For all the tea in China...

I started to write this blog post a few days ago now but never quite got the time to finish it…then I saw that Victoria Wood (as if reading my mind) had presented two programmes (Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea) all about tea, so naturally I waited to have a peek and learn a little more, before posting my musings!

Tea forms such a key part of day to day life in the UK and for many is a quintessentially British affair. Many of us start our day with a cuppa; it is warming, comforting, revitalising and is said to have numerous health benefits. But as you may well know, the British were introduced to tea by the Chinese. We believe the Chinese were drinking tea as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1500BC – 1046BC) and the earliest credible written reference dates to the 3rd century AD. It wasn’t until the 17th century that tea drinking became popular in Britain. So much so that Britain introduced tea into India in order to keep up demand and compete with the Chinese monopoly.

Now, I love a cup of tea, from Yorkshire tea to Chai tea to Ginger tea…I could go on. So I was intrigued to see tea leaves in a form I am rather unfamiliar with (admittedly the form I am most familiar with presents itself in a porous sealed bag!). So, when this tea brick (pictured) arrived in our shop I had to find out more.

Tea bricks consist of compressed whole or finely ground tea. You may be surprised to discover that they were not only used for transportation of the leaves but as currency. Societies have used many different objects as currency, from cowrie shells to stone tools and even livestock. It was in the 7th century BC that coins, in the form that we recognise them today, started to appear. Tea as currency, though? This was news to me…

Tea bricks were used as a means of payment from the 9th century AD in China, Mongolia, Siberia, Tibet, Turkmenistan and Russia. The Chinese Emperor had the monopoly on tea bricks used as payment. They were mainly produced in Sichuan, a Chinese province, but also in Russia. Tea bricks were the preferred form of currency for the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Siberia. The tea was not only used as money but eaten as food in times of hunger and brewed as medicine for treating coughs and colds. Until World War II, tea bricks were still used as a form of edible currency in Siberia.

The brick is decorated on one side with illustrations that outline its origin. On the other side the brick is pre-cut, like a chocolate bar, into squares, making them easier to cut into pieces to make smaller payments. Something to think about when you next stick on the kettle!

Victoria Wood didn’t really touch upon the tea brick itself, but she did open my eyes to the history of tea, the key role it played in the British Empire and just how complex the humble cuppa is. It was fascinating to discover that the process to make tea involves six stages, from the picking of the tea leaves, to the finished product. During the process no less than 24 pieces of equipment are used. The programmes are also well worth a watch if you want to find out just what opium has to do with our tea supplies. (The answer is: an incredible amount!).

So, people of Shrewsbury, next time you have a cup of tea have a think about just what goes into your cuppa. Think of the nomadic tribes that used tea bricks as currency, preferring them to coins. And with an abundance of lovely tea shops in our town you can be a little more indulgent and have someone else brew it for you!
Right, time for a tea break I think….


It’s a nomad life

Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea can be found on iplayer. It is well worth a watch! The tea brick is available at It’s a nomad life, an antiques shop on Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury.

It’s a nomad life, 14 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury
Twitter @itsanomadlife


Vicky Vicky

Vicky runs local antiques business It's a nomad life with her partner Sam Handbury-Madin. The shop, which moved from Wyle Cop to Green Lane in 2015, sells Tribal and Asian art and collectables from around the world. Vicky is a Shropshire lass, who moved back to Shrewsbury in 2008 after time spent in Italy, London and St. Andrews (where she studied archaeology and ancient history). She met her husband Sam on her return and they opened It's a nomad life in 2012, combining their love of travel and old things! Vicky also works as a Freelance Fundraising Consultant.

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