; Cwyn's Death By Tea: The Function of the Wrapper in Puerh Collecting ;

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Function of the Wrapper in Puerh Collecting

In my reading about collecting lately, I’ve tried to find some comparisons between our puerh hobby and other forms of collecting. As I noted in my previous piece, I struggled to find adequate comparisons collecting the raw tea product that we consume and care for, and quite frankly, other people. Maybe that is a bit too broad a brush stroke. If so, then I need to narrow the focus just a bit. The puerh wrapper itself serves many functions and is a key component of our collections, just as a label is for a record collector. I spent some time thinking about the wrapper, and how difficult “going loose” for puerh tea is, aside from the obvious space issues in our storage. Wrappers have so much to say to us.

Historical and Cultural Context of Wrapper Content

The most obvious information on the wrapper is the factory, the wording, marketing, and perhaps time and place. We might know more about the tea than the wrapper tells us, because we know the story behind the tea enclosed in that wrapper. Cultural and linguistic folks along with tea historians deconstruct wrappers over time, and many collectors know facts like when date stamping began, or what CNNP really means in any given year based on the history of this label.

These are large topics requiring books to really get into specifics. I’m interested in the end user, the person with a collection. We are aware of historical and cultural aspects related specifically to the information on the label. Or lack of it, in the case of modern trends of labels as art rather than as indicative of the product inside. Whether or not the wrapper has Chinese characters, or merely a picture or art, we can look at the function of wrapper as descriptive, as part of the tea object.

Wrapper Defines the Tea as Object

To me, this is when the wrapper coalesces with the object of the tea so they function as one. The wrapper is not merely information about the tea, but is a part of the tea. For example, here is a tea where the wrapper and tea-as-an-object function together.

Photo: Grandness China Tea Co. on Aliexpress
Most puerh fans need only see the crane and tuo shape to know this is a Xiaguan tuo. The yellow box tells us it’s the gold ribbon tuo, but the tuo alone with the wrapper tells us what “it” is, the “it” is Xiaguan tuo. The shape and the wrapper image are a singular identity. When I own one of these, I hold in my hand a Xiaguan tuo, wrapper and tea together. And the box if you're savvy.

Some teas are very special to a collector. Maybe the person saved money for a long time to afford their desired puerh tea. Or spent years seeking out a particular production. Finally when the tea arrives, the collector can hold it in their hands and think “It’s mine, I have it now.” The wanting behind the tea eventually is satisfied when holding the cake with the wrapper in hand.

The wrapper is one with the coveted tea. Very quickly, of course, the tea in our possession moves from coveted object to tea object in storage, where the focus changes from looking and touching to smelling and worrying. The object of the tea in the wrapper takes on the object relations of success or failure in storage. We’ve moved from merely having, or owning, to ideas about the progress of the tea. Or we are moving on to drinking the tea and reaching the point where it no longer exists in our collection, it is object of consumption. Once consumed, we begin to form our ideas about the tea. This moves the tea from an object with wrapper to ideas which encompass much, much more.

Wrapper as Narrative and Consensus

To illustrate this point, let’s look at some teas which we can agree have some historical consensus behind them.

Tea Classico's offering of 2012 7542 teaclassico.com
if anyone is still home over there.
This wrapper indicates much more than the design on the paper, and more than an object to hold. The 7542 recipe contains decades of historical consensus among tea drinkers as one of the older puerh teas to reliably age into a decent drinking tea. Historical consensus is the heart of puerh collecting, it is the narrative of all tea drinkers who converge upon certain teas as worthy. Not everyone likes a 7542, and we are still in the relative, subjective nature of taste. Among other factors, certainly the year matters and storage is important, and where the tea comes from, who owns it, what we call provenance in collecting, the whole story behind the particular cake. Nevertheless the 7542 stands as a tea with historical consensus behind it. The wrapper has more meaning because of the consensus.

As a general idea of “good tea,” we look at the 7542 or the Grand Red Mark in a way that a record collector looks at a Sun Records label of a Johnny Cash song. In the book Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the Fate of Things, editor K. Moist makes a point about record labels which I think applies rather well to puerh wrappers too. “Many of these labels’ releases, by their very existence, but also through their creative and detailed presentation, call attention to various (mostly unstated) assumptions that underlie consensus musical history (Moist and Banach 2013, p. 241).” This is what I mean about the label, or wrapper in our case, plus the owned object itself representing the consensus narrative behind it. With puerh, the consensus is stated, as opposed to simply inferred, because many puerh drinkers have opined on the tea.

Historical consensus is truly a fun aspect of owning puerh tea, apart from just buying and collecting. People discuss teas at all stages of development. Sometimes consensus changes as a tea takes on age, and perhaps does not live up to early promise. Or maybe a tea sits around in collections for a long time before rediscovery and the consensus moves the tea into a desirable category.

