Differences in Taste and Cultural Reference Points
In China, it is common to stumble upon pizzas that force you to question whether a higher power exists and if there is a point in carrying on living. Shrimp, chunks of corn, bits of seasoned ground beef, all with sweet mayonnaise drizzled over the top of the lifeless processed cheese and wonderbread crust. It’s as if the chef was using pizza as a vehicle for a cruel joke. Its only purpose is to taunt honest people who wanted a delicious pie.
Or at least, that is my perspective.
I grew up on different styles of pizza. When I was a kid, I gobbled down Little Caesar’s craptacular pizzas while taking breaks from playing NBA Jam and Killer Instinct. In my teenage years, it was higher quality pizzas in Chicago and New York styles. Later on, more of the Italian-style pizzas crept into my repertoire. But, like anything, pizza and pizza preferences are learned. The reason shrimp and sweet mayonnaise pizza makes me borderline violent is because it is “wrong”. But, what is wrong anyway? Local Pizza Huts are full of eager diners, patiently waiting for their corn and squid covered abominations. Such is the mystery of culinary preferences that vary amongst humankind.
The Flavors of Rightness and Wrongness
Many Puer tea drinkers will rise up in arms over the inherent “rightness” or “wrongness” of flavors and characteristics. “This tea has smoke on it! They burned it! WRONG!” is one common battle cry. “This tea is bitter! Nobody would want to drink this!” is another oft hurled insult. However, as a man who receives Puer related correspondence from all over the world, I can safely say that some people want bitterness. Or want smoke. Or want sweetness, thickness, thinness, sharpness, or smoothness. That is to say, some people want shrimp and sweet mayonnaise while others want mozzarella and fresh basil.
These judgments, whether for Puer or pizza, stem from the same cultural and flavor backgrounds that we all learn. If your mother served you bitter tasting medicine when you were a child, of course the bitter flavors will conjure up cerebral connections of sickness and medicine. If you have been told that smoke is the result of imperfect processing, the smoke is a signal of low quality, whereas a seasoned Scotch whisky drinker might associate smoke with peat and a fine bottle of Laphroaig. Referring back to my personal pizza dilemma, for someone who has been eating American- and Italian-style pizzas, toppings such as shrimp, corn, and sweet mayo don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But, what is inherently wrong with bitterness, smoke, shrimp, corn, and sweet mayo?
Similar trials and tribulations happen all the time when I am traveling to tea mountains in China. My hosts gleefully tell me, “We knocked down a fresh wasps nest!” Which means I will be dining on wasps. Or the wide variety of marmots, bug larvae, and organ meat that farmers happily serve to me when on the road in small tea villages. Tea farmers will often describe with delight how these fried bamboo worms are prepared just how his mother used to make. I try to keep an open mind and remind myself that taste is in the mouth of the beholder. Though sometimes that is a test of my willpower; especially when two friends begin arguing about whether they had properly cooked out the venom from the wasps. Not reassuring fellas. Pass the minnows!
Viewing Puer tea flavors through a wider and more open lens has allowed me enough distance to reconsider my own perspective of what is good and bad. In the future, I will kindly nod when I pass by a gleeful family munching on shrimp and corn pizza – or someone happily drinking a Puer that I dislike. After all, the most important factor with food and drink is whether it can bring a smile to your face.
There is a lot of discussion of authenticity in the Puerh tea community. Newcomers to Puerh tea hear the word “fake” bantered around and become frightened before even owning a Puerh tea cake. “Is my tea real or fake?!” they wonder, afraid of dipping a toe into the water. This article will help shed some light on what real and fake mean in the context of Puerh tea and how to ensure that you are happy with your tea regardless of its authenticity.
Real Puerh Brands and Brand Name Puerh Teas
The Situation: Large Puerh tea brands have factories that produce thousands upon thousands of metric tons of tea. Companies like Dayi or Xiaguan have billboards in airports and panels of the sides of buses. Not to mention very costly commercials on television. This immense marketing budget is part of their business model, which is brand based and depends on large volume with big mark ups. Due to their popularity and mass-market advertising, many smaller producers fake their products in an attempt to earn money from the same big mark-up without having to spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. The result is a market flooded with fake brand name teas.
How to Avoid the Fake Puerh: If you want to avoid faked brand name tea, avoid large productions and famous companies. Nobody will take the time to make a fake version of a lesser known tea. There are plenty of quality teas in the market that are from smaller brands and productions. If you ignore the hype, you won’t end up with a fake branded tea!
Real Old Arbor Puerh versus Plantation Puerh
The Situation: Only a very small percentage of the Puerh teas produced each year come from gushu [old arbor] trees. The price difference between gushu tea and tea from smaller bushes is very large, so many producers unscrupulously mark their small bush teas as gushu in order to command a much higher price. Other fakes include heavily mixed material. True gushu carries a big price tag and is always from a small production.
