It should be noted that most all the terms used to identify the families and eras of Puerh tea began for the most part with the scholarship of the 1990's. During their own times, these teas were everyday commodities - names and trends always changed with the times. Also, one should remember that the lines between these eras, while based on reason, are ultimately arbitrary. While most scholars agree in general, certain vintages right near the boundaries might slip into either age depending on what one reads.
The Antique Age
This era of tea includes major Puerh tea cakes that were produced prior to the formation of the People's Republic of China. All of the manufactores from that time were private businesses and none had anywhere near the output of those today. Many of these trading firms also dealt in other goods as well, like rice and other agricultural products. Puerh tea was just one commodity amongst others. Some of them were even owned by single families, like the legendary Songping Hao and Tongqing Hao. They were often small, rural houses where tea and other products were all processed completely by hand. The demand of the market at the period in between the end of Qing Dynasty (191 1AD) and the new China (1949AD) was not huge. Annual production in numbers from each family frim would make even the sate-owned factories of later years scoff. However, the total annual production from al these firms were still considerable. However, old tea house owners in Hong Kong reported to Mr. Chan Kam Pong, the author of the "Firsy Step to Chinese
Puerh Tea, that 10 baskets (or "Jian" in Chinese), equaling 840 tea cakes, was enough for the entire Hong Kong for one year." The demands for refined Puerh tea cakes were very low because the retail price of these Antique Puerh tea cakes, which were new then, were relatively high when compared to other teas, a old tea house owner said. Nevertheless, many would argue that the cleaner and more natural farming methods and environment lent these tea cakes a certain majesty not found in any of their descendents. The fact that many of these Puerh are now 60 or more years old, coupled with the fact that very few were produced to begin with, makes them extremely rare and valuable - sometimes costing in the tens of thousands per tea cake.
The tea cakes from the Antique Era were never wrapped with an outer wrapping paper. Perhaps it was considered too costly at the time. However, all the tea cakes did have a Trademark Ticket (or "Nei Fei" in Chinese) embedded into the tea just like the ones of today. Many also had a Stack Ticket (or "Tong Piao" in Chinese) that rested in each stack of seven tea cakes (a stack, or "Tong" in Chinese). Other than the leaves themselves, these trademarks are really the only way that collectors can tell them apart, especially ones from the same manufactorer, like for example the Red and Blue Trademark Songping. The leaves in these ancient tea cakes are often said to be larger-leaf blends, which has led some people to argue that the technique of harvesting old, wild tree leaves isn't as modern as we think. Others argue that leaf size really isn't proof of what kind of trees the raw material came from, and that the idea of using wild tea leaves really begin in the 1990's. Neither of these arguments can really be proven because it's impossible to know what these Antique Era tea cakes tasted like when they were new. Still, it is a romantic idea: that the oldest factories were harvesting from old tea trees.
When the "New China" was established in 1949, the central government declared that all industry belonged to the people. Even the tea industry was handed over to the local government. These changes closed these family-run, private businesses one by one in the 1950's and the Antique age came to an end.
The Masterpiece Era
The start of the Masterpiece Era began with the formation of the state-run factories, like Menghai, which is still in existence today. At that time, the "New China" just established. In order to take over the control of the entire tea industry and stabilize the production of tea, "China Tea Corporation" was created. The "China Tea Corporation Yunnan Provincial Branch" was also formed for managing all kinds of tea produced in Yunnan, including Puerh. The corporation had its own logo, brand and trademark - established in 1950, and registered with the central government in 1951. This trademark is the now famous "Eight-Zhong Tea" the logo that is in the center of all the tea cakes from the Masterpiece and later Seven-son eras. The character "Zhong (中)" means "middle" or "Middle Kingdom", viz. China. Eight of them surround the character for tea (茶), since that number was considered lucky. It also symbolized the goal of distributing Chinese tea to all eight directions of the world. In this magazine, issue 2 before and now here in issue 3, we have started an in-depth tour of some the great vintages of the Masterpiece Era, beginning of course with the Red Mark, which was the first and most important. The Red and the Blue Mark, as well as others from the Masterpiece Era, are now also very rare. While they aren't as expensive or as difficult to find as Antique Puerh Vintages, many vintages are quickly approaching comparative values. Like the older teas, these too are treasures.
