There are a lot of ways to categorize pu’erh. On a very basic level there are raw and ripe. You can also categorize it by age, storage, area, etc.. One very old school way that I rarely but sometimes see mentioned is categorizing raw pu’erh by two very old eras of tea. The old and the very old, Yinji and Haoji..
Yinji Cha (印级茶)
Yinji Cha translates to Mark Grade Tea and the era is generally acknowledged as the time period between 1950s and up until the early 1970s. Big operations like Menghai Tea Factory, Xiaguan, and Kunming Tea Factory were established around ~1940, ushering in this era. During this time period, production was done by larger big state-run factories, although the actual factory isn’t usually denoted in the tea name. Much of the material used especially by Dayi is thought to be from Menghai County. These teas usually have the familiar zhongcha wrapper. Famed examples include the Hongyin (Red Mark), Lanyin (Blue Mark), and Huangyin (Yellow Mark). Within these there are a number of different productions that are marked with other signifiers (Conscientious Prescription, Iron Cakes, etc.).
This era eventually gave away to another era of factory production, the Qizi Bing era, where factories were signified and teas were given names such as 7542, 8582, etc. The following era also coincided with the invention of ripe pu’erh.
Haoji Cha (号级茶)
Haoji Cha is an era predating the Yinji era, running from the start of the 20th century up until the Yinji era. During this time, pu’erh businesses were centered around the Yiwu area and were dominated by Han-Chinese family businesses. The tea produced is thought to be from the six famous mountains nearby Yiwu (Youle, Mangzhi, Yibang, Gedeng, Manzhuan, Mansa), with Yiwu township acting as central distribution point for tea to be dispersed outwards to Tibet, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. Tea was produced by family run brands, like Songpin Hao, Tongqing Hao, Tongchang Hao, Fuyuanchang, etc. Unlike the Yinji period, tea was produced in smaller quantities by smaller producers. The tea’s qualities could vary depending on the producer and a particular production. Certain producers and productions are held in particularly high esteem.
As 21st century modern pu’erh fans this may seem like a simpler time, but amazingly there were fakes with anti-counterfeit measures dating back to the Haoji era. There’s also been a good deal of speculation on the actual tea processing during this era, with some suspecting that the teas were oxidized before the shaqing (Kill Green) process.
During the Yinji Cha period, production from the six famous mountains area and Yiwu was largely unnoticed in this eras as big factory production dominated. Much of the raw materials still produced made in these areas was sold to the big factories as maocha.
Why Is This Relevant?
It may seem pointless to categorize tea by two eras where the tea cakes are both outrageously expensive and inaccessible. In particular, it’s difficult to find any reliable notes on Haoji era and if the processing was so different what is the point!
The fingerprints of both the Yinji and Haoji eras are all over the modern boom of pu’erh (1990s onwards). At the onset of the modern pu’erh scene in 1994, a group of Taiwanese tea men traveled to Yiwu to find old pu’erh. They ended up disappointed as unbeknownst to them production from the family operations of Yiwu had long ceased.. Some of these men eventually decided to attempt to produce teas from these dormant areas, and recruited the two surviving employees of the old Tongqing Hao factory. This tea is known as the Zhenchunyahao.
If we take a look at productions in both factory and 3rd party productions in the late 1990s and the early 2000s we see a good deal of productions marketing itself as Yiwu or from one or multiple of the famous mountains area. The name recognition of Mengla County and Yiwu, predates both larger areas like Bulang and Lincang and smaller areas like Lao Banzhang, Guafengzhi, etc.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of small-scale pu’erh operations pressing tea from all around Yunnan. The old family operations of the Haoji era also set a precedent for the smaller scale productions that would come to form a large and very visible chunk of the modern market. While these more modern boutiques have gone in very different directions, the model of the modern boutique was formed from the Haoji era and rebooted in Yiwu in 1994.
Successors to the Yinji era are a bit more clear, as there was never a huge lapse in tea production comparable to Haoji teas. In the 1970s, the market shifted partially due to the advent of ripe tea as well as numbered recipes. Up until this point the factories were not named in the production. While teas like 1980s and 1990s 7542s and 8582s are not necessarily the same as Hongyin or Huangyin, you can see the lineage of strong factory tea and the factory style processing from the Yinji era.
There have been countless direct commercial attempts to take advantage of the past fame of both eras. If you search taobao, you’ll see that the modern market is littered with these old brands attempting to shamelessly cash in on the fame of the Haoji producers (search for Songpin Hao or Tongqing Hao on taobao). These teas have no meaningful connection with the old brands and have flooded the market to the extent that these brands in the modern era are essentially white labels.
It’s also not difficult to find contemporary teas named Hongyin or Lanyin.. You can argue whether or not these are shameless recreations in all cases, but for the vast majority there is no substantive connection to the original. In more rare cases with accomplished producers, there can be exceptions. For instance Zhou Yu of Wistaria who is very familiar with the originals, made Hongyin and Lanyin recreations that presumably bear at least some resemblance to the original.
Both Menghai county and six famous mountains remain very popular areas today, so this can give us some insight into how some of our tea will age. The good news is that good versions of both Haoji and Yinji era teas are both thought to have aged well, albeit differently. The flavor of Yinji era teas like Hongyin and Lanyin are considered strong, powerful and long-lasting. It’s more challenging to find reliable accounts of Haoji teas and depending on the original production and condition, it sounds as if there is a fair amount of variance. People do rave highly about the good examples.
The successors can be somewhat simplified to large-scale factory teas (Yinji) and smaller scale operations pressing select leaves (Haoji). Factory teas have a stronger taste that requires aging and more boutique operations sourcing tea from Yiwu and the 6FM (i.e. Chenyuan Hao, Jixiang Jushi) have more elegance but less up front taste.
This comparison probably worked better in 2007 than 2018 and in my opinion doesn’t really fit that neatly into the contemporary scene. 2007 was the year which Zhang Jinghong did much of her research for Pu’er: Ancient Caravans, Urban Chic creating a fascinating snapshot of the scene. At that point, pu’erh had grown significantly and she surveyed a few of the many boutique operations going to Yiwu where the local farmer’s did the fine processing..
Since 2007 the tea has evolved and the more contemporary pu’erh scene is its own complex, amorphous thing. Boutique Yiwu and 6FM tea are still very much a thing it has gotten increasingly crowded and prices have risen far beyond 2007/2008… Operations like Chenyuan Hao (who also has made Songpin and Tongqing recreations) are probably some of the closer examples to contemporary versions of these old Haoji outfits but are definitely not the same thing. The scene is undoubtedly very different from 100 years ago.
For Yinji era successors, big factories like Menghai and Xiaguan never really stopped pressing tea. Still there is constant clamoring that the big factories have fallen off significantly from their glory days of yesteryear. There are boutique operations pressing strong, up-front, supposedly higher quality blends (i.e. Chensheng Hao), that stake their claim as the contemporary successor to the Yinji era. There is also constant clamoring that the modern versions from both big factories and Chensheng Hao operations are not the same as the originals. These traditionally made Yinji teas were strong, bitter and smoky when young, characteristics that proponents argue will result in a high-quality aged product.
I think it is highly likely that 99% of the teas made in the image of either Haoji or Yinji tea will not age as well as the originals. Production is much higher and quality material are scarce. When Zhou Yu made his own Hongyin and Lanyin in 2007, he noted environmental factors commenting that the earth was not as healthy in 2007 as it was when the original Yinji teas were made. This is sadly probably even more true in 2018 than 2007..