Compiled from Origins of Chinese Tea and Wine
Young buds were initially plucked from wild tea trees for use as medicine. They were chewed raw at first, and later boiled in water to make soup. The resulting tea porridge tasted like bitter medicinal soup, thus its name ku tu (bitter plant).
Tea processing began after the Qin and Han Dynasties. Tea leaves were compacted into cakes and heated over fire until they turned red. The tea cakes could be cracked, ground into powder and boiled in pots to make tea. Shreds of scallion, ginger or tangerine were added as flavouring before the tea was served.
The process was further developed during the Tang Dynasty. Thus, the steps now include steaming, pounding, compacting, roasting, stringing and packing. Loose tea was very popular during the Song Dynasty. It was made by steaming and then drying the tea leaves over low fire. Not only was this method simple, it also preserved the fragrance of the leaves. During the Ming Dynasty, steaming was replaced by roasting. Tea leaves were roasted in hot, dry pans, which brought out the rich aroma of the leaves. This technique created the green tea that we commonly see today.
In the Song Dynasty, there was a tea cake known as Longfengtuan. It was valued at two taels of gold per kati. Only on momentous occasions would the emperor grant this tea as a gift, and each tea cake was shared by four individuals. This reflects how highly tea cake was regarded.