There are three major subcategories within the overarching category of wulong: Tie Guan Yin, Phoenix Wulong, and Cliff Tea. Today’s post focuses on the most popular of the three–Yan Cha, also known as Cliff Tea.
Cliff teas originate from WuYi Shan, in the Fujian region. They are distinguished by their full body, texture, and heavy roast. The mantra for Cliff Teas is “rock bone, floral aroma”, a poetic description of the teas’ most desirable flavor profile. I like to describe this coveted rock bone flavor as a mixture of minerality and hard earthiness (Cliff Teas possess a rougher earthiness than the softness of Shou Pu Er). Cliff Teas are frequently described by the term yanyun, or “rock rhythm”. While these two descriptors seem to be vastly different, they both emphasize a depth in flavor, alluding to a true Cliff Tea’s complexity, past just a heavily roasted tea.
WuYi Shan is split into two areas, Zheng Yan and Ba Yan. Zheng Yan, translating to True Cliff, is the most desirable. A small, roughly 18 miles wide area, Zheng Yan has numerous individually ranked plots of land. One of the top locations is Niu Lan Keng, Cow Fence Pit, which produces Shui Xian that can sell for over $1,000 per 500 kg (#bucketlist). Zheng Yan teas are consistently more complex, contains deeper rock bone flavor, and displays a minerality sometimes lost in Ban Yan teas.
Ban Yan is the area directly surrounding Zheng Yan. It is larger, therefore allowing more crops to be planted. Since the Zheng Yan region is so small, there are a limited number of varieties that can grow there; conversely, the varieties of tea grown on Ban Yan is much more diverse. Ban Yan teas have bolder flavors, but can lack complexity and more subtle qualities. Needless to say both areas produce delicious tea and in the right hands and under the right conditions, a Ban Yan tea can taste better than a Zheng Yan.
For the sake of space I won’t go over the whole wulong making process–that can be found in my post talking about wulong as a category. The step that really sets Cliff teas apart is a process call dun. Dun is when the tea is stewed in charcoal pits at 75c. This slow process takes 8-12 hours and is what gives Cliff Teas its signature roastiness and texture. While other wulongs are roasted, none reach the degree of roasting that yan chas can. We will talk more about the roasty flavor later.
There are two major cultivars within the yan cha subcategory, Rou Gui and Shui Xian. Shui Xian is a very common wulong cultivar and is also very popular as as a Phoenix wulong. The raw leaf of the Shui Xian plant is larger than most wulong leaves, allowing it to withstand a higher level of roasting, whilst still retaining its other characteristics. Shui Xian often has the most roasted and flavor, rivaled only by Tie Luo Han. Rou Gui is less roasted, but in my opinion, more complex. Rou Gui is translated to cinnamon, the signature flavor note found in the tea.
When it comes to brewing cliff tea, a gaiwan is the most suitable. The practice of using the gaiwan actually originated from an area near the WuYi region and was originally used for drinking Cliff Tea. For a 120ml gaiwan, 8.5 grams is the standard.
I want to end by talking a bit more about the roast. The first point I want to make is that there is no set roast level. I mentioned before that Shui Xian can be the most roasted, but it doesn’t have to be. I have tasted a Shui Xian in which the roast was light, and it is to this date one of my favorite teas. The roast level should be tailored to each individual batch. A batch of leaves that is strong and tender should get a higher roast, while a weaker, later plucked leaf, should have the roast personalized to its weaknesses. The most common flaw for a yan cha is an over roasted flavor causing the tea to take on too strong of a presence which stands in stark, clashing contrast to its other characteristics. This usually goes hand in hand with teas from a bad terroir. When the terroir is subpar, like on a plantation, the leaf is weaker, not as tender and therefore cannot handle a high roast. What you get is a tea that has a strong roast flavor that is completely out of balance with the rest of the tea. Imagine a tea with a strong roast, but a weak body. The roast would seem overpowering without a strong, supporting body and would feel awkward in the mouth. Judging the roast of the tea is the easiest way to begin to look at a Yan Chas objectively.