The New Attraction of Yellow Teas
Rare and intriguing, yellow teas (黃茶) were made in China hundreds of years ago as a tribute gift tea for the emperor. Making them requires hours of careful and focused work and because prices are very high, the manufacture of yellow tea gradually dwindled to almost nothing. By the turn of the 21st century, most producers had stopped making them altogether. But today, they have regained popularity and are featured widely by countless tea companies.
So what exactly are yellow teas? The best are made from tiny bud sets, gathered carefully in the spring, and the manufacture by skilled tea masters takes several days.
The processing begins in the same way as it does with green tea, so the freshly plucked buds or leaves are withered briefly in shady sunlight and then panned in a wok to stop oxidation — but at a lower temperature than for green tea. The heat of the wok is then increased and the movement of the tea against the hot metal continues until the water content in the tea has been reduced to 40 to 50 percent. The tea is then cooled slightly and then, while still warm and damp, it is wrapped in a paper or cotton cloth, or heaped in baskets so that water vapor and heat are trapped in the tea. This part of the manufacturing method is referred to as “smothering” and causes hydrothermal oxidation and microbial fermentation to take place in the tea. Although some say that only oxidation takes place in the tea during this stage, it is important to remember that for oxidation to take place, oxygen must be present in the air surrounding the tea. If the tea is wrapped up or heaped in deep piles, very little oxygen is present inside the parcel or pile of tea, so the process that takes place is only slight oxidation and slight fermentation.
Next, the wrapped or piled tea is left for several hours or sometimes for one or two days, and this reduces the vibrant grassy, slightly astringent character of the tea resulting in a more mellow, less mouth-filling flavor than we expect from green tea. After the first wrapping or piling, the tea is again panned to reduce the water content to around 20 percent. Then, again, while still warm and damp, the tea is wrapped or heaped for a second time and left to go through a second stage of light, hydrothermal oxidation and microbial fermentation. Finally, the tea is dried in a wok to reduce the water content down to less than 5 percent and is then cooled and sorted for packing.
Production methods vary from province to province, and, if buying yellow tea, choose the bud varieties over the open-leaf types and seek out the following.
Huoshan Huang Ya (霍山黃芽), called “yellow flower” or “Mount Huo yellow sprout,” is made on Huo Mountain in Anhui province and is produced in tiny quantities each year. The tea is panned and heaped three times for several hours and this gives golden yellow, straight, downy buds that give a nutty aroma and a slightly roasted flavor.
Jun Shan Yin Zhen (君山銀針), called “silver needle” yellow tea, grows in the misty conditions of Gentleman Mountain in Hunan province and has been famous since the days of the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE). After the first panning, this yellow tea is wrapped in thick paper parcels that are stored inside a pot for one or two days. After a second panning, the tea is wrapped up again for another day before a final panning to dry the tea.
Lastly, Meng Ding Huang Ya (Meng Ding yellow tea), from Meng Ding mountain in Sichuan province, is made from such tiny buds that between 45,000 and 50,000 are needed to make just 500 grams of finished yellow tea. Harvested in late February or early March each spring, the tea is wrapped after the first panning in thick paper and then stored in a humid room. Every half hour or so, the packages are unwrapped, the tea is moved around, and the parcel is then closed up again and left for five hours. After a second panning, the tea is rewrapped and stored for one or two hours, panned again, spread out on paper to cool for about 36 hours, and then given a final roast.
With all this work, it’s no wonder yellow teas are made in such small quantities and cost so much!
Guest contributor Jane Pettigrew is a tea historian, writer, consultant, specialist working in the UK and around the world explaining and offering insight into the world of tea. She’s written 15 books and hosts regular master classes and tea tastings. You can find her at www.janepettigrew.com.
Originally published at teforia.com on February 2, 2016.