With a tradition of tea making that spans thousands of years, China has had plenty of time to take the art of tea-making to the most sublime levels. One result of this rich experience is Yellow Tea — a tea so refined that few possess the knowledge and skills to produce it, making it the rarest tea in the world.
Yellow Tea is technically a subcategory of green tea, as part of the process for making it involves the same drying process as that which results in green tea. However, the crucial difference is an extra step in the process, in which the tea leaves are allowed to ferment just a little. The result is a gently mellow tea with a rich golden color, much prized in its native country.
Production is limited to just a few artisanal tea-makers working in limited geographical regions. With rarer varieties highly prized as a Tribute Tea in China, prices for yellow tea can rise to the hundreds of dollars per gram in the West.
Let’s find out more about this very special tea.
Gaiwan huang ya – yellow tea (Image: KirillK / Creative Commons)
The Art of Making Yellow Tea
Just like the black or green tea you drink to start your day, yellow tea is made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, or the tea shrub. The differences between the varieties are all in the picking and processing of the leaves.
Green tea, which was the original tea, drunk for thousands of years in China before gaining popularity abroad, is non-fermented tea. The fresh leaves are picked, and within a few hours are heated to kill the enzymes within the leaves and lock in the fresh, astringent taste. The leaves may be fried, baked, sun-dried, or steamed, depending on the variety of green tea being produced.
Black tea (known as red tea in China) is made by fermenting the leaves so that they turn black. After picking the leaves are left to wilt, then are rolled to break them, aiding the oxidizing process. Next, they are covered in a wet cloth and left for anywhere from two to ten hours. This is the stage at which the leaves ferment, changing color. Finally, the leaves are baked to end the process.
Yellow tea falls between these two processes. Young leaves and buds, or in some cases just the buds, are picked and heated, as if making a green tea. However, before the enzymes are fully killed off, the leaves are wrapped in a binding and left to gently ferment in their own residual moisture, yellowing the leaves. This process may be repeated a number of times using various methods. Finally, when the leaves have reached the desired degree of fermentation, the leaves will be fully dried, ending the process.
An Endangered Tea
As you can see, making yellow tea is much more time-consuming than other varieties, and also requires a much higher level of expertise, as each step holds the potential for ruining the tea batch. This, together with the global rise in green tea popularity and consumption, has seen yellow tea wane in popularity among growers, even as it retains its fan base in China.
Some varieties have gone extinct in recent years as the expertise to make them has been lost. Others were revived after some years of abandonment, though no one is exactly sure that the new versions match the historic varieties. On the other hand, those that remain tend to be of a high quality, prized for their value as a Tribute Tea.
One such tea is Meng Ding Huang Ya. You would expect teas from Meng Ding Shan to be of high quality: the region is where the first documented evidence of tea making is found, dating from 53BC. Teas from this region have the longest history of being served as Tribute Teas – from the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) through to the last Qing Dynasty, which lasted until 1912 – and have been widely praised by poets down the years. Yellow tea making is becoming a rarity in the region, but Meng Ding Huang Ya can still be enjoyed.
Huo Shan is another region with a long pedigree of documented tea-making, with records of trading records, taxation changes and recording of tea-making processes dating back to the early 3rd Century BC. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, (1368-1644AD) the region was offering up Huang Ya as a Tribute tea. Then, in the early 1900s, all records of Huang Ya production suddenly ended. It’s assumed that the tea simply ceased production. In the 1970s, Huo Shan Huang Ya was revived, and is now producing some highly sought after yellow teas.
The rarest of all, however, is Jun Shan Yin Zhen. Jun Shan is a tiny island just 1 kilometer square, located 15km offshore near the city of Yue Yang, yet it has been producing teas for over 1300 years. During the Qing Dynasty, the island was tasked with sending 9kg of the yellow tea to the royal court annually. Today, the secrets of the island’s yellow tea production methods lie in the hands of just one man, who produces the island’s crop with a team of 30 helpers. Things have not changed much over the years. The size of the island limits production, and today around 9kg of Jun Shan Yin Zhen is still made, for the Chinese government to serve to diplomats and visiting dignitaries. Samples can be found, but it commands a steep price: four grams sells for $200.
