Yunnan Corn

State of the Puer Union – Fall 2016

Reflections on 2016 Autumn Puer Tea

The last leaves have been plucked and another autumn has come to a close. This fall lead to some further exploration of teas that have typically taken a back seat to my focus on raw Puer; namely white tea and some experimental blending of white tea and black tea together. This is also the year I’ve pressed and piled the most shou I’ve ever done. (a real lesson in patience) Despite those explorations, the bulk of my time was still spent drinking raw Puer and traveling around to various tea areas.

tea leaf red stem purple
Beautiful tea leaves with reddish stems, Yunnan, 2016

Fairly Stable Weather

Most of late September saw fairly even keel weather and quality conditions for tea growth and production. Scattered rains were nothing beyond the norm and there were plenty of sunny days. Only one or two teas that I had commissioned ended up with a cloudier than average soup, due to a bit of excess moisture during processing. In general, the teas produced this fall met or exceeded my expectations. Should be plenty of good tea coming out in the coming months. Oh yeah, and there was also plenty of mud.

muddy yunnan
Much mud to be had. Yunnan, 2016

New Blending Techniques

This fall was the birth of a new pressing that blends both white and black tea (baicha and hongcha) together into a single cake. It’s an idea that I’ve been toying with for a while and the blend finally felt right, so i commissioned the production of the teas, blended them, and waited for the pressing below. My favorite part of the blend was giving it to some Chinese friends (who are in the tea industry) and watching them turn up their noses at the idea before drinking the odd ball blend, only to immediately back peddle after taking the first sip. As is my usual m.o., the blend of teas is made from exclusively large leaf varietal that is typically destined for raw Puer production. All parts of the blend were sun dried and processed with the coming years in mind, so I’m really looking forward to how the blend ages.

Hot Brandy Tea Cake
The 2016 Hot Brandy, blended black tea and white tea from white2tea , Yunnan, 2016

Side note, the tea was gifted its name by Max Falkowitz who was visiting Yunnan for fall tea. When I brewed a cup for him, he immediately reacted with, “Smells like hot brandy!” I couldn’t pass up such a delightful name, especially given Wisconsinites propensity for drinking brandy. That, and when drinking it the name “Hot Brandy” just felt right. It took all of my restraint to not use a still from “What About Us” for the wrapper art.

New Roads and Infrastructure

Several villages that used to have pothole filled dirt roads received cement from the government to finish roads and in some cases even build houses and schools. Some villagers in Lancang area that I spoke to had to provide their own labor, but the local government provided the cement and most of the the equipment. This is a boon for the local people as it decreases their travel time and improves accessibility, as well as protects their roads from being washed out during rain storms. The villagers organized crews to build the roads and used the materials provided with great success. It’s a generalization, but it seems that Lancang’s government is better organized for supporting infrastructure projects than most. These changes also benefit yours truly, as it shaves hours off of driving times when visiting far flung villages.

A newly constructed cement road
A newly constructed cement road in Lancang, Yunnan, 2016

It’s also encouraging to see villages getting quality of life improvements that will hopefully improve their local economies in the long term. This sort of investment is vital for the future of Yunnan. The downside is that there is a still a long way to go and it is a slow process.

Favorite Scene of the Season

This totem has stuck in my mind. There’s something about its presence in the forest that made it one of my favorite scenes from 2016 autumn. The structure was erected by Lahu people near a well spring where the villagers gather water. They explained that they see it as both an offering and protector. It shows that they are thankful for the water from the spring and that they hope the totem helps the water flow forever.

lahu totem
A totem from the lahu people, Yunnan, 2016

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the new fall teas as they trickle in over the next couple of weeks. If you’ve had a rough couple of days, take solace in a glass of tea and raise a toast, cause i am right there with you. Here’s to water, here’s to tea, and here’s to humanity. Flow on.

tea questions

What am I Doing Wrong with my Tea?

Am I strange?

My inbox is a vault full of tea questions. The more common questions inevitably evolve into blog posts. I’ve even toyed with the idea of starting some sort of “Ask Twodog” column where I give tea and relationship advice. I’m only half joking. E-mail me with the subject “Dear Twodog” and I’ll try to fix your relationship probs – all anonymous – let the dog jump start your love life. But until the advice column gains steam, I’ll be sticking with tea and using oft asked tea questions for blog fuel.

The question that sparked this post was a question type i’ve seen frequently lately:

I was trying a fair amount of the shu and found a few that were OK, but it felt like something was missing. I started adding about 2g of the Gaoshan Qingbing to 6g of shu to get some high notes and like it a lot. The funny thing is that just by itself, the GaoShan is not my favorite. So my question is if you know of other people that do this or am I just strange.

The answer to this question, “am I just strange?” is almost inevitably yes. Yes, you are strange, but strange is normal. This is something that I’ve learned from years of reading Dan Savage. The subjective nature of taste results in broad variations. You’re not normal and neither is anybody else.

For tea folk, the whole subject of tea can become a bit dear – I am as guilty of this as anybody. The questions of good and bad, right and wrong, they loom heavy. They are such an ominous cloud that people sometimes forget to just have fun.

You’re pouring water on leaves. Imbibing a beverage that has thousands of years of human history. Enjoy yourself for fuck’s sake. note to self

With that being said, here are a few question formulas that have hit my inbox lately, with some generic advice for each.

tea questions
Is it strange to drink tea this way?

Can I Mix Ripe and Raw Puer?

The question above; is mixing ripe Puer and raw Puer some sort of sacrilege punishable by flagellation? Not at all, people do this. You are OK. Some bricks and cakes are even pressed this way. (Spoiler alert: I have pressed some, but not released them yet) Though, if you do want to mix your ripes and raws, here are some helpful tips:

  • It helps to mix a slightly aged raw. Young raw profiles are usually far too disparate to successfully meld with ripe Puer
  • I’ve had more success bolstering a ripe with a middle aged raw than vice versa, though that is a broad rule made to be broken
  • Don’t be afraid to blend your raws with other raws, too. Crimson Lotus Tea Cats and white2tea Dogs are a collaborative pair of blended tea with just that kind of mad tea science in mind

Is it weird if I like X better than Y?

