Yabao is an intriguing, little-explored frontier in tea. Sometimes people call it white tea, sometimes pu’er, but despite yabao’s rising popularity among specialty tea vendors, nobody can seem to reach a consensus on what actually makes yabao yabao. This unique kind of tea is often seen in tiny compact little buds and is known for its sweet light and crisp flavor.
In our blog, we have already explored the topic of yabao in terms of defining it by what is picked, in effect, identifying exactly which part of tea plant yabao is. The most commonly known and accepted idea of yabao is that it is made from early season buds that would become offshoot branches on a plant. Any Camellia – from garden camellia japonica to our favorite camellia sinensis – produces yabao buds from its trunk and main branches as it grows its arbor with more and more smaller branches.
Even still, there is not agreement on whether yabao is even tea, or whether it comes from another plant all together. This confusion stems from the fact the same word (yabao) is used by many to describe both a part of a tea plant (any species of camellia), and also sometimes used to refer to regional wild-type near-relatives of tea. In Qianjiazhai, that species is camellia crassicolumna.
Yabao is one of the first teas we fell in love with. Back in 2010, it was impossible for us to get any in the United States after moving back from China, and our eagerness to share yabao is one of the reasons we started importing tea in the first place. It was with great honor and excitement that we took our interest in yabao to a new level by bringing our questions to one of the oldest and most genetically diverse tea forests in the world- Qianjiazhai. We wanted to get the answers to questions that keep coming up:
What is Yabao?
What plant does it come from?
Why does it taste so different
For most of the tea industry, yabao is an intriguing novel experience, but for the local people of Qianjiazhai in the Ailao Forest Preserve, yabao is part of daily life. People have been picking yabao and enjoying it alongside more traditional tea for as long as anyone can remember.
After many plane rides and another 20 hours of driving up into the mountains from Kunming, we were greeted with big glass tumblers of yabao steeped in mountain spring water. The buds were stunning- long variegated and wild-looking compared to the compact smooth Silver Buds Yabao we were used to.
Why did the yabao we sipped in Qianjiazhai look so different from anything else we had ever seen? The answer is simple: this “tea” came from a different plant. The Camellia family is a huge, genetically diverse family of plants ranging from decorative camellia garden shrubs (camellia japonica), to the classic Chinese teas we know and drink every day (camellia sinensis var. sinensis).
Species of Tea Plants
Commonly Used to Make Tea
Camellia Sinensis var. sinensis is the most commonly cultivated tea in China. It grows in shrubs, not trees, giving it great leaf density and making it easy to pick. It has been bred for thousands of years into different varietals. You might be familiar with names like Tieguanyin, Qilan, or Huang Jin Gui. These are all cultivars (sometimes called varietals) domesticated and bred from the same ancestor plant of Camellia Sinensis var sinensis.
The second most common and widely known tea plant in the world is Camellia Sinensis var Assamica. In studies as late as 2002, assamica has sometimes been ambigously referred to as its own species seperate from camellia sinensis var. sinensis, but today’s science shows such a close genetic relationship between Assamica and Sinensis that Assamica is considered a varietal or subspecies of Camellia Sinensis.
Today’s research shows that tea has been through several marked genetic splits – moments in history where the genetic differences between plants due to environment, isolation, or more recently, human intervention and cultivation have yielded genetically distinct species and sub-species. One of these more recent divergence points was Assamica becoming genetically distinct from Sinensis enough to warrant subspecies. More recent work today posits that the Assamica in China and India may in fact have been domesticated at different times, with one as recently as a couple thousand years ago. Who knows? We may someday refer to camellia sinensis var. sinensis, China type camellia sinensis var. assmica, and India type camellia sinensis var. assamica.
As fun as it is to go down the rabbit hole and try to get to the bottom of tea’s history and origin as a plant – investigating and documenting how it branched into such stunning diversity – for our purposes, it is enough to know that there is a difference (both genetic and morphological) between Assamica and Sinensis. Assamica is what grows across Qianjiazhai in cultivated, semi-wild, and wild trees. It is also cultivated closer to Pu’er in Yunnan at lower elevation. Most pu’er and much Yunnan tea that we are accustomed to drinking is assamica varietal, not sinensis.
Our Silver Buds Yabao is made from cultivated var. assamica, and represents the most widely recognized form yabao takes on the market. What we got to try in Qianjiazhai was not yabao made from the assamica plant. Instead, it came from a lesser known wild near-relative of Sinensis called crassicolumna. This relative is no mere subspecies, but an entirely different species: Camellia Crassicolumna.
Crassicolumna is not cultivated on a wide scale, and only grows in several pockets of Southeastern Yunnan, with Qianjiazhai and the Mt. Ailao Forest Preserve being an area of greater concentration. Because it is so rare (an estimated 10,000 mature individuals), it is very uncommon to see Crassicolumna tea on the market.
The other species that the market is more familiar with is Camellia Taliensis, also commonly reffered to as “purple buds.” Taliensis grows both wild and cultivated, and cultivated material may be pressed into cakes with leaf and bud material. This species also grows in the Ailao Forest Preserve, and is also picked and sold as yabao.
