Ways to cheat in tea

It’s been a busy few weeks, what with grading, trying to finish a few papers, so on so forth. One of the papers I was trying to write and still in pretty shambolic state is one on the Taiwanese industry. Among the more interesting documents I’ve come across are a set of articles of association for the Taipei Tea Merchants Association. They were always concerned with inferior, fake, or just bad tea, among other things. Taiwan teas, even back in the early 20th century, had a premium over mainland Chinese tea, and they were very keen to keep it that way. So, in an effort to prevent problems, they listed what was not allowed in terms of teas that they sell. These are:

1) Powdered tea – this is not matcha wannabes, but rather teas with significant amounts of powdered tea leaves mixed in to make the tea heavier, so you can sell for more. When the buyer gets it, he’ll notice that it’s mostly powder – and therefore overpaid. This is like you getting that last bag/bit of tea from the bottom of the barrel, and feeling cheated, but on a massive scale.

2) Tea stalks – this one is pretty self explanatory, I think. Can’t sell tea stalks as tea leaves.

3) Sun-exposed tea – probably also obvious – tea that has been exposed to the sun for long periods of time, at least that’s what the name implies

4) Fake tea – it’s not clear how this fakeness is achieved – is it not tea leaves at all? Something else?

5) Soaked tea – this is the best – dried used tea leaves being sold again. It actually does sort of work. Try drying out the leaves you’ve drunk, for some leaves it can look remarkable like new tea leaves and presumably someone can try to sell it in dried form. You will still even get some taste out of it, it’ll just be really watery.

6) Fire-burnt tea – tea that is too roasted/charred

7) Tea that has been adulterated with other materials, including spoiled, rotten teas, dirt, dust, etc

There’s also another category of tea – Tangshan cha, which is the term they used for mainland Chinese teas. In this case, it’s mainland tea being sold as Taiwan teas.

So it’s good to know that the tricks that vendors can be up to haven’t really changed all that much over the last hundred years. Buyers of puerh are quite familiar with this stuff, and buyers of other teas have also run into this sort of problem before. The way they solved it? Made it mandatory to sell/buy through a central exchange, to have regular inspectors (full time) who go and check the farmers/vendors, to make everyone a member of the tea production association, so they are more accountable, and to also educate the farmers. It worked.


Ways to cheat in tea — 13 Comments

  1. As I remember from reading somewhere, faking tea was a crime back then in England, while tea was scarce (18th century or so) – it was either replacing tea leaves with leaves of other plants or drying and coloring of used tea leaves.

  2. Selling spent leaf?! That just seems particularly bad to me, for some reason. It’s like I can just sort of dismiss the others, but that one just seems WRONG.

  3. fascinating stuff. what is ‘tangshan’ in this sense? is it a reference to 唐山 the city in hebei? and if so — what in the world does that mean in this context? i’ve never heard this phrase, though i did know that a lot of fujian teas are brought over to be sold as if they were taiwan 高山 烏龍茶 …

  4. sure that selling through controlled channels helps; there is also the set of ISO standards for tea Рunder ISO TC34/SC 8 Рthat provides efficient tools for preventing cheat and fraud, ,bye,Barbara Dufr̻ne

  5. I always wonder why in those cheap dim sum places, the puerh they serve always have dark color and no taste…. Spent leaves with coloring might be the reason. Disgusting if you have to think about where those materials came from.

  6. I have seen what may be #5 (I wonder) a few times. In Taiwan, an American friend once gave me a bag from some run of the mill place she had stopped at up on Maokong that was ostensibly Baozhong but essentially looked either that the leaves had never been properly dried or were just being reused..I found them bizarre and stopped short of saying this for sake of ot offending her. As predicted, they started growing mold within several days.
    I also saw a case of what could have been this when I was in Korea, of some type of green tea that was superlatively described by a woman I met there who insisted I take some with me–again, tasted weird, and just got weirder…threw them out.

  7. No fake tea discussion can continue without “smouch” or “English Tea”. But it’s past midnight so I’ll just cut and paste in the experts.

    “Tea had also been counterfeited on a grand scale in the days when it had to be brought all the way from China and was liable to a heavy excise duty. There was a flourishing trade in “smouch” – a substance made from leaves of the ash tree, dried and curled on copper plates and sold to tea merchants at a few pence per pound for mixing with real tea. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, this trick had become so common in England that an Act of Parliament condemned it…” Reay Tannahill’s Food in History

    “Rascally tea traders undercut high prices by selling cheap mixtures like smouch, a blend of tea with ash tree leaves boiled in iron sulphate and sheep’s dung.” London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea

  8. Pingback: Taiwanese Tea Compendium | TeaDB

  9. Glad to read your note! It is more and more difficult for local Taiwanese to buy authentic Formosa teas! Awareness to look out for fake Taiwanese teas is very helpful for Formosa tea lovers. I look forward to exchanging Taiwanese tea tasting experience with you. : )

  10. Pingback: Taiwanese Tea Vendors | TeaDB

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