I get this question a lot. It boils down to people not being confident in their own preferences, which can admittedly take a bit of time. Typically this happens with teas that are from differing price ranges. For example, you might like a $50 tea more than a $150 tea. There are a myriad of reasons why different teas cost different prices, including but not limited to: vendor mark up, fame of the village, fame of the producer, where the supplier purchased it from, who their typical customers are, whether it is Bingdao from 70,000 year old trees and the farmer cut them a “deal”, etc. All of that is to say that price does not always have a direct correlation to quality with tea.

This boils down to trusting your own gut, not the price tag. If it’s right for you, it’s right.

tea pour
It’s important to trick people into thinking you drink whisky in the daylight

What if I dislike this tea everyone else likes? Am I missing something?

Maybe you are, maybe not. In my life of beverage consumption, there are things that were over my head at various times in my journey. That being said, you should always default to drinking whatever raises your happiness levels at the current time. From a financial standpoint, if you hate old arbor Yiwu, that’s probably great news for your wallet.

Rather than keeping up with the Joneses and second-guessing your own experience, do what feels right. And for the love of tea, if you stumble on a good blending recipe, share it. (#madteascience?) There are a lot of interesting possibilities out there. Blend your favorite teas together and take notes. And don’t be too serious about it.

Picking Puer Tea from Old Arbor Trees

When is Old Arbor Puer Tea Picked?

The Difference Between Picking Old Arbor Puer and Smaller Trees

Puer tea trees can be divided into several ages and categories, but for the ease of explanation we are going to discuss three different stages: young (xiaoshu), middle-aged (often called qiaomu), and old arbor trees (also called gushu / dashu). Young tea is around 5 to 20 years old. Tea bushes that are younger than 3 years of age will rarely be harvested in Yunnan as they are still maturing. We will broadly define middle-aged as anything from 20 to 80 years old. Any trees older than 80 years old are quite old and are already very mature, so we will lump them in as old arbor, even though that might make some age queens angry. Some of you who frequently read the descriptions scattered around the internet about 1000 years old trees might be scratching your heads thinking, “100 years old doesn’t seem very old!”. I’d like to gently assure you that even 100 year old trees are the minority in Yunnan and produce spectacular quality tea. Don’t get too caught up in claims made about tree ages. It sounds sexy to drink tea from 500 year old trees, but 99.9% of the time the people who bother advertising that as a selling point are selling you an idea rather than the tea in the description.

The youngest trees, which are usually planted as terrace tea, tend to be ready for spring picking far earlier than their older counterparts. The younger the tea, the earlier it is ready to be picked. In certain low lying areas of Yunnan, this might even mean being ready as early as February, however it more likely means early to mid-March. These are general rules which are weather dependent. That being acknowledged, it would be very rare that spring tea, which we can define as the tea that sprouts forth after a dormant winter, would be ready any earlier than February. Middle Aged tea trees will be slightly later than this, you can think of youth and readiness on a spectrum, with increasing age meaning later budding.

Old Arbor Puer Tea Picking
Old arbor Puer tea in Lincang on the cusp of being pickable – March 26th, 2016

The older trees sprout forth much later in the season than younger tea trees. Old arbor Puer is ready to be plucked in late March at the earliest. Weather fluctuations aside, the earliest I have ever seen old arbor Puer tea ready to be plucked is in the March 20’s. In the images above and below, you can see an image taken on March 26th in Lincang. Some of the tea in this area was ready to be plucked, but only a small amount (the image above). Other trees were just past budding and still need several days before being picked. (the image below) Keep in mind, most Puer tea is not plucked as two leaves and bud. The farmers are waiting for an adequate amount of stem length and a third, fourth, and fifth leaf (huangpian). A mere bud is not enough.

Puer Tea Buds on the Tree
Emerging buds from a Puer tree in Lincang, March 26th 2016

It should also be noted that this is just one example, on one mountain in Lincang. As of the writing of this article (March 31st, China time), the old arbor Yiwu teas that are used in Last Thoughts are still not ready to be picked. Last year, they were ready in early April. It’s not a set time, but rather observing the trees and the weather until the farmer determines that the tea is ready, just as one would do with apples, tomatoes, or lettuce.

How does Altitude Affect the Tea Harvest?

Altitude also affects the harvest time, as temperatures are cooler in higher altitudes. As nearly all of the tea that is considered to be highly desirable Puer tea in Yunnan is grown on tall mountains, that means cooler weather and later harvesting. Some of the teas in Yunnan that are grown in low altitude areas producing tea used for green teas, black teas, white teas, and lower quality Puer teas will almost always be ready at least a month before the older growth teas that are in the mountains at altitudes above 1000m (or in some cases even nearing 2000m). This means a wide array of timing for spring teas, but old arbor teas are never ready for spring picking in January and February. Only small bush teas are ready for spring picking so early in the year and are still dependent on the weather.

Are there Earlier Harvests than Spring?

Farmers have increasingly felt pressure to pick tea year round in Yunnan. Much of this is directed by greed of vendors or short term financial needs of farmers, rather than what is best for the tea plants or the long term integrity of Puer. If you closely followed Yunnan weather last winter, you would have seen some images like the one below of ice covered tea trees and snow in Yunnan. Even in Guangzhou, we had snow that was noted as the first snow on record in 60 years. Nothing quite like seeing elder folks on the streets in awe of the snow. Some of my friends parents had never seen snow before! Suffice it to say that the winter temperatures and snow were some of the harshest weather that China has seen in recorded history. Most villages in Yunnan can scarcely recollect the last time winter weather was so brutal.

