Tibetan Tea

(Originally published July 8, 2016)

We first tried Tibetan Yak Butter Tea while traveling to the town of Zhongdian 中甸, in Yunnan Province 云南, China. We immediately fell in love with both the tea and the town.  At over 3000 meters above sea level, Zhongdian, known as Gyalthang or Gyaitang རྒྱལ་ཐང in Tibetan is a small traditional Tibetan town with homes made of wood, and where the random yak may wander down the cobble-stone streets that lead out to magnificent mountain vistas. No wonder the town was renamed Shangri-La 香格里拉 སེམས་ཀྱི་ཉི་ཟླ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།. With its clean dry air, bright blue skies, soft green meadows and snow-capped mountains, it certainly seemed like paradise to us.

Miniature hose on a hillside around Shangri-La, Yunnan China

Around Shangri-La, Yunnan

On the border with Tibet, Zhongdian and the surrounding area of Yunnan are Tibetan in culture as much as they are in environment. Locals are more likely to drink yak butter tea than the more popular green and oolong teas found in the rest of southern China. Unlike other tea found in China, which is often taken without adding any other ingredients,Tibetan Yak butter tea is made by adding yak butter, milk and salt to the tea (detailed instructions for making yak butter tea are at the end of the article).

Yak Butter Tea in Wooden Teacup

Tibetan Tea

Tibetans have a saying: Tea is blood, Tea is meat,Tea is life. Tea has been the main drink for Tibetans for over 1300 years. Traditionally, Tibetan tea is compressed into tea bricks and wrapped with leather or bamboo.

Tibetan tea is known as a kind of "dark tea" in English or heicha 黑茶 meaning "black tea" in Chinese, which is different from what English-speakers know as Black tea, but which Chinese call red tea or hongcha 红茶. Tibetan tea is a dark tea, but unlike Indian black tea or Lapsang Souchong (varieties of hongcha), it is not just oxidized, it is also fermented (like Pu’er tea, another kind of heicha), which means that micro-organisms ferment the tea, changing the flavour over time. This means that Tibetan tea can be stored a long time without expiring, as long as it is kept in a clean and dry place, and that it will in fact improve with age, just like a nice bottle of red wine.

​Although consumed throughout the Himalayas and in every Tibetan community, the tea is in fact grown outside of Tibet, in a Tibetan region of the neighbouring province of Sichuan, around the town Ya’an. The area has the perfect conditions, including high altitude at 1500 meters above sea level, where tea trees can produce the most flavourful leaves. The process of making the tea includes 32 steps, and takes 6 months to complete.

A Brief History of Tibetan Tea

Tibetan tea has a history of over 1300 years. It began during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), when the Wencheng princess was married to the King of Tibet to cement the friendship between the Tang Dynasty of China and the Kingdom of Tibet. She brought the Tibetan people three treasures of the Tang Empire: silk, pen and ink, and tea. This marriage represented not only a marriage between kingdoms but also between cultures. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, tea was traded to Tibetans for horses. Ya’an, located beside Tibet and which had a thriving tea industry, became a major trade hub beginning from that period. According to historical documents, at the time, 20kg of tea could be traded for the best class horse; 15kg of tea for a medium class horse and 10kg of tea for a low class horse. Tibetan tea was the bridge connecting these two cultures and also acted as the currency of choice.

How to Drink Tibetan Tea

1) Kung Fu Tea Style
Put 3-5g of tea in the pot (strongly recommend using an Yixing teapot), and fill the pot with boiling hot water and then pour out after a few seconds. Pour out the first steep, then steep tea with boiling hot water again for 30 seconds and enjoy the tea from the second steep.
Generally, the tea can be steeped for over 7 or 8 times before losing its flavour.

2) Cooking the Tea
This is the most common way of drinking Tibetan tea and is the traditional method for preparation. Add 10g of tea per 800ml of water in a pot or kettle and bring the water with tea to a low boil for 1-2 minutes. Once it comes to a boil, simmer it for another 15-20 minutes. The steeped tea should be good for 24 hours.

3) Tibetan Butter Tea:
Great for a winter evening in front of a fireplace surrounded by family and friends, enjoying drink and conversation. 
– 5g of Tibetan tea, 400ml of water.
– 2 tsp of salt (Himalayan salt if possible).
– 2/3 cup of light cream
– 2 tbs Yak butter if possible, or common butter

1) Bring the tea to a low boil in a kettle or a pot for 1-2 minutes and then simmer it for 15-20 minutes.
2) Add the salt and the cream to the tea and stir it while continuing to simmer it.
3 Add 2 tbs of butter to a French press (coffee press), add the tea on top and then press the plunger of the press down. Pour the butter tea into mugs.