brick tea is of two types - black and green. The technology of brick tea manufacturing was known in China since X-XI centuries.
The process of green brick tea manufacturing goes in two stages: semi-product (Lao-cha) processing and its pressing. Lao-cha is divided into two basic tea materials - younger and thinner leaves for facing and coarse for inner content. The more facing material is used the better quality is the tile.
brick tea should have smooth surface on which one can see not only pictures and letters of the stencil but also entire leaves, fresh tea shoots and sprigs. A tile is a well-pressed smooth homogeneous mass. The taste of brick tea is harsh with specific "tobacco" odour.
It should be mentioned that if young leaves and shoots are used for brick tea manufacturing, it preserves all features of ordinary black and green teas.
brick tea has a number of advantages in comparison with ordinary tea:
brick tea is less liable to spoil, because as a result of pressing there are less area for germs and micro-organisms to spread;
brick tea is compact, convenient for transportation;
brick tea contains minimal amount of caffeine.
Pu-er - Zhuan Cha "Brick Tea" Selections The native area for Brick tea processing is Southern Yunnan in China, and parts of Sichuan Province. Tea Bricks 'Zhuan Cha' were most commonly produced in ancient China prior to the Ming Dynasty, and at one time, used as currency. From a functional perspective, they were easy to transport along the silk trade route and were thereby compressed. Tea bricks are made primarily from the broad leaf 'Dayeh' Camellia Assamica tea plant varietal and are blocks of tea leaves that have been packed in molds and pressed into block form. Traditionally, wooden molds were used for shaping, which have reduced in popularity to more mechanical methods. Tea bricks are making a resurgence in tea drinking and various forms (Green, White, Black, Pu-er and Golden Tips tea bricks) are available now. Other shapes of compressed teas such as round cakes 'Been Cha' and square discs 'Fang Cha', small bowls 'Toucha' can also be found. The tea leaves used in the production of tea bricks vary widely in quality, ranging from the use of twigs and mature leaves in coarse grade tea bricks, to the use of pekoes for the production of higher grade tea bricks. Harvested tea leaves are either partially dried and pressed into bricks as whole leaves or thoroughly dried and ground before being pressed into bricks. Newly formed tea bricks are then left to cure, dry, and age before being sold or traded. Our focus is on finding tea bricks made with full mature leaves, tippy pekoes, and the vintage (season of harvest or age).
Tea compressed into the shape of brick is called brick tea. It is very popular among the Tibetan, Mongolian and Uigur for making yak butter tea or milk tea. For nomads, this kind of tea is easy to transport. There are many places in China producing brick tea, including Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Sichuan is the largest producer, while pu erh tea is grown in Yunnan province. Pu erh has come into vogue among white-collar workers in major cities owing to its unique earthy mellowness.
One “recipe” is as follows: Pile the tea and spray it with water until the moisture level is 20-30%. After 6-7 days turn the pile (temp 60-70 C) for the first time. After 6-7 days turn the pile (50-60 C) for the second time. After another 6-7 days turn the pile (40-50 C) for the final time. Solar drying (1 day) Other “recipes” lengthen the wo doi process to 50-60 days. Aspergillus is the main bacteria present which helps to transform the leaf in a very complex chemical change. Heat is produced when the leaf is piled - similar to what makes barns catch fire after being filled with freshly made hay bales. After several fermentations (turning the piles of tea and letting them sit for weeks at a time) the tea may be compressed or left loose. The tea to be compressed is weighed, steamed, and pressed. This is one reason that areas like Hong Kong and Taiwan (which have a very humid climate) have been considered good places to store pu-erh and indeed, a considerable amount is still hoarded there to drink in the future. “Artificial wet storage” is similar to woi doi except instead of a more delicate “hastening the natural process” it is a much more abrupt process of drenching the leaf to make the final product appear more mature and aged than it actually is. This is the process by which the “fake pu-erh” is made. The production process goes like this: With many differences (according to the factory or the tea maker). The the middle of the day is the best time of day for picking the leaf – between 9am and 3pm so that the morning dew has long since evaporated and some sun has been on the leaves for optimal moisture content. The leaves from the arbor type Assamica varietal and are large and should be neither