How to Avoid Fakes: The large factories rarely (see: almost never) produce any purely gushu teas due to the nature of their business. (i.e. it is impossible to make 50 ton productions of gushu as there simply is not that much material) Use your best judgment and buy the teas that you enjoy for the price you can afford. If you are overly concerned about being duped, sticking within a comfortable budget will reduce the heartache if a tea does not meet expectations. Rather than judge the tea on whether it is old arbor or plantation, focus on whether the tea is high quality and fits your budget. This problem is perhaps the most difficult for tea drinkers to solve, but it involves finding a trusted producer with smaller productions. I also encourage people to hone their own taste buds and try to study with knowledgeable Puerh drinkers who can help guide them in learning to differentiate between old arbor and plantation. Unfortunately, this skill is very difficult to pass on via a blog. Personal experience is the fastest road to understanding.
Real Aged Puerh Teas versus Fake Aged Puerh Teas
The Situation: Many older teas have no dates stamped on their wrappers. Even wrappers with stamps can be faked. Since aged teas often command a higher price, many sellers will take younger teas and mislabel them in an attempt to obtain a higher price.
How to Avoid Fakes: First, do your homework. Check the market value of a tea, the wrapper, and the leaf, then see if the price makes sense. Teas with a too-good-to-be-true price tag often are! Second, remember that age is just a number. If you want to avoid a lot of trouble, we recommend focusing on the quality of the tea rather than the age. Trust your own taste and stick within your budget. After all, if you really enjoy a tea, a misrepresentation of age becomes less important. Who wouldn’t rather have a spectacular tea from 2008 than a terrible tea from 1998? With older teas, the exact date of production is often near impossible to determine, as aged teas can change hands several times over the course of ten or twenty years. When in doubt, trust what is in the cup, instead of fancy stories.
So, What Should I Do to Avoid Fake Puerh?
For those who are scared senseless about the real or perceived authenticity of teas, the best solution is to abandon an attachment to what is or is not real and to focus on the quality of the tea in the cup in front of you. For most casual tea drinkers, they will save a lot of pain if they find the best quality tea that fits their budget instead of chasing after minimal or expensive productions like Bingdao old arbor or 88 Qingbings. For those who are set on chasing the rare teas of the world, there is an inherent danger. For the adventurers, the best is solution is to arm yourself with knowledge and jump into the Puerh fray.
And one last word of wisdom, as a person who has had teas that range in the tens of thousands of dollars per cake range, the most expensive tea is not always the best tea. Market forces determine price. And the market is not focused on your taste buds. Trust what makes you happy and you won’t find yourself in a bind.
Pictures and Travel Notes from the Fall of 2014 in Yunnan
After a month spent traversing the muddy roads and trails, and then a brief personal trip, I have returned to a stable internet connection and the comforts of my own bed. My accommodations in the tea mountains of Yunnan were generally comfortable. Though there were a few nights spent in a room directly over a pigsty with eight young piglets who decided darkness was their favorite time to squeal. And there were the many nights spent bug eyed and wired from fresh young Puer tea until daybreak. Now, it is back to city life. City life, and drinking aged Puer tea until my stomach forgives me for the fresh tea binge.
Before I settle in to my warm bed and brew up some smooth, aged tea, I thought I would post a few interesting photographs from the Fall and some impressions about the autumn Puer of 2014.
Many of you Puer veterans will recognize the small fruit on the left of the above photograph. It is chaguo [tea fruit] and it sneaks its way into tea cakes often. The tea flowers don’t find their way into cakes as often, but sometimes they sneak in. Some locals will dry them and brew them to drink. These pictures were taken in and around Xigui.
Outside of Lincang, the hike up to a small village without a road took about two hours. I was pretty impressed with two of the guys with us, who managed to smoke several cigarettes along the hike. I kept thinking, “Don’t these guys need oxygen? I’m sweating my balls off here!” We were all covered in sweat by the time we reached the village. Luckily, we encountered a tea farmer who offered us giant cucumbers from her basket. Nothing could have been better at that moment. I won’t soon forget those magical cucumbers. For all of our trouble we only left with enough fresh leaf to make one kilogram of maocha. We split it amongst ourselves. After a few tea tastings, my bag is already empty. Damnit.
These fresh wild olives are some of my favorite things to pick for a hike. Some of you might remember people near Menghai mixing these olives with moonshine. They are as sour as any lemon on entry, but they leave a wake of sweetness in your mouth. I am told they are also very healthy, though I don’t have the nutrition facts.
