This will be an ongoing serial covering all the aspects of vintage Puerh from identification tips to history, and even production, development collection and appreciation. We will bring the greatest Puerh scholars in Asia - authors like Chen Zhi Tong whose books have become the standard in Puerh appraisal. And, of course, to a resounding applause we will display lots and lots of photos for your enjoyment. Come join us on a tour through the great halls of this museum of vintage Puerh.
- By Chen Zhi Tong
The Red Mark (Chinese: "Hong Yin" "红印" among the best-known and most coveted Puerh teas in the world today. In the last five years alone, as numbers have dwindled, the price has appreciated in the thousands of dollars. Not only is the Red Mark the oldest of the "Masterpiece" age, it represents the beginning of the state-owned factories. But the Red Mark is more than just a collector's item; it's also one of the greatest tea experiences available to the connoisseur. The Red Mark prices have been skyrocketing and fewer people are willing to break their cakes, and those that have are more reserved about which occasions to share it, but should the opportunity arise for any tea lover, put the Red Mark at the top of the list of great teas to try.
Characteristics of the Appearance of Red Mark
In Chinese culture "Red" symbolizes rebirth and joyous transitions. The color was probably chosen to represent a fortuitous beginning as the state-owned factories joined in the production of Yunnan tea. It is suggested that the entire period of production of Red Mark might be from 1942 since the establishment of "Fo Hai (Chinese: "佛海茶廠") until 1958. Besides a few debatable exceptions, these Red Mark were manufactured using the best raw tea from Meng La. They were all wrapped in handmade tissue or long-fiber paper that was then printed by hand using a single red plate.
The Chinese characters on the wrapper are traditional, without English and the Trademark Ticket (Chinese: "内飞") is the "Eight-zhong" (Chinese: "Nei Fei" "内飞") without any production unit or information on it. The stacks were all wrapped organically, using bamboo bark. There are five main categories of the Red Mark, though we sometimes subdivide some of them, resulting in nine different tea cakes.
All of the cakes appear very similar except for the "Grade A" (Chinese: "Jia Ji" "甲级") were stamped. The five main kinds in this family of tea are:
1. Grade A Red Mark Round Tea Cake;
2. Early Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake;
3. Middle Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake;
4. Late Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake; and
5. Red Mark Round Tea Cake Without Wrapper.
Grade A Red Mark Round Tea Cake
The Grade A Red Mark Round Tea Cakes were not regular product lines. They were special orders and there are often large gaps between their productions. They are often stamped with ("甲级" in blue just beneath the "Eight-zhong". Over the years there were two kinds of stamps: dark blue and sapphire. However, many of these stamps were later cut off and replaced with white paper. Though the "Grade A" stamps were carefully cut out and a white paper was glued in its place, they are still easy to see. Often, traces of blue still remain around the edges and the cut marks are obvious. Finding a cake with the original stamp would be very difficult indeed. This author has only seen two in the past few years. Some of the "Grade A" cakes had no stamp at all, just a printing plate similar to the Early Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake.
Consequently, we recognize four kinds of Grade A Red Mark Round Tea Cake:
1. Grade A Dark Blue Stamp;
2. Grade A Sapphire Stamp;
3. Grade A Revised (in which the stamp was cut out); and
4. Grade A Standard.
Formula of the Red Mark
Much of the information regarding the quality of Antique Puerh Vintage was printed on the Stack Ticket (Chinese: Tong Piao"筒票") which contained descriptions of product at that time. These Stack Tickets from different kinds of Antique Puerh Vintage always had common emphasis on "Spring shoots", "More Tea Buds" and "Fine Manufacturing". These Grade A Red Mark, apart from the outlook, have different formula from the normal Red Mark. These Grade A Red Mark included "Spring shoots" and had "More Tea Buds" in the tea cake. The added tea buds make the variety of Grade A Red Mark stronger than other normal Red Mark, though it still maintains the traditional fragrance of orchids. Some scholars suggest that these tea cakes used the best spring tea from Yi Wu Original Mountains (Chinese: "Yi Wu Zheng Shan" "易武正山"). Original Mountains mean those famous mountains traditionally produce good Puerh.
