Yellow teas are a category that are shrouded in mystery.
China’s yellow teas, like Kekecha, are probably the most misunderstood of all the six tea types. They are indeed China’s rarest kind of tea, with the least production among the six categories of teas and the fewest regions producing it. It is one of the most respected in the fascinating world of tea and not without reason. These elusive yellow teas have always developed in isolated and remote areas.
However, as rare as yellow tea is, it is quite significant in traditional Chinese tea making. It is slowly gaining recognition in western countries, although it has been known in China since the days of the Tang dynasty (617-907 AD). Due to its stimulating effect and its many qualities, consumption of this tea remained a privilege of the Buddhist monks for a long time
Even though they share many attributes of green teas, yellow teas don’t seem to fit neatly into any one category. The production process is like green tea, but with a unique additional step called men huan, or “sealing yellow.”
Imperial Tribute teas… Teas favored by ruling emperors
Gong Cha comes from the custom of giving the finest selection of one’s tea yield to the emperor. Records show the practice dates back as early as 1000 B.C. but with emperors still enjoying the tributes of China’s best teas up until the last dynasty: the Qing Dynasty, 1644 to 1911. The practice was at first voluntary but then became compulsory. Emperors took delivery of a tea as soon as it was available in the spring, which was then recorded as fulfillment of ‘tax’ owed to the government. Hence the name ‘tribute’. His royal person then had the privilege of drinking these tribute teas or offering it as gifts.
It is easy to understand why some very special teas gained imperial favor – each was an example of a regional specialty tea, unlike no other and made nowhere else in China. And they were made just once-a-year for a short one, two or three weeks each spring.
Kekecha was indeed a Tribute tea!
While Guangdong may not be the region’s leader in tea production compared to adjacent Yunnan, Hunan, and Fujian provinces, it is a noteworthy region. The province is known for the origin of several important tea varieties and Kekecha is one of them. Travelers come from all over the world to visit China’s regions for its one of a kind teas.
The province is in the far southeastern corner of China. It is one of the more populous provinces in the country, and home to the highly fertile Pearl River Delta. The geographic makeup of Guangdong is relatively mountainous except for the far southwestern portion and Guangzhou where the Pearl River Delta forms.
In the Guangdong province is very humid year-round and ranges from subtropical at higher elevations to almost tropical near the ocean; the climate is moderated by the proximity to the ocean and the high humidity. Precipitation is seasonal, following the pattern of the Asian monsoon, with heavy rainfall in the summer and considerably less, but still relatively consistent rainfall in the cooler winter months. Perfect for tea!!!
Yellow tea starts out just like the other teas from the camellia sinensis tree, and like the
other teas, it’s the varying processing techniques that determines the leaf’s outcome. To that end, yellow tea has a lot in common with green tea; its freshness and that it’s made using very early spring buds and processed using the same methods up to the point of the initial firing. But that’s where the commonality ends.
After the initial air drying, and just before the first firing, yellow tea undergoes an important additional step the Chinese call “men huan” (meaning “sealing yellow”). In this step the leaves are given a light, slow steam, before being covered with a cloth, allowing the leaves to breathe and reabsorb their own aroma. This smothering cover step can last anywhere from several hours to several days, during which time the sweetness of the tea and the fragrance slowly increase. By gently controlling the moisture content of the leaf, the chemistry is altered, making yellow tea distinctive.
The production method is a closely guarded secret, often being passed down from generation to generation within a family. A highly skilled tea master must depend on instinct to stop the oxidation process at exactly the right time.