Origin: Shanhugang Garden, Fuding, Fujian China: the traditional home of white tea
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘Da Bai’
Style: Aged White Tea
Terroir: The gardens of Fuding are situated on misty mountains close to the coast.
Picking Season: Spring 2015; aged for six years by JING.
Leaf: Sets of downy buds with silver tips, together with long, fine leaves and stems.
Oxidation: Slow oxidation, estimated around 15% after six years of ageing.
Infusion: Golden yellow infusion with a slight green hue.
Where is Fuding and what is it like?
In the northeast of Fujian Province lies Fuding County. It’s an area popular with domestic tourists seeking fresh sea air, mountain views, climbing, and a taste of the local hand pulled noodles. Much of the local industry is farming, and with its hilly to mountainous terrain, dense forest cover and coastline, Fuding is a fertile area, ideal for growing tea, citrus fruits and rice.
In the context of tea, Fuding is in very good company. Fujian province is the birthplace of many incredible teas – in the northwest you’ll find Wuyishan, the dramatic and red soiled mountain home of dark roasted oolongs including Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), Shui Xian and our Wuyi Oolong; as well as the smoky black tea Lapsang teas; travelling further south you’ll get to Anxi County, home to Tieguanyin oolong, a lightly oxidised often very floral tea known as Iron Buddha. Each county or area mentioned has its own specific style of teas – different cultivars, microclimates, terroirs, masters, histories, cultures and methods all across Fujian contribute to teas with distinctive tastes.
What type of tea does Fuding produce?
This area is well known for being the true home of white tea in China. White teas from here were first recorded by Lu Yu (the sage of tea) in his book The Classic of Tea in the 8th Century and are still today regularly selected by the emperor for the annual top teas of China list.
The gardens producing white tea tend to be at altitude and as such, the bushes are protected from sunlight by mountain mists. Too much sunlight and tea leaves tend to produce bitter tasting infusions, so the protective fog contributes to the soft, sweetness prized in white tea. The bushes have time to grow slowly in the lower temperatures afford by altitude too. This slow growth is important for the type of tea bush cultivated in the area, the “Fuding Da Bai Hao” type of Camellia sinensis. This cultivar originated in Fuding and so suits the unique soil of the area, although it has many qualities, such as resistance to drought, which means it is now widely used throughout China. “Da Bai” in the name translates as “Big White” and refers to the appearance of the leaves. The size here is important, the Silver Needle or White Peony style of white teas use big juicy tea buds to derive flavour and distinction.
These two types of white tea, Silver Needle and White Peony both come from Fuding, but are differentiated by their pickings – Silver Needle, known in China as Yinzhen, is made from just the buds; White Peony, known as Bai Mu Dan, is made from a juicy bud and two leaves.
Whilst a unique local cultivar and the altitude/ situation are important factors in giving Fuding white tea its flavour, so too is the place’s contribution when it comes to processing. White tea has very low intervention in its processing and as such, the farmer must work closely with the air, atmosphere and climate when crafting their tea.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Fuding County in the spring, you’ll see rows of the locally made bamboo trays filled with tea leaves lining every street, each tray bringing the smell of fresh tea to the air, whilst withering or drying the leaves as the sun, humidity and atmosphere gently coax out the flavour from the leaves. This site not only makes it immediately clear how revered tea is to this area, but also how it is the very place which is contributing to the taste.
The flavours of Fuding white tea are typified by being very clean and pure. Melon muskiness and cucumber freshness are prized flavour notes. These are white teas which are complex, layered and distinctive.
How is white tea made?
Let’s go back to the trays in the streets of Fuding for a moment to look at the production of white tea. Looking at the trays, it seems white tea production is very simple: after the tea leaves are picked, they are laid out to wither and dry. The leaves are left for two to five days with the oxygen in the air dehydrating them. With less moisture, the flavours in the leaf intensify and specific notes are brought out, and after a brief final drying, the leaves are ready to be infused and enjoyed. White tea’s light, delicate flavours are reflective of this low intervention process.
There is a great deal of skill in white tea production, however. Firstly, in the careful picking and handling of the buds and leaves so they remain intact and secondly in the intuiting of the weather, and atmosphere. Picked at the wrong time and the leaves will dry too quickly, left in the sun too long the leaves will end up bitter. Tea makers will assess their leaves and the atmosphere constantly, moving them into shade, the sun or inside periodically. It’s the feeling part of the process that can’t be learnt from reading and can’t be written down – and that connects the farmer, the leaves and the place.
Why is white tea suitable for ageing and what happens when it ages?
What the tea producers making white tea are looking for during production is a balance of allowing the enzymes inside the leaf the time and atmosphere to begin to oxidise slowly and so provide the leaf with a sweetness, whilst minimising this oxidation so that the delicate, fresh spring flavours are preserved.
No heat is applied to the leaf during this process. In the production of green tea, heat is used to stop or kill the enzymes responsible for oxidation and locks the leaves in their green state. For white tea, the enzymes are still present and so will continue to react with the oxygen in the air and very slowly oxidise. The slowness is due to the very low moisture content in the leaf.
