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  • Writer's pictureNeldon Hamblin

What Is Yancha: A Beginner's Guide to Wuyi Rock Tea

Hello, friends! Those of you who know me know that my two favorite types of tea are heicha and yancha. I love yancha so much that I became one of the Global Tea Ambassadors through WuyiStar, the number one brand in China for yancha, having become a certified Chinese tea specialist through their volunteer program. However, after having conducted local tastings and introducing individuals to yancha, I’ve come to realize that yancha is such a broad category with so many facets to it, which in turn causes many who are beginning their tea journey to end up confused by its mystery. As such, I felt a guide, similar to my previous ones on puerh and fu cha, would be beneficial to the community. Yancha is such a large category that warrants more posts, so currently, my plans are to have a series on yancha, with this being the first installment and a more basic introductory guide, with subsequent posts being more detailed deep-dives into specific yancha topics (i.e: a basic dictionary for yancha terminology, a detailed post on the Sì Dà Míng Cóng varietals, etc.). So, without further ado, let’s get into what yancha is, where it comes from, and how to prepare it.

What is “Yancha?”

Simply put, “岩茶,” “yancha” or “yan cha” translates to “rock tea” and is a specific type of tea unique to Fujian province, specifically the Wuyi mountains. Yancha is an oxidized oolong with leaves processed as strips rather than balls (which is common for oolongs, especially Taiwanese and Anxi oolongs). The graphic below shows the common types of Chinese oolongs and where they are produced, with the focus of this guide being WuyiShan and the oolongs made there.

Quick Primer: Yan Yun and Minerality

One of the biggest things with yancha is the Yan Yun (“岩韵,” “rock rhyme,” or more poetically “essence of the rocks”). This term essentially refers to the inherent qualities of a good yancha. Yan yun is the result of the terroir in Wuyi as well as the style of roasting and production of the yancha and gives rise to the phrase “taste of the mountains.” Yan yun is more difficult to describe as it is an abstract trait of yancha (as in, it’s difficult to describe something so abstract- because yan yun is more of a feeling than anything physical, it usually is described with more poetic, flowery language, which can be confusing to those new to drinking rock oolongs). The best way I can describe it, without actually giving you yancha to taste, would be that yan yun is in essence the lingering cooling feeling in the back of the throat after sipping the tea; it’s not just the initial wave of flavors present as you sip, but the sensations you get as you drink. Additionally, while yan yun doesn’t affect the longevity of the tea, teas with prominent yan yun tend to last longer in my experience.

To identify yan yun, I suggest the following:

1.) pay attention to the aftertaste of the tea. As you swallow, what flavors linger in your mouth and throat? It might be sweet or more mineral-like, but there should be some flavor lingering; I like to describe it as sipping a strong, high-quality mineral water, with that sort-of mineral (i.e. slight saltiness) flavor lingering. It’s almost like sipping a glass of mineral water with the mineral flavors amped up to 11.

2.) After sipping the tea, take a deep breath in. Look for a cooling sensation in the back of your throat; if you feel a sort-of cool, refreshing feeling in your throat, congratulations, you’ve noticed yan yun!

3.) pay attention to how the flavors change and shift with each steep. If the flavors continue to evolve and shift after you’ve sipped the tea, with you noticing more subtleties and nuanced layers to the tea, that’s a sign of yan yun.

Identifying yan yun takes time and practice, but with effort, you will be able to tell yan yun in no time. Yan yun is one of the magical elements that makes yancha such a delicious tea to experience and when you begin to notice it, you’ll feel more attuned to these enchanting flavors that make yancha so desirable amongst tea-heads.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get into the terrain that creates the yan yun.

WuyiShan: The Rugged, Rocky Region and its Teas

Images courtesy WuyiStar and Caroline Wu of WuyiStar. These depict the terrain of WuyiShan.

Yancha’s history is intertwined with the history and culture of the Wuyi region, formerly referred to as “Bohea” in English (that being said, some vendors do still use Bohea when referring to Wuyi teas- both yancha and Wuyi hongcha). The Wuyi Mountains (“WuyiShan”) are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are known for their vast biodiversity, rugged rocky terrain, and a soil rich in minerals. These immense cliffs act as a barrier, retaining moisture within the region, creating an area with high humidity (average RH of 80%) and high annual rainfall (averages around 2,000ml, or around 80 inches of rain annually). The combination of this backdrop of steep, rocky cliffs coupled with the unique climate of the region and the labor-intensive process to make yancha have made it a highly desired tea throughout history. WuyiShan is also home to other teas and is known as the birthplace of black tea (hongcha), like Tongmuguan’s famous smoked lapsang souchong (“正山小种,” “Zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng”) or the more recent invention, jin junmei (“金駿眉,” oft translated to “golden eyebrow” or “big golden eyebrows,” or even “beautiful golden eyebrow”).

