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Vintage Puerh - A Simple Tour through the Greatest Vintages of Puerh Blue Mark Series By Chen Chih Tung

The Blue Mark (Chinese: "Lan Yin" 蓝印) is one of the most coveted vintages of Puerh tea, desired by collectors and connoisseurs alike. After Red Mark (Chinese: "Hong Yin" 红印) it is the second most valuable tea of the Masterpiece Era (1950's-1960's). Equally precious, the prices of Blue Mark have continued to rise exponentially in the last few years. Moreover, some versions of this rare tea are difficult to come by no matter how much one is willing to spend. Blue Mark is a necessary and fundamental stop on any tour of vintage Puerh, and an experience that every aficionado hopes to add to his or her list of tea sessions. Like the other teas of the Masterpiece Era, it comes with a delectable flavor and aroma, profoundly comforting cha qi, deep and layered textures; and beyond even drinking, an innate historicity that establishes it as a landmark in the story of Puerh tea itself.

Following Red Mark, Blue Mark is a favorite among the products made by the state-owned factories in the early part of the Masterpiece Stage (sometimes also referred to as the "State-owned Stage", but this is misleading because the next "Seven-son Era" was also technically during a time of state-controlled production. Therefore, most scholars nowadays prefer "Masterpiece" and "Seven-son" eras respectively.) Unlike Red Mark, however, products in this family cut across different times of production, composition, and even wrapping style, so Blue Mark doesn't have the same consistency of quality that Red Mark does. Nevertheless, there are enough similarities in blending, flavor, aroma and appearance to warrant their delineation as an independent family of tea.

The name "Blue Mark" was give to this tea for the same reason as "Red Mark" - both are related to appearance. "Blue Mark" not only refers to Grade A and Grade B Blue Mark Round Tea Cakes, but also includes all the products which were popular in the market after Red Mark. The name "Red Mark" came from Hong Kong, but Blue Mark got its name much later in Taiwan. Earlier this vintage of tea was called. "Green Mark" (Chinese: "Lu Yin" 绿印) in Hong Kong. However, everyone nows agrees that Green Mark, by the nomenclature of the early market, was based only on the green color of its "Eight-Zhong" (Chinese: "Ba Zhong" 八中) mark in the center of the wrapper. When Blue Mark first started appearing in the Taiwanese market, it was almost exclusively the Grade A and Grade B vintages. The difference between these and other products in the Blue Mark family is that they have green characters for "Grade A (甲级, "Jiaji")" or "Grade B (乙级, "Yiji")" stamped on the outer wrapping and covered with a dark blue ink. (However, over the years the dark blue ink had faded, and the Green Grade A or Grade B characters had become legible again.) Because of that blue ink, the name "Blue Mark Grade A" or "Blue Mark Grade B" was popularized throughout Taiwan. Later, all the products of this family coming from

Hong Kong were given the same name. Consequently, what started out of habit caught on and as more publications and experts began using "Blue Mark" to identify this family, people everywhere started calling it by that name. At a later time, when connoisseurs and experts started communicating more and organizing the history of Puerh, this name was also found to be better as it distinguished Blue Mark from other vintage families.

There are several kinds of Blue Mark and a complete understanding of the vintage would take more space than this introduction has room for, so let us just focus on the important distinctions for now. The three main kinds of cakes in this family of tea are:

1. Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B Round Tea Cake
2. The Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cake
3. The Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake

All the teas in this family have many characteristics of their outer wrappings in common: Firstly, "China Tea Corporation, Yunnan Provincial Branch" was printed on the wrapping in peach or vermilion color. At the center, the "Eight-Zhong Tea" logo is printed with the Chinese character for "tea" in green. This differentiates it from the earlier Red Mark series which is red. Also, Blue Mark cakes are all printed without any Roman Pinyin on the wrapping. The Chinese characters printed on this vintage are all identical except the extra characters of "Grade A" and "Grade B" on those cakes, but are divided into two important categories of "Song Character" or "Artistic Font". Another important feature of Blue Mark is that all the outer wrapping papers were handmade tissue paper, though scholars often divide the paper into thick and thin fiber categories in order to establish small discrepancies in production dates between cakes. The pattern printed in the red portion of the wrapper is identical on all the cakes, though it is grouped into two eras based either the peach or vermilion pigments used.

The Age of Blue Mark

Blue Mark was produced in the period from 1950 to 1958 by Menghai Tea Factory, in part being produced alongside the later stages of Red Mark. It was produced up until the beginning of the "Seven-son Tea Cake for the Overseas Chinese". Basically, the "Peach Printing" represents the early stage of Blue Mark production (before 1955); and the "Vermilion Printing" the later tea cakes (after 1955). The Blue Mark Grade A Round Tea Cake, Blue Grade B Round Tea Cake and Blue Mark Artistic Font Round Tea Cake are the products is which are divided into these two stages, viz. the "Peach Printing" and "Vermilion Printing". The Song Character Green Mark is often considered to be a later product that was made in the Vermilion Stage. This is actually slightly complicated because some of the Song Character Green Mark cakes also utilized peach pigment (passing through both stages in effect), but its circulation in the market came later so it was less acknowledged than the others, deemed inferior and also thought to have been made at a later time.

