Saturday, January 12, 2013

Yellow Tea

Recently, I was asked to share what I know about yellow tea.  As my knowledge of yellow tea could have been summarized in one embarrassingly short sentence, I took this as a challenge and put on my Research Goggles.  I would now like to share what I have learned which, I'm happy to say, can no longer fit into one sentence.  Thanks to this project, I have a new self-appointed challenge to taste and enjoy more yellow teas while trying to determine whether they are truly yellow or have been produced as green teas.  Research can be delicious.

Yellow tea has been in existence for over two centuries and is among the rarest teas in the world today.  Limited growing regions and harvest time, as well as lengthy processing time make it difficult to find in the overseas market.  Its continued survival is largely due to local interest, where it is appreciated for the craftsmanship in its creation as well as its health benefits.  Historically, yellow tea has had the distinction of being a tribute to the Emperors in China and appears in the first book on tea, Lu Yu’s Ch’a Ching (Classic of Tea). 

Harvesting and Production
Yellow tea is harvested in early spring and is processed similar to green tea with the exception of oxidation through a smothering process called men-huang which can take up to seven days.  The uncut leaves and buds are oxidized more than green tea, but less than oolong or black teas.  The finished tea will have yellow leaves and produce a yellow liquor that is light and less vegetal than green tea while the nutrients and antioxidants remain intact. 

Yellow tea leaves are often used to produce green tea called Lu Zhen (Green Needle) while yellow tea leaves made into traditional yellow teas are Huang Zhen (Yellow Needle).  It can be difficult to differentiate as there is no labeling in the market for Lu Zhen or Huang Zhen. 

Brewing yellow tea is similar to brewing white tea.  The leaves should be steeped for 1-2 minutes at 180°F and may hold up to multiple infusions.  Shelf life for yellow tea is approximately 18 months.

There are four varieties of yellow tea produced today: Jun Shan Yin Zhen, Meng Ding Huang Ya, Mo Gan Huang Ya, and Huo Shan Huang Ya. 

Jun Shan Yin Zhen
One of China’s 10 Famous Teas, Jun Shan Yin Zhen first appeared in the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) and was a Tribute Tea to the Emperor from the Wudai Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (907-1912AD).  It is grown and produced in Hunan Province on Jun Shan Island in Dong Ting Lake where the consistently humid climate and rich soil as well as close proximity to He Shou Wu (a medicinal herb) are believed to provide this tea with its unique and delicate flavor and aroma characteristics. 

Jun Shan Yin Zhen consists solely of slender, tightly rolled buds which are harvested in early spring.  The tea is pan fried, wrapped in paper, and stored in wooden boxes or cabinets where it will oxidize while being stirred occasionally to evenly distribute the heat.  This process is repeated for up to 3 days before the tea will be slow-roasted in a bamboo basket over charcoal.

It takes approximately 60,000 buds to produce 1 kilogram of Jun Shan Yin Zhen with only 500 kilograms produced in one year.  While authentic Jun Shan Yin Zhen cultivated on Jun Shan Island is rare, tea produced from other cultivars in the area surrounding Dong Ting Lake are often sold in the overseas market as Jun Shan Yin Zhen, with tea produced from Da Hai Bao, a white tea cultivar, being most common.  Jun Shan Yin Zhen is also sometimes processed like green tea while still being sold to the overseas market as a yellow tea.

Meng Ding Huang Ya
Originating in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), Meng Ding Huang Ya became a Tribute Tea to the Emperor during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD).  It grows at high elevations on Meng Ding Mountain in Sichuan Province and is harvested in early spring.  The tea is pan fried, wrapped in cloth, and set aside to oxidize.  This process is repeated for up to three days before the tea will be slow roasted.  Meng Ding Huang Ya tea consists of flat buds and has a delicate aroma with a flavor that can be floral and nutty.

Mo Gan Huang Ya
Originating in the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), Mo Gan Huang Ya grows at a high elevation on Mo Gan Mountain near Huzhou City in Zhejian Province and is one of the rarest yellow teas.  After it is harvested in early March, the tea is pan fried, wrapped in cloth, and set aside to oxidize.  This process is repeated for up to 3 days before the tea will be slow roasted.  Mo Gan Huang Ya has a light aroma and a mild, sometimes sweet flavor.

Huo Shan Huang Ya
Originating in the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), Huo Shan Huang Ya became a Tribute Tea to the Emperor during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644AD).  The tea is produced in Huo Shan County in Anhui Province where the original production methods were lost in the 1940s and rediscovered in the 1970s.  The tea is harvested in early spring, pan fried, and laid out on the floor to oxidize.  The frying and oxidation steps are repeated three times before the final roasting and the entire process is completed within one day.  Unlike other yellow teas, Huo Shan Huang Ya closely resembles green tea in flavor and aroma, with a yellow-green liquor.

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