One of the three sub-categories of Wu Long, Wu Yi Yan Cha represents the pinnacle of Min Bei (northen Fujian) Wu Long, in which the leaves are heavily roasted to achieve a signature dark and bold aroma and taste. The mantra for Yan Cha is “rock bone and floral fragrance.” While all Wu Longs are floral, the "rock bone" of Yan Cha refers to a highly desired "molten stone" mouth feel. One of the hottest teas in China right now, Yan Cha has one of the widest price swings as well as some of the wildest stories associated with a tea.
One of the most famous stories associated with Yan Cha is the legend of Da Hong Pao, or "Great Red Robe." The story tells the tale of a student who, on his way to the national exam, got sick while in Wu Yi Shan and took shelter at the nowadays Tian Xin Yong Le Temple. The monks in the temple nourished him back to health so he could continue to the capital for the national exam. The student eventually won first place in the national exam, which immediately placed him among the nation’s top elites. When he went back to the temple to thank the monks, he wore a red robe, a garment to show his new status. The monks told him that it was the teas they gave him from the back of the temple that revived him. To show his gratitude, the student went to the tea trees, took off his red robe and put it on the tea trees. This tribute gave those tea trees not only fame, but also the name Da Hong Pao, Great Red Robe. This story is so famous, the name "Da Hong Pao" is very commonly (but mistakenly) used synonymously with Yan Cha.
As widespread as this story is and the many variations of it, there’s actually very little record indicating its truth other than the main character of the story, the student, Ding Xian, did exist and the temple is still a major temple in the area.
Nevertheless, Wu Yi tea does have a very long history of being a tribute tea, and since the Tang Dynasty (618AD – 907AD) people have been raving about tea produced in the region. But similar to the other historically famous teas, we cannot definitively conclude that in those times Wu Yi tea was made in the same style as Yan Cha today. Actually, it is more likely the tea that was made in the region before late Ming Dynasty (1368AD – 1644AD) was green tea, and it was not until the abolition of certain restrictions on tribute teas that Yan Cha as we now know it was first created.
One of the most defining factors contributing to Yan Cha’s unique mouth feel is the very rocky terrain, called Danxia Landform, where the teas are grown. Like all historically famous teas in China, the specifics of the locations are meticulously detailed. The word Zheng Yan, which translates to True Cliff, is referring to the core part of the Wu Yi Shan. This core is centered around the ancient Hui Yuan Temple and extends north to Lotus Peak and south to Jiu Qu Xi (Nine-turn Creek), roughly 18 square miles. Due to the popularity of Yan Cha, the True Cliff region has slowly been “expanding” in the past decade, but the most desired lots are still marked by the very small area surrounding Three Pits and Two Creeks. The Three Pits are Niu Lan Keng (Cow Fence Pit), Hui Yuan Keng (Wisdom Garden Pit), Dao Shui Keng (Opposite Water Pit). The Two Creeks are Liu Xiang Jian (Flowy Fragrance Creek) and Wu Yuan Jian (Spring of Enlightenment Creek). Other prominent and very expensive Zheng Yan locations are Jiu Long Ke (Nine Dragon Dwelling, where Da Hong Pao is), San Yang Feng (Three Up Peak), Tian Xin Yan (Heavenly Heart Rock), Xiang Bi Yan (Elephant Trunk Rock), Zhu Ke (Bamboo Dwelling), Gui Dong (Ghost Cave).
Ban Yan, or Half Cliff, refers to the immediate area surrounding the Zheng Yan area: imagine a larger, concentric circle of land around the core that is Zheng Yan. Unlike the Zheng Yan region, where the varietals of tea trees are stable and limited, in Ban Yan one finds more types of tea varietals and more affordable Yan Cha. Ban Yan teas are also significantly more fragrant than Zheng Yan’s, but have less body and are short on the “rock bone” characteristic. The well-known Ban Yan locations are Huang Bai, Xing Cun, Xiao Wu Yi.
About two hours outside of the core Wu Yi Shan area is the world famous high mountain area called Tong Mu. Even though it is a region most famously known for producing the world’s oldest red tea (what the West knows as black tea), Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (Lapsang Souchong), it is also a Yan Cha producing region. Often just simply referred to as Gao Shan (High Mountain), the Yan Cha from this region sells for similar prices as Ban Yan teas. It is significantly sweeter and softer than the cliff region teas, but lacking the highly sought after yan yun, rock chime, which Yan Cha connoisseurs pay for. Well known Gao Shan Yan Cha villages are Xi Yuan, Wu San Di.
The majority of Yan Cha we see on the market, however, are Zhou Cha, a word locals use to describe the plantation teas in the region. Wu Yi Shan is a popular tourist destination for its stunning natural beauty and many Zhou Cha are sold to tourists seeking the famous Da Hong Pao.
