Cha gao literally translated means tea paste. However, the substance is not at all pasty and is more like a solidified rock, which dissolves in hot water. Although it is a form of instant pu-erh, it is not a low quality product. In the Qing Dynasty cha gao was produced only for the elite class. Although the production methods were mostly abandoned after the Qing Dynasty, it is slowly being revived. Drinking cha gao provides you with a concentrated amount of all the usual pu-erh tea benefits.
History of Pu-erh Tea: Cha Gao
Pu-erh tea as a whole existed for over 2000 years. However, active trade in pu-erh didn't commence until the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907). It wasn't popularized until the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911). Read more.
Because pu-erh is a post-fermented tea, it easily keeps for years without spoiling, and in some cases only becomes better with age. For this reason, the tea was a valuable form of currency. Tea routes were established to Tibet, parts of China, and eventually to Southeast Asian countries. Many merchants and common-folk alike depended on this tea.
Cha Gao, however, only appeared during the Tang Dynasty, and later on, perfected during the Qing. Unlike pu-erh at the time, cha gao was a delicacy tea. It was produced mainly for export to Northern parts of China, where the ruling societies resided. Unfortunately, because this tea was predominantly made for and consumed by the elite, its production methods didn't last past the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
Nowadays, cha gao is often associated with a cheaper form of pu-erh, because in most cases, it is not produced correctly. Cha gao shouldn't have a pungent or off-putting smell. A good cha gao is characterized by a sweet woody taste, with notes of cocoa, as well as a unique fragrance. The taste, however, is quite different from a typical shou pu-erh.
In 1950, a famous tea company in Yunnan was commissioned by the government to make 1750 kilograms of cha gao for the Chinese army troops who were about to enter Tibet. It was considered that cha gao could provide the Chinese army with their daily source of nutrients and fiber, which were in dire need in Tibet's high mountains.
How Is Cha Gao Made?
To make cha gao tea farmers need to use already fermented sheng or otherwise shou pu-erh.
There are crucial steps to the process:
The tea leaves are soaked in hot water and then left to further cook on a low heat for several days. This process concludes when all the water has been boiled off, and only a thick black gooey resin is left.
The resin is then spread out and dried until it becomes hard as a rock and slightly sticky.
The hard resin is then aged for another year. This step is of the essence if you want to end up with a smooth tasting cha gao.
Unfortunately, many retailers may skip this step to speed up the process. Cha gao that hasn't been sufficiently aged will have a funky smell and taste.
Well-aged cha gao develops iconic wave-like patterns.
One kilogram of tea leaves is required to produce only 200 grams of cha gao.
Why Drink Cha Gao?
Cha gao, in its essence, is very similar to traditional loose-leaf or compressed pu-erh tea cake. The most significant difference is that it is concentrated as a result of condensation into its resin form. This condensation most naturally leads to a more potent form of pu-erh. This means more noticeable cha qi, caffeine, and pu-erh health benefits! During the Qing Dynasty, this tea was even designated as a special medicine and was commonly used to aid digestion.
Cha gao is also commonly used by Yixing teaware collectors, to help season the teapots. It is believed that the paste does a better job at seasoning than tea leaves.
How To Brew Cha Gao
Although cha gao is somewhat of an "instant" tea, this does not mean that the brewing methods should be instant. When brewing cha gao, just like any loose leaf tea, aim to remain mindful. In this way, capturing all the best characteristics of the tea.
Brew the tea gong fu style.
For a standard-sized gaiwan (125 ml), use 1 gram cha gao.
- Warm-up your brewing vessel (a light-colored gaiwan is ideal for seeing the color of the liquid)
- Place 1 gram of cha gao in the gaiwan
- Do a quick rinse
- Brew with 212°F water, pouring the water slowly, brew for 10 seconds (the liquid should be a light orangish-brown color)
- Repeat up to 4 times, or until the tea starts to lose its strength and taste.
If the cha gao doesn't dissolve as quickly use a tea pick to help swirl it around in the water, allowing for it to dissolve,
Cha Gao On The Go
One great thing about cha gao is that it is convenient to drink on the go. Simply break off 0.5 grams of the cha gao, drop it into your thermos, and pour hot water over it (ideally 500 ml). The pu-erh will gradually dissolve, and you will have a lovely, potent tea to go! The tea can also be made as a cold brew, although naturally, it will require a longer time to dissolve.