[Tea Fundamentals] Yellow Tea
Yellow tea is indeed China’s rarest kind of tea, with the least production among the six categories of teas and the fewest regions producing it. However, as rare as yellow tea is, it is quite significant in traditional Chinese tea making. Two to three yellow teas have frequently been listed on the China’s Ten Famous Teas list, which says a lot about the appreciations of yellow tea among the most influential patrons. Because of its rich history and high admiration, yellow tea is actually one of the best documented and studied teas.
Yellow tea sometime is also referred to as micro-fermented tea. It is a step up from green tea where during the making the tea is allowed to fermented a little before being completely dried and the enzymes “killed”.
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 (small and large leave tea).
Yellow tea making technique varies by region, however, it all involves a initial “kill green” or wok fry 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 tea to oxidize and ferment the tea to various degrees, hence “yellowing” the leaves.
Jun Shan Yin Zhen
Situated 15km off-shore from the historical city of Yue Yang, Jun Shan Island is home to many known folklores of China, which speak to its rich history supposed dating back to mythical times. This tiny island has been associated with tea since the Tang Dynasty, over 1300 years ago. Jun Shan Yin Zhen achieved tribute tea status during Qing Dynasty (1616 － 1912) when 9kg of tea were demanded by the royal court every single year. Maybe it's the tea’s prestigious past; the very limited size (the island is only 1 square kilometer); the fact the island is still state-owned; or 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 tea in China today. A bona fide modern tribute tea, the yearly harvest goes straight to government departments and is usually reserved to treat visiting diplomats and dignitaries. 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 only yellow tea and only the unopened buds are picked in early spring, usually starting in 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 semi-dry before being wrapped air tight and fermented 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, 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 documented place of the first unambiguously written record of tea cultivation (53BC). Meng Ding teas have the longest history of being a tribute tea from Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD) all the way till the last Qing Dynasty (1616 － 1912). It is one of the most praised teas in poetries. Its perfect pairing with water from the Yang Zi River is a tea dream that even today’s connoisseurs romanticize about. However, nowadays the tea activities in Meng Ding Shan is 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, and there’s much debate as to whether it referred to the actual yellow tea we now recognize with the making technique. The general consent 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% of their moisture and with heat, they are wrapped tightly (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 poetries, but in trading records, documentation of crafting techniques, descriptions of tea markets, divisions of specific tea lots, changes in taxation, etc. From these writings, we know in detail how Huang Shan tea evolved since it was 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 late 1800s, records of Huo Shan Huang Ya suddenly stopped. Writings about Lu An and Huo Shan tea in early 1900s have no mentioning of Huang Ya at all. We can only assume that Huang Ya was then stopped being made. However, thanks to the detailed documentations about this tea and help of tea scientists, Huang Ya yellow tea was recreated in the Huo Shan region in 1973. Because there’s still largely green tea activities in the region, naming their teas also Huang Ya (means yellow bud), there is controversy about to what degree has this historical tea 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 or Jin Ji Shan the most prized. Deep in the Da Bie Mountain Range, Huang Ya is usually harvested after April 5th with higher regions even later. The standard picking grade for Huang Ya is one bud and one leave. 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% dry. 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. Unlike making Gua Pian where two men literately walk the tea over a big fire, Huang Ya’s Zhuang Huo step happens with a person repeatedly setting a bamboo tray of almost dried leaves on high fire, then remove, flip, and repeat, for hours. This is a highly skilled job in Huang Ya making - the slightest distraction will result in burned tea. Huang Ya is a lighter fermented yellow tea in comparison to Jun Shan Yin Zhen and Meng Ding Huang Ya with similar taste to green tea but rounder, less tannic and with a more direct sweetness.
Huo Shan also produces a large leave yellow tea call Huang Da Cha with late harvests of the larger tea leaves, often picked with long stems. Because the leaves are older, they are wilted to soften first. After the tea is initially wok fried, it is then rolled, traditionally by foot, to break membranes and release juices from inside of the leaves, and to make the tea into semi-spiral shape. The tea is then piled up in baskets to ferment for a few hours before exposing to the sun. It is then baked heavily to dry and to create its unique sizzling rice notes. It was workmen’s tea in the past, often sold in large quantities to Shang Dong Province.