Regardless of the 2015/2016 winter months harshness, even in a mild winter, picking tea during the winter months is seen by many to be unethical. Think of an old arbor tea tree as if it were a person. If there was an old person who was lifting weights, it could be a very good thing. A bit of strenuous exercise can help to make a person strong. However, our bodies need rest days in order for our muscles to recuperate and rebuild. Any doctor would advise an elder person that exercising is good, but they’d also recommend the proper pace and adequate rest.

Ice covered tea
Ice covering the landscape in Nannuo mountain during the winter

When we pick tea leaves, we are stressing (or exercising!) a tea tree. Removing a trees leaves means removing nutrients as well as one of its sources of energy via photosynthesis. The spring and autumn tea pickings are a stress that most any tea tree can handle, even a picking in the summer months if the rain and weather allow. Summer picking is controversial in many circles, but in recent years, the additional inclusion of winter tea picking is making it a full four seasons of stress on the old trees. First, before any further commentary, I will be the first to acknowledge that tea farmers are just people like you and me, and they need to earn a living. However, the revenues from spring, summer, and fall from high quality trees will net them a much larger long term income if they allow the trees to rest during winter. From the standpoint of a vendor, many would consider it unethical to participate in picking/buying/selling winter Puer tea from old arbor trees. The continuous stress on the trees will eventually diminish the quality of the farmers product and their best natural resource for only a marginal short term financial gain. A shortsighted plan at best.

Couple this constant stress of four seasons of picking with weather like we saw last winter and it is the equivalent of making a seventy year old man hit the gym seven days a week with a broken hip. The only old arbor tea that was available to be picked in January, February, and almost all of March in 2016 was from old trees that have been covered in ice and beaten down by snow. After a tree manages to survive a hundred years and a harsh winter, having its leaves plucked seems like a cruel reward. Hardly the sort of tea that is optimal for drinking, and in my view, it would be a mistake to encourage the production of such tea. It’s selling out the future health of tea trees for short term financial gains. Just like our bodies, tea trees must be cared for and rested to stay healthy and continue to provide us with tea for years to come.

When are Summer and Autumn teas Plucked?

Summer and Autumn pickings are the most weather sensitive times for Puer. Their picking time can vary wildly depending on the whims of the rain and sunshine. Summer tea has been picked with increasing frequency as Puer has boomed, but it does not produce a very high quality result when compared to teas from the spring and autumn. The water content in the leaf is usually very high due to the rain of the summer months. However, where there is money to be made and a brief pause in the rain, tea will be picked. In my view, it is more ethical to pick summer tea, as the tree is lush and resource rich during the summer, as opposed to being in a dormant state during winter. That being said, summer tea is usually not very good, and the price reflects that.

Autumn tea buds
Autumn buds emerging on October 1st 2015

Autumn tea is picked around late September or early October. Again, this is weather dependent. The summer rains have to stop and have several days of consistent sunshine in order to result in quality autumn tea. The more sunshine filled days that you can string together, the better the quality of the tea. Again, this has to do with reducing heavy water content in the leaf and coaxing out fresh growth. Some years, this means autumn tea is excellent. Some years, the tea is worse if the weather chooses not to cooperate. Fall tea is usually considered to be the best quality tea after spring, with summer following, and winter bringing up the rear.

Regardless of seasons and tree ages, the best judge of character for any tea is still the same. Do you enjoy it? Does the price fit your budget? If you can answer yes to those two questions, the dates, ages, and stories all melt away and all that is left if you and a cup of Puer to engage with.

See you all after Spring tea with an update on the state of the Puer nation.

Thank you to my friends in Lincang and Nannuo for allowing me to use the first three pictures – much appreciated!



Tea Reviews and How to Find the Best

Scouring the Web for the Best Tea Reviews

What do You Want for Dinner?

I often see new tea drinkers show up to online forums and ask, “What should I buy from ____?”, seemingly not taking into account that the most important factor in the answer to this question is who will be providing the answer. I am as guilty of this as anybody. With all matter of purchases I rely on online reviews and research to figure out what’s what. The challenge for tea drinkers is that the online tea review landscape is a bit difficult to navigate due to an abundance of conflicting information and opinions. Finding a useful tea review can be a monumental task, especially when you consider the varying preferences of tea reviewers.

On a recent visit to America I met with a couple of different groups of friends, all of whom have very different culinary tastes. A few of them are what you might call meat and potatoes type eaters, where as others prefer to try the new Ethiopian restaurant down the street. If you asked the meat and potatoes group where to eat, the answer will invariably involve a restaurant where the greenest item on the menu is the parsley garnish, trailed in second place by the mint chocolate chip ice cream. This isn’t uncommon in  Midwestern townships that consist of one church, three bars, and one supper club.

For the uninitiated, supper clubs are a relic of the past that still exist in abundance in Midwestern America. A typical menu consists of steak, poultry, and seafood, all served with freshly baked rolls and a salad bar (iceberg lettuce, three types of potato salad). Supper clubs usually consider the olive in your happy-hour drink to be green enough to count as vegetable serving. They might also offer steamed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, as a side-dish. However, this never gets ordered because french fries are a more important part of a balanced diet. In the past I made the mistake of asking the meat and potatoes friends to recommend the best dinner haunts. Now, this is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good bi-annual supper club trip, but I do prefer vegetables and variety in my eating experiences.

There in lies the most oft overlooked point when asking for advice; considering the preferences of the person behind the recommendation is as important as considering the recommendation itself.

Tea Flowers
Tea flowers from Autumn, Yunnan

Quick Case Study from Reddit’s /r/scotch

For the (second time) uninitiated, /r/scotch is a lovely online community on Reddit where users enthusiastically review their whiskys for the world to see. Other users like me mostly lurk and browse reviews. In a recent thread, titled “What is the worst Scotch you ever tasted” there were over 300 comments in a single day from users declaring their hatred for various malts. The curious (or predictable) thing about the thread was that the comment section reads like this:

“Oh man, I hate _______.”

