We made a lot of tea in 2015. Since we like to use a heavy kill-green process, we get a lot of yellow flakes (a.k.a. Huangpian) in our tea. They are sorted out, and we always end up with a couple of bags. Since we had them in sufficient quantities, we decided to press them into 357g cakes.
The brew is clear and yellow. It delivers plenty of sweetness and a discrete but complex fragrance that lingers in the back of the mouth. This tea is not as robust as the usual Pu-erh tea leaves, but you can enjoy it over many infusions. You can even boil it if you want to make most of its sweetness. It will hardly give any bitterness, but if you're patient, it will reveal its hidden charms.
Known as Huangpian in Chinese, the yellow flakes are over fried leaves that have become crispy and look very different from the other tea leaves. They have a brighter color than the rest of the leaves and feel much lighter and bulky.
In the wok, the leaves lose a large part of their water content. When water evaporates, the steam takes in heat, which means that as long as the tea leaves are moist, their temperature will not go too high. However, as the leaves are drying in the wok, there is not enough water to dissipate heat, which means the leaf temperature increases. If the leaf gets too hot, its cells will burst, and they will be fried like a steak on a pan.
Now, think a minute; the buds and young leaves have a higher water content than the older tea leaves. Which leaves are most likely to become yellow flakes?
All right, the older leaves are going to lose their water first, if the wok-frying is prolonged too much, the old leaves will become yellow flakes. If we ever continued a wok-frying session for a long time, all of the leaves would become yellow flakes.
When processing a standard one bud/three leaves batch, it is impossible to avoid having yellow flakes. In Spring, there are few yellow flakes in Pu-erh tea because the leaves are very tender and do not need a prolonged wok-frying.
In Summer and Autumn, the tea leaves tend to have thick stems, which means we need to cook the leaves for a longer period in order to heat up the center of the stem and stop oxidation. While the stems are only heating up, the leaves have already lost a good part of their water and are heating up seriously.
There's a crucial choice for the tea maker to make. Stopping the frying as soon as yellow flakes start to appear and leaving the thick stems prone to oxidation, or pursuing a longer frying session and having to deal with mant yellow flakes.
This year, we chose the second option. Yet, you will more often find reddened Pu-erh in autumn than in Spring because many tea producers interrupt the wok-frying early and let the stems oxidize. This is the main reason why you can see red stems in your teapot.
The yellow flakes are not necessarily detrimental to the taste of tea, they sweeten it, and as a consequence, reduce its aggressiveness; yet, they are considered unappealing by the Chinese tea consumers and are therefore sorted out.
Some machines can do the job, but the sorting is not satisfying. Many "good" leaves are picked out and some yellow flakes remain present. Sorting is most often made by hand; this is a tedious and fastidious work than can sometimes take as much time as picking tea.
The sorted out yellow flakes are collected and often consumed domestically, either brewed in a teapot or boiled in a kettle. They are sweet and fragrant although not as powerful and long-brewing as well-processed tea leaves.
They can also be used for fermented Pu-erh tea production.