In line with other teas made from Camellia sinensis, yellow tea is rich with antioxidants and other compounds that offer a wealth of health benefits to the drinker. There are some suggestions that yellow tea may be higher in antioxidants than other varieties as the youngest leaves are used in yellow tea production. Others point out that yellow tea is more palatable than green tea, with a sweeter, less astringent taste. This makes it an excellent alternative for those who want to enjoy the benefits of green tea but don’t like the taste.
Protects against neurodegenerative disease: Yellow tea contains antioxidants such as catechins and polyphenols, including the polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). These compounds are believed to counter free radicals which build up in the body and attack cells, including brain cells. Over time, that damage is believed to play a role in causing neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia. By keeping free radical levels down, you’ll be preserving cell health for years to come.
Protects against cancer Free radicals attack all sorts of healthy cells in the body, not just brain cells. In addition to dementia, free radicals are thought to be a key cause of cancer, turning the body against itself. Keeping those free radicals at bay by drinking yellow tea could be a great way to guard against cancers.
Aids in weight loss Those catechins aren’t only good at fighting free radicals. Studies have shown that drinking tea laden with catechins is associated with a lower body weight, BMI, waist circumference, body fat mass, and subcutaneous fat – in other words, they can help with weight loss. It’s thought that drinking tea speeds up your metabolism, helping you burn fat faster and keep the weight off.
Helps prevent heart disease Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, so it’s important to take steps to prevent it. Numerous studies have shown that drinking black and green tea can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, both causes of heart disease. While few studies have looked at yellow tea specifically in relation to heart disease, there’s little reason to think it won’t have the same effect.
Has anti-inflammatory properties Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection, but in the case of auto-immune diseases, this mechanism goes into overdrive, causing serious issues such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease which can make life miserable. However, studies have found that tea drinking is associated with lower levels of C-reactive protein, a protein linked to inflammation, and may therefore help relieve symptoms of these diseases.
Yellow tea can be enjoyed in a variety of ways (Image: Teona Swift / Pexels)
Ways to Enjoy Yellow Tea
So now we know all about how yellow tea is made, and the health properties it can bring, the question remains: how best to enjoy yellow tea?
Classically brewed yellow tea: As a rare tea, chances are that your yellow tea is a loose-leaf variety. The best way to experience the floral, sweet, nutty flavor profiles that yellow tea offers is through brewing the leaves in the classic Chinese way: by steeping in an open vessel.
To taste the tea at its best, add 4g of leaves to 300ml of filtered water, pre-heated to 85°C in an open vessel, such as an unlidded jug or bowl. Allow the leaves to steep for 2 minutes in the first steep, or for 30 seconds in subsequent steeps. The leaves can be re-steeped up to six times.
Iced Yellow Tea The mellowness of yellow tea makes it a great option on which to base an iced tea – perfect for long, hot summer days. Hot brew the tea as above, or, if you prefer an even softer flavor profile, cold brew by adding the leaves to cold water and leaving them to gently infuse overnight.
Once brewed and cooled, pair the tea with complementary fruit flavors, either by adding juices or by chopping up your favorite fruits and adding the chunks to the tea. Peach, melon, pear and apple are ideal options here. Don’t forget to check out our recommendations for the best iced tea sets for summer first!
Yellow Tea Chocolate Truffles Want to try something completely different? Tea makes a great addition to food dishes as well as being an enjoyable beverage. Tea-smoked chicken is a favorite in our household! Or if you fancy something sweet, why not try these yellow tea chocolate truffles from Jen Reviews?
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon of crème fraîche
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of unsalted butter
- ½ ounce of Yellow tea leaves (or about 2 tablespoons of loose tea or 6 tea bags worth of tea leaves)
- 10 ounces of semisweet chocolate
- unsweetened cocoa
- combine butter, crème fraîche, and 2 tablespoons of clean water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, and add the tea-leaves.
- Place a lid on the pan, and allow the leaves to steep in the mixture for about five minutes, before straining out the leaves and setting them aside.
- Place the chocolate in a medium sized mixing bowl. Bring the crème fraîche mixture back to a boil, before pouring over the chocolate.
- Stir the cream mixture and chocolate until the two are fully combined into a smooth, thick liquid. Pour the mixture into a 9-inch wide baking pan, and chill until it’s firm.
- Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper. Using a melon baller, scoop out the chilled chocolate mixture and shape into balls. You may want to use latex gloves, but either way, don’t forget to wash your hands first!
- Finally, dust the balls with the unsweetened cocoa powder, and serve. Enjoy!