[tea fundamentals] White Tea
Maybe it is due to the Snapple commercial where a stereotypical old Asian man introduces white tea as “baby tea leaf with natural light flavor,” that white tea went from unheard of by most in the West to a popular “new, lighter, full of anti-oxidants and caffeine free” tea. However, the only marginally true detail of white tea is that it can be quite crisp and light, and has anti-oxidants.
History and Legend
No other tea in China has a more confusing and controversial history than white tea, because the name Bai Cha (white tea) is used for two purposes: one refering to the actual processing method, which is the modern tea classification basis; the other referring to varieties of tea with lighter color (white hue) which are often processed into green tea, such as An Ji Bai Cha.
The white tea mentioned in the tea bible, “Classics of Tea” by Lu Yu is agreed by modern researchers to be a varietal of tea with fewer scholars arguing that white tea history precedes green tea. White tea, as we know it today, is defined by a unique processing technique that has only about 220 years of undisputed history.
Even the mythical origin of white tea doesn’t correspond with its actual origin, adding more confusion to tourists who pay pilgrimage to the wrong location based on folklore. The origin story of white tea starts in Tai Mu Shan (commonly mispronounced as Tai Lao Shan). The story tells of a kind-hearted girl making tea from a magical tea tree given by the divine to cure villagers from deadly measles. Many attractions of Tai Mu Mountain, including a rumored original divine tree, surround this legend (it is a pretty old tea tree for the varietal, estimated around 170 years old, WHICH does not line up with the timeline in the story, oh well…).
In 1857, records point to a merchant who migrated some tea trees from Tai Mu Mountain to Dian Tou, Fu Ding and started the current day white teas. However, Fu Ding record shows that in 1796, locals were already making white tea with indigenous varietals. Regardless of this disaccord, Dian Tou of Fu Ding now remains the most renowned white tea origin, while very little tea activities can be found two hours away in Tai Mu Shan aside from tourist attractions and advertisements of tea brands.
Making White Tea
White tea processing involves one of the simplest, but most difficult to master, steps. Traditionally, freshly picked leaves and buds are wilted under shade to lose moisture, then they are exposed to the sun for fermentation and drying. The teas are then finished by baking to dry with charcoal ash on bamboo trays, though if the sun is strong enough, the tea is simply dried by the sun.
Making white tea is a lot like sailing; one has to work with the wind and the sun to ensure the fermentation of the leaves with these natural tools at a regulated rate. The tea makers are mindful about adjusting the leaves to catch the sun at the right angle, while allowing wind to blow under the leaves to cool them down. When the sun is too strong and the moisture content is still high, the leaves will turn red, giving the tea a sweetness resembling over-ripened fruit (not a good taste in tea). If either the sun is not strong enough or it is too cloudy, the tea will take much longer to metabolize with low enzyme activities. This will allow stale water trapped inside to result in a “stinky green” quality, like a rotten or overcooked vegetable.
Because white teas are never exposed to enzyme-destroying high heat, or fermented thoroughly where the enzymes are exhausted, it can be aged. Theoretically, white tea has better aging potential than raw Pu Er, though aging tea is a new practice and NOT a tradition.
Making white tea the traditional way takes much time, skill and a lot of space, making it unsuitable for mass production. Before the white tea hype, even just in 2013, sun-made white teas were still the main method in Fu Ding with facility-wilted teas commonly avoided. However, since 2013, due to drastic increase in popularity because of the “one-year tea, three-year medicine, seven-year treasure” slogan bolstering the aging benefit, increased export demand as well as competing with new white teas such as Moonlight White from Yun Nan, white tea adopted a manufacturing method so quickly where the teas never see sunlight that the once-small township of Dian Tou turned into a bustling “city” in just one year of time, becoming a legend.
Over the past two years, as traditionally made white teas became more rare; over-cultivation; domination of clone varietals and infestation of manufactured teas quickly make white tea notorious among tea connoisseurs. There is also a fear that the pitfall of Tie Guan Yin will reoccur in the white tea regions.
