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White & Other Lightly Oxidized Teas
White tea is a label given to those teas that are very lightly “oxidized” (or fermented, as the convention goes) during a long withering process in which the structure of the leaf cell is kept intact and not broken through any external physical interferences, such as curling or twisting. One traditional way of making white tea is to lay the leaves to dry under the sun for the complete process.
The same leaves that are used to make white tea can be used to make green tea. The white tea will look comparatively duller or darker in colour, the infusion colour warmer and the taste fuller and sweeter.
The reader has to be aware that the names of quite a number of teas from other categories also involve the Chinese character for “white”. One immediate example is the famous Anji Bai Pian (White Pieces from Anji; in recent years it is also called Anji Bai Cha — White Tea from Anji), an exquisite green tea. Milan Xiang, a popular Phoenix Oolong, has another name, “Bai Ye” (White Leaf). It has been a long tradition in rural China to call lighter colour leaves as “white”. These teas, however, are not white teas.
We have included Shengcha Puers and the likes in this category, since they are made pretty much in the same way as White Teas are made. Similar biochemical changes take place during the process so they fit in perfectly. The only difference are: the use of totally different cultivars, and soem twisting done onto the leaves prior to drying.
Yellow teas are also lightly oxidized teas, but their production is very different and will be discussed separately.
The process of sun-drying tealeaves should have been one of the most ancient ways of processing tea. It is still practiced in Yunnan and a few mountain tribes south and southwest of the province, in neighbouring countries. Piling the leaves in a heap somewhere in the process and let fermentation happen should have began in a somewhat accidental manner.
However, it was in the northern part of Fujian that tea producers first systematically made use of that accident to have employed more downy tea buds to make a different tea. At around 1780, a “Pekoe Tea” gained attention in the county of Jianyang. It was almost an instant hit (maybe due to a lower price than other fine looking tea) that the making method soon spread to neighbouring counties. In 1857, people in the county of Fuding transplanted a large leaf variety from the mountains in Taimu to make the first modern version of Silver Needles. Fuding Dai Bai (the Large White Leaf of Fuding) later became a most important production cultivar for green, black and post-fermented teas for the whole country. A couple of decades later, 140 km west, the county of Zhenghe came up with their own cultivar, Zhenghe Dai Bai.
Zhenghe and Fuding remain today the two key fine White tea production areas, and the two cultivars are still the key production plants.
Traditionally, first flushes are sunned on flat bamboo sieves and then wither for 3 days in the shade before drying and finishing. Unstable weather in Spring had caused much fluctuation in productivity and destroyed harvests. Most producers now heat their withering chambers to around 32°C to maintain full capacity in spite of weather.
Compared to the traditional process, the tea dries much faster in a heated situation. Lesser fermentation takes place because there is less time. To compensate for that, the withering tea is further piled up during the process for a couple of hours to let the biological heat within trigger the enzyme oxidation that is required to result in the particular chemical composition of White tea. Skillful hands are required for that since it is important not to physically break the leaf cells during the handling. Pile temperature control is another key such that the tea would not turn into a bad yellow or black tea, or worst yet, a pile of stinky leaves. The tea master, like those in oolong tea making, has to watch for the thickness and the duration of the piling by experience and checking of the gradually intensifying aroma.
There are two main types of White teas: White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) and Silver Needles (Bai Hao Yin Zhen). There are now variations of these and called by various names, but are basically similar products from different locations, plant varieties, or sheer marketing gimmicks.
Unlike green teas, white teas should be infused at a higher temperature, at around 90°C, in order for the aroma, sweetness and depth to fully infuse into the liquor. For preparing Silver Needles, those who prefer stronger taste may consider putting in a bit more tealeaves.