Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Shopping for fake pu'er in Chinatown

lots of gates and temples around

On that visit to the Bangkok Chinatown posted about earlier I bought a tea sold as a 2006 sheng pu'er, also from the Sen Xing Fa shop.   I didn't know much more about it.  Some of the English wording mentioned Lao Ban Zhang, which only meant to me that if it was being sold as LBZ it wasn't "real."  They sold mostly factory teas, typical Menghai produced versions, so I'm assuming most of what they were selling was "real."  But I wouldn't be the right person to judge that either.  Of course I wasn't really shopping for fake pu'er, I just happened to buy some, along with that Ya Bao (tea buds), compressed white tea, and some Thai oolong to give away.

That idea comes up a lot, about counterfeit teas.  In some cases fakes are obvious, with pricing in the completely wrong range, or vendors selling in-demand tea types that are really completely unavailable through ordinary channels.  Per the normal hearsay in places like Taobao and Aliexpress essentially everything sold as any specific above-average level tea is fake.  A close version of this tea is on Aliexpress, in a similar price range, not costing much.

tea cake under consideration

It was just a gamble, something to try.  The smell seemed ok so it might be drinkable.  I'm confident that it's not "good" tea or it wouldn't be selling at that price (let's just say low), but that's all I feel certain about.  "Good" spans a range, and part of the experiment is to get a feel for that range.

I suppose it could be 11 years old, or much more likely not.  It wouldn't necessarily be good even if it was.  Drinking mediocre or bad tea isn't going to advance my sheng pu'er experience much but it could make for an interesting experience.  I guess the risks are that it's either relatively undrinkable or contains chemicals, on the unsafe side of the spectrum as teas go.

some teaware in that shop

To be clear I'm not blaming that shop for selling something that's not what it's sold as; it's interesting to have that as an option.  If it's actually nice tea, even relatively speaking, then it's a good option for the price.  If not I didn't lose much, and I went into it as a gamble.  Due to language issues I never really did get the vendor's take on what it is or how good it is.  If I was trying to buy something that's much less rare, commercially available, and selling at roughly a retail value then the issue of a tea not being genuine is quite different.

One thing will make it hard to place:  it gets mentioned a lot that people tend not to drink sheng pu'er for the taste, many of them.  Some focus on the feeling they get from it (qi), and the mouth-feel aspects, aftertaste, etc.  Presumably on some level I'll know if I like it but not being into those things will make them hard to place as related factors.  Mouthfeel makes sense as desirable, aftertaste less but it's easy to notice and can add depth, "qi" or drug-like effects not so much.  Here is a funny story in a popular medium that helps place that emphasis, one that would be familiar to some, about comparing wine and pu'er character in an informal NYC tasting event.  That article relates to the pu'er vendor that tends to stand out the most, a bit oddly so since his personal image is intentionally not part of the brand.

more teaware in that shop

I have a Thai version of sheng at the house, from Hong Tai Chang, made that same year as listed (reviewed here, the 0801 version), so I could comparison taste the two, but I'd be up against some of the same issues, only adding comparison to that.  This tea isn't as dark as that one, for what that's worth.

I asked a pu'er authority about that Thai tea--hard to know who counts as an expert, but per background he was that--and he mentioned that what he had tried of those HTC teas was ok, just not exceptional, decent but not particularly interesting.  From some people that could still be in the range of relatively high praise.


I bought the tea because the dry tea scent was interesting, sweet, a bit like aged leather, or maybe woody, but fragrant and complex.  Again it smelled like that at home.  I can't say what that means, related to a range of other teas, but it seemed a decent starting point.

On first tasting it:  not bad.  It has a little bitterness to it, not so much, and some warmth and complexity.  I'll get more impression once it opens up a bit more.

Second try, a little stronger:  different.  It has a little bitterness but the complexity is interesting, not exactly in a familiar range, but then I've not tried much in the way of aged sheng.  I'd guess it is actually somewhat aged sheng from tasting it, but of course I couldn't guess a year.

It's like tasting a cigar.  I don't mean that more figuratively, that drinking pu'er relates in some sense to cigar smoking, I mean this tastes like you'd expect a cigar to taste if you brewed it, like tobacco smells.  It's earthy, it has some complexity, some sweetness, a touch of bitterness, and it tastes like tobacco, much as I could guess how that tastes.  I was a smoker for awhile, a long time back, so I'm not completely unfamiliar with the smell, I just never got into cigars.

It seems on the thin side.  It doesn't really impact the rear of your tongue much at all, even compared to other tea types, but has an odd feel throughout the rest of your mouth, a dryness that mostly relates to the top.  As far as aftertaste goes this tea experience doesn't end after you finish swallowing it, but it's hard to describe how it lingers.  That typical idea about a sweetness remaining in your throat isn't it; it just seems to generally stay present, just not in a pronounced way.

It's quite different on the third infusion, much warmer, more towards spice.  If I end up brewing this a dozen times I might want to keep these descriptions more brief.  The feel loosens up, and the bitterness that was there drops back.  That feel shifts from the top of my mouth to tongue; odd.  I don't feel like analyzing the experience to get a flavor list out of it if it's going to just keep changing anyway, but it at least has some complexity.  It's hard to say if I like it but it's interesting, and not terrible.

The next infusion transition isn't as pronounced, just a trace more of the same direction.  I used more tea for this than I thought I should and that may not work out if I drink a lot of this.  I tend to not feel teas much at all if I drink them while I eat, and typically I do that.  I'm already feeling this though, it's kicking in, too early to tell if that's a good thing or not.  I'm sweating like I'm in a sauna, but then I am in Bangkok, so it's hard to separate how the effect would differ from drinking warm water.

