Today I decided to step several inches out of my comfort zone. I drank young sheng all day, in the hope that my risk might produce some reward in the form of education. I have quite a few things to unpack here, so I’ll get right to it. Get some popcorn (or tea) and a few bricks to throw just in case you find something below too boorish.
Yunnan Sourcing’s impression cakes are a marketing wet-dream for young, inexperienced, pu’er enthusiasts such as myself . The impressions cakes are created
…to be an alternative to a Xiaguan or Da Yi 7542, but it has far surpassed those mass market teas in both quality and value! I also feel strongly that this tea being very strong in aroma, mouthfeel, bitter/astringent, infusability and Cha Qi, makes it a good choice for long-term aging!
The tea has been grown naturally and processed in the traditional method. We blended various teas together to achieve a powerful blend that has strong mouth feeling, cha qi and a balanced sweet, bitter and astringent profile
My initial thoughts were mixed.
The instant appeal to me was the emphasis Scott placed on his choice of material for aging. Qi, aroma, and mouthfeel being at a balance he finds to be ideal characteristics for the tea to age. The process of selecting freshly processed maocha and determining how to find qualities of a good “down the road” pu’er is something that has always intrigued me. Interestingly, the point he makes here is parallel to what one Taiwanese boutique teahouse, a few Mainland and Taiwanese bloggers, and t4u/puercn posts described when addressing maocha selection for decent aging. A balance of nature (origin and environment) and nurture (processing) providing strong inherent qualities in a tea. The final point that attracted me to this cake was the fact that it is a blend. I am attracted to the idea of blends for several reasons, some sillier than others. Blending reminds me of a time in pu’er that admittedly in my own head has been romanticized and hardly explored.
Before the widespread popularity around the turn of the millennium, blends were king. A well-crafted blend can create a balanced and complex profile. That said, blending as far as my limited understanding of it goes, is no easy feat. Producers of the past had very famous figures with impressive notches in their belts coming forward to create the legendary cakes of lore. Sometimes, just knowing who had oversight on a cake’s production could be all you needed to decide whether you’d want it or not. Today, with many smaller producers taking their crack at creating quality pu’er, the game is different. Single origin cakes have become much more of a mainstay in the modern market. Few can enjoy the benefits of having the massive reach and power of Menghai Tea Factory. The ability for factories like MTF or XG to essentially have access to materials of any region to create their products provided unlimited opportunity for those with a knack for blending. That said, as quality took a backseat to quantity following the factory reforms of the early-mid 2000s – and an exodus of many experienced workers – to what extent can Menghai Tea Factory still reliably produce cakes that live up to the name decades of experience had earned them? Hang in there, I’m still talking about impressions…
With all of this history, variation, and debate over whether current Dayi/Xiaguan tea is even similar to what it used to be, how can I know to expect from a cake that is trying to offer an alternative to Xiaguan (no specific recipe named) and Dayi 7542? The whole of XG is huge…and the 7542 has changed so much over the years – pre and post-reform, popular vintages, and too many other factors to consider…are we aiming to replace a 2017 7542, a red ribbon red mark, or a freakin 88 Qing Bing?
I realize at this point I am thinking much too hard about how this tea is being displayed. Broken down simply, this tea is an affordable blend created with the intention of being like factory tea, but (not my words but it is important to include as this is the pitch) of higher quality. The Impression cake isn’t advertised as goosh and comes from “tea gardens” of areas of Lincang and Simao. Whether that means plantations left to grow wild, or younger arbor material, I surely don’t know. Again, all I know is that I am putting much too much thought into this tea.
I, like others in our fine little community, enjoy thinking about tea.
I enjoy learning history, listening to stories, exploring different practices and ideologies, and discussing tea – But when all is said and done, what I enjoy the very most is drinking tea. Dropping a section from one of my favorite t4u posts of all time:
茶是用喝的 ,聞看摸是喝茶額外的享受. Tea is for drinking – smell, looks, and touch are all additional points to enjoy.
以眼就茶 Using eyes to approach tea
以鼻就茶 Using your nose to approach tea
以口就茶 Using your mouth to approach tea
以耳就茶 Using your ears to approach tea
以感覺就茶 Using your “feelings” to approach tea
我會選以口就茶 I would choose to use my mouth to drink tea.
In thinking so damn hard about this tea, I basically committed half of these “sins” before I ever even laid hands on the tea itself. I approached it with my feelings, my eyes, and ears. Based on what I’d heard, seen, and felt about the tea, I had myself already trying to experience it.
My initial reasons for purchasing this tea admittedly all came from points external to the taste of the tea. As a guy who hardly ever drinks young sheng, based on taste alone, there would be no reason for me to buy this tea on taste alone. Alas, I am unable to escape the influences of my thoughts, hopes, and curiosities. In 2018, a cake like this seems like a refreshing break from the trend of $200 plus productions that seem to be popping up everywhere from Western and Eastern houses alike. I am a strong believer that you get what you pay for…but considering what the prices of the market’s “benchmark” cakes start out at, who’s to say these cakes don’t deserve a chance? Speaking of bargains, and relative price, do check out this recently written TeaDB post. It is a topic quite relevant to conversations I’ve been having with Alex, James, and other tea friends lately. It hits on a great many points I very much agree with, and if it’s something you’ve never self-reflected on before, this is a great piece to read to start doing so.
