Learning to identify aged Puerh is a daunting task even for a Chinese person who has many books and teachers available. We have spent many years studying Puerh tea with some of the wisest teachers alive, reading books, collecting teas, and we still uncover new experiences and information around every corner. And perhaps even having read a thousand books about tea is not worth as much as drinking one single cup. The teas themselves never lie if you know how to appreciate them. Books, oral and written descriptions can all be wrong, even they are dishonest or honest mistakes, but a an experienced connoisseur that drinks his or her own teas cannot be wrong about their quality. This introduction to the parts used to identify vintage Puerh will help the beginner to evaluate and compare aged tea cakes he or she is considering buying. Each of the factors discussed below is important, especially to a beginner collector. Knowing a lot about the elements of production and packaging throughout the history of Puerh tea also helps, however, it may not be as useful to the earnest tea drinker. Our suggestion is that you try to seek out a kind of balance between intellectual understanding of tea and pure enjoyment of the wonderful drink itself. One should know enough to make wise purchasing decisions, but in the end focus on the enjoyment of tea as a drink and experience, not an academic project. Nevertheless, tea can be anything to anyone, and some people here in Asia enjoy only collecting Puerh tea. Some of them don’t even drink their teas at all. They merely collect them to be sold later, as any collector or dealer in antiques would. Of course, no one would criticize them for doing what they enjoy. We would merely point out that there is a whole lot more enjoyment available in Puerh if one wishes it. We have found much more enjoyment drinking Puerh than we will ever find in the research of its vast history.
Traditionally most tea cakes were covered with handmade or at least hand-pressed paper if they were covered at all. For the most part this convention of wrapping up tea cakes started in the 1950’s during the “Masterpiece Era”. Older cakes tea from the “Antique Era” weren’t individually wrapped. This, then, became an important aspect in identifying the two very different generations of Puerh that have come since. Tea cakes since “Masterpiece Era” were wrapped and some later lost their outer wrapping because it was thrown away or just worn out. Throughout the ages, though, different methods and raw materials were used to create the outer wrappings. In that way, much can be discerned by looking closely at the fiber patterns in the wrapping. A particular tea cake vintage, for example, may have a thin fibery wrapping with a gently criss-cross pattern of thin perforations. Other Puerh vintages have actual fiber strands still left raw in the paper. All handmade paper has a certain texture thick or thin, etc. And lis texture can even be felt with the hands. In fact, the best way to get to know the different handmade papers used as outer wrapping for vintage tea cakes is to touch them, look at them closely, and if possible hold them up to the light to see the fiber patterns left in the raw paper.
The second, and often more important, aspect of the outer wrapping is the printing on the outside- Printing methods have evolved – machinery replaced, inks changed, imprinting methods transformed, etc. Each vintage of Puerh not only has a particular kind of handmade/pressed paper, which may or may not stay the same through various dates and kinds of teas, but also a particular printing method. Sometimes the green used to make the Chinese character “Tea” (Cha 茶) mark in the center of a wrapping paper is a darker green, for example. Sometimes it is lighter. Sometimes in a particular year it may appear almost bluish. This can be due to the color slowly fading with age as a different chemical compositions age differently over time, or an actual variance during the rime of printing. For much of the “Masterpiece” and “Seven-son” eras of Puerh, the entire printing of outer wrappings were printed using wood block stamps. As the stamps were used over time, the outer edges of each Chinese character might got damaged. A repair was required by paring off the wear and tear edges so that the Chinese characters got thinner and thinner later. Many times a collector can accurately identify the vintage just by the thickness of the words. Other times, small dots or errors in the wooden stamps also help identify a particular vintage of tea.
A lot can be discerned from the printing methods used to create the outer wrapping of tea cakes at different periods, and sometimes even by the way these inks fade or change over time. Furthermore, various factories also use different fonts at different times on the outer wrapping. Other times the difference may be more subtle. Perhaps the difference between one vintage and another is just the difference in shape of one character – we know of one such example where the Chinese character “Yu(云)” in “Yunnan” (云南) is slightly different from one tea cake to another. Learning a bit about the pringting of various marks is even easier than learning about the differences in paper production. It requires only photpographic records.
