Ya’an bricked tea is produced in the mountains just below the Tibetan plateau, in western Sichuan Province. This picturesque region used to be part of the former nation of Tibet, and many of the local people still identify themselves as such. Tibet’s differences are quite clear to see today, however. In the 1950s Tibet became part of China, and its borders have receded considerably since the height of its independence and power. Ya’an is officially part of Sichuan, though the region seems to rest between two worlds.
Ya’an tea has an earthy flavor with hints of smokiness and a touch of bee pollen. It reminds one of the very finest of British afternoon teas, and indeed, it is one of the teas that originally created the craze in British imports of tea from China. They use larger leaves, which are broken up, and the stems of the leaves in Ya’an tea to give it more flavor and medicinal value. Tibetans believe the whole plant is life-giving, and that if one desires to reap the benefits of worldly gifts from God, nothing is to be wasted in the production process. The leaves are broken to allow for more release of the flavor and medicinal elements, what we now know to be antioxidants. The Tibetans typically infuse the tea in an ancient style, crushing it and churning it into a Yak-butter tea that is loaded with carbohydrates to help them survive on the harsh Tibetan plateau.
This bricked version most closely resembles the original style of processing and packaging of Ya’an tea that is to be shipped to Tibet. Indeed, all the teas from this farm are intended for the Tibetan market. These smaller bricks are more convenient than a giant 4 or 8-pound brick, and it’s easy to break off small pieces using just your fingers. Only the finest high-mountain version leaves are used.
The origin of Ya’an tea is not entirely clear, and many legends and myths surround it. As one of the more popular tales go, the ancient king of Tibet was suffering from many ailments that were making his life miserable and nearly unbearable. The medicine of the time could not alleviate his pain and discomfort, nor could the doctors even diagnose his disease. One fateful day, as he was meditating in his garden, a strange bird flew down and dropped some unfamiliar leaves down to him. Believing them to be a gift from God, he excitedly began chewing them. He felt instant relief, and when the bird took flight he ordered his best riders to follow the bird to wherever it may go. They followed the bird for more than 1,000 miles, through the rugged, harsh, and dangerous mountains of Tibet, all the way to the foothills outside of Chengdu city. These were the same mountains where tea was first discovered, and they are the same mountains where the giant panda was first discovered.
The Tibetan’s discovery of tea was the beginning of a close and important trading relationship that would continue for almost 2,000 years, still going strong today. The people of Sichuan wanted the strong horses that Tibetans produced, and the Tibetans wanted the herbal medicine that Sichuan produced. The trail leading from Sichuan Province to Tibet became known as the Tea and Horse Road.
This rough trade route is how aged/fermented tea is supposed to have been first discovered. Horse traders and other merchants would travel down from Tibet to Sichuan, a several-month journey depending on the weather. The tea was packed as tightly as they could manage and piled high on the backs of both men and horses. The traders would then return to Tibet to sell their precious herbal medicine – tea. The road was long and arduous. The merchants would spend months trekking up and down mountains, in the sun, rain, and snow. By the time they had arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, their cargo had inevitably lost its freshness. But the Tibetans loved the aged and partially fermented tea that arrived on their end. The people of Sichuan only had experience with fresh, green teas or aged black teas. They had never encountered a post-fermented and weather-worn tea before the traders brought some back for them to try. It seems that tea had even more range than even the tea experts had encountered! After much investment in trial and error, the people of Ya’an perfected an artificial style of weather aging and fermentation that is today considered a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Following Chinese tradition, the methods used are all but a state secret, and the producers have agreed to protect this precious art form.