Aah White tea. In some ways, White tea encapsulates what I love about tea - so simple and yet so complex.
Processing White tea sounds ridiculously straightforward - pick leaves, put them out in the sun to dry and voila, you have White tea.
But when a process is so simple, there is no room for mistakes, no way to fix any shortcomings with extra layers of processing. Any errors will be easy to pick up to the trained palate. This is the Goldilocks of tea - a minor aberration makes a poorer quality tea - all conditions have to be 'just right'.
PRODUCING WHITE TEA
The basic steps for White tea production are
Picking -> Withering -> Drying
White tea is made by stopping oxidation through drying (not heating). During the time it takes for the pickings to reach a dry and fixed state, the leaves will oxidise and transform slightly.
The skill of the producer is to create the optimum conditions to dry the tea at the right speed so that the perfect level of flavour development coincides with the moment that the pickings are dry.
If the drying process is too slow, then the tea will over-oxidise; if the conditions make drying too fast, then there will not be enough complexity to the tea.
Traditionally, White tea was made under the sun. Skilled producers would work with the elements (sunlight, wind, temperature and humidity) and move around racks of tea in and out of the shade to dry their tea. The sunlight improves the taste of tea, but this method is now only used for the most expensive Whites.
Most White tea (even from expensive areas like Fuding) is now produced in temperature and humidity-controlled rooms or precisely calibrated conveyor belts. This provides control and consistency and can make excellent tea.
Once the tea is dry, it is ready for consumption, but high-grade Whites will usually have a resting period for the 'greenness' of the aroma to dissipate, and some producers may oven or charcoal bake the tea at low temperatures to round out the flavours.
AGEING WHITE TEA
Because White tea is not fixed by firing (heated to high temperatures), the enzymes in the leaf remain active – all that they need is water to continue the tea's transformation. Storing White tea in a more humid environment will allow the tea to age slowly over the years.
Aged White tea is a new development which started to be promoted around 2012. Previously White tea was made to be drunk fresh, but today we recognise that we can enjoy it now and delight in how it changes over the years.
NAMING WHITE TEA
White tea is named after its picking style. Most other tea types are named after their processing or shaping style. The picking style changes the palette of flavour of the tea (a bud has different compounds compared with a small leaf, for example).
These picking styles are often called 'Grades', and the higher the grade, the more expensive the tea. However, please don't assume that one style is better than another – they all taste unique, and the tea you fancy will depend on your mood. The price difference is simply because it takes more work and pickings to produce 1kg of buds vs larger leaves.
Here are the picking styles:
Yin Zhen (Silver Needle) are the silver, downy-haired buds only, creating a thick, meadowy-sweet liquor full of florals and cream.
Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) is a combination of buds and small to medium leaves. White Peony offers some of the delicate and elegant sweetness that a Silver Needle delivers but with added herbaceous depth and texture.
White Peony is sometimes picked when the first Spring buds have opened and produced a couple of young leaves – the resulting tea is called 'White Peony King' (Mu Dan Wang). Since the popularity has risen for Silver Needle tea to have larger, fatter buds, most producers will usually first pick the fat buds to make Silver Needle tea, and wait around 10-14 days for the new flush to pick for Bai Mu Dan - this should not really be called White Peony King (although it often is and just denotes a Bai Mu Dan with smaller leaves).
Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow) is similar to White Peony but has slightly thinner buds and leaves and is usually picked in Autumn rather than Spring. The result is a deeper sweetness and warmth.
Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrow) is only the leaves and is usually picked in the last Spring harvest. Deep, sweet, almost alcoholic notes of red fruits, dried herbs and leaves on the forest floor.
I recommend that you taste each of these picking styles (Gong Mei is similar to Mu Dan so there is no necessity to find this one) and then try them from different origins. Fujian is the birth province of White tea but excellent Whites are being made in other provinces and countries.
To dive deeper into Whites check out this video: