Hey, can you change a hundred?
That was a regular question back when I had a “brick and mortar” business. Happily I never did get stuck with a bad note but it certainly could have happened.
Today so many things are counterfeited; money, of course, but also jewelry, watches, handbags, wine and tea. Lots and lots of tea. And we tea lovers need to be vigilant if we aren’t to fall prey to the multitude of shysters and scam artists who occupy altogether too much space in our universe.
There are two basic ways that tea is counterfeited; through adulteration and through “passing off.”
Adulteration occurs, mostly, when something, not a property of the tea, is added to it. This happens a lot with teas that are shipped to high consumption, low GDP countries. Teas are often “stretched” with the addition of cheap grains, leaves from other plants, and even inorganic substances. For example, nearly ten times more
Darjeeling is sold in the world than the region produces. And much of this is adulterated tea (and a considerable amount of it is “passing off” too).
Another form of adulteration actually involves taking something away from the tea. Schemers collect spent tea leaves and resell them to the unsuspecting, generally in underdeveloped countries. This practice had been prevalent in England of the 19th century when only the rich could afford to drink unadulterated tea but now is pervasive in poorer parts of the world.
In more rarified circles tea drinkers can encounter adulteration by “tea doping.” Examples include fragrances being added to dancong oolong or milk powder to “milky oolong” and even the adding of cinnamon to rou gui.
Adulteration is not only deceptive, it can be very dangerous as well.
“Passing off” isn’t a traffic offense
“Passing off” is a more pervasive problem faced by western consumers. And it is often very difficult to spot because one is not dealing with “fake” tea: the tea is real it is the claims made about the tea that are fake.
I like to think of “passing off” as identity theft for tea. When you are told that a Nepalese tea is Darjeeling, that is passing off. When you are sold some random concoction of leaves and told it is Dayi 7542, that is passing off. And when your newly acquired Taiwanese oolong is actually from Vietnam, that is passing off.
Passing off has been around for a very long time; consider the number of dull green teas that have been sold as West Lake Longjing over the centuries. But it really began to explode as we started assigning differential values to tea based upon origin or cultivar. When in Taiwan, for example, high mountain teas moved to the fore in terms of price, passing off began in earnest; a lot of Mingjian suddenly was produced at elevations previously (and currently) unknown in the township.
Passing off is a problem created by tea consumers and by the industry itself. Previously, tea tended to be sold as, well, tea. The merchant’s skill was in finding and blending teas in a way so as to give a desired quality for a given price. Origin and cultivar were important to the merchant – they were his secrets to price and quality – but they played no role in the consumer purchase where the only factors were the quality and the price. In fact, many merchants operate that way to this day and regard passing off as a “faux problem.”
The concerns for tea consumers (and many specialist vendors as well) are: how extensive is this problem and how do I detect it. As to the first, the problem is so widespread that I doubt there is a tea of named origin that isn’t counterfeited. Here, to get an indication of the scope, are some data from the relatively small but high value producer, Taiwan.
In 1987, Taiwan produced 25,527 metric tons of tea and imported 7,820 metric tons. By 2016, domestic production had fallen to 13,081 metric tons and imports had skyrocketed to 26,344 metric tons. Certainly, a goodly deal of this imported tea is used by the RTD sector of the industry but taking that into account imports represent nearly 1/3 of the domestic market. Yet imported tea, apart from small amounts of Darjeeling, is virtually impossible to find in Taiwan. No vendors I have visited offer Vietnamese tea for sale (and Vietnam is the biggest foreign supplier of tea to Taiwan.) Furthermore, exports of Taiwanese tea in 2016 were reported to be 5758 metric tons. That is nearly half of the island’s total production! Clearly a lot of counterfeit tea is passed off in the export market as well.
So how does one avoid being taken? The most important way is by valuing quality above all; trust your palate. Wherever possible, try before you buy. Any reputable tea shop will offer a taste of a tea before you purchase and any good online seller will offer sample sizes for purchase. Focus on quality, not origin and you will always have good tea whatever it might be called.
Avoid the “big names.” It is a maxim that the more famous a tea name, the more likely it is to be counterfeited. You may become an expert in the details of the printing on puer wrappers, able to spot any obvious or not obvious errors, but it is far easier to just avoid the famous recipes and find a non-acclaimed tea that you enjoy. Few will bother to counterfeit those.
If the price of a tea is too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Do your research and know the established prices for the teas you buy. If you are tempted by a Fushoushan at $24.50 for 50 grams, you can be sure you have a counterfeit on your hands.
Finally, deal only with tea vendors whom you trust. The tea business is built upon trust: the vendors trust their sources and you trust a vendor. And don’t fall for the trap of only buying “direct” from the grower; sometimes you’ll win but ofttimes you will lose. The same rule applies; deal only with people you know and trust.
Talk with other tea lover’s you know, read the community sites like TeaForum.org or Steepster, build a network of trusted vendors and try new ones that are backed by the recommendations of others. And remember, at some point we all are likely to fall victim to one or the other schemer’s tricks (I certainly have) but each of these can be a great learning experience.
That’s my take. What’s your view?