I was able to buy the rest of the 2007 Hekai material to make more Repave cakes. The good news is that I got enough to satisfy all of the people who were e-mailing me saying, “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO WITH ALL THE REPAVE”. The bad news is that had I arrived in Hekai a week earlier, I could have bought much more. A week before my arrival a Taiwanese guy bought the majority of the material. Can’t win them all. Tenet 3…Tenet 3.
Overall, I’d say the Puer market is still in a strange place. The prices in some areas for autumn plantation tea were dumbfounding to me. Especially when I was able to find some slightly older teas for fair prices. I pressed a few old arbor teas that I had been resting Spring, and pressed some Xigui area tea from Autumn that really caught my attention. And also a (very) small amount of true old arbor Xigui. I will be interested to see what happens with the prices of Puer in Spring – but until then I will resting myself before the onslaught of fresh tea.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki
None of us were born with tea in our mouths. At some point, each of us had an initial contact with tea. It might have been an oversteeped black tea poured from an old English style tea set, eating scones and petit fours with grandma. It might have been a dark ripe puer on a Sunday morning with relatives around a table stacked full of dimsum. It might have been a bag of Lipton tea in a thick ceramic mug, next to your eggs and bacon. Despite the diversity in backgrounds, we all began our tea journey somewhere.
That first sip was our entrance into a new world of flavor. Thisistea. But, are there other kinds of tea? If you are like most people reading this blog, once your interest was piqued you dove into the rabbit hole. You wanted to try every kind of tea. Checklist in hand, you brewed oolongs, black teas, green teas, and Puers. Hoisting mental flags in your head at each position of reference. After your first Puer tea, you probably thought, “I have tried a Puer tea. Puer is this.” Then, after some further digging, the checklist of regions comes out. “I have tried an Yiwu Puer tea. Yiwu is this.” And then comes aging. “I have tried aged Yiwu with humid storage. Humid stored Yiwu is this.” And so on and so on. Concepts of specific teas are channels in the brain. Grooves that become deeper and deeper over time.
“Beginner’s mind” [or Shosin] is the concept of approaching life without preconceptions and being open to new ideas and experiences.
Tea Tastings with Beginners
Lately I have been lucky enough to have tea houses in Beijing seek me out to host tea tastings, as well as hosting a tea tasting in Madison, Wisconsin at Macha tea house earlier this year. These tea tastings have been a blessing for me. The old cliche that students teach the teacher has not only been true, but it has been a welcome awakening for me.
My typical method for running a tea tasting is as follows: each person gets a sheet of paper, nobody is allowed to discuss anything about a specific tea until we are finished drinking, and each person has to take notes…notes on their impressions of the fragrance from the gaiwan lid and gongbei… notes on the feeling in their mouth and throat… notes on the first flavors that come to mind.
This is where I offer my gratitude to the beginners. Sometimes the folks who show up at these tea tastings are complete novices, either to tea or to Puer. And I am glad they come. In fact, they are my favorite people because their notes are always astoundingly honest. If they tasted asparagus in that young sheng Puer, they unabashedly say so. If the flavor reminds them of a candy bar or grilled meat, they tell me. There is no shame or second guessing. No judgment. They occasionally couch their comments with an, “I’m new to this, so…”, but this is how I know the next words out of their mouth will be new and exciting.
Tea Forums and Conformity
The internet can be a brutal place. Mudslinging is often anonymous and there are a lot of angry people out there, just waiting to stomp negatively on any comment. If you want to view this phenomenon in real time, you need only go to twitter and watch a celebrity make a tweet to their 2 million followers. Lucky were those historical personalities born before the age of the tweet. I sincerely believe that Ghandi himself could tweet “Love your fellow humans” and it would take no less than 10 seconds for somebody to reply, “Eat shit, Gandhi! You suck!” These voices are not the majority of people, but unfortunately, the most obnoxious people are often the loudest.
Now, most tea forums are not twitterbad; but there is still a lot of jockeying for rank and snarky passive aggressive (and sometimes not so passive) discourse. I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone say, “I thought X tea tasted like Y,” only to have some curmudgeonly old veteran stomp in the thread and say, “Oh, really? You thought X tea tasted like Y? How cute. I’ve had X tea, mine never tasted like Y.” Or the more aggressive amongst the crowd will simply call the new beginner’s opinion of the tea wrong.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
A dismissive tone will squelch outbursts of honest expression in any environment. Unfortunately, this sort of mindset is pervasive in online tea forums. Stories get told and re-told, and eventually there is no space for openness or interpretation.
Puer tea in particular has a lot of comparison situations. How are these storages different? How is this region compared to that region? How is this tea compared to that tea? I often see a lot of, “This tea is good, better than X, but not as good as Y. Less expensive than Z, but more expensive than Q.” or “Storage X? Ha! Storage Y is much better because storage X does Z.”
