Was Brick Tea Tossed into Boston Harbor?

teabrickStill today, I sometimes see this idea mentioned in historical accounts of the Boston Tea Rebellion.

The answer is no.

According to Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea, the evolution of Chinese tea may be roughly divided into three main stages;  Boiled tea, Whipped tea, and Steeped tea.

The Cake tea stage in which it was boiled, Powdered tea when it was whipped, and the Leaf stage (contemporary) in which leaves are steeped.

In ancient China, the tea brick, compressed tea made of  ground or whole tea leaves pressed into a block using a mold, was the most popular form of tea produced and consumed.  It was also used as a common currency for trade, or tributes, outside China.

Hankow Tea Trade

Coolies loading tea chests at Hankow

But, by the eighteenth century, the most common tea for export to Europe was tea in leaf form.  Brick tea was still available and widely used for trade, mostly with countries bordering China’s northern and western frontiers.

Samuel Ball, a former inspector for the East India Company, wrote an extensive account of Chinese tea trade in 1848 which included stories of brick tea:

I was informed that a superior kind of brick tea is made in the Bohea or Black Tea country, but for the most part it is of inferior quality from Szu-chuen, one of the border provinces adjoining Tibet.

He went on to say,

It may now be observed that the brick tea is extensively used throughout every part of Central  Asia, from the Gulf of Korea and the great wall of China on the east, to the Caspian Sea on the west; and from the Altai chain in the north, to the Himalaya mountains on the south. It is also largely used in Siberia, and somewhat in the Caucasus; in short, wherever the Calmuc and Mongolian races have extended themselves. It is meat and drink to them. It is mixed with milk, salt, and butter so that it forms more substantial diet than the fragrant fluid which smokes [steams] on our tables.

Ball recounted the story of a Russian embassy official, recorded in 1828, who spoke of frequent caravans of brick tea going from Peking to upper Mongolia. On one of the excursions, they met with a party of Bucharians with 140 camels laden with brick tea. He recalled a celebration where Chinese merchants made an offering of 350 pieces of satin and 400 chests of brick tea to the Holy Lamas.

After two days of games, a richly decorated tent was erected and brick tea in silver cups was brought in. A cup was first presented to the holy men and then to all persons of distinction. As for those who had no cups, some of the tea was poured into their hands. Prizes were then distributed to the winners of the games, including 1000 bricks of tea to a triumphant wrestler.

tibet-tea-cups

Tibetan Tea Bowls

Another account in the Edinburgh Review (1818) spoke about tea habits in Tibet –

All classes of Tibetans eat three meals a day; the first consists of tea; the second of tea, or of meal porridge if tea cannot be afforded; the third of meat, rice, vegetables and bread; or soup for the lower classes. At breakfast each person drinks about five or ten cups of tea. 

About an ounce of brick tea and soda are boiled in a quart of water for an hour. It is then strained and mixed with ten quarts of boiling water and some salt. The whole is then put into a narrow churn, along with yak butter, and stirred until it becomes a smooth, oily and brown liquid resembling chocolate. It is then transferred to a teapot for immediate use.    

This recipe is similar to Tsampa – with the addition of barley – drunk in Tibet today.

tea caddy

English Tea Caddies, Regency Period

Did the East India Company import tea bricks? Not on any grand scale. At the latter half of the eighteenth century, there were a few tea bricks in British hands, mainly as curiosities in collections such as the Museum of Asiatic Society. But brick tea was certainly not chopped and placed in the fine wooden tea caddies of polite London homes.

And in Boston, accounts of the tea rebellion include stories of tea leaves piled like haystacks alongside the ships in Griffin’s Wharf while men used rakes to plow the leaves into the low tide of Boston Harbor.

I suspect rakes would have had a hard time moving bricks of tea into the water!