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.
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.
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.