5 Facts About the History of the Silk Road Every Tea Drinker Should Know

The history of the Silk Road and tea are intertwined in ways that still affect the tea we all drink today. So for a quick view into what the Silk Road did for tea, here are 5 facts about the Silk Road.

  1. The Silk Road is not a single road but a series of routes that encouraged trade in many goods, including tea, as well as the exchange of knowledge and cultural habits. Many of these routes existedSilk Road Map independently before being brought together into a contiguous network of roads during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE). These routes exposed various cultures and supported a lively trade in goods and exchange of knowledge. The Chinese not only gave Westerners knowledge of paper, gunpowder and silk, but received back knowledge of many western religions and irrigation for agriculture and live stock.
  2. The Tea Horse Road was the route through Yunnan that brought tea to the rest of China and to the West. This road is very treacherous with narrow roads that snake along the side of mountains that easily washed out and were barely wide enough for a horse or human on foot. This route gave birth to what we now call Puerh.
  3. Moroccan Mint was created on the Silk Road. The exchange of spices was common on the Silk Road. Mint was grown by the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and exchanged for many things including tea. During the height of trade on the Silk Road, tea was sold in crushed bricks and prepared with many spices including mint.
  4. Goods and people didn’t just leave China for what is now the Middle East and Europe. Many people and their cultures came into China and stayed. Along the old Silk Road in China is a hugely diverse population that include Yi, Bai, Hani, Zhuang, Dai and Mao. These ethnic groups have different languages, dress, religious beliefs and holidays. While the People’s Republic of China officially recognizes these categories, many of these categories, like the Yi group together another 30-40 ethnic groups. These ethnic minorities are many of the skilled tea workers, not just in the fields but in the manufacturing of tea in Yunnan. For some, like the Yi, their holidays are based around the tea harvests.
  5. One Belt One Road is China’s current plan to rebuild the Silk Road by investing in infrastructure not just in China but into the Middle East and Europe. While it is presented as a way for China to expand its international influence, it ignores how China will be influenced by those countries who choose to participate. Trade is a two way exchange when done successfully, so if the Chinese government really wants this to be successful they will have to bend and be open to the influence and culture of the other countries, which could have some unexpected outcomes for them. This will be an interesting project to watch.
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Golden Tipped Yunnan

Golden Tipped Yunnan

Yunnan Sunrise (aka Golden Tipped Yunnan)

Golden-tipped Yunnan also goes by the name Dianhong. Dian is the short name for the Yunnan province and hong means red tea, so the name is Yunnan Red tea. Keep in mind, what Americans and Europeans refer to as black tea is called red tea in China. The red refers to the color of the brew, while the black refers to the color of the leaf. Neither name is wrong, they just refer to different characteristics of the tea.

Origin of Golden Tipped Yunnan

As the name suggests it is produced in the Yunnan province of China. Known more for puerh and bricks of packed tea, Yunnan province did not move into producing loose tea until the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.  Their loose black teas are some of the most complex with rich flavor, most notably by the inclusion of golden buds in the black tea. Most notably the golden-tipped Yunnan is made from the cultivar Yunnan Dayeh, which has a broad leaf, stronger and thicker buds (making it easier to twist and keep whole at the same time), and an earlier sprouting meaning they are harvested in early March instead of late March, allowing the farmer to harvest more during the growing season.

Golden Tipped Yunnan Production

To produce the golden buds, there are additional steps in the production of this tea than in a typical black tea. As with all tea, after the leaves are plucked they are immediately withered in the sun or climate controlled warehouse to allow the leaves to be pliable and to remove around 60% of their moisture. Next they are rolled either with machine or by hand to help breakdown the cell membrane and speed along oxidation. Then the leaves are laid out and allowed to rest while they oxidize. After assessing the moisture of the leaves, they may be covered with wet cloths to speed the oxidation processes. This is where the Golden-tipped Yunnan deviates from the standard production. The leaves are not allowed to oxidize fully and a slow oxidation process is needed to control it properly so the cloths are not used. They are allowed partial oxidation with the tea master inspecting often to ensure those golden tips don’t turn fully black. They are dried by a variety of techniques by blowing warm air on the leaves. They are then sorted by size to be sold. In some cases, a second drying may occur to further reduce moisture if needed and increase the golden color.

Loose leaf Golden Tipped Yunnan after infusion.

Infused leaf of Golden Tipped Yunnan.

Golden tipped Yunnan (Yunnan Sunrise) has a beautiful mix of golden and black buds with a slightly hoppy smell. It brews a beautiful reddish-brown with a complex mix of orange, malty and smooth finish. The partial oxidation on the leaves allows this black tea to be brewed like an oolong, at lower temperatures, which produces a more creamy flavor.

