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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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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Laoman'e Puer

Puer Scents and a 2011 Laoman’E Gushu

Laoman’e Puer & Young Teas with Floral Scents

Young teas have a tenuous grip on their high pitched floral scents. With an (almost) three year old Laoman’e raw puer tea, you can feel the lighter floral character slipping from the tea’s fingers, to be lost forever as the Laoman’e spirals out into the low tones of bitterness and other mysterious developments that the region is famed for. The floral aspects of the tea are the first thing to be shed when aging sets in, but still many people search out puer teas with heavy fragrance. If the goal is to buy raw puer tea with the intent of aging, this sort of methodology is folly. In 10 years, most of those fragrances will be gone. It is the same logic of why one ought to marry a best friend instead of the beauty pageant winner. Surface beauty is fleeting, but substance lasts.

Laoman'e Puerh
Dry piece of a Laoman’e puer cake

This 2011 Laoman’e gushu [old arbor] still has a loose hold on the flowers of youth. The initial steeps are roses dipped in a satisfying bitter tar.

Several cups pass and the roses become blacker and blacker, until the eventual penetrating kuwei [pleasant bitterness] begins to dominate the character of the tea and the roses are nowhere to be found. They are lost in the thick and engrossing body of the tea.

Laomane Puer
Laoman’e gold soup

The core of the this tea is like an opaque black stone. Orbiting around the bitter gravity are flecks of cream and sweetness.

An intoxicating tea to drink young, for bitter devotees such as yours truly.

For cultists of the floral, perhaps puer is not the right refuge. Oolong teas, fresh green teas, and scented floral teas all hold better claims to the flower throne. I often hear casual tea drinkers in China gripe about the lack of xiangwei [fragrance] in raw puer teas when compared to other teas they drink. This is like complaining about the lack of incense in a temple. Sure, the fragrance of incense in a temple is pleasing to the senses, but if you show up to the temple to meditate and all you can manage is a complaint about the lack of perfume, perhaps you’ve come to the wrong place.

Laomane Puerh
Laoman’e spent leaves

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1980 puer

1980’s Wild Tree Loose Puer

 Aged Puer Tea

Lovely old puer teas have engrossing stories to tell. This aged puer from origintea has the odor of musty books. Wood unfurls out of the the gongbei [shared cup, glass pitcher] after a rinse. The dust covered smells then morph into a deep caramelized sugar, and then vanish. The leaves smell damp after a long sleep. I wait about two minutes after the rinse before I start steeping. I smell the lid of my yixing and there is a sharp smell of wetness that a lot of older teas have inevitably collected in their long lifetime.

Any hint of the sharp smell vanishes within moments. I place the lid back, wait a moment, and smell again, and again the smell has transformed to fragrant wood and earth. Teas like this are captivating. Their constant changes are a sort of theatrical performance. The sharpness makes a brief cameo appearance, takes a bow, and leaves the stage. The wood is a main character, acting in scenes with the earth and the sweetness. All of the acts being performed amidst a backdrop of smoothness and warmth, the setting of the play. This is what good puer tea should be!

Dry 1980's raw puer tea
Dry 1980’s raw puer tea

The early steeps were thin. The tea was just beginning to wake up, and had a direct thinness similar to aged Liubao tea. As the session progressed this thin character began to widen out.

On the fifth steep I smell the leaves and get a smell of browned stew meat. I did not see him in the playbill! Honestly, I questioned whether I should write this note down, since some puer aficionados are going to read stew meat and think I am an idiot, but it was just the first thing that came to mind. The smell of raw beef that you are browning in the pan. When you take it out of the fire and it sits for a moment and has a sickly, meat smell. That was the connection my brain made. A definite first.

Petr Novak Cup
A view of the dark red brown soup, in a cup from Petr Novak

The star of the show is difficult to pick in such an intense drama. The lingering huigan [sweet aftertaste] is one the best assets of the tea. The smooth texture of the tea and warming body feel are enviable. This is a must see show. A Tony award winner (ha!). Enough with the hackneyed  theatrical references, try the tea!

Zisha Puerh Aged
Spent leaves

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Chen Guang He Tang

2005 Chen Guang He Tang Wild Menghai

Teas from the Origin

After a recent tea exchange with the generous proprietor of the Taiwan based Origin Tea , I have been whimsically drifting through a variety of aged teas. The slightly more mature teas are a pleasant break from drinking raw 2013 Spring/Fall samples. Nothing against the young and the raw, but fall and winter are a great time for darker teas.

