It was mid october when I tried a cake I bought from a taiwanese merchant, this was my reaction:
- (examining the cake) “300 year old trees, yeah right, like the other thousand teas”
- (opening the cake) “ooh, it does smell nice and strong”
- (after a few cups) uh…this is very good, what is it? wrapper says: made by master Zhang Yi, yiwu wangong, 2003, okay…”
I sent a few samples around, including to at least one very experienced tea friend (interestingly both for him and me the moment when we loved it was the second session we had with it, not the first). Quite a few people liked it and wanted some.
I bought 12 tongs of it, sold a bit less than 2 in single cakes and samples and put away the rest to continue dry aging and getting even more in the direction this tea seem to be going already: dry-stored complex puerh with long durability and calming qi.
I couldn’t care any less about it being from Wangong or even 2003, the drinking experience sold me and it does now still.
But you have to talk about tea somehow, so well, start from the wrapper, after all fake wrappers are only on bad tea right?
Whoops, turns out that not… there’s such a thing as a good tea put into a fake wrapper.
Obviously I’d expect generic 90s/early 00s wrappers to contain anything, but I wrongly assumed that if a material was of a certain quality, then surely the wrapper would not misrepresent that (other than in common ways like overstating the age of the trees).
The wrapper says “300 year old trees” and well, that I never believed, certainly not intended as “pure” (100%) material of this kind, I mark it as T4 which is a blend containing a high percentage of old or ancient tree material (but not 100%).
But it turns out the wrapper was actually totally made up, not Wangong, not 2003, apparently not even Yiwu…
I sent a sample to someone who has 15+ years of very deep experience with old tree puerh and whose opinion I trust.
They reckoned that while being good, it didn’t strike them as having a wangong nor even yiwu profile and also seemed much younger than 2003.
I’ll admit: while I was very aware “300 years trees” was overstatement, I didn’t think much about a “Wangong” provenance (mostly because this, unlike tree age, is something I don’t care that much about and haven’t been that exposed to) and I definitely didn’t doubt the 2003 dating (nor “Yiwu”) until brought up in the email I received above.
I accept his opinion as definitely more knowledgeable than mine in terms of recognising terroir, and very likely in recognising age of production.
I think what happened for me that caused this judgement error is: I can’t imagine myself thinking “I have some nice tea, let’s try to sell it as something that isn’t” and my mind really struggles to process someone may think like that, it really doesn’t make much sense to me.
I am constrained by my world view, to imagine dishonesty is difficult, to imagine dishonesty for a small gain was, as we’ve seen, impossible (“this is already very nice tea! why try to make it something completely different?”).
And yet, what my views say can’t happen… did happen. Reality collides with views – as usual, reality wins.
As I see it, my main role is to find good tea (at the appropriate pricing), trying hundreds of tea and choosing what I think is an above average drinking experience.
[Note: By “good” now and later in the article I don’t mean some objective and shared-by-everyone standard, obviously tea reviewers, vendors and producers offer a point of view, that consumer are free to “try on” to see if it fits, that’s what I do too. More thoughts on defining that point of view in a different article.]
This requires hunting in all sort of corners that include less reputable producers, unreliable information and general uncertainty.
The alternative would be offering a few known boutique brands at quite high pricing and call it a day… but there’s not much value added in that.
However, as secondary role there is “consumer education”/”offering reliable information”, and so if I am talking about some technical characteristic of tea, it should be true to fact, which in this case it wasn’t.
- Doubt producers/wrappers more, even when the tea is good
- Offer information in a way that’s less definite, leaving room for the uncertainty that goes with hunting old puerh
- Focus on my core competency: identifying what I define as “quality” (not terroir, processing, production age, etc)
- Remember that the world doesn’t all think like me… 🙂
- Single-area Wangong before 2010 is suspicious
I’m still very happy I have a lot of this tea for the long term, it really fits my idea of quality at this level of pricing, and apparently also for quite a few people I’ve given it to.
With all this said, I had published informations that turned out to be incorrect and I assume the responsibility of that.
If you bought a cake of “2003 Yiwu Wangong” and the reason you bought it was because you wanted a Wangong or a 2003 tea, you’re welcome to return it for a refund.
Note: I’ve seen this wrapper used on the web for other cakes, there is at least one more production that uses the same design of the wrapper (but with slightly different wrapper material and neifei depth). I consider this wrapper as not giving any useful information to identify the actual leaves contained in it (similar to the many pre-2000s generic wrappers).