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Puerh – Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ vs Cooked ‘Shu Cha’

Puerh Tea Cake

Raw Puerh Cake from CNNP

We’ve written before about puerh and dark teas. This style of teas are the only ones which are truly fermented instead of being oxidized like all others. In our earlier post however we just barely scratched the surface so in this post we revisit the topic in a bit more depth. Puerh emerged via a happy accident from the transport of tea along the tea horse road from Yunnan Province to Mongolia where it fermented along the journey and was traded for war horses. Over time demand overwhelmed supply and a method of speeding along production was needed. Thus production shifted to one of two methods; raw or cooked. Both provide a distinct, mellow and earthy taste though they are certainly not the same in taste or cost.

Sheng (Raw) Puerh Cake

2008 Raw Tea Cake (7 years old)

Raw ‘Sheng Cha’ Puerh

Raw puerh is also referred to as sheng or green is produced naturally, allowing the tea to ferment as it ages over many years. Some of the best raw puerh is actually decades old, like a fine wine, getting better with age. Good quality raw puerh, stored well, will steadily increase in value with some fetching tens of thousands of dollars. For some, though very risky, it’s even seen as an investment.

It is produced in slightly different ways depending on the factory producing it and their own closely guarded method. However, the general process is to air dry fresh leaves, process and knead the leaves and sun dry the leaves. Finally, the loose puerh leaf is steamed and placed in a mold for final shaping before going into storage, ideally for 15 to 20 years of aging and fermentation.

Raw puerh cakes generally look a bit more green and the liquor color tends to be quite a bit lighter than that of cooked puerh. As it ages the flavor will develop and mellow.

Cooked ‘Shu Cha’ Puerh

The far more modern development is cooked puerh. Also called shu or ripe, this version is artificially aged in order to produce products in a short period of time and satisfy some of the demand for puerh. Like its raw cousin the factories which produce it each have their own variations, though the process originated in 1973 at Kunming Tea Factory.

Production of cooked puerh is substantially different than for raw. In this case leaves are piled on the factory floor and watered down in a process akin to composting. The specific steps here vary as does the length of time depending on the desired speed of this artificial aging. As a last step, like raw puerh, it is finally steamed and compressed.

Cooked puerh cakes are much darker, with leaf tips having darkened considerably to a golden or brown color. Similarly, the liquor of cooked puerh is a deep red or brown color.

Puerh in All Shapes & Sizes

Just one of the shapes of puerh.

Mini Puerh Bricks – Easy Single Serving

Puerh is available in loose leaf form, though more often it is found compressed into various forms.  Puerh cakes can be quite large, almost the size of a dinner plate or even a discus. While this is a very typical form, it can be compressed into any number of shapes and sizes. For example some puerh is compressed into small squares, enough for one serving and sold in boxes of many squares. Other options include rectangles similar in size to a large candy bar, balls, small birds nest shapes, large balls, coins, and more.

A great place to start is with a small package of cooked puerh. This allows you to dip a toe in the water without waiting years to enjoy your tea and experimenting at a reasonable starting price.

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Puerh Tea and an Introduction to Dark Teas

Pu-erh Tea is truly fermented unlike other teas.

Puerh Tea (tuo cha) – Fermented tea formed into cakes and producing a very dark infusion.

If you’ve been exploring tea for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard a bit about puerh (aka pu-erh), or fermented tea, though you may not yet given it a try. If you consider yourself a regular tea drinker then puerh and dark teas really are a must for your tea ‘bucket list’. Originally from China, puerh and dark teas offer a very different experience. Smooth and earthy, this class of tea is produced using a very different process from other teas and offers a different taste profile which may even serve a as a great entry for coffee drinkers looking to add tea to their repertoire.

Unlike white, green, black, and other varieties of tea which are oxidized and heated or fired to stop oxidation, puerh tea is truly fermented. It develops, usually in the form of compressed tea cakes over years, developing flavor and becoming smoother the longer it ages. Unlike other teas, puerh is produced by partially heating tea leaves to stop most oxidation. Then they are rolled and bruised slightly before being processed into compressed forms. The compressed forms such as bricks, discs or cakes, and small birds nest shaped, called tuo cha, are then either artificially aged or left to age naturally, sometimes for decades.

Puerh Tea History

The development of puerh teas dates back many thousands of years to Yunnan province in China. The necessity of trade led to packaging of tea in compressed discs which could be more easily transported along the tea horse road and other trade corridors. At the time tea was traded for war horses and other goods and often traveled hundreds of miles over long periods of time. During the this time, in hot and humid conditions, the tea naturally fermented and turned into dark tea by the time it reached its destination.

Puerh and Dark Tea

Its often stated that the types of tea include white, yellow, green, black, oolong, and puerh tea. However, this isn’t really accurate. Puerh is actually one variety of dark tea, albeit the most famous one. In 2008, China recognized dark tea from Yunnan as being geographically protected meaning this is the only dark tea that can be called puerh despite the fact that a number of other provinces produce fermented dark teas using much the same process and tea plant varieties.

