When looking for Pu Erh tea you will come across compressed cakes, bricks, and Tuo Chas quite a lot. But most vendors have uncompressed, loose Pu Erh tea in stock, too. How is a Pu Erh tea cake and loose-leaf Pu Erh tea different in taste and aging?
There are plenty of varieties of Pu Erh tea sold on the market from various regions which each have their own taste. There is a lot of information on the differences between raw (Sheng) and cooked (Shou) Pu Erh tea out there, but I could not find in-depth information on Pu Erh tea cakes compared to loose leaf Pu Erh tea.
SHORT ANSWER – Loose Pu Erh Tea vs Cake Differences
There are some differences both in taste and aging of loose leaf Pu Erh tea and cakes. The quality is always determined by the quality of leaves and the skill of the tea master. Compressed Pu Erh tea cakes will age slower and develop a more complex taste. Loose-leaf Pu Erh will become sweet faster.
Many factors influence the quality and development of your Pu Erh tea. Quality Pu Erh tea is often hard to spot without tasting the tea, but the aging process of both loose and cake Pu Erh tea can be understood. I did some research and have listed the main points below.
Quality Of Cake And Loose Pu Erh
As I have mentioned, it is not possible to simply judge the quality of your Pu Erh tea by looking whether it has been pressed into tea cakes or not. The quality is mostly determined by the material used and the level of skill that went into the production.
What Are Quality Leaves?
Many Pu Erh enthusiasts highly value the age of the tea trees that the leaves are harvested from. With tea trees aged hundreds or even thousands of years, the resulting Gu Shu (ancient tree) Pu Erh tea should be more complex in taste and long-lasting.
Other special types like wild arbor and purple leaves are somewhat unique in taste and well worth trying. But neither of these terms guarantees the leaves to be high in quality.
I think the easiest way to determine the quality of your leaves is to take a look at the tea leaves after you have done the first infusion or look at it after you have finished the tea. What do the tea leaves look like? Is the leaf intact? How big and what color are the tea leaves?
The tea leaves may be broken or have more than a few leaves plucked. This can be a sign of lower quality leaves or production. With cooked Pu Erh, broken leaves are almost guaranteed, though. The post-fermentation will leave fragile and partially decomposed leaves.
Tea Master And Craftsmanship
Producing Pu Erh tea takes skill. Nobody has ever been able to produce high-quality and tasty Pu Erh tea without having years of experience. Pu erh cakes are often labeled by some tea factory or company, but produced by unknown and private parties.
Pu erh cakes that are sold by well-known vendors under their own label are not produced by the same tea masters. You can not rely on this if you want to determine the quality of the production.
If you want to know who actually made the Pu Erh tea you are drinking, you should buy the tea directly from small tea factories or farmers. This way you will have full knowledge and experience with the producers’ skill level.
These small companies and stores rarely sell their tea as loose leaf Pu Erh tea. Loose Pu Erh tea is more often than not sold to other companies for cake production or sold to wholesalers. Furthermore, the chance for counterfeits would be higher with loose-leaf tea.
Advantages Of Pu Erh Tea Cakes
While the quality of Pu Erh tea is not dependent on whether you buy it as loose-leaf tea or cake, there is one major advantage to the compressed form. Loose-leaf Pu Erh tea does not contain information on the tea itself.
Pu Erh tea cakes will more often than not contain a piece of paper with information on where, when and by whom it was produced. I have lost track of the contents of various sample bags and storage containers, but I have been able to identify every one of my Pu Erh cakes, always.
Advantage Of Loose Pu Erh Or Samples
Pu Ehr tea cakes come in various sizes but are most commonly sold in 250 gram or 357-gram cakes. If you buy into tea cakes, you will sooner or later have a lot of tea lying around that will have to be stored and aged properly.
If you fail to store your Pu Erh tea collection properly, your tea may lose flavor, complexity or go bad completely. With samples and loose Pu Erh tea, you can buy your tea from trusted vendors regularly without any care for storage conditions necessary.
