All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant and from either one of it’s two principal variants - Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Yellow tea is made from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant - like green tea, white tea, and oolong tea. It’s not the plant but rather the process which differentiates yellow tea from other types of tea.
Yellow tea, known as huángchá in Chinese, is a lightly fermented tea unique to China. Huángchá is a rare and expensive variety of tea with a long and prestigious history. For centuries, yellow tea has been closely connected with China’s rulers and was associated with status and exclusivity. In recent years, yellow tea has gained renown because of its silky, pleasant taste and associated health benefits (Xu, 2018, Yellow Tea, Wikipedia, 2019).
The first section of this article is an overview of the general flavour of yellow tea, preparation and health benefits. The second section provides a review of five of the most famous types of yellow teas; Junshan Yinzhen (Jun Shan Yin Zhen), Meng Ding Huangya (Meng Ding Huang Ya), Pingyang Huangtang (Huang Tang), Da Ye Qing, and Huoshan Huangya (Huo Shan Huang Ya). The third section discusses how yellow tea is produced, and the fourth section talks about the fascinating and prestigious history of yellow tea. The fifth section provides a more in-depth look at the health benefits of yellow tea, and the sixth and final section is a summary of the key points.
Flavour, Preparation, and Health Benefits of Yellow Tea.
Flavour Profile of Yellow Tea.
Loose-leaf yellow tea has a delicate taste, offering a smooth, refined flavour with little or no grassy notes. Given how illustrious and delicate yellow tea is, if you have the opportunity to drink it, jump at the chance! But be sure to use glass teaware as it helps open up the bouquet of flavours in the tea.
How To Brew Yellow Tea.
Brew loose leaf yellow tea with water that is 185 °F (85 °C) and steep for around four to five minutes. Do not pour boiling water on yellow tea as it will spoil the taste - something you do not want to do with this precious tea.
Summary of the Health Benefits of Yellow Tea.
The health benefits of yellow tea are from its antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties (Xu, 2018). Yellow tea is high in amino acids, particularly L-theanine, which is beneficial for general health, cognition and weight loss. Yellow tea has also been shown to help with the management of type 2 diabetes and can have a protective effect on the liver.
Tea Recommendations and Personal Thoughts.
Founder of The Tea Tribe
A Comprehensive Discussion of Yellow Tea.
Different Types of Yellow Tea.
When compared to other types of tea, yellow tea is not as well-known and studied (Xu, 2018). There are some different types of yellow tea, each with a slightly different taste. Overall, yellow tea has a mild aroma; the aroma concentration in yellow tea is one of the lowest, second only to green tea (Feng, 2019). The five main types of yellow tea are discussed in more detail below.
Junshan Yinzhen (Jun Shan Yin Zhen).
Junshan Yinzhen (also called Junshan Silver Needles) is produced in the Hunan province of China and is grown exclusively on the small, mist-covered mountain of Jun Shan Island (Marty, 2019). It takes 60,000 painstakingly harvested buds to yield just one kilogram of Junshan Yinzhen tea, and the island produces only 500 kilograms of tea per year. In taste, Junshan Yinzhen is reportedly similar to the Bai Hao white tea.
Meng Ding Huangya (Meng Ding Huang Ya).
Meng Ding Huangya (Mt. Meng Yellow Sprout) finds its origins in China’s Sichuan province and is cultivated along Mt. Meng’s peak (Marty, 2019). Meng Ding Huangya tea has been grown and produced since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It also has the most extended history of being a tribute tea, spanning from the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) to the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912 AD) (Tea Drunk, 2019).
Meng Ding Huangya features a nutty flavour with minor traces of grass fragrance (Marty, 2019).
Pingyang Huangtang (Huang Tang).
Produced in the Chinese Zhejiang province, Pingyang Huangtang yellow tea is known as “yellow broth.” This yellow tea is usually made using one bud and one or two delicate leaves (Marty, 2019).
Da Ye Qing.
Da Ye Qing is from Guangdong Province of China and grows in Shaoguan, Zhaoqing and Zhanjiang county. Translated, Da Ye Qing means “Big Leaf Green.” This large-leaf yellow tea is a traditional drink in China and has a unique ‘toasted’ flavour and crispy-rice-like smell (Guo, 2019).
Huoshan Huangya (Huo Shan Huang Ya).
Huoshan Huangya is cultivated in the Yellow Mountains of Anhui, China. First produced during the Ming Dynasty, Huoshan Huangya was an Imperial tribute tea (Marty, 2019). However, records of Huoshan Huangya stopped near the end of the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s (Tea Drunk, 2019). A tea called Huoshan Huangya can still be found on the tea market, although there is debate over its legitimacy.
