How to make tea

Classic Puer Tea Brands in China

The puer industry that we have in the 21st century has been a renaissance period driven by both the spike in interest from overseas collectors along with the growth and liberalization of the Chinese economy. When you shop for puer now the new puer drinker will notice some recurring tea brands from China; Dayi, Xiaguan, CNNP. These are legacy brands from the early days of the puer industry and the state run economy era.

(WT-shared) ClausHansen, Wikipedia user Maggern / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

If you are looking to buy old puer its very helpful to understand the history of these brands and their relationship with particular factories. A CNNP zhongcha cake from the 90’s will likely be from a separate producer than if you bought a newer zhongcha cake. The answer to why is tied to the history and emerging brand identity of classic puer tea brands.

Each of these classic puer tea brands are tied to a specific factory. Menghai factory in the far South, Kunming factory in the provincial capital in the East, and Xiaguan factory in Dali up in the North West. Once decades of fighting in China stopped in 1949 with the founding of the PRC, all tea producing infrastructure was consolidated into the state enterprise CNNP (China Tea or Zhongcha) As the economic reforms started to affect the tea industry new private companies spun off from CNNP and were based on these historic factories.

Old School Tea Bosses in Menghai

The Menghai Tea Factory – Dayi

I had a tea friend once call them the Lipton of puer, Menghai Dayi (TAETEA) is certainly the most successful early spin off brand. They are located in Xishaungbanna, as far south in Yunnan as it gets. This region is the ecological home of the tea plant and the ancient homeland of many indigenious peoples who are the descendants of the first people to discover tea in prehistoric times. It was founded as the Fohai Experimental Tea Factory in 1940 but production was quickly disrupted by the war and didn’t really hit its stride until the 50’s. This factory has had access to some of the oldest tea gardens in the world. Two loved recipes are the sheng 7542 and shou 7572. The Dayi brand name started in 1989 as part of their process of privatization. They now operate on a franchise system. The Dayi brand is still going strong but there is now a lot more competition form smaller processors to buy tea from Xishuanbanna. 

The Xiaguan Tea Factory 

Situated around the city of Dali along the old overland caravan trading routes leading out of China and into greater Eurasia, the Xiaguan Tea Factory has been a leader in regional export tea. In 1902 several local tea producers became part of Yong Chang Xiang, a company owned by the local wealthy Yan family and produced the first “tuocha” or birds nest shaped tea cake. It proved to be a popular choice and over the next four decades Xiaguan district puer factories opened. The factory we know today opened in 1941 as the Kang Zang tea factory in connection with an export firm. By the time of state consolidation and the name change in the 50’s Xiaguan tea brands continued to be popular in Tibet and nearby regions. 

Holy Flame (Bao Yan) was a successful brand in Tibet and was often pressed into a mushroom shape or a brick. Brick tea has been a stable part of the Tibetan diet for centuries and is drunk with salt and yak butter. As the years progressed tuocha became a signature style and was marked by the White Crane (Song He) branding. These distinct brands have been important to Xiaguan’s success as a private company over the last few decades. 

The Kunming Tea Factory – CNNP/Zhongcha

The Zhongcha or CNNP brand now based around the Kunming factory has a complicated history and reputation. While its easy to point to Dayi and Xiaguan as #1 and #2 of these classic tea brands it would be too simple to just state it as trailing in the #3 spot. CNNP is the state-owned tea enterprise that consolidated all puer production in the 1950’s and held that position until the 80’s. The famous Zhongcha logo and bingcha wrapper design was ubiquitous in the period and in the 80’s and 90’s CNNP was very quick to let anyone use the label. What happened then was that with the emergence of Dayi and Xiaguan branding among others the zongcha wrapper could mean great tea from the Kunming factory, or it could be from any number of other producers. Old tea collectors can find old tea with this wrapper but unlike today’s date stamped and sometimes barcoded labels it doesn’t mean much of anything. Having a yellow tea character or a green tea character doesn’t signify anything on its own. 

Classic Zhongcha logo. The tea (cha) character is encircled by eight middle (zhong) characters. Middle here is a reference to China as the Middle Kingdom

It is a real shame that CNNP and the Kunming factory now have such a mixed reputation. The Kunming factory was the first to develop the wo dui pile fermentation method used to make shou puer in 1973. That technique has been so associated with the Menghai factory that it’s easy to find people incorrectly assuming it was invented in Menghai. The Kunming factory languished with no tea made from 1996 to 2003. Production has since resumed and some bad practices like licencing the zhongcha brand out to anyone have ended. Its a brand that is always in the background, especially with old cake collectors.

 

These are just the old classic heavy hitters. The 90s saw a second generation of puer tea brands emerge and there are even more small scale producers working now. We’ll get into “craft” micro tea producer era at a later date.

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