“You hated _____? It’s my favorite daily drinker!”

Now, keep in mind, the prompt was the worst you ever tasted, but despite the strong language there are people on both sides of the preference aisle. Users who are (mostly) experienced whisky drinkers both decrying and praising the exact same bottles. I had to jump in and defend Tobermory 10, which I think is a perfectly fine malt in its price range, although a little on the stank side of the flavor spectrum. The point is, several people would place that whisky in dreaded worst ever column, where as I think it is a solid whisky.

One man’s worst ever, another man’s treasure.

Whisky and Tea
A post tea session whisky pic. I don’t think anybody listed Springbank 10 as a worst ever

How to Seek the Right Advice

The variance in opinions might be daunting, but all is not lost when looking through online tea reviews. There are a few key points that can improve your chances of finding helpful information.

  • Seek out reviewers who have a similar palate. If you can find a review that you agree with from an online user or a blog it can act as a bellwether for compatibility
  • Seek out reviews from people with a similar level of experience. Reading reviews from someone with decades of tea drinking experience when you are brand new to tea might not be as helpful as finding a reviewer who is also newer to tea
  • Take reviews with a grain of salt. One person might love a tea that you dislike, or vice versa (See: Tobermory 10)
  • In order to limit a reviews effect on your own thoughts, attempt some blind taste tests and gauge your own thoughts more accurately
  • If possible, try teas before reading reviews rather that after. To the point above, the best way to find your own preferences is through unbiased tea drinking. You might be surprised which teas are most compatible with your taste
  • Seek out reliable sources. Easier said than done, as the internet is full of boisterous voices who claim expertise with very little knowledge. (Not a problem unique to tea, but particularly prevalent in the Puer world) The best way to avoid being fooled is to rely on your own preferences. Nobody knows what you enjoy better than you

The last point deserves repeating: Follow your own body. If a tea makes you feel good and the price is right, nobody’s review ought to be able to take that way. On the flip side of the coin, if everyone is praising a tea and you aren’t feeling it, don’t follow the crowd. Reviews can be a great help when searching out all sorts of products online, but remember that judging for yourself should be the final word.

Puer Storage Yunnan Dog

The Pearl River Delta and Puer Storage Thoughts

South China Puer Storage

A big shift has been set into motion, I am moving to South China! This will not be my first time dwelling in the Pearl River Delta (referred to as PRD from here on out), but it has been several years since I last lived in Guangdong province. I have to admit that I am really looking forward to the change, particularly the increased dim sum intake. The reasons for the move are more complex than can be accounted for in a quick blog post, but a large consideration in the decision was having a reliable long term solution for my Puer storage.

Dim Sum Puer
Excellent Dim Sum & Puer Tea, Chicago 2015

If you are unfamiliar and popped open that PRD wiki link above, you will notice that several major cities with long Puer storage histories such as Hong Kong and Guangzhou are amongst the list. The PRD is one of the world’s most populous chunks of land, with some estimates as high as 120 million people living amongst the rapidly developing sprawl. A bit of further scouting reveals the key draws for Puer storage; the region has an average relative humidity in the 70% range and average high temperatures around of 26° C (~80° F). After many years of drinking aged Puer tea from several regions, the PRD has produced some of my favorites. I hope to achieve the same outcome for many of my teas. After observation from tests of some of my productions over the last several years, I decided the PRD is the place to be. As a note, I will continue to keep some of my teas spread in other regions such as Southern Yunnan, Fujian, and America, which brings me to my next point…

Dry Puer Storage & Tradeoffs

As a preemptive clarification, before anyone runs around yelling, “Hey Everybody! Twodog says dry storage is shit! If you aren’t storing Puer in South China then your tea is dead!” – I also thoroughly enjoy dry stored Puer tea. I personally have a lot of tea that was stored in Kunming and enjoy the hell out of it. Much of my America stored Pu is in relatively dry conditions (though I take measures to control the humidity around my teas) and those Puer teas are all progressing beautifully. I thought this point was worth dwelling upon, as I personally do not see a point in righteous storage dogma. Puer storage is a means to different outcomes, and I enjoy many of them.

Traditional Puer Storage
Aged Puer leaves in an Yixing teapot, Spring 2015

What is Perfect Puer Storage? Just Shut Up and Tell Me!

As with anything in life, there is no perfect. Chances are you have had plenty of friends in your life with widely varied personalities that encompass both the good and the bad of the personality spectrum. There is that wild friend who is a blast at parties and social events but a tad unreliable. Then, you’ve got that friend who isn’t great in group settings, but you love the deep late night talks that you share discussing literature. Every friend has pluses and minuses, and the pluses win out; that is why you are friends. Different Puer teas have different personalities, and storage is but one of many factors that influence the overall personality of any given tea.

When choosing Puer teas or Puer storage, we are all engaging in a weighing of pros and cons. Is this storage too wet? Too dry? Will these teas age quickly enough? Or too quickly? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the common trade offs between wet storage and dry storage, here is a handy chart:

Puer Storage Tradeoffs

With pros and cons on both sides of the spectrum, you have to choose your friends wisely. Higher humidity requires close watch for mold. Dry conditions will generally yield teas that age slowly and have a potential for a sour character. If your storage leans dry, add water trays or soaked pieces of terracotta. Or get saucy and play around with crock storage. If your climate is particularly humid, store your tea on a higher level rather than a basement, and observe the potential need for airflow or reduction of humidity. For me, this means I will be changing from the frantically adding humidity to my Beijing storage side of the spectrum to keeping a watchful “mold eye” in the PRD.

Why the Pearl River Delta is Decidedly the Best

There is one topic which requires no argument, as the PRD is the clear winner; food. (also air quality, but let’s talk food instead) Cantonese food is better than Beijing roast duck seven times a week and twice on Sunday. When you factor in the Puer and dim sum pairing being a match made in heaven, it is a done deal. To be amiable and fair, Beijing has plenty of good food, but the PRD is just better.

