Part 1: History
From the ancient Tea-Horse Road comes a tea prized for centuries. As early as 1066 B.C. the natives of China’s Yunnan province, cultivated tea and served it as a tribute to the Chinese emperors. Yunnan, situated in southwest China, is the home of the famous tea mountains where the prized Tuocha tea is grown.
The Tea-Horse Road served as the lifeline between the remote villages of China and the nation of Tibet. The road stretched almost 2,500 miles through China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and the Tibetan Autonomous Regions. The trade was lively and beneficial for both regions. Tibet had an abundance of horses, cows, and furs that were in high demand within China. In return, the Chinese sent their tea, salt, and sugar along the road back to Tibet. The Tea-Horse Road served the two cultures until the 1960s, when modern highways finally replaced the ancient trail.
The Tibetan people prized the Tuocha tea for its rich flavor and health benefits. All classes of Tibetans, from the nobles to the common man, became avid tea drinkers. The Tuocha tea was known for its ability to aid digestion. It was especially valued for the way it helped eliminate the effects of grease form a diet rich in animal meats.
But, there was a problem.
The tea, in its natural state, was bulky and difficult to transport. The loose leaves quickly filled many bags and made travel over the rugged Tea-Horse Road slow and treacherous. So, an ingenious method was devised to prepare the tea for travel. Tuocha tea was the result.
Tuocha tea was made by lightly steaming the loose tealeaves and then compressing them. The result was a small, bowl-shaped serving of the tea. Each small bowl was individually wrapped in paper to further protect it for the trip. The compressed tea took up much less space, making transportation through the mountains and forests of the Tea-Horse Road possible. At the end of the journey, the individual Tuocha servings of tea were ready for use. Simply steeping the Tuocha loosened the compressed leaves and released the full flavor of the tea.
Tuocha was a tremendous success, both easing the transportation process and protecting the integrity of the tea’s unique flavor. As a result, the trading of tea for horses continued smoothly along the Tea-Horse Road for many centuries.
Part 2: Production
High in the mountains of Yunnan Province the winds blow cool and the rains fall often. Laborers have toiled here for centuries to produce a rare and rich tea: Tuocha, a tea of large leaf that thrives in the rich mountain soils of southwest China. For over three thousand years the fertile land has produced this sought after tea. Even today, many trees producing Tuocha are several hundred years old.
Most of the tea growing takes place at elevations between 700 and 1,700 meters. The mountains provide the perfect setting for growing the perfect tea. A monsoon season, lasting from about May to October, provides an abundance of moisture in a concentrated period. This season is also the hottest period of the year, and the rain offers great protection to the valuable trees. Roughly 85 percent of the year’s entire rainfall occurs during this period, ranging from 30 to 60 inches. The rain allows the roots to dig deep and the tiny shoots to develop strong, healthy fibers.
But, plants need the sun as well.
Following the monsoon season, from November through April, the gentle sun becomes the life-giving force. The leaves of the tree now have time to put their stored moisture to good use, and develop into healthy, flavorful leaves. The leaves of different trees mature at varying cycles, allowing a harvesting season that lasts from March to November.
The process of producing Tuocha is much the same as it has been for centuries. The tender leaves are picked and then they are partially fired using a large wok. This step, also known as “kill green”, this stops the activities of enzymes and determines whether the end result is a green or a black tea.
The skillful hands of the growers next knead the tealeaves to breakdown their cellular structure. This releases the tea’s powerful flavor and spreads it throughout the leaves. Young leaves require little kneading to release their flavor. Older leaves are kneaded longer to ensure a full release of the hidden flavors.
Once the Tuocha tealeaves have been partially fired and kneaded they are returned to the care of the gentle mountain sunshine. The process of sun-drying the tea leaves locks in the precious flavor in the leaf. Once this step is completed the fundamental flavor of the Tuocha is secure, and the growers can move to the next step in the process.
The large-leaf species of the tea plants offer the richest juices for producing Tuocha. The large-leaf green tealeaves, once gently sun-dried, are perfectly suited for the fermentation process that produces Tuocha tea. It’s this special fermentation process, which occurs because the sun-dried tea retains its active microorganisms, that sets Tuocha apart from Black and Green teas. Though Tuocha tea is an age-old acquaintance and honored tradition in Chinese culture, it is a delightfully new addition to Western Society. Now the Tuocha tea is steamed and compressed into small bowl-shaped forms.
The final step in the process requires patience. The bowl-shaped tealeaves are allowed to age, typically stored in special rooms or caves for several years. This lively process enhances the locked-in flavor of the Tuocha, resulting in a splendid tea. Tuocha is unique. Possibly in honor of its age-old traditions, Tuocha becomes better with age. Some prized Tuocha teas are more than 50 years old.
After several months of aging each Tuocha bowl is individually wrapped in paper. The compact Tuocha bowls make it easy for you to carry the precious tea, just as in the days of the Tea-Horse Road. So, whether at home or at the end of a long journey, true tea enjoyment is close at hand. Unwrap a single Tuocha bowl and steep it for a few minutes in fresh, heated water. Then, in a tradition dating back thousands of years, sit back and enjoy this dark, rich gift from the lush tea mountains of Yunnan.