Tea Packaging Chinese Tea Market

Can anyone identify this Chinese tea packaging?

Deciphering Chinese Tea Packaging

Any frequenter of Western tea forums will come across more than their fair share of threads with titles like “Can somebody tell me what this is?” or “My Chinese co-worker brought this back from China, what is it?” and my personal favorite “My friend went to China and brought back this tea, it is really rare and expensive!” These posts are all well meaning. People interested in learning about tea packaging and understanding their newly found gifts or purchases. However, there is a problem with these lines of questioning. Most people ask these questions under the assumption that the packaging has a direct relationship with the contents of the package. Unfortunately, this assumption is often false.

This assumption typically comes from people in countries where packaging and truth in advertising are well regulated. If I purchase a package labeled as Organic California almonds in the USA, in all likelihood, that is what I will be getting. The company who packages the almonds could be held legally accountable for misrepresenting the product and the penalties are usually enough of a deterrent to keep companies honest. (although that is assuredly not always the case) In China and specifically in the tea markets, this assumption no longer holds true. A wholesale market might work through a ton of tea every day, carted in in large cardboard boxes or plastic bags that are quickly chopped up into smaller quantities and whisked off to tea sellers and tea drinkers around the country. Once the tea makes it to its final destination there is very little, if any, accountability or oversight. Tracing the exact origin of a tea is often a daunting task, even for tea sellers.

So, where does the disconnect begin? First, as mentioned above, only a wholesale distributor will have an accurate idea about their tea source. And, truth be told, in some cases even their conception of where a tea originated could be incorrect. An example that occurs in the world of puer, perhaps a tea dealer purchases directly from a farmer, but they do not know the farmer very well. The 10 kg bag of material that they purchased was sold as X, but is actually a mix of X and Y, because the farmer cut their original material with something else to increase their profit. In this case, even the original seller may unwittingly have some misinformation about the source of their tea – and this is before the tea even makes it to the factory for pressing.

tea packaging
A sea of tea packets

Second, packaging is often generic. Any wholesale tea market, or even small tea shop, with have a plethora of different bags and boxes with generic phrases like “Tie Guan Yin Tea King” or “Organic Top Quality Jin Jun Mei”. These bags and boxes can be filled with anything, and sealed on site. A bag with the label “Long Jing Green Tea” could just as easily be filled with high quality green tea as it could with a very low quality green tea.The packaging is no more an indicator of the bags’ contents than a sack with a dollar sign is an indicator of how much money a cartoon bank thief has stolen. Maybe he took $100 ? Or maybe $100,000? Maybe the tea you were gifted is high quality rock tea or maybe it is cat crap. At best, the bag can offer the viewer a broad category and nothing more. (and in some circumstances, even that will not be correct)

Why would tea vendors and customers want inaccurate packaging?

First, tea is often given as a gift. The receiver of the gift will not know much about tea 99% of the time. Regardless of country, the majority of the general population would be at a loss to distinguish between excellent tea, mediocre tea, and bad tea. China is no different. I have personally witnessed people purchase tea on several occasions where the packaging cost outweighs the cost of the tea by a factor of two or even three. That is to say, they bought $2 of crappy tea, to put into a $6 box. The packaging is beautiful, extolling the glorious rarity of the tea in the box. The tea is borderline garbage. The gift giver appears to be giving a very expensive gift – which gives them face [pride,status] via displaying their wealth. The gift receiver is none the wiser. Everybody wins…well, everybody except for me, who receives multiple gifts of completely shit tea from various acquaintances every month. Hopefully none of them read my blog… If you are reading this and gifted me tea, clearly I don’t mean you. Your tea was great! … Moving on.

Second, it presents an opportunity for unscrupulous tea sellers to make an extra dollar. Real Jinjunmei costs in the neighborhood of a thousand United States dollars per kilogram. The processing of this Fujian red tea became famous in recent years, and suddenly (and unsurprisingly) every tea seller in China was stocking authentic Jinjunmei by the 1/2 ton! Was  most of it real? Don’t be daft! It’s mostly other Fujian teas (or even red tea from Anhui or other neighboring regions) bagged into small pouches bearing the familiar name. Suffice it to say that if your uncle went to China and stopped by a tea market to buy you Jinjunmei where a tea seller told him stories of a rare and expensive tea, in all likelihood he was tricked. The label on that Jinjunmei bag in your hands has all the significance of a certified organic sticker slapped onto a bottle of pesticides.