On that non-tea related note, I’ll leave you with some Delta blues from Muddy Waters. (I know it’s not the same delta, but i love this song)

Spring 2015 Puer Tea

Reflections on Spring 2015 Puer Tea

Early Rain in Spring 2015

This year, the rains came early to Yunnan and it had a strong effect on the Puer tea in every region. I had to work harder this year than in previous years in terms of tea tasting. Teas from some areas, and farmers that I have worked with in previous years, seemed to be lacking. After two months in Yunnan, I could still keep pressing on further to sample and find better teas. Perhaps there is always a better tea? At least my stomach was thankful we were taking a break from fresh tea.

Rain in Menghai
Spring rain in Xishuangbanna, 2015

In many areas, the tea budded and was picked later than in 2014, particularly the old arbor Puer trees. For reference, spring Puer tea is ready to be plucked at different times depending on the age of the trees, amongst other factors. As a general rule, older trees bud much later than smaller bushes. We even heard of some old arbor trees in Laobanzhang that still hadn’t been picked by mid-April. At the absolute earliest, small bushes are ready to be plucked by late February. For old arbor trees, the earliest I have ever seen or heard of spring tea being ready is mid-March. Example, this year our spring old arbor Yiwu tea was plucked on April 5th. Anything else listed as spring that was picked pre-March is either not spring, not old arbor, or both. Just a fact we thought might be worth clearing up…*cough*…

We have already pressed some of our spring teas, and some of the ripe teas are still being pressed this week. We look forward to the second Spring harvest this year; there might be some really excellent teas, but it is totally weather dependent. I’ll be going through samples in late May to see what is out there.

Fluctuating Puer Tea Prices

The prices in the Spring of 2015 were unpredictable. Generally speaking, areas with lesser fame had a slight reduction in their old arbor Puer prices. Areas with major fame, such as Laobanzhang, maintained stable prices. Producers with high quality tea sold out early, and those with lesser quality tea still have plenty of stock as of the writing of this article.

As a trend, this is good news for the consumer. It indicates that high quality tea will drive the market. In past years when the Puer market was booming, all of the tea was swallowed up by speculation. Good and bad, old arbor and young tree. When the thirst for Puer tea is so strong that even low quality tea from young trees is purchased with fervor, it does a disservice to the market. Quality is disregarded in favor of quantity and the tea that hits the market is both low quality and overpriced. This year the trend reversed slightly, with quality being a driving factor. Hopefully this trend will continue as it forces producers to focus on making the best tea they can, rather than sheer volume. As I have mentioned in the past, I believe the long-term bubbles in the Puer market will collapse for low-quality, overproduced material, whereas high-quality tea will always hold (most of) its value. If you are new to Puer tea, think of it as a real estate market. When a real estate bubble bursts, downtown Manhattan still has a market, but far flung suburbs might see a drastic price drop. Regardless of the market, there will always be a wealthy group of people who want to live on 5th Ave and drink old arbor Yiwu.

Xigui Puer
Xigui Spring Puer Tea, 2015

As always there are exceptions to the rule, with some regions rising in price in spring 2015 rather than stabilizing or declining. Most notably Xigui’s prices rose from the previous spring. I spent a week in the area and visiting Xigui early in the spring. I personally think the price hike is justified. All prices equal, I would prefer Xigui over Bingdao. And considering the major price gap between the two, it does not seem odd that Xigui prices would increase. The increased market demand for limited, high quality material will always drive two things: higher prices and a deluge of fake tea. So, if you want to start buying fresh Xigui now, proceed with caution.

What to Buy and What to Avoid

As usual, my recommendation for consumers looking to purchase Spring tea is to avoid the hype and famous names. There is plenty of quality tea to be had in any given price range and not much reason to chase villages with overly inflated prices. If this sounds like generic advice, it is. It’s less generic when you consider that I practice what I preach. As it happens, I really enjoy Xigui tea, but I didn’t buy any this Spring, not even for my personal drinking. I did purchase some to drink in the previous years for my own collection. Long time followers of my blog will know I have had a penchant for Guafengzhai for quite some time. These last two years, their village has been so woefully full of fake tea and the prices so high, I didn’t purchase old arbor tea from them either.

Large Puer Tree
Puer Tree in Xishuangbanna, 2015

This year, I will also be making a move towards intentionally not labeling specific village names and misleading tree ages. I want to re-focus on the tea, providing broad guidelines like “this tea has strong bitterness and is from Menghai area” rather than “Laoman’e village pure ancient tree!”  Labels are so blatantly misused that they have become meaningless. Every website seems to have ancient tree tea from villages that ostensibly only have a precious few hundred kilograms of gushu in a season. Not to mention the conspicuous ages of the trees – did they measure the age of each tree? And…how? There seem to be a lot more 300 year old trees in the market than I’ve seen with my own eyes in the tea mountains.  Rather than continue with the name dropping and inflated age hype, I think it is better to focus on the tea itself. If you avoid the hype, your wallet and mouth with thank you.

With that being said, the final word is to follow your own tastes and your own budget. Buy what you like and can afford. And most of all, enjoy drinking the new 2015 Spring tea.


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Vice Puerh Misunderstandings

Correcting Puerh Misunderstandings, A Helping Hand for Vice

My Job Application for Vice’s Chief Puerh Editor

Recently a Puerh article from Vice garnered a few shares in online tea circles, leading to e-mails in my inbox asking about the validity of many of the claims in the article. After a cursory glance at the post, I noticed at least a half-dozen factual errors, along with several misrepresentations of the situation of Puerh in Yunnan. Not that I would expect a first time Yunnan visitor or Vice’s munchies section to be factual authorities on Puerh tea, as it is an admittedly dense topic to gloss over in a short travel log. Unfortunately, the article got a few facts wrong and Vice is a lot more widely read than my piddly little blog. Hence this post, which will try to clear up some of these Puerh misunderstandings from the Vice article quote by quote.

