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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