Yellow teas undergo light, late oxidation (10 – 20%). The harvested leaves are withered, quickly heated to denature their enzymes (preventing undesirable oxidation), and then shaped by hand or by machine while still damp. Then they are placed in a heating vessel where they are lightly and slowly steamed, covered with a cloth, and kept at a constant temperature and humidity level which leads to very gradual late oxidation. This second heating (smothering or “sealing yellow”) step can take up to several days giving Yellow teas a unique smooth and mellow flavor. Finally the leaves are dried and sorted.
The term “yellow tea” has two meanings in China: It can refer to this method of processing, or to a label given to a carefully selected tea that a province used to send as a tribute to the Emperor. Yellow was the Emperor’s color. In the past, every Chinese province had to pay taxes to the Emperor. The tax was gathered in the form of the best goods that local people could offer. In some places it was mineral resources, in others handmade articles, and in others cattle or sheep. In the tea producing areas, this obligation was sometimes extended to tea.