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White Teas at a Tea Competition

by Lydia Kung

At a recent tea competition, it was surprising and heartening to see a larger than expected number of White teas entered. Gratifying to see because I have not seen as many ads for soaps and lotions that announce white tea as an ingredient as was true five or six years ago. Does this signal a trend showing White tea being enjoyed in its own right?

(At the competition, there were five categories: Silver Needles, Bai Mudan, a general White category, Blended White, and Flavored White.)

In late April this year, one of the hot spots to be in China was Fuding (in Fujian), the center of authentic white tea production. With domestic demand for (aged) white tea cakes still going strong, prices were soaring, and it seemed as if tea companies could not dispatch their buyers fast enough. The scrum this rush created no doubt kept prices up.

Above: Big White bushes near Fuding.

White tea samples arrived at our office early, beginning in late March, but these were teas from southwestern China, not Fujian. The “Big White” (Da Bai) cultivar responsible for most white teas is now planted widely in other regions, and is also made into green teas. But the region around Fuding and ChengHe (also in Fujian) remain the true origin of China’s white teas.

From places like Yunnan, the White Mudan tends to have a golden yellow hue and the leaves have a slight curl. These are admittedly more attractive than the White Mudan from Fujian, which display a flatter, flaky, almost brittle leaf style.

Here at left is a White Mudan from Yunnan:

For those new to white tea, the appearance may disappoint, except in the case of Silver Needles, which really are (or should be) predominantly silvery-white all over. But even a cursory understanding of the processing explains why this minimalist tea looks the way it does. Indoor withering followed by (mechanical) drying are the basic steps. There is no de-enzyming and no rolling. Little wonder, then, that the finished leaves look like leaves that were – – simply dried. (Gongmei White is sometimes intentionally oxidized.)

Bai Mudan shown at right:

Twenty years ago, about 95% of Fujian’s white teas were exported. Nowadays, exporters must compete with domestic buyers. This year, even Special Grade White Mudan showed more stem than in previous years. The cost of premium White Mudan is almost double last year’s.

Photo at left shows Organic White Mudan:

But upon tasting Fujian’s product, there is no mistaking the distinctive hallmark flavor of this tea. These White teas are very true to character, and it is prudent to remember that in the context of specialty teas, this feature should be paramount.

Shown at right is White Mudan:

At the hot tea Global Tea Championship, one comment that came up repeatedly among the judges was whether or not a tea was true to the character of the category, if a tea was an excellent representation of the category.

Here is White Mudan #2 at left:

Fujian’s White Mudans are slightly nutty and toasty. There is no astringency, which perhaps explains why ShouMei is believed (in traditional tea lore) to be a suitable tea for seniors. The woodsy note that wafts up when a lid is lifted is unmistakable. Moving from a premium White Mudan to a 2nd or 3rd grade tea, the leaves and brew may be darker, but the flavor profile is easily identifiable.

(Mudan is the word for “peony,” but there are no flowers in White Mudan/Peony; it’s a fanciful allusion to a flower that is a recurring motif in paintings. I never saw a resemblance between clusters of tips/leaves and a peony.)

White tea also appears in the form of “Dragon Pearls,” yet another recent iteration:

As the photo shows, this pearl is much larger than most tea pearls we are accustomed to seeing, which makes sense given the size of white tea’s leaves. Each pearl weighs about 5 grams and is 2 cm in diameter.

I happen to prefer loose White Mudan in taste; the cup from these lichee-sized balls is closer to a ShouMei. These little spheres are rolled by hand, with steam used to soften the tea leaves first, which are then shaped with a piece of cloth.

Note: I have seen, more than once, Dragon Pearls (no jasmine) presented as White tea pearls, when in fact they were formed with green tea, a pricey spring tea. The White Tea Dragon Pearl shown above was made from white tea leaves.

White tea processing is simple; its minimalism accounts for much of its appeal. Not much equipment is required.

October 19, 2018