Among China's six types of tea, Yellow Tea is somewhat rare and less known of. It seems more enigmatic and remains wrapped in mystery. Even in its home country China, this tea is considered uncommon. Compared to other tea types, fewer people are aware of yellow tea in terms of history, production, and properties. Today, we'll discuss this tea in depth and let it take its deserved seat as a top tea to discover and enjoy!
The birth of Yellow Tea
Yellow tea (Huang Cha – 黄茶) is one of the six main types of tea that originated in China. It is mentioned as early as the Tang dynasty. By then, this kind of tea from Anhui and Sichuan provinces had become a tribute tea. However, it was way different from the one we know today. The yellow tea in ancient times likely points to the tea tree variety – namely, the buds and leaves with a natural yellow hue. Both Shou Zhou Huang Cha and Mengding Huang Ya were named yellow teas because of the natural yellowing of their buds and leaves.
Yellow tea as we know it today is defined by its production process – namely, the artificial "yellowing" of the leaves during processing. In fact, a mistake in the processing of green tea was the main reason behind the birth of Huang Cha. While drying green tea leaves, workers supposedly shortened the time or didn't apply enough heat. The resulting dampness caused the leaves to turn yellow. What looked like a ruined batch turned out to have an exceptionally smooth and mellow taste. Thus, yellow tea was born!
Yellow tea's production process was formed around 1570 AD, during the Long Qing period of the Ming Dynasty (1567-1572 AD). Nowadays, it has a history of more than 400 years.
Today's yellow tea production has limited output due to decreasing growth. More and more farmers prefer to produce green tea instead, which is more profitable. Additionally, processing Huang Cha requires more skills and takes more time to master and fulfill. Thus, the ancient processing techniques of yellow tea have become slowly forgotten, with only a handful of people still adhering to them. Still, that makes high-quality yellow tea a boutique product sought after by connoisseurs worldwide. More and more people favor its unique taste, mellow character, and refined nature.
Which are yellow tea's most important production areas?
Although considered a rare tea, Huang Cha has a long production and processing history in some of China's major tea-producing areas. These include Hunan, Anhui, and Sichuan. Even Guangdong has specialty yellow tea, and Guizhou has produced it since the Tang dynasty.
Yellow tea – how it's made
Yellow tea is a lightly oxidized tea (5-25%). Its processing technology is similar to green tea, with the addition of one extra step - "stuffing the yellow" (Men Huang – 闷黄). It is a vital step in the processing, which is the key to forming the characteristics of Huang Cha. Men Huang promotes partial oxidation of the tea leaves' inner substances and defines the overall quality of the entire tea batch.
Let's explore the processing steps of yellow tea:
Picking fresh leaves
The picking season for Huang Cha starts as early as March, and the long winters in some mountainous regions might delay the picking till mid-April. All tea picked within May is considered spring tea. Fresh leaves and buds must remain intact, tender and even, without stalks, tea fruits, and old branches and leaves. Hand-picking is the prevailing practice in China, and mechanical tea picking is rare and not recommended.
During the next processing step, workers pan-fry the tea leaves at temperatures around 120-150ºC. It destroys the activity of enzymes and evaporates part of the water. Fixing the green plays a vital role in the formation of the aroma of yellow tea.
That is the key step in this tea's production process. Depending on the type of tea, workers either wrap it in cloth or pile it in bamboo baskets. Under the impact of both dampness and heat, the inner substances undergo non-enzymatic transformation. On the outside, the leaves turn yellow. Different yellow tea varieties require different time for stuffing. It might take from half an hour up to several days.
The yellowing reduces the astringency and bitterness of the tea leaves. It results in yellow tea's unique golden color and mellow taste.
The drying is generally done several times at lower temperatures than other teas.
What types of yellow tea exist?
Depending on the picking standard, Huang Cha splits into several categories. Tea farmers use only the gentle buds from the tea bush to produce some of the most iconic yellow teas on the market. These include "Jun Shan Silver Needle" from Hunan, "Mengding Huang Ya" from Sichuan, and "Huo Shan Huang Ya" from Anhui. Usually, workers process the highest grades of those teas entirely by hand, in small batches.
Farmers produce yellow teas with intensive fragrance and palpable taste using a bud and one to two leaves. These include "Beijing Maojian" from Hunan, "Yuanan Luyuan" from Hubei, and again "Huo Shan Huang Ya" from Anhui.
The grown-up leaves also have a place in yellow tea production. As the leaves mature, they stack up on fibers and polysaccharides, which produces a tea with a thick mouthfeel, sweet, mellow taste, comforting aroma, and oily golden color. A unique product from Sichuan – the yellow tea brick – also uses the grown-up leaves to create a memorable Huang Cha experience! Some regional specialties, like Da Ye Qing from Guangdong, are also part of this category.
