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"Bird Nest" Tea - A lesson on dark tea and how to brew it.

Updated: Apr 3

Looking at dark tea in a clear glass from the top of the cup. Throught the glass one can see three puer mini toucha tea cakes the size of a quarter stacked next to the glass.
Dark tea is robust. Small fermented teas in tiny cakes give big flavor.

Well happy day! It’s crisp here. It's forty-five degrees to start the day and sunny at the time of this writing. It's the kind of weather that wakes you up, maybe you grab an extra layer, a light blanket, or that soft long-sleeve favorite sweater-wrap, and do a walk-about checking the garden, greeting the robins and jays.

And then, the tea is ready. It’s poured. The aroma fills the air, and the first sip you feel goes down your body.

“Tea people” know that good tea has a feeling. There’s an energy that travels down the body and through the body. It’s not caffeine, in case that was your first thought. It’s the chi, or qi, the energy of the land and plant being greeted and intertwined with your energy.

Tea is an exchange of global and botanical connections of the land, the liquor and your body. Liquor is the term for the liquid made from tea brewed.

Next time you have some tea, stop and notice *where* you feel the tea in your body. For some, it’s warming. Others might feel a tingling sensation. Again, this is different than the feeling of caffeine. It's one of the many ways to create, discover and cherish your own tea moments.

One of the teas that is quite the experience for the lover of deep-tasting teas is puer. Puer, also known as Puerh or Pu-erh, is from a particular area of the Yunnan province of China. Pu-erh is named for the market town where the style of tea was first developed in 25-220CE. It is also known as "dark tea" for teas created in the same style, but are not from that particular region.

Puer is a type of fermented tea that traditionally could take years to develop into the desired flavor. Starting in the 1970's, however, a tea factory discovered a way to hasten the fermentation process, speeding it up to drink ready in as fast as 40 days! Puer teas are now categorized into two camps - Raw (sheng), which is closer to the original method, and cooked or ripe puer (shou) which is the faster oxidation method.

Puers are packed into round discs, known as cakes, or rectangles bricks, known as, well, bricks.

Connoissuers of tea know that the aged sheng teas go through a natural process of breaking down the caffeine levels within the leaf and many find the mellower aged teas can be steeped 10-12 times before losing any flavor. This also means, some of the older fermented, dark teas can be enjoyed by caffeine-sensitive people without the effects of a newer cooked or ripe puer. To read a fantastic article more on the process and differences of puer, click here).

To help you explore puers, I'd like to introduce you to the mini toucha cakes. They are tiny versions of a puer cake (traditional cakes average about 7 inches across - but I've seen them much bigger and smaller than that).

Tuocha means "cake of tea" but you'll also find it to translate to "dome-shaped bowl tea" as well as "bird nest" (tuo) tea (cha) due to its small size, which can be as small as an American quarter.

The image above is a special kind of tuocha as it includes an herb along with the Camellia Sinensis leaves, called Nuo Mi Xiang Herb (Semnostachya Menglaensis). This herb has an aroma of sticky rice and adds a different component to the brewed tea and can often be a nice introduction to such a robust experience.

Puers are known for their flavors of being rustic, earthy, leathery, forest floor-like, and woody, and for some who are just developing their palette, it will taste like, um, dirt. Raw, or sheng, puerhs can be incredible, grounding, soothing, digestive, and relaxing. They are highly sought after and can be very expensive to purchase a puer cake that is decades old (if you can find one!).

Cooked or ripe dark teas tend to show their personalities very quickly. So adding something as subtle, but important as this one little herb, might be the difference between a first-time experiencer and a no-thank you.

For the tea lover who creates moments of exquisite solo experiences and mindful connections, mini tuocha dark tea coins or cakes are perfect for multiple steepings coupled with a personal stoneware-porcelain pottery tea bowl. But they are also wonderful shared!

Tea being poured from a milk galss creamer into a stoneware Tazitas (little cup).
This is the color of the tea after 3 steepings. It has a beautiful dark peachy color.

So how does one brew these small little "birds nests"? Let's get right to that.