the youngest nor the thicker, older ones. After picking, the leaf should be carried in a bamboo basket that allows some ventilation instead the common airtight plastic bag, which promotes heat, premature oxidation, and darkening of the leaves. The difference is often dependent on whether the plucker is paid by the hour (takes more care) or by the weight of the leaf (less careful pick). The leaf is pan roasted (130-145 deg C, 5-10 minutes) and then rolled for 15-30 minutes. The leaf is then sun dried to stabilize the oxidation process (moisture content is about 5%) and also to encourage the complex fermentation process that pu-erh is known for. This leaf is sometimes processed by the company that employs the pickers, but is often sold at this point in the marketplace. The buyer has to judge the quality by examining the leaves at different layers and by understanding where the leaves come from and whether they were blended with leaves from different areas. The next step is to blend different lots of the raw material together so that the factory will have then right amount of raw material to make their final production goal. The leaf is sorted and often the smaller buds will be saved to make special cakes or to put on the outside of the compressed cakes for appearance. Sometimes a very low grade of broken tea will be used on the inside and the outside will be beautiful young buds. The tea is now either pressed right away in the case of the modern”green or shoeing” pu-erh or aged for some time. The steaming process is important for the quality of the final product in the case of the compressed pu-erhs. The leaf (mao cha) is now brittle (6-8% moisture) and handling is of the utmost importance. If the worker is in a hurry (usually the case), the leaves will be broken and they won’t be aligned mainly in one direction. The time and pressure involved in the compressing will determine how the cake will continue its aging process. If it is pressed into a very hard shape it will not change much over time as the air and organic compounds won’t be able to work inside. The tea is first weighed, then steamed and put into a cloth bag. This is tightened after the tea is gathered into one corner. This damp steamed cloth bag full of tea is then placed into the press. The cake is either left in the bag until it cools slightly or removed right away (not great as the cake may still be too soft). Either way the cakes are then placed onto racks to slowly air dry. In these days of increased production and the loss of our most precious commodity, time, these are dried in a high temperature room or oven to make room for the next batch. After drying the cakes are typically wrapped in bamboo paper (the thin leaf like sheets that come from the expanding sections of bamboo) that must be also carefully procured. The moisture content is important; if they are too wet they will damage the paper that the tea is wrapped in and make the local environment to damp for the tea and if they are too dry the leaves will be too brittle and will be unsuitable for wrapping the cakes. They are then wrapped with bamboo ties in lots (of 9 cakes for example). During the 70s, 80’s, and 90’s metal wire was used instead of the bamboo.
The aroma should be clear and natural and the infused tea shouldn’t be to black, it should be a deep red tone depending on the method of production and length of aging.
Were the old tea bricks actually used as money? The answer seems to be "yes" in every sense that we know money. It was made and used at a time when the tea trade was important to many Central Asian countries, and the distribution was tied to different demands. The finest tea went to Russia, while the worst kind was eagerly bought by the Tibetans. As one contemporary writer put it "Russian tea is delicious, and that used in Tibet is nauseous trash." The significant point is that it was all a valuable commodity that could be recognized and accepted throughout an extended area the same as other kinds of currency.
Collectors of odd and unusual forms of money treasure the old bricks that were made to be used in trade and drinking. Very few bricks have survived their original purpose, and intact bricks that still have clear images and inscriptions are valued highly. The pieces made for trade in Russia, and showing Russian inscriptions, are particularly scarce and some have sold for as much a $1,000 each. Other decorated old pieces are generally valued at $250 or more. Small or broken chunks and pieces are valued proportionately less.
Those bricks made during World War II are considered the most common of the original pieces but still bring prices over $100. The modern bricks that were sold in grocery stores for actual use as tea are much less valuable and probably worth less than $25 today. They are, however, a nice reminder of one of the most unusual forms of money ever used anywhere in the world.