CGHT Puerh
Isn’t this a beautiful tea?

The 2005 Chen Guang He Tang tea was apparently not made by Chen Zhi Tong, but it was purchased by him. Purchasing tea might not sound sexy, but having great taste and picking good tea is a skill unto itself. As Ira Glass once pointed out, killer taste is how every great artist begins their journey.

This tea is supposedly wild tea from the Menghai region, an expansive area that I expansively love. The tea has likely been stored in Taiwan for most of its life (never checked this fact). The taste is similar to Taiwan storage, and the color of the soup is on it’s way to a mature brown. The tea holds a tempered edge of sweetness.

On the way to aged soup
On the way to aged soup

The smells on the lid of the gaiwan are richer than any run of the mill menghai blend. Malty and thick with a smell of caramel and light cigar wrappers.

The soup continues to be smooth and sweet in the mouth. There is depth that most menghai cakes touch the edge of, but unfortunately most cakes rarely breech the boundary into depth and complexity. In the middle of the session, this tea dips into that trench. What awelcome companion for this cool afternoon, I should hope I try this tea again in the future. Many thanks to Origintea for the sample.

The spent leaves
The spent leaves

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Tea Pet

2012 Xiaguan Tea Emperor

5 Blades.

One of my all-time favorite Onion articles is “Fuck Everything, We’re doing 5 Blades.” It seems directly related to tea companies  naming their teas with ever loftier names like the Tea King of this or that region.

Tea King? Fuck you, Tea Emperor. I imagine a scene with a coked out Tea CEO yelling angrily at a boardroom full of underlings, “Oh, no, what will people say?! Grow the fuck up. When you’re on top, people talk. That’s the price you pay for being on top. Which [Xiaguan] is, always has been, and forever shall be… Tea Emperor? Tea God.”

If anyone from Xiaguan reads this, and the boardroom meetings are anything like my fantasy, please send video.

Xiaguan Tea Emperor
Some Dry Emperor

The Tea Emperor has an atypical smell for Xiaguan. None of the smoke or the burly lumberjack manliness. It smells soft and sweet.

8.8 grams of tea, how lucky. Heavily fragmented, lots of crumbs pouring out on every steep, the 8.8 grams is probably down to 7 now. The fragments are a product of the dust I chose to steep, the cake is just typical small varietal leaves and some chop.

Cloudy Puerh
Cloudy Soup

The first rinse is very cloudy. Subsequent steeps follow suit and taper off.

Early steeps taste a bit like a sweet egg cream cake on entry. Lots of astringency in this young cake. Soup is gold colored.

Thick on the finish with a subtle huigan [sweet aftertaste] that is mostly overshadowed by the astringency of the puer tea.

Prices online seem to vary, roughly about $30-$50 per cake, which seems fine to me. There is a nice finish to the cake that a lot of teas which cost more lack. I have no idea how this tea will age though. The flavor of the cake is somewhat foreign to me. What I labeled as egg cream cake is a sickly kind of white sweetness. I don’t know what that is or how it will age. Would be fun to try in 5 years, if only for the sake of research.

Chop Puer
Chopped up and green

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Cheng Guang He Tang

2010 Yiwu Tea King (CGHT)

All Hail ye Yiwu Tea King

Ah, yet another king of tea, this time, an Yiwu tea king [cha wang]. The warring states in the Puer tea kingdoms have yet to decide on their one true ruler. With more claims to the monarchy than Game of Thrones, it is always interesting to see which teas can hold their own on the battlefield… Winter is coming.

CGHT Yiwu
Dry chunk of his majesty

This cake has a much better claim to the throne than most “tea kings”. The cake is beautiful to look at. Some large leaves and medium compression. Its smell is lightly smokey, probably some leftovers from extra heat during processing. After a rinse, the gaiwan lid has aromas of vanilla, while the leaves have a scent of prunes.  This cake is heavy on aromas, which continued evolving throughout.

Chengguanghetang
Early brews of m’Lord

The first steep was mildly sour on the tongue. Early in the session, a persistent huigan [sweet aftertaste] came into the mouth. Some calming qi, and a bit of energy in the caffeine realm. (Perhaps I went overboard when filling my gaiwan – I noted I was listening to Kanye, which is a rare tea session accompaniment and says a lot about the strength of my brew) The Yiwu tea king apparently has a penchant for American hip hop.

