What is Traditional Bamboo Puer Processing?
Bamboo Puer of Yunnan
When it comes to traditional styles of tea processing, there are often strong historical reasons why a certain type of processing took hold. For Puer cakes, it was for the ease of shipping around the region. Strong and compact, the hardy tea cakes could easily survive a long journey. For bamboo processing, it was the marriage of two local plants, Puer tea and bamboo, both of which are prolific in Yunnan and prized for their flavors and scents.
Nobody knows precisely when bamboo processing began, but suffice it to say that the history is likely as long as local Yunnan natives have been processing tea. A conservative estimate is at least hundreds of years and probably more. Both plants were locally available in cultures that already prized tea and bamboo for their aromatics and taste. With bamboo being used frequently as a vehicle for cooking other foods such as rice, the bamboo and tea combination was a natural fit.
Despite not being able to pinpoint the exact dates or origins of the processing, we are lucky that the methods have been passed through the generations so that we can see (and drink) the results.
How is Bamboo Puer Made?
Bamboo Puer is just like any other processing, in that there are many levels of quality and care that go into the final product. What varietal of bamboo is used, where the bamboo was grown, how fresh the bamboo is, and the skill of the people processing the tea all contribute to the outcome. (And of course, the tea!) It is a team effort, requiring a lot of know how and proper materials. Bamboo has many different varietals, and the best bamboo for tea processing is called xiangzhu or fragrant bamboo. Autumn is the best time to harvest fragrant bamboo for tea processing, so it is an annual event that depends on the bamboo rather than the tea, which needn’t be fresh. In addition to the right bamboo, skilled bamboo tea makers are needed throughout the entire process in order to ensure a good end result.
First, the bamboo must be harvested and transported to a workshop. Then, individual pieces of bamboo are cut for use. Due to the nature of the plant it is impossible to control a specific size without wasting a lot of bamboo. We opted to use all of the bamboo that we cut, so the shapes, sizes, and amounts of tea varied quite a bit in our productions.
The process of making bamboo Puer is somewhat similar to pressing a raw Puer cake, in that the leaves are steamed into a pliable state and then compressed. However, with bamboo Puer, the steam comes from the moisture of the freshly cut bamboo. The dry maocha [loose leaf raw Puer tea] is placed inside of a freshly cut piece of bamboo and then a leaf is placed inside the top as a cover. Similar to placing a lid on a pot when cooking, the leaf traps most of the steam inside the bamboo. Then, the bamboo is placed over a fire. This creates steam on the interior of the bamboo from the heated moisture, which penetrates the tea leaves and causes them to become soft and pliable. In order to correctly perform this portion of the processing, fresh bamboo is mandatory. If the bamboo has been cut over five days prior, it will be too dry and lack the moisture necessary to steam the tea. This adds a bit of logistical planning, as fresher bamboo yields better results. Fragrant bamboo only grows in certain areas of Yunnan, which means that processing is dependent on getting the right bamboo ready at the right time.
After the tea is pliable, it is pressed down, forming a tube shaped chunk of tea inside the bamboo. The bamboo is often charred during the process, so it is then planed smooth to remove any char. The bamboo can also be stripped with a knife. After being stripped it is then sanded smooth.
At this point, the bamboo and tea can be slowly dried to remove excess moisture from the processing, similar to how a Puer cake would be dried. After the tea is dry, the bamboo can be removed entirely. However, we decided to cut two “windows” on either side of the tube for ease of access, leaving the rest of the bamboo intact to protect the tea. As with other pressed teas, bamboo Puer needs a bit of time to settle after pressing as excess moisture will continue to slowly leave the tea over the course of the months following the processing.
The resulting tea has its original fragrances and flavors melded with the sweet bamboo aromas. We decided to take two very different teas, one Huangpian (Big Leaf Bamboo) with a heavy bitter element and one raw Puer with a heavy fragrance (Midwest Nice), and process them both with fresh Autumn fragrant bamboo in Xishuangbanna. They have identical processing, but the bamboo has interacted with both teas in very different ways, producing unique results. We hope you enjoy them!