It would be very difficult to duplicate many of these paper/printing combinations in a way that could fool a real collector of vintage Puerh. Anthologies usually name and categorize tea cakes based on their outer wrappings. A common example is the Red Mark (红印), Yellow Mark (黄印), Green Mark (绿硬), etc. used to characterize many State produced tea cakes throughout time. These colors are often just referring to the color of the character “Tea” (Cha 茶) in the center of the wrapping, though sometimes the entire Chinese characters may be red, for example. Many of the print blocks used to make these wrappings are antiques themselves. It would be difficult to forge these wrappers with complete accuracy. And even if one did find a way in which to duplicate the printing, one would still need the correct raw material, to make the same handmade paper and the correct ink composition to duplicate the color. However, in most instances even all that would be inadequate since the ink and paper change over time. The paper fades and crumbles in a certain fashion. It discolors in ways that are often – not always – uniform throughout that particular vintage of tea, etc. For these reasons, knowing a bit about the outer wrappings of various tea cakes is an important beginning to understanding vintage Puerh and an easy way to begin shopping. We aren’t saying that forgery is impossible, it is surely available, but most all copies are recognizable to the trained eye.
Like the outer wrapping the Trademark Ticket is also unique within each generation, kind and sometimes even vintage of Puerh tea. The Trademark Ticket is a small slip of paper that is placed into the loose tea just before compression. When the tea is compressed, the Trademark Ticket is embedded into the tea. Even if the outer wrapping is lost or eroded (or if there never was one) the Trademark Ticket usually survives. There are some varieties of Puerh that had their Trademark Ticket removed. One reason is that it was illegal to import Puerh tea to Taiwan for some time, so the Trademark Ticket were removed, in order to pass through customs. Since the outer wrapping is important as an identification clue for the production year, those tea cakes without wrapping are much cheaper than their counterparts having “clothes”. Sometimes they can be great deals – cheap since merely tea drinkers don’t want anything to do with them, but still the exact same tea. As long as one trusts his or her vendor, a connoisseur can save a lot of money on tea cakes without wrapping. Nevertheless, in most cases the Trademark Ticket survives to some extent, even in very old Puerh vintages.
The Trademark Ticket is not usually made of the same kind of paper as the outer wrapping. The Trademark Ticket needs to be thicker paper to survive the dampness of the compression process. Trademark Ticket also have unique paper / printing combinations. In Masterpiece tea cakes, they are just the word tea (Cha 茶） surrounded by a red ring of 8 “Zhong(中)” characters (called “Eight-zhong”). Other periods and factories used different Trademark Tickets. Sometimes they have a brief note that identifies the tea cake as the product of such and such a factory. Some also have special pictures or logos. Even the simple ones change over time though. In the Masterpiece and Seven-son eras, the size and color of the character “Tea” (Cha茶) is often different, and the red ring of “Zhong” characters around it also changed through time. The Trademark Tickets are actually an even more reliable identification for beginners than the outer wrapping since it is more difficult to be removed or replaced with a copy. The tea cake would be damaged in the process. That means for the most part a fake tea cake need to also be fake tea that had the copied Trademark Ticket inserted during production.
Description Ticket (Nei Piao 内票, ticket placed between the Puerh and its outer wrapping)
A Description Ticket is inserted between the tea cake and the outer wrapping. Unlike the Trademark Ticket, it is not within the tea itself, but a loose piece of paper. Because they are loose slips of paper the Description Ticket may get lost from vintage Puerh cakes if it is opened. The Description Ticket is larger than the Trademark Ticket. The Description Tickets are often around the size of an index card. They are also frequently made from a thicker paper. Most times they have a unique logo and words. Sometimes it is an advertisement or description of the tea. Other times, like the Trademark Tickets, the The Descripton Ticket just states that the tea cake was produced by a certain factory. Many of the more modern State produced tea cakes have Descripton Tickets that include English translations of a small paragraph about how the beverage inside is “thirst-quenching and healthy.”
