While pretty much everyone knows that there’s black and green tea, and many know about white and oolong, far fewer are familiar with yellow tea. And that’s rather a shame because yellow tea is a tea worth having.
Yet yellow teas are not commonly seen. Few gardens produce them, production is costly, and quantities are limited. Also, historically, yellow teas were made primarily for local consumption and not for a global market, so there’s never been much demand for them—rather a circular argument because how can people want something that they don’t even know exists!
Yellow teas are made in southern China, with precise production techniques that are complicated and time-consuming. These methods have generally been kept secret, which means that as tastes for tea have changed—and because green tea is quicker, easier, and cheaper to make—many regional processes for making yellow tea have been lost over time. Today, there are only a few types of yellow tea produced, in small amounts, in a limited area of China.
This rare type is neither black nor green nor white but truly is its own thing. Yellow tea can be produced from buds, small leaves, or large leaves, with each type having its own characteristics.
Production for this rarity begins similarly to that for green tea, with a preliminary frying. But then the leaves are wrapped in either cloth or heavy paper (depending on the type of yellow tea being made) to undergo a “smothering” step, or micro-fermentation. This step, often called “sealed yellowing,” allows the moist, softened leaves to re-absorb their own aromatics, increases leaf oxidation, and reduces the grassiness that characterizes green teas. After smothering, the leaves are slowly roasted.
These production steps may be repeated, once or multiple times. During the process, the simple polyphenols of the tea leaf are converted into complex theaflavins. In the end, the tea possesses a yellow-pigmented leaf and a golden cup.
The gently baked leaves of the organic China Yellow Dragon tea that I have (available at TeaHaus) range from umber to raw sienna to golden in hue.
The leaves brew up a cup that’s a lovely golden brown with an orange tinge. I thought its aroma kept changing, especially when in different-diameter cups. I got slight spicy, with almost a bit of floral, but grounded in a pleasant earthiness, but in a more narrow cup, definitely more vegetal than earthy.
This is why I rarely describe the aroma or the flavor of teas. First, there are many people who are far more skilled at picking out nuances and at describing aromas/flavors; second, a component of this depends on how strong the tea has been made, what type of vessel it’s in, and so on; third, a tea can smell/taste different to each individual; and fourth, knowing what you “should” taste before you taste a tea can influence what you taste or think you taste.
According to tea sommelier Lisa McDonald, the complex liquor is reminiscent of Darjeeling, with a strong earthiness followed by a malty finish, and she suggests pairing this tea with a hardy red meat dish.
Although yellow tea can be classified as a green tea, the characteristic grassiness of green tea has been removed by the “sealed yellowing” step—yet when I brewed the tea very strong, that vegetal aspect of green teas was there, just in a more earthy way. I love the complexity of its flavor and how it pleasantly lingers for an extremely long time on the palate.
The tea is generally described as being really yellow, yet my photos in ambient room light definitely have the tea as more orangey. Photographed in a white cup below a north window with indirect light, you can see the sunniness of the tea, but still with that orange tinge.
The teacup color and material, depth of liquid, lighting, strength of brew, calibration of your monitor—all these impact the color you see, so remember that it’s relative. But no matter the exact color, yellow tea is quite lovely!
And also keep in mind that there are different yellow teas, just like there are many green teas or black teas. Check out Eustacia’s blog in which she samples and describes a yellow tea that’s quite different from Yellow Dragon!