Yancha — The Different Areas of the Wuyi Mountains

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

Tea drinkers worldwide have a special spot in their hearts for the warm, roasted notes of Wuyi Mountain tea (yancha) with its unforgettable Yan Yun. Within the vast history of tea, the Wuyi Mountains are a relatively new growing region. Nonetheless, they continue to produce mesmerizing tea, which we cannot stop talking about. This time, we will go a little more into detail about the different growing regions within Wuyi Shan (Wuyi Mountain) itself. 




What Is Yancha?

Wuyi tea is a category of teas, either oolong or hong cha, that grow on Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province, China. Wuyi Oolong, in particular, is also known as yancha, Wuyi rock tea, or cliff tea. The most famous Wuyi Mountain teas are Da Hong Pao and Lapsang Souchong — the forefather of all black tea. The creation legends of oolong also can be traced back to Wuyi Mountain. The Wuyi area has been an important historical center of tea production since mid 17th century and continues to be so. 


The Wuyi Mountain region is the place with a unique terroir. Locals call it 三坑两涧和马头 – Three Valleys, Two Streams and "Horse Head" Rock.


Albeit the mountain peaks aren't incredibly high, they are constantly shrouded with fog and mist. The sun shines through the light mist in the afternoon, creating dancing rainbows around the tea bushes. The moisture settles on the rocky sides of the mountain slopes and then trickles down these rocks, all the way down to the roots of the tea plants, consequently enriching them with minerals. Thus, the unique Yan Yun ("rock rhyme") taste for which Wuyi oolong teas is famous for is born.


What Makes Yancha Special? 

What makes rock tea so special is the unique terroir – tons of steep slopes and sharp mountain peaks cover these mountains. The result is a relatively small amount of tea bushes that have to push to survive. The mineral content of the mountains also doesn't fail to add a unique "rocky" taste to the teas produced there, which the tea world highly favors. 

As far as production goes, Wuyi cha tends to lean on the darker side. We can see this through the dark, heavily oxidized and baked oolongs and hong cha (black tea). Wuyi oolongs have a heavy roast with robust flavors. Farmers always twist the teas into thin strips rather than rolling them into tight balls like oolongs from other areas. 


Yancha can be extremely expensive. Da Hong Pao made from the original ancient tea trees is worth more than gold. 


However, not all yancha is ridiculously expensive, and most teas from the Wuyi Mountains are incredibly delicious and memorable while affordable. When trying a Wuyi Mountain tea, notice that the rocky and mineral profiles are perfectly balanced with the sweet and floral notes. Now that's an ideal cup of yancha. 


Wuyi Oolong Tea History 

Oolong tea originated somewhere during the 17th century Ming Dynasty. As history goes, the Chinese Emperor would drink exclusively compressed tea for hundreds of years. These tea cakes were cultivated and produced in Fujian tea gardens. However, the production of tea cakes was becoming too expensive since it required a lot of labor. The Emperor requested for all his tea to come in loose leaf form. 

This sudden request caused significant turmoil in the well-established tea industry of Fujian Province. Consequently, smaller tea farms began popping up in the Wuyi Mountains. These were farms mostly owned and tended to by Taoist and Buddhist monks. Eventually, they discovered that letting the tea lightly oxidize before firing it created a new, darker, flavorful type of tea called Oolong. 


wuyi rock tea


What Is Yan Yun?

The word Yan Yun poetically translates as Rock Rhyme, and tea enthusiasts use this word to describe the flavor profiles of some of the most exquisite yancha.    


We can describe Yan Yun by the mouthwatering sensation one gets after sipping the tea. The Rock Rhyme entrances us, invites us to drink more of the tea, to absorb all the nutrients it possesses.


Top Tea — Wuyi Rock Tea 

Below we list the most popular types of Wuyi cha, alongside their taste profiles.


Wuyi Oolong:

  1. Da Hong Pao — sweet, mineral, roasted, thick, and smooth.
  2. Tie Luo Han — sweet, rich, and fragrant.  
  3. Bei Dou – sweet, fruity, deep, and roasted
  4. Shui Jing Gui — sweet, fruity, floral, and roasted.
  5. Bai Ji Guan — sweet, mellow, and light. 
  6. Rou Gui — fragrant with prominent cinnamon notes. 
  7. Shui Xian — roasted, nutty, and mineral.


