The tea cake is nothing new. Compressed tea bricks date back to before the Ming Dynasty, where they were traded along the ancient Tea Horse Road across Tibet, Sichuan, and Yunnan. In modern times tea cakes (called bǐngchá) are most commonly used for Pu'erh teas hailing from Yunnan, though other kinds of tea cakes and tea bricks are produced throughout mainland China.
For more on the history and culture around tea farming and tea cakes in Yunnan, we strongly recommend reading Lisa See's seminal historic fiction novel “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.”
For our purposes today, we want to cast our design eye towards how the tea cake form is being reinterpreted here in 2019. Sprudge has a long tradition of covering innovative packaging and branding, and we've been really blown away across the last few months of research by all the cool design work happening across the world of tea. This, too, is of course nothing new—tea cakes have long been a platform for beautiful art and calligraphy. But in 2019 the artistic milieu, as interpreted by a new generation of tea lovers, draws from a global field of influence and inspiration, interpolating the form in wild and vivid colorways. The end result looks every bit as much like something you might find in a hypebeast sneaker shop as you would in a tea bar.
This is just a snippet, a soupçon really, of some of our favorite contemporary tea packaging design work. Gaze upon it and feel covetous urges, yes, but too assured that within such neat design wrappings there be flavors and textures to match the trappings.
Nothing else looks quite like Kilogram Tea of Chicago, whose technicolor art mural boxes stand out at home or on a shelf at a coffee bar. For tea design with the coffee drinker in mind, this is some of our very favorite work.
Melbourne tea purveyors Kuura brand themselves as “tea from the future” and from a design and packaging perspective, that about nails it. These are the tea cakes that have most drawn oohs and ahs from office visitors over the last few months, but it's also worth noting that there's some quality sourcing work being done here, especially with offerings like their “Ghost” white tea (pictured below). For pure aesthetic joy it's tough to beat Kuura's “Prescription Only” raw pu'erh, but be forewarned—this tea is not for the faint of heart or meek of stomach.
Inarguably some of the coolest design work in the biz and a staff favorite here at Sprudge, White2Tea sources, prints, and ships out of Yunnan. With vivid colors, punk text, and a design scheme drawing from equal parts pop-art and streetwear, if BAPE and Supreme had a tea-stoned cousin, this would be it.
Crimson Lotus of Seattle walk a fine line, pushing both quality and design aesthetics with feet planted in both the West Coast of the United States and the hills and mountains of Yunnan. Owner duo Glen Bowers and Dawa Lamu source exquisite raw and ripe teas from across the region, focusing only the many teas of Yunnan known colloquially as “pu'erh” (named for a village in the region, kind of like how Chardonnay is named for a village in Burgundy).
Crimson Lotus are big on artist collaborations, which is how you get works like Honeymoon, a Spring 2018 cake designed in collaboration with The Oolong Drunk and artist Stephanie Osborne, or the sci-fi influenced Forgotten Nebula, designed by Jones Pitsker.
Vintage and rare tea import savant Andrew Richardson manages Liquid Proust out of his home in Columbus, Ohio—we visit him there elsewhere in our Tea Week coverage. This stunningly minimalist design for his 2018 “Almost” white tea cake release is something we've returned to again and again—a subtle white gauze offset by simple block text. Sadly this cake is sold out, but watch Liquid Proust on Instagram for upcoming new releases and limited edition drops.
Another collaborative piece, this tea cake wrap from artist Jason Wasserman gives us serious back of the notebook bored in class vibes. We love its evocation of the tea itself—Bitterleaf's Spring 2018 Limited Yiwu—a raw, powerful tea with many years ahead of it and big-time Year of the Dog cosmic vibes.
Photos by Zachary Carlsen and Anthony Jordan III for Sprudge Media Network.
Sprudge Tea Week is presented by Breville USA.