There are multiple modern ways to preserve and ship products. Vacuum sealing, packaging in nitrogen, drying under UV lamps, irradiating… The list is almost endless. Ancient tea production techniques used methods that still work today – namely, processed tea placed in a square or rectangular press and forced into a block.
The amount of time the tea has had to dry is critical as too much moisture will increase the risk of mold or fungus. The tea is either left long, in which case the bricks are easier to break apart, and dehydrating the tea results in leaves that must be strained or drunk carefully. When the tea is dried and powdered, then pressed, the brick can retain highly detailed images carved into the press. These powdered tea bricks are often very ornate, with detailed pictures and text for identification the producer. In some ways, it was a very successful early form of package branding. It was also a way to illustrate the grading of the tea in such a way that it could not be sold later at a higher rate simply by changing the container. The tea itself is the packaging.
Tea bricks have been used in multiple ways. Historically this is how tea was transported long distances. The drying limited the growth of harmful fungi and the pressing created a dense center that resisted the introduction of moisture during transit. While it was not perfect, it did mean that tea could be taken on long trips where other goods might rot. Because of its unique origin, brick tea also enjoyed long periods where it was used as a form of currency. Tribes of Mongols used it for trade and as a source of nutrition. There are even types of tea made that require bricks today. For example, Tibetan butter tea is made by boiling pieces of brick tea overnight, then mixing with butter, cream or whole yak milk. This has been a staple of Tibetan cuisine for centuries and can be found in various forms in many restaurants.
In the modern world, brick tea is seen more as a novelty than a way to package and transport across the world. But there is a great deal of interest in brick teas for the extra level of flavor that some people believe the oxidizing process imparts. Lower quality teas that are pressed are dried may result in more oxidation of the leaves or powder. When finally brewed, a smaller amount of tea can produce a much stronger flavor. Brick tea also is used as an ingredient for baking and as a base for more complex beverages.
In most preparation methods for brick tea, the desired size will be broken off and toasted. This was originally done to remove any infestation by fungus or insects that might have occurred, but is still done today because of the change in taste that the light heat give prior to use. Luckily, today this ancient form of preserving tea is combined with modern sealing and handling, thus giving tea aficionados another way to enjoy this versatile resource.
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