Although the urge to compare is human nature, I’ve found that if I make a conscious effort to approach each tea with a blank slate and allow it the space, it will speak to me on its own terms.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sharing some on my Spring tea with someone, who in my opinion, knows more about Puer than 99% of Puer drinkers. He has been to many, many tea mountains. He can process tea; recognize regions by both leaf and flavor; identify the variation in wrappers and stamps from cakes of different eras; and many other things that aid in having a strong Puer background. But, regardless of my opinion, nobody could rightly call him inexperienced.
I brought some maocha from a village I had visited this Spring, and brewed it up without mentioning the origin, as per his request. My opinion of this tea was that it was high quality, from old trees, and unique in how it compared to other things from the area. He drank the tea, and shared what he was experiencing in a stream of consciousness manner. He swerved back and forth between ideas, feelings, fragrance, and flavors. Finally, after about 15 steeps, he ventured a guess of where it was from. His guess was not correct; and I told him the actual origin. His response was to say, “Interesting.”
His response was not only uncharacteristic of someone who has as much experience as he does, but also in stark contrast to many of the big egos I tend to see around tea tables. The types of people who slam fists and declare, “This is not from that area! You’ve never really had real tea from that area!” Despite the fact that any given village might have several different kinds of tea, hundreds or thousands of trees, and hundreds of families processing the tea in different ways. These personalities are often more concerned with the stroking of their own ego via the derision of other people than actually discussing the nuances tea. Confining teas to say that one type of tea should only be one way is folly; but in the minds of self-proclaimed experts, there are few possibilities.
The people I know to be true tea experts are not quick to find fault, not quick to point fingers and make snide remarks, not quick to speak. They experience tea with beginner’s mind and are open to the vast universe of differences that tea presents. That, and when they find their assumptions to be incorrect, they simply say interesting and carry on learning.
How to buy Puer tea might not seem like a topic that needs instruction. Click the pay button and you are done, right?
A lot of new Puer drinkers make a common mistake, which is getting too much tea before they really understand much about Puer tea and their own personal preferences. Your ability to judge other people’s character is like your ability to judge Puer tea. We all begin as novices and improve over time.
The ability of most Puer beginners to judge character is the equivalent of a 12 year old’s ability to judge people. Remember that time you thought you were in love with Susie Johnson in 7th grade? Your puppy love in full swing, when she walked into the room you heard Close to You as the room turned rose colored and began to spin. You were certain that you were meant for each other and destined to get married! Soul mates. You’d move to an island together. Start a family. Build some sort of tree house with a coconut phone and monkey butlers. How’d that work out? In hindsight it is probably better that you (or they) called off the teenage wedding.
As time goes on we all improve our ability to discern who is the best fit for us. The same development happens after drinking pot after pot of Puer tea. You date around with some people/samples and start to recognize which traits are meaningful for you and which can be left by the wayside. When you mature into your 20’s or 30’s you begin to realize what you want in a relationship… or what you desire in a pot of tea.
This is the first tenet of buying Puer tea; Walk before you can run. Take a few dates to the movies. Get in a couple of cake-term relationships. Heck, buy a tong [stack of 7 cakes] and move in together, only to realize you have made a horrible mistake and break up with that tong after it cheats on you with your roommate Jeff. Well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.
After you finish this dating period, you are ready to move on. You can walk. You understand your own preferences. And now that you are comfortable judging what you like, start sprinting. On to tenet number two.
Tenet Two: Understand the Economics of Puer
A couple of years ago Planet Money recorded a story titled “Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years“. The story begins “all prices change, that is basic economics…”, but most price changes are gradual. In the case of Coke, there were several decades where Coca-cola prices never shifted. One nickel for a bottle. Even during my lifetime, the price of Coke has remained relatively stable. Coke is a reproducible product with seemingly no limit in terms of scale of production. Factories all over the world crank out as much Coke as the clamoring masses will consume, the more the better.
The seemingly infinite supply of Coke is in stark contrast to gushu [old arbor] Puer tea and aged Puer tea. Old arbor Puer trees need a hundred years or more to become mature and develop deep root structures. Aged Puer has a supply that dwindles as the years pass by. For example, If an initial 100 ton production of Puer tea sells half of its stock each year for the first ten years, by the tenth year there will be scarcely enough tea left to distribute to retail, not to mention the value will usually will have risen far beyond its initial market price. When we start discussing even smaller productions of 100 kilograms, purchasing almost has to occur when the production is first released, lest the opportunity to buy be lost and gone forever.
Now, which teas legitimately have a limited supply and which do not? This is a rich topic for a separate article, but there are two major categories of teas which will not be around in abundance; gushu teas and aged teas.
For example, most of the white2tea productions from 2014 were under 20 kilograms. Some of the teas are already gone. Aged teas, such as some of the smaller production teas sold on our website two years ago have tripled in price or become sold out altogether.
