Friday, February 23, 2007
The Woes of Collecting Pu-erh
When I first started collecting pu-erh, the possibility of someone selling me a counterfeited product never had crossed my mind! After all its just TEA! Right? Luckily, the teas I have purchased thus far are all genuine. (Big sigh) But how is it that a food product, tea of all things, has become the target of fraud? Well, after pondering on this for a while I have come up with a few possible reason why. First, the demand for quality pu-erh products in the western market has continued to rise. This alone gives ample opportunities for crooks to sell counterfeited teas to an uneducated market. Secondly, it is relatively easy to get low quality leaves and print a few nei feis, description tickets and wrappers, and present them as genuine. Third, which I personally feel is the biggest motivation behind counterfeiting - when people pay on the upwards of $600 USD for a tong of (7 Beeng Cakes) 2004 Yan Ching Hao it is definitely worth the risk. These factors coupled with the ever-growing tea business which is now speculated to reach $10 BILLLION USD by 2010, it is easy to see why. IT'S BIG BUCKS!!!
But how can collectors positively know they are paying for a genuine product? Well, honestly, you can't. This is just the reality that most collectors of Pu-erh have to endure; especially if you live in the U.S. or Europe. (Of course unless you have the luxury of having a tea shop in your area that sells a wide variety of teas including pu-erhs that allow you to inspect and taste the teas before you buy them. But trust me in Minnesota where jasmine is considered an “exotic” tea this is not going to happen.)
In response to the evergrowing counterfeit problem, tea producing countries are currently taking measures to safeguard their tea economies. For instance, the Taiwanese Government has adopted DNA encryption technology as part of their strategy to combat fraud and counterfeit operations. This DNA Anti-Counterfeit label is designed to make it cost prohibitive, if not impossible for counterfeiters to duplicate. And according to the Taiwan government, the technology has made it easier to quickly differentiate genuine products from counterfeited ones. Of course I understand that pu-erh does not come from Taiwan, however this example underscores the extent of the problem which exists. What is not known is if China will follow. In researching for this topic I have found no evidence that China is making any strides of implementing this practice. However, there are a few reasons to breath a sigh of relief. The Meng Hai and Xia Guan factories have taken matters into their own hands having developed micro print labels that are hard to reproduce.
The new Meng Hai Anti-counterfeit label
Here are a few tips I use to safeguard my investment. Maybe they will help you.
1. Research – I can not stress the importance of researching the products that you are thinking of buying. Read blogs, websites, publications, magazines; this alone will take you a long way. You should know how a particular product should smell, taste, and look like etc. Obtain samples of aged pu-erh and ripe pu-erh so you can get your palate accustomed to what both taste like.
2.Find a reputable vendor and become friends - Be loyal. (Of course only if they have great service) Vendors make their money on the comeback and will be more conscience when they sell to someone who loyal as they want to retain your business.
3. Ask questions - Trust me they won’t be offended if you do. They are there to sell you tea! If you are bargaining with a vendor and even remotely sound like you know what you are talking about, vendors are less likely to sell or send you a fake!
4. Take advantage of vendors that are located in the U.S. - Albeit, this alone will not be a guarantee but at least you can have comfort in knowing that it will be easier to resolve the problem in the event that a counterfeit product was sold to you.
5. Be critical of overseas vendors - I know that many of us buy teas online from overseas vendors for the convenience and price. In fact, I buy a great numbers of teas online directly from China. However, as the old Latin adage goes Caveat emptor – Buyer Beware! This is not to suggest that that there aren’t any great overseas vendors out there, but if you come across a website that doesn’t have computer based shopping with encryption and/or will only allow funds to be mailed or transferred through bank wire. These types of transactions should be taken as red flags . Try to find vendors that have a physical address and telephone numbers email etc. Email them and see if they email you back. Ask to talk to them on the telephone. Do they have customers rating? Use your common sense. How long have they been in business? When is the last time the website was updated? JUST USE YOUR GOOD JUDGMENT! Here are a few overseas vendors that I have delt with and have recieved nothing but great service: Jing Tea Shop, Dragon House (Ebay vendor), Yunnan Sourcing (Ebay vendor), TeaSpring
6. Buy samples - If you have the opportunity of buying samples from the dealers, DO SO! This is not only a learning tool, it’s also a great way to let vendors know you are a serious buyer.