Yiwu Puerh Tea
More soup

This Yiwu feels like it has strength enough to age, and even being two years old, has a slight aged taste to it already -or at least, it does not taste young. With a strong presence and pleasant malty sweetness, this session was very much enjoyable. Chenguanghe Tang (CGHT) Yiwu Tea King cakes are always welcome in my gaiwan – if someone else is paying.

This was a post from an old session, cleaning out some backlogs of notes.

Spent Puer Tea
Spent Puer Tea

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Huang Pianr

Huangpian, Tea for Bedtime

Huangpian Gets No Respect

Somewhere along the line, huangpian [the huge, yellow/gold leaves in some puer blends] got a bad rap for being ugly. In most Chinese markets, consumers will pay a premium for buds, or two leaves and a bud. Maybe it is carry over from enthusiasts of other teas? Maybe most people find them aesthetically displeasing? Maybe people hate (or think they hate) the flavors of the big leaf? Whatever the reason, it is a modern aesthetic. Traditionally, the huangpian, also called jintiao [golden strands] in the past, were left in when processing cakes. Even the shift in nomenclature from huangpian to jintiao suggests a widespread lowering of its status.

Huangpian
Dried huangpian from Guafengzhai

However, this shift is actually good news for people like me who enjoy huangpian for a few reasons:

  1. I can buy huangpian that other people pick out of their puer for a discount
  2. When you tell farmers you want to keep some huangpian in your blend, they love you because it increases their tea weight and lightens the work load
  3. You can feel superior to the whiny princesses out there who want perfect, pretty tea. Toughen up, Sally.
Huangpian Puer
A picture of a Huangpian only cake from 2009

Some people’s love of huangpian is so deep they don’t drink anything else. The above cake was that I got from a farmer in Guafengzhai who said he drinks majority huangpian from fall. He told me that he prefers them because they are not as fussy, and he pressed the cake above to give to friends who visit. Admittedly, this is more cost effective than gifting high grade gushu [old arbor tea]. But, I appreciate the gift. Gushu huangpian is in my tea rotation.

There is a litany of other reasons why huangpian are great, but this artcle is going to focus on just one; it is perfect for drinking before bed.

 

Huangpian: Lower Caffeine, Better Dreams

 

Huangpian have naturally lower caffeine than the leaves which are higher on the stalk. I learned this just from trial and error. You brew a pot of huangpian and steep it 5 times and there isn’t a caffeine kick like a fresh green tea or other young puer tea. Luckily, someone out there actually did scientific testing to back up my casual observations (Thank you, Elmwood Inn):

Nigel Melican’s caffeine percentage findings are:

Bud-6.3%

First leaf-4.6%

Second leaf- 3.6%

Third leaf-3.1%

Fourth leaf-2.7%

Leaf stalk-2.0%

Two leaves and a bud-4.2%

Stealing Mr.Nigel Melican’s data, we can see that there is a steady decline in caffeine content as you go down the stem. Reason enough to keep a pot of huangpian near the bed stand.

Huang Pian Puerh
Huangpian tea, ready to chug out of an old teabowl that lost its lid

The other important fact to take away from his study is that the amount of caffeine that remains in the leaves decreases as you steep. If you are particularly sensitive to caffeine, you could brew and toss the first few steeps and get an even lower caffeine intake.

Huangpian puer tea
Huangpian puer soup

The other obvious solution for the caffeine sensitive tea drinker is just drinking caffeine free herbals or warm goat’s milk, but if you have read this far in the article, you are probably a puer addict anyway. Herbal? Come on. Who are you trying to kid?

For me, it is a matter of mood. I do drink herbal teas. Fresh mint or licorice root are favorites on mine at night. But, sometimes I need that depth. A huigan [sweet aftertaste] or kuwei [bitterness] or a mineral feel in the mouth. And my trusty ol’  huangpian are there to rescue me.

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Bingdao Tea Puerh Blog

Fake Puer Tea Without Any Effort, 2006 Bingdao Tuo

Fake Tea Quickie

Once in awhile there is a sample that makes you throw up your hands and say, “Come on! You aren’t even trying!”

This “Bingdao” tea is to Bingdao what baking soda volcanoes are to science fairs. A last minute frantic attempt to salvage poor quality work and a lack of understanding of the assignment.

Well, here we are Jimmy. Let’s take a look at this fascinating study of Mt. Vesuvius, before we throw this in the trash and send you to remedial science with a  purple Participant! ribbon.

On the rinse, things are still a bit tight, nothing really happens. A quick note to anyone unfamiliar with Bingdao, it is an area that has the honor of being amongst the most expensive of all puer regions. I have had real bingdao only a handful of times, and over 95% of what is labeled as Bingdao is not Bingdao – similar to Laobanzhang in volume of fakery. Buyer beware.

