Silver Needle (Yin Zhen) white tea time!  After catching the beginning of the Dragon Well season in Hangzhou, I took a 6 hour ride down to Fujian to visit our white tea (silver needle and white peony/bai mu dan) producer, Mr Hua.

So what’s the story behind Mr Hua and why does he stick to the traditional white tea production methods?  What are these, how do they differ from commonly used methods and why do so few producers use them these days?His grandfather and father were both tea producers producing two main types of tea – Tan Yang Gongfu (a famous Fujian black tea AKA Pan Yang Congou) and of course white tea.  He believes only in traditional methods and will only produce tea to order.  We buy his entire silver needle production.It was raining when we visited his beautiful tea gardens.  The rich red soil, like clay, sticking to our shoes in clumps.  The mist in the high mountains gave a very serene and ancient feel to the place, and the only sound was the rain tapping the leaves on the trees and birds singing spring songs.

What I love about Mr Hua is that he won’t ever compromise.  He always uses the traditional methods because he believes (as do I) that they are the best way to make white tea.  If people ask him to speed up and produce a much larger quantity of tea by using short-cuts, he says no – it’s something I always look for in producers but its becomes sadly uncommon.  Demand for white tea has risen in recent year and the traditional way tastes better but costs more and there are not many producers who stick purely to quality.   I also like the honesty of his face and his gentle way of talking.  He never raises his voice or pushes his opinion, he just speaks softly from his life-time of experience of working with his grandfather, father and himself in these spectacular mountains.   It’s amazing how the soft, gentle flavour of the tea mirrors the soft, misty mountains of the place where it’s produced and even Mr Hua’s manner.So what is white tea?  There are two commonly mistaken claims: 1) its the most expensive tea in the world (not even close); 2) it’s nothing to do with how the tea is picked. Now for the technical definition bit – if you aren’t interested don’t worry! –  just skip the next two paragraphs and maybe have a look at the photos. White tea is defined as white tea through its processing.  It differs from green tea: after picking and withering, the leaves are fired to prevent oxidation occurring (sometimes referred to fermentation).  Oolong and black teas are bruised or rolled prior to firing to actively encourage oxidation by exposing the juices inside the leaf to the air.

White tea is just picked, and allowed to wither on trays and then very gently dried at 40-50 degrees Celsius until the tea’s moisture content is reduced to around 10%.  (Withering is a crucial stage in all tea production.  It allows the moisture in the fresh leaf to slowly and naturally reduce and the natural flavours and aromas to come out through the chemical changes that take place.  You can’t wither too quickly otherwise the aroma in the tea doesn’t come out and pockets of water get stuck in the leaves, leading to bitterness.)

Traditionally-produced white tea is allowed to wither for four days.  Because this takes up a lot of time and space (the leaves have to be thinly spread and not piled up) it’s not done much these days.  Usually, the tea will be withered for just a couple of days, then assisted with machine drying.  We pay more for it to be done the traditional way and it’s so worth it, as it brings out much more flavour and aroma which I thinks is a little bit like melon and cucumber.  If you smell the tea as it withers, it smells like fresh spring flowers.  I wish I could bottle the scent!  So called, ‘white tea perfumes’ don’t smell anything like it.  The traditional method also makes the tea softer and sweeter and much more full.  Fast-produced white tea, as is nearly all tea you find on the market these days, has some harshness and ‘greenness’ to the taste.  Some oxidation happens during the long withering but it usually its only around 10% – this make the flavour fuller and is considered again, correct and traditional.

There are two main types of white tea produced in China to try – Silver Needle, which is only buds, and White Peony (bai mu dan) which is composed of bud and two leaf sets.  White peony is quite brittle and delicate so often breaks a little during packing and transport.  It’s very popular in Hong Kong where you can order it in restaurant, known as Shou Mei Cha in Cantonese.  It goes really well with food and is both refreshing and clean yet also richly-satisfying.  White teas are also produced in India (Assam and Darjeeling), Sri Lanka and Africa – I have tasted a few good lots.So, as soon as the new season’s tea is in our warehouse, we’ll let you know.  We’ll also put some videos up as soon as Thomas (our video expert) has had a chance to edit them…