Early Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake
The Early Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake continued each year, and there were therefore many more of these tea cakes manufactured. This category of Red Mark can basically be divided into two kinds based on the wrapping alone.
1. Large Characters Early Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake; and
2. Early Stage Red Mark Round Tea Cake With A Red-dot.
These tea cakes can be further distinguished according to the three different kinds of wrapping paper used during this early stage. They were a thick-fiber paper, a thick handmade tissue paper and a thin one. The Large Characters Early Stage Red Mark is a good buy for a collector, because no matter which paper was used the quality is consistent. At that time the state-owned factory supervised the acquisition of the raw materials and the handiwork that made it such a good product. The "Red Mark With A Red-dot" was mixed in a way similar to Grade A Red Mark, making a more full-bodied flavor with the fragrance of plums and orchids. It also has a unique herbal smell that distinguishes it from other kinds of Red Mark. The "Red Mark With A Red-dot" is a unique member of the family, and has recently become very rare.
Red Mark Discus Tea Cake
The Red Mark Discus Tea Cake (Chinese: "红印铁饼") was produced as a special order mostly in the early stage of the 1950's. The added compression was to help make shipping more convenient. It also has lent them a unique flavor, different from other kinds of Red Mark. The added compression changes the fermentation process of the tea.
Middle and Later Stages of Red Mark The Middle and Later stages of Red Mark Production represent the tea cakes produced from the early 1950's, and ending in 1958. More than half the quantity of Red Mark falls into one of these two categories. However, very little changed in the mixing and sourcing of Red Mark from the Early Stage, so the quality was steadily excellent throughout all of the Red Mark production era. The decrease in price from Early to Late Stage Red Mark was only about 15%. This shows a steady decrease in quality through the years, but not overly so. As the quality deteriorated each year, it would perhaps be possible to divide up the Red Mark from these stages into quite a bit of categories. However, after so many years we have found that it is only necessary to be able to discriminate the Middle and Late stages.
An elementary way to distinguish these stages is to look at the printing on the wrapper. At that time, they used a wood-carved printing plate. Through use the plate would get worn down and therefore needed to be trimmed. Consequently, the character strokes gradually became thinner over time, so we can assume that the larger, thicker Chinese characters represent an older cake. There are other more derailed methods for separating these stages that experts use in conjunction with this method.
Some of the earliest Red Mark Round Tea Cake were produced without a wrapper. Also, sometimes the later cakes may have lost the wrapper for various reasons. These teas are often a great deal for those interested in drinking the Red Mark, rather than collecting it, as they are much cheaper. However, it requires a bit more trust or expertise about the vintage to verify the authenticity of these Red Marks.
Red Mark Round Tea Cake is famous for its reliable quality, depth and plum or orchid fragrance. It is also a collector's item, as it signifies the historical beginning of the state-owned factory and the "Masterpiece Age". Most Puerh tea lovers dream above all else of owning a cake of Red Mark, and those who have been collecting for some time will invariably have this tea cake in a place of honor on their shelf.
Questions about the Red Mark
Q: Is The Trademark Ticket (Chinese: "Nei Fei" "内飞" always embedded in the tea?
A: Whether a Trademark Ticket is in the tea or not has nothing to do with the tea's quality and helps very little in determining pedigree. I have found the Trademark Ticket hidden inside the Red Mark Tea Cake, on the surface or even partially covered, etc. This is an understandable variation considering that the tea cakes are compressed by hand 50 years ago. One needs to be careful, as much of the information concerning these Masterpiece Vintage Puerh is just coming to light now. Unless a person deals with a large amount of a particular vintage, one will invariably make mistakes.
Q: Is there any difference in the formula of Red Mark and Blue Mark?
