Yellow teas have been prized as Tribute Teas, and favored by emperors, for over a thousand years. Crafting yellow tea requires an intense amount of focused and meticulous work, which, although once highly valued, has meant that the number of dedicated artisans who make Yellow tea has gradually dwindled. This prized, in-between category of tea is now extremely rare, to the point of being considered endangered.
Yellow teas are semi-oxidized teas that fall in the delicate space between green tea and oolong: they are oxidized slightly more than green teas, and slightly less than oolong teas. But the distinction runs deeper. The oxidation of yellow tea differs fundamentally from that of green, oolong and black teas, which all go through enzymatic oxidation; a result of enzymes in the tea leaves reacting with oxygen in the air. Yellow tea, however, goes through hydrothermal oxidation; a result of trapped water vapour and heat during its processing. This allows for slight fermentation to occur; something both essential and unique to Yellow teas.
To craft Yellow tea, newly sprouted buds are carefully picked in the early morning and withered on bamboo mats indoors. The leaves are then pan-fried in small batches of roughly 100 grams. After their initial pan-frying, the tea is wrapped in hand-made paper and stored in a dedicated room with higher humidity and temperature. Every 30 minutes for 4 hours, the paper packages are unwrapped, the tea is moved around, and the tea is then wrapped up again. This is where the fermentation occurs. Following its wrapping and unwrapping, the tea is pan-fried again to further reduce its moisture content. This process is called 焖黄, or “smothering,” and it is unique to the making of Yellow tea. After the final pan-frying, the tea is spread out on paper and allowed to cool for around 36 hours, before receiving a final low-temperature baking.
This precise traditional craftsmanship of Yellow tea has been handed down through generations orally, byway of one craftsman instructing another, which has meant some ambiguity around what qualifies a tea as Yellow tea. As a result, Yellow tea has many imposters; nowadays you will find some green teas passed off as Yellow teas.
We are very fortunate to see several examples of traditionally made Yellow Tea at Cultivate this Spring. These teas are rare, and the process by which they are made is a near-extinct cultural artifact. Our gratitude for the persistence of their few producers is immense, as we are afforded a great opportunity to deepen our understanding of Yellow tea by tasting several of them side by side. We have a particular incentive to appreciate these teas in detail, recognizing how close we are to losing their kind.