Bingdao Puerh Tea
Bingdao Spring Fresh Leaf from 2015

“Shops that sell puer dot the city, but vend the same stuff that’s sold in any grocery store around the country.”

The only Puerh that typically makes it to grocery stores with any regularity in China is Colourful Yunnan, which is basically Puer Lipton. Kunming has two sizable tea markets, Jinshi and Kangle, both of which have far more Puerh tea variety than any grocery store or even specialty tea shop. Other cities like Simao or Menghai are also full of tea shops. Perhaps the author ran into some low quality shops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grocery store with fresh spring raw maocha [loose Puerh tea] or 30 varieties of raw Puerh, both of which are commonly found in most Kunming shops.

“Yunnan lacks airports, so traveling from one town to another requires spending twenty-odd hours on a sleeper bus.”

This adds flavor to the story, but conveniently ignores that there are airports in Xishuangbanna (Jinghong), Simao, Kunming, Lincang, Baoshan, Dali, Lijiang,… I am getting tired of typing city names. Suffice it to say there are plenty of airports. And if you take a twenty hour sleeper bus, it is probably because you are trying to save $5 instead of arrive at your destination. Either that or there was a miscommunication when buying your ticket, as express buses are extremely common.  I get it, the whole “Yunnan is poor and look at the difficult route I painstakingly traveled” narrative falls apart if you can take an 8 hour bus, but still; you can get to Lincang or BanNa from Kunming in less than ten hours, even with a flat tire factored in. Rent a car and 7 hours might cut it. Or you could fly.

“No teas is served…I ask if I could have a cup of tea. The cook laughs as he turns and saunters back into the kitchen.”

I’ve never been to a restaurant or truck stop in Yunnan that didn’t have tea. Granted, I have not been to every truck stop across the province. And when I ‘ve had tea, it was never excellent quality Puerh tea. However, it’s free and standard with any purchased meal at a restaurant. Also, why would anyone expect or search for good tea at a truck stop or restaurant?

“Tea trees grow along Yunnans Lancang River, and only the leaves picked from there can be eventually called puer.”

This is an oddball definition, even allowing for the nuance and disagreement around the subject. This definition would exclude several major tea producing areas which are not along the river, such as many of the tea mountains throughout Xishuangbanna, Yiwu, and Yibang.  This is a more accurate Puerh definition, for the interested.

Lancang River Puerh Vice
A photograph below Xigui, on the Lancang river, taken in Spring 2015

“The leaves are then sent to a city called, well, PuEr, where dozens of manufacturers produce their own blends according to recipes passed down for generations. The leaves are fermented for at least three months and up to several years, ending up as either sheng (raw) tea or shou (ripe) tea.”

Again, this ignores a gigantic portion of the Puerh producing world; Xishuangbanna and Yiwu come to mind. Most of the more notable factories and productions from throughout history are not from Puer city. Puer city was actually a recent name change and a plot to gather more tea tourists, most of the best Puerh tea is nowhere near Puer city. I am also not sure what three months refers to – but there is not really a time limit involved in any case. Some Guangdong clan purists will demand a certain amount of age for raw tea before it is deemed truly Puerh.

“Because tea is kept as something special here,” one says dismissively between hits. “Its enjoyed slowly, with family or close friends. Its not something thats just part of a meal.”

This adds some magical mystique to the narrative but it is not grounded in truth. People have, share, and sell tea everywhere in Yunnan. It’s ubiquitous at meals or tea tables with both friends and strangers alike. I am curious if the author visited any tea mountains on the journey.  Tea plantations should have had tea everywhere in March. Any tea farmer would happily brew samples for a traveler in an effort to sell some tea or just to be polite and have a chat. Even during off season, any restaurant or shop will gladly serve tea, even to sworn enemies. Never underestimate the power of pleasantries to take precedent over a feud.

“Thats when it dawns on me. The people along the Lancang River see how much work goes into making puer. Theyre part of the process. They spend years cultivating the tea. For them, its not an afterthought during mealtime. Puer tea bulbs are more like Murano glass vases than the loose leaves you might have in your pantry.”

Again, pretty story, just totally false. Tea farmers will (and gladly do) sell their tea to whoever wants to purchase it. This is how they earn their living. After all, staring at your glass vases and never selling them is a pretty bad business model. It’s not Fabergé eggs, it is tea. Any farmer can spare a few kilograms for casual drinking, even if it is lower grade Huangpian.

 “I try to take in the aroma of the land, but all I can smell is exhaust.”

What better tried and true way to end an article on China than the smell of exhaust fumes? Because China = pollution, amirite!? The air in the tea mountains is some of the freshest, most fragrant air I’ve ever encountered. However, that is tough to fit in with the 20 hours bus ride and poverty theme, so I understand the editorial choice.

Helping to Spread Correct Puerh Tea Information

Articles like this are obviously more story telling than dissemination of Puerh tea information, so, why do i care? Puerh is a topic with plenty of strong opinions, so usually I don’t nitpick (openly, anyway). I only take issue when the information mixed in with the story is blatantly false. Obviously a first time Yunnan tea tourist who hops on a bus from Kunming and doesn’t have any connections is not going to stumble upon old arbor Yiwu reserves. I’ve been here for ten years and need to knife fight for what little old arbor Yiwu I can get. But, finding Puer tea in general should not be difficult with the right approach.

Xigui Puerh Tea Misunderstandings
Xigui Old Arbor Tea from 2015, Overlooking the Mighty Lancang

The author’s trip in Yunnan is the equivalent of me going to California and taking a Greyhound bus from San Diego thinking, “I heard Napa Valley has some good wines!” Then visiting gas stations and truck stops along the route. Finding no wine and concluding, “Man, the wine here really sucks! I asked some guys smoking outside of the gas station about Napa wine and they told me that they only drink wine with close friends. Guess I am f&*%^$d! Also, LA has smog.”

