The direct translation for huang pian (黄片) is “yellow leaf.” It also means “adult video” (don’t ask me how I know that, but that is a different post on a much different blog 😉). It is sometimes referred to as “granny tea” due to the age of the leaves and is often consumed by older women because it is gentle on the digestion system. It may also be called “yellow flakes” or more traditionally “lao huang pian,” which translates to “old yellow leaf.” It is both a product by itself and a bi-product of pu’erh production. Most market pu’erh cakes require leaves that are consistent in both color and size. Leaves that are too large or too yellow do not meet these criteria and are removed from the batch during oxidation. Because there is little demand for these leaves, they are typically consumed by the farmers and producers. Those cases where huang pian maocha (tea material) are for sale, they are usually at a deeply discounted price. But, are they worth buying? Tasting? Aging? If they are good enough for the tea farmers, are they good enough for tea enthusiasts?
Before looking too deeply for these answers, it may be worth asking why these leaves are removed from the maocha if they were intentionally picked in the first place. The first answer is fairly simple – money, or more accurately, the color of money. The market perception is that the leaves need to be consistent. For westerners, this perception goes back a few hundred years when Britain was trading with China for tea. At the time, most English knew very little about tea, and nothing of its production. In fact, Brits thought that different teas (green, black, “pekoe, or “caper,” all came from different plants. This is mostly because China insisted on keeping its tea production methods a secret from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, these secrets were discovered (or stolen) by the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune in 1848. Among his tea-discoveries at the time was that the Chinese were dyeing the teas to be sold to Europeans as there was a perceived preference for “coloured green teas.” This dye consisted of Prussian blue and gypsum. While relatively safe to drink, it shows the Chinese were willing to alter their production methods and the color of their teas just to sell more to customers who were quite ignorant of the chemical ingredients they were consuming. Of course, the Chinese production no longer practices this deception, but the preference of the market still exists. This bias is partially responsible for the existence of huang pian as well as its lower price.
The removal of these leaves is not merely aesthetic. There are flavor qualities that exist in these leaves that may alter the desired blend. When picking leaves for pu’erh production, the farmers often pick the bud and two to four leaves. These third and fourth leaves are more likely to be removed as they are the older leaves on the stem and therefore larger and less green. However, as older and larger leaves, they are sweeter and less vegetal. Often pu’erh producers will intentionally leave in a few of these leaves to balance the greenness of the cake. It then becomes a trade off between looks and tastes. It’s also more likely to be found in autumn pu’erh rather than spring teas, as the leaves have had more opportunity for growth.
As an American, in a culture obsessed with sugary sweet drinks, it’s difficult to understand why this type of tea hasn’t caught on as a preference for our palates. Though I suppose it may have its day in the future. Of course, that will only lead to more demand and higher prices. People will then search for the largest, sweetest leaves they can find. Summer teas will explode on the market. Growth hormones and genetic modifications will become a standard for creating entire cakes rolled from gigantic single leaves. The Chinese farmers may even be forced to dye the leaves yellow with… Tartrazine?!!! Perhaps it’s best that we keep this tea our little secret. Or, maybe that’s why this tea is kept a Chinese secret and often never makes it to market in the first place. When it does, I will be there with my meager check-book and philosophical justifications, my ravenous sweet tooth, and unjustified superiority in knowing a good bargain when I see one.
Huang Pian – Inexpensive, sweet, simple, easily digested, lightly aged, strong but mellow cha qi.
AKA: “Granny” tea, “Yellow Flakes,” “Lao Hunag Pian,” “Lao Ye,” or “Adult Video.”