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.

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.

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.