The question, “What is white tea?” is one that I’ve been struggling to answer for months. While many tea producers in northern Zhejiang Province claim that the only difference between white and green tea lies in the trees that produce them, others have consistently insisted that the difference is in their processing. After many weeks of struggling with this question, I went to Yao Guokun, Director of the China International Tea Culture Institute and Professor at almost every tea research center in Zhejiang Province.
White tea, Yao told me, is one of the six primary types of Chinese tea. These teas, he continued, are classified by their processing methods, not by their tree type. This means that the technical difference between white and green tea is in their processing.
There are many different methods by which green tea can be processed, but all green teas have one thing in common—they are fired after a very short withering period in order to halt any further oxidation. White teas, however, are never fired. So, while green teas are the least oxidized of all teas, white teas are the least processed.
Although many people consider the famous and extremely valuable Anji White Tea to be white tea, according to Yao and China’s leading tea classifiers, it is not. Since Anji White Tea passes through an early firing process, it is technically green tea. It comes from a varietal of camellia sinensis that was discovered about 20 years ago in the mountains of Anji County, Zhejiang Province, located 75 km north of Hangzhou and well known as the setting for the box office hit Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
The Anji White Tea tree is yellower than the typical tea tree, and when its leaves are steeped, a unique phenomenon occurs: the face of the Anji White Tea leaf turns a light green, almost white color, and its center vein becomes dark, emerald green. Its flavor is much lighter and sweeter than other green teas, and, consequently, this rare tea’s price is typically much higher.
White tea, as aforementioned, never passes through the firing stage that green tea does. After it is picked, the tea withers in the open air, then generally in the sun, and, if the tea processor has the technology, the leaves will be placed in a drying machine until its water content hits zero. If a processor doesn’t have access to such a machine, then the tea will be periodically placed outside in the sun to further wither and dry out the leaves.
The most famous of all white tea comes from Fuding, Fujian Province. The leaves that are used to make this tea come from one of two types of domestic tea trees or from wild tea trees; the two domestic plants are named Dabaihao (大白豪 or Big White Hair) and Xiaobaihao (小白毫 or Little White Hair). The names of these plants are derived from the white hairs covering the bud of their tea leaves, as displayed in the picture above.
Anji White Tea and Fuding White Tea have very different traits, histories, processing methods, and come from very different trees and environments. One thing they have in common is that they are two of China’s most respected teas. In order to further our understanding of Anji and Fuding White Teas, we will travel next to their homelands.