Monday, May 6, 2019

Comparing 2017 and 2018 Yunnan Sourcing Impression shengs

I just bought a cake of the Yunnan Sourcing 2018 Impression sheng, and had part of a sample left over from a 2017 version from a Liquid Proust sample set, so I'll try them together.

Per the earlier description of the product series these teas were intended to be something like the 7542 classic Dayi sheng series; a blended tea on the intense side, appropriate for aging, versus what most people would like best right away.  The actual character of the 2017 version didn't remind me of what I've tried of 7542 (although to be honest I only own one cake of that, a 2014 version, last reviewed in 2017 but I've tried it again since, so others' opinions might serve a better reference).  This 2018 product reference clarifies that background:

This year's Impression cake is a blend of tea leaves from Spring and Autumn, originating from Mengku, Bang Dong, and Jing Gu tea gardens. Unlike previous years this is a 400 gram cake (not 357 grams).

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.

In 2012 I created the first impression blend 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!

It crossed my mind that it might be interesting to compare the two side-by-side, Impression and 7542, but with that age difference (related to the version I own) it just wouldn't work.  It also doesn't work to compare sheng that is well-chopped leaves and whole-leaf tea; it's a lot to factor back out as a difference.  It's normal enough to think that more whole leaf is always better, and to an extent that seems right, but in a different sense I think that much more astringent character, from different levels of some compounds being extracted from chopped leaves, may contribute a lot more intensity, and that might well work better in a version that's been sitting for more than a decade. 

I should phrase that as a guess instead:  to some extent the difference in character and intensity may cause aged versions that are the same in other regards but different in that one (how whole the leaves are) to work as well as chopped leaf versions, conceivably even better (although that might seem a stretch), even though in general teas across most types processed that way aren't as good.  This is one more variable I'd have a better guess on in another decade, with an intermediate level of experience versus just getting some basic exposure now.

I say that about the tea (2017 Impression version), that it didn't seem as well-suited to long term aging as it might be, because it was mellow, not that bitter, and not necessarily intense related to astringency, flavor, or other character.  That worked well for me for a blend, for something not presented as a higher-end single-type character; the balance was nice and it was quite approachable, even one year old.  I'm still sorting out how autumn source teas factor into character but including such material may have toned down some of the intensity, but in speculating across what aspect range I'd be going too far.

The versions comparison here is the thing, and I'll surely get around to mentioning how I think a year of age has factored in, and how both might change over coming years.


color difference evident already (2017 left)

2017:  it's not completely opened up yet, on one relatively longer infusion after a short rinse step, but it's pleasant already.  A good, moderate balance of bitterness with plenty of sweetness works well.  Mineral range supports that. 

Someone just pointed out that I tend to include mineral description in most sheng, but that they're not noticing it as pronounced in many versions.  To me mineral is part of the standard sheng profile, like considering degree of bitterness or sweetness, or to what extent floral range plays a role, or doesn't.  The flavor complexity is nice in this tea, and the feel works well, and overall balance.  Even the aftertaste isn't bad, moderately long for a tea just getting started.  I want to go ahead and describe the taste since I still tend to focus on that but it seems as well to wait a round to instead.

2018:  on the similar side; that works, given how nice the 2017 version was and the series context.  There's a pronounced wood-tone / pine flavor range that comes across in both, the main part of the flavor aspect.  2017's seems a little richer, milder, and slightly less bitter, but age alone could account for that.  Given this is a blend I'd expect them to vary, that putting together a very similar tea two years in a row wouldn't work out, even using the same exact inputs, since weather and harvest conditions are one of many main inputs to final outcome, but it's a little early for general conclusions.

Second infusion

2017:  more of the same, woody and piney, with decent intensity, sweetness, and bitterness working along with that.  As weaknesses go it's all a bit non-distinct; those aspect ranges give it complexity and balance in a sense but it's all a bit more vague than a single-source tea might be.  On the other hand there's a part to feel and flavor aspects that seem to relate to each other, on the flavor side that pine note, which seem to connect and stand out.  Aftertaste isn't missing but it's not notable; I never do get around to saying much about that range here because of that.