Some experts believe that the distinction between the Song Character Green Mark and other Blue Mark teas isn't entirely without warrant. They argue that the blending of the Song Character Green Mark wasn't as stable, which, justifies its weakness in the market. In addition, some suggest changes in the productive environment that affected the entire Vermillion Printing period as well (which is primarily the period in which the Song Character Green Mark belongs). Firstly, during the period from 1951 to 1956, the situation was difficult while a New China was just being formed, and therefore the production scale wasn't maintained with the same stringency as was later. Many products were processed with the help of private factories. Since the processing at these smaller factories was done by hand, the output wasn't large.

After the political reforms, all the producers and managers at the state factories changed, and this required a period of training to get production back on me right track. Pressure was also put on them to increase production, so it makes sense that the tea from this time period of would have a lower-quality, which ultimately resulted in teas that were more common and regarded as inferior in general. After the private factories stopped assisting production, the state-owned factories gradually overcame their difficulties and stabilized production again. Still, many of the Vermilion Stage Blue Mark cakes came from this period of instability.

Another important quality factor with regard to the difference between early and late Blue Mark is that the production of the early^ stage Blue Mark and late-stage of Red Mark partially overlaps. It is common knowledge that the Peach Printing of the Blue Mark Grade A, Blue Mark Grade B Round Tea Cake and the Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cake were similar in essence to late stage Red Mark, and of a higher quality than the later Blue Mark teas which were made during some of the aforementioned turmoil.

For many years, the Blue Mark family was regarded as inferior to the Red Mark by collectors, tea drinkers and connoisseurs. The main reason for this was that the Vermilion Stage Song Character cakes hadn't pulled through its period of astringent jerkiness; and information wasn't as accessible as today, so only a few people, who had even then been long-term tea lovers, knew that the Peach Printing Blue Mark cakes were not only different but much more worthwhile to drink (as they had aged much further). Consequently, many people disregarded che whole family and chose instead to purchase other vinrages of Puerh, including Red Mark. This misunderstanding continued for quire sometime, as it took a while for the later Blue Mark to come through their stage of astringency and transform into fully mature vintages. Since the composition of rhe Song Character Green Mark Round lea Cake wasn't as stable as Blue Mark Cradc A and Grade B, and Artistic Font Green Mark, it was often thought co be incredibly common and not so nice to drink. It would take longer for time to transform its problems. Nowadays, all the tea cakes in the Blue Mark family have of course come through their periods of astringent jerkiness and become great vintages that everyone lovers to drink, making them rarer and rarer. Moving on, let's take a look at each of three categories of the Blue Mark more closely:

Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B Round Tea Cakes

The raw material of the Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B cakes was from Nannuo (南糯) and Ba Da (巴达) mountains. This new blend and region is a big part of why they were distinguished from the Red Mark family which a different central "Eight-Zhong Tea" character, which was changed to green. Later, because the marker had a prejudice against the classification of che two grades, dark blue ink was used to cover the "Grade A" and "Grade B" stamps. According to the Chinese restaurant owners of Hong Kong from the period, it was then impossible to distinguish the grading, even if they asked Menghai to do so. Grade B were definitely the first batch of the Blue Mark production. The tea was essentially indistinguishable because:

(1) They were part of a process of experimentation.

(2) Hong Kong businessmen ordered tea products through the Yunnan Provincial Branch but they then canceled the previous order after testing the tea; but the factory still had Grade A and Grade B wrapping papers leftover, which they then used to wrap some later tea cakes.

Either of these possibilities explains why there isn't much difference in tastes between the Grade A and Grade B cakes.

The fact that Chinese restaurant owners were forced to buy these Puerh blindly, not knowing which was which, since their distinguishing grades had been covered with dark blue ink, shows that the factories at that early stage were entirely a directive production, meaning that the demand of the market could not affect a productive unit. This is very different from today's situation, where the production - including the style, composition, and even the shape - can be decided by the demands from the market.

As mentioned above, the wrapping papers of Grade A and Grade B can be divided into Peach Printing and Vermilion Printing stages. The Peach Printing Blue Mark can also be identified by the soft bamboo wrapping material used to package seven tea cakes together into a stack. The Vermilion Printing Blue Mark, conversely, is characterized by hard bamboo wrapping material. Since the Red Mark was also wrapped in soft bamboo material, experts are even more confident that the earlier Peach Stage Grade A and Grade B are the earliest production in the Blue Mark Family. Even at the present time, the market prices of the Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B teas are the highest among the Blue Mark family; and those from the Peach Printing stage exceed the Vermilion Printing cakes by ten percent.

The composition of the Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B in the Peach Printing stage is similar to Red Mark, but in the Vermilion Printing stage there were fewer buds on the surface, and the quality is slightly inferior, When appreciating these Puerh vintages, one should note that the long-lasting aged fragrance of plums is pure and strong. However, compared to Red Mark, its flavor is slightly monotonous. When the astringent jerkiness faded with time, the sensations in the mouth became mellower, making Blue Mark cakes more enjoyable.

Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cake

The Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cakes are distinguished as such because the characters on the wrapping are calligraphic. The Artistic Font Discus Tea Cake has the same style of characters as well. The wrapping style of the Artistic Fonts Green Mark is thin tissue paper. It was also made exclusively in the Peach Printing Stage; of course with soft bamboo wrapping material for a stack. From the perspective of wrapping, it has the same style as the products made in the early stages of Blue Mark production. However, raw material and composition are different from others in the Blue Mark family. It is rich in flavor and much more vivid than the Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B. The Artistic Font Green Marks is also the rarest cake in the Blue Mark family.

In general, some aspects of value are always commensurate with rarity. People like to collect the treasure which is the rarest. The Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cake is fit for those collectors with such a disposition. However, even the connoisseurs must recognize its higher quality. Consequently, with its higher quality and smaller quantity, its position at the top of the Blue Mark market is ensured. The market price of Artistic Font Green Mark cakes is by no means cheaper than the price of the Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B. Furthermore, since the quantity of Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B is larger than Artistic Font Green Mark, tea lovers would be lucky to even find one that has been stored in good condition.

The composition of Artistic Font Green Mark cakes is slightly red, with many buds on siis surface, similar to Red Mark Grade A. It is rich in taste, showing a stronger flavor and sensation in the mouth than other Puerh vintages in the Blue Mark family. Any tea lover would immediately be impressed by its fragrance of sandalwood. The raw Material used in its composition appear to be from around Yibang (倚邦), so in addition to the special fragrance of sandalwood, it smells of herbs. This is quite different from the traditional style of Puerh from Yiwu (易武).

Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake

The Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake is considered a more average product of the Blue Mark family, no matter whether it's from the Peach Printing or Vermilion Printing stages. These tea cakes are thought to come from the period from 1954 to 1960 of Menghai Tea Factory's production. When it first appeared on the market, the Song Character cakes hadn't yet come through their period of astringent jerkin ess and apparently didn't taste so nice in their youth. Also, even on the wrappers -compared to the Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B, and the Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cakes - the thick fiber of the Vermilion Printing Song Character cakes didn't look as aged. The wrapping of the Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake is also handmade tissue paper, hand printed, and as with all the Blue Mark teas, is without any Roman Pinyin. The paper was both thin and thick fibered paper, with most of the cakes from the Peach Printing stage having been wrapped in thin tissue paper. Except for the fact that the style of printed characters is "Song", it looks similar to Red Mark. However, the central character, "Eight-zhong Tea", is of course dark green. Like the others above, we divide the Song Character tea cakes intp the Peach, and Vermilion Printing stages. The Peach Printing cakes are considered to be earlier though, still younger than the Grade A and Grade B or Artistic Font Green Mark cakes.

According to my personal experience, the Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cakes are really of a quality between the Masterpiece and Seven-son eras. Nevertheless, For now, both the age and price of Song Character cakes are accepted by the market as closer and more Related to the Blue Mark and Masterpiece Era, than the later stage.

It is important to note that unclear information in the early market allowed the Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake to depress the price of the entire Blue Mark family. Actually, not only do the production periods of the Peach Printing of Blue Mark Grade A and Grade B, the Artistic Font Green Mark Round Tea Cake and the Red Mark family partly overlap, but they are also products of unique style, flavor and elegance. Earlier, they were underestimated by the market and this was primarily the fault of these later Song Character. In fact, this represents the biggest difference between Red Mark and Blue Mark teas: that the prices and quality of early stage, middle stage and later stage Red Mark are all close, while the Blue Mark family is characterized by instability - Grade A and Grade B and the Artistic Font Green Mark cakes are all products of a higher shelf, and the Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake is characterized by a big drop in quality. I think the Song Chatacter would still be attractive to consumers if it was sold at an inexpensive price. After all, it's a rare chance to get any old tea nowadays. But, alas, it usually isn't that much cheaper.

Among the cakas in the Blue Mark family, the Song Character Green Mark Round Tea Cake is the one that was produced in the largest quantity, so it's also the easiest to buy. The price is lower than that of the Grade A and Grade B and Artistic Font cakes by about ten to twenty percent. However, even though Song Character Green Mark cakes exist in larger quantities, it's still limited.

Taken as a whole, the prices of the Blue Mark teas were always underestimated. I think this vintage of tea has always held a special place in the history of Puerh, and whether ignored or not, was always destined to be a great tea, lining the same shelves of silken boxes as teas from the Antique Era, the Red Mark and other great Puerh vintages. The chance to drink any kind of Blue Mark is growing rarer all the time, and there will come a time one day when it is only a part of books and articles like these. Of course, new Puerh vintages will be reaching their peaks at that time, but the Blue Mark family will always hold a fond place in the hearts of so many tea lovers, no matter what other great teas are placed up the shelves in the place it once sat.