Tea cakes in the Masterpiece Era are distinguished from earlier ones by the obvious change to using outer wrapping paper. All these tea cakes were wrapped in pieces of handmade papers with the "Eight-zhong Tea" trademark in the center. The name of the "China Tea Corporation Yunnan Provincial Branch" was printed in a ring around the central character, and read from right to left (which helps distinguish these Masterpiece tea cakes from later ones produced in the Seven-son Era). The style and methods used to wrap seven tea cakes into a stack didn't change in the Masterpiece Era: they still used bamboo bark with soft bamboo twine to hold the stack closed.
The Masterpiece Era is really considered to be the 1950's and 60's, though many authors put some or even all of the 1970's Yellow Mark Seven-son tea cakes into the Masterpiece Era because they feel that the Yellow Mark are of the same caliber. Nevertheless, most scholars place the end of the Masterpiece Era in 1972. For the purpose of uniformity, we will use the list of vintages from the Masterpiece Era that our esteemed colleague, Mr. Chan Kam Pong, used in his book, First Step to Chinese Puerh Tea, which are as follows:
1. Red Mark Round Cake
2. Red Mark Discus Tea Cake
3. Blue Mark Round Tea Cake-Grade A and Grade B
4. Artistic Font Discus Tea Cake
5. Green Mark Round Tea Cake
6. Yellow Mark Round Tea Cake
7. Large Yellow Mark Seven-son Tea Cake
8. Small Yellow Mark Seven-son Tea Cake
9. Seventy-three Raw Tea Cake (or Green Mark Junior)
10. Red-ribbon Aged Raw Tea Cake
The Seven-son Era (Qi Zi Bing)
The Seven-son Era began in 1972 with the formation of the now-famous "China National Native Produce & Animal By-products Import & Export Corporation", referred to so often as the "CNNP". The new agency would take control over all the Puerh production during the period. The three main factories of the time period were Menghai, Xiaguan and Kunming. During this time, the production of Puerh tea increased as a result of a growing foreign market. More tea was exported than ever before. As a result, more of these teas are floating around the vintage market than their predecessors, though some of these famous vintages are also now starting to become rarer and more expensive. Some of the earliest cakes from this era are just now starting to reach maturity, and connoisseurs are all interested in tasting these vintages as well as the earlier ones.
When the CNNP took over the production of Puerh in Yunnan they changed several aspects of the design used to package tea, as well as the blends and raw material. Consequently, besides the change in management, these changes justify the demarcation of two eras of tea at this time. Firstly, all the tea cakes were no longer called "Round Tea Cakes" (or Yuan Cha); instead, they were all now called "Qi Zi Bing Cha" (or "Chi Tse Beeng Cha" in Yunnan dialect), which literally means "Seven-son Tea Cake". As mentioned before, the characters on these tea cakes all also changed from 'right to left' to 'left to right.' The ones made by Menghai also began using Roman Pinyin font beneath the Chinese for the purpose of exportation. Xiaguan and Kunming factories didn't have such change and remained Chinese only. Menghai also began adding a Description Ticket (or "Nei Piao" in Chinese) between every cake and outer wrapping. The "Nei piao" from the Seven-son Era were called a "Description Ticket" because it contained short descriptions, product information such us the health benefits of Puerh tea. However, Xiaguan and Kunming's Seven-son Era tea cakes didn't have an Decription Ticket inside. Of course, the name around the "Eight-Zhong Tea" was also changed from the China Tea Corporation to the CNNP. There were several other changes in packaging at this time, like the use of metal wires to tie a stack, using Trading Codes and even changes to the design of the Trademark Ticket (or "Nei Fei" in Chinese) compressed into the tea.
Different authors end the Seven-son Era at different times. Many modern factories are still producing tea cakes with the same packaging designs as those made during this era, and the continuous production of that design makes the delineation between the Seven-son Era and what scholars call the "Modern" or "Newborn Era" difficult indeed. However, most all Puerh historians end the Seven-son Era sometime in the mid to late 1990's. Mr. Chan Kam Pong states that 1997 is a good time to mark the end of this era, "...because the private orders made by tea merchants to the national factories increased drastically from 1997. In addition, different kinds of wrapping styles began to emerge alongside the Seven-son style at that time."
Since the beginning of the Newborn Era the production and variation of Puerh tea has increased in a whirlwind of volume, ending in the record-breaking demand for 100,000 tons in 2007. Many scholars, collectors and tea lovers are predicting that the future of Puerh tea won't be nearly as majestic or wonderful as its past.