Some claim that historic tea records and tea scientists were able to recreate Huoshan Huangya tea in 1973, in the Huo Shan region located in the Huangshan Mountains (Yellow Mountains) of Anhui (Tea Drunk, 2019). However, some dissenters doubt the degree of accuracy in the restoration of this traditional tea, and other skeptics maintain that Huoshan Huangya in today’s market is simply green tea (Seven Cups, 2019). Moderate skeptics accept that it is possible to recreate Huoshan Huangya tea; however, they argue that what is often claimed to be Huoshan Huangya is, in fact, not yellow tea. This argument is credible because the Huo Shan region produces a lot of green tea, and frequently products are inaccurately claimed to be Huoshan Huangya (Tea Drunk, 2019).
Regardless of its legitimacy, the discussion of Huoshan Huangya’s taste must be limited to what is currently on the market. This yellow tea is claimed to have a peppery flavour and is usually brewed using both buds and leaves from the tea plant (Marty, 2019).
Production of Yellow Tea.
The process of creating yellow tea is very time-consuming and requires expert knowledge (Tea Processing, Wikipedia, 2019)(Seven Cups, 2019). While the initial process for making yellow and green tea is the same, the production of yellow tea requires additional steps (Xu, 2018).
The critical feature of yellow tea is its lack of oxidation. In this way, yellow and white tea are similar: they involve oxidation of only between 10–20% (Gascoigne, 2018). Chinese yellow tea consists of a process similar to green tea but requires the added step of encasing and steaming the tea (Xu, 2018). One of the objectives of producing yellow tea is to eliminate the characteristic grassy smell of green tea.
The tender buds of the tea plant are harvested during a narrow time window and must be treated with great care to avoid bruising (Tea processing, Wikipedia, 2019). Depending on the type of yellow tea produced, few to no leaves get collected with the bud. In the next step, the tea is dried in a process called withering, where the leaves lose moisture.
Once the moisture content is reduced, the leaves then go through a process called firing, also known as fixation or ‘kill green”. Firing the tea leaf stops oxidation at the desired level, fixing it at that level.
The fixing process used in yellow tea is unique because it occurs incrementally and gradually. The firing of the tea leaves takes place at a low temperature for a short duration. The leaves are then re-wrapped and allowed to cool and oxidize slightly before repeating the steps. The entire firing process may take up to three days.
The tea leaves are covered during the firing process (Tea processing, Wikipedia, 2019), and the duration of sack covering is a significant factor in the flavour of yellow tea. Yellow tea’s mellow taste is caused by the change of amino acids and polyphenols during processing (Gong, 2000). In yellow tea, the content of the catechin GCG increases about 5-fold after roasting.
During the firing process, different coverings are used to make specific yellow teas. The tea leaves can be covered with thick paper, cloth, or placed in a wooden box.
After the fixing process is complete, the tea leaves undergo sealed yellowing, which allows for light fermentation. Sealed yellowing is always involved in yellow tea processing. It increases the oxidation level and removes the characteristic grassy smell associated with green tea while preserving its health benefits (Xu, 2018).
Sealed yellowing involves lightly heating the leaves in a closed container (Tea processing, Wikipedia, 2019), which causes chlorophyll in the leaves to transform and the appearance to turn yellow (Zhou, 2005). The leaves are allowed to wilt for six to eight hours at temperatures similar to that of the human body, which ranges from 97°F (36.1°C) to 99°F (37.2°C).
The sealed yellowing process impacts the quality of yellow tea: water content, temperature and duration all play a role. One study found the optimal conditions had a water content of 40%, a temperature of 35℃, and a piling duration of seven hours (Zhou, 2005).
During the sealed yellowing (as well as the unique firing process), the amino acids and polyphenols undergo chemical changes, producing yellow tea’s distinct briskness and mellow taste (Gong, 2000). Yellowing time is also known to improve the quality and bioactivity, increasing the antioxidants and anticancer effects (An, 2019).
The final step in the production of yellow tea is the process of drying (Tea processing, Wikipedia, 2019). When compared to green tea production, the drying process involved in making yellow tea is comparatively slow (Marty, 2019). Much like sealed yellowing, the slow drying process furthers the mellow flavour associated with yellow tea and helps eliminate grassy tastes and smells.
History of Yellow Tea.
Yellow tea has a long and prestigious history. The tea can trace its lineage back as far as the 16th century to the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) (Chamberlain, 2019). During this time, 9kg of Junshan Yinzhen yellow tea was demanded by the Emperor each year (Tea Drunk, 2019). Some reports contend that yellow tea can be traced back even further to the Tang Dynasty 1300 years ago (Chamberlain, 2019).
