Tea bricks have been used as a means of payment from 9th to 20th century in China, Mongolia, Siberia, Tibet, Turkmenistan and Russia. The Chinese Emperor had the monopoly on the production of tea as means of payment. The bricks were mainly produced in Sichuan, a Chinese province. Some have been made in Russia. They have various forms and sizes and were transported by yaks or camels caravans.
There are five different types of quality, when it comes to tea. Each of them presents a specific stamp. What distinguishes the different ranges of products are their color, fermentation and the proportion of wood to leaf. The tea of the best quality is dark brown and exclusively contains fermented tea leaves. The most common type is the third rank quality. As for the bricks of the poorest quality, their color is dark yellow and they contain twigs, wood shavings and soot.
Making tea bricks requires different stages. Tea leaves are dried in the sun, then they are taken off of their stem and finally, sifted to be separated from one another. The leaves are put in a bag, steamed over boiling water and fermented, whereas the twigs are crushed. The whole is then cast in a metal mold. At this stage, the tea brick is regularly moistened with rice-water to avoid air bubbles. Beef blood, dung or flour is also added to act as a binder and to maintain the bricks form. Finally, before being used, the brick is put through fire and aged.
Tea bricks may be divided into different sections. The one I have is divided into three rectangles. The first one contains five aligned stars. The second one is a centered temple with three porticos whose main one is also topped by a star. This whole pattern is surrounded with vegetation. As for the third section, it contains two rows of Chinese characters which explain the origins of the brick.
The reverse of the tea brick is precut like a chocolate bar into sixteen equivalent squares bearing the same curved lines. This procedure makes it easier to cut off one or more pieces in order to make small payments.
Being compact, easy to preserve and carry, tea bricks are a practical means of payment used to make trade with people from other regions. All the more so since tea is edible, it is a valuable currency with which one could also pay his taxes to the Emperor. Moving further away from the production centers, bricks became rarer and hence also more valuable.
A tea brick could also serve as a standard by which one could estimate the value of other goods. It could be eaten in times of starvation or used as a remedy against pulmonary diseases. In Siberia tea bricks were preferred to coins for their curative qualities. Nevertheless, tea bricks could also simply be drunk like any other kind of tea. All one had to do was take off a small piece of tea, roast it in order to disinfect it and to give it a good flavor. It was then ground and added to hot water. That is the most common way to consume tea nowadays, whether the wide range of tea comes to us in tea bags, as dried leaves or in bricks.