Pu’erh Factories: Why Buy from a Big Factory? Feat. Menghai, Xiaguan

Pu’erh brands play an important role in the marketing and selling of samples, cakes and tongs of pu’erh tea. This is far more pronounced in the Yunnan-based pu’erh when compared with their Fujian-based Yancha selling counterparts or Taiwanese oolong selling merchants. This has resulted in some fascinating convolutions within the pu’erh scene… CNNP sold their name and wrappers to anyone willing to pay, seemingly every operations specialist at Menghai formed their own factory (1,2,3), and forgery continues to be a major issue. This is true for not only highly-priced gushu and expensive aged tea but Menghai plantation tea! The pu’erh market also has a tendency to attach itself to brands and certain recipes (see 7542 speculation) and even a brand that has been protective over their reputation like Menghai, has had their recipes blatantly copied until it was deemed illegal in 2005.

Note: It is important to note that the term factory is tossed around very loosely. It can mean anything from a small family operation to a high-volume producer like Menghai or Xiaguan. While the largest factories have been in existence for a while, the total amount of pu’erh tea factories has increased exponentially since the 1990s!

Classic Menghai Recipe, 1998 7262. Tea from White2Tea.

Classic Menghai Recipe, 1998 7262. Tea from White2Tea.

The Big Playas

Who are they?

Menghai (Dayi)

The biggest, most high-profile of them all. Menghai (Factory #2) is still the undisputed king of ripe pu’erh and the home of the famous 7542, 8582, 7532, 7572, 8592, and 7262 recipes. Dayi is also based in pu’erh hotspot Xishuangbanna. These aspects all help to make Menghai the biggest and one of the most trusted big factory of them all.

Xiaguan

Factory #3, but really #2 to Dayi. Like Menghai, Xiaguan is an old factory and has been through China’s ebbs and flows. Xiaguan is especially renowned for their tuos and compressed cakes. Menghai and Xiaguan are responsible for many of the benchmark aged teas from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Others

Menghai and Xiaguan are the only real old players. Kunming Tea Factory could also be considered, but due to the inconsistency and confusion associated with their brand is often overlooked. Mengku, Haiwan, Six Famous Tea Mountains and others are all newcomers spawned since the 1990s. These factories vary in size and some are quite large (but not old). Even though many of these factories were spawned out of old Menghai personnel there are so many contributing factors to the complex operations of a big factory that stop these newcomers from displacing the old, big players. For instance, even Haiwan’s ripe pu’erh (Haiwan was founded by two longtime Menghai employees, including the co-inventor of ripe pu’erh!) can only be considered similar to the Menghai Factory productions, despite trying so hard to replicate the Menghai recipes.

Menghai and Xiaguan

Menghai and Xiaguan. Source: Runming Tea.

Why Buy from a Big Brand?

Consistency. Menghai and Xiaguan are some of the only existent companies with a proven record of processing pu’erh that will age well. With increasing concerns over the aging viability due to misprocessing (especially in small productions), going with a big brand is a way to ensure the proper production and pressing of maocha. The benchmark pu’erhs for 80s and 90s are all Menghai and Xiaguan productions and the most popular recipes produced today are all creations of the 1970s and 1980s.

Ripe Pu’erh. Since the invention of ripe pu’erh in the early 1970s, Menghai has long been the standard for shu pu’erh. Recipes like 7262, 7572, and 8592 are produced in huge batches nearly every year! Menghai will also typically age their tea before pressing it to help eliminate the stank and make their product immediately drinkable. Xiaguan isn’t as known for their ripe pu’erh but also creates very reliable recipes.

Note #1: New school pu’erh is all about single origin tea from wild/old arbor trees. These recipes and benchmark older teas were all old school pu’erh, plantation blends.
Note #2: Benchmark teas: 1980s 7542 (88 Qing Beeng), 1990s 7542 (92 Qing Beeng, 97 Qing Beeng).

Menghai Recipes, 7532, 7542

Some classic Menghai Recipes. 1996 7532, 2000 7542. Source: Sample Tea.

Paying for the Brand

As is often the case in the wild, ambiguous world of pu’erh the pros are counter-balanced by a number of persuasive counterarguments against the purchase of big-factory productions. The most basic of these is the price. Despite being relatively affordable compared with the even wilder world of gushu, Menghai Tea Factory (and even Xiaguan) are heavily marketed, visible, and speculated-upon brands. When you buy a Menghai product you are paying a premium on their brand. Much of the speculation relies on the arguments found above, helping to make Dayi some of the most expensive plantation pu’erh. Another reason for the inflated price is the liquidity (ease to redeal) of labeled Menghai or Xiaguan teas. This is well-covered by Marshaln and is likely why the best bargains for drinkers are often cakes without wrappers!

Note: Xiaguan and other big factories like Haiwan suffer alot less from over speculation and price inflation than Menghai.