In any case, an article with this lack of research and cursory understanding will probably pass muster with the casual Vice crowd, but it results in the spread of misinformation to potential Puerh tea drinkers and e-mails from confused readers in my inbox. So, next time Vice or any other magazine wants to run one of these pieces, please just shoot me an e-mail and I can guest edit/fact-check the piece. You can preach whatever narrative you want, but at least clean up the “only trees from near the Lancang river are Puerh” bits so that tea drinkers don’t get the wrong idea.

Puer Jianghu Wild West Urban Chic

Puer Tea, Urban Chic, and the Wild West

Welcome to the Jianghu

Puer tea and its authenticity are in a constant state of negotiation. Visit any tea forum or crowded tea table and debates echo throughout. Opinions like, “That is not Puer tea,” and “This is Puer tea,” are declared with such supreme confidence that you’d think the participants were discussing the blueness of the sky or warmth of the sun. Yet, despite the loud voices and self assured declarations, only one fact about Puer tea remains clear; nothing is clear. Author Jinghong Zhang bears witness to this tussle for authentic truth in her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.

Before I delve into Zhang’s study on Puer, which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject of Puer tea, I must first come clean about some of my personal bias. After attempting to read certain texts about Puer in the past(which shall remain nameless, so I don’t begin torching bridges), I could rarely read past the second chapter before my gag reflexes kicked in. Some books were ego driven expressions of tea mastery that were more masturbatory autobiography than Puer book. Others were harrowing, overblown tales of adventure and discovery of uncharted worlds that would make Marco Polo blush. And in some texts, nearly every photo features an elderly villager in traditional garb, with the information skewed towards selling the idea of fabled “1,000 year old trees” as a giant advertisement, rather than serving as a tool for learning.


Zhang manages to escape these common trappings by utilizing her perspective as an mindful observer. She carries no banner and pledges allegiance to none. She is just another tea drinker wandering the jianghu.

Puer tea tree
An old arbor tree in Hekai area from Fall of 2014

Puer Tea and the Wild West

What is jianghu you ask? Great, glad you did. Jianghu is a complex concept which can briefly be described as a place “located between utopia and reality” where one can “achieve romantic dreams, but chaos and risks still remain.” Popular in early Chinese martial arts fiction, jianghu referred to a world where Chinese knight-errants would go beyond the reach of their government and compete in kungfu competitions with others in the jianghu. The matching of kungfu skills was “a simple and perfect resolution for all kinds of problems: good or evil, right or wrong.” For my Western readers, the closest concept that relates to jianghu in Western culture is the American Wild West. Just replace the kungfu with gunslinging at sundown and it fits well enough. A lawless place, where dreams and happiness can be realized, but where there are risks and danger in a loosely bound world which is chaotic and evolving. It is a field of actors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, vying for dominance. As Zhang puts it, “The route to discovering authentic Puer tea is often full of risk and competition.” And that, is where we enter the Puer tea jianghu.

Aged Puer tea and the Wild West
Aged raw Puer tea being poured into a glass

Now, keep in mind, the above quotes are laid out around Page 26. Usually by this point in reading a Puer book I am grabbing the nearest trash bin so I can vomit. Not with Zhang. She begins at the outset by setting up the scene in the theater; describing the players but not giving a monologue herself. One key component in the jianghu is that, “the essence of society is based on the presence of various groups or clans whose disciplines are in debate and cannot be tolerated by one another,” and each group has its “own code of conduct … [and] own language and wisdom.” Then she lists the clans, with which we Puer drinkers are all familiar. The ripe Puer clan. The raw Puer clan. The dry storage clan. The humid/traditional storage clan. The Yiwu flavor clan. The Menghai flavor clan. The aged tea clan. The gushu [old arbor] clan. The young tea clan. We can surmise the entirety of the Puer jianghu by noting of the clans, “Each declares itself the most authentic and does not tolerate the other.” With this sentence, I knew Zhang’s tome would set itself apart from the pack. She wasn’t carrying a clan banner, just reporting on the skirmish like a journalist above the battlefield.

Puer tea
Pouring young raw Puer tea into a teacup

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is a wealth of valuable information, both historical and anecdotal. Details of Zhang’s own visits in various areas of Yunnan. Varied perspectives from the different clans in Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. And a tale about a large “in real life” tea tasting with members of a Chinese online tea forum that had me laughing out loud as I compared it to my own comical interactions on Western tea forums (hint: same shit, different pile). Zhang bravely decides not to take stances, but rather offers a myriad of vantage points for the reader to come to their own conclusions about a range of topics, whether it be old arbor Puer tea or the identity of Puer tea on the whole.


Jinghong Zhang has restored some of my faith in the possibilities of Puer literature. That it need not be fierce kungfu battles and egotistical posturing. That there is indeed hope for the negotiation of authenticity beyond the “all of my tea is from organic fair trade 1,000 year old trees in the most remote villages, all hand processed by elderly folks missing teeth” style of marketing. That the misinformation and lack of accurate representation is not hopeless. That there is a discussion to be had and gray area to be traversed. And even at the end of that discussion, perhaps the actors in the Puer Wild West can end with a handshake and a shot of Four Roses, instead of a gunfight at sundown.

Author Jinghong Zhang is a lecturer at Yunnan University and a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University. Her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic can be purchased from the University of Washington Press.

For additional information, check these links on identifying fake Puer tea and defining Puer tea. And as always, if you are interested in purchasing curated Puer tea.

Beginner's Mind

Beginner’s Mind and Drinking Tea

Drinking Tea with Beginner’s Mind


“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki

None of us were born with tea in our mouths. At some point, each of us had an initial contact with tea. It might have been an oversteeped black tea poured from an old English style tea set, eating scones and petit fours with grandma. It might have been a dark ripe puer on a Sunday morning with relatives around a table stacked full of dimsum. It might have been a bag of Lipton tea in a thick ceramic mug, next to your eggs and bacon. Despite the diversity in backgrounds, we all began our tea journey somewhere.