Tenet two can be summed up in one sentence; The better the material or the older the tea, the faster the buyer should take action. This brings us to the third tenet.
Tenet Three: Hit it Hard
Last year an article written by Marshaln called “Hit it Hard with a Hammer” hit the nail on the head. (har har) Marshaln laments the fact that he had not purchased some of the teas he loved back in 2006, and then goes on to describe how he learned his lesson and picked up 50 tuos [nest shaped tea] of a bargain tea that he stumbled upon. This exchange in the comments sums it up nicely:
The last sentence of the reply is the key. “This is something you learn only after drinking tea for awhile.”
The only real problem I have with Marshaln’s article is that a hammer seems like an inadequate weapon. Puer drinkers need to bring out the artillery when they find a tea that speaks to them.
There are many examples of this phenomenon, but as an anecdotal case study, let’s look at this 2003 Fuhai 7576 Ripe Puer tea. The Fuhai 7576 sold on the White2tea site between 2012-2013 for $37 a cake. Since then, an innumerable amount of e-mails have flooded into my inbox asking for this tea, but alas, it is gone. The current market price for this tea is over $70 (in China, on Taobao from a 3 crown vendor – whatever that even means anymore) and that is before we mention that the market has since been doused with a hefty amount of fakes of the Fuhai ripes from that era, both red and yellow mark variety.
When the disappointed (and sometimes angry) e-mails get replied to, I try to use measured courtesy and sympathy; but what I will write in the future is You should have tenet 3’d!. Teas like the Fuhai 7576, which was in its 10th year of age at that point, will not be around forever. Quality teas are continuously being consumed by thirsty drinkers and hoarded by wise collectors. Should you happen upon a tea like this, find its traits to your liking, and have the financial capacity, buy it in bulk. One cake is not bulk. Hell, even a tong is not bulk. If you drink a lot of Puer, how long will a tong last?
Put another way, if you surveyed a group of veteran Puer drinkers and asked, “Given what you now know about the price of gushu Laobanzhang, if we had a time machine and could go back to 2009 to buy some quality Laobanzhang, how much would you buy?” or “Given what you know now about the 88 Qingbing price, how much would you buy in the year 2001?” The answer would not be a cake. And the answer would not be a tong. The answer would probably involve the words second and mortgage.
When you finish the cake that you loved, you can’t go grab another one off the shelf like a Coca-cola. If you manage to find the cake, the price tag will be very disappointing, and that is if the shelf isn’t empty.
Let’s end with a sage quote that concisely sums up how to purchase Puer tea:
My draft bin is full of articles half written. Reviews of teas and notes on things that get lost in the shuffle of day to day life. I took these photos, edited them, and then never bothered to write the accompanying article. Luckily, my little leather bound book has sparse notes on this tea. Rather than toss away some perfectly good images, I thought why not transcribe my notes here; musings on a session since forgotten.
Dry tea has no smell. Tippy. Furry. Tightly pressed.
Rinse is sweet and clean. The first cup soft, sweet, fruity, and smooth.
Second steep, light and smooth in the mouth.
Late in the session the tea is calming and has strong grape-like tannins. Plenty of body and subtle bitterness.
These notes were dated November 24th, 2013. I must be drinking too much tea, since I can not even recall this session. Thank goodness for cameras and notebooks.
Fake Puerh tea is not as easy to define as most fake products. Fake gold is a metal which is not gold. A fake Rolex is a watch that was not made by the Rolex company. But, what is “fake” Puerh tea?
First, fake Puerh tea can be fake in the sense that it is not actually from Yunnan or from a Puerh varietal and processed as Puerh. For example, if I took Guangxi Liubao tea, pressed it into cakes, and claimed it was Puerh tea, that would qualify as a fake. This is the most black and white test of whether a tea is a fake Puerh.
From there, it becomes a bit gray. Some people will consider any misrepresentation of the following traits to be “fake”:
Quality of the material (is it plantation material or old arbor, etc.)
Region or origin of the tea
Date of the tea’s production
Season during which the tea was picked
Age of the material
If the first two factors are indicative of being fake, then nearly 95% of Puerh tea on the market in China and abroad is “fake”. The amount of cakes labeled Gushu [old arbor] Laobanzhang [a famous tea region] are beyond measure. Some of these mislabelings and misrepresentations are done with the intent to trick high-end buyers, but for the most part, there are small fish trying to capitalize on a famous brand name or low-quality, factory teas trying to parade around as something more rare than the 10,000 ton mass production.
Number three through five on the list are all misrepresented with great frequency, but not as much as the region and material quality. These are also more minor offenses. Who cares if a tea is from the fall of 2012 or the spring of 2011 if it is good? I would rather have quality tea than a specific vintage.
