Authentic Jun Shan Yin Zhen has been among the rarest of China’s famous teas. As the only example of yellow tea on China’s list of its most famous teas, it has been the foremost representative of this endangered tea form. Its restricted growing region and the painstakingly complex labor required by its production restrains the output of genuine Jun Shan Yin Zhen to a total of only 500 kilograms each year.
Yellow tea is a relatively rare category and is becoming even more difficult to find. Although yellow teas are still being offered, farmers now produce yellow varietals by shortcutting the shaping and rolling steps and skipping the “sealing yellow” part of its processing avoiding this time consuming and complicated production method. With the “sealing yellow” procedure, the tea is withered, pan fired and rolled as in the standard pan-fired green tea process. Before being thoroughly dried, the leaves are wrapped in paper packets overnight and then re-fired until completely dry. This “sealing yellow” procedure, which has apparently been eliminated, would allow the tea to be “fermented” gently by the moisture and remaining heat in the paper packets, turning the leaves into a darker shade and producing its signature deep yellow liquor.
Yellow tea production, from its stringent picking to its unusual seventy-two hour oxidation is done only with the aid of simple tools and requires constant attention to detail. Even its picking is markedly detail-oriented when compared to other bud tea. Most bud teas are picked as one bud and one leaf, which are later separated from each other. The production of this tea demands that tea pickers pluck only buds, the hardest picking standard. Tea pickers are required to pluck the buds without the use of their fingernails. Rather, pickers must gather the bud by breaking it from its stem with a twist. It takes 60,000 of these carefully harvested buds to yield just one kilogram of yellow tea. The reason for its special picking is to minimize direct handling of the raw buds and protect the quality of their oxidation in the next stages of production. The oxidation of yellow tea is so precisely controlled that the oils and moisture from a worker’s hand can have a noticeable influence in the final product.
After plucking, the production of yellow tea begins in a way similar to some green teas, with a pan firing that lasts for a few minutes. The tea is still wet and hot after firing. Rather than dry it further, it is wrapped in a special type of thick paper and then put in wood cabinets and left to undergo very slow oxidation. During the oxidation period, the tea is stirred. This step disperses the heat created by oxidation. How often the tea is stirred depends on ambient temperatures. Heat, like moisture, is a variable that speeds oxidation in tea.
After roughly two days in the cabinets, the tea is refired again to further remove moisture from it, after which it is rewrapped and stored for one more day in the cabinets. Once the final round of oxidation is complete, the tea is removed from the cabinets and then dried at a low temperature in bamboo baskets over charcoal. The baskets have a unique size and shape, similar to a Djembe drum with distorted hour glass-like dimensions, narrowing at its center with a wide top and bottom. Tea is shaken in the basket to dry it evenly. This final drying is the most skill intensive step in production because the slow charcoal drying brings out complexities of the tea’s flavor precursors and perfects the fragrance of the dry leaves.
Throughout this entire three day process there is no direct hand-to-tea contact with the exception of the pan firing after picking. By the final stages of production the tea has become an even light yellow in color. To achieve this consistency, the tea master carefully controls the temperature of frying and during oxidation, knowing when to stir the tea and knowing at just what temperature to keep the coals in the final drying process.
The result of this three day struggle with minute chemical processes yields a result that is nothing short of exquisite. 2012 Imperial Yellow, masterfully produced, brews liquor with a very floral nose developing as the tea cools. Body starts in the mouth’s front pallet, lingers, and migrates to the mid-pallet where it sustains its rich complexity. Although strong in flavor, it doesn’t shock the rear pallet with a sour tang like many green teas or light oolongs. 2012 Imperial Yellow is definitely a tea to remember.