The Remarkable Value of Yan Cha, an Oolong with a Rich History


In my first article for RADII, I wrote about 10 historically popular teas you should be familiar with. The thing is, not all of them were a specific type of tea, but rather, a category. Today we will take a slightly deeper dive into one of those categories, called Yan Cha.

Yan Cha (or “Wuyi rock tea”) is a category of oolong hailing from and around the Wuyi Mountains scenic area in Fujian province. They are most recognizable for their dark, roasted flavor. These teas have been simmered over coals for 8 to 12 hours to achieve this dark depth. Depending on the varietal, the roast can be light like Qi Lan, tasting like brown sugar, or it can be like a Tie Luo Han, which has a dark and heavy flavor like coffee and dark plums.

The most famous terroir for Yan Cha is Wuyi Scenic Park. There are two sections: Zhengyan (“true cliff”), at 27 square miles in size, is the ultimate example of micro-climate. Surrounding Zhengyan is Banyan (“half cliff”), which is bigger and offers more cultivars than Zhengyan (which, due to limited spacing, is reserved for the most desired breeds of tea). While there are many famous tea brands that come from Wuyi, there is one tea that is synonymous with the Wuyi region and Yan Cha as a category: Da Hong Pao:


Da Hong Pao got its name when a scholar called Juzi, who was on his way to an imperial exam, fell ill near Wuyi Shan, and was given some tea by a clergy from the temple. He went on to pass the exam. When he returned to the temple and was shown the plants the tea came from, he took off the red robe awarded to him and spread it over the bushes. Indeed, Da Hong Pao means “great red robe.”

The original Da Hong Pao refers to six very specific trees. You can go the scenic park and see them on the side of a cliff. While they do not produce tea anymore, those six trees used to produce only 500 grams a year, and they were some of the most expensive teas in the world. To understand how valuable this tea was, when Richard Nixon first visited China in 1979, the gift he was given from Mao was half a pound of tea from the Da Hong Pao trees. He was baffled by how small of a gift this was until the importance of the Da Hong Pao trees were explained to him. The trees have long stopped producing tea, the last batch being auctioned off in early 2008 for millions of dollars, but clippings of the trees have been planted so you can still drink from its offspring.

There are dozens of different type of Yan Cha, with a wide variety of flavors. They can be very light and sugary, like Qi Lan, or heavy and dark like Tie Luo Han. It may take a while to understand them all, but here are a few that are good to start with.

Shui Xian: Bold and usually dark, Shui Xian is one of the most popular cultivars to grow in Wuyi. The cultivar is one of the most stable for the farmers to grow, and therefore it is reliable and the plant will rarely mutate, thus always giving the farmer the same thing to work with. The flavor of Shui Xian is fairly simple with a bold floral aroma, but paired nicely with a metallic finish. This tea is most often heavily roasted, but it doesn’t have to be. A lightly roasted Shui Xian, while having less body, often shows much more complexity.

Rou Gui: Besides Shui Xian, Rou Gui is the other most stable cultivar. Rou Gui means cinnamon, and that’s what the flavor is. Usually darkly roasted, this tea boasts a depth and a cinnamon note not found in other Yan Cha.

Huang Guan Yin: A cross breed between the Tie Guan Yin and Huang Dan tea cultivars, this tea is perfect for beginners. With a dark roast start and a floral and metallic finish, this tea will introduce beginning tea drinkers to what complexity is. This tea is only grown in Ban Yan, and any producer who claims they have Zhengyan Huang Guan Yin is mistaken or being dishonest.

Qi Lan: An example of a Yan Cha that is naturally given a lighter roast. Also from the Ban Yan region, Qi Lan gives off a flavor like oranges and dark sugar. This is a good Yan Cha for hotter days.

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong: This tea doesn’t exactly fall under the category of Yan Cha, but you will often see it grouped together since it is also from the Wuyi area. Originally from Tong Mu Guan, located about 70 km away from Wuyi Scenic Park, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong is a red tea that is most famous for being smoked. This tea is most commonly referred to in the West as Lapsang souchong, but tea connoisseurs will differentiate the two by the amount of smoky flavor. Tea geeks often use Lapsang to refer to a red tea that is over-smoked, unbalanced, and similar to an ash pit in your mouth. Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, on the other hand, is more balanced, the smokiness being balanced out by sweetness and fruity notes.

There is much more to be said about Yan Cha, and much more varietals to try. As a category, this tea is experiencing extreme popularity, and it is not unheard of for this tea to sell for more than 90,000 RMB if from the right micro-locations. That being said, there are still many affordable and delicious Yan Cha. As you start to explore this bold category, just remember a good Yan Cha is not one that is overly roasted. Even if the tea is dark and strong, there should be other notes that go with it, giving it dimensions that you can spend endless sessions exploring.

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Dylan Conroy
    Born and raised in New York City, now living in China, everything Dylan does relates to tea. He always carries two gaiwans and is quick to give people free tea if they show even the slightly interest. His ultimate goal is to make tea as widely appreciated and understood as wine is in the West. He has his own blog, www.thesweetestdew.com, which is dedicated solely to tea education.

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