Yellow tea is the rarest genre of tea available, with only three existing types and only, according to my teacher, six estates which produce it. Evidently, eastern agriculture is not exceptionally documented (or I suck at research) because I have been unable to fact-check this figure properly, but at risk of discrediting my journalistic ability, there are certainly, at most, only “several” tea estates which produce yellow tea – all of them in China. To give you some scale, there are more than seventy thousand tea estates in China alone. On top of this, yellow tea is almost exclusively consumed locally in its region, which makes it uncommon on the international marketplace. It’s a rare tea.
The reason gardens are unlikely to produce this tea stems from economical reasoning. Because of the production method, many tea leaves are damaged and unsellable. Economically speaking, it’s more viable to produce high quality green tea than it is yellow tea, so estates usually stick to that. It’s the neglected middle sibling of tea.
The production method differences are as follows:
Buds are typically only used, as they are the highest quality stage of leaf.
Once the buds are picked, they are immediately fired, which temporarily halts the oxidation stage
The buds are wrapped in cloth or paper, then left out to cool.
The leaves naturally oxidize slightly while cooling, which yellows the leaves. (This, combined with the liquor colour of the steeped tea gives yellow tea its name)
Steps 2-4 are repeated for as much as three days
A final drying is done where the leaves are roasted gradually.
The steps are finicky to a whole new level, and a substantial amount of buds will die during this process. Thankfully there is a small amount of local demand for yellow tea, as without that demand, it would possibly only exist as a heritage leaf, meaning only a couple of farmers would produce it to keep the tradition alive; however, local demand can only go so far. If there isn’t a larger demand for yellow tea elsewhere, it could very well become extinct. We have lost many Taiwanese oolongs because of an similar situation, as shifting in local demand is not only a reasonable assumption, but is expected. If I may interject my own opinion, I believe yellow tea is still very much unknown to many people outside of Asia. How could people buy it if they don’t know it exists? At the same time, if people do discover it, they can be dissuaded by the price. Seven Cups, one of the dealers I recommend at the bottom of the page, sells their rarest yellow tea at $33.55 for twenty five grams. Contrast that to DAVIDsTEA and you will note that you can purchase many of their teas for about $7.00 per fifty grams. Yellow tea is almost ten times more expensive than a lot of popular teas in the west. No wonder people are hesitant to buy it, especially if they’ve never heard of it. The tea connoisseur market is only so large, and there is not enough demand to sustain it.
Let me offer this solution for you. Using the $33.55 example above, let’s do some math. If we assume you use a standard two grams of tea per cup, you can get twelve and a half cups per twenty five grams. Okay, not the worst, but let’s take that further. Seven Cups informs us we can get five reliable steeps out of two grams of tea, so we need to multiply twelve and a half by five. Sixty two and a half cups for $33.55. That means it only costs $0.54 per cup of some of the rarest tea you can get on the public marketplace. In Ontario, that is three times cheaper than a can of Coca Cola. That is my solution.
Like much of tea history, the specifics aren’t often accounted for, leaving much of it shrouded in ambiguity. The origin of yellow tea is one of those specifics. The most commonly accepted belief is that yellow tea was invented in the Qing dynasty- anywhere from 1644-1912.
The three types of yellow tea are called Jun Shan Yin Zhen (translated as Silver Needle, and should not be mistaken for the white tea of the same name), Meng Ding Shan, and Mo Gan Shan. All of them are listed from least rare to rarest.
Yellow tea will be most enjoyed in a gaiwan, and this steeping method is highly suggested, given the rarity of the tea.
Yellow teas have exotic and satisfying flavour profiles and aromas. Sometimes with sweet, nutty, and floral notes. Given the uncertain future of yellow tea, I recommend you try some if you have any inkling.
Recommended dealers for yellow tea: