Wuyi Yancha or rock tea is a collective name for the oolong teas that comes from the Wuyi region. Located in the north of Fujian Province, China, the Wuyi area is famous for its unique geography – The Danxia Landform. This undulating and sometimes spiky landscape makes for phenomenal scenery but what’s more, it also creates an incredible environment for tea growing. Yan means rock, granite, or stone in Chinese and the name yancha refers to the way the geography manifests itself in the dominant characteristics of the finished tea.
What makes this kind of tea so special? First, the climate in the Wuyi area is ideal for tea growing, having four distinct seasons without drastic temperature changes and consistent humidity all year round. The stunning environment also makes it possible to produce great teas: the rocky landscape gives the tea a unique flavour that no other region can render, the rich and diverse foliage shade the tea plants from direct sun and provides natural pest control, and the temperature swings from day to night are just about perfect. What’s more, the most expensive tea in the world comes from this region, which adds intrigue, enticing more people to try Yancha. In 1998, 20g of Da Hong Pao from the mother bushes were sold for 156,800 RMB, and again in 2005 for 208,000 RMB! After 2008, plucking from the centuries old mother bushes was officially halted in order to prolong the life of these national treasures.
Yancha is traditionally heavily oxidized and heavily roasted, but the trend of light oolongs (lightly oxidising and roasting) has also affected yancha. The benefit of this is that yancha is becoming more accessible to a larger range of tea drinkers in terms of taste. So what should you look for when tasting Wuyi Yancha? First and foremost, though Yancha is famous for its dark, dry, roasted flavour, it should never be the singular taste element. Because of the roasting, the liquor is usually darker than other oolong teas, but should still remain in the yellow/gold range. As with all other oolong teas, the liquor colour of an oolong should never have a red tinge. A well balanced comfy roasty/dark chocolate aroma is a good sign of proper roasting. The Chinese describe the flavour with four characters, 岩骨花香 (yan gu hua xiang). It means the ‘bones’ of the tasting profile, or the structure, is the rock and granite component, but the floral notes must still be present in the background, filling out the tasting profile. The rock flavour tends to present itself as the ‘masculine’ notes (dry, dark chocolate, cigar tobacco, roasted, granite, mineral). Without the masculine rocky side, it’s not a rock tea. Without the fragrant, floral side it’s not a good cup of rock tea.
I think Wuyi yancha is one of the hardest types of tea for tasters to master for a few reasons. There are numerous cultivars natively growing in the Wuyi region, not to mention people are currently introducing new cultivars. Also, different locations bring different tastes to the tea. Because of the unique landscape, the taste of the teas of the same cultivar can be quite different though the locations are just a couple of miles apart. Finally, on top of the number of cultivars and the peculiarity of the location, we add one of the most complicated processes of all the oolong teas, already the most complicated process out of all the tea types. Though yancha is very challenging to understand from the tasting point of view, there is no doubt that accurately pinpointing the cultivar, locale, and process from a sip of tea gives one a great sense of achievement.