If you have ever drunk puerh tea, you might have wondered why it’s so different from oolong tea or green tea. The latter two are loosely packed, while puerh tea is usually compressed into a variety of shapes. A term that is frequently used when talking about puerh compression is tuo cha. This article discusses what it is exactly and where it comes from.
A tuo cha is a type of compressed tea (usually puerh tea) from Yunnan province that has been shaped like a bowl, dome or bird’s nest. It has a round shape with a hollow on the bottom side for water evaporation after the tea has been steamed and compressed.
Compression of puerh tea
In ancient times, most tea was consumed around the farms so there was no need to transport tea over long distances. It was challenging for ordinary villagers to get tea from other provinces and they mostly consumed fresh tea from where they lived.
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The tea was therefore not compressed because people would consume it quickly anyway. If the goal was not to transport or age puerh tea, there would be no point in compressing the tea.
Importance of Tibet
Tibetans started drinking more and more puerh tea to supplement their diet so the demand rose and tea had to be transported out of Yunnan province using the Old Tea Horse Road.
Originally, they would pack loose tea into wooden boxes and transport it that way. This caused several issues as it took a lot of space and it wasn’t convenient to transport it that way. If a box fell on the ground, the tea would be scattered all over the place and they had to pick it all up again.
They soon realized that it was more convenient to compress puerh tea into a variety of shapes first before transporting it. They could transport more puerh tea at once as compressed tea took less space.
It was also easier to deal with issues that arose like a batch of tea falling on the ground. They just had to pick up the cakes and wouldn’t lose that much time. There would also be less spillage.
This has become the standard way of producing and transporting puerh tea and has some other benefits as well. In addition to easier transport, compressed puerh tea is also more suitable for long-term aging.
Different shapes of compressed puerh tea
Nowadays, puerh tea is compressed into a variety of shapes but traditionally, puerh tea was compressed into a round cake shape. There are two main types of a round cake shape: a round tea cake with a hollow in the center of the back and a discuss tea cake.
In addition to a round cake shape, there are also tea bricks, squares, mushroom shapes, golden melon tea, ingot shapes, and bowl shapes. The latter is also called a tuo cha.
Tuo cha or bowl tea is a dome-shaped tea cake. The back of the cake is hollow because this is used for water evaporation after steaming and compressing it into a tea cake. If the hollow wasn’t there, water wouldn’t be able to evaporate, leading to too much moisture and lower quality tea.
There are several stories explaining the name of this shape, but it likely comes from the trading and sipping route of the Tuojiang river that was used to transport the tea.
Traditionally, these bowl-shaped tea cakes were 100g and 250g each, but there are many different sizes and weights available on the market today. The weight ranges from 5g to 1kg.
There are small 5g tuo that can be used for one session so you can throw it in your teapot and brew it right away. The larger ones are similar to regular puerh cakes as you need to break off some leaves in order to brew them.