Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yellow tea explained, and a Korean yellow tea reviewed

This post will cover yellow tea research first, then a review of an example I bought in Korea.  As I mentioned recently it's not informative to review one tea against a type, without reference knowledge of trying others, but at least it fits my "journey to tea" blog theme.

Yellow tea research

Why not start with Wikipedia input:

Yellow tea (Chinese: 黃茶; pinyin: huángchá) usually implies a special tea processed similarly to green tea, but with a slower drying phase, where the damp tea leaves are allowed to sit and yellow... The smell is sometimes mistaken for black if the tea is cured with other herbs, but similarities in taste can still be noticed between yellow, green and white teas.

Sounds good, if a bit vague.  Maybe back to the reference graphic on tea processing, with the long attribution label:   by Sjschen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

yep, add "moist heating," or sitting there wet (can't be that simple right)

Another vendor reference (Tea Trekker) clarifies what these steps really involve:

During men huan [firing] the heated, softened leaf is removed from the tea firing pan, covered with a cloth, and allowed to ‘rest’ for a few hours or as long as a day. This smothering step can be repeated several times over several days... In this step (which is not part of green tea manufacture ) men huan encourages the softened leaf to reabsorb its own aromatics. The results of this step will be expressed later as additional sweetness...

The same reference said the teas can be produced from buds only or from a bud and two leaves, which sounds essentially the same as for white teas, but then resulting in the two different white tea types.  This and other references say the combination of better leaves being used for the process and additional expertise and expense being required lead to limited tea availability and higher cost.  Fair enough.

It sounds a little like the processing step for shou pu'er (also called cooked pu'er), the step that chart called "wet piling," although of course it's not exactly the same.  The variation in those final products indicates it's not so simple to leave a pile of wet leaves sit to result in a better tea.  It can go badly.

World of Tea processing by type chart (credit Tony Gebely; see link)

This seems a good place to mention a separate tea processing reference, found here, included above.  This replaces the yellow tea processing step "moist heating" with "heaped," and omits "rolling."  Of course with more research one could go to the next level of detail of specific steps variations of this processing.  One other interesting difference in both does tie to pu'er (fermented tea / post fermented tea in these, or heicha if you must, since pu'er is really a regional designation), but I'll skip getting into that.

So far nothing about the taste of the tea, which is compared to both green and white teas in processing, but surely with a taste difference.  A relatively well-known mainstream source, Teavana, describes their product as such:  

Unlike any tea you have tasted before... Captivating high floral notes mingle with a smooth honeyed body and a subtle creamy, buttery finish. A perfectly balanced tea.. 

Ok!  The price is on the higher side but not different than the range for white teas, comparable to the cost for both the yellow and black teas I just bought in Korea.  Their site is actually interesting for including good product description, and of course a clear photo, and also a product review section.

It could be in poor taste to make fun of the reviewer comments but I can't help but mention a couple of anomalies (aside from the tea getting really high reviews--it probably is nice).

One said "when I add the right amount of sugar to this tea it bring the honey and buttery notes to the front..."  I'm the first person to advocate someone drinking their tea as they like it but this seems odd, tea blasphemy, but at least I didn't read about someone icing it (which I suppose they could do--it's their tea).

Another person recommended it so highly they mentioned buying five pounds, well over $1000 on one tea purchase.  My wife should be grateful I don't do that, and ease up about the small stock-pile at home I keep trying to drink through.

Another vendor reference (Vicony teas) roughly matches other type descriptions, just a bit more colorful (with more information in the site content):

This rare yellow tea from Mt. Mengshan, Mingshan County, Sichuan province has been a tribute tea from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911). ...  Meng Ding Huang Ya is mostly made from tea buds picked during the early spring to create a nutritious tea with a mild and sweet flavor and unique fragrance... It is ideal for tea drinkers especially women who like green tea but want to avoid stomach upset that can occur from drinking green tea. Yellow tea is legendary for its healing properties.... this lightly oxidized tea has a mild flavor without the grassy smell associated with green tea.

... one of these few rare yellow teas, Huo Shan Huang Ya, is now only made into green tea so Meng Ding Huang Ya is seen by Chinese tea industry people as "living fossil of tea".

To be clear I'm not saying that this is the same type of tea I bought and will review; the general category of"yellow tea" is supposedly common.  Cool reference though, "living fossil of tea."

It takes some paging through Google search results to get to any reviews.  The Steepster reviews of the Teavana product (mentioned earlier) don't shed much more light on the character:  floral, smooth, subtle, buttery finish.  Actually it seems you never do make it to the familiar blogger posts; on page 9 of searching "yellow tea" a reference page on yellow tea by the "Tea Stylist" includes a short review section, with the tea described as:

 The taste was indeed subtle, but round and a little more vegetal than sweet with no astringency.

I kept reading it to see if I'd missed the actual description but that was it--a subtle review description for a subtle tea.  The point of the reference was really a description of the tea type, and there was a good bit more content on that.