If you want to keep larger amounts of Pu Erh tea in your collection, Pu Erh tea cakes tend to be more forgiving. Storage conditions and the surroundings have less influence on the development of Pu Erh cakes when compared to loose-leaf Pu Erh tea.
Storage And Aging
A few processes are going on inside the Pu Erh tea you store. The most important of these are oxidation and microbial activity. Both influence the taste profile developed with aging.
To understand the influence that loose-leaf or cake Pu Erh tea has on the outcome of the aging process, you need to understand both of these processes to some extent.
Speeding Up The Oxidation Process
Both Pu Erh tea cakes and loose leaf tea undergo oxidation over time. The major factor for the oxidation process is the contact with the oxygen in the air around us.
It is easier for air to reach the tea if the tea has more surface area. With the compression of loose leaf Pu Erh tea to cakes, the surface area is lowered. This results in slower oxidation of internal leaves, while the leaves on the outside oxidize just as much as loose Pu Erh does.
The oxidation process changes chemicals inside the Pu Erh tea. Especially compounds that taste bitter and vegetal will noticeably be tranformed. With this process, the tea will taste sweeter and mellow.
The oxidation process with Pu Erh tea in storage does the same thing that makes green tea and black tea different. While green tea can get bitter quite easily and has more of a grassy-vegetable taste to it, black tea tends to be mineral and sweet.
If you want you Pu Erh tea to change quickly, you would want to buy loose-leaf Pu Erh tea or loosen a Pu Erh tea cake for storage. I have written an article specifically on the storage of loose-leaf Pu Erh tea storage, that you can find here.
Enzyme And Microbial Activity
Chemistry and Microorganisms heavily influence the aging process of Pu Erh tea. Both loose and cake Pu Erh contain various enzymes, bacteria, and fungi.
While bacteria and fungi like mold or yeast can destroy your tea if stored improperly, they also take part in the development of interesting and complex taste profiles in aged Pu Erh tea.
In loose leaf tea, the enzymatic activity should be the same as in cakes. Over months and years of storing these will create a unique taste profile that will be different from tea to tea. The compression of the Pu Erh tea should not have a great influence on the activity of enzymes.
That is different for microbial activity inside the tea. Both bacteria and fungi grow faster in a somewhat densely packed environment. The spread of these will be faster and more continuous throughout the leaves.
What keeps these microorganisms from taking over completely? It’s the right storage conditions. If the humidity, temperature, and airflow are just right, bacteria and mold will quickly ruin any tea you have stored. High activities of microorganisms can cause weird smells and taste to develop. I have written an article on fishy taste in Pu Erh tea that further explains how this happens.
Another advantage of Pu Erh tea cakes compared to loose-leaf Pu Erh tea is the sensitivity to external influences. Some things can have very negative effects on the tea you want to store and age.
Light Must Be Avoided When Storing Tea
Light and especially UV-light that your Pu Erh tea is exposed to will destroy compounds in your tea. This happens over longer periods but can destroy all flavors and characteristics of the Pu Erh tea you like.
All tea should be stored in a dark place or inside a container that protects it from light. If the Pu Erh tea is stored in a glass or otherwise translucent container, cakes will have an advantage over loose Pu Erh, as less light will reach the leaves inside.
How Airflow Affects Aging
The microorganisms and enzymes inside the tea require air to thrive. Oxidation will also not happen if the tea is not exposed to oxygen. If the Pu Erh tea is stored inside an airtight container or under nitrogen, the aging process will come to a halt. Only the natural decay will change the tea without these processes.
The airflow is much higher with loose Pu Erh, as densely pressed Pu Erh tea does not allow for much airflow. This allows loose Pu Erh tea to have higher microbial activity, faster oxidation plus an accelerated aging process in general.
The drawback of this increased airflow is the loss of volatile compounds. Many volatile compounds in Pu Erh tea are responsible for floral and fruity notes.
If the tea is not stored in a (semi-)airtight container or cabinet, there is a high chance for loose-leaf Pu Erh tea to quickly lose its flavor. Cakes are more resistant to this and only the outer leaves will lose in complexity.
