Yellow tea is a variety of green tea, and it is renamed as the "royal" tea of China. Like green teas and black teas, yellow teas are not subject to special growing or harvesting.
All green teas go straight from the harvest to a process that the tea industry calls the "kill-green." The "kill-green" process stops all oxidization at the desired level. Black teas get a lot more special treatment, as they are wilted, then bruised, and then allowed to turn black in the air as they oxidize, while green tea and yellow tea receive none of this processing. The "kill-green" process is a heating treatment, which can be performed by steaming, by "panning," wherein the leaves are flipped in hot woks or baked and rolled in a hot metal drum. After green tea is brought directly to the "kill-green" process and heated, the leaves that are intended for yellow tea are separated.
The yellow tea leaves then get a special moist reheating, in a closed container. This statement causes the leaves to develop their unique greenish-yellow color. The flavor of yellow tea is variously described as earthier and more mellow than the astringent green and black teas, although not as sweet as some black or white teas.
In China, yellow tea is definitely a luxury item, and is priced accordingly. In the common language, any tea served by the Royal Court is this tea! In practice, however, yellow tea is usually defined by the location of its growth. In the center of China, in the province of Hunan, there is a large lake called Dongting Lake, famous for the tea leaves grown on one island near the center of the water on Junshan Island. The tea grown there is called Junshan Yinzhen tea, or "Silver Needles of the Gentleman Mountain." This tea is considered to be one of the best in China.
We can get a real appreciation of the role of tradition in China when we look at the tea industry. There is a popular and completely unofficial list of teas called the Chinese Famous Teas, and the teas on this list different on almost every source. There is only one item that has the same position on each list – longjing tea, a green tea from the coastal province of Zhejiang, is always the first! The culture has obviously passed its statement. These teas, however, are not prominent on most Chinese Famous Teas compilations, and Junshan Yinzhen tea is the most prominent yellow tea listed. The popular tradition does not embrace the "royal tea is better" principle!
Tea makers in China, however, rarely employ grading and certificates of quality and fraudulent labels are common, even in the case of yellow tea. Shoppers in China are best served by not local traditions, instead of checking for "official" labels. The system is improving in recent decades, however, as the producers of top-quality teas are beginning to provide careful labeling and certification of their products.
The most carefully labeled teas of this type generally are the Junshan Yionzhen from Junshan Island in Hunan Province, and the Huoshan Huangya yellow tea from Mount Ibo in Anhui Province.
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