Yellow Tea: Unique and Rare Chinese Specialty

Yellow tea is China’s rarest tea, due to the extensive manufacturing process to get the yellow hued leaves and liquor. Depending on current trends in China, yellow teas come and go in overall availability, making it more difficult to find these teas here in the United States, but they can be found.

History of Yellow Tea

There are a wide range of stories around the creation of yellow tea and when it occurred, without a lot of agreement around those circumstances. Yellow tea is currently manufactured in both the Anhui and Hunan provinces of China.

Yellow is a favorite color in China.

Xian, China – Temple at Night

It is thought that the tea was produced in honor of the emperor, though which one specifically is not really clear, with yellow being the imperial colors of all five imperial dynasties in China. In Chinese culture, yellow is considered the most beautiful color. It is associated with Yin and Yang and the perfect center of everything. Yellow is paired with red in decorating alters and imperial palaces and is also associated with heroism in China.

With yellow holding such an important place in Chinese culture, it is only natural for tea producers to experiment and ultimately produce a tea that is both yellow in color as a dry leaf and as the beverage.

Producing Yellow Tea

Yellow tea resides somewhere between white and green teas both in flavor and appearance. Like a white tea, it is picked as either only a bud or a bud and single leaf. However, it is steamed during production. Like other teas, yellow tea is picked, withered in the sun and then pan dried. However, at the end of the pan drying, it is then laid back out and covered with a damp cloth and allowed to steam for a few hours. It is then returned to the pan to dry and may then be wrapped again. This process of steaming and drying may be repeated several times until the tea reaches the required color. Keeping the buds and leaves whole while going between the pan and the steaming clothes requires great care, adding time to an already time consuming manufacturing process. The process ends with the final drying in the pan.

All of that work produces a tea that ranges from buttery to floral in flavor depending on which yellow tea you get and at what temperature you steep it.

Types of Yellow Tea

Ahnui Yellow Flower Yellow Tea

Anhui Yellow Flower (Ho Shan Huang Ya) Yellow Tea

Yellow tea is quite rare and there only a few available including Jun Shan Yin Zhen from the Hunan province and Huo Shan Huang Ya from the Anhui province.  Jun Shan Yin Zhen is bud only and tastes buttery with slight floral aroma.  The Huo Shan Huang Ya was originally a tribute tea dating back to the Ming Dynasty and brews with a floral aroma and slightly nutty taste.  These teas can be brewed at temperatures between 165-185 degrees Fahrenheit.

So when you are in search of your next tea experience, keep your eyes open for these teas.  They are worth a try.

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Oolong, White and Yellow: Understanding the Broader Types of Tea

Unlike most other beverages one simply can’t ask for tea and know what to expect, making tea both a bit more common but also captivating for those looking to expand their palate.  There are six main types of tea, however within those types are thousands of varieties.  It is truly amazing that camellia sinensis, combined with terroir, a dash of human intervention and some creativity yields a liquor with so many different flavors.

Graphic scale of types of tea by oxidation.
Tea Oxidation Chart

Oxidation starts in tea leaves as soon as they are plucked from the plant, just like how an apple starts to turn brown as soon as it is cut.  The oxidation helps to create the flavor in the tea.  Tea leaves are allowed to wither in the sun to both dehydrate the leaves and allow oxidation to continue.  The point in the manufacturing process at which oxidation is stopped, via application of heat, largely dictates the classification of the finished product.

White Tea

White tea is made primarily from the bud of the tea plant (downy buds) but may include the first two leaves on the branch.  The name comes from the white hairs that are present on the outside of the buds.  Typically this type of tea is allowed to whither outside in the sun to dry before being heated to stop oxidation.  White tea is not rolled or panned and is lightly handled.  Often, white tea is made from the first buds of the growing season, called the first flush.

Green Tea

Green tea is a type of tea where oxidation is stopped very early in the manufacturing process.  The oxidation is stopped either through steaming, as is common practice in Japan, or through heating over a fire or in a stove.  By stopping the oxidation early, the leaves remain green.  Typically this is less than 10% oxidation.

Yellow Tea

Yellow teas are a lightly oxidized version of tea where, after withering, the leaves are lightly steamed allowing for enzymatic oxidation, the chemical process where flavonoids breakdown resulting in the browning of the leaves and the development of the flavor.  This is a rather labor intensive process that requires special training, which limits the production capacity for this type of tea.  Also, this tea comes in and out of favor with the Chinese public, the primary country producing yellow tea, so getting this in the US is often challenging if Chinese consumers are not demanding it.

Picture of dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of Big Red Robe Supreme Oolong tea.

Oolong Tea

Providing some of the greatest variety in style, taste, and appearance, oolong teas are partially oxidized, anywhere from 10-80%, before being heated to stop oxidation.  Oolong, also known as wulong or black dragon teas, feature twisted tea leaves that are said to resemble the shape of a dragon.  They have their origin in the Fujian province of China though are now produced in other countries, notably Taiwan.  These teas are hand twisted or rolled after oxidation and were traditionally the Emperor’s tea.  These teas are the Bordeaux of the tea world, amazingly complex in taste, highly prized, and can be quite expensive when compared to other teas.  However, for the true tea enthusiasts there is nothing like them.

Black Tea

Known as red tea by the Chinese for the color of the brewed liquor, black tea is the most common type of tea consumed in the United States as it is typically the base for iced tea.  Black tea is a more fully oxidized version of the tea leaves, ranging anywhere from 50-100% oxidized.  Some of the teas best known in the west are black tea based blends including English Breakfast and Earl Grey.

Pu-erh (Dark Teas)

The only type of teas that are actually fermented are pu-erh.  This is green tea that has fermented after completing the manufacturing process.  This is truly a unique tea that reflects the history of where it was founded.  Pu-erh was historically made in the Yunnan province of China and traded with Tibet and Mongolia for horses.  To make the trip, the tea was compressed into narrow circular disks which traveled as long as six months before being traded.  Due to the organisms that grew in the trees in the Yunnan province the tea would naturally ferment.  Aged pu-erh is rare, highly sought after, and often comes at a high price.  To satisfy demand and sell a more profitable product two Chinese tea manufacturers got together in the 1960’s and created an accelerated fermenting process, which is not looked upon favorably by traditionalists, but allows for wider circulation of this tea.

Exploration Beyond the Six Main Types of Tea

Each of these large types of tea have many more subcategories that are worthy of their own investigation and offer more options than I can list.  Learning about all of them makes exploring tea a fun life long journey.

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