White Tea or 白茶 Bai Cha, perhaps the most basic, unassuming, yet often misunderstood and recondite styles of tea. Enigmatic as it is, white tea has experienced a recent boom in popularity, boasting a steady increase in annual sales since 2008, with this increase becoming exponential within the last few years. In tandem with this upsurge, a better understanding of just what makes white tea enjoyable, as well as valuable, has made inroads into the consciousness of tea drinkers. White tea is now recognized as not only a tea to be enjoyed fresh like a green tea, but one that can transform and accrue value by aging. This versatility lends an added dimensionality to white tea that can be seen in the oft marketed saying: 一年茶、三年药、七年宝 “one year tea, three years medicine, seven years treasure.” But what allows white tea to transform so remarkably — into medicine, and then treasure as they say — after just a few years?
Among all the ways of rendering the freshly plucked leaves of Camellia sinensis into a style of tea, the process of making white tea may be the most elegantly simple. There are just three steps: plucking, withering, and drying. The adage simple, not easy shines here as white tea masters must skillfully apply a sensate and tactile understanding of timing, weather patterns, and of the molecular transformation to influence the leaves into the form of white tea. Minute variations in these adjustments ripple out to eventually create defining features. A misread in the conditions can easily lead to unwanted flavors. Astute assessment and accurate intuition is keenly rewarded.
Nowhere in the process of making white tea exists a domineering attitude or action. There is no exposure to a searing, high heat shāqīng as oolongs, pu’er, and green teas undergo. There is no vigorous rupturing of cell walls by the forceful rolling of the leaves. There is no prolonged oxidation or advanced roasting applied. Machines are hardly used. In fact, the processing overseen in white tea most mimics a passive unfolding that one could witness nature making tea: leaves that fall to the ground could be considered plucked (step 1); as they lose their moisture content when they separate from their host bush they could be considered withered (step 2); as they dry (step 3) the result of simple bai cha would be achieved.
To me there is virtue within the type of role that human oversight plays. It is one of shepherd; of advocate. From start to finish, the tea master uses intelligent receptivity and precise action to steward the leaves into white tea. Though technically complete upon drying, this may not necessarily be its final form as we will soon see. The tea master casts this skipping stone into the river as merely the first act, its path predictable but now all its own.
The initial result of this plucking, withering, and drying process is a calming, focused, bold, and pleasurable tea whose cup doesn’t parade the effects of a myriad of human interventions, but allows for the unfettered dignity of the tea plant as well as the character of its terroir and climate to shine. The uncomplicated texture and mouthfeel of white tea may be its most understated and alluring quality: a smooth, tall, soothing soup without any astringency.
In several other styles of tea, the process of shāqīng (pan-frying) serves to deactivate the enzymes present in the freshly plucked and withered tea leaves, effectively halting the process of oxidation while fixing its green yet bittersome catechin profile. Green tea is essentially defined by this process, most oolongs undergo it, and pu’er experiences an abbreviated form of shāqīng at a lower temperature as to leave behind some of the enzymes. Any enzymes left in the leaves after drying will slowly oxidize and transform over time. Raw pu’er — because of its partial enzymatic content after processing — will assume a long trajectory to fully undergo this redefining transformation: upwards of 20-30+ years. Its lively, green, vegetal, and bittering crunch complexifying into a sweeter, richer plume of dried fruit and leather.
Like raw pu’er, the leaves of white tea have been dried before its enzymes are allowed to fully oxidize, yet unlike raw pu’er, white tea does not undergo the heat of a shāqīng process, meaning all its enzymes are still present. Dried and chock full of these latent enzymes, white tea will also assume a trajectory of eventual oxidation, yet is able to achieve it in a shorter amount of time: in less than 10 years.
From green and silvery at the onset to red and tobacco brown in its later stages, for the tea aging enthusiast witnessing the dynamic results yielded by just a few years aging of white tea can be gratifying. Its flavors begin as clean, vegetal, and innocent, to unfold into dark, fruity, layered plot twists. Motifs accordion out into dimensions unforeseen at their onset. Fragrances and flavors crest and decay, textures get juicier. The time traveler finds their imagination piqued as patience, surprise, and honesty all swirl in a cup.
With its charms becoming more explored and its ageability recognized, more community tea pourers are expanding their repertoire by showcasing white teas of all ages.
Next up, we’ll talk about the different grades of white tea and how to brew them.