Moving right along here, before the tea is judged on the merits of taste alone, let’s look at the “pros” of Impressions based on information:
- $23 (2017) and $30 (2015) USD (as of 2018/11/18) Using “less popular” regions to avoid paying premiums for maocha. A decent “quality” material with an affordable price tag is much easier to find in these areas. With 2018 prices starting so high for some popular productions, the sky is the limit for how much they could cost in 10+ years. This puts an incredible burden on the consumer. The trouble of storage and end result is 100% in the hands of the buyer when buying young. I would personally rather fuck up a $23 cake than some $400+ production and instead purchase the reliably aged successes of others. Maybe someday I’ll regret never picking up that crazy cake when it was still “new and affordable”, but my wallet will thank me in the meantime (and leave me $400 to spend on products that have already aged!)
- Traditionally Processed: Unlike some modern factory productions this tea has been hand-picked (vs machine), wok-fried (not heat tumbled) hand-rolled (vs machine), sun-dried (vs heated air dried) and stone pressed (vs machine). Although this pretty much the standard for most boutique stuff, we are pitting this guy against modern factory products.
- Lab tested for pesticides, falling within EU MRL limits. I care much less about this point personally, but for many, it is a positive selling point, and certainly worth mentioning.
and a quick list of “cons”:
- While this cake is meant to provide an “optimized” version of factory cakes, at the end of the day it is not one. Prices of this item as it ages will be largely determined by the vendor. Like many smaller batch teas, there is not a wide enough market, nor is it a well-known production in terms of the larger pu’er market to have competitively established prices. A dayi 7542 will sell for similar prices almost everywhere. 100% irrelevant to taste, there is concrete value to “investing” a 7542 cake. The market is extremely competitive and consumers can quickly check prices from multiple sources to ensure they don’t overpay. Because of the scale of how much 7542 is produced, more people have it, and price changes are much more frequently noted.
- Claims of ageability can’t be confirmed yet. Such is the way of pu’er tea. While modern Dayi absolutely receives its fair share of criticism, they do benefit from decades of massively popular teas, and veteran workers. 7542 is well known and still heavily regarded for a reason. Modern examples (thinking of you again, 901-7542) are still being hoarded and praised for their taste.
- Lincang teas (though this is a blend of Lincang and Simao) have less of a “famed” history attributed to products from the region. Xiaguan has some notable blends from the Yinji era forward, but as far as pu’er history is concerned, blends of these regions lack the historical depth of Menghai county and especially Yiwu tea regions dating much farther back (late Qing/Haoji era). There ain’t no six famous tea mountains up in these here hills.
These were the primary thoughts running through my head at the time of considering these teas. They certainly aren’t perfect, but I’ll let them serve as a time capsule for now.
Finally, let us discuss taste.
I own both the 2015 and 2017 Impression cakes. I drank the 2017 in the early afternoon and the 2015 after work. I figured that while each year will be different than the next, their “missions” are the same, and like any “line” of pu’er, it is inevitable that regular folks like me are going to stack them side by side. I also wanted to try the 2015 cake after it had taken a few years to shake off a larger portion of “green” cakes will have once first produced (退青). This may help tell more about the characteristics the tea may gain or lose as it continues to age, while not being masked by the immediate freshness of recent completion. Additionally, there is value in being able to taste teas when they are young, in order to better fully understand their transformation into mature teas. The unfortunate reality is that I have tasted 0 of the semi-aged teas I enjoy today when they were young. I have no way of knowing what those tasted like completely new, and can only build that understanding starting now. I figure it will take years and years to slowly build even a limited understanding of these factors.
6.7g/100ml Gaiwan (Water just off boil)
Wet leaf is sweet, with a crisp/sharp almost corn-like sappy fragrance I attribute to many young shengs. Colour isn’t overly green. Moderate bruising. Seems to be a mix of some smaller leaves and very large leaves. Leaves aren’t overly thin. They are elastic when pulled, not smashing apart. No evident burns or singes on the leaf from the wok.
Early Steeps – Very bitter brew. Bitterness is absolutely the primary note in this tea as I brew it. It is a green bitterness, reminiscent of freshly crushed green leaves. No floral fragrances to be detected. Sweetness is slow to return from the throat. Very expansive on the tongue and through the cheeks. Feels fairly viscous.
Mid Steeps – Qi is now noticeable. I understand qi is extremely subjective, so this portion may be less instructive for others, but I am keeping it in as it was an advertised point. A modestly energetic feeling, primarily in the head and upper body following classic pu burps. Reenergizing without being overly irritating. The fragrance of the tea is still relatively subtle. The aftertaste for this tea seems to come late, and creep in slowly. Extremely subtle lingering honey and slight pluminess.