Based only what I'm experiencing so far I'm not sure when this tea would peak, at what point in aging it might be best, but this could be it.  Another year in hot and steamy Bangkok storage conditions will age it fast, and initial brightness, intensity, and some flavor range will become more subdued.  It's not as if the bitterness and astringency need time to fade; it's fine as it is as those go.

2018:  if you project back to a guess at where the 2017 started a year earlier you'd be pretty close to this tea.  They're very similar, it's just a bit more intense, with a bit more brightness, lacking a little smoothness and depth, but not much.  It's so close in character that minor changes in initial fermentation over a year could account for all the difference.  The feel is a little drier, which goes along with this version including a good bit more pine flavor, the same flavor present in the other version but stronger.

Third infusion

lots of color difference with leaves wetted (2017 left)

2017:  there's a catchy aspect to the feel and flavor profile I've not done justice too yet.  On the feel side it never works all that well to describe those; if I say it feels juicy, sappy, resinous, or oily that would mean something clear to me but others would probably use different concepts, or use the same ones in different ways.  "Thick" is a bit vague since feel varies in so many ways. 

On the flavor side there is some green wood, more cured wood, and pine tone, and mineral, but what I'm talking about now is something else.  People tend to jump ahead and just match it to the closest fruit, since a catchy aspect that's somewhat paired with sweetness is halfway there, even if it maybe hasn't really covered the second half.  I think in this case that works; it's around the range of dried pear, warm and rich, soft and a bit subtle, but with depth to it.

I probably should have bought a cake of this when it was still available (it's sold out now).  As for alternative interpretations since "floral" is even more of a default it would be possible to interpret a vague, secondary fruit aspect as towards that.  Or one might interpret mineral input as covering some of the range I'm calling pine here; it's as much a feel paired with an unusual flavor as just a taste, and there is other mineral to pick up as well.

2018:  this flavor is warming as well.  I'm working with two slightly different proportions in these samples, which is going to throw off any direct comparison, related to not having as much as usually use left over from the 2017 version sample.  The year of age difference already did that, threw off a truly direct comparison of versions, but I mean comparing including that as a factor.  Very minor differences in infusion strength, brought about by proportion and timing differences, shift the character, in ways one learns to expect and appreciate as related to that.  To help flesh that out I'll do a flash infusion next round, trying both very light, describing how that changes things.  This is sticking more to pine range as flavor goes, but again I think it will cause that to become less noticeable doing that next fast infusion, and shift the feel.

These two teas might well be best after 2 or 3 years of aging (or where the 2017 version is now), versus right away, or storing them for over a decade.  Time will tell for this one, since I just bought a cake, since I'll keep part around for that purpose of experimenting.  One of many sheng truisms comes to mind related to that, that "a cake is a sample," which I think is from "Marshal N" of Tea Addict's Journal, the pen name attribution for one of them most classic tea blog authors.  The idea is that to really explore a tea a cake isn't enough to work with, since you can't both drink it many times and leave it to age, and then experience it at different ages.  That kind of works.  I see what I'm doing as sampling as much as drinking these teas I'm now buying for daily drinking stock, or for truly holding any significant quantity for long term collecting and later drinking.

I'd like to get to that, to keeping a dozen or so tongs around for later consumption, but I haven't yet.  My daughter is 5 now; if she takes up drinking a lot more tea at 18 then 13 years is a decent time-frame for aging sheng.  It would still be a decade away from what a lot of people would consider fully aged, even here in this heat and humidity, but it would be a nice place to drink teas regularly to keep tabs on that later transition cycle.

Fourth infusion

2017:  it's actually a little light for being brewed as a flash infusion this round (a long version of one; brewing two teas at once slows things), but that kind of was the point.  Feel thins down to a range that doesn't work but the flavor is still positive.  Really checking on the other tea was more a concern, seeing if that different flavor and feel range moved closer to where this one had been over the last couple of rounds.

2018:  pine flavor is just as intense (it really stands out) and feel is much softer, although you can still tell it's completely different than the other version, drier as opposed to just having a different form of thickness in the 2017 version.  The dryness works better lighter like this but the relative proportion of it didn't change; I don't notice as less prominent (versus me saying that's what would happen).  This could be a bit of a special case because it's not as if a number of aspects stand out and I could shift the proportion of what I notice by varying infusion strength; this tea version is all about that pine and dryness, it's what you experience.

