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Was Brick Tea Tossed into Boston Harbor?

Were bricks of Chinese tea tossed overboard during the Boston Tea Party?

The answer is NO.

I sometimes see this myth mentioned in historical accounts of the Boston Tea Party. Worst of all, I’ve seen stacks of tea bricks for sale in at least two gift shops at historic sites with descriptive signs that say the East India Company brought these bricks of tea from China and then shipped them on to The Colonies, including 45 tons of tea bricks on board the three ships docked in Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773.

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.

tea roller China National Tea Museum
This tea roller from the China National Tea Museum was used to crush brick tea pieces into powdered tea.

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.

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.”

tea bricks
Brick teas in historic venue gift shops sometimes contain misinformation.

Ball 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.

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.

Boston-made Tea Table at the Museum of Fine Arts
This elegant Boston Tea Table would never have held common brick tea. Courtesy of the MFA.

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!

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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