White teas are lightly fermented. (Some claim they are unfermented, which is not correct.)
In China, the vast majority of white tea production is limited a pocket area, Fuding and Zhenghe of the Fu Jian providence (south-east of China). The Fuding white teas supplied at Valley Green Tea are sourced directly from a tea farmer from the Fuding area (plantation in the image).
These are typical hill counties with mild temperature all year round (18.5oC on average) and plenty of rain fall (1700mm/year).
FuDing, for example, has a year average temperature of 18oC and rain fall 1660mm. The soil condition in these areas is typically red or yellow.
Apart from China, Darjeeling and Sri Lanka also have very limited production of white tea of lower quality. As such the overall supply of white tea in the world is scarcer then some other teas.
The original white tea was made of leaves from of particular tea plant called ‘Fu Ding big white tea’ (a special sub-type of the tea plant Camilla Sinensis - which is what all teas are made of). One of the characteristics of these plants is that the leaves are big, strong and bold with full and elegant needle like tips (un-opened leaves). When young, these leaves are covered by thick white fur.
The early spring crop of these needle shape leaves are used to produce the top quality Fuding white tea Silver Needle. The silver colour needle shape is what gives the tea name.
The second or third leaves drown the branch of the needle tip from the ‘Fu Ding big white tea’ plant are also used for manufacturing white teas. These are known as white peony and ‘Tribute tea’ / ‘Eyebrow tea’ respectively. These teas form a hierarchy of quality in the white tea family: Silver Needle -> white Peony -> Shou Mei or ‘Tribute tea’ or ‘Eyebrow tea’.
White teas are also made from the tips of leaves from other tea plants. These white teas are however second to the authentic white teas produced in the Fu-Ding area of the FuJian Province for reasons more than one: the tea plant, the environment and the processing skills.
White tea is one of the least processed teas. They are made by a relatively simple tea making process of picking tender young leaves, allowing these to "wither" in natural air, then sun dried. Unlike many other Chinese teas, the dry leaves largely preserve the original shapes of the tea leaves and abundant nutrients.
- The withering process is delicate and crucial for white tea production, requiring careful assessment of the natural weather conditions (season, sunlight and air moisture etc) and selecting adequate withering method with careful controlling process. This may occur indoors or out in the sun – depending on the weather condition of the time.
- ‘Dehydrating’ is the next stage that involves deliberately drying the leaves using moderate heating to leave approximately 5% water content in the final product. The stage is again highly traditional and skilful. The traditional tea masters set up charcoal stoves with Chinese straw hat shape bamboo trays on top. The fires are put out with only red charcoal remained, the tea leaves are check and turned on a regular base to achieve the optimal result: too hot or too long - teas are burned; Not hot enough - the tea leaves are not dried adequately in time and turn sour.
White teas are known for their un-processed nature: no ‘rubbing’, 'rolling', 'pressing' or ‘baking’.