17 February, 2011

Wrapper Mayhem

Veterans of the PRC domestic consumer market will be familiar with the almost-but-not-quite branding of second-rate goods attempting to "pass off" as a premium brand. There are some charmingly naive reuses of material that most Chinese find to be the humourous copies that they are. Trying to work out where you've seen a certain label or brand before is quite a fun game.

Long-time readers may remember my first trip to Maliandao, some years ago now, where I picked up some delightful 2005 Yesheng, courtesy of a recommendation from His Grace, Dr. the Duke of N.

It's a fine tea, made by an outfit called the Yiwu Laojie Yisheng Tea Co.:

2005 Yisheng Wrapper

I also recently came across one of the first productions in the Douji label, made by their producing company, the Yiwu Zhengshan Tea Co., which I present below for your amusement, courtesy of Yunnan Sourcing:

2005 Douji Wrapper


The differences between the two are:

i. The central characters "yisheng" on the latter wrapper compare with the single "sheng" character on the former;

ii. The tea company's names differ after the "Yunnan Xishuangbanna Yiwu" part; and

iii. The latter wrapper has a stamp, to the right of the central section.

I would love to know the relationship between the two.  All other things being equal, relying entirely on our a priori knowledge that the Douji company is (now) a big and successful venture while the Laojie Yisheng company remains unknown, we might tentatively conclude that the latter wrapper was copied by the former.  Indeed, if this is correct, then perhaps the Yisheng Tea Co. took its name from the central pair of characters on the Douji wrapper.

I found similar minefields when scouring Taobao for the 2005-06 Yiwu Manluo cakes, pictured below, of which there are a dozen similar, but non-identical, variants from several companies:

2005 Yiwu Manluo

Amusingly, I also found cakes that had re-used the wrapper of my simple-yet-charming friend, the 2006 Xingshunxiang:

2006 XSX Yiwu

Be careful out there... make sure that you're reading those wrappers carefully.

Life is like a tong of pu'ercha - you never know what you're gonna get.


MarshalN said...

The Yishengs are the same. I tried both, actually, the one and two character versions, and opted for the one character version because I thought the tea is better. Incidentally, I bought samples of YSLLC's recent Yisheng offerings, and will comment on one of those soon, maybe today, even.

For the Changda hao and the Xingshunxiang, do you find that some of them are grossly inferior teas using the same wrapper, or is it mostly just a case of different storage of largely similar (but slightly different) teas?

Hobbes said...

Dear MarshalN,

If those two cakes are the same, then "Yiwu Zhengshan Tea. Co" = "Yiwu Laojie Yishenghao" ??! Surely not!

I didn't try the knock-off Xingshunxiang, but the various Yiwu Manluo / Changdahao cakes that I bought are quite similar; there were no howlingly bad versions that I tried, put it that way, but then I only bought the cakes that I had good reason to believe were The Real Thing.

The dodgy knock-offs of both varieties didn't look all that appealing, to be honest, and the producers were no-name companies with little or no other search histories.



MarshalN said...

Drinking YSLLC's red right now, seems fine to me. Don't have my own Yisheng to compare it to, since they're in HK, but quality wise, I don't think they're very far apart.

Early Douji went through a billion name changes. I won't put too much stock in that.

Lelia said...

Thanks for the detailed analysis of the packaging and genealogy of the two companies. I know when I buy teaware from China to resale I always try to be mindful that the use of lead etc in the glaze is a possibility. It is heartening the folks like you specializing in tea are so cautious with our health.

Hobbes said...

Dear MarshalN,

I'm going to have to buy a cake from Scott now, just to find out :)

If I may press you further on the potential equivalence of "Yiwu Zhengshan Tea Co." and "Yiwu Laojie Yishenghao", purely because I have enjoyed cakes from both, do you know that these two are the same factory, or is it your opinion? If the former, may I be a huge pain and ask how you know? (Solely in the interest of enquiry, of course, with all due respect.) As a historian, you will be used to citing your sources. :)

Dear Lelia,

Thanks very much for the comment. The use of lead in some teaware is traditional, of course - Japanese (black) raku, for example. As long as you don't place acidic foods in them, you're supposedly fine - but I've never been willing to take that risk, myself (and that goes doubly so for PRC-produced goods).



