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Hei Cha: Tibetan black tea – a thousand year old treasure

Posted by Boyka Mihaylova on

Today we get to know in detail a real treasure in the world of tea – Tibetan tea. It has a thousand years long story, dating back to the times of the Tang dynasty. Tibetan black tea started the history and culture of tea drinking in Tibet and the border area of the Chinese empire. It was the main reason for setting up what we know today as "The Southern Silk Road" and left a legacy that remains uninterrupted today, even after over a thousand years.


What is Tibetan Black tea?

Zang Cha (藏茶) is, in fact, a Hei Cha (黑茶) – a kind of post-fermented tea from China. It had many names that changed with time: Wu Cha (乌茶), Bian Cha (border tea, 边茶), Da Cha (大茶), or Ya Cha (雅茶). 

Tibetan tea is made from more mature tea leaves. The picking standard for it includes a bud and up to five leaves. Modern days processing includes typical steps for producing Hei Cha – fixing, rolling, wet piling (Wo Dui – 渥堆), drying, steaming, pressing, and finally, aging. While the processing changed with time, some believe it is namely Tibetan tea that precedes all other types of Hei Cha and served as a model for all subsequent Hei Cha production and processing in other areas of China. 

Tibetan tea processing includes 5 stages and a total of 32 processing steps. The aging period alone requires a minimum of 6 months. Some claim its production process is the most intricate and time-consuming among all tea types. 

At the beginning of 2008, the Chinese Ministry of Culture declared Ya'an Tibetan tea production skills as a national intangible cultural heritage.


Tibetan black tea


History of the Tibetan Black tea

Ya'an has been the central production point for Tibetan Hei Cha from the times of the Tang and Song dynasties. The area has a rich tea-producing past and inheritance and is considered one of China's cradles of tea culture. 


The origin of Tibetan tea – the legends

Tales of Tibetan tea origin exist both in Chinese and Tibetan history. Here are two legends that we can hear in Tibet.

According to the first one, Songtsen Gampo, king of Tibet during the Tang Dynasty, was ill for a long time. One day, he was resting by the window when he saw a bird flying towards him with a twig in its mouth. The king ordered the servants in the palace to fetch and boil water. After drinking it, his sickness healed within days. The king then sent people to search for the plant with this branch and finally found the tea plant in the Han district (today's Sichuan).


Another story tells when Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty entered Tibet, she brought three treasures as part of her dowry: tea, silk, and ink. Since then, Tibetan tea and culture from the Central Plains have gradually merged with Tibetan people's diet and daily life, forming today's unique Tibetan culture. 

The development of Tibetan tea reached its peak when the Yuan Dynasty ruled Tibet. In 1206 AD, Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of Mongolia, took over Tibet. After the death of Genghis Khan, his third son, Wo Kuotai, succeeded to the throne. Tea was then brought to Central Asia, West Asia, and even Europe. To this day, brick tea shipped from China is still the most recognized authentic "tea" in Central and Western Asia.


Tibetan hei cha


The origin of Tibetan tea – the evidence

The Huayang Chronicles (华阳国志巴志) mark that that there are tea gardens in the ancient kingdoms of Shu and Ba (today's Sichuan). The states used tea to pay tribute to Zhou Wuwang – the emperor of the Zhou dynasty (1045 - 256 BC). That is considered the first written evidence of people growing, producing, and drinking tea. 

During the Tang and Song dynasty, the Old tea horse road emerged as an important trading channel and a vital instrument for granting the empire's power and influence in the remote areas around the border. Caravans transported tea produced in Guizhou and Yunnan, among others, up to Sichuan and the Tibet-Qinghai area on the South and the capital, Mongolia, and Russia to the north. Ya'an was a central point in the Tea and Horse road. It concentrated and organized raw tea supplies from Luzhou, Yibin, Guanxian, Chongqing, and other places in Sichuan and a part of Yunnan. From there, tea was supplied to Tibetan minorities and exchanged for war horses that the empire used in its military campaigns. Between 15 000 and 20 000 horses were traded in Ya'an every year. The trade in Ya'an grew to an unpreceded scale. That led to the formation of what we know today as "The Southern silk road" or Nanlu Biancha (南路边茶). It was the southern leg of the Tea and horse caravan road, starting from Ya'an, Sichuan, and going to Tibet. 


The organization that managed the "tea-horse exchange market" was called the "tea-horse department". Today, there are still six ancient tea-horse departments left in Ya'an. 


