What is Yellow Tea?
Yellow tea is one of the six types of tea produced from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant. In the United States, very few specialty tea stores offer this type of tea as it's a rare tea primarily available in China.
The term "yellow tea" comes from the liquor-like hue of this tea. It tastes sweet, vibrant, and nutty and has a soft fruity and floral scent. It’s almost a more mellow and smooth version of green tea.
In this article, I explain yellow tea's history, production, and health benefits and how to find the best yellow tea and brew it at home.
- History as a Tribute Tea
- Production of Yellow Tea
- Health Benefits of Yellow Tea
- Caffeine Content in Yellow Tea
- How to Brew Yellow Tea
- 3 Reasons to Try Volcanic Yellow Tea
History as a Tribute Tea
The origin of yellow tea dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Historically, it was a tribute tea. As an emperor color in traditional Chinese color symbolism, the color yellow represents royalty, power, and prosperity. Yellow is also closely related to gold, which symbolizes nobility and wealth.
Making this type of tea also requires a lengthy and challenging procedure with additional steps evolved from green tea-making methods. As a result, artisans meticulously made yellow using high-quality leaves for the Imperial Court, and only the royalties were allowed to drink yellow tea.
The majority of the yellow tea comes from the high mountains in the four provinces that are also well-known for their green or dark tea, and yellow tea falls between green tea and dark tea in terms of fermentation.
- Anhui province: known for Huo Shan Huang Ya (yellow tea), Huangshan Mao Feng and Taiping Huo Kui (green teas)
- Hunan province: known for Golden Flower (2013) brick (dark tea)
- Sichuan province: known for Meng Ding Huang Ya (yellow tea) and Tibetan Zhuan Zang (dark tea)
- Zhejiang province: known for Dragon Well and Gunpowder (green teas)
Production of Yellow Tea
The technique of making yellow tea is time-consuming and complicated compared to other types of Chinese tea. Only an experienced tea master can make it as the method calls for a skill that is becoming increasingly rare.
The first few steps of processing are the same as those of green tea. After picking young leaves of tea plants, tea farmers wither the leaves and pan them at a lower temperature.
Once the tea is half-dried over strong heat, yellow teas go through a unique process called menhuang, also known as “yellowing,” “sealing yellow,” “smothering,” or “wrapping.” In this step, the tea master wraps the warm leaves in paper, causing “micro-fermentation” and creating loose leaf teas with a mellow sweetness and creamy texture. It is up to the tea master to determine the number and time required for “wrapping” steps.
Because this step can be hard to execute well, yellow teas need to be made by an artisan with a high degree of craftsmanship. Some producers skip the wrapping step to make tea on a larger scale and still name it "yellow tea". However, without this step, the tea is green tea, not yellow tea. Hence, authentic yellow teas are rarely on the market. And the good ones sell out fast.
Also, although yellow tea in Chinese is huang cha, Korean huang cha is closer to oolong tea in its production method. But we finally found this rare Volcanic Yellow tea from Jeju Island that has gone through the menhuang step during production. And I dare say it’s the only proper Korean yellow tea I’ve encountered as a certified tea sommelier.
Health Benefits of Yellow Tea
In addition to its remarkable flavor and texture, yellow tea has various health advantages. It contains high levels of naturally occurring antioxidants and polyphenols that help fight off free radicals present in your body. Some of its main health benefits are:
1. Delay Signs of Aging
The polyphenols and antioxidants in yellow tea help promote healthy, young-looking skin. The polyphenols shield human skin from photoaging and protect against oxidative stress, a significant factor in skin aging. The antioxidants help skin repair itself by reducing inflammation. Include yellow tea in your daily diet to look and feel younger.
2. Promote Healthy Metabolism
Yellow tea contains catechins, a phenolic compound that helps burn body fat effectively and reach your weight loss goals. Several scientific investigations have shown that consuming yellow tea accelerates fat burning and improves metabolism.
3. Regulate Bad Cholesterol
Regular consumption of yellow tea aids in decreasing harmful cholesterol levels while raising good cholesterol levels in the body. The polyphenols in yellow tea prevent intestinal absorption of bad cholesterol and aid removal.
4. Improve dental health
Yellow tea has flavor compounds with antibacterial properties and polyphenols that prevent plaque formation on the teeth. Scientific evidence suggests dietary sources of polyphenols treat inflammatory responses of periodontal diseases. The tea works even more effectively than a mint or piece of gum to fight bad breath because polyphenols help destroy bacteria. Tea leaves also have fluoride, often used to improve dental health, released during tea infusions.
