Today I embarked on my tea-tasting fantasy: the elusive yellow tea.
From my earliest days of learning the in's and out's of the tea world, I have longed for the opportunity to try yellow tea. Back when I was a supermarket-buying teabag drinker, I didn't even know that there were different types of green tea; I thought there was one type, and that it was disgusting. Later I learned that this was most certainly to do with the temperature of the water and the length of brewing time, along with probably an inferior, aged leaf (which is what so commonly goes into supermarket tea bags). Consider my surprise upon hearing that, not only are there numerous green teas, but there are numerous blacks as well, and if you went to the really posh grocers, you might even find a white tea! It was like learning a foreign language. And then came the day when I'd read about yellow tea. From that point, I made it my ultimate tea goal. The problem was that I could never find it.
Tracking down yellow tea has been somewhat like chasing a white rabbit through Wonderland. In my research I would look up "yellow tea" and find plenty of examples of brightly yellow liquors, but they would either be sold as a white tea, or they would simply be out of stock. After some time I started to understand that there are several factors that contribute to this elusiveness; there's genuine yellow tea that's made, and always sells out. Then there's tea that is marketed as yellow which is not, or that people buy because they think they're buying a yellow tea, but it isn't.
Tea Colours: All About the Journey, Not the Destination
I think the assigning of colours to various teas is what contributes most to the seemingly universal confusion surrounding tea. To start with, the colour under which a leaf is sold may have nothing to do with the resulting liquor or even the dried leaf; it all comes down to the steps involved in production, plain and simple. The more the tea leaf is handled, the greater the level of oxidation, which leads to a darker end product, and the darker the tea, the "stronger" the flavour. If you've ever sampled a strong, black tea, (the kind often marketed as "Irish Breakfast," for instance) that colour and strength is the result of much handling and processing by human hands, from tossing and bruising to tearing and cutting. All of that results in one banged-up little Camellia Sinesis leaf. Teas with the lowest oxidation levels have had the least processing, which results in a more vegetal taste. If you have ever had a longjin or a sencha, you'll be familiar with that bright, verdant taste, reminiscent of drinking a meadow. Yet these teas are not always the colour green, despite being sold as such (and whites are never close to resembling the actual colour of white), for instance the Japanese tea hojicha is technically a green tea because it has had very little processing, and yet (due to a roasting process unique only to hojicha, involving roasting the leaves in a porcelain pot over charcoal) the leaves are caramel-coloured. If you haven't tried High Tea's Bancha Hojicha, I highly recommend it -- it will definitely give you a totally different perspective on green tea! So my advice is to never judge a tea by its colour. Some Taiwanese oolongs produce a liquor as bright as an egg yolk, but because of the steps involved in their production, they're marketed simply as "oolong" which many consumers associate with black tea.
Cultural Perceptions of Yellow
The confusion in the colour categories probably contributes to the lack of yellow teas available. They are always sold as "rare" teas, with the price tag to match. Aside from the cloying, bizarrely-named "Mountain Dew" that's popular in America, I can imagine it being a difficult task to market any drink associated with the colour yellow to Western markets, where even green tea is often maligned. Few sales to the West has meant that, despite its prestigious history of being reserved only for the private stock of Emperors, yellow tea is practically unknown outside China. And so, it remains consumed mainly only by the Chinese, who connect its colour with the concepts of nourishment and stability. Less demand also makes production more expensive to maintain, especially where methods have changed little to those used hundreds of years ago. All of this results in yellow tea attaining the status of a Holy Grail, sought out by only the most religious of tea devotees. My coveted leaves today originated in the Anhui province, an area that consistently produces exceptional teas (including my favourite black variety, Keemun). Like most Chinese teas, origin can usually be determined by its name; like Keemun, named for the Qimen region from where it's made, the Huo Shan Huang Ya literally means "Yellow Bud of Mt. Huo."
I want to pause and explain that up until recently, High Teas did not even carry this tea. I reached out to them via Facebook Messenger, looking to know whether they had any yellow teas for purchase, as well as some pu-erh cakes. They did not, but they took the time to source a vendor, and then messaged me to tell me about it. They also did the same with the pu-erh cakes. So don't be shy -- if you are looking for a tea, ask them. If they don't have it, they will find it for you, as they, too, are the most religious of tea devotees. And so they have managed to source a yellow tea called Huo Shan Huang Ya, and I was finally going to make my tea dreams a reality.
Or so I thought. When the Huo Shan Huang Ya arrived in the post today, I opened it with caution, aware that I was about to undertake a very solemn experience that I'd been desperate to try for so long. I stuck my nose inside the bag and inhaled. The dry leaves smelled of soft fruit -- possibly apricots. I immediately thought of their Formosa Poppy Grade Oolong, which has similar aromas. The Huang Ya was deliciously sweet, and yet very subtle. I giddily set my kettle to boil, being mindful to turn it off before the boiling actually began. Like greens and whites, yellow teas develop their best flavours when steeped at a lower temperature, so I aimed for 80 degrees celsius. I then reached for the digital timer that is attached, via magnet, to my fridge, but then I stopped as a small panic seized me: where was the button for "yellow"?
