On arriving in Shanghai we took a car to the main railway station to wait for our train to Fuding where I was keen to continue my education & understanding of White Tea. Many of you will have tasted White tea at the Tea House - put in simple terms it is a lightly oxidised tea from the buds and leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant and Fujian province and in particular the hilly Jianyang, Fuding and Songxi counties are the centre of white tea production in China. My guide also talked to me about white tea production in Zhenghe County which is better known for White Peony tea but is now starting to build a reputation for Silver Needle - which area produces the best teas each season is dependent on many factors including the weather as you will read in this post. After 6 hours on the train we arrived in Fuding & transferred to a car to take us to Dian - Tou Town - the main market for selling white tea in Fuding. I had heard that at this time of year the streets are filled with tea - something quite hard to comprehend from the Tea House in the UK - but it turned out to be true. Tea - withering in the sunshine - lined the streets in every available space.
We parked up in the town - I had arrived just towards the end of the picking season and in time to see the freshly picked leaves spread out on bamboo racks in the sunshine. - fresh leaf for white tea can be harvested in the Spring, Summer & Autumn with the spring tea being of the highest quality. Within the Spring season the picking starts end March/Early April and tea can be picked several times starting 2 weeks or so after the first picking. But before we could explore the area more the first step was, of course, food. I found throughout my trip that the day starts early in China and therefore lunchtime is around 11.30am. Dian-Tou is apparently well known for its hand made noodles so we headed to a local shop and were not disappointed. Noodles with soup, vegetables & tofu have to be one of my favourite meals so I was already feeling at home in Fuding!
After lunch we headed into the town where the market was still in progress and tea trading was underway. I have found the best way to try and understand what is going on is to sit back and observe. Farmers gathered around one end of the market with their fresh leaf and the buyers took time to observe the quality. On purchase the buyer handed the farmer a ticket and they were directed for their tea to be weighed before being deposited in the correct area of the market. Fresh leaf was then loaded onto trucks to take for processing & the farmers left to count their earnings.
The atmosphere was calm - I had the feeling it had probably been more frenetic earlier that morning but you could smell tea in the air. We wandered on through the town - every shop selling tea and occupying a different role in the tea-chain between farmer, picker, buyer, wholesaler, tea-merchant & tea drinker. We identified a few shops to take tea in - but before I take you inside -now is probably a good time to talk a little more about White Tea production as it was in Dian-Tou that we saw and tasted all of the different types and grades of white tea on offer.
Leaf selection is the first stage in producing white tea and something that we spoke about on many occasions on this trip - it is something I will refer to in later blogs especially for the Wuyi Rock Teas. We often talk here at Comins about the different processing methods and how these ultimately differentiate teas but it is leaf selection that is said to have the biggest impact on the eventual quality of the tea. Further research since returning from my trip [as sometimes translation becomes quite difficult] suggests that Fujian white tea is plucked from five tea bush cultivars. In particular the tea maker is looking for higher amounts of the silvery white silky hairs on the unopened buds and the underside of the young leaves. Within the category there are then different types of white teas made from different combinations and types of buds and leaves and within each type there are of course different grades.
The 4 main types of White tea are :-
- Shoumei Longevity EyeBrow [larger, more mature leaves, with fewer tips or leaf buds] - Gong Mei Tribute EyeBrow [plucked after Silver Needle and White Peony harvest. Few buds,mainly young leaves.]
- White Peony [Bai Mu Dan] [one bud & one leaf OR one bud & two leaves]
- Silver Needle [Bai Hao Yin Zhen] [single bud]
Silver Needle is the most highly prized and expensive of White teas but as we often say at Comins it really is a matter of personal preference - some people prefer the bolder tones of for example the Shou mei while for others the light aromatic Silver Needle is unsurpassed. This is something we can explore with you over time at the Tea House.
White tea production is more straightforward in terms of steps than other teas involving two main processes withering & drying - there is no panning, rolling or shaking - however the process is detailed and labour intensive requiring skilled tea makers. The quality of the fresh leaves, which I discuss above, is key to the quality of the tea but the weather also plays a vital role - we discussed this in detail and although not by any means conclusive preferred practice [weather permitting] seemed to be outside withering on a mild summer day followed by further withering inside. If the sun is too hot at any point then the tea is taken inside and brought out again when conditions are cooler.
After picking the tea enters the withering stage which is much more pronounced with white tea - this process gently removes moisture from the leaf and restricts the amount of oxidation in the leaf - it often takes 2-3 days to complete this step alone. Just today I was having a conversation with someone about the importance of a tea merchant knowing a tea, feeling its quality and understanding the effect it has on you. The same is true during tea production where the skill of the tea maker has a profound effect on the final quality of the tea. White tea is allowed to wither naturally in the air outside or inside the tea factory - during this period enzymes within the tea leaf instigate the production of theanine and sugars which give the tea its sweet flavour. You want this to happen but at the same time with White tea you want to minimise the amount of oxidation - hence the need for skill, experience and 'feeling' in tea production.
After withering the stems are removed from the leaves where present and the white tea is then dried. The method that I observed was by oven-baking the tea several times to reduce moisture to less than 5%. This is a much quicker process than withering often taking less than an hour to complete. The tea is then sorted before going on sale.
So, back to the trip - we ventured into the Tea Shops lining the streets - it is always over the taking of tea that you learn the most. The thing you always learn on every trip is how much there is still to learn - I guess that is what fascinates us here at Comins. As usual we had no common language just a shared love of tea so we tasted our way through an hour or so smiling in appreciation of the tea being shared. We tasted the different types of White Tea but what was apparent to me was the compressed white tea filling the shop and discussion turned to aged white tea - something completely new to me. As we drank tea we discussed the fact that white tea is not necessarily meant to be consumed fresh, like green tea, but rather it ages much like puerh. In order to aid storage the tea is compacted and pressed into cakes – growing more complex in flavour and perhaps valuable over time. We talked about various methods for producing aged tea and the fact that tea is often left for around a year before steaming the leaves to make them pliable enough to be pressed into cakes. The exact conditions for the storage of these cakes is important in order to aid fermentation and deliver the teas complexities. This new discovery remains 'new' & something that Rob & I will explore and share with you over the coming months and years.
Walking further down the street we came across a store compressing & packaging white tea and stopped a while to observe the process.
Sadly we had to move on from the town but the good news was that we were heading up into the hills to visit the gardens. As we approached the village that was our destination it was again clear just how much tea is part of life in this part of China. At this time of year the basketball pitch was covered in tea sun-withering - every inch of spare ground was in use and any smaller spots were taken up with another favourite of mine - bamboo - drying in the sun. We ventured inside the village tea factory to see the processes outlined earlier in the blog and of course to drink tea. Outside the tea was sun withering & inside the factory tea withering continued along with drying - dried tea was being packed - most of the tea was already sold - the market for good white tea in China is extremely healthy. What struck me in the hours we spent here was the ease and openness of the people working - we walked into the building and 10 minutes later we were sharing tea together. There is no doubt that the work is hard and many are leaving the villages to seek less manual work further afield. For those who stay we are very grateful for they produce the most beautiful tea.
We left the factory full of tea and bags full of samples and headed back to the town stopping at the gardens on the way to see the tea being picked - in awe as usual at the skill & precision.
It was 5.30pm which can only mean one thing - dinner time. We had word of another noodle stop in a small town on our way down from the mountains and stopped for supper. The food was local, fresh and made with care and expertise. My love affair with this part of China was complete and I left feeling my adventure with white tea was only just beginning.