What is Yellow Tea?
Yellow tea is indeed China’s rarest kind of tea, with the lowest production volume among the six category of teas and the fewest regions producing it. However, as rare as yellow tea is, it is quite significant in traditional Chinese tea making and three of them have frequently been listed on the China’s Ten Famous Teas list, which says a lot about the appreciation of yellow tea among the most influential patrons. Because it is so highly admired, yellow tea is actually one of the best documented and studied teas.
Yellow tea making technique varies by region, however, it always involves an initial “kill green” or wok-frying process very much like green tea but at a reduced temperature and for a shorter duration. While the tea is not dried completely, a “trapping” method happens, to encourage the moisture inside of the leaf to oxidize and ferment the tea to various degrees, hence “yellowing” the leaves. Thus, the tea is allowed to ferment a little before being completely dried and the enzymes “killed.” This is why sometimes Yellow tea is referred to as micro-fermented tea.
There are three subcategories of yellow tea named after picking styles: Huang Ya Cha (yellow bud teas), Huang Xiao Cha (yellow small teas), and Huang Da Cha (yellow large teas).
The three most well-known yellow teas are: Jun Shan Yin Zhen (bud tea), Meng Ding Huang Ya (bud tea) and Huo Shan Huang Ya (both small and large leaf tea).
Jun Shan Yin Zhen
Situated 15km off shore from the historical city of Yue Yang, Jun Shan Island is home to many household folklores of China, speaking to its rich history said to reach back to mythical times. This tiny island has a long association with tea, beginning with the Tang Dynasty over 1300 years ago. Jun Shan Yin Zhen, the most important tea produced on this island, achieved tribute tea status during the Qing Dynasty (1616 － 1912) with 9kg of tea demanded by the royal court every year. Due to a combination of the tea’s prestigious past, the very limited size of the island (only a single square kilometer!), and the fact that only one person in the whole world holds the secret to a crucial step in making this tea (he receives special government stipend for his expertise, with over 30 people helping him), Jun Shan Yin Zhen is hands down is THE most rare Chinese tea today. A bona fide modern tribute tea, the yearly harvest goes straight to governmental departments and is usually reserved to treat visiting diplomats. With limited market circulation, Jun Shan Yin Zhen’s price is stable, and very expensive.
There are many different varietals harvested on the Jun Shan Island, the original varieties, Yin Zhen #1, Bi Xiang Zao, Tao Yuan Da Ye, Fu Yun, and a green tea varietal.
Jun Shan Yin Zhen is a bud yellow tea and picks only the unopened buds in early spring, usually starting the first half of March. The making of Jun Shan Yin Zhen starts with applying high temperature to the leaves to kill some of the enzymes. Then the leaves are baked to a semi-dry state before being wrapped air-tight to ferment for 48 hours. Afterward, the once-again-wet leaves are baked a second time, then fermented again for about 24 hours before baked dry over charcoal.
A well-made Jun Shan Yin Zhen has no trace of grassy taste, and is pristinely sweet with notes of sweet corn.
Meng Ding Huang Ya
In an era where traditional teas are consistently being compared on their tales and historical significance, there should be no rival to Meng Ding teas. Meng Ding Shan is the location of the first unambiguous written record of tea cultivation, dating from 53BC. Meng Ding teas have the longest history as tribute teas, beginning from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD) all the way until the last Qing Dynasty (1616 － 1912). It is one of the most praised teas in poetry. Its perfect pairing with water from the Yang Zi River is a tea dream that even today’s connoisseurs romanticize about. However, the current state of tea activities in Meng Ding Shan are less than optimal, with some traditional tea making techniques at risk of being lost.
There are three teas well known in Meng Ding Shan – Gan Lu, Shi Hua, Huang Ya, with Gan Lu, a green tea being the most famous. Though the name Meng Ding Huang Ya first appeared in Tang Dynasty, there’s much debate as to whether it referred to the actual yellow tea we now associate with the making technique. The general consensus is that it was referring to just the yellowish hue of the fresh leaves, thus naming the tea trees instead of made tea.
Meng Ding Huang Ya’s making also starts with wok frying the leaves, but while the leaves still have at least 50% moisture, , they are wrapped tightly with heat (in hand-made paper back in the days) to “yellow”, which only takes an hour or so. Then the teas are released back to the wok to be stir fried again, then wrapped again. This process is usually repeated three times before the leaves are wrapped tightly to ferment for 24-36 hours. The yellowed teas are then baked to almost dry, then wrapped into a package to be placed on the “kitchen counter” where residual heat from daily cooking by the wood fire slowly finish drying the tea.
Huo Shan Huang Ya
Lu An is one of the oldest and best documented tea regions in Chinese history — not in poetry — but in trading records, changes in taxation, documentation of crafting techniques, divisions of specific tea lots, and other such quotidian records. From these writings, we know in detail how Huang Shan tea evolved: originating as green tea in as early as Han Dynasty (202BC – 220AD) with Huang Ya bringing it to a height as a tribute tea in Ming Dynasty (1368－1644AD). However, towards the end of Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s, records of Huo Shan Huang Ya suddenly stopped. Writings about Lu An and Huo Shan tea in early 1900s have no mention of Huang Ya at all. We can only assume that during this period Huang Ya stopped being made. However, thanks to the detailed documentation of this tea and help of tea scientists, Huang Ya yellow tea was recreated in the Huo Shan region in 1973. However, because the Huo Shan region is still largely dominated by green tea production, with some of the green teas also bearing the name "Huang Ya" (which simply means "yellow bud"), there is some controversy about the degree to which this historical tea has been restored.
Highly sought after Huang Ya producing mountain tops are Jin Ji Shan, Jin Zhu Ping, Jin Jia Wan and Wu Mi Jian, with Golden Rooster Mountain (Jin Ji Shan) the most prized. Deep in the Da Bie Mountain Range, Huang Ya is usually harvested after April 5th with higher elevated regions starting even later. The standard picking grade for Huang Ya is one bud and one leaf. The fresh leaves are first wok fried and baked, then piled evenly in bamboo trays covered for 24-48 hours. The yellowed leaves are then baked again on bamboo trays over charcoal ash to 90% dryness. The leaves are then left in bamboo baskets again for 3-7 days to soften. The last step of making Huang Ya is unique to Lu An teas, which involves quickly exposing the tea to charcoal fire to increase the aroma of the tea, a process called Zhuang Huo. Unlike making Gua Pian (another important Lu An tea), where two men literally walk the tea over a big fire, Huang Ya’s Zhuang Huo step is achieved by a person repeatedly setting a bamboo tray of almost dried leaves on high fire, then repeatedly removing and flipping them for hours. This is a highly skilled job in Huang Ya making — any slip of attention will result in burnt tea. Huo Shan Huang Ya is a slightly less fermented yellow tea in comparison to Jun Shan Yin Zhen and Meng Ding Huang Ya, with a taste similar to green tea, but rounder, less tannic and with a more direct sweetness.
Huo Shan also produces a large leaf yellow tea call Huang Da Cha with late harvests of the larger tea leaves, often picked with long stems as well. Because the leaves are older, they are wilted to soften first. After the tea is initially wok fried, it is rolled, traditionally by foot, to break membranes and release juices from inside of the leaves, forming the tea into a semi-spiral shape. The tea is then piled up in baskets to ferment for a few hours before exposing to the sun. It is finally baked heavily to dry and to create its unique sizzling rice notes. It has traditionally been a workman’s tea, often sold in large quantities to Shang Dong Province.