Tealeafster - Introduction to the world of Yancha, Part One
Recently we had the pleasure of a visit by one of our favourite collaborators, Jelmer aka "Tealeafster", who supplies us with with some of our favourite chinese tea rarities.
So we took the opportinity to have an extended talk with him about his favourite teas and their diverse backgrounds and have compiled some of the most interesting and useful facts for you in a three part series of articles, beginning with yancha.
[Photo above]: Wuyi Mountain area
ANMO: What exactly is a Yancha?
Jelmer: Yancha literally means ‘Rock tea’. This is because of the area yancha grows in. Yancha originates from the Wuyishan area, a beautiful nature area in Fujian.
Yancha is on the heavier sides of the oolong spectrum. It has dark leaves and the taste can get a bit heavier as well. I personally like it as an autumn and winter tea, although there are some lighter yanchas perfectly suitable for warm weather as well.
A: You say the tea originates from Wuyishan. Can you tell us a little about the place?
J: Wuyishan is a magical place, and one of the tourist hot spots of China. This of course has its disadvantages, but the area is so diverse that you can still escape the crowds, following the tracks swirling through all the valleys, in between waterfalls, giant rocks, caves, gorges, cliffs. It’s a place where poets and writers went to for their inspiration back in the days and still do today, and where monks meditated. It’s one of these scrolls you see, but then in real life. Absolutely stunning.
Wuyishan has a dusty town, where all the hikers stay the night and drink (often bad) tea in tourist shops, and when you cross the river from the town, you enter a natural reserve. This is where the best yancha grows. There are a few major paths, one of them is going to the mother trees, the famous Da Hong Pao trees (Song dynasty 960–1279), but other than that there are just little tracks to follow that lead you through a stunning area. It’s lush and green, and by far the most beautiful place tea grows (I haven’t been to Yunnan yet so maybe I have to take that back later).
This nature reserve area is full of tea trees. Yancha (rock tea) implies that the tea is growing from these giant rocks, but they are not. The term refers to the soil being rocky, although the big rocks also play an important role for the tea trees.
[Photo above]: Rare Da Hong Pao ('Big Red Robe') tea growing on a Wuyi Mountain cliff; courtesy of Zhangzhugang via wikimedia
A: What makes yancha so special compared to other teas?
J: The unique environment it grows in makes yancha so special. There are no massive fields of tea. It’s a few trees here, some there, tucked in between rocks, in valleys, everywhere you look.
The high rock cliffs play the biggest part in making yancha so special. They catch the morning mist and make sure the trees are always moist. They protect the tea trees from too much sunshine (only softer morning and evening sunlight) and wind. They absorb sunlight during the day, and release the warmth during the night, making sure the temperature in the valley stays stable even in the night.
Another aspect that makes Wuyishan an incredible place for tea is the water, which is finding its way through cliffs and valleys and gives a constant stream of rich minerals to the soil, and the incredibly skillful process to make Yancha that can only be performed by true tea masters. The use of pesticides within the park is strictly forbidden, which means you are guaranteed clean teas.
A: What is the best way to brew Yancha?
J: Yancha is one of the simplest teas to brew.
1. My favourite brewing vessel: Gaiwan, gives the most consistent result. Also have a yancha pot, made of Chaozhou red clay (Dancong area down south), and it enhances the stronger teas. For lighter aromatic ones gaiwan is always better.
2. The hotter the better, 96 degrees.
3. Build the tea up: One rinse, Short steeps, build up slowly but surely, if you do that with discipline you can get up to 8-10 very good brews out of it, but it’s a question of timing. If you oversteep it, it’s a waste for the duration of your session, but that one brew won’t turn bitter quickly.
4. STUFF IT. Don’t be cheap. Good yancha is expensive, but you need to use a lot of leaves to get the full experience, where the energy kicks in and the complexity shows itself in different layers. Make it your special tea. Better to have one amazing session than two so-so ones.
A: How do you recognise a good Yancha?
J: Two words are very important in yancha: Huigan - Comeback sweetness - this is the aftertaste that just keeps giving sweetness, and, Yanyun - Rock taste and mouth sensation - a lively minerality that you can find only in yancha, because of the environment it grows in. You can make a tea with the same cultivar in the exact same way in another place, but you won’t find the yanyun in there.
Next to that, the soup is very important. A thick and smooth soup is what you want, one that coats the throat and gives a very pleasant feeling. In the West we always try to compare tea, or wine, to certain foods, but in China they will look weird at you.
It’s the huigan, yanyun and the soup that do it. A good yancha you can keep brewing for a long time.
A: What is it a Yancha definitely shound not taste like?
J: Charcoal taste, burned feeling, cardboard aftertaste, dry, bloody soup.
