I’ve tried a broad range of tea types in the past but never cha gao – traditional instant tea. It looks like hashish, condensed down to a hard brown substance. This brings to mind things I’ve not tried yet, which main tea types (not that this is one of them). Things such as Chinese yellow tea, although I have tried versions from Korea, America, and Russia. I’ve also not tried tea from South America, Turkey, or Hawaii, even though I lived in Hawaii for two years back when I was into tisanes. Cha gao should be interesting for being a new range.

A chunk of cha gao with a piece broken off

A Thai tea contact who visited from Chiang Mai passed on this sample (many thanks to him).  He even said what it is: a version from Bitterleaf, probably the “bronze” or lower quality type from the three different quality levels they had been carrying a while back. Cody, of the Oolong Drunk Blog, wrote a post describing his experience with the same tea. Many kinds of teas cycle through “tea circles” as interesting and cha gao does seem to recur as a theme.

Cha Gao Review

It is interesting, but not great. I think I prepared it right, just mixing it with hot water to an appropriate infusion strength. There’s not much aromatics going on, so in a sense it seems weak; but I think it would ruin it to add more of the condensed material, since the taste intensity across my tongue is at a significant level.

It tastes most like a hei cha, like some sort of brick material – no surprise there. It is interesting how the aftertaste carries over with warm mineral and other earthy range. While you drink it that’s what comes across, too. One part is catchy, like a warm malt effect, which also includes cocoa and a somewhat metallic or rocky effect isn’t bad, just unusual.

I had stirred it for a long time and it seemed combined, but it’s getting stronger, and drinking it down there’s still a small chunk left at the bottom. I added more water and mixed it again.  

This might actually work with milk and sugar added; part of the flavor range really isn’t that far from conventional black tea – tea-bag variation character. No need to check on that though, adjusting this with inputs.

And there isn’t much more to add; it’s kind of basic, not exceptional but interesting, and it doesn’t seem to warrant a dozen-term flavor list.

Others’ Reviews

I will reference one of my favorite blogs that includes some background on the type (which I won’t cite here), and Geoffrey Norman’s description of one version:

Yep, boiling water poured over both pastes. Then I waited three minutes. That’s about it. Oddly enough, neither the paste pellet nor cube completely dissolved.

The shou Cha Gao brewed as dark as was expected – brown with a ring of black. The aroma it gave off was straight earth and molasses, like someone at fat camp dropped a chocolate bar during a hike. 

Brewed cha gao in a cup

I hadn’t really thought to try to “brew” this, and this description raises another question: What kind of tea / pu’er was this?  Bitterleaf describes it as 2015 Yiwu sheng pu’er:

While this cha gao is made entirely of raw puer material and water, the resulting flavour is one that can be surprising. It contains many of the qualities one could expect from a traditional raw puer – fragrance, sweetness, huigan, bitterness, etc, but there is also some earthiness and even light smokiness, though in a unique way…

I don’t know about all that; maybe more so in the silver and gold versions.  This Path of Cha blog reference post described the shu version:

A good cha gao is characterized by a sweet woody taste, with notes of cocoa, as well as a unique fragrance. The taste, however, is quite different from a typical shou pu-erh.

This Yunnan Sourcing description adds more about history and character:

‘Cha Gao’ literally means ‘tea paste’, and this technique evolved from a process developed in the Tang 唐 and Song 宋 dynasties, while the process of making Pu-erh Cha Gao in particular was enhanced and perfected during the Qing 清 dynasty… One of the benefits of ‘cha gao’ is that it concentrates the chemicals found in Pu-erh tea to a very condensed and potent form. It was for this reason that it was widely considered a form of medicine during the Qing dynasty, with the ‘ability to cure 100 ailments’, especially concerning the gastrointestinal tract.

I think I actually feel worse after drinking that; I should get some food in me. I’m still recovering from a COVID vaccine booster so maybe this tea can rush that process along, even though its area of focus is described here as covering a different internal system.

In Conclusion

The cha gao was interesting and novel—as I had hoped—and not quite as positive as an above-average brewed tea experience, as expected.  

It kept hitting harder long after I drank it, just one medium-sized cup, based on using a little chip. That friend and Bitterleaf both warned that caffeine content is significant, and that was my experience too – that it ended up being a lot stronger in stimulant effect than brewed tea. It felt a little like drinking coffee, which doesn’t come up for me very often.

Images provided and copyright held by author