Steeping loose leaf tea in water has not always been the dominant method of tea preparation. Prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in ancient China, the tea brick, compressed tea made of ground or whole tea leaves pressed into a block form using a mold, was one of the most popular forms of tea produced and consumed. People also commonly used tea bricks as currency. Today, the legacy of tea bricks lives on – you can find a variety of compressed black teas, green teas, pu-erh teas and more.
The tea brick developed originally to help preserve tea and facilitate trade. Generally, production involved drying tea leaves, grinding them into a powdered form, compressing into brick forms and then curing or aging. The shape and size of the form varied depending upon the region, and often included text or pictures. Sometimes dried whole leaves were used and binding agents like flour used to create a dense brick. Durability and a smaller physical footprint than loose tea leaves became important as people used the bricks for currency and trade.
While other forms of preparation existed, at the time one of the more common methods included boiling the tea. A piece of the brick was broken off and added to boiling water. Another method was to roast the tea first over a fire before boiling. Roasting added flavor and may have been used to sanitize the tea from any impurities collected during its travels.
As the ritual tea ceremony became more important during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279) the powdered method of tea preparation became popular. Dried tea leaves were ground into a powder and whisked into hot water, like the modern Japanese tea ceremony. Later loose leaf tea brewing as we know today, where loose tea leaves are steeped in hot water, became the preferred brewing method during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Today, tea bricks are enjoying a renaissance as tea drinkers become more acquainted with compressed teas including pu-erh teas. Most pu-erhs are now made from dried whole leaves. The tea takes on a variety of traditional shapes including the tea cake or “beencha”, a small “bird’s nest tea” or “toucha”, and a flat tea brick “fang cha”.