Wuyi rock Tea areas courtesy Eric Padial of Amoy Teas
Wuyi Rock Tea Areas (courtesy Eric Padial of Amoy Teas)

For yancha, there are 4 production regions, each with their own subregions and styles; these regions are Zhengyan (the core area), Banyan (the middle area that surrounds Zhengyan), Zhouyan (the areas outside of the WuyiShan Scenic Area), and Waishan (where yancha is grown outside of the previous 3 regions).

Zhengyan (“正岩,” “true cliff” or literally “real rock," sometimes labeled "full rock") is the most desirable location for yancha production, Zhengyan is also referred to as the “core” production area for yancha. Zhengyan material commands high prices as the higher and more rocky terrain results in the highest yan yun and minerality of Wuyi yancha.

Banyan (“半岩区,” “half cliff”) material refers to the production zone surrounding the Zhengyan core region; Banyan material is still located within the WuyiShan Scenic area, though at a lower elevation than Zhengyan. Banyan yancha is still quality material and will have a strong yan yun and minerality to it.

Zhouyan (“洲茶,” or “outside tea”)- Zhouyan is the third region and refers to tea grown outside of the scenic area, but still in the general area; Zhouyan tea primarily grows in the riverplains of WuyiShan, outside of the rocky peaks, growing in the sandy and loamy soil. The quality, while lesser than Banyan and Zhengyan, is still decent and better than tea grown in Waishan.

Waishan (“外山,” literally “outer mountain”)- This refers to yancha produced outside of the three areas mentioned above; Waishan material generally is more affordable, as the further one gets from Zhengyan, the less sought-after the teas generally are (which isn’t entirely true, but is for most cases).

How Is Yancha Made?

Yancha undergoes 7 steps of processing. They are as follows:

  1. Picking: Leaves are picked at a standard of buds and two to three leaves, generally from mid-April to the end of May. Leaves may be either handpicked or machine harvested.

  2. Withering: The picked leaves are placed on bamboo sieves or cloths and placed at a specific thickness, and depending on weather conditions, are either sun-dried outdoors or withered indoors in a special heat-assisted trough where the moisture levels can be reduced while being closely monitored.

  3. Shaking: The withered leaves are then placed into a shaking machine, which gently bruises the leaves, reducing the moisture levels in the leaf and adding more oxygen exposure, in-turn allowing for flavor and fragrance compounds to really form in the leaves more intensely. This is repeated several times, with the leaves resting and recovering in between each shaking process.

  4. Fixation: Now the withered and shaken leaves are placed into a heated wok and gently fried at varying temperatures to stop the oxygenation process. In essence, this "fixes" the leaves into a more stable state, less susceptible to bruising and continued oxygenation.

  5. Rolling: The fixed leaves are now rolled into strips. The rolling process removes excess moisture and prepares the teas for the final step, baking.

  6. Baking: The leaves are then placed onto a roasting basket and heated using either electricity or charcoal-firing. Higher temperatures in firing further reduce the moisture content, fixing the leaves and improving storage ability, while also adding a depth of flavor to the leaf and promoting the unique aromas and tastes of yancha to really shine. Personally, I prefer charcoal roasted teas, though the electric baked oolongs are also quite pleasant.

  7. Refining: This is when the fired and fully-processed leaves are sorted and packaged, possibly even blended with other leaves to produce a finished product.

Commonly Seen Yancha Varietals

Yancha is such a large industry with many hundreds of varieties, though one term you’ll likely encounter is "Sì Dà Míng Cóng," ("四大名丛," or "four great tea cultivars,” literally “four famous clusters''), which refers to the four "greats" in Wuyi yancha. These include Da Hong Pao ("大紅袍" - "Big Scarlet Robe" or "big red robe") which is arguably the most famous and can be the most expensive yancha on the market (mother tree DHP costing over $20,000- it warrants its own post, so look out for that when I have the four varietals post), Shui Jin Gui ( "水金龜," "Golden water turtle"), Tie Luo Han ("铁罗汉," or "Iron Arhat''), and Bai Ji Guan ("白鸡冠," or "white cockscomb").

Other popular varietals include Rou Gui (“肉桂,” “ròuguì,” “Chinese Cinnamon”), known for its characteristic taste and aroma of Chinese cinnamon and spices as well as being very flavor-forward. Rou Gui can be on the fruitier side or the more spiced side. You’ll also encounter Shui Xian (“水仙,” “water sprite” or “narcissus flower,” sometimes translated to “water immortal,” occasionally spelled “Shui Hsien,”), a tea is known for its floral and woodsy flavors, generally being a higher roasted tea.

How to Brew Yancha

There are several ways to brew a nice cup of yancha and as a caveat, please do not let these rules seem like law for brewing yancha. Play around with these parameters to brew up a cup you’ll enjoy, as your tongue knows what’s best for you.