Of course changing a search to "yellow tea blog review" did turn up different results, a review by one of my favorite tea reviewers, Kevin Craig, the Tea Journeyman, covering the yellow tea that stood out the most in the research, a Tealet product.  The review description:

The leaves are fully intact, appearing to be one leaf and bud, with the occasional two and a bud... The aroma of the liquor is delicately sweet and floral, with a slight vegetal scent. The liquor has a light body and a very mellow texture. The taste is delicate, with a nice balance of floral and very light sweet and vegetal notes. There is no bitterness to the taste. The finish and aftertaste are light and floral....

As a yellow tea should be, this Yellow Bud Yellow Tea from Vivid Huoshan displays characteristics of both white and green teas, and yet has characteristics that are unique to yellow teas alone...  It also maintains the fresh vegetal notes of a green tea.

The other Teavana tea is also reviewed by a familiar name in a video review, by Jason Walker, which I'll only cite the location of here.

One more tangent, a health claim related

There are plenty of health claims in different references, even more for yellow tea than most others, for what that's worth.  I never really personally attach to these; maybe the teas are good for you, but who knows.  One research study article did say this about the tea though:

The yellow tea significantly ameliorated the increase in the activity of the alanine- and aspartate-aminotransferases in plasma. Thus, the drinking of yellow tea may contribute to protection against liver injury.

Sounds good, but it's quite difficult to review the study parameters, and who is financially supporting the work.  Just ease up on the binge drinking and your liver will hang in there; no tea will help you if you alternate glasses of whiskey and cups of tea.

Review challenges

Again reviewing one tea of a type is problematic, and the subtlety attributed to the related teas could add to that.  Even silver needle teas demand a reviewer base their impression and preference on more subtle factors than the list of flavors that really could sum up most of the impression of some other tea types.  It's not that black tea or oolong doesn't have subtle elements, or qualities related to the feel or body of the tea, but somehow--in general--a list of flavors and a comment about that dimension seems to do it for some teas but not as well for others.

Regional differences are another unusual factor.  Of course most of these references and reviews are talking about Chinese teas, with an Indian tea reference coming up, again related to a Tealet offering.  Even if this is authentic yellow tea, produced in essentially the same way as Chinese yellow teas, using a comparable tea product starting point, based on similar processing skill, terroir would vary the nature of the tea (differences in location, soil, climate, etc.), so all I've cited would be talking about something else.

To review teas is to be bold, though, with some allowance for personal style, so I'll give it a go.


I tried the tea!  My first impression was:  unusual, subtle, hard to describe.  At first some taste element reminded me of a black tea, but the body and feel and subtle character more of a white tea.  The different taste components were all subtle, quite light, and complex, but not so easy to distinguish, not pronounced, similar to a silver needle.  

Maybe there was some hint of a floral aspect, but not much, and a sweetness reminiscent of honey, but not pronounced as these can be in a better tie kuan yin.  A trace of a mineral component reminded me of such found green teas, a trace of flint.  Yet another subtle flavor element resembled hay.  The richness of the feel and that taste component could come across as butter instead, but it seemed to me the separate trace of mineral pulled the interpretation of that other separate component in a more vegetal direction, from butter to hay, if that even makes sense.

Something about the set of flavors and character reminded me of the Korean black tea I reviewed, but it was hard to say what.  I think maybe the mineral element was common, or maybe more than one component.  

The tea produced multiple infusions with subtle changes in character, so a more standard, some could even say "proper" review wouldn't summarize flavor components together as I have, but would instead track the elements and transitions across them.  Perhaps later I would as well, but for trying a new tea type it seems as well to keep it simpler.

To back up to the beginning, the tea was presented as small, twisted leaves, without any stems.  The scent was sweet and distinctive, a bit herbal and rich, slightly towards grassy.

It's harder to say if I liked the tea.  It was so unusual I'm still taking it in.  Someone that really loves white teas might love this as well, but although I've tried some and can appreciate them my own palate still seems a bit juvenile for that, back towards black tea, or maybe more accurately more oxidized oolongs, comparatively straightforward stuff.  

I could see how subtle differences in brewing might really affect this tea, or differences in water used, etc.  It could and probably should be optimized.  For some teas brewing them very lightly actually seems to enhance the way the flavors are presented, or maybe that's just my take.

Or, on the other extreme, as one reviewer I'd mentioned here expressed a bit of sugar probably would bring out some of the honey and butter.  It would be hard for me to do that to this tea, even in the name of experimentation; it would be disrespectful to this tea.  I'm reminded of a co-worker trying a taste of a nice Rou Gui I was excited to try, and asking if she could add sugar to it.  I replied no, you can't, you're thinking of a different type of tea.

Is it really a yellow tea?  I couldn't know for sure.  It is an interesting tea, unlike any other I've tried yet.  I also couldn't guess where it stands related to similar teas.  

There is one best reference on Korean teas I've not mentioned yet here, but the range of posts and detail doesn't lend itself to citing a few sentences as review blogs or vendor descriptions might.  I'm referring to Mattcha's tea blog.  Even the tea types aren't always presented there in such a clear-cut fashion as the standard categories, with yellow teas exhibiting a bit of range (here is why).    

A really interested reader might explore a range of posts on that blog, (eg. http://mattchasblog.blogspot.com/search?q=yellow), with further reading about where to get teas in this post, a list of vendors and some sourcing information, a bit dated now from posting in 2010.

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