Keep Out Smells
Smells are everywhere. In your kitchen, in your living room and the hallway. If you keep expanding your Pu Erh tea collection, you will have to deal with the smells surrounding your tea.
Pu Erh tea cakes are less vulnerable to external smells, as less surface area is exposed to them. Loose Pu Erh tea can quickly absorb unwanted smells, which you will then taste in the brew.
Pu Erh cakes have the advantage here. But loose Pu Erh tea can easily be stored in airtight containers, which will protect the tea from the destructive influence of bad smells.
You can use airtight bags specifically designed for Pu Erh tea cakes to store your tea properly. Keep in mind that Ziplock bags are not airtight, as the thin plastic does not completely stop oxygen from getting inside the bag over time.
Humidity Affects Loose And Pu Erh Cakes Differently
Loose Pu Erh tea is more susceptible to changes in humidity than compressed or otherwise packed tea. The reason for this is the same as for many other processes discussed here.
With less exposure to the surrounding air, Pu Erh cakes are not able to lose or take-in as much humidity as loose Pu Erh can. That is why loose Pu Erh will dry out or develop mold faster.
Fluctuations in the relative humidity of your Pu Erh tea storage will harm the aging process of your Pu Erh tea. Both too high and too low humidity levels can be a risk and could destroy your tea.
Humdity is the easiest storage parameter to control. You can find out more about the influence of the relative humidity on the aging of your Pu Erh tea in my guide to Pu Erh storage humidity.
Complexity Of Aged Cake And Loose-Leaf Pu Erh
Exposing loose Pu Erh tea to external variables like air, humidity, smells, and light has a heavy influence on the aging of the tea. This means that loose Pu Erh tea is far more vulnerable to bad storage conditions and will go bad faster.
On the other hand, loose Pu Erh will be quick to lose bitterness and develop the sweetness that Pu Erh tea cakes will only develop after years of storage and aging. You can use this fact to your advantage and start your own experiments
I have tried storing two raw Pu Erh teas separately, each in compressed and loose form. After a year, I could only make out minor differences in taste. Within the next year, the loose Pu Erh tea did lose most of the bitterness. But it also lost the fruity and floral notes that have still been present in the Pu Erh cake.
I have concluded that loose Pu Erh tea will age faster than compressed Pu Erh tea cakes. The reasons for this are described in detail in earlier sections. With loose Pu Erh tea, the oxidation process is faster and the microbial activity is higher.
I choose to store very bitter and astringent Pu Erh teas in loose form, to use this to my advantage. I recommend the same for harsh and fishy cooked Pu Erh teas. The tea will develop sweet, thick and mellow flavor while the unwanted musky taste will diminish over time.
I prefer storing the compressed cake form of Pu Erh tea that is already pleasant in aroma and taste. This yields a slower and safer aging, which I find important considering the amount of money that can be spent on Pu Erh tea.
The outside layers of compressed tea cakes will age a bit faster than the inside does. The result will be a tea that is far more complex than loosely stored Pu Erh tea could be. I highly recommend you to try both options in parallel with regular tasting to get an idea of the influence of loose vs cake storage.
The quality of Pu Erh tea can not be determined by whether the tea is sold loosely or in cake form. What makes quality Pu Erh tea are high-quality leaves used and processed with high levels of skill. By purchasing from trustworthy and established sources and vendors you can often avoid low-quality teas.
The storage of loose and compressed Pu Erh tea has a very different speed and effect on your tea. Loose Pu Erh tea will lose bitterness and gain sweetness quickly but lose the complexity and volatile flavors.
Pu Erh tea that has flaws such as too high bitterness, astringency, muskiness or fishy taste can be stored loosely to become a more enjoyable tea sooner.
If you want to keep and store your Pu Erh teas, the preferred method is to store compressed Pu Erh cakes. The tea will then age slower, but be less susceptible to external influences and bad storage conditions. Furthermore, your aging efforts will yield you a more complex and shareworthy Pu Erh tea.
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.