White teas: A true Chinese delicacy 

Elegant, rare and exclusive, China’s white teas are a small, highly sought after and pricey category, whose appeal is growing among consumers around the world. By Barbara Dufrêne.  All images courtesy of the author 

A unique combination of tea bush varietals, plucking standards and tea making craftsmanship, revealed to the West at the Panama Pacific International Expo in 1915 and relaunched in the new millennium, white teas continue attracting attention and followers all over the tea world. 

The usual way of introducing the many famous teas from China is to enshrine them within six categories that basically refer to the colour of the brew, with green teas being the biggest one in production volume, followed by oolong teas, dark teas, black teas, white and yellow teas. Sometimes, an additional category is quoted as the scented teas, made by the impregnation of the green, black, dark or oolong tea leaves with flowers, like jasmine, rose, osmanthus, orchid and more. 

These distinctive categories of teas are an intrinsic part of the traditional tea processing techniques and associated practices in China that were approved for inclusion into the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in December 2022. 

White teas are an outstanding category that remains tiny and sought after. Data from the China Tea Marketing Association shows that white teas represent approximately 1 percent of the country’s tea output, with yellow teas representing even less, about 0.5 percent, and both categories are hailed as exclusive and rare heritage and terroir teas. 

According to expert reports, white teas were introduced to Western markets in the late 19th century. They have been praised amongst other premium teas when China, as a newly established republic after the demise of the last Qing Emperor in 1911, attended the Panama Pacific International Expo in 1915. Their beautiful leaf and elegant cups have spurred demand and China’s tea farmers have followed up by creating new cultivars and further quality grades to increase output. 

The origin of white teas 

Why are these teas called white teas? Because the buds, which are very tall, are densely covered by downy white villosities that give them a white appearance and which remain through the unfolding into the young leaf. It is afterwards, with the leaf growing bigger, that the colour turns into a lush and shiny green. Hence, the terminology that refers to bai hao, translating into white down, da bai, translating into big white, yin zhen translating into silver needle, and bai mudan, translating into white peony. This reference to the white colour and the silvery aspect of the buds and young leaves is the key element for understanding and identifying these exceptional teas. 

White teas were discovered growing naturally in the North East of Fujian province, in the district of Fuding, which is the most famous, as well as in Zhenghe, and they were then introduced to Jianyang and Songxi, which are nearby. Chinese textbooks call this a ‘landrace’, and they were named Fuding Dabai and Bai Hao and Zhenghe Dabai, and Bai Hao as traditional local varietals that develop big downy white buds and downy young leaves. 

Tea science and research have taken advantage of these exceptional qualities and there has been important crossbreeding allowing the development of more than 30 new cultivars since the years 1985. These new cultivars share some of the Fuding Dabei bush leaf qualities such as the Fu Yun series – for ‘Fuding and Yunnan’ – have then been introduced into other growing areas to increase production of white buds and whitish young leaves. 

However, the origin terroir remains important as it conveys the geographical reference, which explains why a ‘Fuding Silver Needle Teais more highly priced than a ‘Silver Needle’ from any another location. This landrace was discovered in Fuding for the first time, which makes Fuding the home town of white tea. A tea conference was organised in Fuding on 1 December 2022, coordinated by the China Chamber of Commerce for Food (CCFNA). With virtual input from domestic and international stakeholders, the remit of this event was to explore new marketing strategies for promoting these exceptional terroir teas more proactively in the near future. Professor Han Wenyan from the China Tea Research Institute underlined the importance of identifying more natural local landrace material, which will provide the possibility to further enlarge the collection of tea plant varietals. For example, a new local white tea bush variety was identified in 2017 and science is working on this file. 

Quality grades of white teas 

In Western markets, where people do not normally read Chinese characters, many may not be aware of the various technical product description details; therefore, one will want to be sure that the tea purchased and the price paid are appropriate. The main criteria consumers will want to know are where the tea garden is located, the plucking grade/ plucking date, and of course, the landrace or cultivar of the Camellia sinensis var sinensis bushes that have been harvested. Indicating these elements in the product description is a guarantee of authenticity and quality and will encourage tea lovers to follow their suppliers with joy and trust. 

The premium grade, which is the Silver Needle tea, is made by plucking only the bud. It is important to note that these first spring buds are available for only a very limited period and that about 120,000 buds are required for 1 kg of finished tea, which is why these cups are not only rare but also pricy. 

The second grade allows the plucking of the bud plus one, two or even three leaves, which must still be a bit downy, ie, very young. The second grade, known as Bai Mudang or White Peony tea, is still a spring harvest, and is of very good quality. Launched in 1922, this new grade of white tea allows for plucking during the weeks that follow the early harvest of the Silver Needle buds. 

The third grade is the summer harvest from the same tea bushes, which are leaves that are deeper in colour, but it is still considered a white tea. The name of this third harvest is Shou Mei or Gong Mei, which translates to ‘longevity eyebrow’ and ‘tribute eyebrow’. 

All three grades are available for export but also sought after in the home market mainly for their reported health benefits and physiological effects such as antioxidant properties, anti-viral effects, detoxifying and fever relief properties, but also because they are highly refreshing and relaxing in hot summer times. Widely acknowledged in China these reported health benefits come from the high polyphenol and theanine concentration in this very young plant material, which has undergone a gentle tea making process.  

Gentle processing 

White teas are the least processed leaves and buds, as they only undergo sun withering for about three days to reduce moisture, followed by a gentle drying over soft charcoal baskets. It is important to note that white teas are neither rolled nor fired. To maintain their silvery white down, they are just gently withered and softly dried, always carefully spread out on bamboo baskets to avoid any bruising. This subtle process allows all the juices to remain in the cells, which transfers the outstanding qualities to these cups. To release the molecules into the brew, white teas need a longer brewing time, and can also be infused several times. An additional bonus from this gentle way of processing the plant material is the fruitful and easy aging of the white teas since the enzymes are still alive. which allows exceptional taste notes to develop in the premium vintage white teas. 

White teas from other producing countries 

The challenge to make silver needle and white peony teas has spread to many other tea-producing areas like Indonesia, Rwanda, India’s Darjeeling, Kenya, and Malawi, among others. It is a matter of proudly showing the producers’ craftsmanship but also using appropriate plant material. In order to provide some guidelines and framework, the ISO sub- committee for tea issued a technical report in December 2013, ISO/TR 1259, which introduced a definition of white tea that is focused on the plucking standard, limited to bud-only and bud plus leaf and on the very gentle ways of processing; to note that there are no specific origin requirements. 

Considering all these elements and with his over forty years of experience in retailing fine Chinese Teas in Paris France, Vivien Messavent, aka Yun Jing Zhong, confirmed that the wonders of the white teas continue to fascinate consumers. Rare and precious cups, they are very costly to manufacture. Hence, it is not easy for new producers to compete with the longstanding Chinese traditions. Although there are white teas from black and green tea-producing countries available, he is convinced that China will continue to dominate this premium niche market. 

  • Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrê[email protected]. 

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