The Packaging Of Pu’er


From an NPR article titled “Why Pu'er, A Complex Tea, Draws Rapt Fans And Big Dollars”:

Those physical cakes can become "objects you can kind of fetishize, with fancy wrappers," Falkowitz maintains, unlike loose tea sold by weight. He compares peeling your cake of pu'er off its stack to "retrieving a rare wine from the cellar for a fancy dinner." 

After reading the article, this was the sentence that stuck with me. I barely remember the rest. Now that I’ve begun to sell tea, I can’t stop thinking about it.

Another article titled “Tea Cakes Are The New Sneaker Drops” reads:

This, too, is of course nothing new—tea cakes have long been a platform for beautiful art and calligraphy. But in 2019 the artistic milieu, as interpreted by a new generation of tea lovers, draws from a global field of influence and inspiration, interpolating the form in wild and vivid colorways. The end result looks every bit as much like something you might find in a hypebeast sneaker shop as you would in a tea bar.

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a few months. Packaging and marketing can be divisive topics in the western pu’er community. I was scared that my opinion would be seen as critical of some common practices. That is not my intention, but I am also okay with that.

The way I think about pu’er wrappers is no different than the way I think about packaging for any other product. I want to see the product and I want to understand the value of that product. I don’t want to see a shiny box and I don’t care about whatever nonsense they wrote on it.

This is why I like shopping at farmers markets and buying in bulk. I’m buying a product, not a box.

Of course, a lot of relevant information is lost without some sort of context. The ingredients, the supply chain, the function, the reviews - these are the context.

This context must be conveyed to the consumer somehow. This is the vegetable farmer speaking to me, the website showing me user reviews, the photos on the box in a supermarket. This is the packaging.

This packaging exists to serve the product. Not to manipulate with misleading imagery, or convince with fancy language - but to inform. I do not buy the product for the packaging. I buy the product for that product.

The packaging serves the product.

Pu’er cake wrappers are often the canvases for beautiful illustrations and designs. So beautiful, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for people to buy a cake of pu’er tea after having only seen the wrapper. They don’t know much about the tea, but they love the wrapper.

The wrappers are beautiful, sure. And if the wrapper was designed by the person pan-frying the tea, I’d be more inclined to see the wrapper and the tea as part of the same work of art. But that isn’t the case - the tea and the wrapper are usually made hundreds of miles apart, completely disconnected from each other. They are two unrelated works of art, smashed together by the producer.

So the question is: why not buy the wrapper separately from the tea? Surely I’ll get a better value on both.