CNNP Zhongcha: Inconsistency, the Bubble & Bargain Hunters

Ripe Pu'erh

Editor’s Note: After the episode on the 1997 CNNP 7581 (acquired via Yunnan Sourcing) (a good tea) we received several emails showing other options for late 1990s 7581. Some were drastically cheaper and others were more expensive. Such inconsistency in pricing indicates either faked age or drastic difference in quality/mark-up. Much of this inconsistency is associated heavily with the Zhong Cha brand.

Established in 1949, CNNP, or Zhong Cha, is one of the oldest, most classical pu’erh brands. CNNP wrappers are perhaps the most iconic, featuring the tea character surrounded by the Zhong (China) character. This logo is found on the majority of pu’erh beengs from the 1950s to the 1990s, including all of the famous pu’erh vintages from that time period. Productions in the 2000s used the same logo and similar wrapper as the original Zhong Cha wearing cakes printed in 1951, Still, the brand and the label on its own means very little in terms of a quality product. Far less than a consistent Menghai or Xiaguan product. In the opinion of many, these labels have become increasingly watered down over time but neither has fallen as far as the CNNP brand. In fact, contemporary CNNP of the last 20 years is almost renowned for its inconsistency.

Note #1: Kunming tea factory (#1 Factory) is also closely associated with CNNP. However, they are not quite one and the same. Kunming Tea Factory is one of the most notable factories that has operated under the CNNP brand.

CNNP Productions
CNNP Productions. Source: Yunnan Sourcing.

1949-1980s, State Ran, Claim to Fame

During this period, all pu’erh factories were state owned and operated under the CNNP Zhong Cha brand. Before this in the early parts of the 20th century, pu’erh production was centered around Yiwu and the six famous tea mountains. Many of the most famous shops in Yiwu during this time period were small family run operations. However, the 1940s and 1950s ushered in a very different, new era for China. The total amount of tea businesses was significantly reduced and production was dominated by a few big factories (Kunming Tea Factory, Menghai Tea Factory, Xiaguan) all of which produced tea under the Zhong Cha label. Famous teas like the Red Mark, Blue Mark and Yellow Mark were all produced during this period.

Summed Up: Majority of pu’erh produced under Zhong Cha label. Includes Menghai, Xiaguan, etc.

Famous Teas
Famous Teas with the Zhong. Source: Sunsing Tea.

Late 1980s-2000s

During the late 1980s as China began to privatize, restrictions loosened up and the pu’erh industry began to decentralize. This shift meant a couple things. While the pu’erh scene was still big-factory dominant, smaller factories began to sprout up. These companies (including the big factories) paid CNNP to use the famous Zhong Cha, similar to how a franchise works. Meanwhile, Menghai and Xiaguan began to establish their own brands. Over this time period, the Zhong Cha label was slowly phased out of Menghai and Xiaguan productions in favor of their own individual branding. Many of these new smaller factories (as well as the Kunming Tea Factory) didn’t bother to build up their own brand opting to instead use the Zhong Cha.

Summed Up: Big factories have a decreasing amount of pu’erh produced under the Zhong Cha label. New/smaller + Kunming Tea Factory use Zhong Cha.

Quality Control?? + 2007 Bubble Burst

From the 1990s onwards, pu’erh production began to ramp up more and more to keep up with ever-increasing demand. Less tea from big, reputable factories was being made and more by new, smaller producers. While the new producers didn’t all make poor quality tea, the end-result was an extremely inconsistent product all marketed anonymously under the Zhong Cha label. Eventually, there was a market realization that the CNNP label had sold their label and brand without any form of quality control or quality assurance. Many had speculated on the Zhong Cha brand and as the quality was questioned it inevitably played a role in the pu’erh bubble burst in 2007.

During this time, Xiaguan and Menghai exercised stronger far tighter quality control on their products. Although the efficacy of the contemporary teas from these two factories have been called into question, they are still generally recognized as reliable and consistent brands. This is also despite the myriad of Menghai fakes that have littered the market.

Note #1: When the bubble burst, nearly all tea went down significantly in price but perhaps the largest impact was felt on CNNP brand tea. Another big loser in the pu’erh bubble was Six Famous Tea Mountains. The quality of their products was also called into question.

Some Tiepais
Some Tiepais (Pasted Labels). Source: White2Tea.

What does it mean for the consumer, the bargain hunter?

While for some the Menghai Tea Factory and brand stands for a reliable product (also debatable). CNNP stands for the opposite. Occasionally good, often mediocre and generally very inconsistent. The end result is ironic and now CNNP offers much cheaper tea, absent of the label cost of other brands. Unsurprisingly, aged CNNP from the 1990s is considerably cheaper than its Menghai or Xiaguan counterparts.

Note #1: Because of the lack of information and generally unreliability of CNNP it is usually very difficult to track back the origin of the base material for the tea. The CNNP wrapper doesn’t even mention the year!
Note #2: It is no coincidence that many western vendors have created their selection with a number of CNNP labeled “Tiepai” (pasted label) pu’erh cakes. These cakes or teas without wrappers offer some of the better bargains in pu’erh as the anonymity of their wrappers makes them hard to resell.