Fifth infusion

2017, 2018:  more of the same really.  It's interesting how similar these are, except for that difference in one pine aspect and feel that I keep going on about.  The 2017 seems slightly sweeter, with just a little more flavor complexity, across a broader range.

Back to that idea of interpretations running towards what one expects, or tends to notice, that reminds me of a recent exchange in a FB post thread comments.  I'm noticing pine because a sheng recently tasted so much like pine that I couldn't miss it, but before that I easily could've written a similar aspect off as other types of wood tones.  Another blogger mentioned tasting cherry in a lot of teas at one point (probably in reviewing black teas instead), to the extent that he was taking it back out of notes for final edited and posted versions of reviews.  Tea tastings tend to be interpretations, and what reviewers notice tied to expectations is probably as significant as any skill in objectively reporting experienced aspects.

Sixth infusion

The 2017 tea is probably better than it had been earlier in the cycle, but not so different.  Holding up well across infusions and even transitioning in interesting and positive ways can be seen as a marker for tea quality, but to some degree teas just vary by aspects, including that.  I'd see extended length of aftertaste, pronounced mineral base, and bitterness transitioning to sweetness as clearer quality markers for sheng.

The 2018 version might be thinning a little, but softening works well for evening out the balance.  That hint of dryness is really a version of astringency, not an unpleasant version of it but not necessarily positive either.  These teas have rounds more to go but I'll brew a slightly longer infusion, more like 15 seconds, and leave off with final thoughts on that.  These teas aren't transitioning so much in character there's a lot of story to be told there but how well a tea holds up through a full infusion cycle does indicate something about it.

Seventh infusion

Again the sweetness and that one catchy flavor aspect in the 2017 version stands out.  In an earlier review of multiple teas from a Liquid Proust set I interpreted that as citrus; that works.  It would be closest to dried orange peel as those go, maybe even tangerine peel.

The pronounced pine in this 2018 version is diversifying, warming and changing, maybe as close to spice tones now.  Citrus would be a stretch for interpreting that but if one was so inclined it would be closer to a red version of grapefruit, or that fruit combined with the dried peel of that same fruit instead.


Both are nice; I liked both.  The 2017 seemed a little better, and I can't be sure but at a guess the extra year of aging did improve it.  Both are pleasant, mild, and drinkable now, and it would depend on preference for aspects and character how much someone like them.  Blends tend to be a bit more non-distinct but these aren't bad as that trade-off goes; single-types tend to allow specific aspects to come across clearer, but these still have their own interesting character, and don't seem too averaged-out. 

As value goes the tea works really well; I paid $28 for a 400 gram cake of the 2018 version.  Unlike with the random inexpensive Chinese tea market cakes I've just bought this version was tested for pesticides residues, with details referenced in that product write-up.

If the 2018 version swaps out some astringency (dryness in feel, in this case) and what I've interpreted as pine flavor for warmer and deeper flavors, and a slightly less dry texture, it will improve.  I don't see both as bitter, astringent, and generally intense enough to be good candidates for aging into really exceptional tea in another decade, but to be honest I'm guessing about that.  And the aged sheng versions that I've tried that did seem to lose a lot of intensity, to really flatten out and fade as much as just transition, others may have liked more than I did. 

It's not as if more is necessarily better when it comes to those aspects being present, since a couple of the aged sheng I've been trying recently include plenty of intensity but also a good bit of "dirt" flavor aspect (or geosmin, to put that more positively, with more on what that really means here).  A little dirt flavor can balance well enough, to me, just as a touch of tar or petroleum in a shu can be fine, or char in a roasted oolong.  It just doesn't take much of any of those to throw off the balance and positive effect, to me. 

I've been wondering if some of that present in one of those aged sheng (which I've not mentioned in a review, but will) might not relate to rapid aging, to being pushed to transition faster in a more-humid environment to be sold as an older tea than it really is.  A Chinatown-purchased version I did write about improved a lot over the course of months due to some of that fading relatively quickly, which may be the case related to that other tea version I bought in China instead.

Since I can't really pass on a well-informed guess about what this 2018 version's character and flavor profile will be like in 10 years I'll have to only drink a little here and there to observe the progression and then wait and see.

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