Anonymous said...

A cake is $59, to add to what is a sizable stock. Surely you meant a sample? My eyes, personally, water at that price, because at the end of the day, a bunch of that cash is for the name. Dayi, Xizihao, all right, 'cause at very worst, I could resell. Yiwu Laojie Yishenghao just doesn't strike the same confidence, so that tea had better be outstanding...


MarshalN said...

Hobbes: The store from which I purchased my Yisheng stocked both -- and the owner of the store made it very clear it was the same outfit. I wasn't paying attention to the name of the maker, but early (pre 06) Douji went through quite a few name changes. I settled on the single character one because I thought it's better, but not because the other one was bad. In 2004 they were known as something else -- I forgot what it was.

Shah8: You're telling me that your eyes water at $59 for 2005 Yiwu? I don't think you can get half a cake of 2005 XZH at that price.

Jason Fasi said...

@shah I think it's odd you're bristling at $59 when XZH 2005 tea would cost you well over $100. :D Douji productions are highly regarded, and Scott has worked the Kunming markets and sold tea long enough for me to trust he's getting real Douji.

Also, Hobbes is buying in pounds. After conversion to dollars it's like a 40% discount! :)

Anonymous said...

MarshalN, you have had the direct privilege of tasting both, to be sure. The shopkeep was also there to reassure you that this was, in fact, made by a well-regarded outfit. I believe/think/estimate that a big part of the expense of brand lies in simply being able to rely on a company's well regard

My opposition is directed as someone who see many "Yiwu" from 2005 for much less at various honorable shops in the internet. Invariably, they are much cheaper than this particular cake. Indeed, there are other cakes that have a good chance of being better, for not much more, like HLH '05 Nannuo Gushu or an '04 Zhen Si Long Gao Shan Zhai. That's just off the top, looking at YS and not thinking of, say, Keng's goody shop.

$59 is a great deal of money for a younger sheng, and ultimately, if you assume aging is free, do you think that this cake can compete with YS's own superior selections from '10, or even '09? They are roughly the same price per gram. In 2006, Douji was selling from its current name, and the elite products costs as much as '06 XZH at Houde. Yet 2005 has this Yisheng, which I freely admit is probably pretty good. However, again, there are lots of anonymous cakes that are probably pretty good, tho' you'd have to search hard for them. Yet anyone who doesn't know, will pass over these cakes, for the lack of Douji. You pay Scott for that recognition. I paid Scott for his pickup of that Tai Lian '02, which was foolhardy, but worked out, largely because I felt I could trust the name of Tai Lian Chamasi, which is, in large part, free goods from Hobbes and his friends to Scott, not that he nor I should mind.

Hey Jason, Nicholas Tang has pictures of XZH being sold at the Guangzhou Fair. Ban Po Lao Zhai, as I made out from the image, was marked at just under $300. I think RM is going to appreciate this year, which is why I've been buying like a maniac. So Hobbes better buy soon!

I suppose I'd better say this as well. I buy XZH because, of course, I like it. I also buy XZH because HouDe sells them relatively cheap for what they are. Those '07 were NOT cheap in '07 and '08, just like the idea of buying a Menghai Peacock '98 for $44/100g is NOT cheap in '08. On the other hand...Yunnan is very, very, big, and Yunnan can produce *huge* amounts of puerh, much of it not very good. A stable brand in the advent of growing world-wide acceptance of what pu has to offer (and the merging of all the different puerh markets into one price scheme), however slowly that may happen, is going to appreciate much faster than any no-name. Not saying that I "invest" in pu financially, but am saying that it will become increasingly harder in the future to acquire the accustomed grade of pu. Decent Dayi shu that's not this past year is more expensive than most anon shengs out there. Take a good look and see of just how many brands that cater to bourgeoisie consumers openly and through multiple channels. Of those, how many are as "reliable" as XZH, given constraints in sourcing? Of course, XZH isn't the best, but that's not really quite the point. Without tasting, and without a taster cake, really, this cake can't be quickly estimated as being worth $59.


ps, forgive any rambling, probably should have written this in notepad first...

