Posted in Kafevend Blog
At the end of last week, you may remember we examined the many ways that tea leaves are processed to produce teas such as black, green, oolong and white. Today we are going to go into more detail on an ancient method of storing this newly made tea- the tea brick. You might have heard about or even seen one of these before, but rest assured that before this blog is finished, you'll know all about this long lived staple of east Asia.
Tea bricks are fairly simple to produce. Either whole leaves or finely ground leaves are used, then tightly compressed into moulds and then left to cure, dry and age. A little water might be added to help it bind. The appearance of these bricks can vary wildly. Those using whole leaves aren't much to look at, but those using ground tea can feature elaborately moulded images and text. This method dates back some thousand years to the time of the Ancient Tea Route.
Back then, making tea bricks was a sound business choice. Tea bricks were better able to withstand the knocks and bumps incurred as they were hauled from western China, where the tea was grown, all the way to the north east of India, through Tibet and Burma. Porters often carried the tea on their backs- they were known to have carried even more than their body weight in tea bricks!
It was more by happy accident than design that these merchants discovered the effects of the long periods of time spent travelling upon the tea. The ideas and methods behind producing fermented tea sprang from here. Tea bricks began to be purposefully left in warehouses at the end of the route to develop the unique flavours that ageing created.
When they fancied a cup of tea, they would break off a chunk and toast it in order to kill off any bacteria, mould and bugs that may have found their way in during all that time. It also added, inevitably, a toasted flavour. The tea was then ground into a powder and added to hot water where it was frothed using a whisk. This method is less common these days however. Nowadays the typical method is more simple, with the toasting subbed out for a thorough rinse before it is brewed in a teapot.
There are still many countries that make use of tea bricks. China, of course, still produces and consumes them. Pu-erh tea in particular is a fine example of a high quality post fermented tea, which is formed into a variety of shapes, including the brick. Mongolia is another big consumer. A traditional dish involves mixing some of the tea with grain flour and boiling water to make a foodstuff- a sort of tea porridge, by the sound of it. Tibet also still makes good use of tea bricks in their supremely rich butter tea.
If any of this has been of interest, it's worth trying to get your hands on a tea brick- if not to enjoy the tea, then at least as a unique decorative piece with their finely detailed images.