What is Huang Pian? September 05 2014

Chickens scatter as we make our way through Lower Mangjing Village in the Jingmai Mountains of Xishuangbanna. Behind our footsteps the dust falls as the heat slowly rises in this tropical region. As the noontime sun approaches her zenith she creates welcoming shadows of cool in the doorway of each home. The unlit interiors hiding hurried locals making food preparations. An aging man takes a break from picking tea as he naps on the cool stone in this shade. His dog shares the moment of relaxation and recognizes our intrusion with a momentary twitch of his ear. Flies, foreigners, and the heat are inconsequential to these two.

In one shaded doorstep we meet Tang. Perched on an ankle height stool she hovers over what looks like a large, round, woven bamboo mat. This mat is rigid and covered with tea leaves that have finished drying in the sun. Her eyes never stop. They dart in and around the leaves. Her fingers move as fast as her eyes plucking leaves and depositing them in a second pile. Her young daughter pauses for a moment to watch her mother before being distracted by a friend and running away laughing as they chase chickens. The speed and accuracy of her fingers in the leaves is like an industrial automated machine.

She pauses her diligent hunt for just a moment to lift the entire mat up into the air in one swift motion that momentarily suspends each leaf in front of her face. As the leaves fall back into place she begins a rhythmic circular motion that spreads the leaf across the woven surface. The mat back on the ground she begins the hunt again. She is looking for broken leaves, yellow leaves, leaves that didn’t roll tightly, and leaves that are too big. These she sets aside in a special pile. These aren’t pretty leaves; they’re runts. The market doesn’t want these leaves. They have ‘standards’. These leaves are called ‘lao huang pian’, or just ‘huang pian’. 

Lao Huang Pian ( 老黄片 ) literally means ‘Old Yellow Leaf’; Huang Pian ( 黄片 ) would just mean ‘Yellow Leaf’. Perhaps it was during the days of imperial tribute teas that image became so important. 1729 AD was the first year that the Chinese emperor set up a tribute tea collection station in Yunnan to collect puerh. Local producers would have wanted to present the best possible tea. Leaves that were the wrong color or the wrong shape would have distracted from the visual beauty of leaf symmetry. The plucking standard for puerh differs from that of green tea. With green tea the standard is one bud, and one or two leaves. With puerh the standard has been one bud, and 3-4 leaves. It is these larger third and fourth leaves that often don’t look right after processing.

What happens with these leaves? Well, the farmers keep them for themselves. With a majority of tea going to the emperor they would have had to drink what was leftover. To this day many puerh producing villages prefer huang pian. The tea market is the emperor now. The quality leaves get sold to the market for profit and they keep the huang pian for themselves. It makes an excellent tea. The larger leaves have been on the tree longer and are more flavorful. The floral and fruity flavors and aroma in puerh are largely in the 3rd and 4th leaves. Sure, some are a little over-roasted, and others are a bit under-roasted, but it is still drinkable. Drinking huang pian is actually really delicious. So with the farmers selling all of their quality leaf to the market and keeping the huang pian for personal consumption. You could even say that huang pian is ‘farmers choice’. This is what puerh farmers choose to drink. Storing puerh for aging is nearly completely uncommon with the puerh farmers. Many have never tried long aged puerh. They drink what they produce that season.

Huang pian puerh is definitely worth trying. The advantage is that because the majority of the Chinese tea market doesn’t consider it worth purchasing, when you can get it you can often get it for a much better price. You can even age it. I have read about certain varieties of apple that are too ugly for the American market but have a superior taste. Huang pian is like that. Forget what it looks like. Toss it in a gaiwan and brew some up. Let your palate be the judge.

We were able to pick up some huang pian when we were in Kunlu Shan. We only got half a kilo. We never had it compressed since we had so little. We brought it back as loose maocha. It’s from younger trees under 50 years old. It’s really good! It’s smooth and creamy with a floral fragrance. I took what we have and put it into sample bags of 25g each that we’re selling for just $6USD. So if you’re curious and want to taste something not normally found in the Chinese markets, let alone in the US give this a try. We only have 12 of these samples to sell, so move quick if you want to try some.

Occasionally some puerh producers intentionally work with huang pian in their products. We sell a shou puerh from Qiao Jun that contains a large amount of huang pian picked from Yiwu in the early 2000's. They processed the huang pian in the wodui process by itself and then blended it in with other mountains to make the final product. It works very well. It makes for a very unique shou puerh. It's quite a deal at just $22 USD for a 250g brick.

A final note about huang pian. If you are looking to do your own research into this interesting tea, you may be in for a surprise. I found out the hard way that huang pian in Chinese has two meanings. The second meaning is 'adult video'. How 'yellow leaf' became slang for 'adult video' in Chinese is beyond my understanding.

All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014