In spring, when the tea bushes sprout, the tea fields of Fuding resemble a large silvery sea. This is due to the special features of the cultivar that is used to produce white tea. It develops a lot and pronounced silver-grey hairs that are even more visible after drying.
The origin of white tea
White tea is grown in the region around Fuding and Zhenghe in the province of Fujian. The best white tea comes from Fuding. The key determinants for the designation of white tea are not only the processing method but also the cultivation area and the tea plant variety.
For instance Anji Bai Cha, literally 'white tea from Anji', is not a white tea but a green tea. It is processed as a green tea, in a different cultivation area and with a different plant variety.
Nowadays, the cultivation area for white tea in China is mostly limited to Fuding and Zhenghe. Nonetheless, also in Yunnan there is a region where the leaves are processed to white tea. This tea is called Yue Guang Bai - White Moonlight Tea. Because of the different cultivar and cultivation area, it has a completely different taste.
White tea is one of the oldest teas we know and is probably the one for which the processing method remained unchanged for the longest time. The earliest references to this tea can already be found in Lu Yu’s book The Classic of Tea (8th century). In the Song Dynasty, Emperor Huizong already enjoyed white tea. At that time, the tea was prepared differently from today; either boiled for a long time, or ground and foamed with a bamboo whisk. The whole-leaf white tea as we know it today only became widespread in the 19th century.
Processing of white tea
White tea has the simplest processing method of all six categories of tea. Traditionally, the freshly picked buds or leaves are slowly dried in the sun. As a result, the enzymes are not killed as in green tea, and a slight oxidation occurs. In the end, the tea is refined over charcoal. Thus white tea is a slightly oxidized tea and can also mature over the years.
There are three major grades of white tea. The noblest, Bai Hao Yin Zhen (silver needles) contains only buds. Bai Mudan (White Peony) comes in several variations, with buds and 1-3 open leaves. Shou Mei includes larger leaves and no buds; it exhibits a fuller flavour. White tea is usually picked by hand.
White tea and health
Since ancient times, the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has associated white tea with beneficial and healing effects.
In Bencao Gangmu, a classic on Chinese herbal medicine from the Ming Dynasty (16th century), there is already an entry about the excellent health benefits of white tea. This explains the famous Chinese proverb on white tea: "It is tea in the first year, medicine after 3 years, and a treasure after seven years." In contrast to Pu'er and Oolong, white tea is probably the only tea we know of that was also aged in ancient times and increased in value over the years.
White teas are also very popular in China as a remedy for losing weight.
Preparation of white tea
White tea is very easy to prepare, since it hardly gets bitter. It is suitable both for large pots as well as for the traditional Gongfu Cha tea ceremony in a Yixing teapot or in a gaiwan. It can also be prepared by simply putting leaves in a breakfast bowl and pouring hot water onto them. The appropriate water temperature is about 90-95 degrees. The leaves do not need to be poured off, as they will simply sink to the bottom of the bowl. During summertime, white tea is also highly recommended for cold brewing.