Was brick tea thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Rebellion?

The answer is NO.

I sometimes see this myth mentioned in historical accounts of the Boston Tea Party. I have seen stacks of tea bricks for sale in the gift shops at historic sites with a narrative sign that says “the East India Company brought these bricks of tea from China and shipped them to the Colonies, including 45 tons on board the three ships moored in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773.”

Sign found in a Boston gift shop. False advertising for sure!

According to Lu Yu in his Cha-Ching, Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea, and my research at the China National Tea Museum in Hangzhou, the evolution of Chinese tea may be remembered in three main stages 1) Cake or Boiled tea, 2) Whipped tea, and 3) Steeped tea.

three stages of tea

The Cake or Brick Tea stage, in which the compressed tea was broken and boiled, can be traced to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907).

The Powdered tea stage followed as tools – such as the roller below – were created to grind the tea into a fine powder before it was whipped into a frothy beverage.

The Leaf stage, beginning with the Ming Dynasty, gave us the steeped tea beverage that is most popular today.

Tea Roller for making powdered tea. China National Tea Museum, Hangzhou.

In ancient China, the tea brick, compressed tea made of ground or whole tea leaves pressed into a block using a mold, was the most popular form of tea produced and consumed.  It served too as a common currency for trade, or tributes, outside China.

By the 18th century, the most common tea for export to Europe was tea in leaf form.  Brick tea was still available and widely used for trade, but mostly with countries bordering China’s northern and western frontiers.

In simple terms, brick tea headed northwest on horseback via the Tea Road beginning in the 6th century.  Loose green and black teas left the ports of Canton and Amoy bound for London and Amsterdam starting in the mid 17th century.

Samuel Ball, a former inspector for the East India Company, wrote an extensive account of Chinese tea trade in 1848 which included stories of brick tea –

I was informed that a superior kind of brick tea is made in the Bohea or Black Tea country, but for the most part, it is of inferior quality from Szu-chuen, one of the border provinces adjoining Tibet.

Chinese Bohea was the cheapest and most common black tea found in British and Colonial teapots. Staffordshire stoneware teapot from the Winterthur Museum Collection.

He went on to say,

It may now be observed that the brick tea is extensively used throughout every part of Central  Asia, from the Gulf of Korea and the great wall of China on the east, to the Caspian Sea on the west; and from the Altai chain in the north, to the Himalaya mountains on the south. It is also largely used in Siberia, and somewhat in the Caucasus; in short, wherever the Calmuc and Mongolian races have extended themselves. It is meat and drink to them. It is mixed with milk, salt, and butter so that it forms more substantial diet than the fragrant fluid which smokes [steams] on our tables.

tea for the wrestlers

Ball recounted the story of a Russian embassy official, recorded in 1828, who spoke of frequent caravans of brick tea going from Peking to upper Mongolia. On one of the excursions, they met with a party of Bucharians with 140 camels laden with brick tea. He recalled a celebration where Chinese merchants made an offering of 350 pieces of satin and 400 chests of brick tea to the Holy Lamas.

After two days of games, a richly decorated tent was erected and brick tea in silver cups was brought in. A cup was first presented to the holy men and then to all persons of distinction. As for those who had no cups, some of the tea was poured into their hands. Prizes were then distributed to the winners of the games, including 1000 bricks of tea to a triumphant wrestler.

Tibetan tea bowls.

Another account in the Edinburgh Review (1818) spoke about tea habits in Tibet:

All classes of Tibetans eat three meals a day; the first consists of tea; the second of tea, or of meal porridge if tea cannot be afforded; the third of meat, rice, vegetables, and bread; or soup for the lower classes. At breakfast, each person drinks about five or ten cups of tea.

About an ounce of brick tea and soda are boiled in a quart of water for an hour. It is then strained and mixed with ten quarts of boiling water and some salt. The whole is then put into a narrow churn, along with yak butter, and stirred until it becomes a smooth, oily and brown liquid resembling chocolate. It is then transferred to a teapot for immediate use.   

This recipe is similar to Tsampa – with the addition of barley – drunk in Tibet today.

Did the East India Company import tea bricks?

Not on any grand scale. In the latter half of the 18th-century, there were a few tea bricks in British hands, mainly as curiosities in collections such as the Museum of Asiatic Society. I saw a 19th-century tea brick bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria at an exhibition in Shenzhen in 2017.

But brick tea was undoubtedly not broken and placed in the elegant wooden tea caddies of polite London homes or Boston parlors.

Accounts of the Boston tea rebellion included stories of tea leaves piled like haystacks alongside the ships in Griffin’s Wharf while men used rakes to plow the leaves into the low tide of Boston Harbor.

Bricks of cheap tea would have been out of place on the fine tea tables of colonial Boston.

In my edition of A Social History of Tea, I included a copy of the official East India Company invoice listing all the teas lost or returned during the 1773-4 tea rebellions, which took place in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston. There is no listing of brick tea on that document.

I am keeping an open mind, so if you have proof that brick tea was tossed into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773, I would be happy to see it!

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

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