Red and Blue and Yellow and Green...
I undertook great consideration before purchasing this tea timer. Timers are mainly consigned to smartphone apps nowadays; what remains among physical timers are usually categorized either as the very-pretty, not-very-versatile sand timers, or the digital ones, which is what I bought in the end. On my timer, there are buttons for "green" (1 minute) "white" (2 minutes) "black" (3 minutes) and "herbal" (5 minutes), but as for the fabled yellow leaf, there exists no guidance from my little timer. I've learned to not rely too much on the descriptions of each button -- a conclusion reached after many trial-and-error tastings conducted within the very limited confines of those times and the colour of the tea listed. Finally I realised that it was just a digital piece of kit designed in Germany, and while the Germans may have cornered the market on beer, tea is not usually a subject on which Germans hold much authority. The timer is useful, especially if you only press the buttons for the length of time and not the colour, because I've found that many black teas, (which are actually classed as "red" teas in many countries, with the only true blacks being the so-called "dark" teas, those fermented, ripened pu-erhs) need a full five minutes to develop. Whereas many oolongs (or wulongs, for you purists) also sometimes called "blue" teas, come with a recommended steep time of anywhere between three to five minutes, the exact timing of which depends on the shape of the leaf being steeped. If you're confused, you're not alone. A quick internet search for "how long do you steep yellow tea?" resulted in an outrageously mixed result, with many sources suggesting the least steep possible (30 seconds was the most common!). Not only is my tea timer limited in ability to offer any guidance on yellow tea, but it appears most of the information available on the web is dicey as well. So I decided to take a chance and use the "green" button. "After all," I reasoned to myself, "yellows are just greens with a little extra coaxing, right?"
Coaxing the Tea Baby
That little extra coaxing is known as "sweltering." While greens and whites have the least oxidation, going from bud to fire to shape, yellows are just a step further, achieved through the additional process of sweltering. From what I have gleaned in my many non-native Chinese internet searches, sweltering is the process of letting the just-roasted leaves sit to dry out naturally. This extra step results in just a bit more oxidation, so taste-wise, yellow teas fall somewhere between a green tea and an oolong, with an average of 40% oxidation. On their website, High Teas describes the sweltering process for their new Huo Shan Huang Ya yellow tea as being pan-fired and then "carefully wrapped in cloths to let the remaining humidity dry naturally and gently for several hours." They repeat this process until the leaves are completely dried. I've come to think of it as wrapping the precious tea baby in swaddling clothes and laying it down for a nap.
I can report that sixty seconds is not enough time to steep the Huo Shan Huang Ya. It may be chemically similar to a green, but as far as the buttons on my digital timer are concerned, this yellow is closer to a white. After three attempts, I finally determined that two minutes is the optimal length of time for the leaves and buds of the Huang Ya to soak. I'm guessing that the wildly varying recommendations, ranging from the brief thirty seconds to the more-realistic two minutes, may have something to do with the lack of understanding on what exactly constitutes a yellow tea. Without that step of sweltering, then you are just left with a green tea, and greens do tend to need the shortest steep time, otherwise they become harsh and rasping. But as a yellow, the Huang Ya needed longer in the water than a green tea. Remember -- it's been handled more. More processing tends to add more time on to the required steeping length. It was a totally different tea when left in the water that extra sixty seconds. After only a minute, it was lifeless. There was no taste or smell, as if there had been no leaves steeping at all. But I kept returning to the bag and smelling the dry leaves. Where was that promising sweetness? I was determined that the lackluster result HAD to be down to operator error; there was simply no way that my longstanding obsession with yellow tea was going to end in disappointment. So I brewed it again. And again. On the third steep, with fresh leaves scooped from the middle of the bag, I hit a sweet spot. The liquor in the cup finally smelled like the leaves in the bag. At last -- a match!
Take that baby out of its swaddling clothes and wake it up under the right conditions, and you're rewarded with the most delicate of flavours. It's that delicacy that is the reason behind requiring that precious extra time in the water (and as I also learned, about an extra half spoonful of leaves). So go a little heavy on the scooping, go a little longer in the water (and ideally at 70, not 80 degrees) and you reach yellow tea nirvana, with a rounded peachy aroma that would be perfect on any hot summer day. The yellow teas near Mt. Huo are said to have a slight peppery taste, and although the description from High Teas does list "a unique spicy sweetness" as a feature, I didn't find any traces of peppery spiciness in this tea. But after that rocky start, I was just happy to find something rewarding, even if the description didn't exactly match the end result. And who knows -- with a bit more tweaking, maybe I can even unlock the spiciness rumoured to be contained inside.
Like a cowlicky baby, this yellow needs someone with the patience to keep tending to it, believing that despite the trouble, underneath lies a true labour of love. Knowing all of the steps involved in processing the famed yellow leaf, I can attest that it is worth the time and effort.
Try it: The Huo Shan Huang Ya from High Teas is available from £11.95 for 50 grams.