My first day back in Shen Zhen, China was great despite the jet lag. After lunch we went back to the Zuo Wang Teahouse and Ivan’s fiance made our “7542” Sheng Puerh from 1995. This is a phenomenal tea and I learn something new each time I drink it. Later we will get into some of the hallmark qualities a great aged Sheng Puerh should have. We spend the rest of the day taking photos of some of our teaware and drinking tea with customers throughout the day.
Around 8PM a customer came by with her friend and announced that they were bringing in the real original Ba Ba Qing; the “7542” from 1988. She said her husband’s good friend bought a cake for 100,000 yuan (~$14.2k)! Actually, this isn’t a bad price if the tea is real. I was just about to go home and get some sleep as I was still pretty jetlagged, but obviously I didn’t want to miss out on this so I stayed. We weigh out the tea, prepare it, and finally drink the first cup. From the first sip I detected a good amount of astringency and youth in the tea. I said to Ivan that maybe the storage was very dry. There was a flower taste/smell that reminded me of the 1995 we had tried earlier. However, the color of the tea was definitely not darker than our 1995; if anything the color was slightly lighter. After a few sips I felt a pulse in the tips of my fingers and a sort of jump/subtle arrhythmia in my heart. This is usually a dead giveaway to me that there is something wrong with the tea I’m drinking. I used to associate it with pesticides but now I think this can also happen when the Qi of a tea is “short”, high, or just simply not deep and smooth enough. Short meaning that the pulse, or wave of Qi is short, which means there will be faster vibration in the body. The Qi was excited, rapid, and fast like a kid, instead of smooth, slow, and deep like the Qi of an old wise person. The Qi was high, it never dropped below my stomach, and after the 2nd cup my stomach started feeling uncomfortable and I felt like I had to go to the bathroom. Overall my body just wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t relaxed. The real 7542 from 1988 will not have this affect at all. Honestly, many people will not be able to tell because you have to listen to your body and be aware of what is happening. Many people will say this is getting us tea drunk and that this is a positive thing, they feel more energy, etc. Well, this tea is actually worth very little, not even 5% of 100,000 yuan! I had been doing a live instagram video and commented that I thought the tea was fake.
I couldn’t understand what everyone was saying as my Chinese isn’t good enough to keep up with fast paced conversation. Eventually I asked Ivan what everyone thought and he said that everyone at the table agreed that the Qi of the tea was too short/high/young, the flavor and body wasn’t smooth, sweet, or round enough, and that ultimately the tea was not a real Ba Ba Qing. Dang...100,000 yuan toasted! When somebody brings a tea into your tea shop and it is fake it is common practice to show them the real thing, so for the second time that day we poured the 7542 from 1995. Ah, what a difference. The taste was complete on the tongue, the body was much richer, and the astringency was much less. Flower/ chen xiang aroma, slight camphor taste, and overall just sweet and delicious. The Qi is so smooth, it quickly fixed the issue that the other tea caused in my body, and I felt quite relaxed after just 1 cup. The Qi dropped down all the way through my legs to my feet. Of course, the lady who brought in the fake tea and her friend weren’t too pleased. They readily admitted that our tea was much better than the tea they had brought in, and that the tea showed the hallmark signs of a well aged, high quality Sheng Puerh. After a few pots I swapped in for Ivan to pour tea as he had something else to do.
There were maybe 6 people at the table at this point, and the gaiwan was somewhat small so I was pouring two pots of tea into the pitcher before serving everyone. The two ladies become ingracious; they started grabbing the tea pitcher after I poured the first gaiwan into it and then poured the entire pitcher of tea into their two cups. Their attitude just got worse and worse; the rest of the table was greatly enjoying the tea while they just rudely grabbed the tea pitcher whenever they felt like it and poured themselves tea.
You would think the ladies who had brought in the fake tea would be grateful that we clearly showed the real 7542, and we also taught them what to look for to discern between real and fake tea. Clearly this knowledge is very valuable, and we gave it to them for free; 100,000 yuan is not a small amount of money to waste on fake tea! There was no gratitude; the anger they felt from being embarrassed and having their friend cheated was instead directed at us. Whoever sold their friend the fake tea made around 100,000 yuan (as the fake tea isn’t expensive for them to buy), and ultimately will continue cheating people. Of course, this kind of fraud is extremely common in the tea world, and having people show up with fake tea to show off happens all the time both in China and the U.S.
The key lesson with this story is that, if you really want to learn about tea, vintage or not, do not trust labels, stories, and other people’s opinion. Sure, I would have gone home if she didn’t say she brought Ba Ba Qing; however I never actually accepted it was Ba Ba Qing because I had not drank the tea yet. Right now the marketing in the U.S. is mainly based on pictures, branding, and packaging, as many people are buying tea online without actually trying it. Always remember, these things do not actually tell you much about the tea itself. Typically, people buy tea online based on what the majority of people believe is good tea, again this is a mistake because there is so much incorrect information about tea and most people simply don’t have enough experience to know what tea is actually worthwhile.
In China, almost nobody will buy tea online without trying it at their preferred teashop. Even then, many people get fooled because most people are not able to discern for themselves what is going on in a tea. It takes a great deal of practice and usually failure. As tea people often say, we all have to pay our tuition. That said, your tuition amount largely depends on both your mindset, humility and of course fortune. Don’t trust other people’s opinion unless you really know they are professional and trustworthy. Even reputation is other people's opinion, don't trust it without verifying for yourself. The fake Ba Ba Qing leaves looked real, and even the taste and smell was quite similar to the real thing. Even a few years ago this probably would have fooled me, mainly because I would have trusted the story, the color, the taste and the smell instead of actually listening to what my body was telling me. Thus, in order to really know tea you must develop your own sensitivity and learn to trust your experience.
For more information about what to look for to find quality tea check out my Blog post “What is Good Tea?”, and for great authentic tea visit our online store.
-Forest Amsden, LAc