Description tickets were placed between the outer wrapping and the tea cakes starting from the Seven-son Era. Another slip of paper called “Stack Ticket” was placed in a stack of seven tea cakes from the Antique Era when these antique tea cakes weren’t wrapped at all. Usually, there was only one Stack Ticket in a stack of antique seven tea cakes. That’s why it is called a “Stack Ticket”. Aside from the Trademark Tickets, then, the Stack Ticket served as the only means of identifying these antique Puerh as long as it was still existing in an intact stack. They consequently usually had logos and company information printed on them.
Batch Ticket (Da Piao 大票, large ticket attached to each basket)
A “Batch Ticket” or “Big Ticket” is a large ticket that is attached to each basket. A lot of important production information is indicated on the ticket, for example, the factory name, trading code (which will be discussed below), net weight, etc.. Sometimes if the Puerh are specially ordered by a company, the company’s logo may also be stamped onto the Batch Ticket. Therefore, a complete basket of Puerh with the original Batch Ticket often attracts a lot of interests from collectors as it provides additional confirmation of its authenticity.
Stack (Tong 筒, the bamboo bark packaging containing 7 tea cakes most of the time)
Tea cakes are individually wrapped in handmade paper and then bundled in groups of seven called “stacks”. Each stack is wrapped in bamboo bark (Zhu Zi Ke 竹子殼). Sometimes English articles mistakenly assume that these are bamboo leaves. Actually, bamboo trees shed their skin whenever they get bigger and/or sprout new stems. You can see this material covering the floor of any bamboo forest. The Bamboo bark conserves the freshness of the tea. 12 stacks are then further wrapped using Bamboo into a Basket (Jian 件) which is 12 stacks of seven, so 84 tea cakes in all.
Stacks sometimes have unique characteristics relevant to the identification of vintage tea cakes. Some are stamped with the tea name, trading code, factory name, etc.. And the stamps used, colors, fonts, etc. are as determinant as the printing on the outer wrappings mentioned above. Even without a stamp, the bamboo bark has a different appearance when it is aged. Different methods of folding, wrapping and tying the stacks have been used throughout time, so that one can sometimes discern which tea it is based upon the way in which the stack is wrapped. Some of them use bamboo twine to secure the stack whilst others use metal. So beyond just the method of tying, the very material used to tie them can also be a factor. At times, some tea cakes from the Seven-son Era to the present have even been contained in paper bags. Most of these details only become relevant when they are unique to a particular vintage. The same could be said for any of the methods used in identifying vintage tea cakes.
Trading Codes (Ma Hao码号)
Since the Seven-son Era, tea cakes have a four-digit production number. This began in the 1970’s and consequently doesn’t apply to very old vintage Puerh. Sometimes these four-digit numbers are printed right onto the outer wrapping or stack of new tea cakes manufactured these few years, traditionally, this code can tell us something about the tea inside. They don’t precisely identify a tea cake’s vintage, though. Basically, the market believes that the first two digits are the year in which that production was first started. If a particular mixture/processing procedure marketed well it was then continued the next year, sometimes even for decades to the present. In other words, if the first two digits are “75,” this means that this particular production method/mixture was first begun in 1975. This doesn’t mean that the tea itself dates to 1975. It could be a 2006. It just means that the blending began in 1975. The methods used to blend and process Puerh tea into tea cakes are often experimented with until better formulas are developed. Actually, the leaves used each year will vary, so even if the factory keeps the same procedure, it is doubtful that the flavor will be identical each year. Much of the popularity and reuse of these numbers is actually marketing, just as secret recipes are used in food. It should be noted, however, that there are instances that these numbers were printed mistakenly. As with any kind of collectable, these mistakes often increase the value of chose tea cakes significantly to collectors.