Steeping Puerh Tea

Steeping your puerh tea is relatively straight forward but is slightly different than other teas. While you should steep with boiling water like a black tea, you will likely be able to steep puerh at least four to six times if not upwards of 10-15 times depending on the variety. Wake up the tea initially with enough boiling water to cover the leaf and quickly pour off the liquor. If you are steeping in a pot or mug with infuser then use 3 grams of puerh or dark tea and steep 3-4 minutes and re-steep another 2-4 times. If you are using a gaiwan, use a bit more tea, about 5 grams, and steep the first time for 2o to 25 seconds. For each additional steeping at about 5 seconds more steeping until it becomes thin.

Although dark and puerh teas are unfamiliar to many western tea drinkers they can be a real treat. Unlike the other teas in your collection, if stored properly, with fresh circulating air, away from other smells and aromas, these will keep and mature for many years to come. And for those looking to make a switch from coffee, you may find both the color and flavor to be a logical first step.

There is much to explore with tea, and puerh as well. This was only an introduction to the world of dark and puerh tea. In the future we will explore more to include the world of counterfeit puerh, other regions producing dark teas, and more so stay tuned.

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Oolong, White and Yellow: Understanding the Broader Types of Tea

Unlike most other beverages one simply can’t ask for tea and know what to expect, making tea both a bit more common but also captivating for those looking to expand their palate.  There are six main types of tea, however within those types are thousands of varieties.  It is truly amazing that camellia sinensis, combined with terroir, a dash of human intervention and some creativity yields a liquor with so many different flavors.

Graphic scale of types of tea by oxidation.
Tea Oxidation Chart

Oxidation starts in tea leaves as soon as they are plucked from the plant, just like how an apple starts to turn brown as soon as it is cut.  The oxidation helps to create the flavor in the tea.  Tea leaves are allowed to wither in the sun to both dehydrate the leaves and allow oxidation to continue.  The point in the manufacturing process at which oxidation is stopped, via application of heat, largely dictates the classification of the finished product.

White Tea

White tea is made primarily from the bud of the tea plant (downy buds) but may include the first two leaves on the branch.  The name comes from the white hairs that are present on the outside of the buds.  Typically this type of tea is allowed to whither outside in the sun to dry before being heated to stop oxidation.  White tea is not rolled or panned and is lightly handled.  Often, white tea is made from the first buds of the growing season, called the first flush.

Green Tea

Green tea is a type of tea where oxidation is stopped very early in the manufacturing process.  The oxidation is stopped either through steaming, as is common practice in Japan, or through heating over a fire or in a stove.  By stopping the oxidation early, the leaves remain green.  Typically this is less than 10% oxidation.

Yellow Tea

Yellow teas are a lightly oxidized version of tea where, after withering, the leaves are lightly steamed allowing for enzymatic oxidation, the chemical process where flavonoids breakdown resulting in the browning of the leaves and the development of the flavor.  This is a rather labor intensive process that requires special training, which limits the production capacity for this type of tea.  Also, this tea comes in and out of favor with the Chinese public, the primary country producing yellow tea, so getting this in the US is often challenging if Chinese consumers are not demanding it.

Picture of dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Oolong Tea

Providing some of the greatest variety in style, taste, and appearance, oolong teas are partially oxidized, anywhere from 10-80%, before being heated to stop oxidation.  Oolong, also known as wulong or black dragon teas, feature twisted tea leaves that are said to resemble the shape of a dragon.  They have their origin in the Fujian province of China though are now produced in other countries, notably Taiwan.  These teas are hand twisted or rolled after oxidation and were traditionally the Emperor’s tea.  These teas are the Bordeaux of the tea world, amazingly complex in taste, highly prized, and can be quite expensive when compared to other teas.  However, for the true tea enthusiasts there is nothing like them.

Black Tea

Known as red tea by the Chinese for the color of the brewed liquor, black tea is the most common type of tea consumed in the United States as it is typically the base for iced tea.  Black tea is a more fully oxidized version of the tea leaves, ranging anywhere from 50-100% oxidized.  Some of the teas best known in the west are black tea based blends including English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

Pu-erh (Dark Teas)

The only type of teas that are actually fermented are pu-erh.  This is green tea that has fermented after completing the manufacturing process.  This is truly a unique tea that reflects the history of where it was founded.  Pu-erh was historically made in the Yunnan province of China and traded with Tibet and Mongolia for horses.  To make the trip, the tea was compressed into narrow circular disks which traveled as long as six months before being traded.  Due to the organisms that grew in the trees in the Yunnan province the tea would naturally ferment.  Aged pu-erh is rare, highly sought after, and often comes at a high price.  To satisfy demand and sell a more profitable product two Chinese tea manufacturers got together in the 1960’s and created an accelerated fermenting process, which is not looked upon favorably by traditionalists, but allows for wider circulation of this tea.

Exploration Beyond the Six Main Types of Tea

Each of these large types of tea have many more subcategories that are worthy of their own investigation and offer more options than I can list.  Learning about all of them makes exploring tea a fun life long journey.

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