5. Prevent Neurodegenerative Diseases
Yellow tea has the highest antioxidant content among the six types of tea, and the high antioxidant content in yellow tea helps guard against neurodegenerative conditions, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Antioxidants protect cells from harm that, in the absence of protection, could eventually result in neurodegenerative disorders.
A 2022 study in Frontiers in Nutrition indicated that habitual tea drinkers, including yellow tea, had reduced rates of cognitive deterioration than non-tea drinkers after monitoring 1,545 elderly in China with healthy brain function for a year. The result remained the same even after the researchers considered variables like education, smoking, and exercise.
Caffeine Content in Yellow Tea
All tea made from the tea plant contains caffeine, as caffeine acts as a naturally occurring pesticide for the plant. The amount of caffeine varies by the maturity of the leaves. The buds have the highest caffeine, and the first leaves have slightly less caffeine than the buds.
According to a 2009 study, 1 gram of yellow tea made of buds contains 32 mg of caffeine. Based on 2-gram serving size, 1 cup of yellow tea would contain about 64 mg of caffeine. Compared to about 160 mg of caffeine in a cup of coffee, yellow tea has less caffeine than coffee. As buds contain more caffeine than leaves, yellow tea made from leaf material would contain even less caffeine than the amount study shows.
Note that the caffeine from tea works differently from the caffeine from coffee. Tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that regulates the rate at which our body absorbs caffeine. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine promotes simultaneous alertness and relaxation as L-theanine lowers stress-induced anxiety. The effect explains how monks have used tea for meditation for years to stay in a prolonged meditative state.
How to Brew Yellow Tea
You can brew yellow tea in many ways, but Western and gongfu brewing methods are the two most common.
For Western brewing, portion out 3 grams of tea for 12 fl oz of water and brew at 190°F for 3 minutes using your favorite infuser. You can re-steep up to 3 times.
For gongfu brewing, you will first need a Gaiwan tea set, consisting of a Gaiwan, serving pitcher, strainer, and teacups. Then, you can follow this abbreviated guide for gongfu brewing.
- Heat water to 190°F.
- Pre-warm your gaiwan tea set by giving the teaware a quick rinse with hot water.
- Portion out 3-5 grams of tea into the Gaiwan.
- Pour the hot water into the Gaiwan and cover with the lid. Let it steep for 30-90 seconds. Note that steeping may vary depending on your desired flavor.
- Decant the tea into a strainer over a serving pitcher.
- Serve in a teacup and enjoy your tea!
- You can re-steep up to 5 times, increasing the steeping time by 15-30 seconds for each infusion.
3 Reasons to Try Volcanic Yellow Tea
First introduced as part of the Jeju Tea Tasting Set, our Volcanic Yellow blew away many tea lovers and has returned for a reappearance due to popular demand. If you are interested in yellow tea, here are the three reasons to try Volcanic Yellow Tea.
1. The golden standard of yellow tea
It is hard to find a superb example of yellow tea. Some “yellow tea” tastes like roasted green tea without the exquisite mellow, full-bodied cup because many tea producers skip the menhuang step.
But here’s the good news. Our batch from Mr. Lee is the perfect example of yellow tea. Mr. Lee from Jeju Island has been experimenting with yellow tea for a while, and the current batch sets the golden standard for yellow tea with its perfect amount of “yellowing.”
2. More complexity and depth in flavor
If you are looking for a green tea alternative with a twist, this yellow tea is for you. With Mr. Lee’s craftsmanship, this tea has just the right amount of familiar green tea notes harmonizing with the nutty and creamy notes. No wonder it blew away many tea lovers when we first introduced this tea as part of our Jeju Tea Tasting Set!
3. Long shelf life
Because of the “micro-fermentation” step, yellow tea is more similar to raw pu-erh than green tea in that you can savor its flavors for years to come - no need to rush to finish this batch like your typical green tea.
This crowd-pleasing tea is perfect for tea connoisseurs looking to experience the best example of yellow tea, for tea lovers looking for a green tea alternative with a flavor twist, for tea lovers looking for teas with a longer shelf life, and as a gift idea for tea enthusiasts.
Try the Volcanic Yellow Tea Today
There are many unusual teas, from delicate greens that only one farmer has mastered to the venerable pu-erh tea collectors seek. However, only one kind of tea, the almost mythological yellow tea, can claim to be truly rare.
Sadly, yellow tea is progressively going extinct due to the popularity of green teas, the laborious processing, and the gradual loss of information about how to create the tea. Many tea growers merely slightly yellow their teas or even omit the menhuang stage, and it is increasingly challenging to find genuine yellow tea in the west. Fortunately, there are reliable suppliers of authentic yellow tea.
We can only hope that as tea culture grows in the west, demand for yellow tea will climb even further, demonstrating to tea growers that it is worthwhile to produce traditional yellow tea.