Yancha Firing Levels

Handmade or traditional Yancha processing is one of the most intricate, processing methods of any tea. This process coupled with the rich terroir of inner Wuyi are paramount to making premium Wuyi tea. Missing either of these can make the difference between amazing and disappointing tea. Despite much hubbub about true Da Hong Pao, the terroir and processing are usually more important than the actual cultivar. This is different from Taiwanese tea, where cultivar can be a quick shortcut to cutting out tea masquerading as premium tea. While it’s not TeaDB’s goal to be a comprehensive guide to processing, it is important to know the basics behind hand-crafted teas like Yancha. The firing (roasting) has an enormous impact on the end-product and even when tea is in hand, the roast bears a strong influence on the ideal drinking time (oftentimes the difference between tea-flavored charcoal and delicious Yancha!).

Wuyi Production

Commercial Wuyi Production. Source: Essence of Tea.

Traditional Processing

Although very little Wuyi tea is completely hand-made today, it is an important part of the Yancha tradition and is practiced to varying extent by all Yancha producers. The fully traditional (handmade) processing is most often practiced by Yancha farmers harvesting from the best bushes in the Zhengyan region.

First, leaves are hand-picked with mature leaves consisting of one bud and three to four leaves. They are then sun-withered before being moved back indoors for the bruising process. Bruising the leaves is one of the hand-crafted steps in Yancha processing and is usually skipped over for commercial-grade Yancha (machine tumbling). Bruising helps to reduce the water content to precisely the right point (the leaves should be red around the edges).

Oxidation is halted with kill-green (Sha Qing) using a wok. Oxidation and firing will often be correlated, i.e. light-fire tea will be less-oxidized. The leaves are then baked over hardwood charcoal (this is the roast). There are a number of parameters tweaked here for taste, including temperature and time. Low-fired teas are roasted for a much shorter time, whereas high-fired tea can undergo roasting for up to 20 hours.

Handmade Yancha

Handmade Yancha. Source: Essence of Tea.

Leaves are then sorted by grades. Smaller leaves are used for premium tea and larger leaves will be used for lower-grade tea (leaf size can be an indicator of quality). These leaves will be fired once more (to finish the tea) before being left to rest. Higher-grade leaves can be roasted even more, depending on the desired style. With such a meticulous process, top-notch Wuyi is set apart by being a hand-crafted tea. Speeding up this process can be tempting, as there is always a rush of demand to purchase the latest harvest’s teas. However, pushing the process along too quickly is extremely detrimental and can result in an unfinished, inferior product. Hand-crafted Wuyi tea requires time to be properly processed and the first product on the market will usually be a commercial and/or inferior one.

Processing Cheatsheet

  • Picking
  • Sun withering
  • Room withering
  • Bruising in bamboo trays
  • Wok frying
  • Roasting
  • Rolling
  • Cooling
  • Packing

Resources

Low-Fired

Similar to the greener is better trends of Anxi Tieguanyin and Taiwanese high-mountain teas, the Qing Xiang style (thin fragrance) of light oxidation and light roast can be found in alot of contemporary Yancha. This style is rarely used for the best material but composes a large market-share of Wuyi teas. It can be identified by the lighter leaves, greener leaves, most noticeable when brewed. Opponents of this style, complain about the thinness and lack of yanyun or rock taste. Low-fired Yancha can also be favored by farmers as it requires less meticulous attention to detail, with simplified oxidation and roasting processes.

Low-fired Yancha can be consumed almost immediately, and is not as good a candidate for aging as mid or high-fired Yancha. With proper storage it still won’t deteriorate in quality as quickly as nuclear green oolongs. Light-fired tea is usually best consumed within a few years of the harvest.

Note: Most “Taiwanese Wuyi” or Taiwanese-grown tea in a Wuyi style will usually fit this style. This makes sense given that Taiwanese oolongs have gotten greener over the years.

Taiwanese Wuyi, Lightly Fired. Source: Floating Leaves.

Taiwanese Wuyi, Lightly Fired. Source: Floating Leaves.


Mid-Fired

The most versatile of the bunch, by default. This is usually best rested for at least a year, but can be consumed quickly. Mid-fired Wuyi doesn’t really go bad if properly stored and is well-suited towards aging. That being said, most high-grade Yancha is usually reserved for high-firing or at least mid/high-firing process. Part of this is because the thick leaves in the Zhengyan region are durable can endure the longer more intense roasting process. Most of Wuyi Star’s tea would fit into this category.