Ya'an was the centerpoint of tea and horse road, lying in the middle of Yunnan and Tibet. It was no wonder all the policies on the tea trade were first implemented there. From the historical records of" History of Min – Food and goods chronicles" (明史·食货志), we learn that "a fine Tibetan war horse costs 40 jin of tea (20kg), an average one costs 30 jin, and low-grade horse costs 20 jin of tea...". Another year, there was a shortage of war horses, so the Tea and horse department updated the prices at the whooping "120 jin of tea for a fine horse, 70 jin for an average one, and 50 jin for a lower class horse."


The properties of Tibetan Black tea 

The tea trees in the area of Ya'an are mainly scattered in the hills of Mengding Mountain, at 600-1800 meters above sea level. It is an area of yellow, red, and brown, slightly acidic soil, rich in organic matter, with abundant humidity. The raw material for Tibetan tea is one bud and up to five leaves. That makes its content much richer than that of ordinary bud tea. 


Sichuan falls within the "Golden belt" of the 30º Northern altitude parallel. We now know that the world's highest quality tea grows namely in those regions that the belt encompasses.


Tibetan tea, produced in a traditional way, has oily black leaves that emit a soft glow from within. Advanced fermentation has transformed the inner content of the leaves. It has a smooth, rounded mouthfeel, a mellow and sweet taste, and a strong yet pure aroma with notes of dried fruits and red dates. After aging, slight medicinal notes appear. They remind the smell of traditional Chinese pharmacies. This medicinal smell is a prized feature and a sign of good storage. The tea soup is bright red and clear, without any astringency or bitterness.


Health benefits of the Tibetan tea

The average altitude of the Tibetan area is above 4 000 meters. On the plateau, it is cold most of the year. The air is thin and there is a strong radiation. Few vegetables can survive these harsh conditions, and fruits are only available within a short time span. Drinking Tibetan tea proves a vital supplementation of much-needed vitamins and plant-based nutrients that otherwise lack in local people's diet. Additionally, the unique microflora and the rich inner content of the Tibetan Hei Cha help decompose fat, dispel the feeling of heaviness in the stomach and assist digestion. More than in any other part of China, tea is not only a leisurely drink but a vital daily supplement and medicine for the Tibetan minority, who has stuck to it for more than a thousand years, ever since the entry of princess Wencheng into the Tibetan lands.

The average diet of the highland minorities mainly consists of beef and mutton, cheese, ghee, and a sort of highland barley. Most of these foods are harder to digest, rich in fats, and poor in fiber. Yet, the population rarely suffers from indigestion, obesity, or high blood pressure. Local medical experts attribute this to the consistent drinking of Tibetan Hei Cha. 


Daily drinking of Tibetan Hei Cha has been so deeply ingrained into daily life for more than a millennium now that it has created some popular folklore sayings. One is "Better three days without food than one day without tea". Another says, "One day without tea means stagnant; three days without tea means sick". 


The "Indian tea enters China" incident

A historical event that occurred more than 120 years ago may be the most definitive proof of Tibetan Hei Cha's remarkable properties and medicinal value. 

Around 1895, an incident later called "Indian tea enters Tibet" took place. By that time, the British transported a large amount of Darjeeling tea to Tibetan areas in an attempt to cut off the supply of tea from Tibetan areas by the Qing government and ensure new markets for their tea. Such a move would also have great political significance, as tea was the main asset of the Chinese empire to exert its influence in its border areas. However, due to its taste, this tea proved no match to replace the Ya'an Tibetan tea experience. More importantly, it failed to provide the medicinal effect and cater to the living needs of the local minorities the way Ya'an tea did. Therefore, it was only used as recreational tea by wealthy families at that time (today's sweet tea houses on the streets of Lhasa are the legacy of Indian tea entering Tibet). At the same time, daily life in Tibet still required a steady supply of Ya'an Tibetan tea. At that time, the 13th Dalai Lama Tudenggyatso wrote to the Qing government that they increase the supply of Tibetan tea. The Qing government ordered Sichuan Governor Zhao Erfeng to solve the issue. That's how Ya'an Tibetan tea became the only tea in history that influenced the territorial integrity of the Chinese empire and Tibet.


That's it for today! In our next blog post we'll get to know the different Tibetan tea types. We'll also meet you with a Tibetan Black tea producer, from whom we source our fine Tibetan tea. They will share with you tips and tricks on how to store, brew and taste Tibetan black tea (Hei Cha  – 黑茶). Stay tuned!