Yiwu Kettle Gaiwan
Kettle filling a gaiwan , near Yiwu Spring 2014

That first sip was our entrance into a new world of flavor. This is tea. But, are there other kinds of tea? If you are like most people reading this blog, once your interest was piqued you dove into the rabbit hole. You wanted to try every kind of tea. Checklist in hand, you brewed oolongs, black teas, green teas, and Puers. Hoisting mental flags in your head at each position of reference.  After your first Puer tea, you probably thought, “I have tried a Puer tea. Puer is this.” Then, after some further digging, the checklist of regions comes out. “I have tried an Yiwu Puer tea. Yiwu is this.” And then comes aging. “I have tried aged Yiwu with humid storage. Humid stored Yiwu is this.” And so on and so on. Concepts of specific teas are channels in the brain. Grooves that become deeper and deeper over time.

“Beginner’s mind” [or Shosin] is the concept of approaching life without preconceptions and being open to new ideas and experiences.

Tea Tastings with Beginners

Lately I have been lucky enough to have tea houses in Beijing seek me out to host tea tastings, as well as hosting a tea tasting in Madison, Wisconsin at Macha tea house earlier this year. These tea tastings have been a blessing for me. The old cliche that students teach the teacher has not only been true, but it has been a welcome awakening for me.

My typical method for running a tea tasting is as follows: each person gets a sheet of paper, nobody is allowed to discuss anything about a specific tea until we are finished drinking, and each person has to take notes…notes on their impressions of the fragrance from the gaiwan lid and gongbei… notes on the feeling in their mouth and throat… notes on the first flavors that come to mind.

Sampling teas

This is where I offer my gratitude to the beginners. Sometimes the folks who show up at these tea tastings are complete novices, either to tea or to Puer. And I am glad they come. In fact, they are my favorite people because their notes are always astoundingly honest. If they tasted asparagus in that young sheng Puer, they unabashedly say so. If the flavor reminds them of a candy bar or grilled meat, they tell me. There is no shame or second guessing. No judgment. They occasionally couch their comments with an, “I’m new to this, so…”, but this is how I know the next words out of their mouth will be new and exciting.

Tea Forums and Conformity

The internet can be a brutal place. Mudslinging is often anonymous and there are a lot of angry people out there, just waiting to stomp negatively on any comment. If you want to view this phenomenon in real time, you need only go to twitter and watch a celebrity make a tweet to their 2 million followers. Lucky were those historical personalities born before the age of the tweet. I sincerely believe that Ghandi himself could tweet “Love your fellow humans” and it would take no less than 10 seconds for somebody to reply, “Eat shit, Gandhi! You suck!” These voices are not the majority of people, but unfortunately, the most obnoxious people are often the loudest.

Now, most tea forums are not twitterbad; but there is still a lot of jockeying for rank and snarky passive aggressive (and sometimes not so passive) discourse. I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone say, “I thought X tea tasted like Y,” only to have some curmudgeonly old veteran stomp in the thread and say, “Oh, really? You thought X tea tasted like Y? How cute. I’ve had X tea, mine never tasted like Y.”  Or the more aggressive amongst the crowd will simply call the new beginner’s opinion of the tea wrong.

small white bug tea
A small bug crawling across a branch, 2013 Guafengzhai

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

A dismissive tone will squelch outbursts of honest expression in any environment. Unfortunately, this sort of mindset is pervasive in online tea forums. Stories get told and re-told, and eventually there is no space for openness or interpretation.

Puer tea in particular has a lot of comparison situations. How are these storages different? How is this region compared to that region? How is this tea compared to that tea? I often see a lot of, “This tea is good, better than X, but not as good as Y. Less expensive than Z, but more expensive than Q.” or “Storage X? Ha! Storage Y is much better because storage X does Z.”

Although the urge to compare is human nature, I’ve found that if I make a conscious effort to approach each tea with a blank slate and allow it the space, it will speak to me on its own terms.


A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sharing some on my Spring tea with someone, who in my opinion, knows more about Puer than 99% of Puer drinkers. He has been to many, many tea mountains. He can process tea; recognize regions by both leaf and flavor; identify the variation in wrappers and stamps from cakes of different eras; and many other things that aid in having a strong Puer background. But, regardless of my opinion, nobody could rightly call him inexperienced.

I brought some maocha from a village I had visited this Spring, and brewed it up without mentioning the origin, as per his request. My opinion of this tea was that it was high quality, from old trees, and unique in how it compared to other things from the area. He drank the tea, and shared what he was experiencing in a stream of consciousness manner. He swerved back and forth between ideas, feelings, fragrance, and flavors. Finally, after about 15 steeps, he ventured a guess of where it was from. His guess was not correct; and I told him the actual origin. His response was to say, “Interesting.”

floating tea branch
A floating branch from an old arbor tea tree

His response was not only uncharacteristic of someone who has as much experience as he does, but also in stark contrast to many of the big egos I tend to see around tea tables. The types of people who slam fists and declare, “This is not from that area! You’ve never really had real tea from that area!” Despite the fact that any given village might have several different kinds of tea, hundreds or thousands of trees, and hundreds of families processing the tea in different ways. These personalities are often more concerned with the stroking of their own ego via the derision of other people than actually discussing the nuances tea. Confining teas to say that one type of tea should only be one way is folly; but in the minds of self-proclaimed experts, there are few possibilities.

The people I know to be true tea experts are not quick to find fault, not quick to point fingers and make snide remarks, not quick to speak. They experience tea with beginner’s mind and are open to the vast universe of differences that tea presents. That, and when they find their assumptions to be incorrect, they simply say interesting and carry on learning.

Yixing porn

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.