Anonymous said...

Actually, I guess what can be put much quicker is...

1) Hobbes already knows how good the cake is, as he's been assured that it's similar.

2) This cake is probably more expensive, in part, because it's associated with Douji.

3) Hobbes already has a nice big stash of this, acquired when he *should* get a nice, big stash of this, as a suitably excellent price.

So I'm kinda gobsmacked at why he would want a whole 'nother cake at a price that seems excessive, when a sample might be a bit more "fun".

yeah, should have said something like that instead of such a long comment.

and no, not telling Hobbes to do anything. He wants the cake, he buys the cake!


Anonymous said...

A weee bit of fun...



think you can negotiate that guy down?


Hobbes said...

Thanks all for the comments. It's great to read that the Yisheng and Scott's Douji are likely to be the same.

A sample! Yes, a sample would be best to buy first.

I'd love to get some more Yisheng, and if the Douji/2-character label is similar in storage, it's a nice opportunity. The tea is very accomplished, and so having it turn up with a different name is rather a blessing. £40 / $60 for a lovely 2005 cake seems decent to me :)

Happily, Scott also sells the purple-label version of the same, which he notes as being a stronger spring version of the red-label's autumnal leaves.

Happy days!



MarshalN said...

Shah8: Just because the owner of Sanhetang labels a cake at that price doesn't mean he sells it at that price, nor does it mean that there are any buyers (or, for that matter, that you can sell it back at anything near that price). Tea expos are for advertising purposes, and so all information gathered there needs to be judged accordingly.

Anonymous said...

That was just a bit 'o fun. Sanhetang wanted to sell the LongFeng there for $100, remember?

Now, if you want comparative pricing, check out Jas-eteas, and see how much he charged for the spring '07 cakes when he had them, and I remember when there actually were cakes for sale. Then check out the Ban'E--> from $60 to $78 and grab a feel for how well it sells at the higher price. Huangshanlin captures something like $20 more in firm aquisition cost in about one more year than Ban'E. It is also far more difficult to aquire in general. Lastly, I think the Huangshanlin is some kind of Mengsong tea (with JingGu Gold Tips, whatever that means), just how substitutable is it with a comparable product? There aren't that many serious Mengsong teas available, whereas, I can easily find Man'E or LBZ of varying qualities. So long as you're careful, XZH in 2010, for all of its expense, can be very cheap for what it truely is (well, at HouDe). For example, per gram, the '06 Nuercha brick is cheaper than the 2005 red/purple. The autumn '07 Jing Gu Nuercha is only a half cent more expensive. Unless that 2005 yisheng is *really* good, it's uncompetitive with the brick, or with a pair of the 2009 XZH gift set (which would be 400g of yummines, nevermind that half is shu). This is all according to my tastes, of course. That's why my eyes water at the price. It's in a territory where I gotta demand compelling taste. Nada's 2010 Bulang, while obnoxiously expensive, is something that's almost as much a guarantee of aged deliciousness as it gets. I can pay that. On the other hand, there are just *tons* of delicious $30-$40 sheng that have a good chance of outperformance.


Hobbes said...

Nada's Bulang was priced well, I thought - remember what you're getting for that price. I bought a tong of that potent little fellow, and happily so!



Hobbes said...

P.s. The Taobao price for the 2005 2-character Douji is 350 RMB ($53), which makes Scott's price look very decent.

Several Taobao articles also describe Yisheng and Douji as being brands of the same producer, so there we go :)

Hobbes said...

Harumph. Reading the original article reminded me that I bought a tong of this when in Maliandao last year, from Xiaomei's little brother, and so perhaps I'm not in such a hurry to find more. Samples it is.

Nonetheless, I'd like a go with the purple cake.