Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pursuit of Yellow Tea

Lately I've been enjoying a beautiful yellow tea (黃茶) from Anhui, China called Huo Shan Huang Ya (霍山黃芽). I've heard the term "yellow tea" plenty of times over the past decade but the actual meaning of the term has remained nebulous in my mind. In their excellent book The Story of Tea, Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss write: "Tea experts outside of Asia have a difficult time explaining exactly what yellow tea is." That statement rings true for me. Although I'm nowhere near being called a tea expert, it's about time I learned how to properly describe yellow tea.

Huo Shan Huang Ya

I spent the afternoon doing some research and here is what I came up with.

Yellow tea, the majority of which is made high in the mountains of Anhui or Sichuan provinces, refers to a lesser known category of Chinese tea. It is a handmade tea produced similarly to green tea but it employs one additional production step known as menhuang (悶黃). Menhuang (literally "sealing yellow") is a tiny bit like the wodui (渥堆) (moist pile) step involved in the production of shu puer (熟普洱). During menhuang the tender young leaves will be wrapped with cloth or paper and kept moist and warm for the appropriate length of time (ranging from a few hours to a few days). Sometimes they are also stored in wooden boxes. The leaves will actually turn yellow (or at the least yellow-ish green) during this step.

The deeper I go into my research, the more I become conflicted. Seven Cups (an American tea company that I greatly trust) claims that "there are only three kinds of yellow tea that survive today." They go on to say that Huo Shan Huang Ya (the tea I'm sipping as I write this blog post) used to be a famous yellow tea, but is now only available as a green tea. Apparently there is a subcategory of green teas called luzhen (緑針) (green needle) that often becomes mixed up with yellow tea.

Whether I'm drinking a true yellow tea or a green needle tea, I really like this Huo Shan Huang Ya. It has a gentle, sweet, nutty flavor that tastes more mature than many green teas. I've also heard that yellow teas store well and may even be amenable to careful aging. Because of this I'm very eager to learn about (and taste!) more of them.

The Story of Tea by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss
Tea Dictionary by James Norwood Pratt
How Yellow Tea is Produced by Peony Tea S.
About Yellow Tea by Seven Cups
Babelcarp by Lew Perin


Ivan Sagalaev said...

That's interesting. I always thought that there's only *one* true yellow tea, namely Junshan Yinzhen.

Kate said...

I've tried a few yellow teas, and I really like what I've tried! They do vary a fair bit in term of flavour, some taste more green, others more like a spicy white tea, and some more like a light oolong.

If you're interested, I have some reviews of yellow teas here:

Brett said...

Thanks Ivan - It sounds like there used to be others but you may be right that these days Junshan Yinzhen is the only one true yellow tea available.

Thanks Kate - I'm still going to call my Huoshan Huang Ya and yellow tea at least for the time being. It was sold to me as a yellow tea and is just different enough from a green tea to make me believe it must be yellow tea.

I just discovered this great post by the folks behind Vicony tea co. It provides new insights to my research: