During the first wave of the puerh boom in the early 2000s many inexperienced and naïve Chinese buyers came on to the scene. The Chinese people were attracted by the national euphoria that surrounded puerh tea. Puerh was widely promoted as a national heritage and often presented with connotations as being the best Chinese tea. Many people who had previously no interest in puerh tea became caught up in the hype and bought blindly. There was such little knowledge on the part of buyers that dishonest merchants could blatantly pass off a newly produced ripe puerh tea as a precious 30 year old aged raw tea. This simple scam worked amazingly well for a number of years such was the lack of knowledge amongst new buyers during those early years.
Over time consumers became more educated and the new ripe/aged raw scandal was phased out. New scams had to be more refined and less obvious. Now it takes a certain level of knowledge and experience to pick them out. To avoid easy detection the age of both dry and wet stored teas are inflated to a much lesser degree. However in certain instances substantial increases in profits of 20% to 100% can still be generated by increments of just 3 to 5 years to a teacake being sold.
Gauging the age of a wet stored teacake is tricky unless the person has experience and knowledge on this category of tea. The above teacake was sold as a mid 1990s raw tea and appears aged both in the appearance of the tea and the brew. Furthermore the taste exhibits a level of smoothness and mellowness that can be associated with an aged tea. Unfortunately this teacake is not a 1990s tea and more likely around the vicinity of 2005. This teacake also represents the type of tea that should not have been wet stored. My impression is there was little strength and potency in the leaves to begin with and wet storage rendered it impotent. The brew tastes hollow, providing very little in return.
Since age determines value the big money is earned when a tea merchant can inflate the age of a tea by over 10 years and this is where wet storage comes into play. In comparison with dry storage, wet storage can more drastically alter the characteristics of a teacake by transitioning a relatively young tea to appear more aged within a much shorter period of time. Furthermore many tea consumers have yet to fully understand a raw teacake's transition under wet storage. This lack of understanding has opened the door for dishonest merchants to ply their trade.
It is important to bear in mind that buying a tea that does not represent its real age does not necessary mean that this is a bad tea (in terms of quality and brand authentication) nor is wet storage an illegal technique that needs to be outlawed. Wet storage has been in use for multiple decades and became popular during a long period when Menghai Tea Factory would regularly produce raw teacakes that were brutal in character. Wet storage was used to tame the brutal characteristics of these teacakes and make them more approachable to drink within a relatively short period of time. Many of these Menghai teacakes have become classic vintages over time and we now refer to them as the Seven Son Teacakes.
There are no easy answers or shortcuts for those seeking to understand wet storage and to be able to effectively gauge the true age of a wet stored tea. My advice for those with the desire and commitment to do so is to seek a collection of samples from different sources that are reliable and to conduct side by side brewing of teas under different criteria (ex. level of wet storage, age of tea) that allows you to highlight the differences from each tea. This will build up and widen your point of references as well as familiarize your senses to the various forms and characteristics for this category of puerh tea. It is this experience and mental record from many reference points that will allow you to understand and better assess teas that have undergone wet storage.