas and other inputs, which is a popular theme in Western markets now.  One potential down-side is that there's no current market demand for such a thing (pressed tisanes and blends), since it seems to have just started existing, but in a different sense that only increases the potential.

compressed willow herb bar (aka fireweed or Ivan chay)

compressed fruit bar

I think the compressed tisane theme was more appealing to me because trying the one local shop white tea bar and Moychay Da Hong Pao (roasted oolong) were such positive experiences.  Both of those could be brewed Gongfu style, prepared in a gaiwan using lots of short infusions, or they worked well made Western style, and probably just as well prepared "grandpa style."  That's a reference from a well-known tea blogger to a very common Chinese brewing approach, adding tea into a tea bottle with hot water and drinking it together, unstrained, re-adding water after finishing each round.  I most often use it on road trips, and wrote a post about trying out results on different tea types awhile back.

The fruit tea version would even work well simmered with black tea, perhaps with a bit more spice added, to make a fruit-oriented version of masala chai.  Or these could be added to a thermos and left to brew that way, over any length of time.  That would seem to involve committing a thermos to the practice since cleaning after something that aromatic might be problematic, maybe even if the liner was made of glass or steel.  Tisanes have the potential to be even more flexible than teas to brew, with the exception of tea types that aren't astringent and work well at any infusion strength, versions like shu pu'er or shou mei.

Really there are too many types of tea to get to among standard types as it is, but all of these make for interesting tangents and additional range to explore.

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