Junshan Yinzhen (君山银针) is a highly sought-after yellow tea from Junshan Island in China’s Hunan Province. It is recognized as one of China’s ten famous teas and is considered to be the country’s rarest tea. While tea trees of the same kind are grown around Dongting Lake, the teas produced there should not be referred to as Junshan Yinzhen. The tea’s appearance is similar to that of white tea Yinzhen, also known as Bai Hao Yinzhen. It is said to have been Chairman Mao Zedong’s favorite tea and is sometimes falsely marketed as white tea.
China’s Famous Yellow Tea
Junshan Yinzhen is a highly sought-after yellow tea in China, which was historically used as a tribute tea. The tea bushes grow on Junshan Island in the Hunan Province, where the climate and soil provide the perfect conditions for producing a delicate floral aroma and a light sugarcane taste. However, due to the small area of origin and the skill required to make it, only a limited quantity of authentic Junshan Yinzhen is produced each year.
Yellow tea is a rare type of tea that is unique to China. It undergoes a special process that involves being wrapped in special cloth for several hours before it is shaped and dried. Unfortunately, much of the Junshan Yinzhen sold on the market today is actually processed as green tea, and some tea producers use tea bushes brought in from other provinces. To ensure the authenticity and quality of the tea, it is important to choose Junshan Yinzhen that has been processed using traditional yellow tea methods and made only from local quntizhong heirloom tea bushes.
Junshan Island is a small island located in Dongting Lake, the second largest lake in China. In addition to tea farms that produce Junshan Yinzhen, the island is also home to the tea research center of Hunan Province. This tea institute was built in 1952 and uses approximately one-fourth of the island for research. The island is also known for growing a medicinal herb called he shao wu, which is thought to lend a distinctive flavor to the tea.
The tea harvest season on Junshan Island is very short, lasting only about 10 days from the end of March to early April. The plucking standards for Junshan Yinzhen are very stringent, with only tea buds that are about 3cm tall and not too old or too young being picked. The tea buds must not be “empty” with few leaves inside, and only full, luscious tea buds that will open to become 4-5 tea leaves are selected. Tea pickers never work on rainy or dewy days, and they avoid picking buds that have been damaged by insects. Tea masters even check to make sure that tea pickers do not have long fingernails, which can adversely affect the oxidation of the leaves.
According to legend, Junshan Island was formed over 4,000 years ago when two lovers of an emperor who died in battle flipped their boat over in Dongting Lake and became the mountains that make up the island. There is a park on the island celebrating this myth.
How Junshan Yinzhen Yellow Tea is Made
After the tea leaves are harvested, tea makers allow them to wither for about 5-6 hours under shade, spread out evenly on bamboo sheets. This process reduces the moisture content of the leaves by about 5%. Then, 300 grams of fresh leaves are fried at a time on a shallow, 20-degree sloped wok at a temperature of about 120°C for about five minutes. The leaves are then spread out in a 40cm-thick layer on woven bamboo trays, which are shaken to remove dust and broken leaves and disperse heat. After cooling for 30 minutes, small quantities of leaves are wrapped into bundles and allowed to oxidize slightly in a process called menhuang, which is unique to yellow tea.
Once several batches of frying are complete, the tea makers use thick yellow paper to wrap packets of still-warm leaves, each weighing about a kilogram. These packets are stored in special wooden cabinets, which keep the tea warm and encourage slow oxidation. The leaves remain in the cabinets for about 40 hours, during which the tea masters open and mix the bundles for even oxidation before re-wrapping and returning them to storage. At about 40-48 hours, the packets are opened and roasted over 50°C charcoal for about an hour, stirring the leaves every 15 minutes. The leaves are then allowed to cool on bamboo trays before being packed in paper and returned to the cabinets for another 20 hours.
The tea master’s skill is crucial to determine the state of oxidation and how long the tea should rest in the cabinets. The tea buds change from green to golden yellow, and the aroma begins to develop. When the tea master judges that the tea is ready, the leaves are removed from the cabinets and roasted 500 grams at a time above 50°C charcoal until the tea is completely dried to shelf stability. The finished tea retains only about 5% of its original moisture content. Finally, the tea buds are sorted manually to remove any broken pieces, ensuring that only the whole, beautiful buds are kept.