Labeling on tea packages can be a bit of a puzzle, especially if you are buying premium teas from China, Taiwan, Darjeeling, and other areas. Recently, a way to determine whether your tea was fake was pointed out by tea blogger Lance Coulter. His secret? Use a black light. But it also pays to be able to decode the label, and in the process you will notice that many of them have a year on them.
|2011 Spring Imperial Anxi Mao Xie (Hairy Crab) Oolong tea – 50 grams|
There is some disagreement on what the year signifies. Sometimes it is the year harvested. This is especially true of Darjeelings, where the year and the flush are included on the tea label (the flush is the time of growth that is then harvested — there are usually three, including first, second, and autumn, but there can be a fourth called “monsoon”). For some other teas, the year can be the year of production when the tea leaves were processed and put up into storage. Sometimes the year is included as part of a code number that includes digits signifying the factory and the leaf grade (“7542” means “1975, 4th leaf grade, made by Menghai Tea Factory. This is usually what is used on pu-erh labels.
Just as with fine wines, the year on a tea’s label can have a significant impact on the price. One example was the famous 1950s Red Label (Hong Yin) where the price went from $1,200 in 2003 to around $10,000 in 2007 at retail outlets in Hong Kong as collectors scrambled to get in on the action. (Another classic pu-erh vintage is the 1970s Yellow label, which, like the 1950s Red Label, has undergone varying degrees of wet storage.)
A pu-erh labeled 2009 or later is one that falls under the new guidelines that resulted from this collectors’ rush and resulting piracy where fake teas flooded the market. To protect their heritage and remain a viable, niche brand, as of December 2008, only teas that meet these criteria can be labeled as true pu-erhs:
- produced in Yunnan province’s 639 towns and 11 prefectures and cities
- be made with a certain type of leaf, using specified technology
Yunnan leaves aged outside the province are no longer considered authentic, to the consternation of Guangdong province tea makers. The debate continues, with supposed Yunnan pu-erhs dated 2000 to 2008 falling under suspicion, meaning that you should only buy them from a reputable dealer.
In addition to Darjeelings and Pu-erhs, you will also see a year on some of the finer green, white, oolong, and even black teas. The year usually indicates the year harvested but when properly stored, even a tea that is labeled as being harvested a few years ago will still be fresh, especially true for oolongs and black teas.
One final note: when you are buying premium teas from a reputable dealer, even those teas not labeled with their year of harvest and/or production will still be fresh, since they are usually bought straight from a factory or distributor.
See also: Recipes or “What do those numbers mean?”