Number six is a whole ‘nother hornets’ nest worthy of several articles, but I will try to briefly address this issue towards the end of the article.
The “You Should Know Better!” Fakes
I’ve seen multiple threads on reddit’s /r/tea pop up in the last few months about a certain “1990’s” shu Puerh brick for $7 on ebay. Examples here and here.
This tea falls into the category of teas that are so obviously fake that you should know better! That is to say, they are obviously fake to the point that they were not meant to fool the educated Puerh tea buyer, but meant to trump up the quality of a low-quality tea in effort to force a sale. If you are trying to up your game and learn how to avoid fakes like this, here are some handy guidelines that will hold true the majority of the time:
If every ebay seller has it, it is not good tea. (A search for the term puerh on ebay yielded 19 results with this same exact brick…on the first page!)
If the age of the tea exceeds the price of the tea in dollars, it is not good tea. (15 years old > $7 = Do not drink) This is tongue in cheek, but suffice it to say that if a price seems too good to be true, it almost always is!
If it has a wrapper that says “1990” on it, it is almost always fake. Nobody dated tea wrappers back in 1990’s. Seldom even in the early 2000’s.
If a Chinese ebay seller is selling the tea, it is generally bad tea. (Just my opinion, there are definitely exceptions)
If every seller on ebay is selling the same tea, that means that the production volume was massive. Tea is an agricultural product. The higher the volume of the production, the greater the difficulty to maintain quality control. Bricks like this were probably produced in the tens of thousands of tons range. It is not to say that every huge production of tea is bad, but with a brick like this, they likely are.
If the price tag doesn’t reflect the age, that is a red flag. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I visited several tea shops and rarely did I see an old tea of any value under the $100 mark. (and to be more discriminating, the $200 mark) For a brick like this to be over 20 years old and sell for $7 would not make much logical sense. Who held it for 20 years? How much did they sell it for to this middle man? How much could they possibly be earning? Do you know any business people who are willing to purchase and hold an asset for 20 years in order to make $2 of profit and not outpace inflation? No matter how you slice it the price does not make any sense.
Another clue is the date on the wrapper. During the early 2000’s and before, very few companies dated their wrappers or cakes. Look at real photographs of cakes, such as this 2002 Xiao Huangyin [Little Yellow Mark]. No date. If a brick has a big ol’ 1990 on it, 9 times of 10, it is fake. In some cases, it may have been an unwrapped brick which they later wrapped, but this brick is clearly attempting to knock off the style of the wrapper above – the generic shu brick wrapping of the era. (Notice: no date)
Lastly, I am generally weary of Chinese ebay and taobao (the Chinese ebay) sellers. There are definitely exceptions to this rule, but for the most part their tea will be low cost, low quality, and labeled as a 1990 brick for under $10. Are there deals out there? Yes. Will you be throwing darts to hit the deals? Yes. Will you probably waste more time, money, and energy than if you just purchased good tea in the first place? Probably.
The most important consideration is whether the tea is good in the cup. But, not being lied to would also be a plus.
The Paris Hilton Fakes
These are the fakes that capitalize on the public craving for fame without much actual substance in the tea, hence the name. What does Paris Hilton actually do? Why is she famous? (Oh…right. But, aside from that)
These fakes are usually an attempt to copy a famous brand or famous production. Some longer-term readers on the blog might remember a post regarding the 2011 Gold Dayi raw puer cake from back in 2012. This cake’s fame and price have done nothing but sky rocket since its release. Along with that fame came a deluge of fakes.
A recent kerfuffle on teachat had some customers scratching their heads and comparing wrappers regarding allegedly fake Dayi cakes. I admire the sleuthing abilities of these Dayi devotees, but on the other hand, wouldn’t it just be better to buy a tea that wasn’t famous enough to be faked?
Some tips on how to avoid cakes that might be Paris Hilton fakes:
If the price tag is too good to be true, buyer beware. Good tea costs. No vendor is silly enough to sell real 1990’s 7542 for $100
If the production or brand is very famous, the likelihood of fake tea increases exponentially
If you are not extremely familiar with the intimate details of the wrapper and material, it is better to consult someone who is before making a purchase
After a tea becomes famous, the rise in price should be a deterrent for the wise Puerh buyer. There are better teas to be had. I am obviously biased towards my own productions, but I lament the fact that some folks are chasing after the 2011 Gold Dayi whilst my 2014 New Amerykah is available for 1/3 the price. But, this opens a gushu [old arbor] vs. plantation debate that is best left for another article.
When seeking a specific production of a famous tea, there are always more reasonably priced options which will allow the consumer to avoid fakes and save a few bucks. Dayi productions will rarely afford either luxury. It is not a secret that China is the world’s most skilled forger of all things, be it Louis Vuitton bags or solar panels. Puerh is no exception. Entire businesses are dedicated solely to faking Dayi products.