A: Besides just different raw materials from different places there are even some discernable discrepancies on the surfaces of these tea cakes. Most obvious is the tea buds on the surface of Red Mark, which all show signs of rubbing and refinement. The tea buds are placed clockwise in the shape of wheel spokes. Most of the Blue Marks were made with larger grade leaves and far less tea buds. Furthermore, the surface of Red Mark is slightly reddish in hue, while the Blue Marks are darker.
Q: Can one separate Red Mark from other cakes like Blue Mark just by looking at the original stack?
A: The bamboo bark used to wrap the Red Mark was softer than the Blue Mark. The stacks of Red Mark have that special characteristic. While the bamboo bark is softer, it may not be smart to use this as conclusive evidence of pedigree.
Mid-Stage Red Mark Review
Dry: Large leaves that are mostly dark brown with some more brittle, reddish leaves here and there. Many of the leaves are twisted and curled in various ways. There are quite a few stalks and stems. It is absolutely gorgeous - dry and clean with no wet storage mustiness. It smells of ancient and unknown ruins, deep and forestry, like forgotten woods untouched by man. It is intoxicating just to smell, satisfying in and of itself.
Wet: Cooked smell, not unpleasant though. Mostly uniform in color, suggesting leaves from one region. Lots of hand-picked, leaf sets and even some buds. Still gorgeous. Also, we reheated the used leaves 3-4 times and each time was still a pretty delicious drink. The next day, this reused tea still served us better than most of my own tea.
15 grams in an antique Yixing
Water: Fresh from Puli spring in Taiwan
Fire: Silver kettle heated on stone
An incredible five-star tea that is truly mind-bending in its perfection. I think that much of the debate over the exorbitant price is really just one of quantity versus quality. In other words, would you rather have a lot of some tea that is relatively great or this one superb tea cake?
This tea was really superb in every way. We got somewhere around 17 full, robust steepings out of it, and every one was a treasure. The color was deep and dark and shimmered with a red-to-gold ring near the edges. It smelled often of the earth, dried plums, withered and sweet flowers and other kinds of indescribable ancientness. I was reminded of the wilted flowers on some temple altar miles and eras away. Other times, I smelled autumn forests and could even imagine walking amongst some great, wizened trees. The taste was celestial. It tingled across the tongue and coated the throat in a very pleasant warmth and sweetness. It also had a tremendous strong aftertaste (Hui Gan" "回甘") that returned every breath. The flowery sweetness and deep earthy tones remained on the breath for several minutes after each cup. It also seemed to linger in the saliva glands and coat the mouth with a sweetness that was very pleasant and rich, like a deep chocolate. I tasted plums, flowers, roses, forest leaves, nuts, fruit in general, almonds, and even a not-unpleasant kind of ancient Egyptian crypt dust. The later steepings had some bitterness in the aftertaste, but it wasn't unpleasant at all. The Qi was deep Yin from the bowels of the Earth itself. It was very mild at first, but slowly climaxed at around the 10th steeping, leaving me intoxicated even many hours after the session had ended. It was so strong that we sat there in silence for about 4 hours. There were times that I lost consciousness and just drifted in a soft and warm Yin cloud, like falling into a pile of raked autumn leaves when I was a boy. This was truly one of the best teas I've ever had.
A Second Reviewer:
It had a heavy nutty and oily flavor that came forth in thick and voluptuous liquor. There was a kind of medicinal quality underlying these flavors, too. Later in the session it sweetened and there was a fruitiness mixed together with an earthy, leafy taste. It often left me feeling as if I were breathing dry, winter air without the coldness. Some of the steepings had a distinct cherry flavor. In the final steepings I also detected a hint of bitterness. I could feel electric sparks on my tongue and throat. After about eight steepings my head begin to ring like a bell, resonating inaudibly and expanding seemingly beyond myself. Later, I could feel the Qi began to peel over my scalp and dance down the surface of my body in spirals. It rushed through my body in grand cycles, which eventually rooted my body to the earth. This was the best tea I've ever had and anything better would have to get an 11 out of 10.