1988 Qing Beeng (7542) == 2014 7542?

By most western standards Dayi is still a relatively affordable brand. Since the benchmark teas were made by Menghai or Xiaguan, why not buy a few tongs to sit on. In 20 years, won’t you basically get recreations of these famous pu’erg beengs? Sadly, things are not so simple. These are a couple aspects to take into account.

The most obvious of these is storage. Storage can make or break a tea (the 88 Qing Beeng was famous because of its storage) and the traditional storage methods (used for famous pre-88 QB cakes) for most of these famous teas are virtually impossible to recreate in any sort of home-storage scenario. Complicating matters, there is no real consensus on the best home storage method, with many radically different opinions.

These famous recipes are pretty consistent year to year, i.e. 2012 7542 vs. 2013 7542. However, over the years pu’erh cultivation and the pu’erh market has changed dramatically from what they were in the 1970s or 1980s. Pu’erh demand has increased tenfold and to meet the demand lesser quality material is often cultivated and mixed in. Bill of Ancient Tea Horse Road compares this to the cutting of drugs, creating an overall inferior or weaker product. Another possible contributing factor to a lower quality product is that there are far more pu’erh producers many specializing in higher-end maocha. The high-quality material used by these specialized operations might’ve previously gone into a blend. All these factors make it so the famous 1988 7542 might actually be quite different from your 2014 7542.

Note #1: In this post, Bill also specifies 2004 as the  year of the “cutting”.
Note #2: Another contributing factor to the aging prospects are the ultra-compression practiced by factories, especially Xiaguan. Many speculate that these ultra compressed cakes will not age very well (or at least very slowly) in the dry and cool climates of North America and Europe.

Takeaways

  • Paying for big brands (and popular recipes) ensures reliability in processing and some consistency.
  • You will pay a premium if you go with the big brands, specifically Menghai.
  • Older raw pu’erh recipes (7532, 7542, 8582) are somewhat time-proven with a couple major qualifiers.
  • Menghai ripe pu’erh cakes might not be the most cost-effective but remain the gold-standard and are ultra-reliable.
88 Qing Bing

88 Qing Bing. Famous Dry-stored 7542. Source: Essence of Tea.

This entry was posted in Aged Pu'erh, Article, Long-form Article, Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh, Tea Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Pu’erh Factories: Why Buy from a Big Factory? Feat. Menghai, Xiaguan

  1. Cwyn says:

    The big factory teas don’t carry nearly the premium of smaller tea producers who are doing the work of scouting tea in person. In my mind the factory teas are a budget way to go. Places like tuochatea have most 357g factory cakes under $30 and half under $15. Compare that to the Manzhuan cake of video #60 at $120 for only 250g. I think the big difference, when comparing raw tea, is that the factory stuff is a gut bomb until it ages.

    The questions for me are, do I have the time left in my life; do I have the storage set-up, and am I interested in a hobby of controlled storage and prepared to wait 10-20 years? For me all those answers are “no,” I live in a bad location for aging (too dry), I don’t have 20 years and no real set-up to speak of. For my needs as a tea drinker, I have to focus on cakes that are drinkable now, and over the next ten years. So that means my sources are likely to be small artisan producers making drinkable she go or buying the factory teas with some age on them. Would that I were younger, as you guys are, and living in a more humid area! Then aging and tasting cakes through the years would be the way to go!

    • James says:

      Hi cwyn,

      It sounds like you’re making a very prudent decision, based off your drinking needs and locale. It’s easy enough to fall down the rabbithole.

      It should also be stated that some people do relatively enjoy cheap factory pu’erh, there are teas like Xiaguan’s Happy Tuo that are decent enough as a daily drinker and can be acquired cheaply. Shu Pu is another thing I’d rather goto Menghai for, even though I know I’m paying a little more than if I shopped around more. Considering I don’t buy all that much ripe pu’erh, the consistency of a big brand and recipe is usually worth the difference in price for me.

      Cheers!
      -James

  2. Cwyn says:

    Definitely some of the factory teas are swell, I could drink that Menghai tuocha forever and never need another sheng. For ripe, I own a CNNP 7572 from 2009, which my son likes. If I were younger, and had the storage, I would buy more 7542 for my retirement years. Not too late for you guys yet, though!

  3. Peter says:

    Your ongoing articles and videos on puer are helping me learn more and more about this intractably arcane type of tea. Many thanks guys!

  4. Larry says:

    The basics of puerh are easy to grasp.
    Buying puerh will always be a never ending maze of confusion.
    Because of the huge language barrier, and low prices that big factories can offer the vendor, how do we ever get know about the smaller companies that are selling better quality tea???
    Now for the most important question:
    I have always visited and purchased from the vendors you have suggested.
    How do we fully trust any vendor on the price and quality of what they are selling and , if they are selling exactly what they are telling us it is???
    On top of all that, from my experience many of the house brand puerh is really awful and overpriced.

    Very sorry for making a long subject long………..

