It's real tea. It's compressed. And it's been around for over a thousand years. It's "brick" tea. And it's pretty darned unique!
Making tea from a tea brick was easy: just carve or shave some off and add boiling water. During the Song dynasty, the widely popular tea beverage became even more important as an item of trade, and these compressed "bricks" of tea were scored on one side and used as currency. They were of uniform size and weight and usually embossed with Chinese characters or scenes. Tea bricks were so commonly accepted as currency in Tibet that sometimes horses and swords were priced according to the number of tea bricks they would bring.
Although tea bricks are less commonly produced these days (other than for decorative purposes), many post-fermented teas, such as pu-erh (below), are still commonly found in bricks, discs, and other pressed forms.
Click here to learn more about tea bricks.