Assamica, Taliensis, and Crassicolumna all produce yabao buds. Each species all look very different, taste different, and even have different chemical properties in terms of caffeine, theobromine, and antioxidant levels.
Enough technicalities – the world of yabao was blown wide open for us on our last trip to Qianjiazhai when we realized how many different species of plant can be used to make this kind of tea we love so much. We thought the best way to look at this diversity would be a side by side tasting.
Let the taste-off begin!
Silver Buds Yabao
camellia sinensis var. assamica
We wanted to start with the classic Silver Buds – the first yabao we ever tasted. This tea is strikingly beautiful, full of hard, compact little buds packed with dozens of layer a piece. One of the things we love about this tea is how we can steep it for any amount of time and get a delicious brew. The flavor was sweet like marshmallows, crisp with a cedar woody aftertaste and a touch of cinnamon, rose and vanilla. It feels like a north woods garden party, and brews up almost clear. We even pushed this tea to a ten minute brew in a gaiwan and just got a much richer version of the same sweet flavor.
Purple Buds Yabao
Through a friend of a friend, we got our hands on Mt. Ailao “Purple Buds” taliensis yabao.
The color difference compared to silver buds is huge. The buds are gold orange with a touch of purple hue. Each bud is also much more slender and twisted. When steeped, the buds still pack just as many layers into each cluster. The buds looked outright wild compared to the plump and elegant silver buds.
The flavor was worlds away from the Silver Buds. We tasted a lot of pear and jicama, candied rose and juniper. However, when we push the steeping longer than three to four seconds, taliensis yabao becomes extremely bitter, sharp and woody. Steeping this tea felt like learning to brew tea for the first time – it behaved nothing like assamica or sinensis in the gaiwan and required a very dialed in methodology to get palatable brews. It truly felt like trying wild plants in the forest – interesting, and slightly dangerous.
Finally we came to the intriguing tea that broke our understanding of what yabao could be. The yabao buds were enormous, long twisted and full of color from red and yellow to purple and silver.
The first steepings of Crassicolumna Yabao were full of the flavor we have come to know and love in Qianjiazhai- tulsi, juniper and cedar. Yet the complexity and aromatics didn’t stop there. We got candied citrus peel, lemongrass and rosemary. While Silver Buds and taliensis were very crisp, light and clean, this yabao was thick and hefty, almost creamy or brothy in texture.
When we pushed the steeping out to several minutes, we were rewarded with an even more rich and sweet brew with an aftertaste that lasted the rest of the day. There was some magic to the Crassicolumna species that you just don’t taste anywhere else. It was unlike any var. assamica tea we have tasted from the same region, both in flavor and in effect.
Despite drinking this tea on a very grey dark and rainy day, the more we sipped, the more upbeat and at ease we felt. The effect didn’t feel like the caffeine and L-theanine reaction we have come to know so well in fine teas, so we did a bit of research on why Crassicolumna felt so different.
Camellia Crassicolumna and Caffeine
Why did drinking Camellia Crassicolumna feel so different from drinking tea?
Although originally thought to have a small amount of caffeine, a recent 2009 study confirms that Camellia Crassicolmna has no caffeine or theobromine, two of the substances in traditional tea that make us feel awake.
Despite the lack of caffeine, C. crassicolumna is packed with perhaps even more polyphenols and antioxidants than var. sinensis or var. assamica. We know from earlier research on caffeine and L Theanine that antioxidants are shown to have a relaxant effect in lab settings. This means that Crassicolumna is a unique naturally caffeine free tea that still has all the health benefits of tea, including a distinctive relaxing effect on the body.
Assamica yabao (silver buds) has caffeine just like other var. assamica tea, and Taliensis has caffeine, but at a reduced level. It is exciting to find a close relative to traditional tea that is chemically so similar but missing one of the most conspicuous elements that makes tea, tea.
Ever since we tasted Gan Zao Ye, a caffeine-free herbal tea made in Laoshan village and processed like green tea, we have been deeply interested with the effect of processing other herbs like tea, and even wondered what Gan Zao Ye would taste like oxidized into a black tea.
It would be strange to have an entirely unique wild species of tea growing across Qianjiazhai and only pick the early season shoots of buds that would otherwise become branches. What about the leaves?
It turns out that Master Zhou and his colleagues in the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmer’s Cooperative actually pick very limited amounts of leaves from C. crassicolumna, and process these leaves just like they do from their var. assamica trees. They take about half of these leaves and allow them to sun dry into sheng pu’er.
Crassicolumna Sheng Pu’er
The processing of Crassicolumna Sheng is exactly the same as the yabao. The only difference is what is actually picked. The huge leaves were thicker than tea leaves when steeped, and much longer, darker and more twisted dry.
The textural difference brewed between the yabao and the sheng was similar to the difference between Silver Needle White Tea and White Peony. The introduction of leaves gives a fuller body and a crisp, more woody texture compared to the creamy silver texture of buds.