It kept transitioning a little but basically the tea tastes like tobacco, maybe with some leather and woodiness as background, and a faint touch of spice to make it more interesting.  It's ok, an interesting balance, but I can't really place this in relation to better aged sheng, or even so-so aged sheng, especially related to aspects beyond taste.   Somewhere along the infusions that bitterness softened then transitioned to include a touch of sourness, not necessarily positive.  It became smoother and richer, gaining some depth along the way, so it stayed interesting, and not awful.  I suppose it's better than I expected.

I'm not sure if I really liked the feeling it seemed to give me, a bit edgy and anxious.  I'm not used to teas having much effect on me at all beyond a mild caffeine lift, again per my own take because I tend to eat along with drinking tea.  I might have just been well-caffeinated, related to rushing through infusions of a tea prepared on the stronger side due to having limited time, so this isn't a claim about "qi."

Compared with a 2006 Hong Thai Chang "pu'er-like" sheng version

In order to get some type of baseline I tried it alongside a Thai version of pu'er (still called "sheng," most typically).  In particular I wanted to check on the mouth-feel aspect related that, and also to compare taste.  Of course separating drug-like effect when drinking two teas at the same time wouldn't work.

HTC Thai 0801 2006 sheng "pu'er-like" tea

A taste difference really stood out.  This tea I'd already reviewed isn't awful, but it's not overly interesting, mostly in a tobacco range.  The HTC version is sweet, plummy, with a good bit of richness and complexity, some earthiness filling in a deeper range, lots more going on in comparison.  Related to feel that tea is thicker too.  This "fake LBZ" version seemed on the thin side before, but tasted alongside another of the supposed same age it seemed thinner yet, like there wasn't all that much to it.  I had brewed it strong the first time, so that did change the effect, backing off to taste these in what seemed a more normal range here instead (no weights or specific proportion to go with that).

Thai tea left, "LBZ" right; completely different colors

I can't really say for sure just how good that Thai HTC version is but it's lots more interesting in comparison.  Maybe that rich sweetness wouldn't be favorable to some.  It could seem too fruity or a bit too sweet, or not balanced if someone desired a different "structure," but that tea does seem nice to me.  I just shared some with a tea vendor friend passing through town and he was surprised that it seemed interesting and generally ok to him (that's still not placing it on some objective scale, beyond "odd that it really is ok").

It will still be interesting messing around with this other version, even though it's not great.  I can see how it ages over the next couple of years, if it keeps changing, although I'd really just expect it to fade.  It doesn't make for an impressive gift for people that like this kind of tea but it would work for letting non-pu'er drinkers try the type, with proper clarification on where on the scale it falls.

For me personally I'm still not sure how much I like it.  It tastes a lot like tobacco, or how I'd imagine it would taste, which I guess is ok, just not something I'm particularly attached to.

random fake tea citations online, from Ebay

Real Lao Ban Zhang

It's almost an afterthought what this tea was suggesting it actually was, isn't it?  It wasn't that, clearly, and there's no reason to think that in addition to copying the wrapper label the character was also similar.  But really, what was it supposed to be?

An image search turned up the same label selling through Aliexpress as "Chinese Yunnan Puer Tea Laobanzhang Pu Er Tea Factory Sheng Raw Pu Erh Tea," listed as from 2008, while the one I've been talking about is labeled as 2006.  That was selling for $21; in a comparable range.  This turns up the problem I'm having in even identifying what this is sold as; no remotely reputable vendors are carrying anything like it.  I'm just not seeing what the label had been based on, an earlier real version, except in entries like this one.

An Ebay version from 2011 turned up, selling for $8.53.  A Vancouver based online vendor sells a similarly labeled cake, listed as from 2012, for $242.  There's no way I could really speculate on what is real or fake but according to this Tea Chat discussion it's pretty much all fake (so you just pay more for better fakes, or that's more tied to vendor strategy?).  It's not reassuring that the product description just cites the label in that online listing:  2012 Lao Ban Zhang (Gu Shu Cha 1st Village) (in gift box) Raw/Sheng Pu-erh Tea Cake.  I guess they did add "Gu Shu," so it's from old-tree sources; nice.

Lao Ban Zhang village, from a nice article source on there (credit Tea and Mountain Journals)

Finally a vendor reference seemed to pin down the origin of the label style, and potentially even sell a real version:  the Tea Tong vendor site showed a similar cake label identified as originating from the Chen Sheng tea factory.  The name was familiar from that Tea Chat discussion; one comment said that producer made related teas using other materials mixed with some LBZ origin content.

A Yunnan Sourcing reference tells a little more of that story:

Cheng Shen Hao is a brand of Pu-erh that was started in 2008 by Mr. Chen Sheng He, a long time tea drinker and Guangdong native. In 2008 he signed a contract with more than 100 Lao Ban Zhang villagers for exclusive rights to their harvest. It was after this that Chen Sheng Hao brand pu-erh became known and soon after he began to produce teas from Yi Wu, Naka, Nan Nuo and Bu Lang as well.

That does sound familiar.  And I think that's going to do it for this review, since the trail goes cold about what this tea might have been.  Other versions turn up searching LBZ in the character form (老班章), like this page, but they just seem to be alternative foreign-language sources of fake teas.  Even if they're not that--which they must be, from glancing at pricing--they still don't add more background.

One interesting tangent that didn't come up is about the worst case:  just how unhealthy could the cheapest, most random tea you could buy be?  I won't be doing a lot of buying random fake teas to try and test that.  I had reasonable luck with gambling on inexpensive and unfamiliar teas in NYC not so long ago but I did throw out some Lapsang Souchong that seemed to be artificially flavored, and perhaps not healthy to drink.  Trying inexpensive and unfamiliar teas seems fine for experimentation but for consuming lots of teas as part of a daily habit it's probably better to regularly go with known trustworthy source options instead.

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