How to brew tuochas tea mini cakes

Choose your vessel mindfully. I use a gaiwan (traditional lidded cup to brew mine, but you can use a small teapot or even a 1 cup pyrex glass measuring cup to brew your tea). Mini cakes can be brewed in 110-350 ml of water - let's just round it to anywhere from 3-12 ounces of water.

  • Puer teas, due to their fermentation process, are best started if they receive a "wash" or "rinse" before consuming any of the tea. To do this, place the tuocha in your desired brewing vessel, gaiwan, or teapot and gently pour boiling water over the entire tea cake and allow it to sit for 25-45 seconds. Then pour out this tea through a small fine mesh strainer, either as an offering over a tea pet or into a discard vessel. This first step will help kill any unwanted bacteria remaining from the fermentation process. Return any leaves from the strainer into the teapot if you want.

  • Your mini cake should show signs of opening and you will see tea leaves begin to be displaced from the original pressed form. Pour water over the leaves - your water temp should be between 195 - 212 degrees (boiling).

  • Allow to steep anywhere from 3- 10 minutes.

  • Pour tea through a fine mesh sieve either straight into your drinking cup or the preferred method is to pour the steeped tea liquor into a tea pitcher, known as a cha hai. A cha hai is also known as the "fair cup" because then the lucky last drop of tea liquor from the steeping is shared by all who drink from the cha hai.

  • Repeat the process until the tea is exhausted. Steeping can typically go 5 - 8 times if using small brewing vessels.

Gaiwan (Chinese lidded cup for brewing tea) with tea leaves, a milk tea creamer pitcher filled with tea and a stoneware cup partially filled with tea. They sit on a "wet" tea station (a bamboo slotted tray) next to a linen tea towels with roadrunners and saguaro cactus design.
This is my typical setup. Lidded cup, called a gaiwan, a cha hai, or "fair cup" for pouring the tea liquor into and my drinking cup (which is of course one of my artist-designed stoneware Tazitas). Note: the tea shown in NOT puer inside the gaiwan.

Pro tip from a tea lover (but not a self-proclaimed pro): The most important part is the process and enjoyment of the tea. The tea will "guide" you in its own way when you allow yourself to open up to the experiecne of the tea. I usually do many (many) steepings of mini tuochas and almost never allow my leaves to steep in the water for longer than a min or so. Each steeping is unique as the leaves open up even further. Traditionally, the steepings are longer and I encourage you to try short and long steepings. You might find that you'll need longer steepings as the tea begins to exhuast.

How to use tuochas tea mini cakes for cooking

Brew the tea the same as you did above only you have the option of making it double strength for maximum flavor or simply using the tea you steep (either from a larger teapot of all of your infusions saved in a measuring cup) instead of water in the following recipe ideas.

  • Use tea instead of water in rice dishes (I do this often and I vary the tea I use, but I almost always use basmati rice with this method. Soak rice in water for 15 minutes, then rinse until water runs clear, pour into boiling water, cover, and simmer for 12-15 minutes)

  • Use in addition or instead of broth-based soups

  • Steep the leaves in milk (after doing a boiling water rinse, then add to milk), on a long low heat for at least 20 minutes to infuse the tea leaves with milk then add to recipes that you want to add a creamy robust flavor to

  • Deepen your Whiskey, Rum, or Burbon. After doing a "rinse" of the tea leaves with boiling water, allow the leaves to cool. Place the leaves into a bottle of your choice of liquor and let steep for a few days. Decant the actual liquor through a fine mesh sieve, discard the leaves, and add to cocktails that you want a woody (maybe smokey) depth. Try in an old fashioned.

  • Here is a link to a variety of ways to use puers with milk (not typical)

Let me know if you discover a favorite way to enjoy dark teas. I'm always looking for inspiration and mindful connections between the planet and our experiences, especially through moments like tea time.

Bonus for the dedicated readers

I currently have a few - not a lot - gift boxes that include a a sample three pack of Sticky Rice Puer mini cakes, a artist-designed stoneware Tazita paired with a complimentary designed 100% linen tea towel. If you are interested in getting one for yourself while supplies last - go here!

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