July 21, 2021
by Diana Rosen
It is estimated that yellow tea was first processed during the earliest part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) from tea grown along the mountainsides in three different Chinese provinces: Hunan, Sichuan, and Zhejiang and, to a lesser degree, Anhui.
Up until the 17th century, yellow teas were celebrated for their appearance and distinctive taste which made them sought after Tribute Teas (gong cha), those stellar enough to warrant the honor of presentation to the royal court. Tribute teas were always and only available to the court, given by the emperor to esteemed dignitaries or shared by him on rare occasions with the highest echelon of society.
Today’s premier yellow teas are Jun Shan Yin Zhen, grown on a small area on the island of Jun Shan in Hunan Province, and Meng Ding (misty peaks) Huang Ya, grown in Sichuan Province. They contain one tea bud or one bud and one leaf, hand plucked and gently processed.
A third type, Mo Gan Huang Ya, grown in Zhejiang Province, contains tea buds and multiple leaves and is referred to as Huang Ziao Cha. Other varieties, are grown in limited quantities in other areas of Hunan, Zhejiang, and to a lesser degree, in Anhui and may include up to five leaves with one bud. Their small output means they’re rarely exported.
HOW YELLOW TEAS ARE PROCESSED
Yellow tea processing requires extensive labor, is produced in small quantities, and gets its name from the color of the leaves and the color in the cup. Despite the small production, it maintains its position between whites and greens among the six ways Camellia sinensis can be processed. (The others are oolong, black, and pu-erh.)
After an early spring harvest of young, delicate leaves and tender buds, yellow teas go through similar steps of green tea processing such as lightly toasting the leaves to reduce enzyme activity. Its most significant step, men huang, is a unique technique in which the leaves are wrapped in paper (for Yin Zhen) and cloth (for other huang cha types) after a brief pan firing. The leaves dry naturally in this wrapping, and the process is repeated up to our times. Men huang is also called “sealing” because it enables the leaves to retain some moisture to steam or “seal” the leaves which gives them their distinctive fragrance and mellow flavor. Additional drying may contribute to a toasty rice-like quality.
Because these drying (oxidation) techniques are done slowly, and for just a brief time, the leaves turn a light ochre or yellow color, have little or no astringency, and none of the grassiness that distinguishes green teas. Although rolling is a common step in green tea processing, it is not used in yellow tea production except for Hwang Da Cha whose large leaves require shaping.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF YELLOW TEA
Although it shares many of the health benefits of all true teas like catechins and polyphenols, there appears to be a higher concentration of antioxidants and the amino acid l-theanine in yellow teas, compared to greens. Yellows also have slightly more caffeine than greens, but considerably less than oolongs or blacks, and a good amount of vitamins B and C. Their mellow flavor and lack of astringency make them easy to digest.
HOW TO BREW YELLOW TEA
Like their cousins, whites, and greens, yellow teas should be brewed lightly for short times in lower temperatures of water, preferably 165 to 175° F. Guywans and porcelain teapots are excellent vessels for brewing, but clear glass makes for an exciting presentation to enjoy the beauty of the leaves’ color and shape. Brewing times can be one to three minutes, with longer brewing for subsequent infusions. The taste is slightly fruity with an edge of creaminess some tasters associate with sweet corn. It feels smooth and buttery on the palate with a medium body. The fragrance is floral and sweet, not unlike chrysanthemum or jasmine.
Masters Teas’ Jun Shan Yin Zhen grows on Jun Shan Island in the Hunan Province of China. Hunan (south of the lake) is a landlocked province famous for yellow teas. Jun Shan Yin Zhen was developed on an island in the middle of Dongting Lake, the second-largest freshwater lake in China. This tea boasts sage downy green and silvery buds with a dry aroma redolent of melon and brewed flavor that is creamy, light, with hints of toasty muscat grape-like fruitiness. Grown at only 55 meters above sea level, it was hand-plucked in April. Full of buds and pekoe, known locally as Bai He, (white crane) it is harvested from 15-20-year-old trees with leaves between 3-7 cm in length. Contains a low level of caffeine. Steep at 170° F. for 2-3 minutes.
Masters Teas’ Meng Ding (misty peak) is a premier yellow tea that dates to the Han Dynasty. offers an array of yellow buds. Huang Ya (yellow teas) are long straight leaves rather than curls and the 3 cm long leaves are hand-plucked from 30-year-old trees in early May. The dry aroma is fruity, the liquor light yellow with nutty, warming notes. Grown at 600-1000 meters above sea level in Sichuan, China, the leaves are fired four times, producing a bright yellow cup known locally as Ya An Huang Cha. Contains a low level of caffeine. Steep at 170° F. for 2-3 minutes.