One of China’s Ten Famous Teas is Bai Hao Yin Zhen, translated to “White Hair Silver Needle.” Like all historically famous teas, this designation refers to the highest picking grade of white tea, coupled with being produced from specified locations. Bai Hao Yin Zhen has two true origins – Fu Ding and Zheng He, about a 4-hour drive away from each other. It is specifically Bai Hao Yin Zhen, not other styles of white tea also made from the region, which made the highly honorable list.
• Fu Ding
Once known as the “Northern Needles,” the most hailed Fu Ding locations are within the townships of Dian Tou and Pan Xi. Though teas from Pan Xi are often more expensive due to higher elevation, Dian Tou is more renowned due to concentration of tea trading. Some top micro-lots are Huang Gang of Pan Xi and Bai Liu of Dian Tou.
The Fu Ding method of processing white tea, where the tea spends much more time under the sun is now the standard for making white tea.
• Zheng He
Once known as the “Southern Needles,” Zheng He white teas are made slightly differently from Fu Ding with the tea spending more time under shade to lose moisture, thus fermenting at a lower temperature. When the moisture is between 20-30%, the teas are then taken to sundry.
The Zheng He tea region experienced many years of slow tea activity, with the new generation of tea drinkers not even able to recognize the name. Though tea activities are picking up in the region, the main focus is on red tea.
In the East Fu Jian area, there is a large white tea production in the region of Fu An, which is considered a more inferior terroir, and is often sold as knock-off of Fu Ding teas.
Picking Grades and Naming Conventions
White teas are a rare case where the teas are named after the picking grade instead of the more common way of by varietal, location, or when the tea is famous, by both. It is VERY important to point out that though picking grades are important, there are many more contributing factors to the quality of the tea, thus the names should not be used as a parameter for buying decisions. After all, the number one factor influencing the price is the location, so much so that a Yin Zhen from Fu An actually sells less than a Shou Mei in Fu Ding. However, given that everything else is the same, the higher picking grade is almost always preferred than the lower.
• Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle)
Bai Hao Yin Zhen is the highest white tea picking grade.There are two ways to meet the Yin Zhen grade, by picking just the buds from the tea trees or by picking the teas with one or two leaves first and then going through a sorting process to pick out just the buds. The latter method is considered more authentic and sophisticated because the first method is subject to human error, resulting in hurting the tea trees. Picking style is so important in ensuring the health and on-going quality of tea trees that sometimes it is used as an extrapolation method to determine how valuable the tea is based on how much the producer cared about the trees.
• Bai Mu Dan (White Peony)
The official second grade of white tea, Bai Mu Dan, consists of one fat bud and two leaves. It is not always inferior in terms of picking time to Yin Zhen. The best Bai Mu Dan is picked at the same time as Yin Zhen and it is simply the maker’s choice whether or not to go through more steps to make it into Yin Zhen or to sell as Bai Mu Dan. In this case, a Bai Mu Dan can be considered as an un-de-leaved Yin Zhen and it is commonly accepted as a preference in taste among professionals to choose Bai Mu Dan over Yin Zhen instead of a fail of expertise.
However, even though Bai Mu Dan has overlapping seasons with Bai Hao Yin Zhen, Bai Mu Dan making continues even when Yin Zhen making has ended. Thus, the later harvested Bai Mu Dan is indeed more inferior to Yin Zhen. As the season goes into summer, the buds become skinnier and the leaves become larger than the buds.
• Gong Mei
In recent years, Gong Mei, the third grade of white tea, has often been skipped over in an effort to upsell the tea as Bai Mu Dan grade. Gong Mei is more often made in the fall to take advantage of cooler temperature and relatively sizable bud. However, it is characterized with skinnier buds in comparison to Bai Mu Dan’s and the leaves are always longer than the buds.
