Puer Storage Yunnan Dog

The Pearl River Delta and Puer Storage Thoughts

South China Puer Storage

A big shift has been set into motion, I am moving to South China! This will not be my first time dwelling in the Pearl River Delta (referred to as PRD from here on out), but it has been several years since I last lived in Guangdong province. I have to admit that I am really looking forward to the change, particularly the increased dim sum intake. The reasons for the move are more complex than can be accounted for in a quick blog post, but a large consideration in the decision was having a reliable long term solution for my Puer storage.

Dim Sum Puer
Excellent Dim Sum & Puer Tea, Chicago 2015

If you are unfamiliar and popped open that PRD wiki link above, you will notice that several major cities with long Puer storage histories such as Hong Kong and Guangzhou are amongst the list. The PRD is one of the world’s most populous chunks of land, with some estimates as high as 120 million people living amongst the rapidly developing sprawl. A bit of further scouting reveals the key draws for Puer storage; the region has an average relative humidity in the 70% range and average high temperatures around of 26° C (~80° F). After many years of drinking aged Puer tea from several regions, the PRD has produced some of my favorites. I hope to achieve the same outcome for many of my teas. After observation from tests of some of my productions over the last several years, I decided the PRD is the place to be. As a note, I will continue to keep some of my teas spread in other regions such as Southern Yunnan, Fujian, and America, which brings me to my next point…

Dry Puer Storage & Tradeoffs

As a preemptive clarification, before anyone runs around yelling, “Hey Everybody! Twodog says dry storage is shit! If you aren’t storing Puer in South China then your tea is dead!” – I also thoroughly enjoy dry stored Puer tea. I personally have a lot of tea that was stored in Kunming and enjoy the hell out of it. Much of my America stored Pu is in relatively dry conditions (though I take measures to control the humidity around my teas) and those Puer teas are all progressing beautifully. I thought this point was worth dwelling upon, as I personally do not see a point in righteous storage dogma. Puer storage is a means to different outcomes, and I enjoy many of them.

Traditional Puer Storage
Aged Puer leaves in an Yixing teapot, Spring 2015

What is Perfect Puer Storage? Just Shut Up and Tell Me!

As with anything in life, there is no perfect. Chances are you have had plenty of friends in your life with widely varied personalities that encompass both the good and the bad of the personality spectrum. There is that wild friend who is a blast at parties and social events but a tad unreliable. Then, you’ve got that friend who isn’t great in group settings, but you love the deep late night talks that you share discussing literature. Every friend has pluses and minuses, and the pluses win out; that is why you are friends. Different Puer teas have different personalities, and storage is but one of many factors that influence the overall personality of any given tea.

When choosing Puer teas or Puer storage, we are all engaging in a weighing of pros and cons. Is this storage too wet? Too dry? Will these teas age quickly enough? Or too quickly? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the common trade offs between wet storage and dry storage, here is a handy chart:

Puer Storage Tradeoffs

With pros and cons on both sides of the spectrum, you have to choose your friends wisely. Higher humidity requires close watch for mold. Dry conditions will generally yield teas that age slowly and have a potential for a sour character. If your storage leans dry, add water trays or soaked pieces of terracotta. Or get saucy and play around with crock storage. If your climate is particularly humid, store your tea on a higher level rather than a basement, and observe the potential need for airflow or reduction of humidity. For me, this means I will be changing from the frantically adding humidity to my Beijing storage side of the spectrum to keeping a watchful “mold eye” in the PRD.

Why the Pearl River Delta is Decidedly the Best

There is one topic which requires no argument, as the PRD is the clear winner; food. (also air quality, but let’s talk food instead) Cantonese food is better than Beijing roast duck seven times a week and twice on Sunday. When you factor in the Puer and dim sum pairing being a match made in heaven, it is a done deal. To be amiable and fair, Beijing has plenty of good food, but the PRD is just better.

