One thing about having a tea shop is you will attract endless option of tea! Yesterday was one of those days.
A lady came in with a chunk of brick, seeking for identity of this little black rock solid like tea, which her nephew obtained from an Indian man at a Dakota Indian summer fair about 2 years ago. The little paper bag says "China Black Tea Brick". She did not know what to do with it, how to break it off, how to brew.
At my bar counter was a couple that frequent my shop, we were having a Ban Zhang Pu run. Like a good host that I am, I share any strange teas to any one. :P
The 4 of us were anxious to try this mysterious tea. I treat any tea the same at the beginning, with slight variation by type. So as the label says black tea, I took a small chunk out with quite a bit of elbow grease. This brick is rock solid, nothing like a hard compressed Pu-erh. It's at least 10 times more compressed, even more so than iron cakes. It was all dust fanning pieces within the cake. They were so compact that I left the small nuggets as is, placed in a Cha Hai, pour hot boiling water over it. The first steep took about a good 2 to 3 minutes. The color came out beautiful, crystal clear with a sheen of oily shine on the surface. The taste was awww! Very smooth, nourishing, sweet red dates flavor. The sensation while the tea slipping down the throat was like a spa treatment. The second infusion took even longer, about 5 minutes, the red dates flavor was even more pronounced, the sweetness was so obvious that it seems like sugar was added which was not the case at all. We had 4 to 5 infusions of it. Each one of them were delicious. I couldn't get many steeping out of it, but the taste is really special!
First infusion, large nuggets are still stuck together.
6 or 7th infusion.
At first, it seems to be about 7 yrs old, but by the 3rd round, I know this tea is gotta be very old, 30 upwards. Then I looked closely to the design, it tells me this must be an export tea. My first guess is Russia or Europe. Not likely to be Arab or Tibet. Comparing the design of the brick, the type of tea leaves to modern day Black (true China Black, not Red) tea such as Hu Nan Fu Zuan Hei Cha, this tea definitely stamped with a historic chronicle time stamp. Looking back at the export history of China Black tea bricks, Russia and China's relationship came to a haul in the 70's. However, China did not produce anything with this type of design mode in the 70's. I am hoping this is before the 50's. But I can't be sure. The flavor does give me a before 50's feel.
This brick reminds me a lot of historical facts of China tea culture, most of them I have only heard of, but didn't make sense when applied to modern loose leaves. It's now making sense to why certain technique or tools were used then, but no longer part of modern day tea drinking.
One of them is the grinding tool existed in Tang dynasty. Tea were made as bricks then, I guess some what similar to this one here, rock solid hard. Tea was grounded into powders (I guess not fine powder like Matcha), then roasted over fire and then boiled in water. Given that this brick is extremely compact, the grinder might work better than my ice pick (for pu), I skipped the roasting step this time, and steeped instead of boiled which I guess why it took minutes to steep the flavor out even though it's fanning and dust, large clumps took 4 steepings to open, with a spoon to force open.
I am inviting the LATA gang for a tasting. Jason's tongue I will have to borrow for the occasion! :P We should roast it a bit to see the difference as well.
A tea fanatic and good friend of mine came for tea with 2 other lady friends later of the day, I made this brick tea again, and much more. Including the Ban Zhang run earlier in the morning, I must had over 15 teas in one day. Well, drunk as before and up till 4. Ban Zhang pu kicked my behind each and every time.
After some digging on the internet, I found out this tea is manufactured by Zhao Li Qiao tea factory of Hu Bei province. The factory is located in the town named Zhao Li Qiao (bridge). Zhao and Li are last names. They produce 3 types of tea bricks: Hei (black), Qing (green/blue) and Mi (rice) bricks. The one I have is a Mi (rice) brick, containing black tea fanning, stems and such. Basically the left overs. Before the communist party took over China (1945), Zhao Li Qiao tea factory was a private company producing tea for tea merchants exporting such bricks to the northern, west and northwestern neighboring countries, such as Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, west ward all the way to Europe. These are also called Bian Xiao Cha (Out side the border tea). This type of brick has been a stable diet for the Tibetans and Mongolians, meat eating nomadic tribes, served as digestive aid, vitamin and mineral supplements. Between 1950s and 1970s, the company changed its name to Zhao Li Qiao China Tea Company. Then it's named Zhao Li Qiao Hu Bei Province Tea Company. Today, the company produces Mi (rice) brick with 2 design molds:
Front of a Train by ZLQ Hu Bei Province Tea Company, aim for internal sale, meaning within China.
The Memorial Arch by ZLQ China Tea Company, aim for external sale, to foreign countries.
The brick I have on hand belong to the second type by design. Although the company name exited only between 1950 and 1970s (supposedly), however it's still used today (I don't know since when it was reused). It's hard to say how old my brick is. The taste has a certain old pu (nicely aged decomposed) quality to it, if it was old,I might have a nice little chunk of history here.
There are only 2 known 100+ years old Mi Bricks exist today, except the undiscovered ones. Each are worth $1+ million RMB, weight over 1kg each, one of them is at Hu Bei Museum. both have the memorial arch design, company titles are different than ZLQ __ Tea Company. The arch design has a European flavor to it, and a traditional design for Bian Xiao Cha (out side of the border tea). Back in the days, they were packed for individual trade companies, most of them owned by the Jun Merchants. A group of extremely successful merchants trading in Mongolia, Russia and Tibet.