White tea is a unique class of Chinese tea. China is the only country in the world that produces white tea. Within China, they are almost exclusively produced in certain pocket areas of the Fujian Province, such as: Fu-Ding( 福鼎), Zheng-He (政和), Jian-Yang (建阳) and Song-Xi (松溪).
There has been some white tea produced in the Yunnan Province of China during the recent years. The history is however shorter, and varieties limited.
Due to the different weather and environmental conditions of the different areas, and the different traditions of making these white teas, white teas produced in the various areas of the Fujian Province possess different characteristics.
Fu-Ding (or Fuding) white tea
Of the hand full of the main white tea production areas in the Fujian Province, the most well known one is Fu-Ding (or Fuding, 福鼎) white tea.
Fuding is situated in the north-east of the Fujian Province. It is believed the Fuding white tea’s production has a history of more than 1000 years, starting from Sui-Tang dynasty (隋唐,581年－907年). The Mt. Tai Lao (太姥山) of Fuding is the earliest recorded white tea production site in history.
The tea plants used to produce the Fuding white teas is the premium specie Fuding Da Bai Hao (福鼎大白毫,translated into Fuding Big White Fur). They grow up to 2 meters tall and are classified as small Arbor.
White tea is the least processed tea of all teas, no rolling or baking involved. The two crucial stages of white processing are Withering (萎凋) and drying. Although appears to be simple, the withering process requires perfect control of the tea harvesting and weather conditions, handled by the very experienced tea masters of the region.
For example, the top grade Fuding Silver Needle is made of only the tip, unopen needle shape leaves. The following ten conditions are strictly followed for its harvesting: not during the rain, not before the drew (on the leaves) is dry; exclude the slim and malnourished tip leaves, the purple colour tip leaves, the physically damaged tip leaves, the insect damaged tip leaves, the tip leaves that have already opened up, the hollow tip leaves, the unhealth tip leaves and the frost damaged tip leaves.
After the tea leaves are harvested, the weathering stage takes 40-60 hours depending on the weather conditions of the time. It is carefully monitored and adjusted according to the tea maters’ instructions based on the sun light (eg in the open if it is overcast, or in the shade if sunny), air temperature and humidity. The skills, or secrets, are traditionally passed down in the families to the male descents and carefully guarded as intellectual properties.
The Fuding white tea has the most detailed and standardised grading system to categorise the products into the following categories: Fuding Silver Needle (including only the tip needle shape tip leaves), white peony (the tip leaves plus a couple leaves below), Shou Mei (mainly the mature leaves) etc.
Zheng-He (Zhenghe) white tea
Zheng-He, far north of the Fujian Province and inland of the Fuding region, also produces premium white teas. Not as popular as Fuding white teas, Zhenghe white teas possess the following:
- Tea plants – Zhenghe big white (similar to Fuding big white but a different sub-specie)
- The categorisation of the Zhenghe white tea is not as detailed and defined as Fuding white tea, therefore not as commercialised.
- Zhenghe Silver Needle leaves are visibly slimer than the Fuding Silver Needle and relatively deeper in colour.
- While Fuding white tea is more refreshing and sweet in taste, Zhenghe white tea is relatively stronger in flavour and mellower in texture.
- Zhenghe white tea has a higher value/price ration in my personal opinion as it is not as commercialised, and has not had as many price hikes as Fuding white tea during recent years, with also less magnitude of the hike.
Other Fujian white teas
White teas are also produced in other pocket areas of the Fujing Province, such as Jian-Yang (建阳) and Song-Xi (松溪). The tea plant species and processing techniques used are slightly different, and the products are also less standardised and commercialised as the Fuding and Zhenghe white teas.