White Tea History – Background Info

The 2017 white teas will be here soon! So, we here at JAS-eTea.com Hand-crafted Tea #1thought a revisit to the history of white teas would be nice. Like all true teas, they are made from the basic tea plant (scientifically known as Camellia sinensis) or one of its varietals, cultivars, or clonals. White teas are as much a part of the history of tea in China as any other. Today, other countries (like India) are produceing their own versions of these much sought after teas. They are so delicate and delightful that folks with the skills to process them in the correct manner are becoming very interested in marketing this tea type. Let’s talk some more about the history and the details of these beautiful teas. 

What are White Teas?

White teas are very special, and many are quite rare. They are usually silvery in color due to the “hairs” on the buds and leaves from which they are made. They go through very minimal processing and generally have a short shelf-life if not stored properly. The taste range is pretty wide and based on the tea plant varietal. For example, White Peony (Bai Mu Dan or Pai Mu Tan) has a light amber color (similar to oolong) and a sweet flavor that is great hot and surprisingly refreshing and hearty when iced.

fuding-silver-needle-liquor001The key to white teas is when and which tea leaves and/or buds (unopened leaves) are harvested. They are also processed very carefully and lightly. White teas are harvested once per year in the Spring. The finest white teas are made of buds plucked before they have opened and while they still have fine white hairs on them. Care is taken to assure they are not broken. They are then sorted, steamed, and dried, often right in the fields to prevent any oxidation. The higher the ratio of buds to leaves in the tea, the higher the quality generally speaking. Silver Needle is all buds and on the top tier of the quality scale, whereas Bai Mu Dan or Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) have few buds and lots of leaves and are on the low end of the quality scale.

History of White Tea

The history of white tea remains cloudy, with various tea ‘scholars’ conflicting over the when and wherefore. In China, a lot of information about tea was passed on orally, with only a few written records. Some say that white teas were first produced in the area near Fuding in Fujian province and spread to Shuiji and Zhenghe areas nearby.  Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) and White Peony (Bai Mu Dan) were the common ones.

fuding-silver-needle-white-tea001As recently as the late 1800s many in the West recognized only two basic types of tea: black and green. White tea was often categorized by merchants under black tea since the leaves and/or buds had not undergone the process to deactivate internal enzymes and external microbes. And the white teas on the market today are said by some to have originated only a century or a little more ago while stories exist showing that imperial China enjoyed white tea in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). That imperial white tea was quite different, pressed into cakes, not loose. Around 1200 A.D. that had changed so that the tender leaf buds were gently steamed, then dried and ground to a powder.

White tea remains an enigma for many outside of China and India. Centuries ago this was due to their delicacy and being unable to endure the long travel over sea and land to market. Today it is simply due to people not knowing about them or being a bit timid about giving them a try. Some white teas can be rather expensive, so that is quite understandable.

Try a white tea today. We guarantee it to be an exciting taste experience for you if you have not experienced tea processed in this manner before.


About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
This entry was posted in Tea Info for Newbies and Up, White Teas and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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