Generally, it is recommended to brew yancha gongfu style in either a gaiwan or a purple clay teapot (yixing teapot) with boiling water. More commonly, especially in WuyiShan, 8.5g of leaf or more is used in a gaiwan or yixing teapot. Personally, I prefer this ratio and use 8.5-10g of leaf for a 100ml gaiwan, hit it with boiling water, then steep for about 15s for the first steep, adding 5 to 10 seconds for each additional steep. This makes a bolder cup with a more pronounced minerality and rounded flavor, in my opinion.

Yancha in a cup in front of a yixing pot
Steeping Yancha in a Yixing Pot

Should you wish to take a more sensory approach to brewing yancha for analysis, a recommended ratio would be 5g of leaf to a 110ml gaiwan, boiling water, with the steeps being 2 seconds, 3 seconds, then 5 seconds, increasing each subsequent steep by 5 to 10 seconds based on your desired strength.

If you’re doing an in-depth sensory analysis, some of the key traits to look for in a yancha are as follows:

  • For the dry leaf, look at the appearance of the leaf. Are the leaves tight and thinner, like a string, or more fat and bold looking? Are they all of an even color (uniformly roasted- they should be either dry and dull, evenly mixed, or a range of colors in balance with each other)?

  • For the tea itself, look at the color and turbidity (clarity) of the tea. Is it a clear, bright liquid, or something more muted and muddy? Does it have a strong color to it, or is it sort of like someone dropped a single droplet of food coloring into your water? Good yancha should have a consistent and bright color; the higher the roast, the darker the color usually. It should range on a scale from a lighter golden color (for the lighter roasts or the rinses) to rich, bolder orange-red colors as the roast level increases.

  • For the aroma, how does the lid of the gaiwan smell? Are there any smells that could seem “off,” like a strong “burnt” smell? How about floral aromas, like orchids? A good yancha should present floral and vegetal aromas, while also retaining some of that mineral-rich aroma that yancha is famous for (sort of like a wet rock).

  • Look at the leaves after you’ve steeped them. The leaves, once opened up, should reveal a greenish middle and a slight reddish tinge along the edges. You should see predominantly green but some red should be observed as well, which indicates proper roasting and firing.

  • In the first steep, you should pay attention to the aromas and observe any off-smells, as those indicate storage issues. The second steep should be analyzed for turbidity and brightness of the brew, and the third and subsequent steeps should look at the changes in aroma and taste over brews. The taste should be consistent, as should the appearance.

A more intense way to do the sensory analysis, and the one usually practiced in official settings (these fit the Guobiao guidelines) involves 5g of leaf in a 110ml gaiwan. You will still use boiling water for this, though the steeps will be longer, at 2 minutes, 3 minutes, and 5 minutes for the first 3 steps. You will pour this off into a separate bowl and use a tasting spoon to both analyze the color and turbidity of the tea as well as the flavor and aromas on the spoon. You will be looking for the same characteristics as noted above, though these longer steeps really allow one to get the feel for a tea and notice as many of the imperfections or off-qualities to a tea as possible. As a note, this should not be your daily method of drinking yancha, as it is primarily to analyze the characteristics of the tea rather than enjoy the experience. However, if you do desire, you may steep the tea however you like, as ultimately it is supposed to be something that you will enjoy.

Finally, another way to steep this would be western style in a mug. For this, I would recommend 5g of leaf (2 tablespoons) to 12oz of water (~350ml) boiling water, steeping the first steep for 3 minutes, second for 3 minutes, 3rd for 5 minutes, then the 4th for 8 minutes. You can get multiple infusions, and as always, please tweak these to your desired flavors. You’ll be the one drinking it and your tongue knows best for you, so don’t let these guidelines seem like law.

TL;DR of Yancha:

  • Yancha, also called Wuyi Rock Oolongs, is an oxidized oolong rolled into strips rather than balls like other oolongs.

  • Yancha is known for a characteristic minerality, like drinking mineral water but with added depth and flavor. This characteristic minerality is called Yan Yun.

  • Yancha's characteristic minerality comes from the unique and rugged terrain of the Wuyi Mountains.

  • There are 4 main production regions, with Zhengyan being the most desirable and most expensive.

  • Common yancha available include DaHongPao, shui xian, rou gui, tie luohan, shui jin gui, and bai ji guan.

  • To brew yancha gongfu, take 5g of leaf to 110ml in a gaiwan and steep for 2, 3, then 5 seconds, adding time for each steep.

  • For Western brewing, take 5g of leaf (2tbs) to 12oz (350ml) of water and steep for 3mins, 3mins, then 5mins, finally 8mins.

  • A good yancha should be balanced between the roast flavors, minerality, and floral notes.

  • You can brew yancha however you want, but just make sure it's enjoyable to you- don't let anyone tell you that your style of brewing is wrong if it's what you enjoy!

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