The vendor profile for Yunnan Sourcing is a part of our Pu’erh Tea Vendor Series, covering a number of Pu’erh-centric vendors that sell to the west.
Based in both Kunming and Portland, Yunnan Sourcing is one of the longest standing pu’erh vendors in the international online marketplace. The store was founded by Scott Wilson, an American expatriate based in Kunming and was originally conceived as an ebay vendor (in 2004). As the pu’erh tea market has grown in the west and worldwide, Yunnan Sourcing has grown and evolved with it. The ebay store eventually migrated onto its own domain(s), YunnanSourcing.com and eventually YunnanSourcing.us. In 2009, Scott began to source and press the well-received Yunnan Sourcing production cakes, these beengs have become a major selling point on Yunnan Sourcing’s online store.
Shopping at Yunnan Sourcing feels a bit like shopping at a huge tea market itself. The selection is immense, with cheap daily drinkers and more premium old arbor tea. Despite the selection being Yunnan/pu’erh-centric, Yunnan Sourcing also offers solid, well-priced options for mainland oolongs, black, white and green teas. This type of selection would be impossible to do sufficiently well for a company not based in China and also highlights one of Yunnan Sourcing’s advantages, being based extremely close to the source in a major tea market. Perhaps as a result, Yunnan Sourcing’s prices have remained very reasonable, even as parts of the pu’erh market have become increasingly unreasonable.
- Scott Wilson [YS Owner/Founder] Interview 2009
- TeaDB Pu’erh Reviews [YS Tag]
- Half-Dipper Pu’erh Reviews [Many YS Reviews listed under Yunzhiyuan]
- T Pu’erh Reviews [Many YS Reviews]
- Teachat Reviews, Vendor Thread
- Steepster Reviews
ABOUT YUNNAN SOURCING
How did you get your start as a vendor?
I went to Yunnan first in 1998 and stayed there for several months. I lived in a dorm at the Kunhu Fandian in Kunming. 10 RMB a night ($1.63 by today’s exchange rates) and as it turned out it was about two blocks from the Tea and Candy wholesale market. There was an older Japanese gentleman who was staying in the same dorm room as me and he spoke fluent English and Chinese. He also was interested in tea. We used to go to the market, drink and buy pu’erh, green and black teas. The first pu’erh I ever bought was a bag of Xiaguan Jia Ji raw tuo. My Japanese friend was able to translate and teach me a bit about pu’erh.
After Yunnan, I headed to Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and then a year plus in Sumatra. In 2000 I was back in the USA. By 2004 I had gotten bored with life in the US and made good on my dreams to return to Yunnan. After arriving in Kunming I got a bike and rode all over town until I happened upon the Jin Shi Wholesale tea market. It was huge… much bigger than the old Candy and Tea wholesale market I visited in 1998! I knew after a few trips to the market I was hooked. I was there everyday drinking tea and improving my Chinese. You could say my tuition fees were some crappy pu’erhs that I ended up with. I met alot of dishonest sellers, but also met some sellers that I still work with to this day!
One of the coolest things that Yunnan Sourcing has done in the last year (Autumn 2013) is the testing of the YS brand for pesticides under the EU MRL guidelines. Do you believe that pesticides are a major problem with the pu’erh scene?
Overall pesticides in high quality wild arbor and old arbor pu’erhs is not a major problem, but you never know. I have tested more than 100 pu’erhs for my own brand and for customers and more than 90% came back without any pesticide residue, 6% came back with some and 4% came back with a pesticide content in excess of EU MRL.
Typically large factory pu’erhs have at least some pesticide residue, but most are within EU limits. I think this is due to the large production size. Teas from literally hundreds of different growers are blended together and pressed, so even if 90% of the farmers didn’t use pesticides or did use them properly, the other 10% did use them or used them excessively this can cause the whole production to have some level of pesticides.
For our own productions which typically come from one or two different families this is almost never a problem. We know them and tell them that if pesticides are used we can no longer sell their tea in the future.
The testing adds a little bit to the cost of the tea but it allows us to monitor the purity of the teas, alerts us to any problems, and provides feedback to our growers. We hope to gradually expand testing to other tea brands and loose teas to further promote good agricultural practices and health.
ON SOURCING TEA
Editor’s Note: Yunnan Sourcing cakes were first created in 2009, with a smaller, more-limited run done partly in partnership with a Korean company, Rui Cao Xiang. The Yunnan Sourcing brand now produces 30+ pu’erhs yearly, including spring and autumn harvest, single-origin, blends, and a few ripe pu’erh cakes. The areas sourced from vary significantly, but Yunnan Sourcing has become comparatively more specialized in the northern pu’erh regions, i.e. Lincang, Wu Liang, etc. (covered in more depth below).
20 years ago, people never really consumed young raw pu’erh. Now there’s an increasing demand for raw pu’erh to be consumed immediately. Some people seem to want drink-now pu’erh, while others are more focused on a pu’erh’s aging potential (many also want both!). When you are sourcing mao cha and pressing pu’erh, how do you balance these two desires? Do some of your cakes cater towards one end of the spectrum vs. the other?
Yes. As the popularity for pu’erh has grown the aged teas have all been sucked out of the market, so naturally people started drinking the less aged teas. I think this is OK, but it’s not for everyone. I personally enjoy drinking very strong young raw teas. Even a few sessions with young Lao Ban Zhang, or Bing Dao tea are OK for me. For other people drinking these young teas (that are excellent aging candidates) can make them feel dizzy or uncomfortable. Most of the raw pu’erh we produce under the YS label are for longer term aging. I have always said that aged pu’erh is not the pinnacle of tea drinking, but rather the aging of pu’erh. Focusing on the experience of the tea as it ages can be a very rewarding experience.
I have confidence that a Lincang Old Tree cake processed in the traditional manner and free of pesticides will be a better cup in the future than a mass produced 7542 cake. But of course there will always be some people who prefer the latter. That’s OK, because people’s enjoyment of tea is very subjective.
Of course there are also a few teas we produce not meant for long term aging, like our Silver Needle (sun dried buds) cake, but even that might be a great cup in 20 years.
What characteristics in young raw pu’erh do you believe will age well?
A strong and pleasant aroma, thick round taste that fills you up, good balance of bitter and astringent but with a nice sweet after-taste that doesn’t dry the mouth. Good cha qi. A (good) feeling of the tea in the mouth, throat and body that stays with the drinker long after the session has ended. Tea should be processed traditionally without excessive burnt taste or excessive small black flecks of burnt tea that show up in the strainer or cha hai. Tea soup should be yellow-golden in color and viscous. As mao cha the tea should be infusable and interesting to drink for atleast 8 infusions. Teas that only make it 6 or 7 infusions are lacking and should not be considered for long term aging.
There is some disagreement surrounding how well areas north of Xishuangbanna will age. These areas have become a bit of a regional specialty for Yunnan Sourcing. Hobbes in particular has written very positively on the Yunnan Sourcing productions in these northern regions (see Hobbes review on several Northern YS Cakes). What are your opinions on the aging potential of Lincang/Wu Liang teas? Do you recommend these cakes to those looking for long-term age tea?
In the last few years there has been a movement (or rather a smear campaign) against Lincang teas, saying that Lincang teas will never age well and only Xishunagbanna (aka Banna) teas (Bu Lang, Nan Nuo, Yi Wu) will age well. Those of us who deal in teas (and drink teas) from Lincang and Banna know that they are each unique and both taste and feel good. Aged teas from Banna and Lincang taste different too, but I would not say I prefer one to the other.
It’s obvious to me that all these different pu’erh producing factions in China are battling it out with each other for control of “what’s good” and they have a vested interest in doing so. Most pu’erh dealers in China are specialized in one specific area and their teas are either wetter or drier storage. If they can convince people that “wet stored Banna tea” is the best and that’s their thing, then they get money and customers.
Hai Lang (a pu’erh producer/brand) asked me once… “are you still buying Lincang teas?” He only deals in Menghai and Yi Wu teas. Another friend “Mr. Whiskers” who deals only in Mengku teas laughed when I told him what Hai Lang said and then he brewed some 2005 Mengku old tree and it was every bit a enjoyable as Hai Lang’s 2005 Yi Wu. A few days later I went back to visit Mr. Whiskers and brought a cake of Yong De tea I produced. He was skeptical and said “Yong De teas are ok, but none are great”.
ON ORDERING FROM YUNNAN SOURCING + STORAGE
One of the most challenging things for those shopping at Yunnan Sourcing is picking out tea, due to the huge selection! If someone had $80 to spend (excluding shipping) on their first pu’erh order from Yunnan Sourcing. What recommendations would you give them?
Order a bunch of samples. We offer 25 gram samples for literally hundreds of different pu’erhs so you can try before you buy. Try some Yunnan Sourcing brand pu’erhs and compare to Menghai and Xiaguan (raw pu’erhs). Menghai tea factory ripes are quite unique and I recommend them. Xiaguan raw tuo cha is a classic and is worth trying. Shuangjiang Mengku raw cakes are also quite good and worth trying.
You’ve had experience storing pu’erh in both Kunming and Portland (US site). Both Kunming and the west have a reputation as being relatively dry storage. How do you store the pu’erh that you sell on Yunnan Sourcing?
In Kunming we store our pu’erh in a second story apartment. We have everything on pallets and construction paper over the windows to block the light. We try to keep the rooms full of tea and air circulation pretty low since that would dry things out more. Typically humidity is between 55% and 75%. Sometimes in the monsoon season (summer) the humidity can briefly go as high as 80% inside the warehouse.
In the USA our storage is in a small warehouse in Portland Oregon. The storage has dehumidifiers that kick in when RH gets above 75% and brings it back down. It’s in a residential area with copious plants growing outside and it’s a very clean environment. Two space heaters run to keep the temperature above 60F.
I have found the Portland storage condition is really quite good. The tea ages nicely and quite a bit faster than Kunming.
Editor’s Note: Selfishly, hearing this about Portland storage gives me much hope as a PNW pu’erh hobbyist!
ON THE GROWING RUSSIAN PU’ERH SCENE
One of the things that goes unnoticed amongst much of the English-speaking audience is the ever-increasing eastern European and Russian pu’erh tea scene. Yunnan Sourcing does very well with this audience. What have your experiences been like dealing with the Russian tea-drinking community?
The Russian speaking customers I deal with are awesome. They love tea, are skeptical about everything and are hungry to learn more. Many of these customers are fiercely loyal to my company and have helped me in every facet of my business, from translation, to filing police reports against fraudsters (people using stolen credit cards to buy teas) and so on. The average order size from Russian-speaking customers is about $300, versus $50 from the USA. When I asked my Russian friend why Russian people didn’t buy 25 gram samples he replied “cake is sample”. ;-).