Hong Cha:

  1. Lapsang Souchong — sweet and fruity tea. Today, there are two types of this tea: one with strong campfire notes and one without.
  2. Jin Jun Mei – is the same as Lapsang Souchong but comprised exclusively of fresh buds. Jin Jun Mei ("Beauty's Golden Eyebrow") is the tea responsible for the rapid rise of the popularity of hong cha in China itself.


What is Da Hong Pao Tea?

Da Hong Pao is perhaps the most marketed and, at the same time, controversial tea. The truth is, the yield that comes from the original mother plants is so small that it is considered a national treasure and doesn't get on the market at all, being distributed among the lucky few, reserved for decades ahead. At present, the six Da Hong Pao mother trees have been declared a national treasure and are not harvested anymore.

The 99.9% of Da Hong Pao on the market today is either a blend of two cultivars – Rou Gui and Shui Xian, or a Qi Dan that grows in Wai Shan, outside of the main Wuyi Mountain Nature Preserve. Also, it is widespread among the locals of Wuyi Mountain to refer to any yancha as Da Hong Pao when talking to outsiders. Therefore, Da Hong Pao is slowly becoming an umbrella name for many different teas of Wuyi Mountain.


The Areas of the Wuyi Mountains

Zheng Yan 

Zheng Yan translates as "original rock". In 1999 the Chinese government designated the Zhengyan area of the Wuyi Mountains as the Wuyi World Heritage Reserve. Indeed, this area has many original tea cultivars that farmers should strive to preserve. Zhengyan teas tend to be higher in price since all the teas there are organic — the government prohibits pesticides on the grounds of the Zhengyan Reserve. Furthermore, the climate here is optimal for tea growing since there is a good amount of rainfall and fog year-round. If you wish to try premium yancha but don't know where to start, we recommend trying teas from the Zhengyan area. Retailers will often market these as Zhengyan tea, Zhengshan tea (original mountain), or Natural Reserve tea. 


wuyi oolong tea

Shi Ru "Stone Milk" Wuyi Oolong


Within the Zheng Yan area itself, there is a place farmers call Three Pits and Two Gullies. This name refers to Huiyuan Pit, Niulan Pit, Daoshui Pit, Liuxiang Gully, and Wuyuan Gully. Many tea enthusiasts seek out tea specifically from this area as they believe it is the most original source of yancha. Teas, however, are rarely labeled as being from this area, so you'll have to do a bit of investigating first. 


The prime Wuyi Mountain tea growing area has 39 peaks, 72 caves, and 99 cliffs.  


wuyi mountain tea

Zheng Yan, Wuyi Mountains


Ban Yan

Ban Yan translates as "half rock". This is the area immediately surrounding the National Reserve area of Zheng Yan. 


Zhou Cha

Zhou Cha refers to tea that farmers grow around the Nine Bends River, which flows through the Wuyi Mountains. 


Wai Shan

Wai Shan is the outside area which is the furthest of them all. 

The further away from Zheng Yan, the less sought-out the tea is. Naturally, each area has its microclimate, mineral content in the soil, and even regulations for growing tea. Most tea enthusiasts agree that tea grown outside of Zheng Yan starts to lose its iconic rock rhyme. However, this does not necessarily mean that the tea loses its edge. In fact, many Wai Shan teas have unique flavor profiles that you wouldn't find within other teas. Some of these teas are Qi Lan, and Huang Mei Gui. 


Lao Cong Tea

Lao Cong translates as "old bush". For example, Shui Xian oolong often comes from old tea bushes. There is no consensus on what we should consider Lao Cong – an old tea bush, so use your best judgment. Usually, it doesn't apply to tea plants younger than 30 years old. Naturally, the older the tea bush — the higher the price. 


Since Shui Xian Oolong is the most widely consumed type of yancha, the tea bushes occupy the most extensive growing area of the Wuyi Mountains.