Updated: Mar 11, 2022
What is Dark Tea? The sixth type of tea, often called Pu’er, is tea that has undergone some form of fermentation (not to be confused with oxidation, a common process across tea types). Pu’er is the most famous example of Dark Tea, but only tea from Yunnan can properly be called Pu’er.
Dark Tea originated in the Tang Dynasty. In 641 CE, Tang princess Wen Cheng married the Tibetan king Songtsan Gambo. She brought tea from Sichuan with her on the long journey, and introduced it to the Tibetan court. To keep her supplied, trade deals were struck: Tibetan war horses were exchanged for tea, along one branch of what became known as the Tea-Horse Road.
The tea trade expanded across central Asia, to Mongolia and Siberia. The tea that was traded on the Tea-Horse Road was called hei cha - “black tea” (hong cha, what the English called black tea, had not yet been invented). At that time in Tang China, tea was consumed as a ‘paste’ - leaves were pressed into single serving sized cakes, heated to soften, then broken up and boiled. Fruit paste or plum juice were added to the thick mixture to counter the bitterness. They preferred to use the young buds and leaves of the tea plant, and the older leaves, stems, and twigs, were sorted out for use in hei cha - Dark Tea.
The Dark Tea was pressed into cakes or bricks and wrapped in paper and bamboo leaves for easier transport. The roads they traveled were long, and passed through a variety of climates. This naturally led to the tea bricks beginning to ferment. The people who bought them enjoyed the flavor of this fermented tea, and found it beneficial to their diets (as we know, fermented foods can help aid digestion and provide nutrition). They also found that the tea got better as it aged, as the fermentation and oxidation continued over years.
Mongolian influence over the later Yuan and Qing dynasties led to Dark Tea being consumed more commonly in China. But it wasn’t until residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan in the twentieth century went looking for the specific flavors of aged, fermented teas that Dark Tea became more widely available. In the 1970s, techniques were developed to introduce the fermentation over a matter of months, so connoisseurs would not have to wait 20 years for the experience.
In addition to Pu'er, there are many other Dark Tea's available. Fu Cha is distinctive for the jin hua - 'golden flowers' - that develop during fermentation, lacing the bricks with veins of gold. These golden flowers carry a heavily floral aroma with flavor notes of sweet dates. Try our Golden Flower Fu Cha, or for a real treat, the exquisit Heavenly Sips Fu Cha, to get a taste of the forest in bloom.