China is home to many rare teas, from delicate greens that only one farmer has perfected to the ancient Pu'er coveted by collectors, there is a wealth of hard to get treasures, but only one type of tea has the distinction of being truly rare, the almost mythical Yellow Tea!
Originating sometime in the early Qing Dynasty (or possibly early Tang Dynasty, though evidence for that date is not as concrete as its later date) this tea is differentiated from other types by the yellowing process it goes through during processing. This step called Men Huang (闷黄) or 'Sealing Yellow' is achieved by lightly steaming the leaves then covering them and allowing them to oxidize and ferment slightly over a period of time. The amount of time the leaves are covered or heaped, as it is also called, is determined by the type of Yellow Tea being processed. This step is said to remove the more vegetal and grassy notes present in Green Teas in favor of an increase of sweetness and mellower flavor.
Sadly due to the popularity of green teas, the time-consuming processing, and slow loss of the knowledge on how to produce the tea, Yellow tea is slowly going extinct. Many growers are only briefly yellowing the teas or skipping the Men Huang step entirely. This has made finding authentic Yellow Tea in the west becomes harder all the time. Conveniently there are trusted vendors that carry legitimate yellow tea, and here are a few that frequently pop up for sale in the western tea market.
Huo Shan Huang Ya, a Yellow Tea from Anhui, bearing a strong resemblance to Huo Shan Mao Feng Green Tea. This is partially due to the very short yellowing time, as this is the least yellowed of all the Yellow Teas and strongly resembles a Green Tea in taste. If you have never tried a Yellow Tea before this is a good stepping off point.
Meng Ding Huang Ya is a fascinating one, in theory, it is the oldest of the Yellow Teas, as well as one of the rarest since only a handful of tea producers know how to traditionally make it. From Sichuan, this tea is made from only the bud and could pass for a Green Tea in appearance, it is roughly in the middle with an average of three days for the yellowing process, whereas the original recipe requires one whole week of yellowing.
Probably the most famous of the Yellow Teas is Jun Shan Yin Zhen, a bud tea from Jun Shan Island in Hunan Province. At first glance, the fuzzy needles could be mistaken for the popular white tea Bai Hao Yin Zhen, but on closer inspection it is easy to tell that this is a different tea, the first clue being the yellow color of the leaves. A true Jun Shan Yin Zhen will be yellowed for around a week, though you can find ones that have been yellowed for a much shorter time. They will be easy to spot since they will still retain their green coloring.
There are other types of Yellow teas from around China, though sadly they are almost impossible to find outside of China since they are only processed in small amounts. In recent years other tea producing regions (like India, as an example) have started producing a Yellow Tea, though it is unclear if they are true Yellows or just emulating the style while skipping the yellowing step.
We can only hope that with the rise of tea culture in the west the desire for Yellow Tea will continue to increase, showing tea producers that is worth the time to produce traditional Yellow Tea, or to go the way several small Chinese farms have been going by experimenting with new types of Yellow Teas. Stay tuned for a closer look at Jun Shan Yin Zhen!
Written by Amanda, Independent Blogger at My Thoughts Are Like Butterflies Tea Blog