The use of tea as a commercial trade item probably began with the heavy demand for fine Chinese tea from the Russian nobility. It was considered very valuable and only the rich could afford it. At first, dried leaves were transported from China to Russia by caravans of camels over the silk route. In time it was discovered that a more convenient commodity could be fashioned by processing the tea and forming it into solid bricks about the size of a large book. Eventually tea bricks became an accepted medium of exchange that could pass the same as silver and other trade items both in domestic and foreign trade. At that time, 20 bricks would purchase a horse, and 12 would buy a sheep. The Tea is compressed into bricks of various sizes and stamped with a value that varies depending upon the quality of the tea. It usually increases as the bricks circulate farther from the tea producing country. The most common bricks were approximately 8″ x 10″ by 1″ thick and varied in color from brown to black. Their weights varied from 2 to 5 pounds each.
There are no records of exactly when the Chinese tea bricks began being shipped outside the country. Some believe that it may date back to very early times. The first written account of the use of brick tea as both a drink and a medium of exchange was described by Abbi Huc in the account of his travels in Tartary, Tibet and China during 1844-1846. Later reports confirm its continued use as money in remote parts of Central Asia until as recently as 1935.
The intricate design on the obverse provided the name of the tea brick manufacturing company and on the reverse the tea is moulded into 16 separate breakable blocks to enable the merchant to “make change”.