The third digit refers to the leaf size or “grade” used in production of the tea cakes. Grades of teas are often very complicated. Different factories follow different guidelines and/or change them over time. Also, the grading is done by eye, so there cannot be great precision in this separation. Generally, though, the first grade leaves are the smaller ones at the tips of the bush/tree stems and then the bigger the leaves and further back up the stem, the higher the grade. In the olden days, the first three grades were often used to process Bowl Tea (Tuochas 沱茶) and Mushroom-shaped Tea (Jin Cha 紧茶） and larger fourth through tenth grades were reserved for tea cakes and tea bricks. This has changed in the modern era. Nowadays, all different kinds of tea cakes are made from the selection of grades. The word “grade” can occasionally confuse English speaking people because the grade mentioned above is not always relevant to quality. Most times, but not always, first grade leaves (buds) are more expensive by weight because they are small and there is a lot less of them. But price and quality are not always commensurate. Knowing which vintage used which “grade” is an useful method of identification. Even if the outer wrapping, Trademark Ticet or Description Ticket are lost, the leaves themselves obviously cannot be. Knowing which size of leaf a tea cake should be composed of is therefore important. A step beyond that is to begin to understand and identify the changes different leaves undergo through aging. Different kinds of leaves, sizes, qualities, and even farm locations will take on different appearances and smells as they ferment (Fa Xiao 发酵) over time. Moreover, knowing which region and/or kind of leaves were used to make a particular tea cake can be very valuable information to the expert. In the beginning, however, we recommend just learning a bit about leaf sizes or “grades” as they represent certain vintages. Using teas that have trading codes is a useful way to begin studying leaf sizes, since the size is already known from the third digit in the trading code. So a “7542” for example is made from 4th grade leaves. There are a few examples, though of tea cakes that have slight mixtures of other sizes but are still labeled as “4,” for example, because they are primarily fourth grade.
The final number in the four-digit code refers to which factory produced the tea cakes. Knowing the factory can often help determine the tea-growing region in which the raw material was farmed. The numbering for the factories is as follows:
Sometimes trading codes are followed by a three-digit number at the end. It can also help identify the vintage. Among the final three digits, usually the first and the third digits provide useful information. Let us take for example “7542-401”. The first number, “4”, refers to the last digit of the production year. So in this example it indicates that the production year can be 1984, 1994 or 2004.
Productions from these three years should have significant differences because of their different ages. The leaves of the 1984 will have fermented much more than the 2004. We should consequently have no trouble in distinguishing them and determining which one we are looking at. The third digit is the batch number. So in this example it indicates that this basket was part of the first batch.
It is interesting that out of all four keys used to identify vintage Puerh – outer wrapping, Trademark Ticket, Description Ticket and stacks none of them ever clearly states the date, harvest, etc. of the tea. One would think that a much better approach from the start would have been to create Trademark Ticket, Description Tickets and outer wrappings that all clearly stated that the tea was harvested in the ‘Fall of 1953’ for example, made of ‘x, y, z’ leaves from such and such a mountain. It is worthwhile to note that scholars suggest that these codes were merely jargon used for factories, producers and distribution agents and that merchants and consumers were only concerned with the price and flavor of the tea. The jargon was only printed with enough detail to meet the uses of the factories, producers and government agencies using the codes. Perhaps the producers of very old vintage Puerh didn’t know that the date and provenance would be so important at a later date. They were more concerned with making sure the tea cake was known to be their own authentic product, rather than another factory’s. Still, more modern productions were created at a time when it was known that such information was important. Some vendors are just trades. They are not knowledgeable enough to identify the vintage of a cake beyond which decade it was produced within. There are many instances where a particular production of paper/printing was carried out for an several years. This is not necessarily dishonest; it simply means that by looking at the wrapping and appearance it is unlikely to tell the years if one is not knowledgeable enough.
Actually, all of the characteristics that define a Puerh process and vintage work much better when used in conjunction. Again, the best way to evaluate a tea is to sample it and then purchase based on one’s own enjoyment. There are many instances where tea shops won’t break up a tea cake to allow samples though. In that way, learning a bit about the packaging differences throughout time can be useful. In the end, though, if one plans to drink a tea, personal preference outweighs any vintage. If one doesn’t like a tea no amount of historical information will make the tea taste better.
With a basic understanding and vocabulary that facilitates communication about the parts, readers can begin to explore the vast world of aged Puerh.
The world of aged Puerh is rich and rewarding and offers so much experience by way of culture, history and also personal enjoyment. Some of our greatest tea experiences have been had drinking vintage Puerh teas.