The last post in our Puerh Tea Series – Puerh Tea Vintages.
Due to political instability in China in the 20th century, many of the records and information on old puerh has been lost. Traditionally, only a small quantity of the puerh tea produced each year was considered special enough to find its way to rich merchants and connoisseurs who would ensure long storage and maturation.These cakes would be bought in cases of 84 stacks of seven cakes (tong). By the 1970’s, each case was labelled with the year of production though use of a specific code system.No coding system existed before this because the relatively few specialist connoisseurs who bought high quality puerh, did not request systematised labelling as they intended keep the tea for their own consumption rather than using it as a source of income through trading.The political changes in China in the 20th century meant that many wealthy families lost their stores of tea. Today, very old cakes are so rare and expensive that they are almost never sold in complete cases and so the year of production which would have been marked on the case is also lost.However, experts have found that it is possible to determine the time of production of old teas through identification of packaging and marking styles which emerged at specific times in the last century,These stages can be split into four main eras:
1 Antique puerh
These were produced before the formation of the People’s Republic of China by private family-owned factories which traded in other commodities to ensure stable income. Puerh cakes of this vintage were not wrapped in paper.One ticket featuring the logo of the specific factory was embedded into the surface of each cake during compression and one ‘stack ticket’ was placed inside the bamboo wrapping used to hold together a stack of seven cakes.A mark was branded onto the outside of the bamboo wrapping. The main market for these teas was Hong Kong. After 1949, all private factories became owned by the state and this style of packing was no longer seen. Examples include the famous Song Ping cakes produced from 1910-1920. A recent auction in 2005, saw a small collection of 23 cakes sell for $25,000. Their value has increased enormously since 2005.
2 Masterpiece puerh
In 1950, the ‘China Tea Corporation Yunnan Province-level company’ (Zhongguo, Chaye Gongsi Yunnan Shenggongsi) was established to manage all tea business and production in Yunnan. A logo for this state -owned tea corporation was registered in 1951 although it was first used in the 1940’s. Eight red Chinese characters, ‘Zhong’ (China) surround a central character ‘Cha’, which means tea. In Chinese it is called the ‘Eight-Zhong tea logo.’ The trademark ticket embedded in each cake is called the ‘Eight zhong tea ticket.’
Red Seal Puerh Cakes
The most prized cakes produced in this period are called Hong Yin Yuancha or Red Seal. Today, this tea is considered to be exceptional because of its age of more than 50 years, and the quality of the tea blend which was from Xisuangbanna in southern Yunnan province.These cakes had outstanding ageing potential and today offer arguably the best puerh flavour available today. Current market value is approximately £8-12,000 per 357g cake. The tea produces a rich, deep ruby liquor, with smooth and highly complex, believed by some experts to present the palate with more than 400 different flavours. All cakes from the ‘Masterpiece period’ were wrapped in paper with printed characters on them. The Eight Zhong ticket is embedded in each cake. The name ‘China Tea Corporation Yunnan Province-level company’ and ‘Zhongcha brand tea cake’ printed on the bottom of each cake wrapping read from right to left. Each stack was wrapped in bamboo and tied with bamboo twine.The complete collection of the Masterpiece Puerh Vintage include the following teas: Red Seal Round Tea Cake, Red Seal Disk Tea Cake, Blue Seal Round Tea Cake, Grade A and B Artistic Seal Disk Tea Cake, Green Seal Round Tea Cake, Yellow Seal Round Tea Cake, Large Seven-Son Yellow Seal Tea Cake, Small Seven-Son Yellow Seal Tea Cake, Seventy-three Raw Tea Cake, Red Ribbon Aged Raw Tea Cake.
3 Seven-sons puerh
This era began in 1972 when puerh tea business was shifted to the control of China National Native Produce and Animal By-products Import and Export Corporation (CNNP). As a result of the change, the packaging style also changed:-The term ‘Round puerh cake’ was changed to ‘Yunnan Seven-sons Tea Cake’ (Yunnan chi tse beeng cha’).-Pinyin (Romanised Chinese) and English descriptions were provided on the wrapping and tickets except in the case of cakes produced by Kunming and Xiaguan tea Factories. The words ‘Products of Menghai Tea Factory of Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Xisuangbanna’ were printed under the Eight Zhong logo on the tickets except in the case of cakes produced by Kunming and Xiaguan tea Factories which did not embed any tickets into the cakes.-Description tickets were also embedded in the cakes except in the case of cakes produced by Kunming and Xiaguan tea Factories. ‘Yunnan Chi Tse Beeng Cha’ and ‘China National Native Produce & Animal By-products Import and Export Corporation Yunnan Tea Branch’ in both Chinese and Pinyin was written on every cake wrapped except in the case of disk cakes produced by Kunming and Xiaguan Factories which bear no Pinyin text.The Chinese characters read from left to right instead of right to left to match the Pinyin text.In the case of Yellow Seal Seven-son tea cakes, and Snow Seal Tea cakes, bamboo wrapping for stacks of seven cakes was substituted for paper bags. In the case of Seven Son cakes produced by Kunming factory were always wrapped in paper bags. The bamboo wrapping around stacks of seven cakes was tied with metal wire. Trading codes were introduced. These four digit codes represent the tea blend components used to make the tea. The first two digits represent the year in which the blend was first conceived. The third digit represents the grade of leaf used with 1 representing the highest grade. The fourth digit is number allocated to the tea factory where the tea was made: 1 is Kunming Tea Factory; 2 is Menghai Tea Factory; 3 is Xiaguan Tea Factory.Since the trading code does not represent the year of production, in some cases, three digits were added. E.g. 7542-506 – 5 represents the 5th year of a decade (1985 or 1975 etc). The last two digits denote the batch – 01 means the first batch of a particular product, 02 the second etc. These last three digits were often only displayed on the Batch Tickets which were attached to the cases of tea. Today, it’s rare to find a full case of the oldest teas from this era and so the batch tickets will also not be found.
4 New Era Puerh
In 1997 private label teas emerged with private logo’s and tickets. In addition, there have been changes to the types of tea leaf selected; the standard weight of cakes; compression methods; blend formulas; manufacturing techniques; wrapping materials; packing designs and styles. It is important to remember each of these four periods did not begin with an overnight complete change from the practices of the previous period. As with all teas, the best way to learn what flavours you like in puerh is to try to drink as much as you can get your hands on from as many different age ranges as you can.