This slow oxidation means flavours, body and colour in the teas concentrate and intensify over time, and so white tea can age very well.
Aged white tea has increased in popularity in China over the last few years, with producers making tea specifically to age it and press it in to cakes in the same way puerh is pressed in Yunnan.
How did we source this batch of aged white tea?
Tom, our Head of Tea, sourced this batch of Fuding White Peony in the spring of 2015, and whilst we all enjoyed most of it when it was fresh, we left just 20kgs in our warehouse in the UK to see what would happen to the flavour over time.
Ageing white tea can be a considered process, and there are plenty of techniques used to speed up the ageing process – or “cook” the tea; climate is always carefully controlled, and as mentioned above, the leaves are often pressed into cakes before ageing.
We took a risk with these twenty kilos as we are not experts in ageing tea. We decided to keep the tea in small airtight packs, away from light in ambient temperatures.
What is this batch like to drink?
Opening the tea after almost six years, the leaves were noticeably much darker – and more brittle. The darkness is a good sign they’d continued their slow oxidation and the texture simply indicates the decreased moisture content in the leaf. As we’ve not accelerated the ageing at all, the tea shows a medium aged character – indicating it’ll likely continue to get better.
Tasting and making our first ever batch of aged white tea as a team, comparisons between puerh were heard across the table. The mouthfeel of this Aged Fuding White Peony is smooth and almost silky, reminiscent of puerh, but the taste is much more mellow than a young puerh. Talk of fruitiness was heard across the table too – not the same melon flavours in fresh white peony, but deeper and darker date like fruit flavours with some hay notes too. The sweetness developed has a more honeyed edge and a darkness, bringing malt notes familiar from black teas. It’s a wonderful example of the characteristic rounded texture of aged Fujianese white teas, a texture that defines its taste of place. It’s mellow, silky, warming and fascinating to drink.
When and where is this tea for?
Given the rarity of this tea, for lots of us it’ll be a tea to savour – you might even consider (like I am..) keeping some and continuing its ageing. It’s a tea to savour too for its complexity and layered character to take time to drink and explore. That said it’s very easy to drink, I’m enjoying a cup mid-morning, and its mellow character is giving me just a gentle awakening nudge to keep going until lunch. I’d try it in the late afternoon too, as a way to wind down.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
Single Serve, One Cup Method, using a 250ml teapot and cup
Its mellow character makes this a very easy tea to make – you won’t ever find bitterness or astringency. I made this tea using exactly the same recipe I used to make fresh White Peony, 4g of leaf (it looks a lot as the leaf is large and very light), 80 degree water and three minutes. The lower temperature of water keeps the tea soft and leaves lots of room in the cup for those medjool date, hay flavours. Given the complexity of this tea, I’ve been reinfusing the leaves at least three times – each time the infusion gets deeper and continues to engage.
This is our go to method: 4g per 250ml, 80 degrees, 3 minutes; re-infuse 3 times.
Who is this tea for?
Anyone who wants to dive into the incredible Fuding origin and the category of aged white teas. The flavour and character are likely to appeal if you enjoy light Chinese black teas like Keemun Mao Feng or Bohea, or even Oriental Beauty from Taiwan. If you enjoy the complexity of the oolong and puerh tea types, you’ll be sure to find something to enjoy in this rare treat.
Why are we calling this tea rare?
The popularity of white tea from Fuding meant for a time, many farmers used excessive pesticides and chemical fertilisers to deliver the yields to meet the demand. Virgin land around Fuding was regularly cleared in the twentieth century to make more space for tea to be grown.
The local government recognised the negative environmental impact of these practices – and also saw that they ruined the marketability of their tea – teas known for their purity and clean flavours!
In the last few years, much tighter restrictions have been put in place around when tea in Fuding can be produced and which farming practices are used. This has led to many farmers converting to organic, and throughout the area much better control of the types and quantities of pesticides being used. The land clearing has also mostly stopped.
This is great news for the nature and people in Fuding. The decrease in availability coupled with the continued impressive reputation – and so keen local demand – means prices in Fuding are very high now, and so too is quality.
The competition with domestic demand for teas from Fuding is the main reason we (and many other white tea fans) have started to include nearby Yunnan in our annual quest to bring you white teas. Our current batch of Organic Yunnan White Peony has certainly not disappointed. If you read about this “new world” terroir for white tea in our other Deep Dive you’ll see it’s not a direct copy of Fuding White Peony we’re looking for, instead we explore what unique characteristics a new origin can bring to the type. Every spring we continue to look to Fuding for white teas – and we continue to be inspired and delighted by the incredible flavours from this origin. Look out for very small batch, rare teas from this prized terroir on our site around May/ June time.
Aged Fuding White Peony
A complex and mellow aged white tea that's been six years in the making – picked in Spring 2015 and naturally aged by JING. It's developed incredible depth and character over time, with notes of hay meadow and a dark honey finish. A remarkable treat.A complex and mellow aged white tea that's been six years in the making – picked in Spring 2015 and naturally aged by JING. It's developed incredible depth and character over time, with notes of hay meadow and a dark honey finish. A remarkable treat.