The Mysteries of White Tea
Gentle and refined in character, white teas have found a special place in many a tea repertoire since the beginning of the millennium. Like pu-erh teas, these delicately flavored teas so full of goodness were unknown to most of us in the west before then. But, long before our eyes were opened and our taste buds adjusted to appreciate these teas’ subtle notes, white teas were popular in China since the 10th century CE.
Made in those days in Fuding County of Fujian province, it is thought to have been a favorite of the Song Dynasty emperors who ruled from 960 to 1279 CE. Today we are told that the traditional varietal cultivated to produce white teas is the Da Bai (“big white”) but this was only discovered in 1857. Prior to that, farmers picked the smaller buds of the Xiao Bai (“small white”) varietal that grew native to the area. Once the Da Bai was discovered, beautiful fat silvery Yin Zhen ( “white hair silver needle”) teas were made from its larger, plumper buds. The most famous and best quality white teas are still made today from both of these two traditional varietals, but also are picked from other cultivars and varietals that grow locally in Fujian. Yunnan province also makes fat-budded white teas from the assamica varietals that grow there.
The steps required to process white tea are simple but require careful control. After picking, the buds or buds and leaves are dried naturally on a bamboo basket or mats in gentle sunlight for a day. If the sun is too hot, the tea dries too quickly and fails to develop the lovely gentle sweet character that is so prized in these teas. Time and patience is required to make really good white teas. After drying in the open air, the teas are brought inside to continue withering and drying in cooler air for another day or two. In the cooler, damper conditions of the Chinese spring, the teas often are given a final bake to ensure that the moisture levels in the leaves have been reduced to 2–3 percent. The tea must be very carefully handled at all stages of the processing.
The four main types of white tea made in China are Bai Hao Yin Zhen (“white downy silver needle”), Bai Mu Dan (“white peony”), Gong Mei (“tribute eyebrow”), and Shou Mei (“longevity eyebrow”).
Yin Zhen (白毫銀針) is made from just the Da Bai varietal’s tightly furled fleshy buds that are covered with tiny silvery hairs to protect the new bud as it forms and develops. The buds are gathered in late March or early April and must be very carefully handled so that the cells are not bruised or broken. White teas should be as little oxidized as possible and any bruising from rough handling will provoke oxidation.
In the past in China, young girls were sent out into the tea gardens to snip off the new buds with tiny golden scissors and catch them in a golden bowl. Untouched by hand and gently collected and carried, the buds retained their fresh silvery appearance. The liquors of fine quality white tea buds that have oxidized hardly at all are very pale yellow and have the sparkling appearance of a glass of chablis white wine.
Bai Mu Dan (白牡丹), the second grade of white teas, is also made from the Da Bai varietal but for this type, pluckers collect small shoots of one new bud and one or two tiny new leaves that have already opened. Because some of the leaves are already open, as the tea dries, a small amount of spontaneous oxidation takes place, turning some of the leaves to a pale greenish-brown or plummy red color. This of course means that liquors will be darker in color and more developed in flavor.
Gong Mei (貢眉), the third grade of white tea, looks a little like Bai Mu Dan but is picked from the smaller-leafed Xiao Bai varietal and so has dried leaves that are thinner and smaller than those of Bai Mu Dan, and liquors often are pale amber.
Shou Mei (壽眉), the fourth and final grade of white tea, is made from shoots of one bud and one, two, or three little leaves picked from the Da Bai Big White, but they are gathered later in the season than Yin Zhen and Bai Mu Dan. It is less refined than the earlier teas and gives liquors that are stronger and a slightly darker amber color.
Today, white teas are made in many other countries and vary in appearance according to the varietals and cultivars used. Also worth noting, is that although white tea is often referred to a “caffeine free,” all tea produced from the camellia sinesis plant will have caffeine.
Guest contributor Jane Pettigrew is a tea historian, writer, consultant, specialist working in the UK and around the world explaining and offering insight into the world of tea. She’s written 15 books and hosts regular master classes and tea tastings. You can find her at www.janepettigrew.com.
Originally published at teforia.com on January 26, 2016.