Fakery abounds in the tea world, as with many other products. Why not? Expensive teas, commanding prices in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, are as tempting to counterfeiters as are the works of Gucci and other designers. They say that knowledge is power, though, so with a bit of knowledge, you can tell which tea is fake and which is real, just as the experts on Antiques Roadshow can tell the real Paul Revere pewter mug from the fake.
One point to clarify first here is that by “fake tea” I am not meaning plastic, silk, or other such materials that fake flowers are made of. Tea fakery is about real tea, but with a fake “pedigree.” Now that we have that straight, on to the details.
The tea source and what the tea is labeled to be are key factors in its authenticity. For example, a special oolong from Darjeeling, to be authentic, should meet certain criteria, such as being grown at a high altitude where there’s not too much heat and average temperatures remain in the 5–20°C range throughout the season and coming from old Camellia Sinensis bushes from China. The Darjeeling Tea Association certifies this, so look for their logo on the package.
A special green tea from China called Dragonwell (or Longjing) is another example. It has such a high reputation that it’s no surprise when teas of lesser quality come on the market bearing that name. (One story is floating around out there about someone paying $14,000 for a mere handful of this tea.) The original Dragonwell came from the Lion Peak Mountain in West Lake (Xihu), China, but is now cultivated in other parts of the country. The processing of the tea leaves nowadays is what makes it authentic Dragonwell, with at least 100 different known types (plus a lot of fakes). The best kind is made from the two-leaves-and-a-bud combo harvested during the first 2 weeks in the Spring growing season. The second best is that harvested during the next 4 weeks. The tea bushes rest the remainder of the year, one reason this tea is so expensive and thus spurring imitation.
Wu Yi tea, also known as the slimming tea, is another target for fakers. It’s supposed to be a very special type of oolong from the Wu Yi Mountain in China and helps you lose weight, so of course every oolong out there is being labeled as “wu yi” or “slimming tea.” That brings up another type of tea fakery: fake health claims. Everything from bad breath to smelly feet have a tea that someone claims will cure it. Reminds me of snakeoil salesmen (as portrayed in the movies) claiming their potion would cure whatever ails you.
Pu-erh fakery is a big issue. For many generations, they have been prized in China and even considered investments. Lately, pu-erhs have gotten into high demand in the U.S. and elsewhere, increasing the attraction to counterfeiters. Labeling, wrapping technique, and the appearance of the tea cake are all signs of whether the tea is a true pu-erh or an imitation. However, your best bet is to deal with tea vendors you know as reputable, especially if you are buying the tea with the idea of storing it for later. That brings me to still another form of fakery: fake tea vendors. Sites spring up online overnight. Then, they get caught, close that site, and open another under a different name. (One such company sent me samples to review. When I discovered they were the “fade into the night” types, I declined to promote their teas.)
One final form of tea fakery is the fake review. Not every tea is going to please every tea drinker. If you see nothing but glowing reviews for a tea, especially on sites that feature a sort of group approach to tea reviews, some of those reviews could be “planted” by the tea vendor or bad reviews could have been “scrubbed.” Health claim reviews have been known to be a bit “doctored” (I know, bad pun!), too, so beware.
The bottom line: be a knowledgeable tea consumer.
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