Happily, we are noticing more curiosity about Pu-erh this last year than ever before. We stock a table near our main counter with a working quantity of large and small sheng and shou Pu-erh cakes (beeng cha) and a few tuo-cha. To sweeten the pot of wonder and delight, we also have some Pu-erh mushrooms (jin cha), two-piece Pu-erh stupas, and a hefty melon-shaped Pu-erh that could provide for an entire community of tea drinkers.
Our display gives the Pu-erh good visibility, which leads to a lot of questions about what they are. (We overhear some unflattering and ungracious comments, too)! Many tea drinkers know what the cakes are but some have only seen images of them on tea websites or in photographs.
So it is great to see their reaction when they can actually hold a Pu-erh cake and appreciate how these beeng cha look and feel. Being able to handle the cakes really brings the history of the cakes and the uniqueness of the tea to life for many. Of course, nothing replaces tasting Pu-erh, but for many the intrigue begins with being able to hold a tea cake.
When someone is interested, we also like to point out other visual details of Pu-erh that are part of the cultural essence of this historic tea, such as:
- the texture and feel of the paper used to wrap the beeng cha
- the thin-ness of the paper
- the way the wrapper has been folded by hand by a worker on the backside of the beeng cha
- the color of the inks used on the front of the wrapper
- how each tea factory incorporates their name and logo into the design that identifies the maker of the beeng cha on the front of the wrapper
But one thing that many tea enthusiasts may have never seen are full tongs of Pu-erh cakes. A tong is a bamboo-sheath wrapped unit of 7 tea cakes, which is an old, traditional way that the cakes are packaged for re-sale and transport. Multiple tongs of tea are again packaged in bamboo packs that contain 9,12,15, etc, individual tongs, which makes it easy to transport a quantity of beeng cha. This outer wrapping allows the tea to breathe while offering protection to the tea cakes from dirt and dust.
(Bamboo sheaths are a natural forest by-product of giant bamboo – these are the outer covering of young bamboo plants which fall off as the bamboo grows. The forest floor in an area of giant bamboo is littered with dried bamboo sheaths).
So, this is a collage image of some tongs of tea that we received this past year. It is an interesting study in the concept of ‘same-but-different’. Notice that the outer bamboo wrapping is used in a similar manner but the way in which the bamboo sheaths are held in place varies significantly. The ties are made from bamboo, too, although sometimes wire ties are used.
Our supply of full tongs is dwindling, but be sure to see our collection of Pu-erh on top of the main tea shelving unit when visiting the store!