On that non-tea related note, I’ll leave you with some Delta blues from Muddy Waters. (I know it’s not the same delta, but i love this song)

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Spring 2015 Puer Tea

Reflections on Spring 2015 Puer Tea

Early Rain in Spring 2015

This year, the rains came early to Yunnan and it had a strong effect on the Puer tea in every region. I had to work harder this year than in previous years in terms of tea tasting. Teas from some areas, and farmers that I have worked with in previous years, seemed to be lacking. After two months in Yunnan, I could still keep pressing on further to sample and find better teas. Perhaps there is always a better tea? At least my stomach was thankful we were taking a break from fresh tea.

Rain in Menghai
Spring rain in Xishuangbanna, 2015

In many areas, the tea budded and was picked later than in 2014, particularly the old arbor Puer trees. For reference, spring Puer tea is ready to be plucked at different times depending on the age of the trees, amongst other factors. As a general rule, older trees bud much later than smaller bushes. We even heard of some old arbor trees in Laobanzhang that still hadn’t been picked by mid-April. At the absolute earliest, small bushes are ready to be plucked by late February. For old arbor trees, the earliest I have ever seen or heard of spring tea being ready is mid-March. Example, this year our spring old arbor Yiwu tea was plucked on April 5th. Anything else listed as spring that was picked pre-March is either not spring, not old arbor, or both. Just a fact we thought might be worth clearing up…*cough*…

We have already pressed some of our spring teas, and some of the ripe teas are still being pressed this week. We look forward to the second Spring harvest this year; there might be some really excellent teas, but it is totally weather dependent. I’ll be going through samples in late May to see what is out there.

Fluctuating Puer Tea Prices

The prices in the Spring of 2015 were unpredictable. Generally speaking, areas with lesser fame had a slight reduction in their old arbor Puer prices. Areas with major fame, such as Laobanzhang, maintained stable prices. Producers with high quality tea sold out early, and those with lesser quality tea still have plenty of stock as of the writing of this article.

As a trend, this is good news for the consumer. It indicates that high quality tea will drive the market. In past years when the Puer market was booming, all of the tea was swallowed up by speculation. Good and bad, old arbor and young tree. When the thirst for Puer tea is so strong that even low quality tea from young trees is purchased with fervor, it does a disservice to the market. Quality is disregarded in favor of quantity and the tea that hits the market is both low quality and overpriced. This year the trend reversed slightly, with quality being a driving factor. Hopefully this trend will continue as it forces producers to focus on making the best tea they can, rather than sheer volume. As I have mentioned in the past, I believe the long-term bubbles in the Puer market will collapse for low-quality, overproduced material, whereas high-quality tea will always hold (most of) its value. If you are new to Puer tea, think of it as a real estate market. When a real estate bubble bursts, downtown Manhattan still has a market, but far flung suburbs might see a drastic price drop. Regardless of the market, there will always be a wealthy group of people who want to live on 5th Ave and drink old arbor Yiwu.

Xigui Puer
Xigui Spring Puer Tea, 2015

As always there are exceptions to the rule, with some regions rising in price in spring 2015 rather than stabilizing or declining. Most notably Xigui’s prices rose from the previous spring. I spent a week in the area and visiting Xigui early in the spring. I personally think the price hike is justified. All prices equal, I would prefer Xigui over Bingdao. And considering the major price gap between the two, it does not seem odd that Xigui prices would increase. The increased market demand for limited, high quality material will always drive two things: higher prices and a deluge of fake tea. So, if you want to start buying fresh Xigui now, proceed with caution.

What to Buy and What to Avoid

As usual, my recommendation for consumers looking to purchase Spring tea is to avoid the hype and famous names. There is plenty of quality tea to be had in any given price range and not much reason to chase villages with overly inflated prices. If this sounds like generic advice, it is. It’s less generic when you consider that I practice what I preach. As it happens, I really enjoy Xigui tea, but I didn’t buy any this Spring, not even for my personal drinking. I did purchase some to drink in the previous years for my own collection. Long time followers of my blog will know I have had a penchant for Guafengzhai for quite some time. These last two years, their village has been so woefully full of fake tea and the prices so high, I didn’t purchase old arbor tea from them either.