Let me repeat that again for emphasis. There are businesses out there, in large wholesale tea markets, whose entire livelihood is built around making and selling fake Dayi products. Consumers who desire certainty of authenticity ought look to smaller factories with less fame. Sometimes a less flashy brand will afford the confidence that you are getting what you pay for.
Or better yet, pay attention to what is in the cup, not on the wrapper. Follow this simple advice and you will never be disappointed.
Everything in puer tea comes in varying degrees. There is a range of bitterness. A range of quality in processing. Huge differences in quality of material, from very bad to transcendent, with one million variations in between. Puer tea storage is no exception.
When I recently steeped my way through a glut of 10-20 year old dry stored teas, I kept recalling Jakub and his pained Luke Skywalker “Dry Storage” meme. Some of the teas did indeed have “Darth Vader is my real father” level of poor quality storage, while others were dry stored and excellent. So, where does that leave us in the overall storage debate?
The online comments on the subject often deal in absolutes that make it difficult to get to the heart of the issue. Comments about how terrible dry storage is or how humid storage will turn your tea into a moldy abomination are ubiquitous on tea forums. Depending on which coterie you belong to you may have gotten involved in some heated discussions on the matter.
Rather than the “DRY GOOD! WET BAD!” arguments, the more nuanced conversation that ought to be taking place is how to improve the storage which you yourself have available.
Unless you plan to build a personal puer tea warehouse in the climate that you deem to be perfect storage, you are probably going to use the home that you have. Your family, job, school, and other circumstances are far more likely to dictate where you live than what kind of tea storage you prefer.
Without a doubt there are puer fanatics who go to great lengths to store their tea in the place they most desire, whether it be South China, Taiwan, or Mozambique. But rather than discuss which storage is perfect until we all turn blue in the face, let’s address a question that can help any tea drinker in any location; How can you improve your home tea storage?
Regardless of where you live, the basic puer storage suggestions are:
No direct sunlight
No heavy aromas
Any situation that would cause mold (dripping water) or dry out your cakes (being on top of a heater) will ruin your tea
Use common sense
In addition to these puer storage rules, the best advice can be summed up in one sentence:
Take the middle path.
If you live in a dry climate, add a bowl of water to the closet where you store your puer tea. If you live in a very humid climate, make sure their is sufficient air exchange so that dampness doesn’t settle on your cakes. Whatever extreme your storage situation is leaning towards, take measures to bring it back to the middle.
There are high quality teas that have been stored in both dry and humid environments, just as there are teas that have been ruined by their storage on both the wet and dry sides of the fence. If you avoid the extremes, you will also avoid the destructive results that can come out of the bone dry warehouse or the sauna basement.
The changes that occur in any given climate will have different speeds and characteristics, and that is OK! The same ten cakes stored in ten different cities will turn into ten wonderfully unique puer teas, and thank goodness for that; Puer would be so boring if every tea was the same. So, the next time you see tempers flaring like this on a message board about which storage is “the best”, just smile, nod, and follow the middle path. Or rock out on your guitar.
Finally back to my perch in Beijing after spending two months and change in Yunnan scouting out Spring puer tea.
There are too many stories of great people, teas, and adventures, so I thought it might be easier to bullet point some broad observations about the puer tea and tea market this year:
It was an excellent year for early Spring puer. There was very little rain. Some places noted that the last rain they saw was in October of 2013. This drought is by no means good for the region or good in any sense, other than the fact that tea which sprang forth in 2014 was strained, concentrated, and powerful
Most of the best teas I experienced this Spring were low on fragrance but had flavor and fragrance buried deep within the soup, rather than “on the top” or surface fragrance. This might make people who are fragrance chasers upset, but for fans of aging puer with depth 2014 is ideal. Many villages still use a fragrance heavy method of production, but in my book those teas are all flash and no guts.
This Spring had more tourists than I have ever seen on tea mountains. Lots of people with big hats, fanny packs, Coach bags, and sunglasses coming up to the more famous locations like Laobanzhang, Laoman’e, and Jingmai. Some people flew in to Xishuangbana just to go and visit Laobanzhang. They all assured me they purchased some very real Laobanzhang because they know some guy there or something. They likely all left with fake crap.
Lots of problems with fakes in areas that were previously not full of fakes. Big factories like Yulin and Chenshenghao set prices high enough to make it lucrative for the farmers to bring in material from their cousins in other villages and sell it off as their own. This was always the case in places like Laobanzhang, but now it is happening all over. No point in buying Yulin cakes, they are expensive and chocked full of low quality material.
Processing skill in smaller villages seems to get increasingly better. Many tea entrepreneurs are mentoring tea farmers about how to best process their leaf. Some of the villages that had poor quality processing in 2013 improved greatly over the last year.
