Are iron pressed bings and bricks better?
I know it almost seems illogical the way perfectly beautiful, intact, and absolutely delicious leaves are pressed oh so unnaturally, almost cruelly, by a machine press. The pressure alone makes freeing any leaves from the bing such an annoying and impossible task. What you do manage to stubbornly pry from the grips of an iron bing is sure to look anything but beautiful. This exercise will almost certainly result in broken leaves, lots of tea dust, and end in an overly bitter brew- there is nothing good about an iron bing…
How could a vendor do that? Are they insane? Why would they waste such beautiful leaves? Who actually buys these things?
I think iron pressed puerh cakes really get a bad wrap in the West and I don’t think it’s really fair. This is partly because people don’t get the iron bing. Many people drinking puerh nowadays don’t have a long experience in storing and aging puerh. Experience with these things leads to an understanding that puerh that is pressed tight or stored in close proximity and even in a closed environment with other puerh will result in more of that original puerh essence, taste, qi and especially odour being preserved. This is compared to puerh that is pressed less compactly such as loose mao cha or looser stone pressed puerh or puerh that is stored in open air or separated from other puerh. These types expose more surface area of dry leaf to the environment.
Looser puerh ages more quickly and its qi and essence is more influenced by the humidity or storage. However, a tradeoff to quick aging is the fact that more of the puerh’s original essence is lost. The slower aging of an iron bing results in more preserved original essence and qi while still undergoing the slower and more minimal influence of environment. Roughly this same idea can also be applied to wetter vs drier stored puerh. In fact, such close quarters and the extreme process of hydraulic machine pressing actually makes the puerh almost oxidize rather than ferment so the chemical process of the iron bing is in some ways different that a standard machine or stone pressed cake. Iron bings and bricks are really quite special for this reason as they represent an extreme in puerh aging where the material itself, and not as much of the environment, dictate the end result.
I seem to think that traditionally tight machine pressed bricks and iron bings were used deliberately for three reasons. First, was to preserve the raw material in unfavorable aging conditions. Second, was to try to preserve subtleties of maocha that was maybe lacking them in the first place. Thirdly, was to slow the aging down to the slowest rate possible
The first point is a good enough reason for the humble tea drinker in the West to seek out an iron bing or tight machine pressing. The tight compression was virtually designed to age in almost any environment. So, in the West, where conditions are a lot less favorable, it makes a lot of sense.
The second reason is due to the fact that tight machine pressed bricks are sometimes used to press autumn material. Autumn mao cha tends to have less high notes, fragrance, and intense qi than spring so pressing that material tight was a way to preserve what was there.
The third point is playing on the theory of aging puerh where the slower the aging occurs, the more favorable the outcome. The adages “good things come to those that wait.” and “slow and steady wins the race” come to mind. Alternatively this is also the same reason why some people are turned off the tight compression because they feel they won’t live long enough to enjoy it.
I think not very many westerners have much experience with iron bings. This is espically true for those newer puerh drinkers that have mainly been exposed to fresh young puerh pressed by the western vendors. Have you ever tried an iron bing? Out of those who have sampled an iron bing even fewer have tried an aged one, never mind a quality aged one. Things seem to be changing these days with some of the larger western puerh vendors offering machine pressings of their own brand.
Scott at Yunnan Sourcing has machine pressed some his higher quality, more fragrant, 250g spring cakes this year. Some of these such as the 2017 Jing Mai and 2017 Yi Bang I had sampled in the blind tasting event and were quite light and fragrant and great candidates for more compressed storage.
Paul at white2tea is also starting to lean more towards tighter compression. 2016 Post Truth and 2016 We Go High (and maybe others?) have experimented with very tight compression on teas that have a lighter more fragrant feel. It is also suspected that We Go High contains at least some autumnal material so to me the very tight compression here makes a lot of sense.
In the future, I think we are going to see a lot more of the tight compression puerh cakes. I, at least, welcome this direction.