Large Puer Tree
Puer Tree in Xishuangbanna, 2015

This year, I will also be making a move towards intentionally not labeling specific village names and misleading tree ages. I want to re-focus on the tea, providing broad guidelines like “this tea has strong bitterness and is from Menghai area” rather than “Laoman’e village pure ancient tree!”  Labels are so blatantly misused that they have become meaningless. Every website seems to have ancient tree tea from villages that ostensibly only have a precious few hundred kilograms of gushu in a season. Not to mention the conspicuous ages of the trees – did they measure the age of each tree? And…how? There seem to be a lot more 300 year old trees in the market than I’ve seen with my own eyes in the tea mountains.  Rather than continue with the name dropping and inflated age hype, I think it is better to focus on the tea itself. If you avoid the hype, your wallet and mouth with thank you.

With that being said, the final word is to follow your own tastes and your own budget. Buy what you like and can afford. And most of all, enjoy drinking the new 2015 Spring tea.

 

P.S. Follow our instagram. We will be having a tea giveaway with our 500th post.

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Vice Puerh Misunderstandings

Correcting Puerh Misunderstandings, A Helping Hand for Vice

My Job Application for Vice’s Chief Puerh Editor

Recently a Puerh article from Vice garnered a few shares in online tea circles, leading to e-mails in my inbox asking about the validity of many of the claims in the article. After a cursory glance at the post, I noticed at least a half-dozen factual errors, along with several misrepresentations of the situation of Puerh in Yunnan. Not that I would expect a first time Yunnan visitor or Vice’s munchies section to be factual authorities on Puerh tea, as it is an admittedly dense topic to gloss over in a short travel log. Unfortunately, the article got a few facts wrong and Vice is a lot more widely read than my piddly little blog. Hence this post, which will try to clear up some of these Puerh misunderstandings from the Vice article quote by quote.

Bingdao Puerh Tea
Bingdao Spring Fresh Leaf from 2015

“Shops that sell puer dot the city, but vend the same stuff that’s sold in any grocery store around the country.”

The only Puerh that typically makes it to grocery stores with any regularity in China is Colourful Yunnan, which is basically Puer Lipton. Kunming has two sizable tea markets, Jinshi and Kangle, both of which have far more Puerh tea variety than any grocery store or even specialty tea shop. Other cities like Simao or Menghai are also full of tea shops. Perhaps the author ran into some low quality shops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grocery store with fresh spring raw maocha [loose Puerh tea] or 30 varieties of raw Puerh, both of which are commonly found in most Kunming shops.

“Yunnan lacks airports, so traveling from one town to another requires spending twenty-odd hours on a sleeper bus.”

This adds flavor to the story, but conveniently ignores that there are airports in Xishuangbanna (Jinghong), Simao, Kunming, Lincang, Baoshan, Dali, Lijiang,… I am getting tired or writing city names. Suffice it to say there are plenty of airports. And if you take a twenty hour sleeper bus, it is probably because you are trying to save $5 instead of arrive at your destination. Either that or there was a miscommunication when buying your ticket, as express buses are extremely common.  I get it, the whole “Yunnan is poor and look at the difficult route I painstakingly traveled” narrative falls apart if you can take an 8 hour bus, but still; you can get to Lincang or BanNa from Kunming in less than ten hours, even with a flat tire factored in. Rent a car and 7 hours might cut it. Or you could fly.

“No teas is served…I ask if I could have a cup of tea. The cook laughs as he turns and saunters back into the kitchen.”

I’ve never been to a restaurant or truck stop in Yunnan that didn’t have tea. Granted, I have not been to every truck stop across the province. And when I ‘ve had tea, it was never excellent quality Puerh tea. However, it’s free and standard with any purchased meal at a restaurant. Also, why would anyone expect or search for good tea at a truck stop or restaurant?

“Tea trees grow along Yunnans Lancang River, and only the leaves picked from there can be eventually called puer.”

This is an oddball definition, even allowing for the nuance and disagreement around the subject. This definition would exclude several major tea producing areas which are not along the river, such as many of the tea mountains throughout Xishuangbanna, Yiwu, and Yibang.  This is a more accurate Puerh definition, for the interested.

