Yellow tea is one of the trickiest teas to identify and understand. With a refreshing and sweet flavor that is vegetal and nutty, this tea is easily mistaken for green tea. But yellow tea has a unique making practice that separates it from green tea and puts it in a category of its own.
The process of yellow tea making is known as micro-fermentation. Just like green tea, yellow tea is subject to an early kill green step. What differs is that not only is this step done for a shorter amount of time and at a lower temperature, but it is also halted before all the enzymes are killed. The tea leaves are then wrapped up in order to trap heat and to ferment a bit. This step, known as the micro-fermenting step, takes approximately 24 hours. The tea is then baked to control the moisture level, and left to ferment again. These two steps are repeated until the tea master deems the tea to be ready It is then exposed to enough heat to kill the remaining enzymes. It is important to understand that yellow tea has not set fermentation level. It is up to the tea master to decide how much fermentation the tea should undergo. This is an example of tea categories being defined by processing and not fermentation level.
There are three famous types of yellow tea. The most famous and rare is Jin Shan Yin Zhen, then Meng Ding Huang Ya and Huo Shan Huang Ya. Jin Shan Yin Zhen is a yellow tea made from only the buds, hence the Yin Zhen (silver needle), from the small island of Jun Shan. This is a government facilitated island so most of these teas go directly to the government, like a modern day tribute tea. The Jun Shan Yin Zhen that doesn’t go to the government is sold at a extremely expensive price. ($400+ for an oz). While you will often see this name in tea shops, I assure you 99% of the time it is not the true Jun Shan. Oftentimes the tea is from the surrounding area, and while it may share similar flavor notes, it is not the real thing.
Meng Ding Huang Ya is unique because Meng Ding is the original home for organized tea cultivation. Located in Sichuan, Daoist monk Wu Lizhen planted tea on Meng Ding Mountain somewhere between 200 BC-53 AD. The picking of this tea was a near religious affair where local officials “…wore royal robes, beat drums and clang gongs, and set off firecrackers to worship the “Holy Tea” with their subordinates and all the local monks.” (www.Chinahighlights.com). This was the first tribute tea. Wu Lizhen planted seven tea trees in a plot that can still be visited today. While the tea trees there are not the originals they stood in the same spot guarded by a stone tiger.
Huo Shan is located in the Anhui province and is the third famous location for Huang Ya. As compared to Meng Ding, the traditional handmade practices are kept a little better here and therefore Huo Shan produces a high quality of yellow tea, even without the historical and political significance held by the other two locations.
Yellow tea should be brewed like green teas, in an open container. Much like how you shouldn’t cover your tender veggies as you cook them, covering green and yellow tea as they brew will trap the heat and ruin the finer flavors of the tea. The best way is to brew the tea in one vessel, like a fairness pitcher, and when the tea is ready pour the liquour into a second vessel remembering to keep the leaves submerged in water in the first vessel in order to preserve them.
The flavor of yellow tea is very similar to green tea. Both are light and refreshing with common vegetal notes. The difference between green and yellow tea is the strength. While green tea is softer, subtler and known for a comeback sweetness, yellow tea is bolder in flavor and displays most of its characteristics up front.