Tibetan tea is a popular daily beverage among almost six million Tibetans, and it is commonly known by various names such as Tibeti, Brick Tea, thick tea, south road side tea, bar tea, pressed tea, group tea, and edge tea. The history of Tibetan tea dates back to the Tang Dynasty in China, making it a thousand-year-old tea with a rich cultural heritage.
This tea is made from mature tea leaves and red moss that are grown at an altitude of over 1000 meters above sea level, and then refined using special techniques. It is a post-fermented tea that is well-known for its typical black tea flavor, and has a dark brown color due to its post-fermentation process.
The Origin of Tibetan Tea and the Tea-Horse Trade in Ya’an
Ya’an, a city located in Sichuan, has been the central origin of Tibetan tea since ancient times. It was originally the capital of Xikang Province, situated in the transition zone between the southwest of the Sichuan Basin and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, which is known as the “Rain Pole” in geography. The high mountains in Ya’an have been famous for tea for over 2,000 years. According to legend, a Taoist priest named Wu Lizhen collected wild tea on Mount Meng and planted seven celestial tea plants over 2,000 years ago. He then boiled the tea with nectar well water, creating the famous tea called “tea” that is still enjoyed today. Therefore, Ya’an is regarded as the birthplace of “tea” in the world and the originator of tea.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the tea produced in Yazhou (now known as Ya’an) was continuously transported to Tibet through the southwestern border, forming the “South Roadside Tea.” The central government once exchanged tea for war horses in Tibet, which became known as the famous “tea-horse trade.” The official organization that managed the “tea-horse exchange market” was called the “tea-horse department.” Six ancient tea-horse departments still exist in Ya’an, including Yazhou, Diaomen (now Ya’an Tianquan), and Lizhou (now Ya’an Hanyuan), which are the most famous.
Ya’an, as the production center of Tibetan tea and the distribution center of the tea-horse trade, has seen unprecedented growth in the scale of tea production. The city concentrated and reorganized raw tea from Luzhou, Yibin, Guanxian, Chongqing, and other places in Sichuan and a part of Yunnan. When the caravans transporting Tibetan tea to Tibet assembled in Guya Prefecture, there were at most three thousand strong men and two thousand pack horses. Every year, more than 15,000 to 20,000 horses were traded in Ya’an.
As the center of the tea-horse trade, Ya’an is also the throat of Sichuan-Tibet and Sichuan-Yunnan. Therefore, the policies and decrees of the “tea-horse trade” were first launched in Ya’an. According to the “History of Ming Dynasty Shihuo Zhi,” “In the early Ming Dynasty, Yazhou Diaomen Tea and Horse Department stipulated that the top-grade horses in Tibet should be given 40 catties of tea, the middle-class horses should be given 30 catties of tea, and the low-class horses should be given 20 catties of tea…” In years when war horses were scarce, Yazhou’s Diaomen Tea and Horse Department changed the regulations to “120 catties of tea for high-grade horses, 70 catties of tea for middle-class horses, and 50 catties of tea for low-class horses.” Ya’an plays a pivotal role in transportation.
Since the founding of New China, Ya’an Tibetan Tea has sent more than 5 million tons of Tibetan tea to Tibetan areas. In the big celebration held every ten years in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Ya’an Tibetan Tea is always one of the most sought-after commodities.
The Long History and Legends of Tibetan Tea
Tibetan classics have always mentioned tea since the emergence of Tibetan characters in Tibet. Legends tell of Songtsen Gampo, the king of Tibet, being cured of a long illness by tea, and Princess Wencheng bringing tea to Tibet in the Tang Dynasty. The merging of Tibetan tea and Central Plains culture has led to the unique Tibetan culture we know today. The Yuan Dynasty saw the peak of Tibetan tea’s development, as it was traded and exported to Central Asia, West Asia, and even Europe. This thousand-year-old tea has become a daily necessity for Tibetan people and was used as a tool for control by central governments. Its scarcity due to regional blockade and trading restrictions has made it highly valued in the Han area.
Tibetan tea is a beverage with a unique flavor that can be brewed using various methods. Let’s explore some of these methods:
Tea Ceremony (Covered Bowl) Brewing Method:
- Place about 5 grams of Tibetan tea into the tureen (increase the amount if you prefer stronger tea). Pour boiled water into the tureen and let it sit for a few seconds before discarding the first tea.
- Pour boiled water again, cover the bowl, and let it sit for around 30 seconds.
- Strain the tea soup and pour it into the justice cup. Enjoy your cup of red, thick, mellow, and old Tibetan tea.
Filter Cup Brewing Method:
- Put about 5 grams of Tibetan tea into the filter cup (increase the amount if you prefer stronger tea).
- Pour boiled water into the filter cup without any tea leaves.
- After a while, discard the first tea and pour boiled water into the cup again. Cover it and let it sit for around 20 seconds.
- Open the lid, turn the cup upside down, and remove the filter cup. Drip off the tea juice slightly and put it in the lid.
- Enjoy your cup of red, thick, mellow, and old Tibetan tea. Don’t forget to keep the tea in the filter cup to brew again later.
Elegant Cup Brewing Method:
The elegant cup has a unique structure consisting of an outer cup, an inner cup, and a lid. Follow these steps to brew Tibetan tea using this method:
- Put about 5 grams of Tibetan tea into the inner cup (increase the amount if you prefer stronger tea).
- In the first brewing, pour boiling water into the cup with the valve closed. This is known as washing the tea.
- Quickly open the valve by pressing the switch, allowing the tea soup to flow from the bottom of the inner cup through the filter screen into the outer cup.
- Rinse the outer cup with the first tea soup and discard it.
- Pour boiled water into the tea again for the second brew.
- Press the switch to open the valve and let the tea soup flow into the outer cup. Repeat this step to dispense more soup.
- Savor your cup of authentic and mellow Tibetan tea.
This method involves boiling Tibetan tea in an electric kettle. Here are the steps:
- Fill a household electric kettle with 1.2-1.5 liters of water and add 5-8 grams of Tibetan tea (increase the amount if you prefer stronger tea).
- Boil the mixture for 2-3 minutes and let it simmer for 2-5 minutes.
- Filter the residue and enjoy your cup of Tibetan tea.
Remember, there is no fixed way to brew Tibetan tea. You can always experiment with different methods to suit your taste preferences. As long as your cup of Tibetan tea is mellow and delicious, you have brewed it correctly. Enjoy your tea!
Tips for Storing and Preserving Tibetan Tea
Tibetan tea is a type of fermented tea that becomes more mellow, sweet, and fragrant as it is stored for longer periods of time. As a result, the economic value of Tibetan tea increases with age. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the indoor environment where it is stored and collected. External factors such as air humidity and strong odors can affect the quality of Tibetan tea. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
- Keep the room where Tibetan tea is stored well-ventilated and avoid excessive humidity.
- If the air humidity exceeds 70%, regularly dehumidify the room or open doors and windows to prevent the tea from becoming moldy due to dampness.
- Do not store Tibetan tea in the same room as substances with strong odors, such as paint, alcohol, or chemicals.
- Dry the collected tea leaves in the sun once or twice a year to maintain their quality.
- It is recommended to store Tibetan tea in well-ventilated areas of the home, such as the study, living room, or bedroom, to improve the air quality and ecological environment of the home. This allows you to enjoy the tea’s fragrance while also preserving its value as a collectible item.