Tea blog
One shelf, in one store. There are a hundred thousand more where this came from

So, does my packaging mean nothing?

Packaging can still be a general guideline. For example, it could give you a broad category of tea. You might now know that you were gifted Puer tea or Tieguanyin, but as for knowing what region the puer is from or what grade of Tieguanyin you have, you are up the river without a paddle.

Take packaging with a grain of salt and don’t judge books by their covers and [insert some other relevant idiom here]. Tea markets are full of “Spring Laobanzhang” and “Yiwu Gushu” labeled puer teas which are barely worth a few dollars and downright torture to drink. Learning to ignore packaging and flowery stories about tea is crucial to understanding tea. In fact, the first step toward tea enlightenment may very well be to discard all prior conceptions about any given tea before the cup hits your lips.

  • Great article! We are very happy that someone finally talks openly about this subject as it is very easy nowadays to have a bad tea experience just because it is so damn easily to lie about packing and tea quality. We would enjoy a follow-up article, people need to pay attention what and from whom they are buying their daily cup of tea.

    • Thanks – I hope this article can serve as a go to reference for anybody who is trying to suss out the origin of their gifted tea

  • Petr Novák

    Behinde all this are old Dao Masters who give to us, tea pilgrims, the lesson: Focus on the essence – forged the shallow. 🙂 But some wrappings and packing are so nice!

    • I never meant to disparage the niceties of visual packaging, especially to a fellow who traffics in beauty!

  • Nick H

    As always, ignore the narrative..here in SF Bay Area, I have observed that people are so flooded by them, that they are easy prey for “masters” of all type (whether real or fake); I have noticed a red flag (whether tea, martial arts, or whatever–those are just two subjects that are part of my life that I think are particularly ripe for abuse) is whenever I see someone who prefaces or starts their articles/profiles/conversations with their master(s), who they are studying with, etc. instead of just saying, “I like this thing. These parts are interesting..etc.”

    Instead they tend to hide behind “I have been studying with a ___________ master for 8 years.”

    Similarly, I don’t trust people who talk about companies and jobs they’ve had but never just actually just show excitement about the work they’ve done.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. Anytime somebody prefaces their own expertise with the expertise of another, I am suspicious. Especially when the person they are referencing is often a cad.

      The frequent abuses of the labels “tea master” or “tea sommelier” have rendered them nearly void of meaning.

    • gingko

      The case of martial art actually is much easier to solve. As long as you can put two masters (or masters’ students) together and just let them wrestle… Tea is always muddy water, because it’s too easy for whoever disagreeing with you to just say “you have poor taste.” :-p

      • Ha! There are some clear cut battles to be won in puer. When people out and out lie about what the tea is, if you have the knowledge to prove otherwise, you win. It’s the puer version of sweeping the leg.

      • Nick H

        You might think so..but I have seen discussion among other martial artists, both in person and online, of battles, both real and imagined, and points such as “Master X didn’t use his actual technique, he just was being brutish..or Master Y normally wears red shoes so..”

        Or rather, just as there are a very large number of permutations in climate, storage, season, producer, that can affect our ideas about how good say, even just one specific varietal of Tieguanyin is, there are a similarly large number of opponents to be fought, different martial or dangerous situations one could be in and whether or not a certain martial art or practioner could handle al of those/how well they could, or up to what degree its possible..

  • gingko

    In my experience, for ball-shaped oolong, the quality of the vacuum bag is often positively correlated with the quality of the supplier. Many of the bags look similar but have a broad range of thickness. My favorite ball-shaped oolong suppliers are all anal about the quality of vacuum bags. But most of them don’t care about the print or label on the bags, and don’t advocate for fridge storage, which is recommended by most oolong sellers in China.

    • What is the argument against fridge storage? The only argument I here for it, is that it keeps the tea greener (in color) and maintains the fragrance.

      It is a good sign when a vendor is really anal about the packaging material, but could care less about what is on the bag.

    • Nick H

      I have noticed that…I’ve seen tea hucksters from mainland China do that here, but never heard of anyone doing that in Taiwan..WTF.

      Puer is more ripe for abuse, I think, than oolong..

      • Puer definitely gets a raw deal