Fake cake: the business of counterfeit pu’er teas

Yunnan sheng and shu pu'ers, but are they authentic or counterfeit? Can you tell? Image: Barbara Dufrene

Known for their exquisite character, authentic pu’er teas can be pricey, leading to the emergence of counterfeit pu’ers, which is apparently now big business. While counterfeit pu’ers is a lucrative and detrimental business in China, the impact globally is not clear. By J.W. Kaler

In June 2021, Shanghai police broke up a ring of pu’er counterfeiting dens and confiscated over ten tonnes of fake pu’er cakes that would have been sold for an estimated 1.8 billion RMB (about USD $250 million). The police made a public display of destroying the seized teas, which included a road roller pulverising the fake cakes.

Police busts like this in China are not uncommon. Guangzhou police confiscated about 23,000 cakes in 2014, and 120,000 cakes again in 2018. Counterfeiting pu’er cakes appears to be big business.

Shanghai police steamroll counterfeit pu’er teas in June 2021. Image source: zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/420794580

Authentic pu’er cakes can be quite pricey. The value of pu’er is due to a combination of several factors. Pressed pu’er cakes can be aged for decades or even centuries. A properly aged pu’er is comparable to an aged bourbon or wine in that aged pu’er are appreciated for their exquisite character. Use of the name “pu’er” or “pu’erh” has also been deemed a protected geographical indication (PGI) within China since 2008, and a 2021 China/EU agreement expanded its international recognition.

Pu’er tea can only be produced within designated areas in Yunnan province. This PGI creates further constrictions on producers of authentic pu’er in that they now have a more defined region from which they must procure leaf of various quality levels and sizes to follow blend recipes. The more highly prized pu’er often comes from celebrated mountains where tea trees have been growing for hundreds of years. Generally, the better the mountain’s reputation and the more ancient the source tea trees, the more valuable the pu’er.

Before delving further into the nuances of pu’er and counterfeit pu’er, it helps to have some definitions in place. Outside of China, “pu’er” may be used to refer to many different dark teas. Dark teas are teas that have undergone a pile fermentation process in which bacteria and enzymes break down elements like naturally occurring sugars and amino acids in the tea leaves. This process is different from oxidation, the more common process that is controlled to create green, black, and wulong (oolong) teas. Dark teas are produced in Yunnan province as well as other provinces. Hunan province, for example, is known for producing various styles of dark tea, but Hunan dark teas would not be considered pu’er teas in China. Additionally, lower grade pu’er products, like some fannings and bulk leaf products bound for the export market, may be manufactured in the pu’er style in places outside of the PGI designated areas. These lower value pu’er items are best understood by the import countries as a product reflecting shu (see below) pu’er flavour and character without the intent of infringing on PGI status or counterfeiting.

Pu’er teas come from designated areas within Yunnan province. PGI and China domestic designations specify that pu’er tea must meet several criteria, including:

  • The leaf material must come from the designated pu’er areas;
  • The type of leaf used;
  • The processing methods used.

When these criteria are met, two kinds of pu’er can be produced:

  • Raw, or “sheng” pu’er. Sheng pu’er is a greener leaf that is often pressed into cakes for the purpose of aging over years or decades. The fundamentals of the traditional sheng pu’er process have been used for centuries.
  • Ripe or “shu” pu’er. Shu pu’ers and shu pu’er processing methods were developed roughly 50 years ago to replicate some of the look and characteristics of sheng pu’er. It can be thought of as a type of rapid aging process, but the result is considered inferior to a well-aged sheng pu’er.

Modern pu’er cake nei fei with anti-counterfeiting features. Image: Google/JW Kaler

On the counterfeiting side, forgers employ several methods to create fakes. The more egregious counterfeits copy the packaging of well-known pu’er brands. This involves copying the outer wrapper of the pu’er cake along with the nei fei (paper label pressed into the surface leaves of the pu’er cake) and the nei piao (paper ‘ticket’ placed on top of the cake before wrapping the cake. More modern pu’er cakes employ anti-counterfeiting measures on their internal and external packaging.

In addition to imitating famous brands, counterfeiters may also use substandard tea leaf or leaf from outside of the official pu’er area. The overall quality of the tea cake may be compromised, with higher quality leaves showing on the outside of the pressed pu’er cake, while broken and poor quality leaves are used below the surface of the pressed cake. Newer and lesser-known pu’er brands may also falsify information on the mountain or the age of the trees that the leaf material came from, knowing that older trees and specific mountain origins command higher prices.

The impact is vague

Counterfeiting pu’er may be a lucrative criminal business within China, but the impact outside of China is less clear. China’s annual production records provide a breakdown of overall dark teas produced each year. Export data is classified differently. In December 2020, the China Customs Tariff Commission of the State Council adjusted the export codes used to delineate exports of shu pu’er from other dark teas. No separate designation for sheng pu’ers was provided. Reports tell us that China consumed 364,000 metric tonnes (mt) of dark tea in 2022. The average price was 88.19 RMB per kg, compared to 160.99 RMB per kg for green tea.

Exports of shu pu’er totalled 1,916mt, or 0.5 percent of all 2022 tea exports. In comparison, 351mt of dark tea was exported. A further breakdown is harder to find, but well established pockets of pu’er and dark tea consumers can be found in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia. These export destinations are also known to have communities of pu’er and dark tea collectors who seek out rare and high quality teas. The climates of these areas are considered ideal for naturally aging these teas.

Pu’er and dark tea consumers outside of China have a limited range of options to avoid purchasing counterfeit pu’er. For starters, it is the more expensive pu’er that gets copied, so one should exercise caution when purchasing pu’ers that are decades old with asking prices in the thousands of USD. In the United States and other countries that do not recognise PGI, problems also arise when “pu’er” gets used as a broad category term for a wider variety of dark teas. In such situations, a reputable vendor is important in verifying whether a pu’er product complies with GI standards used in China or the EU. When purchasing pu’er pressed cakes, experienced buyers have learned how to examine the inner and outer packaging (ie, the wrapper, nei fei, and nei piao) for evidence of forgery.

Counterfeit pu’er teas remain an ongoing problem, particularly for investment-grade pu’er cakes. However, opportunities to avoid fraudulent purchases exist where traceability of geographic indicated products and anti-counterfeiting packaging practices are properly scrutinised. In some regions of the world, better distinctions between dark tea and pu’er will also enable customers to better understand the kinds of teas they purchase.

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