How long does yellow tea last?
Yellow tea is lightly oxidized tea. You can store it for a longer period than green tea if you observe some simple rules. Generally, it's best to consume it within 18 months of its market entry date. However, there are some unique products – like the yellow tea brick – that you can store and age for several years – just like Pu-erh tea cakes!
How to store yellow tea properly?
Four simple storage rules guarantee good preservation of Huang Cha:
- Keep away from the air: yellow tea is best stored in an airtight container. If you plan to drink it soon, you can use a purple clay jar, possibly with an airtight lid. Otherwise, tin or metal containers work just fine.
- Keep away from moisture: Moisture can create molding, which quickly ruins the tea. Make sure to keep your tea away from any source of dampness.
- Keep away from odors: tea absorbs smells quickly – some people even use teabags as deodorizers as they absorb unwanted odors. Huang Cha is no exception. To preserve its fresh and tender aroma best, keep it away from any peculiar smells.
- Keep away from direct sunlight: it will deplete the tea from inner substances and make it stale.
Some people suggest storing tea in the fridge. While this can be a good idea, some of the foods kept there have a strong smell, which tea will quickly absorb. If you put your tea in the fridge, ensure it is well sealed.
Iconic Yellow Teas you must try
Yellow tea has one of the richest histories among all six tea types. Its processing has been passed down for generations. Processing techniques for some kinds of Huang Cha have a status of national cultural heritage. Let's explore some iconic examples of yellow tea (and hope to have a chance to try them :)
Jun Shan Yin Zhen
This tea goes by the poetic name of "Silver needles from Jun Shan". Although the name suggests so, it isn't white tea. Its tiny buds are covered in white fuzz, hence the name. Farmers have produced it for centuries on Jun Shan, a small island of Dong Ting Lake in Hunan province. The top-grade Jun Shan Yin Zhen has strong and straight buds, and the tea soup has a soft, sweet fragrance. Because of their specific coloring, the Chinese compare them to "gold inlaid jade". Unlike other teas, farmers do not use rolling to process Junshan Yinzhen.
This tea originates from Anhui province. It has a long history of production, spreading back to the Tang Dynasty. It was a famous tea back then. People continued its production through the Ming and Qing Dynasties when Huo Shan Huang Ya became a tribute tea for the imperial palace. "Huo Shan County Chronicle" records: "Huo Shan Huang Ya's name has originated in the Western Han Dynasty, flourished in the Tang Dynasty, and has been listed as a tribute since the Ming Dynasty, and was most common in the Qing Dynasty."
Today you can find yellow buds from Huo Shan, as the name translates, in all picking standards – namely bud tea, small tea, and tea from mature leaves.
Meng Ding Huang Ya
Farmers produce this famous tea in Meng Ding mountain, Sichuan province. The history of tea production in Meng Shan is very long. Meng Ding tea has been a renowned tribute tea from the Tang Dynasty to the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The highest grade of this top tea is usually entirely handmade. Farmers also do not apply rolling during its production process, as this will hurt the delicate buds. The tea soup of Mengding Huang Ya is bright, golden yellow. It has a sweet, refined fragrance with notes of soymilk, sweet honey, and rice crust.
Wei Shan Mao Jian
Another tea from Hunan, Weishan Maojian, goes through six processing stages, including final smoking. The pleasant aroma of pine smoke is a characteristic of Wei Shan Mao Jian's quality. Its orange-yellow tea soup, pine smoke fragrance, and sweet, mellow make it very popular and a treasured gift among the border people from Xin Jiang and Gansu.
Guangdong Daye Qing
This tea is a specialty product of Guangdong. The processing includes withering, fixing, stuffing, and rolling, and the process is different from other yellow teas.
Health properties of yellow tea
Yellow tea protects the spleen and stomach and promotes digestion
Yellow tea has a specific production process that favors the formation of many digestive enzymes in the tea leaves. Indeed, enzymes are very beneficial to the human body and promote digestion (primarily). Traditional Chinese medicine names the spleen and stomach as the main digestive organs and recommends it for indigestion and loss of appetite.
Yellow tea has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory action
Being close to green tea, yellow tea is rich in tea polyphenols. They inhibit the action of pathogenic bacteria. Thus, this tea has an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effect.
Yellow tea refreshes the mind and relieves fatigue
Yellow tea is relatively rich in polyphenols and caffeine. These substances stimulate the central nervous system and the brain. Additionally, caffeine stimulates the kidneys to excrete lactic acid through urine, thereby helping relieve fatigue.
That's all for today. Next week, in the Second Part of this article, we will interview a Chinese tea master and producer of yellow tea. He will let us in on this rare tea's history and producing secrets and will share with us his preferred way of brewing to get the best out of this tea every time!