Prices are high almost everywhere. You can still get cheap teas in far flung Lincang, but for consumers who are demanding top tier quality teas from Yiwu or Menghai, there are very few bargains. Best to look to some aged teas if you are on a budget.
Roads continue to improve. The paved road to Laobanzhang is almost completed and they are building a paved road to Laoman’e. This bodes well for tea travelers and tourists, but is not good news for anyone anticipating a price collapse of of Laobanzhang old arbor tea.
Construction is everywhere. Villagers are upgrading from wooden homes to 5 story cement buildings with 20 rooms. One person in Laobanzhang was building a 20+ room guesthouse!
I am very excited about the teas I pressed in 2014!
All of my Spring cakes are pressed and on the way to the warehouse. They should be up on the site in the next week or two.
Share your thoughts and discuss on twitter or in the comments.
Yunnan attracts a lot of strong personalities in the Spring. Self proclaimed tea masters and tea experts. Rich bosses seeking to purchase the best tea, or at least something to pass off as the best in hopes of gaining face amongst their rich pals. Old school puer drinkers and adventurer types who are quick to decry anything as inauthentic or not up to their impossibly high standards. In the last month and a half I have witnessed three intense verbals altercations around the tea tray, one of which was teetering on the cliff of fisticuffs. Take two big fish and put them in the same small pond and there will be a ruckus. Or in this case two grown men boasting in a way that would make Muhammad Ali blush.
“When I came to Yunnan in XXXX year, nobody had ever heard of XXXX mountain. I paved the road to that village with my own two hands.”
“I used to be the police commissioner of XXXX and all the people in XXXX village give me the best tea. They all call me Old Uncle XXXX.”
“My warehouse has XXXX tons of [insert famous region]’s puer tea. I had to sell all of my none old arbor tea because I didn’t have room for anymore old arbor puer.”
Of the above three quotes, two are real and one is fake. It doesn’t matter which is which. The quotes simply illustrate the mindsets of some of the people who descend on Yunnan each year when the new growth arrives. Which archetype am i? After listening to the unabashed bragging of these ass-hats, I probably fit into the annoyed foreigner archetype.
Numbers Don’t Add Up
The events that inspired this post were all happenstance. I kept running into one loud mouth tea god after another, until something very funny happened. The claims of 3 separate people that I encountered exceeded the yearly production of a mountain. “Aha!”, I thought to myself. “One of these braggarts is not telling the truth!” Not that I ever had a bet placed on the truthiness of their bragging, but now I had proof at least one of their mouths had written a check that the puer gods wouldn’t cash.
Naka mountain has a very limited amount of gushu [old arbor] trees. I do not have an exact number, but the average of several people I consulted was about 2 tons of Spring gushu puer tea. (Some guessed as little a few hundred kilograms)
Amongst the three boasting tea bosses, their total purchase amount of Naka Spring old arbor tea? Five tons. The stories were as follows:
“I know some of the Lahu people there and they set me up with two tons of gushu.”
“I have been purchasing from Naka since 2004 and they sell to me every year. I get the best two tons they have.”
“I buy [insert ridiculously unbelievable purchase figures from several other mountains here] and also one ton of Naka gushu.”
No worries guys, only two and a half times what the trees can bear!
The saddest part of this tale is not that these fellows are filthy liars. Nor is it that one, two, or all three of them are coming here and purchasing fake or mixed tea by the ton. The saddest part of this story is that these are only three random people who i encountered. There are surely another 100 tea bosses out there buying up fake Naka, both wittingly and unwittingly. The fact that I happened to bump into three such personalities, all laying claim to the same territory, is a window into the greater problem of the current puer market. But, that is a topic for another day.
Morals of the Tea Story
As far as I can see, there are two big takeaways from the above anecdote.
1) For every “famous” tea mountain, there is a very large demand for the old arbor tea and a very limited supply. This results in a lot of fake tea. If a village becomes popular there is an influx of low quality tea, both fresh leaves and processed, which is then sold as the genuine article. Consumers are the loser in this battle. If a boss coming to the village in Spring and leaves with fake tea, what chance does the average tea drinker have to get anything real?
2) The 3 huge egos in my story each have their own wholesale stores and tea houses. They will be disseminating their false information and false teas to hundreds of people in China. Their customers will assume that Master so and so is telling the truth, and the vicious cycle of misinformation will continue.
Which leads to the moral of the story; Don’t believe everything you hear at the tea table, or on tea blogs, or any outside information on tea. Be a tea Buddhist. Question everything you hear and discover the truth on your own. Discard labels. Ignore origins. Close your ears and eyes to the marketing and the noise. Listen to your mouth. Listen to your body. Listen to your own gut. Research and be open.
Come to think of it, you shouldn’t even believe this post. After all, it is just a tea story.