Common Teas to be found under Zhong Cha: 7581 Bricks, Red Mark Cakes. Similar to many of the teas under the Zhong Cha label, these recipes have a high-degree of instability and inconsistency.
Further Reading: CNNP – Life in a Teacup

11 responses to “CNNP Zhongcha: Inconsistency, the Bubble & Bargain Hunters”

  1. Great article!

    We tea shoppers are seeing some older CNNP cakes offered at higher prices, such as white2tea’s 1998 Liming Factory 7542 @ $1100 a cake. Seems a few of these teas gained a great deal of value in the Chinese market in recent years. One of the factors is cultural capital for the intent of CNNP, somewhat a nostalgia for a time when market position and branding were less important. Also, people hung on to these cakes and they got pushed to the back of the room over the years and of course they continue to age and some, like the Liming, received “natural” dry storage in places like Hong Kong. I suppose as these cakes resurfaced for sale the price was rather low until the collector market in China developed a buzz. Now a few of these cakes, like the Liming, are difficult to afford. Still, samples can be had and people should at least try these teas if you get the chance.

    • Hi Cwyn,

      Thanks for the comment and the notes. Yes indeed! CNNP cakes from that era can be rather variable/all over the place.


  2. Hello James,

    Spot on, those older teas can most definitely be really confusing. No age statement, missing information on base materials, unclear blend recipe and company behind the various productions all results in a major headache for consumers. There are experts out there who analyze the inner label and wrapper under a magnifying glass to examine the ink, each printed character, the paper, the appearance of the teacake etc and are able with a degree of accuracy to approximate some basic information from them. It’s a lot of effort but the business of old puerh is worth big money. That said, nothing beats the taste test which will reveal to an expert pretty quickly if that tea is what it is marketed to be.

    In perhaps another decade we may see you start your tea reviews with a magnifying glass and beguile us with the position of certain characters, the color of the ink, etc and what it all means on the label in front of you 🙂

    Best, Varat

    • Hi Varat (the fortune teller),

      Thanks as always for stopping in. Yes indeed. It’s time to cut out the childs play and get serious.. and start studying and memorizing all the old wrappers.


      • Hahahaha, let me try my hand at fortune telling then …

        James you have a long journey ahead of you. Although you are young in age, you are made of good stock. You are very well put together having undergone very fine processing. The path you have chosen is filled with many adventures and rewards. As you continue your development, you will continue to expand your wealth of knowledge. Your pursuit for answers and push for progress will bestow you with enlightenment upon reaching your maturity. It is a blessing that many will seek but few will have the fortune to find. Through your generosity, you will share this knowledge with others and your light will shine brightly helping many looking for direction and providing guidance and a safer road that removes much of the dangers of illusion and deceit.

        Safe journey

  3. Had you been reading our reviews of a purported 1997 CNNP cake on Steepster in the pu erh of the day discussion? I found what I thought was a great tea that seemed aged and well stored for under $100. I thought the sample I got was outstanding, but a fellow steepster bought a cake and found it very different, with humid storage flavors. My sample did not have any off flavors, and I bought a couple cakes which I haven’t tried yet. This had us wondering if (a) it was a fake, (b) if it was humid stored to make it seem older, and (c) if the sample tasted better because it was aired out.

    • Hi Rich,

      Thanks for stopping in. I actually wrote this article almost a year ago but never published it. I had a similar instance with the 1997 7581. Running low on a content backlog and it happened to come out now. Rather timely.

      As for your tea. It’s very hard to tell without tasting the tea. I suggested dumping the wet leaves when you’re finished. If they’re really dark/black it’s probably cooked or got very wet at some point. Check out this post by Marshaln Adventures in Puerh and see what you can find.

      It’s also probably safe to assume that it’s not Old Arbor Yiwu from that year. Really the first instances of caked old arbor Yiwu (the Zhenchunya Hao) started to come out in 1996 (I think?) and sells for something like $6k. It’s sold by Best Tea House as Simply Elegant or something like that.

      Hope this helps!

      ps. I am Jschergen in that steepster thread.

  4. I just bought a couple CNNP yellow mark cakes from an Asian Market in the US. I know it’s probably questionable tea, but they were sooooo cheap it was hard to resist ($9 and $16!). I’m drinking the cheaper one now and it tastes and smells very similar to some of the aged CNNP samples I got from YS. On the smooth, rounded side (top?) it has a small, square nei fei stamped with a mountain and trees with two circles surrounding it. Anyway, reading this article made me wonder if anyone has done any sort of genetic analyses on the leaves, and/or any radioactive dating and cataloged the results. I guess that’s a pretty serious undertaking, but it seems that it would remove some of the mystery with counterfeiting and shared labeling from multiple sources. However, it still probably wouldn’t say much about the flavor/qualities of a cake due to differences in storage over the years. Just wanted to share my thoughts while drinking this mysterious tea.

    • I’ve tried that cheap cake a few more times and felt that I should comment further on it… It’s bad. The first time I had it, it was ok. Lacking some complexity but ok. I was away from home and didn’t have a gaiwan, so I was doing grandpa style after a rinse. Brewing it in my gaiwan, it comes out very thick and one-note fruity, but slightly off-putting. I’ve tried different parameters and ratios and it’s always about the same. Importantly, it often gives me a drunk (from alcohol) feeling, and I feel sick to the stomach. I’m considering throwing it out.

      • Thanks for reporting and reporting back Ben. I suspect these things usually end up being crap (has been my own experience as well), but who knows whats under those anonymous wrappers.

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