During the ruling dynasties, yellow was the colour of emperors and so yellow tea was primarily reserved for royalty. In its historical roots, yellow tea was associated with status and exclusivity. During this time, it was an established practice for emperors to bestow a gift of yellow tea upon their guests, compounding the tea’s prestige.
Yellow tea developed in isolated instances in areas already famous for producing green tea, including regions like Meng Ding Shan in Sichuan or Huo Shan in Anhui (Seven Cups, 2019). One of the most critical areas which produce yellow tea today is Jun Shan Island, only a single kilometre wide (Chamberlain, 2019). Currently, Jun Shan Island is state-owned (Tea Drunk, 2019), so even in modern history, the exclusivity of yellow tea has been maintained by China’s leaders. It is said that Chairman Mao favoured Jun Shan yellow tea (Shadid, 2016)(Wikipedia, 2018).
Only one master tea maker knows the exact process for producing yellow tea, so in this way, making yellow tea remains a trade secret. China currently compensates the master yellow tea maker with a government stipend of an undisclosed amount.
It is difficult to find yellow tea outside of China (Marty, 2019), and that is not likely to change. Much like the practices of emperors in bygone Chinese dynasties, the yearly harvest of Junshan Yinzhen tea goes directly to government departments (Tea Drunk, 2019). And echoing the gift-giving traditions of old, some yellow tea is reserved for gifts to be given to visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
Junshan Yinzhen aside, there remain only a few tea masters alive today with the skills required to make the other varieties of yellow tea (Shadid, 2016). Even the most skilled modern tea masters lack the knowledge of their predecessors (Seven Cups, 2019).
Health Benefits Of Yellow Tea.
Yellow tea is less well-known and studied when compared with other types of tea, but has been shown to have antioxidative, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties (Xu, 2018).
High in Antioxidants.
The antioxidant activity in tea contributes to numerous health benefits like cardiovascular protection and anticancer effects (Zhao, 2019). Yellow tea is only slightly processed and therefore is high in antioxidants with potent antioxidant effects (Wang, 2013). Some research indicates yellow tea has among the highest antioxidative potential (Gramza-Michałowska, 2016). When yellow, white, green, black and pu’er tea is compared, yellow tea shows the highest antiradical activity (Gramza-Michałowska, 2015).
High In Amino Acids, Particularly L-theanine.
Yellow tea has a comparatively high amino acid content (Dong, 2018), and free amino acids are an indicator of the freshness of the tea (Yang, 2019). Interestingly, the concentration of amino acid L-theanine is significantly higher in yellow tea leaves than in green tea leaves (Cheng, 2019). L-theanine is relevant to tea drinkers because L-theanine has a wide range of health benefits: positive effects on relaxation, cognitive performance, emotions, sleep, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and the common cold (Şanlier, 2017).
Improvement of Type 2 Diabetes.
Yellow tea can improve symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes (Teng, 2018). One study found that independent of dose, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance improved with the consumption of yellow tea (Xu, 2018). Yellow tea has also been found to help hyperglycemia and lower blood sugar concentration (Han, 2016). Interestingly, yellow tea’s ability to regulate blood sugar after a meal increases after the roasting process (Zhou, 2018).
One study concluded that yellow tea is a potent anti-obesity agent. The study inferred that white tea, yellow tea and oolong tea inhibits obesity by increasing energy expenditure and fatty acid oxidation (Liu, 2019). Another study that administered a 12-week treatment of yellow tea to mice found a significant reduction in body weight and fat tissue (Xu, 2018). Research also suggests yellow tea reduces lipid synthesis (Teng, 2018), impeding fat formation.
One study showed that yellow tea might protect against liver injury (Hashimoto, 2007), improving its antioxidant function (Kujawska, 2016). Another study examined whether yellow tea could protect against carcinogenesis in the liver and found it offered partial protection (Kujawska, 2016).
Yellow tea, known as huángchá in Chinese, is unique to China and is rare and expensive. Outside of China, yellow tea is hard to find, and even within China, it may be difficult to source. Yellow tea is rare because only a few regions produce it, and the exact process by which it is made is known only by a few tea masters.
Yellow tea has a long and prestigious history and was the Imperial tribute tea for many dynasties. The Chinese government now maintains control of one of the critical regions of yellow tea production. Both the emperors of old and the Chinese government of today have a custom of bestowing yellow tea as a gift to visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
Five famous varieties of yellow tea are Junshan Yinzhen (Jun Shan Yin Zhen), Meng Ding Huangya (Meng Ding Huang Ya), Pingyang Huangtang (Huang Tang), Da Ye Qing, and Huoshan Huangya (Huo Shan Huang Ya). However, the legitimacy of today’s Huoshan Huangya tea is debated.
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