Like all Wu Long, Yan Cha picks only leaves, making it one of the latest teas to be in season every year, with Ban Yan picking time around early to mid April and Zheng Yan early May (the most elementary way to tell if a tea is Zheng Yan or not is by the time the finished tea comes out: the roasted Zheng Yan tea does not come out until August or September). Yan Cha picking consist of roughly 3-4 leaves with stems. The picked teas then are spread out under the sun to wilt until soft (according to hand feel). After the teas are sufficiently wilted, they remain on bamboo trays for a few hours before being shaken or tumbled to regulate how the water inside the leaves travels out, thus managing enzyme activity in the leaves. This process is repeated every hour, 5-8 times throughout the evening and night until morning. Once the teas are satisfactorily fermented in the early morning, they are then wok fried to kill the enzymes in the leaves to stop the fermentation. Freshly out of the wok where the leaves are still hot and soft, they are then rolled vigorously to break the surface membranes to bring out more consistent flavors in the tea. After the leaves are rolled, they are evenly spread and baked a couple rounds to dry. This gives us mao cha, or rough tea. The most tedious step in all Chinese tea making is the stem-picking step, which in Yan Cha’s case takes place for several months following the rough tea making. It is a step where undesired yellow leaves (old leaves) and stems are picked out. The “cleaned” tea is then roasted on very dim charcoal ash for 8–12 hours, 1-3 times depending on the varietal, to make it a finished Yan Cha. Locals call this step stewing.
The traditional method of making Yan Cha is very dependent on the weather at the time of the making. In general, it is very hard to make good tea on rainy days. Feeding charcoal heat to teas resting in tumbling machine is a common modern day remedy to counter undesirable weather.
Zheng Yan village holds the annual Dou Cha Sai, or tea competition. The categories are Rou Gui, Shui Xian, Da Hong Pao (blending contest), and Ming Cong/Pin Zhong.
Though technically any tea varietals can be made into the Yan Cha style, there is a strong preference for certain varietals among both farmers and the market. There are currently over 100 varietals actively being made in the Wu Yi Shan area, which are conventionally separated into these categories:
Shui Xian – The oldest single varietal in the region. It is also the only varietal where the term Lao Cong or Old Grove applies, indicating the age of the tea tree is at least 60 years old.
Rou Gui – hugely popular in the 80s, this varietal replaced many Ming Cong in the Zheng Yan area and is now the signature varietal of Yan Cha.
Rou Gui and Shui Xian make up majority of the teas from Zheng Yan, and true Yan Cha connoisseurs always go to these two teas as benchmarks for a given season’s quality evaluation.
Ming Cong (Famous Groves) – referring to older Yan Cha varietals, there is a small group that is referred to as the Four Famous Groves — though there are six different teas that appear on the list, so it depends on the source which four are picked out at any time to fit the "four" of the title:
Tie Luo Han (always on the list)
Shui Jin Gui
Bai Ji Guan
Ban Tian Yao
Other Ming Cong (which are not among the Four Famous Groves) include:
Ai Jiao Wu Long
Bai Rui Xiang
Pin Zhong (which confusingly translates to varietal) – the newly developed varietals, some are more popular than the other and are very sensitive to market trend. They are mostly produced in Ban Yan and other regions. Pin Zhong in Zheng Yan are commonly used as blending ingredient, but rarely sold as single varietal teas. The currently popular ones are Qi Lan, Huang Guan Yin, Huang Mei Gui.
Qi Zhong – what the locals call wild teas, a mixture of indigenous varietals.
Se Zhong – undesired varietals, ex. Ba Xian (a highly desired varietal in the Phoenix Wu Long style)
Da Hong Pao – Is the name of six individual tea trees near Tian Xin Yong Le Temple, hanging above the ground off a cliff, a landmark for the region and a popular tourist destination. Though Da Hong Pao as Wu Yi folklore has been around for a while, the association with these specific trees (3 then, 6 now) was not recorded until the 1920s. There are numerous tales told to emphasize the rarity and expensiveness of this tea that often involve persons like Chairman Mao, Nixon and the richest man in Hong Kong. There were also efforts at times to take saplings from these tea trees and replant them elsewhere, which later would be called 2nd generation Da Hong Pao, but this name is not approved by tea researchers because the saplings are clones, not from seeds, and thus not “offspring” of the original trees. Recent studies found that these 6 trees are not a single varietal, but rather different varietals, making Da Hong Pao naturally a blended tea. There hasn’t been any picking from the original trees since 2006. Nowadays Da Hong Pao is the commercial name for blended Yan Cha, but is often wrongly marketed as synonymous for all Yan Cha, or as a rare Yan Cha, aided by the tourist industry locally.