How White Tea is Flourishing
A new school of white teas
I took a sip. My eyes widened. The tea was silver needles - densely sweet, bright, alive with a zippy butternut squash delicacy. It was not until a few years later that I dove further into the world of white teas. A strong Yunnan leaf white reminds me of American breakfast, waking up to pancakes and waffles smothered in syrup and butter. From Fujian - the home of white teas - these teas sparkle, wafting with zucchini blossom and florals, reminiscent of a great white wine.
White tea, among the niche but thriving tea community in the west, is having its moment right now. Popular vendors like White2tea and Yunnan Sourcing are pressing more and more cakes as well as finding aged versions, the latter redolent of chinese herbal medicine and deep red date flavors. White tea is also easy to age in the U.S., where the climate - unlike puerh, the lodestone of storage discussion in the west - is suited to age it. I talked with Max Falkowitz - who has contributed insightful introductory guides to tea and has deep-dived into specific topics, successfully widening the knowledge of good tea for an English speaking audience - to ask the whats and hows of white tea.
White tea is processed by keeping plucked tea leaves in a controlled drying state, either in the sunlight, moonlight or in a room where heat and humidity is controlled. After this stage the tea further finishes its processing in a heat and humidity controlled room. White tea is ostensibly the tea with the least number of steps required to produce it. The processing and leaf itself makes it seem like the leaves fell off their branches and were plucked from the earth where they dried. Of course, the process is much more complicated and every region and maker is bound to have their own unique touch to this simple (and itself probably debatable) summary. Falkowitz points out that white tea is also economically beneficial to growers who produce more prized tea (puerh in Yunnan, Darjeeling in India) when harvest goes awry due to rain or other bad weather. “Say it's raining a couple days straight during harvest and there's too much moisture in the air for puer teas to wither properly. Turning that batch into white or black tea is a good way to recover the loss, and produce something distinctly yours.” Tea producers are allowed to experiment and find multiple ways of making excellent tea while still reaping an economic benefit.
White tea is a also a net positive for tea farmers as global warming ravages the planet. Falkowitz notes, “It's also encouraging any time small producers can find way to build added value into their operations and in doing so, create new streams of revenue. Especially as global warming makes each year's harvest season more erratic than the year before, it's critical for the little guys to get creative with their productions.” Adapting to global catastrophe and being flexible enough to create something as good as white tea is nothing short of remarkable. I would argue it is good for wallets everywhere too. Right now one of the most expensive new white teas I can find is significantly cheaper than most young puerh but arguably, if you like white tea, is just as good as premium puerh. I personally find that the stress of questions like, ‘how will this age’ and ‘is this worth the money’ significantly decreases when shopping for whites versus puerh.
Like any tea fan right now, Falkowitz and I both have have “test batches” - decent sizes of tea to taste through the years and fully consume at the optimum age - aging right now. “On the consumer side, white teas made for aging are an intriguing proposition for American drinkers, since they don't require the heat and humidity of famous Asian storage seasons; they might even benefit from American climates, since there's lower opportunity for mold and mildew growth here,” Falkowitz says. Any aging tea in the west right now is an experiment because there is simply no history for it: people are not exactly sure what to expect of their tea aging right now. In puerh this aspect in the west is really up to anyone. There are vaunted storage styles, like Hong Kong wet storage and Taiwan dry storage (the latter still much more hot and humid than most places), and productions with clear demarcations that have stood the test of time. So, people are hoping to replicate that in drier parts of the world by artificially enclosing their compressed tea and adding humidity and heat. But for white tea there is not as much of a guiding point. Falkowitz thinks that aged tea has been around only for ten to fifteen years and even then very few of those will reach western based consumers. Conversely, this is not as much of a worry for white tea.
What is exciting for white tea is that it seems to be pretty sure fire to age well. My aged cakes are sitting on a nondescript shelf just like my tins and mylar bags of loose leaf. I feel much more at ease with them than I do my large puerh container that I routinely check for progression and mold. The few drier aged white tea examples around five years of age give me some assurance that my teas will age well. Falkowitz has already noticed the aging differences depending on the specific type of white tea: “In drier NYC conditions I've found yueguangbai [moonlight white] ages more toward dark fruit and black tea flavors, while shou mei styles [of Yunnan origin] reminiscent of Fujian teas get more red date and woodsy, with coarser, brawnier aspects than comparable products from Fujian.” Note that Falkowitz is only referring not only to New York City’s climate but specifically dry conditions: a shorthand way of saying that no extra humidity was added and minimal to no specific nor unique storage was used. White tea grown in Yunnan is frequently produced in the yueguangbai style, in which tea is dried by the moon, producing a fuller, richer flavor. Shou Mei might refer to both the leaf size - picked with the tip and two leaves of the tea bush - as well as the processing style commonly find in Fujian where tea typically is not processed under the moonlight. Essentially, it is both an exciting and exploratory time of white tea obsession.
Many exciting new vendors have been spurring on high quality tea obsession for an English speaking audience. Vendors like White2Tea, whose pressed white tea cakes can be seen above, and Yunnan Sourcing are now helping fuel an obsession for white tea after doing so for puerh and oolong, offering many different varieties and sources as well as pressing both young and aged white teas. Not long ago, white tea was a tiny corner of the market usually sold in loose leaf form and barely glanced over or talked about. These vendors are helping change that, especially revealing the complexities of white tea as it ages and changing the perception of how to brew better (you can use boiling water!). The richness of white tea was always there, there is a saying in Chinese that goes “first year it's tea, in the third year it's medicine, after seven years it's treasure,” but these brands have made white tea go from largely ignored to collected, hoarded and aged.
A lot of tea has a surprising amount of sweetness but none more so than white tea. White teas often seem overflowing with sugar: ranging from sprinkled powdered sugar to a deep, rich molasses. They can create a lovely coating feeling that balloons your entire head. I have an intense sweet tooth and white tea is perfect for the tea drinker craving sweets. As high quality tea finds a larger audience, white tea is positioned to gain a stronger foothold both from a flavor perspective and the relative ease of growing and production aspects. Falkowitz is quick to note how the perspective on white tea is changing: “White tea has been in the US for a while in a big way, but mostly as this dainty delicate darling that'll faint if you look at it too hard. American sellers have seen the most success by marketing it as a health drink full of antioxidants and what have you. So it's interesting to see this new growth in varieties of white tea, both in the aged market [of white tea] (which is only 10-15 years old in China), and in greater diversity of production methods.” Both in China and in the English speaking blogosphere and larger tea drinking circles, white tea is changing from an often overlooked, “dainty delicate darling” to a tea that can stand on its own in flavor, feeling and depth.
Thank you to Max Falkowitz who was very kind to answer my questions. He has a website here.