[Photo above]: A Yancha tasting in the Wuyi area
A: Can you tell us a little about the Yancha cultivars? Especially Mingcong vs Pinzhong?
J: Mingcong are original Wuyi cultivars, Pinzhong cultivars that were imported from outside the area.
The 4 most famous Mingcong (original) cultivars are: Tie Luo Han (Iron Monk) – Strong, deep energy. Not about aroma but about qi. Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle) – is all about aroma and flowery taste. Lost a lot of popularity.
Bai Ji Guan (White Cockscomb) – sweet tea with some soy bean features, but often referred to as a tea that is good for looking, not for drinking. Not completely true, I’ve had an enjoyable Bai Ji Guan, but it’s true that they are mellow and don’t often have the complexity of other yanchas.
Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) - Da Hong Pao is probably the most famous one and it’s a story on its own. In the Wuyishan national park there are 6 Da Hong Pao mother trees, hanging on to a cliff, the most famous tourist attraction. 10 years ago the local government decided that it’s not allowed anymore to pick the trees. Before that it was 26000 euro per 20 gram. The ban was put in place to prevent happening what happened with the 700 year old Song Zhong tree in the Dancong area. People got greedy and now it stopped giving new leaves.
Bei Dou, Qidan & Da Hong Pao Bei Dou and Qidan are purebred cultivars taken from the Da Hong Pao mother trees for asexual reproduction. There are as pure as Da Hong Pao at this moment gets (unless you secretly pick and process the mother trees leaves). These teas are valued high.
Most Da Hong Pao you will encounter is a blend of different teas. Often teas such as Rou Gui, Shuixian and Meizhan will be thrown into the mix. Blending is considered a craft in Wuyishan, and everyone is trying out recipes to find the best mix for Da Hong Pao. But because there are no strict rules to name a tea Da Hong Pao, more often than not these teas are bad quality teas with bad roasts, and the name Da Hong Pao is just there to sell.
Pinzhong are all the cultivars that didn’t originate from the Wuyishan area. Famous teas such as Shuixian (Tian Ou, not too far from Wuyishan, called the housekeepers tea because it’s very common just like housekeepers) and Rou Gui are categorized by some as mingcong and some as pinzhong.
Rou Gui, Cinnamon tea, is now one of the most famous and popular teas of Wuyishan, but it was only introduced to the area on a large scale not so long ago, most in the 90s. It was a perfect fit, and Rou Gui has become so popular because it mixes the energy of the Wuyishan area with high aroma, so it has the best of both worlds.
Other Pinzhong teas are for example Qilan, Meizhan, Huang Guan Yin, the last two came from the Anxi area, the area where Tie Guan Yin is made.
Pinzhong aren’t necessarily less good than Mingcong. In fact, the most popular teas such as Lao Cong Shuixian and Rou Gui are among the most popular. These are good examples of how ‘foreign’ teas can do well in this area. However teas such as Tie Lou Han, Bei Dou and Qidan are still super popular because of their history with the area and the natural connection they have with the terroir.
In taste, mingcong are often energy teas and pinzhong more focused on aroma, therefore also popular.
A: There’s also a differentation between Zhengyan and Banyan tea (rock vs half rock). Can you explain these two a little more?
J: Yanchas are often referred to by cultivar, and sometimes by place of origin as well. Zhengyan simply means that the yancha came from within the national park. This is where the environment is so unique, and pesticides are forbidden to use.
Banyan is the tea that grows on the edges and just outside of the national park. It is often grown in the same way as Zhengyan tea and still has a lot of the features of Zhengyan yancha because it’s growing in pretty much the same soil, although the unique environment where Zhengyan yancha grows is hard to beat. Pesticides can be used, although they are not always used.
Zhengyan, real rock tea, is considered as the best yancha there is. However, Zhengyan Yancha isn’t necessarily always good, and Banyan isn’t always bad. There are exquisite yanchas growing just outside of the park that I could pick over some Zhengyan yanchas on any given day. But, if you really want a unique experience, Zhengyan yancha is the tea with the most unique features and territory. It’s the tea master’s skill that can actually make or break that experience. Different factors.
There are two other categories for Yancha.
Zhou Cha, which is yancha grown on the flatlands outside of the national park, and Waishan, which means it can grow literally everywhere. These teas have nothing to do with the features that make Yancha so special and you’d better stay away from them. Often these are the farmers blending there teas to sell as Da Hong Pao.
By the way, within the Zhengyan area every location is different as well. Teas grown in Zhengyan valleys are different than Zhengyan flatland. Flatlands get more sunshine and therefore the tea gets more powerful and has some sharp features. Valley gets less sunshine and has a softer soup, more layers. They’re both amazing, but different. We don’t have time to go into that today, but here on the shelves is one flatland tea (Rou Gui) and one valley tea (Lao Cong Shuixian).