Lancang River Puerh Vice
A photograph below Xigui, on the Lancang river, taken in Spring 2015

“The leaves are then sent to a city called, well, PuEr, where dozens of manufacturers produce their own blends according to recipes passed down for generations. The leaves are fermented for at least three months and up to several years, ending up as either sheng (raw) tea or shou (ripe) tea.”

Again, this ignores a gigantic portion of the Puerh producing world; Xishuangbanna and Yiwu come to mind. Most of the more notable factories and productions from throughout history are not from Puer city. Puer city was actually a recent name change and a plot to gather more tea tourists, most of the best Puerh tea is nowhere near Puer city. I am also not sure what three months refers to – but there is not really a time limit involved in any case. Some Guangdong clan purists will demand a certain amount of age for raw tea before it is deemed truly Puerh.

“Because tea is kept as something special here,” one says dismissively between hits. “Its enjoyed slowly, with family or close friends. Its not something thats just part of a meal.”

This adds some magical mystique to the narrative but it is not grounded in truth. People have, share, and sell tea everywhere in Yunnan. It’s ubiquitous at meals or tea tables with both friends and strangers alike. I am curious if the author visited any tea mountains on the journey.  Tea plantations should have had tea everywhere in March. Any tea farmer would happily brew samples for a traveler in an effort to sell some tea or just to be polite and have a chat. Even during off season, any restaurant or shop will gladly serve tea, even to sworn enemies. Never underestimate the power of pleasantries to take precedent over a feud.

“Thats when it dawns on me. The people along the Lancang River see how much work goes into making puer. Theyre part of the process. They spend years cultivating the tea. For them, its not an afterthought during mealtime. Puer tea bulbs are more like Murano glass vases than the loose leaves you might have in your pantry.”

Again, pretty story, just totally false. Tea farmers will (and gladly do) sell their tea to whoever wants to purchase it. This is how they earn their living. After all, staring at your glass vases and never selling them is a pretty bad business model. It’s not Fabergé eggs, it is tea. Any farmer can spare a few kilograms for casual drinking, even if it is lower grade Huangpian.

 “I try to take in the aroma of the land, but all I can smell is exhaust.”

What better tried and true way to end an article on China than the smell of exhaust fumes? Because China = pollution, amirite!? The air in the tea mountains is some of the freshest, most fragrant air I’ve ever encountered. However, that is tough to fit in with the 20 hours bus ride and poverty theme, so I understand the editorial choice.

Helping to Spread Correct Puerh Tea Information

Articles like this are obviously more story telling than dissemination of Puerh tea information, so, why do i care? Puerh is a topic with plenty of strong opinions, so usually I don’t nitpick (openly, anyway). I only take issue when the information mixed in with the story is blatantly false. Obviously a first time Yunnan tea tourist who hops on a bus from Kunming and doesn’t have any connections is not going to stumble upon old arbor Yiwu reserves. I’ve been here for ten years and need to knife fight for what little old arbor Yiwu I can get. But, finding Puer tea in general should not be difficult with the right approach.

Xigui Puerh Tea Misunderstandings
Xigui Old Arbor Tea from 2015, Overlooking the Mighty Lancang

The author’s trip in Yunnan is the equivalent of me going to California and taking a Greyhound bus from San Diego thinking, “I heard Napa Valley has some good wines!” Then visiting gas stations and truck stops along the route. Finding no wine and concluding, “Man, the wine here really sucks! I asked some guys smoking outside of the gas station about Napa wine and they told me that they only drink wine with close friends. Guess I am f&*%^$d! Also, LA has smog.”

In any case, an article with this lack of research and cursory understanding will probably pass muster with the casual Vice crowd, but it results in the spread of misinformation to potential Puerh tea drinkers and e-mails from confused readers in my inbox. So, next time Vice or any other magazine wants to run one of these pieces, please just shoot me an e-mail and I can guest edit/fact-check the piece. You can preach whatever narrative you want, but at least clean up the “only trees from near the Lancang river are Puerh” bits so that tea drinkers don’t get the wrong idea.

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Puer Jianghu Wild West Urban Chic

Puer Tea, Urban Chic, and the Wild West

Welcome to the Jianghu

Puer tea and its authenticity are in a constant state of negotiation. Visit any tea forum or crowded tea table and debates echo throughout. Opinions like, “That is not Puer tea,” and “This is Puer tea,” are declared with such supreme confidence that you’d think the participants were discussing the blueness of the sky or warmth of the sun. Yet, despite the loud voices and self assured declarations, only one fact about Puer tea remains clear; nothing is clear. Author Jinghong Zhang bears witness to this tussle for authentic truth in her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.

Before I delve into Zhang’s study on Puer, which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject of Puer tea, I must first come clean about some of my personal bias. After attempting to read certain texts about Puer in the past(which shall remain nameless, so I don’t begin torching bridges), I could rarely read past the second chapter before my gag reflexes kicked in. Some books were ego driven expressions of tea mastery that were more masturbatory autobiography than Puer book. Others were harrowing, overblown tales of adventure and discovery of uncharted worlds that would make Marco Polo blush. And in some texts, nearly every photo features an elderly villager in traditional garb, with the information skewed towards selling the idea of fabled “1,000 year old trees” as a giant advertisement, rather than serving as a tool for learning.

 

Zhang manages to escape these common trappings by utilizing her perspective as an mindful observer. She carries no banner and pledges allegiance to none. She is just another tea drinker wandering the jianghu.

Puer tea tree
An old arbor tree in Hekai area from Fall of 2014

Puer Tea and the Wild West

What is jianghu you ask? Great, glad you did. Jianghu is a complex concept which can briefly be described as a place “located between utopia and reality” where one can “achieve romantic dreams, but chaos and risks still remain.” Popular in early Chinese martial arts fiction, jianghu referred to a world where Chinese knight-errants would go beyond the reach of their government and compete in kungfu competitions with others in the jianghu. The matching of kungfu skills was “a simple and perfect resolution for all kinds of problems: good or evil, right or wrong.” For my Western readers, the closest concept that relates to jianghu in Western culture is the American Wild West. Just replace the kungfu with gunslinging at sundown and it fits well enough. A lawless place, where dreams and happiness can be realized, but where there are risks and danger in a loosely bound world which is chaotic and evolving. It is a field of actors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, vying for dominance. As Zhang puts it, “The route to discovering authentic Puer tea is often full of risk and competition.” And that, is where we enter the Puer tea jianghu.

Aged Puer tea and the Wild West
Aged raw Puer tea being poured into a glass

Now, keep in mind, the above quotes are laid out around Page 26. Usually by this point in reading a Puer book I am grabbing the nearest trash bin so I can vomit. Not with Zhang. She begins at the outset by setting up the scene in the theater; describing the players but not giving a monologue herself. One key component in the jianghu is that, “the essence of society is based on the presence of various groups or clans whose disciplines are in debate and cannot be tolerated by one another,” and each group has its “own code of conduct … [and] own language and wisdom.” Then she lists the clans, with which we Puer drinkers are all familiar. The ripe Puer clan. The raw Puer clan. The dry storage clan. The humid/traditional storage clan. The Yiwu flavor clan. The Menghai flavor clan. The aged tea clan. The gushu [old arbor] clan. The young tea clan. We can surmise the entirety of the Puer jianghu by noting of the clans, “Each declares itself the most authentic and does not tolerate the other.” With this sentence, I knew Zhang’s tome would set itself apart from the pack. She wasn’t carrying a clan banner, just reporting on the skirmish like a journalist above the battlefield.

Puer tea
Pouring young raw Puer tea into a teacup

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is a wealth of valuable information, both historical and anecdotal. Details of Zhang’s own visits in various areas of Yunnan. Varied perspectives from the different clans in Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. And a tale about a large “in real life” tea tasting with members of a Chinese online tea forum that had me laughing out loud as I compared it to my own comical interactions on Western tea forums (hint: same shit, different pile). Zhang bravely decides not to take stances, but rather offers a myriad of vantage points for the reader to come to their own conclusions about a range of topics, whether it be old arbor Puer tea or the identity of Puer tea on the whole.

