Tea with its stimulant strengths and tongue grabbing tangs was one of the great exports within Asia, long before Europeans were heralding it and obsessing over its arrival aboard schooners. Its transport necessitated more efficient methods of ‘condensing’ the actual leaves – 50 kg’s of loose leaf tea (san cha) never made for space-efficient travel aboard a mule or yak’s flanks, whereas 50 kg’s of compacted bricks or cakes would travel with ease. The loose leaf teas that sat in sacks and exited the hulls of schooners were often the barely recognized husks and particles of their former selves.
Back when tea was reportedly ‘officially’ introduced en masse to the Tibetan plateau in the T’ang Dynasty (vis-a-vis a dowry of Princess Wencheng on her betrothal to Songtsan Gampo), it was mule loads of loose-leaf green tea that made the journey. The ensuing waves and caravans of tea, however, would transport another form of compact teas, a method that many say existed for centuries already in the southwestern indigenous strongholds of what is now southwestern China.
Tea’s journeys to the frontier regions (which in history occupied far more of ‘China’ than at present) increased in amounts as tea’s status as a political tool widened and worked. Tea reverted in shape back to one of its most ancient forms – molded bricks, tubes, and cakes – as it was far more economical and efficient. It was also a far more effective way of hiding a tea’s pedigree (or lack thereof).
As the ancient Dynasties of China used tea to forge alliances, sate cravings and protect its borders, tea and its transport became of national security as well as an economic powerhouse. The borderlands of Mongolia, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Tibet would see caravans laden with tea passing through their landscapes without end. Great market towns rampant with activity, lined the most remote steppes, and tea was amongst the most prized products available…but the tea arriving here was not of the loose leaf variety but rather rough shaped molds of tea that had semi-oxidized or fermented on its long journey. As the distribution of tea expanded throughout the T’ang Dynasty, so too arrived an actual tax and a tax was more easily levied on formed compact bricks with pre-set weights and shapes than with the loose delicate leaves.
Hulking shapes of tea became a commodity in themselves, but were focused on different proposed ‘targets’. Different shapes were sent (and required) for different peoples. For the remote and hardened peoples of the frontiers the shape mattered not; what was important was that it arrived at all with a taste. Tea as tribute, destined for emperors, acolytes and political leaders, was usually far more ornate and decorative – and the molded results resembled gourds, squash, even fruit. Elaborately shaped tea formed into celebrated animals, deities and even geographical points of significance were also presented as gifts. Tea as tribute became as much about the tea mold maker or the garish artistry of the tea cake as it did about the quality of the tea.
To this day, many teashops within China are adorned with wall plaques that are molded tributes of tea…though most are barely drinkable. Tea shapes were even developed for specific events, only to become the equivalent of collector’s items. ‘Pan’ or ‘Ban’ Cha, was a mushroom shaped mold that was made as gift to the Panchen Lama and to this day is sought out as a kind of tea-treasure by collectors and drinkers alike.
Salt, spice, coffee and cocoa were all used as tributes, and in time, were considered currencies in themselves – so too was tea. The difference with tea was that it was being shaped and changing shape to suit markets. So dominant was it as a trade commodity that it soon surpassed both silk and ceramics as the dominant item out of Asia and some of its shapes bordered on the exotic.
As ornate and complex as the molds and shapes of tea were to become, the preparation of the tea for such forms was simple – the origins of which ‘stem’ back to an ancient indigenous practice of southern Yunnan. After picking the leaves, the supple greens would be steamed, making them more pliant. The result would then be crushed and formed into cakes or molds. Finally, it would be air dried, ready for a long wait, a long journey or both. This formed or compressed tea is called Jin ya cha and this ‘style’ still resonates and exists today, bringing to mind tea that traveled. Ironically, the very process of steaming leaves that softened them for manipulation, also removed much of the bitterness. It was this steaming process that ultimately transformed tea from a bitter tonic into a far subtler beverage.
Once these shaped and formed tea cakes, & bricks arrived, they were cooked rather than infused. The practice of cooking tea leaves exists to this day in many of the more remote kingdoms of wind and stone. Chunks are thrown into boiling water for minutes, rather than brief infusing swims. The formed teas were also conducive to cultures where war and weather didn’t allow for the comfort (or time) of tea ceremonies. The cakes were broken into pots, pans and vats with little attention given to preparation times. The point was to wring as much goodness and bitter zip out of the leaves as possible with as little formality as necessary. Tea in cake form, destined for the frontier badlands of the west and north, was not about anything aesthetic. It was about giving a gift that was a potent energizer to impress and satisfy. A food to temper diets heavy in proteins and carbohydrates, tea was the perfect foil and remains to this day an essential in whatever shape it appears.
Puer/Pu’erh tea was the first tea to travel ‘en-masse’ along the great tea trails and trade routes and it is still the one tea that is consistently created and formed into ‘shapes’. Tea in shaped form ages differently, benefiting or being stimulated by the fact that it has been crushed and compressed together, creating different enzyme reactions and different ‘tangs’.
It stands as an endearing testament to the history of formed teas that sales of the ‘archaic’ tea cakes, bricks and various other shapes continue to flourish. For all of the change in production methods, the ever expanding tea market, and the methods of measuring out servings and types of tea, the simple shapes that were once used exclusively for travel are still with us…waiting for their turn to be thrown into the water.