Puerh Tea and the Ancient Tea Horse Trade Route

Long ago, trade routes existed between China and other Asian cultures called the ancient tea horse trade route. Tibet was one of China’s primary trade partners. The ancient tea horse road was a network of caravan trails and roads that spread across Tibet and southwestern China, mostly in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.  In fact, sections of these ancient trails persist today.

The main commodity being transported was Tibetan horses and Chinese puerh, or dark tea. The people of Tibet needed the tea for certain nutrients that they couldn’t otherwise get through their regular diets.  China was growing its army and needed the Tibetan horses to continue their military campaigns. Puerh tea was almost exclusively developed for transportation to faraway destinations.  The puerh would often arrive in bricks of compressed tea leaves.

There are different methods to make puerh but the standards are Sheng and Shou and they go through a pan firing and drying process.  The tea is fermented (quickly is called Shou, over a long period is Sheng) and then compressed or left loose.  Sheng/raw Shou/ripe, bingcha, toucha and brick (Zhuancha) are some of the most common shapes and styles of compressed puerh.

To be called puerh, the tea must be grown in Yunnan.  Puerh is in the dark tea, or aged tea, family. Puerh is a region of Yunnan Province, China. For a dark tea to be called puerh tea, it must come from this region in China. Other regions of China, such as Hunnan Province, produce dark tea.  While dark tea is compressed in many shapes and sizes, a standard amount was 100 taels (Chinese measurement). This is a tea “log” traditionally made for easy transport.  The log is sliced up, sold in cakes, and flavor improves with age.

Most sought after puerh comes from wild tea trees. The unique makeup of the wild tea trees gives the tea a deeper and more complex flavor, often with camphor notes from the camphor trees that grow in the same environment. Puerh is perfect to be served Gongfu style as the taste evolves with each steep.

Written by Uriah Kreilick and Gunilla Printz

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