Blue Mark Lan Yin 1990s by white2tea.
Or was, until a sole person went ahead
and bought up all this very fine tea. Son,
I don't fault you for having the money and
the desire to own this production. But seriously,
how many tongs of this $650 cake do you need?
You couldn't leave just a few for the rest of us
saving pennies in a plastic yellow piggy bank?
Really? No, apparently you had to buy it all.
Oy. If you can't pay the mortgage, you know
who to call to relieve you of one of these.
Consensus isn’t always favorable for a tea, and perhaps the image of the wrapper implies a somewhat negative impression. Going back to the Xiaguan tuo, some people love these tuos, others think “smoky, dirt, wood” and wouldn’t drink one even though the historical consensus is that these tuos age well and taste amazing when fully and properly aged.

Misty Peaks 2016 100g cake--my photo.
Misty Peaks tea is a stark example of a newer puerh tea which has a dual consensus emerging thus far. To some, the tea wrapper which also has a plastic “wax” seal indicates a pleasant single-origin tea of Yiwu-ish sweetness. To others, the marketing of this label represents overstatement or maybe outright fraud because of the “spring tea” claims challenged over the past year. The tea and wrapper represent a dual opinion, a divided opinion. Saying nothing at all about the tea quality, achieving any sort of consensus is the result of much buzz and conversation. On the sole achievement of acquiring any consensus at all, Misty Peaks is relatively successful.

A new trend of puerh wrappers as art, or in the case of white2tea using Drake songs, I notice that the song reference carries little meaning after a time, because drinker consensus about the tea takes over its original identity. I don’t need to know what “Untitled 2” means, even though the cake is based on a song I haven’t heard of and don’t plan to listen to. The tea and the wrapper have an emerging consensus that interests me based on people drinking it and talking about it. I’m encouraged to look at YS 2015 Year of the Goat shou and recognize the wrapper because enough people have mentioned it as a decent ripe for my attention and credit card to give it a try.

What other teas can you think of that have some historical consensus among collectors? Here is another one I’d propose, though the wrapper maybe a tougher one for new puerh drinkers to identify.

Consensus, with only word of mouth provenance.
All this is food for thought for vendors, especially ones who might think about saving money on the wrapper and using a small stamp instead, or a plain white wrapper with nothing on it. So how much do wrapper-less puerh cakes tell us? What do you get from looking at this?

A cake.
Compared to this:

Same cake as above, but with wrapper.
Real or fake, this wrapper has huge narrative behind these photos, online and published in books. To me, this suggests that spending time on a unique wrapper, regardless of what design you choose, is worth the effort at creating the possibility for narrative and consensus. I think people want the pressed tea and the wrapper too because the ownership as an object and the consensus together bring status to a collection, or the feeling of good taste by the owners, of having chosen well.

I suggest that the “rabbit hole” behind buying puerh tea, and trying to stop but you can’t is in large part due to how the object and wrapper function as one identity, symbolic of historical narrative and consensus. Sometimes it’s possible to hate the tea but still need to keep it, to own it even when someone offers you a better price than you paid. You don’t want to let go of a tea that has developed meaning. You might even keep a scrapbook of neifei or save the wrappers of teas you’ve drunk to remind you that you owned it, to tell the story of your personal taste.

All my musings about the wrapper here really stemmed back from the idea of “mainstream puerh,” asking myself what it takes for something like puerh tea to become more popular than it is now. Mainstreaming involves more than simply changing the factory wrappers with characters to fancy art and design. Puerh obtains narrative and identity through consensus, through people talking. Yes, we still need those stereotypical people with apparently nothing better to do except obsess over sessions and post online, or write blogs and books. Talking is fun, so let’s keep sharing and see what happens, which teas shake out of collections as truly remarkable.


Moist, Kevin M., and David C Banash. Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices and the Fate of Things. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 2013.


  1. I agree that it's worth it for vendors to make a unique label for cakes regardless of how "fancy" they make it. Take W2T's White Whale for example, it sold very quickly once word of mouth got going. How much of that came from the fact that it was an identifiable narrative of "the whale" rather than simply another company's early 2000's white label?

  2. I find it immensely comforting, and somehow satisfying, to know that I am not the only person on the planet to carefully keep puer wrappers once their purpose has ceased to be. Can anyone please tell me what I can do with them?
    The most mysterious type of collecting to me is train spotting. I'm not sure if it is a thing in the States, but here some folks spend their lives spotting trains and entering their names into their log books. If that is odd, I had a friend who spotted railway signal boxes- he had personally visited and recorded virtually every railway signal control building in the U.K.
    My theory of collecting is that we have an inate need to be a master of something. Anything will do. In a global world, it has to be something obscure such as signal boxes, or puerh teas. Is that a theory supported by your references?

    1. My references do support that for collecting in general. Since puerh is alive and the care of it is up to us, rather than the railway, I suppose pet hoarding is another reference, where it might be possible to have so much tea that one cannot care for properly.

      I save intact wrappers only and then to reuse. I have hung on to neifei, but with the idea someone else might want them.

  3. I love this idea, "I think people want the pressed tea and the wrapper too because the ownership as an object and the consensus together bring status to a collection, or the feeling of good taste by the owners, of having chosen well" for the way it illuminates one set of connections between materiality, psychology, and sociability. Brava.