Late steeps – Sweeter and smoother now. Bitterness still a highlight, but aftertaste is more noticeable. From mouth to throat, the entire cup is notably sweeter in return. more astringency has set in, and the tea is less expansive but retires gracefully.
I gave this tea 12 steeps total before quitting.
6.7g/100ml Gaiwan (Water just off boil)
Wet leaf is unmistakeably plummy. More mellow honey-like notes than the 2017. I don’t mean for this to mislead anyone into thinking it has matured vastly over the two extra years of life on it. Comparatively speaking, some of the crisp greenness has vanished. As for appearance, the leaf is very similar to the 2017 with two main differences. Within this isolated session comparing the two, the 2015 had more consistently smaller leaf, and less bruising. Neither of these things is of too much concern to me. Leaf will bruise on its journey, and variance from session to session means I’ll need to see if leaf size is consistently smaller in future sessions. The leaf looks comparable from the compressed cakes, though that also is less reliable than checking the wet leaf.
Early Steeps – Much like the 2017 this tea is primarily bitter. There is less sharp vegetal crispness. Aftertaste in the early steeps is much more obvious than the 2017. Very clear plummy aftertaste. Similarly expansive within the mouth to the 2017 but with a slightly deeper/weightier feel to the body of the tea. Unsure if this is attributed to more time to shake greenness/tui qing (退青) or material variation.
Mid Steeps – Qi was similar to the 2017. Not entirely the same, but a similar process, and energetic feeling without too much irritation. Overall it felt more drawn out, and had a longer peak, but again this is subjective, so please take this all with a grain of salt in your consideration. Still very plummy in aftertaste, with more apparent honey fragrance and faint floral scent in the sinuses.
Late steeps – Longer lasting aftertaste than the 2017. I don’t know if this is because of transformed tastes, or variation between material. Only time will tell. Late steeps provide more plum as the tea weakens and smooths out.
This tea also ran 12 steeps before I decided to quit.
If the 2017 version of Impression follows the trend of the 2015 in two years, it will be in a much better place. I do believe it still needs several years to completely remove the initial greenness from still recent processing. The 2015 feels very close to breaking through that threshold. While young teas always carry notes that I would characterize as “immature” qualities, younger teas (say 5-10 years) have generally already shaken the intense greenness of fresh teas (let’s say 1-3 years in). These notes could also be in part due to the material used. 2017 Impression uses Bang Dong (Lincang), Mengku (Lincang) and Jinggu (Simao) material, and the 2015 uses what I assume would be similar regions – listed as Lincang and Jinggu material – which could explain some of this harsher greenness. It seems to be generally accepted pu’er knowledge around the Western internet that Lincang teas are known to present very green and vegetal when young.
If I were to compare the taste of these teas to a factory production, it would have to be a young, modern 7542. I did not find the taste relatable to any experiences I have had with Xiaguan teas. The 2015 can probably be somewhat compared to a 1701-7542. This is probably largely due to the fact that the Dayi production uses material from multiple years, giving a more rounded/less hyper green taste immediately. The pluminess from the 2015 is reminiscent of the 7542, but the Huigan of the 7542 is much more immediate and intense. The Impression cake also lacks the perfume of the 7542, but I believe makes up for some of that in mouthfeel. The body and mouthfeel of the Impression cake seem just a bit more expansive and lubricating than the 7542, but with less boldness and pungency. I realize it seems almost crazy to actually try to compare the two. It might be best to do side by side, but the characteristics of the tea are so different from one another.
I suspect much of the “vibrancy” of the 7542 comes not only from its blend but its selection of spring material. I think some of the intense liveliness that the 7542 boasts is sacrificed in the Impression – potentially related to its blend of autumn and spring material – in favor of a more rounded qi (less jittery or intense than the 7542) and more subtlety to the mouthfeel. Overall, in terms of taste, a tea like Impression and 1701-7542 really just aren’t all that similar, despite my attempts to draw comparable points. In my mind, they have very different processing, material, and presentation. That said, the 7542 formula and its perceived “potential” or “future” were probably some of the leading influences in the creation of the Impression line.
Finally, I will not rate nor recommend these teas. While the process above was educational for me, and maybe interesting to you, I would still suggest putting it all aside if you wanted to consider this tea. Taste it and decide for yourself. Knowledge helps inform “smarter” decisions as a consumer, but trust your own taste as a primary factor to any choice. This post was more an insight into my approach of this tea. For a drinker that enjoys aged tea, I would still say your money is best spent purchasing semi-aged teas, as the risk that they are “flops” is probably greatly reduced at this point, as are questions of ageability. If you are determined to age your own pu’er, or wishe to have something to compare to factory cakes as things age within your own storage, the Impression cake is certainly not the worst investment you could make these days.