    • James says:

      Hi Larry, Thanks for the comment and you bring up some very good points!

      Authenticity is a complex topic and the pu’erh market is filled with numerous lies and half-lies (i.e. unverifiable tree ages). Information travels downhill and we are at the bottom of the information food chain. Trusting a vendor is never a 100% thing. This has been reinforced for me recently after watching Dragon Tea House, a vendor that historically sold authentic factory pu’erh, selling fake Menghai Factory tea. How intentional or unintentional are these incidents? It’s impossible to know for sure. Is it a more egregious crime to unknowingly sell fake tea or to knowingly mislead your audience? Ideally neither, but it’s a difficult topic with alot of gray areas.

      In the end… all we can do is research, try not to stress out too much, and buy tea that we can afford and enjoy! If you end up really liking a tea that is not technically what is being sold, at least it is a good tea.

      Also, who are you referring to when talking about house brand puerh? I’ve had decent enough experiences from White2Tea and Yunnan Sourcing. Quality obviously varies, but for the most part I’ve been satisfied with my purchases.

      Hope this helps to clarify and cheers!
      -James

  5. MengChiu Lim says:

    Larry, i do not think it is a language barrier for the puer confusion. I believe it is the same confusion for tea drinker even domestically for many Chinese. It is probably been this way for long time, even for the more established and organized Taiwanese Oolong tea market,which at this point the quality and the pricing in general i consider quite consistent, still not unusual to get cheated when buying.

    I face the same problem like everyone here, that’s why i begin with drinking the ripe from Dayi and the raw from Xia Guan, because that’s the general recommendation. One good way is hopefully among the tea drinker forum like what Jame’s is doing offer some good suggestion for what to buy and where to buy. I bought a few tea from YS, and i like most of the tea i bought, have to thank to Jame about introducing me to the source.

    • Larry says:

      Mr. MengChiu Lim
      Thank You for information.

      Thankful, With the internet those who sell fakes and are not honest will be exposed and lose a devastating amount of business.

      if only Teadb had it’s own forum………..

      • Peter says:

        A TeaDB forum sounds like a great idea! How about it gents?

        • James says:

          I’m afraid a forums is likely out of the scope of TeaDB. I appreciate the suggestion though! I do agree that this sort of dialogue and sharing of information is quite helpful, feel free to post opinions of teas in the comments of TeaDB.

          It’s also something that is in existence in a few places in the depths of the internet. Check out the Pu’erh of the day threads on TeaChat, Badger and Blade, or even Steepster!

      • MengChiu Lim says:

        One way is for us to share our personal experience. For example, i bought 100 g Sheng Puer from YS. The name is “Jing Gu”, and you should be able to find it from their China webpage. It only cost $5, which i think it is very cheap for its quality relatively compare to say usually $ 10 for average Xia Guan tuocha. It is sweet, fairly potent, a bit smoky and a bit bitter (not too much for my taste). I am going to try a “Ban Zhang” 100 g 2007 sheng later on this year, also available on YS (not their own brand though). It is about $34, not too pricey if it is real ban zhang considering it is 2007 yea. I will share what i think about it when i have a chance. For 2007, if ages for another 5 years, it should be relatively “mature”. For drinker that cannot wait for very long time, could be a reasonable strategy.

        • James says:

          Hi Mengchiu,

          Thanks for the comments and recommendations! For vendors like Yunnan Sourcing, this sort of dialog is especially useful when sorting the exceptional from the rest. I’m quite curious about that Banzhang as well. I’m presuming it is the one by Mengku.

          My intention with the monthly drinking reports is a similar one. The direction of TeaDB had been moving towards the informative and I wanted to log and talk more personally about my own tea journey and experiences.

          Cheers!
          -James

      • James says:

        Also Larry, another place to look is pu’erh blogs (i.e. Half-Dipper by Hobbes or T by Jakub). Both are far more experienced pu’erh drinkers than myself and have reviewed a good deal of teas. Tons of material to comb over, that can be very helpful in formulating a good mental roadmap of the vendor landscape.

        Cheers!
        -James

  6. Discotopia says:

    Hello all, I’m making the journey over from YouTube!
    Just touching on the forum thing,
    I actually have built a forum a few days ago, the emphasis is on ‘tea meets’. Id love to see a big offline community where people meet up and share tea together, post about tea related events in their area.it’s a global forum. And I am looking for mods to control areas other than U.K. It’s success will be determined ultimately on the current community we hold I suppose. If you want a DB section on there your welcome to one.
    http://teameets.boards.net (one day I may even get a proper domain name!)
    I’d love to hear your thoughts and criticism….

    • James says:

      Hey Disctopia,

      Thanks for the comment! I just took a quick look and it looks neat. I suspect the success of it will be getting that critical mass of adoption. One other meetup type thing you can look into is meetup.com, it might make an interesting alternative.

      Cheers and good luck!
      -James

  7. Discotopia says:

    Thanks for the info!

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