Tea Drinking of Ethnic Minorities in China

Grandpa Style tea drinking

A large part of launching our new website includes a brief (considering how intricate tea history is) scope through the history of Chinese tea.  I’ve been lucky to be presented with the opportunity to sit down with our tea master and owner, Zhuping and receive a one on one history lesson of Chinese tea culture. Zhuping will sit beside me translating passages of a Chinese tea history book. We sit in the warehouse drinking cup after cup of tea as she tells me detailed stories of the birth and evolution of tea culture in China.

What has interested me the most is learning about Tea Drinking of Ethnic Minorities in China. While tea is a staple in the daily life of an American as a less-caffeinated and healthier alternative to coffee, in places like Mongolia, Tibet and other isolated parts of China, tea is a much different experience. Ethnic minorities in China are working class, living far away from modern life, which allows them to sustain their old fashioned methods of practicing tea. Most families boil their tea leaves which is a more economic way to drink, allowing them to have enough for their whole family. Besides just drinking their tea, they blend it with their food and eat it. To them, tea is not just a tasty beverage to get them going in the morning, but is a vital part of their survival.

Tibetans have a saying, they can go three days without food but three days without tea and they will fall ill. Tea is the most important daily support for their lifestyles.  They will drink 10-30 bowls of the tea per day which is about 5-7 liters! They live at a high elevation where it is cold, there’s less oxygen and very little fresh food. They have many ways to drink their tea (milk tea, salt tea, pure tea) but the most popular is butter tea. They boil sheep or yak milk and scoop the top layer of fat off to make butter. They cook about 50 grams of compressed Chinese “dark tea” bricks in a metal pot for 20-30 minutes before pouring the tea in to a long wooden container, adding in the butter. Ground walnuts, peanuts, sesame, pine nuts and sometimes a small amount of salt or egg are added too. A big pot of butter tea is always kept warm on the fire so you can drink it all day long. If you visit a Tibetan family, you must always drink your cup of tea to the bottom, to show respect to your hosts and the hospitality they’ve offered.

Mongolians drink milk tea three times a day. Traditionally, every woman is taught how to make this tea. Mothers of traditional families will cook a pot of salt flavored milk tea each morning. They use a metal pot and boil 3 kilos of water, breaking tea off from a compressed tea brick which is the same type of tea material as green puer but it is not processed the same way. They use 50-80 grams of tea and after cooking it for five minutes, they will start to add milk. This milk could be from a horse, sheep or whatever animal the family raises. Next they will add a 1/5 ratio of water and add salt until boiling, then the tea is ready. It must be made in this order to make good tea. They eat lots of meat at dinner so they must drink a lot of this tea for digestion and nutrition needs. With no fresh vegetables in their diets, this is their main source of nutrition.

You Le minorities live in the You Le mountains, which is famous for producing tribute green puer tea in the Qing Dynasty.  This group only has a spoken language but no written language. They eat tea as a salad as well as drinking it. To make this salad, freshly picked tea leaves are mixed with hot spices, garlic, and salt. When people in You Le  drink their tea, they will use a metal pot with boiling water and simmer it around three minutes. They will pour the tea in to a hollowed bamboo container and it carry to the forest to drink as they work. For those of your curious about the tea in You Le, we have one You Le puer cake as well as loose leaf You Le mao cha.

My favorite custom is was about the Bu Lang tribe, where deep in the forest of  south Yunnan Province life has not changed much for hundreds of years.  They have grown tea from seeds for generations, using tea from 1,800 years ago. They believe they have survived from tea. Tea trees that are hundreds of years old surround them and each spring everyone in the village harvests  enough tea for themselves and enough to sell for their life’s supply during winter when they cannot produce any crops. They cook their tea in bamboo trunks while they are working deep in the forest. This is done by placing a sharp end of a bamboo stalk in the ground and building a fire around it and boil their tea for three minutes. They use the other side of the bamboo stalk as a cup. This allows them to not have to travel home during the day. They also cook their rice this way so the fresh bamboo aroma seeps in to their tea and food. They also still make a pickled tea which they mix with their rice. We are very proud to carry the Bu Lang Wang Zi (Prince Tribute) Green Puer Cake.

Tea is a deeply sewn seed of survival in these ethnic minorities in China considering these tribes haven’t changed much in the hundreds of years they’ve been living and surviving, you can be sure they won’t be kicking their tea habits anytime soon.