(mainland) High-Fired

Depending on the roasting style, high-fired Yancha has the potential to follow the traditional processing method (outlined above) the most closely. Roasting will usually be applied for ~10 hours and as much as 20. Due to the robustness and thickness of tea in the Zhengyan region, it works very well for high-grade Yancha (i.e. Lao Cong Shui Xian). Tea should usually be rested for at least three years before the roast has mellowed down enough to drink. If the tea has not properly settled, early infusions will have a strong charcoal flavor. Oftentimes drinkers will wait 5-10 years to drink fine high-fired Yancha. This is a reason why Yancha of the same base material and processing is usually more expensive with a few years under its belt.

It is important to note that not all high-fired Yancha is handmade or high-grade. The majority of high-fired Wuyi on the open market is made by large commercial factories like Sea Dyke. Leaves are harvested in the Waishan region, far beyond Zhengyan and completely machine-picked and machine-processed. In the cases of low-quality high-fired Yancha, the roast will usually be applied at very high heat which helps mask inferior base material. Premium high-fired tea involves applying heat for a long time but not burning or damaging the tea leaves!

Note: It should also be noted that the “high-fire” here might be better described as a refined roast. This means the leaves are fired for a long time at lower-heat. Low-grade tea like Sea Dyke are fired at a much higher temperature (see the_e’s comment below).

HK High Fire, Mainland High Fire

90s HK High Fired Shui Xian, 2003 Mainland-Fired Hui Yuan Shui Xian. Source: Origin Tea.


HK High-Fire

There is another high-fired style, typically practiced by roasters based in Hong Kong. The roasters who practiced this style of roast emigrated from Fujian to Hong Kong (or Taiwan) and carried over the roasting practices from Fujian. Tea producers custom-order the mao cha from Wuyi and then perform their own firing. This roast will historically use charcoal (do to regulation it has become increasingy electric) and can be even more intense than the mainland Wuyi processing method! More intense HK High-fired tea is usually given at least a couple years to rest. The end-product tends to be thicker and sweeter than its mainland processing method. Like many forms of tea processing, this style of roasting has been dynamic and has evolved throughout the years.

Because the mainland was closed off for years, tea producers in the Wuyi region had been more or less unaware of this process until recently. These different styles of roasting have developed in parallel of one another. Please note that there are many different styles and types of HK Firing and this section is an over-simplification.

  • Yancha Roasting Styles thread on Tea Drunk.
  • the_e has alerted me that this HK firing may have originated in the mainland and is actually closer to the older-style of roasting. This would imply that the mainland style has moved more towards a greener-style Yancha (see the comments below).
  • Credit to mating_toe_nail for the article idea!
Tie Luo Han

Feng Ke Keng Tie Luo Han. Source: Origin Tea.

This entry was posted in Article, Long-form Article, Oolong, Tea Learning, Wuyi Oolong and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Yancha Firing Levels

  1. Cwyn says:

    So, when purchasing a tea, how does a person really know what they are getting? Seems like tea marketing and descriptions are just getting more flowery in language, almost like a poetic way of talking about the tea is selling it, rather than variables like roast time.

    • James says:

      Indeed it is tricky. If you inquire with a vendor they can likely divulge a bit more information. For lower-priced Wuyis I wouldn’t worry so much about having very exact data, but if you are paying top $$ for some premium Wuyi, the more information the better!

      Cheers!
      -James

  2. the_e says:

    Hi James,

    A couple of things:
    1) I don’t think HK firing originated from Hong Kong. Rather, the old roasters from the mainland emigrated to Hong Kong and that practice of high roasts was preserved there whereas the mainland moved toward greener teas.

    2) While roasting tea does require leaves of a certain quality, I find that the best teas are not very highly roasted. Instead, they are ‘refinely’ roasted. The actual roast level is not very high but the tea is roasted repeatedly over low heat. There is some discussion of this on The Mandarin’s blog and Teadrunk.

    3) High heat roasted teas are often not very high quality (this is where Seadyke comes in). The teas are roasted in a short amount of time over high heat, and this is a way to make low grade leaves taste nice. The aim might not be to mislead, merely that such processing ‘fits’ those grades of tea.

    Roasting is a pretty complicated subject, thanks for investigating it, looking forward to reading further investigations.

    • James says:

      Hi the_e,

      Thanks for the comment and you make some excellent points!

      (1) I don’t know about this but suspect you are correct. I’ll add a note, to the HK section.

      (2 and 3) Excellent points. It makes alot of sense to differentiate high-heat and low-heat + long-time rather than lumping everything together as high-fired tea. Thanks for the clarification. I’m going to amend this post (hopefully tonight) and add some of this.

      Cheers!
      -James

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