White tea has a pretty recent history, in fact it is a relatively new type of tea which gained popularity especially in the last few years.
Origins and myths
While Dian Tou is the original birthplace of white tea, it is said that Tai Mu Shan is its spiritual home, where the origin story comes from: the myth about a woman in the 13th century that made tea from a divine tea tree in the Tai Mu mountains to cure deadly measles made the place overflowing with tourists even today.
Contrary to some beliefs, white tea was not born in the Song dynasty. Instead, Dian Tou in Fu Ding is the birthplace of white tea in the 1700s. Farmers produced white tea with the method still in use today. The name refers to white hairs found on unopened buds which are used for some white tea styles.
The tea produced nowadays is still from bushes transported from Tai Mu mountain. White tea production then spread to Fu Ding and Zheng He, the two famed areas for white tea production today.
At first, white tea was not popular in the domestic market in China and the majority was for the international export to be sold abroad. Around 10 years ago people started to realize the benefits of white tea and found out about the aging potential of white tea.
One-year tea is tea; three-year tea is medicine; seven-year tea is treasure.
The process for making white tea is very simple: it’s essentially a controlled drying process. However, this is also the reason why it has to be done with precision and control.
The leaves are picked from the mountain, left to wither and break down, while chemical compounds combined with the air will change the flavor. Smoothness, nuttiness and sweetness are some of the characterizing flavor notes.
The point of this is to allow just a light level of oxidation and certain flavors to develop and then stop it at the right point by drying out the leaves. The drying phase can also be done in the sunlight: the full spectrum UV develops a particular flavor profile and volatile aromatics within the leaves as it is withering and drying. It is a very skilled process: you cannot hide any kind of procedures when it comes to white tea.
After the drying phase, traditionally the leaves are baked over charcoal with low temperature. This changes the profile from a very cool tea to a warm heating energy. However nowadays, farmers rarely produce white tea this way.
The reason why the tea is suitable for aging is essentially determined by the fact that the leaves are not cooked or baked fully: the enzymes in the leaves are still present and active in a very slow speed.
The key factors when producing white tea after plucking the bushes is playing with temperature and moisture. They have to be combined perfectly in order to produce good flavor and maturation.
- There is a sweet spot for temperature when it comes to producing white teas. That’s because the higher the temperature, the faster the enzymatic action and therefore the more oxidation; but the leaves are gonna get dry quicker so that means there is going to be less time for oxidation.
- This is similar with moisture: the higher the moisture, the longer it’s going to take for the laves to dry out and therefore the longer the flavor maturation and longer oxidation.
Naming of white tea styles
White tea is the only type of tea that is named according to the picking convention. Most other teas are usually named according to the area they are grown, their production process or myths and legends.
There are four different grades of picking:
- Yin Zhen – just buds;
- Mu Dan – a bud and a few leaves;
- Gong Mei or Tribute Eyebrow – mostly leaves, picked in autumn (second picking season of the year);
- Shou Mei – no buds, just leaves, picked in late spring.
There are also different cultivars:
- Xiao Cai – small leaves.
- Da Bai – big leaf.
- Da Hao – improved yield, consistency, resistance.