I am on a journey. I am looking for white tea. Really good white tea.
As with all journeys, I planned this one more for the process than the destination. Right now white tea is hitting a wave of popularity. Prices are rising and people are talking. The talk though, in this author’s opinion, is pretty odd. Attention is focused on a picking of white tea that was previously thought of as inferior, but is now in the spotlight. While this may not seem like a bad thing, a development even, I worry the reasons for it are all wrong.
She was a lady by all means. She walked in the tea shop in a traditional dress, heels and a purse in hand. She was a friend of the owner, my friend as well, and owned a hotel nearby. She spoke with our friend in Mandarin, and while I didn’t understand much I did gather that we were about to taste a white tea.
From her purse she pulled out a plastic bag with a tea cake inside. This is the normal wrapping of a cake that has some age to it. It was a Shou Mei that the lady said was 10 years-old. She had brought it to my friend to taste and judge. My friend brewed the tea and we all gave it a try.
The lady seemed quite pleased with her purchase, but a glance at my friend showed me we both felt the same way about it. The lady asked my friend her thoughts, and while once again I could not understand the exact words my friend seemed to have found a polite way to say, “All the flavor of this tea is gone.” The woman admitted that she actually knew very little about white tea and had only started drinking tea a year ago. She like many others had bought this tea on the notion that the older the white tea was the better it was.
White tea is a tea that is merely dried, it goes under no high heat cooking step. It is first sun dried then baked to finish off, preferably by charcoal. There are a few different types of white tea that are seperated based on the picking and timing of the pick:
1. Silver Needle This is an early picked white tea of just the bud. Sometimes it has a small leaf on it, but it is very small and not usually found in the higher ranges. This tea is the most sought after for its soft but full flavor, brightness and complexity. It commands the highest price of all teas.
2. Bai Mu Dan This is also an early pick, a little after Silver Needle, but also includes a leaf as well. When young it still maintains its brightness but has a slightly softer and more refreshing body than Silver Needle.
3. Gong Mei Gong Mei is the Bai Mu Dan picking — one bud and one leaf — but picked later in the season. The bud by now is long and skinny, while the leaf is much larger than Bai Mu Dan.
4. Shou Mei A tea that was previously almost untalked about. It is the last picking of white tea and is basically all leaf as by this time the buds of the plants have disapeared. This has the boldest flavor with the least sweetness and the most texture (which can be good or bad depending on the tea).
Having Your Cake
I have mentioned before the wave of popularity that white tea was beginning to ride. Before I only made a connection between the popularity of Pu Er and white tea, saying that white tea cakes were becoming as common as Pu Er cakes.
Now though, white tea is working off its own momentum. Fu Ding white tea prices have risen by 40% according to two white tea makers in the area I spoke to. The rise in popularity, it seems, is connected mostly to aged teas. Any discussion of white tea with a seller or the majority of drinkers will confirm this. When I spend time in white tea country conversations are directly or quickly redirected to an aged white tea that the host has and is proud of. I am constantly met with confusion when I say I prefer new tea over old tea. Clearly I am a foreigner, they often seem to think, who just doesn’t understand tea.
Now, I have nothing against aged white tea. As I sit here going over the final edits of this article I am sipping a 2013 Bai Mu Dan that aged to give it a yeasty, nutty, and floral aroma. I do, however, see an imbalance in the conversations.
Shock of the Old
My growing frustration over China’s newest tea trend is that is is very one-sided. Everything seems to be focused on the trending old tea, while very little conversation can be found surrounding new tea. Conversations about new tea, quickly become conversations about old tea. It is as though white tea is only good when it is aged.
When compared to new tea, white tea has a bolder flavor, more texture and can display freshly baked bread life flavors. That being said, there is a brightness, a complexity and an aroma that can only be found in new tea. For all these characteristics held by new white tea, as I mentioned before, showing preference for the new teas is almost never met with understanding, sometimes it’s even met with disappointment. (Old tea also sells for a higher price.)
In hindsight I am happy about this trend. I like that white tea is being talked about, and I like the fact that the appreciation of the category is becoming more complex. Teas not talked about before are now having their time to shine and are being seen for what only they have to offer. I just hope that as more people get interested in white tea and dive deeper into it, they eventually begin to appreciate new tea for what it can offer too — even if they still prefer the old