The flavor was much more savory with sweet miso notes, sesame, and grape leaf. As the tea steeped out over many steepings, we tasted wild clover and honey. When pushed for long steepings, the tea became more funky and tropical with sugarcane and the sort of sweet potato flavor you might get in Rum Agricole.
Crassicolumna Black Tea
The processing difference between black tea and sheng pu’er in Qianjiazhai is best explained by Master Zhou himself. He and the other families in the Cooperative use the same techniques he shares in this video to makeCrassicolumna black as they does their sun-dried black tea.
This tea is striking in its complexity and depth. The brew was deep amber, almost more similar to the color of Rou Gui Wuyi Oolong than to black tea. The flavor was packed with floral gardenia, sweet grapes and an aftertaste that reminded us of cotton candy. As we steeped it out we got lychee, candied rose, honey and pineapple skin.
When we pushed this sweet, luscious and tropical tea to long steepings, we didn’t get any bitterness. Instead, the juicy texture was replaced with the crisp full bodied grip of more traditional Assamica Dian Hong and the aftertaste became cooling like camphor.
Conserving a precious resource
After tasting such incredible teas made from the Crassicolumna species, you can’t help but wonder immediately why they aren’t more widespread. The Crassicolumna yabao is, without question, the most interesting we have ever tasted. The first time we tried these teas, we wanted to buy hundreds of pounds of each of these unique teas for both aging and sharing with tea lovers around the world.
Unfortunately, Crassicolumna is a threatened species.
Crassicolumna used to grow more widely across the region, but when people outside of Qianjiazhai realized how incredible it was, the demand shot up. Outsiders and people looking to cash in on the rising fad would sneak into the Ailao Forest Preserve at night to pick the Crassicolumna trees.
Unfortunately for these ‘tree poachers’ and for the trees themselves, C. Crassicolumna trees grow much, much taller than Assamica trees – that is in fact how the species earned it’s name (crassas – “thick” and columna – “shaft / trunk”). Surviving wild specimins, estimated to be over 1000 years old, can still be found across the forest preserve with their huge trunks reaching straight and tall towards the sky.
These trees are nearly impossible to pick without ladders or climbing equipment; members of the cooperative have all heard stories of older friends and relatives who broke arms or legs when trying to climb these trees in their youth; others are more unlucky, and more than one poacher has met their death, climbing in the dark.
Instead of risking a fall or sneaking in climbing equipment late at night, poachers and uncaring simply cut down these thousand year old tree without a thought, then gathered the leaves after the tree fell. Locals would then find the fallen trees stripped bare.
Within a few seasons, the population of ancient Crassicolumna trees was alarmingly reduced.
In response to these outrageous actions, the Chinese government stepped in and made wild Crassicolumna trees illegal to pick. The IUCN red list notes Crassicolumna as a threatened species, and China has placed the trees under national protection. This has helped immensely in giving the local people the breathing room and protection they need to reestablish C. crassicolumna in a sustainable way.
Over the last few years, farmers who have wild Crassicolumna trees growing within the bounds of their own hones and farmsteads (not on common land forest), have been carefully taking cuttings from the wild trees and planting hundreds of new plants. These cultivated Crassicolumna plants are not wild, and they are on the property of the people who are doing the picking. In this way, some farmers have been able to work towards reestablishing a Crassicolumna population and help bring the species back from the threat of extinction. At the same time, these locals can see tangible reward from their efforts today by being allowed to pick their cultivated plants to enjoy for themselves, just as they did in the past, selling at their discretion to interested friends and neighbors.
Hopefully in another fifty years, the new plantings will become so established that Crassicolmna will be out of danger. With dedicated conservation efforts, it will be able to be enjoyed on a wider scale without the reckless and irresponsible practices of the past.
We were incredibly lucky to be in Qianjiazhai and meeting each member of the cooperative in 2016 right as the cultivated Crassicolumna was being picked for the year. We made so many friends that they were willing to offer us the portion of the harvest that they didn’t plan to keep for personal sipping.
The entire harvest of the cooperative was less than twenty pounds of yabao and twenty pounds each of black tea and Crassicolumna sheng. We are lucky beyond belief to be given the substantial remainder of this harvest to share. We don’t know if we will be able to get this tea again in 2017, but we are excited for the chance to share with as many people as we can this year to widen our collective understanding of yabao and the Crassicolumna species.
Our hope is that interest in this tea will grow to the point where more botanists are inspired to study the Crassicolmna plant, and all the incredible genetic diversity of the Qianjiazhai region. The more interest that exists and the more research that is done, the more we all benefit. Better research means more knowledge to bring to other aspects of tea. For example, could Crassicolumna be cross-bred with Sinensis? Could it be planted in Fujian, India or Japan? These wild near-relatives of tea are an incredible genetic safeguard for future breeding programs and research, and more studies are published each day investigating, cataloging, and analyzing the connections and potentials of these relationships. The more Crassicolumna is talked about, the more it can be protected. The history of tea as a plant is living in Qianjiazhai, waiting to be decoded so that we can shape a bright, sustainable and genetically diverse future for tea going forward.