• Shou Mei
The lowest grade of white tea with mostly leaves and very skinny or no buds, Shou Mei is often made in the very end of spring and early summer where the weather is becoming rapidly warmer and more humid. One signature characteristic of Shou Mei is its darker color due to the higher moisture content carried by the wind that blows from north to south.
As white tea grade goes down, the flavor changes from bright to mellow. A side-by-side comparison of Yin Zhen and Shou Mei is one of the classic exercise for tea students to distinguish preference from quality. Yin Zhen is lighter but fuller, while Shou Mei is heavier but emptier.
Like many old tea regions, continuous tea making activities grant us valuable old varieties that are indigenous to the region. While the academic term for these varieties is called Qun Ti Zhong (group variety), the locals often call them by a different name. In the case of Fu Ding, in parts of North and East Fu Jian, it is called Xiao Cai Cha, or Little Veggie Tea.
• Xiao Cai Cha
Like the name suggests, the small-leaf varieties often have more intense flavors in comparison to the medium to big-leaf varietals, which are more common in the region now. Due to its relatively “ugly” look, the small size and the difficulty to separate the leaves from buds, Little Veggie Teas are rarely made into Yin Zhen. Because it still follows the more natural growth cycle of an evergreen tree, the varieties do not continuously bud and offer very little yield after the primary spring picking, thus it cannot produce Gong Mei or Shou Mei.
• Fu Ding Da Bai
Academically named Hua Cha #1 (aka China Tea #1... well, actually GS13001—1985), the name speaks of this varietal’s significance in modern tea research. In fact, 25 national and provincial level stabilized varietals has their lineage traced back to it, proving it bona fide #1 in seniority! By the way, 1985 is the year the varietal was officially archived and serial numbered, it is believed to have over 100 years of history.
The varietal was widely planted in the 1960s in Fu Ding in an effort to increase productivity, thus signaling the first round of eradication of Xiao Cai Cha. However, droughts in the 1970s made this varietal unpopular and were very quickly replaced, making Da Bai the rarest varietal of the region. Nowadays, China Tea #1 continue to be one of the most adapted clone varietals across all tea regions in China, even though it failed in its origin in Fu Ding.
• Fu Ding Da Hao
Academically named Hua Cha #2 (aka China Tea #2), this varietal tends to be mistaken by people to be Da Bai in Fu Ding. Due to its superior drought resistant quality, as well as the naturally bigger, fatter, hairier buds, Da Hao replaced Da Bai as the staple varietal in Fu Ding region since the 1970s until recently.
• Fu Yun #6
In a continuous effort to increase yield and manage budding evenness and seasonality, Fu Yun #6 quickly became so popular in many tea regions, including Fu Ding, it is now the most common varietal harvested and sold in the region. However, its lack of complexity and fullness make this tea a frowned upon varietal by conservative connoisseurs.
Contrary to common perception, white tea is actually one of the hardiest teas that can take a lot of “ruining” with varied brewing skills.
White tea is traditionally brewed in the same method as green tea, using a simple open vessel and often drank from the glass it is brewed in. However, due to the influence of Gong Fu Tea and the fact that it is such a forgiving type of tea, other than some senior folks in the local villages, white teas are more commonly brewed in gai wan than with just a glass.
The standard weight in a typical Wu Long gai wan was always 7 grams following the big-leaf-varietal rule. However, in just the last two years, there has been a big wave of change to lessen the amount of tea to water ratio in white tea. This brings out its more refreshing qualities, thus reducing the standard amount of tea to 5 grams.
When brewing white teas in a gai wan, the first flash steep is a rinse to open up the tea leaves. As the rinse is very light and relatively bland, it is often poured over a tea pet. Because white teas do not get bitter, the first steep of white teas can be unhurried and relaxed, with 200F-210F water brewing in the leaves for about 5-7 seconds. With each subsequent steep, increase brewing time for one to three seconds, adjusting to taste. White teas can stand up to 10-12 brews. Remember to smell the gai wan lid between each steep, to take notice of the changing aroma of the tea.