Tag Archives: Tea-Horse Road

Trade as the Mother of Invention

Saint Emilion Grand Cru

Wine from the Saint Emilion region of France.

We are passionate about culture, history, and how many products and values are shaped by the interaction between people around the world.  This includes tea, and how it has shaped and been shaped by history and culture over thousands of years.  We referenced how the notion of terrior relates not only to tea but to wine and other products as well.

On a recent trip to France we were struck by yet another facet of history.  The notion that global trade, and the requirements associated with shipping products around the world have led to many of the great products we have today.  During our tour of wineries with TéléPro Tour in the Saint-Émilion region outside of Bordeaux, our guide noted that while wine has long been traded with England and others.  Over time, innovation led from clay vessels to wooden barrels and at one point someone noticed that the wine shipped from France to England tasted significantly better after shipment.  The difference forever changed wine production as producers determined it was the wine aged in oak during transport that produced exceptional flavors and aromas.  As a side note, the standard 75 ml bottle we see today came from the fact that the 225 liter barrel makes exactly 300 bottles if the barrel is full.

Men working on the Tea Horse Road carrying large bundles of tea.

Tea Porters by Ernest H Wilson, CC BY 2.0

For tea, much like wine, it was the necessities of transportation which led to the development of Pu-erh.  As early as 1600 BCE the road between China and Tibet and other locations was long and arduous, travelling over treacherous, high terrain.  It was used to transport goods for trade including sugar, salt, tea, horses, and of course culture and ideas.  Tea became important to the people of Tibet and similarly horses became important to China for military use.  Thus tea and horses were commonly traded via this road giving us the Tea-Horse Road by which it is known today.  This nearly 1500 mile journey would have taken a very long time to traverse and efficient transport of goods was a must.  So tea leaves began to be packaged into cakes.  This packaging allowed tea to be compressed and stacked for easier transportation by both man and horse.  Like wine, it was discovered that the tea actually had new flavors and aromas after the trip then at the beginning.  It turns out that time in the heat and humidity during the long trip along the tea horse road substantially changed the tea resulting in something like the pu-erh enjoyed today.

Tea bag.

Modern Tea Bag

Like aged tea and wine barrels before it, tea bags were also developed by accident as a result of trade between people separated by distance.  A far more modern development the tea bag was created by Thomas Sullivan of New York.  Upon receiving tea, Mr. Sullivan began to package teas in small silk bags in order to send small samples on to his customers.  Not realizing they should take the tea out of the bags some customers simply immersed in water.  When they reported back to Mr. Sullivan that the silk was a bit to fine, he realized the opportunity, switched to gauze and the tea bag was born.

Yet again, we find ourselves fascinated with tea, how it has been impacted throughout history, and has contributed to global culture.  Are there other analogous inventions you might be aware of, tea or otherwise?