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How to Avoid Fake Puerh Scams and Get What you Pay For

What is “Fake” Puerh Tea?

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”:

  1. Quality of the material (is it plantation material or old arbor, etc.)
  2. Region or origin of the tea
  3. Date of the tea’s production
  4. Season during which the tea was picked
  5. Age of the material
  6. Factory/producer/brand
Stacks of Puerh
Stacks of cakes with vague wrappers are commonplace in Chinese tea markets. The tea is what matters, not the brand.

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)
7581 Puerh
A 2002 7581shu Puerh wrapper; oft faked.

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?

Real Dayi
An image of an authentic 2011 Dayi cake

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.

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