 

Jinghong Zhang has restored some of my faith in the possibilities of Puer literature. That it need not be fierce kungfu battles and egotistical posturing. That there is indeed hope for the negotiation of authenticity beyond the “all of my tea is from organic fair trade 1,000 year old trees in the most remote villages, all hand processed by elderly folks missing teeth” style of marketing. That the misinformation and lack of accurate representation is not hopeless. That there is a discussion to be had and gray area to be traversed. And even at the end of that discussion, perhaps the actors in the Puer Wild West can end with a handshake and a shot of Four Roses, instead of a gunfight at sundown.

Author Jinghong Zhang is a lecturer at Yunnan University and a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University. Her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic can be purchased from the University of Washington Press.

For additional information, check these links on identifying fake Puer tea and defining Puer tea. And as always, if you are interested in purchasing curated Puer tea.

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Taste Tea Blog

Taste is in the Mouth of the Beholder

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.

Chinese Pizza
Just look at that…delicious…pizza

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.

Pizza Hut China
Merry Christmas! Hug for Love. Thanks, Pizza Hut.

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?

eating wasps
Sweet, nourishing wasps and minnows

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.

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Fake Puerh Dilemma

Fake Puerh Tea: 3 Ways to Avoid Common Scams

Real or Fake? The Puerh Tea Buyers Dilemma

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.

Xiaguan ad
An advertisement for Xiaguan at a major metropolitan airport. What is your tea money going towards?

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!

Dayi ad
Bus ads for Dayi don’t come cheap!

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.

old arbor tea limb
Old arbor teas can never support massive productions

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.

aged Puerh tea
How old is this tea? Or more importantly, is the tea good?

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.

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Autumn Puerh Tea Twodog

Autumn 2014, Yunnan

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.

tea flower
Tea flower bug from Xigui

tea flower tea fruit
Some tea flowers and tea fruit [cha hua & cha guo] from Xigui area. The signs of autumn on the tea mountains
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.

Tea Mountain Path
In Lincang a few friends and I went to a village without a road. This was both the beginning and end of the path.
Lincang Tea Mountain
Half way up the mountain. The view across the river.

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.

Wild olives
Olive Trees near Bingdao

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.

tea tree lichen
Lichen on some old trees

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.

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Beginner's Mind

Beginner’s Mind and Drinking Tea

Drinking Tea with Beginner’s Mind

 

“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.

Yiwu Kettle Gaiwan
Kettle filling a gaiwan , near Yiwu Spring 2014

That first sip was our entrance into a new world of flavor. This is tea. 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.

lbz
Sampling teas

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.

small white bug tea
A small bug crawling across a branch, 2013 Guafengzhai

“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.

“Interesting.”

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.”

floating tea branch
A floating branch from an old arbor tea tree

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.

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Last Thoughts Puerh

How to Buy Puer Tea: The Three Tenets

Tenet One: Walk Before you Can Run. Then Sprint.

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.

2003 Gold Dayi
Gold Dayi from 2003. A tea that is so oft faked and so expensive that it is barely attainable

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.

Gushu
The trunk of a mighty old arbor tea tree (Laoman’e, Spring 2014)

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:

Marshaln_Hammercomment

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.

Fu Hai 7576
Fuhai 7576

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:

“A cake is a sample.” –  Ouch, moderator from the Badger and Blade forum

And to go a step further, a tong is a cake. Hopefully these words won’t fall on deaf ears and new puer drinkers can learn from the venerable wisdom of mistakes made in the past.

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Youle Puerh Tea

2004 Jinuoshan Youle

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.

2004 Jinnuoshan Youle
Pre-steeping

Dry tea has no smell. Tippy. Furry. Tightly pressed.

Youle Puerh
A close up of chunk of dry puer

Rinse is sweet and clean. The first cup soft, sweet, fruity, and smooth.

Second steep, light and smooth in the mouth.

Youle Puer Tea
Copper soup in the cup

Late in the session the tea is calming and has strong grape-like tannins. Plenty of body and subtle bitterness.

12 steeps.

Puerh Tea blog
Spent Youle puer leaves

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.

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