The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
China's Rare and Exquisite White Teas
White tea may be the simplest class of tea to describe, but one of the hardest
teas to produce.  The manufacture of China's white tea is a centuries old pro-
cess, predating most all other
types of tea, dating back to the Tang Dynasty
during which it was an imperial tribute tea under Emperor Huizong (r 626-649).
Today it resides on China's Famous Teas list.     
The original pure form of
white tea consists of only the tender, un-
opened budsets.  Specific varieties of China
bush tea plants are cultivated especially for
this class of tea in
Fujian Province, located
on China's eastern coast.

Ninety-five percent of the cultivars are mem-
bers of the Da Hao (Big Sprout) variety of
Camillia Sinensis var. sinensis.

These tea bushes must be cultivars of tea
bushes developed in the late 1800's, that
are indigenous to the three restricted locales
where authentic Fujian white tea is pro-
duced; Fuding county, Shuijie/Jianyang
county, and Zenghe county.  All three locales
lie north of the geographically important Minjiang River.

                                             The unique vegetation of these specific plants including; Fuding Da
                                             Bai (Fuding Big White), Zenghe Da Bai (Zhending Big White),
                                             Narcissus, and Xiao Bai (Vegetable or Small White), produce buds
                                             and leaves that after processing show a cover of soft downy
                                             white hair.

                                             This downy white covering of soft hairs are called "tricomes," and
provide the plants with protection from sun and bugs.  The tricomes are what give the leaves
their soft pussy willow coating of fine white hairs which helps limit water loss and prevents bugs
from eating the leaves to get to the inner nutrients.
Traditional Style Fujian Budset White Tea
White tea is plucked in the early spring, before the buds develop into leaves.  The weather
must be exacting and perfect during the entire tea harvest for plucking Fujian white tea.  There
cannot be any rain, dew, or frost.

The buds must be fully developed and plump,
not too long, not too thin.  Any slight varia-
tions in the condition of the fresh leaf must
be countered by the tea maker, to draw out
the perfect flavor and style from the leaves.
The end result is a lightly colored liquor,
subtlety sweet, and slightly nutty, with tones
of honey and peaches and no astringency or
grassy undertones of
green teas.

         During the final three weeks before
         harvesting, the
white tea budsets are
         shaded.  Traditionally the budsets are
         only dried in an area shaded from the
         sun, with good circulation of air.

         Blocking exposure to the sun prevents the chlorophyll in the leaf from further develop-
         ment, a process called "greening."  This allows the fresh leaf to dry faster without the
         need for external heat.

                                                          As you can imagine, it's hard to control all the different
                                                          variables involved in making traditional budset white tea.
                                                          That's why this tea is so limited and expensive.  But when
                                                          you consider the fact that it takes over 10,000 handpicked
                                                          buds, along with the timely, exacting processing to make
                                                          just 2.2 pounds of this wonderful tea, it's quite easy to
                                                          understand its cost and rarity.

         Since the days of the
Song Dynasty the traditional growing region for white tea has been
         Fujian Province, but today that is no longer the case.

         To the ire of the Fujian tea producers, traditional budset
         white tea is now being produced in other areas, such as
Anhui Province in China, and tea growing regions in Assam,
Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Sri Lanka, and South Asia.

         In fact, Ceylon Silver Tips from
Sri Lanka is proving to be a
         challenger to Bai Hao Yin Zhen's crown as best white budset
         tea, made entirely of slightly curved silvery-green buds just over an inch.

         Bai Hao Yin Zhen (also called Flowery White Pekoe or Silver Needle is the original tradi-
         tional Fujian budset white tea, closely related to Silver Pekoe and Silver Tip.  These teas
         are made exclusively from select pickings of full, plump spring buds with Bai Hao Yin Zhen
         being the most expensive.

New Style White Tea - Answering the
Demand for More White Tea
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New style leaf white tea was created in the late 1900s as an answer to providing more white tea at a lower cost.  
New style white tea is given a light oxidation and bruising (rolling), before it's fired at a higher temperature than
usual for white teas. This causes a deepening of the teas flavor and a darkening of the leaf,
turning it a gray-green color.

This minor adjustment to the normal processing procedure changes the classification but just
enough so that they are no longer considered to be traditional budset white teas,  form an apt
new classification as "new style white teas."  Although this makes sense to the Fujian tea mak-
ers, it just adds confusion and uncertainty to buyers when labeling the product to be sold in the

The two versions of white tea are quite different from one another and definitely not interchang-
eable.  Traditional style budset white tea is 100% buds with no leaf, where New Style White teas
such as Shou Mei should contain no, or very few buds, and be more oxidized.

New style white tea is made from the first leaf bunch on the tea plant, and is processed just as carefully and minimally
as its counterpart, traditional budset white tea.

The processing is similar for both teas with outdoor withering in the shade and indoor withering with cool air, but the
new style tea adds a third step of quickly bake-drying to completely dry the higher moisture leaf cluster before it has
a chance to change the balance of the leaf's internal enzymes.

There are four different styles of pluck for new style white tea.  They are:

  • a full-sized plump, perfectly formed budset and the 1st leaf (the finest quality pluck for this style tea)
  • the first leaf alone, just below the budset
  • the budset and first leaf (when imperfect)
  • the budset and first leaf together with the second true leaf

Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow) and Shou Mei (Long Life Eyebrow) called eyebrow teas for their delicately curved shape
                                               resembling a woman's perfectly shaped eyebrow.  These teas are made from a
                                               pluck configuration of large leaves, made after the plucking of Bai Hao Yin Zhen and
                                               Bai Mudan (White Peony).

                                               Bai Mudan is made from a careful plucking of the first leaf and bud.  The first leaf is
                                               the most porous tea leaf on the bush, and Big Sprout tea bush leaves are much
                                               larger.  This new style white tea is usually easy to find, but when
purchasing take
                                               note that the finest has a high ratio of buds to leaves.

The added availability of new style white tea has worked to satisfy the increasing demand, allowing more people to
enjoy these fine teas.  New style white tea can also be broken into smaller pieces for packaging in
tea bags, and also
blends well with many
green teas, full leaf Formosa oolong, and large leaf orthodox black teas.  Enjoy.
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