Bingdao Puer tea
Dry “Bingdao” tea
Bingdao Puerh
Is that a human hair on the upper right? Super.

Then on steep one, BAM! A baking soda explosion of foam, er, uh… fragrance. But not subtle fragrance. More of an uppercut to the jaw . The smell is of sweet fruit and is chemical in nature. Kind of like the strawberry flavor of Nesquick, which tastes nothing at all like an actual strawberry, but everything like the vague idea of fruit that is imagined in a far away laboratory. This artificial smell fills the room like an old ladies perfume, reducing my interest in this session from a 7 to a 1.

Nesquik_Bingdao
That rabbit is a neat mascot

By the way, no offense intended towards Nesquik and their corporate overlords. I’d rather drink their crappy* product than this tea.

I gave up around steep 4. Here are pics for anyone who cares about the soup and leaves. I won’t waste your time describing the thin liquid that was left when the perfume was gone. Enough of this Bingdao impostor, to the garbage with thee.

tea cups and tea tray
Soup.
leaves of tea
Leaves. Man was this stuff toxic.

Let’s not end a post on such disgusting tea. Has any else been listening to the new Sly & he Family Stone box set Higher! ? Or how about that Breaking Bad finale? Let’s talk about anything but this tea.

*some offense intended

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Gua Feng Zhai Puerh Tea

And Never Say Always, 2008 Guafengzhai

Guafengzhai Puer Tea and Managing Expectations

Anyone who has talked puer with me knows that I am a Guafengzhai fan boy. Not quite to the level of Beiber fever screaming and hysterics, but i play the album often. Guafengzhai is an area far East of Yiwu, on the border with Laos. It is a village of Yao minority people surrounded by mountain jungles, with three main tea picking areas; Chaping, Baishahe, and Chawangshu. In addition to those areas, which in my fan boy opinion are some of the best puer areas anywhere, they also have some younger plantation teas. This 2008 Guafengzhai is one of those super young plantation teas – I believe one of the first years they made xiaoshu [little tree] tea using local material, or this is how it was disclosed to me from the source.

Chawangshu
The road to Chawangshu, taken by yours truly in Spring 2013

Being a Belieber in Guafengzhai, before it even comes on stage, I am lost in fantasies of our future together. How it will slowly step down off the stage and press through the crowd, gaze fixed on me. Motioning for the security guards to step aside and pushing through the throngs of other desperate eager puer fanboys. “Come to me. We were meant for each other,” I mouth to the Guafengzhai. It winks at me and picks me up in its long stemmed arms. Or at least, these were my expectations for the session.

We all continually relearn the same lessons in life. My lesson today? Expectation is the precursor to disappointment. Desire the source of all pain. Did the Buddha ever have plantation Guafengzhai?

Plantation Teas and Thinness

Without getting into a bunch of sticky and dangerous talk about the difference between gushu [old arbor] and xiaoshu [little tree, plantation] teas, let me preface by saying there are exceptions to most rules. If you want to talk about stem size. Or veins. Or leaf thickness. Or depth of flavor. Or thinness. Or Body. Or _____. There is almost always an exception. If anyone wants to write a definitive “Gushu is always ______”  list, be my damn guest. I am not poking that hornets’ nest.

Guafengzhai Puerh Tea
Dry Leaves, showing a few years of age

What I will say is that plantation teas generally have less body and staying power, meaning that they are thin in the mouth and die out after a shorter number of steeps. These two factors are what made this session fall short.

The good points, on the first rinse this tea was deeply fragrant. Low purple fruit in the gaiwan, very sweet in the cup.

GFZ Puer
Thin soup

In the third steep two strange things happened. First, a strong smell of Stilton cheese on the leaves – which I have no explanation for, especially considering this tea was dry stored and blue cheese sharpness usually shows up with wet stored teas that have a bit of mold. Second, there was an abrupt and intense astringency. Also, not something I can explain, as I rarely associate Guafengzhai with astringency. The astringency quickly passed however, and was gone on the next steep.

Guafengzhai Puer Tea
Spent leaves

Later in the session ,around the fifth steep, the tea drifted off into thin oblivion, with nothing left to offer. So, there I stood, having the painful realization that my expectations were too high. I did a couple of oversteeps for research and pitched the rest. There are many fish in the sea, and many other teas in my cabinet. No sense in spending time dreaming about this one, especially since I have my own Spring Guafengzhai cakes on the bench.

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