Tuocha Pu-er / Camel’s Breath Tea

There is an ancient form of fermented brick tea that consists of loose tea leaves, stalks, and dust pressed into the shape of a small bird’s nest, hockey puck, or melon. A thousand years before Westerners had ever heard the word cha, tea growers in southern China, starting with lightly oxidized green tea known as maocha, had begun to dry, roll, and then ferment the foliage and buds of a species of tea plant with particularly broad leaves (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) with the help of Aspergillus and Penicillium molds and various yeasts. After a half year of fermentation, the cured pu-erh tea was pressed into bricks of various shapes.

Indigenous mountain dwellers of China’s Yunnan and Fujian Provinces have been cultivating this broad-leaved variety in terraced tea gardens for upward of seventeen hundred years. But it was the tea growers near the ancient pu-erh trading post in Yunnan Province who began to press aged black tea into doughtnut-shaped bricks for storability and transportability. Pu-erh bricks soon became the primary form in which tea was consumed and distributed beyond the Yunnan and Fujian highlands, up until the Ming dynasty in the late fourteenth century.

The doughtnut-shaped bricks became known as tuocha, named for the Tuo River that marked the beginning of the ancient trade route. For easy transport by camel caravans, the bricks were strung together on ropes and loaded onto animals. The result was that the flavors of the bricks were further enriched by their postfermentation ride to other regions of China and beyond under the saddles of Bactrian camels. According to legend, the tuocha bricks developed a distinctive fragrance and flavor that became known by the quixotic name “camel’s breath.” It is now impossible to determine whether it was the sweat or the breath of the camels that imparted such an earthy taste to the aged tea when it was rehydrated in boiling water, but we do know that the bricks yielded a dark, intensely flavorful, full-bodied beverage. One aficionado has discreetly called the flavor “sturdy,” and another has boldly claimed it has the same “kick-ass” qualities as a syrupy espresso. Although tuocha bricks are still made today, they are nest or bowl shaped and lack the center hole, ending the possibility of stringing them together on a rope.

After the Ming dynasty, brewing losse-leaf tea became the fashion. That meant that pu-erh brick tea became less common, particularly in the tea trade beyond the Great Wall. But a recen resurgence of interest in pu-erh tea bricks by tea connoisseurs in Europe and the United States has raised their prices to astronomical levels.

I have recently seen pu-erh tea bricks proudly displayed in beautifully colored paper wrappings everywhere in China from Beijing and Quanzhou in the east to Ürümqi in the west. Although camel’s breath tea is too rare to appear in every tea shop, I did find it along one of the old Silk Roads, in a store on the steppe that edges the Tian Shan range in western China. I have also sampled it in a similar landscape halfway around the world, on the short-grass prairies below the Front Range of the Rockies near Boulder, Colorado. Whenever I encounter a brick of the tea, I hold it up to my nose, close my eyes, and smell the camel caravans passing by.

Ahmed, Selena, and Michael Freeman. “Pu-erh Tea and the Southwest Silk Road: An Ancient Quest for the Well- Being.” HerbalGram 90 (2011): 32-43.
Hohenegger, Beatrice. Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from the East to West. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pu-erh_tea
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press