Yunnan Green Tea: A Midsummer Change of Pace

Midsummer. It's been almost four months since the excitement of the spring tea season; the days are hot, but getting shorter. If you're tiring of the green teas from Southeastern China that once seemed so novel, yet aren't ready to make the seasonal shift to oolong and puerh, here's something to try for a change of pace: the fruity and robust green teas from far Southwestern Yunnan Province, best known as the home of puerh tea.

Yunnan's unique climate combines the mild temperature and clean, dry air of high altitudes with the potent sunshine of tropical latitudes far to the south of regions where green tea is grown in the east. As a result, Yunnan tea has larger, plumper leaves that develop extravagant flavor, aroma, texture, and nutrients compared to more conventional green tea. I shy away from analogies between tea and wine, but there's a parallel in the differences between wines from France vs. those from California. The juicier leaves can make it harder to remove moisture, so it's not uncommon to find smoky notes in Yunnan tea, an artifact of drying the leaves over wood or charcoal fires.

These teas aren't as famous as their refined cousins from the East, meaning they can be a better value. They're full of flavor and a great complement to food (it's the type of tea you're often served with meals in upscale Yunnan restaurants). Although they're processed differently from puerh, they grow in the same mineral-rich soil and unique climate, and therefore have some of the same structure, allowing them to age more gracefully than delicate early spring green tea.

Today in the teahouse we sampled four Yunnan green teas. We brewed them in gaiwans with water hotter than you'd use for most other green teas, 170-180 degrees on your programmable digital kettle. Here's what we found:
  • Sword of the Emperor: This tea is made from a da ye (big leaf) puerh varietal but the tea is picked earlier and processed differently from puerh. It consists of large, downy leaf buds--hand-sorted to pleasing uniformity--that like to float on the surface of the water, so they should be infused with hot water and plenty of motion to ensure that they're thoroughly immersed. Also, because the leaves are fluffy and the tea is mild, you should use about 50 percent more leaf by volume than intuition might suggest. The liquor is pale golden yellow. Two powerful sensations emerge from this tea: an incredible, almost candy-like sweetness, and the apricot fruitiness that you find in some measure in virtually every Yunnan tea. The abundant fur on the leaves also yields a pleasing, rich texture. According to Roy, this tea was sun-dried, so there's no smoke and it should age well. Delicious, uncomplicated, easy to brew, and full of flavor, Sword of the Emperor is sure to be a favorite.

  • Yunnan Spring Tips: This rustic tea looks completely different from Sword of the Emperor; in fact, visually, you'd be challenged to identify it as green tea. The leaves are large and dark. Yet it's picked in the spring and has a freshness that belies its appearance. It can become harsh if overbrewed, so use a bit fewer leaves, water that's not too hot (around 170 degrees F), and don't infuse too long. The surprise with Yunnan Spring Tips is that this green tea is several years old! Unlike green tea from China's Southeast, this puerh relative has improved with age and offers more concentrated flavor and aromatics than when it was new. Thanks to its age the liquor has a reddish-orange cast, with flavor that's an intriguing combination of apricot fruitiness--not as overtly sweet as the Sword of the Emperor--and a spring tea astringency. I also detect a slight metallic tang that I think comes from Yunnan's iron-rich soil. Yunnan Spring Tips will continue to ripen superbly; you can store it in your tea cabinet almost indefinitely. Similar to Sword of the Emperor, Roy selected this tea because it was sun-dried, a process that doesn't harm beneficial microbes and therefore helps the tea age well.

  • Organic Yunnan Mao Feng: This tea's small, furry leaves have been twisted into distinctive mao feng, with pointy, blade-shaped tips. It's redolent of apricots, but both the aroma and flavor also have a distinct grassy note and some smoke that becomes more prominent after the tea is brewed. The yellow-gold liquor has an astringent tang and satisfying viscosity. The grassiness gives fair warning that this is a green tea and may become harsh if overbrewed. As with the Spring Tips, don't use too much leaf or water that's too hot. A bonus with this tea is that it's organic!

  • Misty Mountain: This tea is made from furry young leaves that have been twisted to extract lots of flavor. There's plenty of fruit in Misty Mountain, but it's not so aggressive. That's because this tasty tea holds the biggest surprise of our four Yunnan green teas: it's 10 years old! I found Misty Mountain to be a sophisticated balance of fruit, smoke, and a touch of acidity in lieu of the sweetness that fades with age. The pale liquor has an orange cast because it's oxidized over time. An exceptionally satisfying tea at a great price!

Four Yunnan green teas: top left, Yunnan Spring Tips; top right, Misty Mountain; bottom left, Yunnan Mao Feng; bottom right, Sword of the Emperor

The same four teas infusing. The foam in the cup suggests how rich and full of flavorful, nutritious sap the leaves are, after coming of age in Yunnan's tropical latitudes

Wet leaves of our four teas