White tea leaves are picked shortly before the buds have fully opened and is therefore made from immature leaves; tea leaves are processed less than green tea leaves, so instead of air-drying, the unwithered leaves are merely steamed. This results in a place tea with a sweet, silky flavour. The silver fuzz that still covers the buds, which turn white when the tea has been dried, is the origin of the tea’s name. The exact proportion of buds to leaves varies depending on the variety of white tea. For example, White Peony contains one bud for every two leaves, while Silver Needles, the finest quality of white tea, is made entirely from downy buds picked within a two day period in early Spring and gets its name from the fine silvery white hairs on each of the buds.
In hard times, very poor Chinese people would serve guests boiled water if they could not afford tea. Host and guest would refer to the water as “white tea” and act as if the tradition of serving guests tea had been carried out as usual. This usage is related to plain boiled water being called “white boiled water” in Chinese.
However, true white tea is a specialty, formerly a luxury reserved for the emperor of China. White tea is also widely believed to be China’s earliest form of tea, based on the fact that its processing consists basically of only drying the leaves, and so must have been the first methods that people used to allow the buds to be stored after they were picked.
For many years it was believed that white tea was discovered during the Song Dynasty (920-1269 C.E.), however, a form of compressed tea referred to as white tea was being produced as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.). This special white tea was picked in early spring, when the tea bushes had abundant growths which resembled silver needles. These “first flushes” were used as the raw material to make the compressed tea. Steamed, crushed, and poured into moulds, and baked into cakes until dry. To prepare tea for drinking these cakes were roasted in the fire until soft enough to be crushed into a powder which was added to boiling water, often with flavourings such as ginger, orange peel, cloves, or peppermint.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) white tea was the choice of the royal court, given as a tribute to the emperor, it is rumoured that it could only be served to the emperor by virgins with white gloves as a symbol of honour and respect. The cakes of tea were ground into a very fine powder and whisked in boiling water to produce a frothy liquid, more subtle flavourings of jasmine, lotus, and chrysanthemum flowers replacing the spicier additions of earlier times. A version of this method of tea preparation is still found in the famous Japanese tea ceremony. One Song Emperor was renowned for his love of white tea. Hui Zong (1101-1125) became so obsessed with finding the perfect tea that it literally cost him most of his empire.
It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), that the Ming court ruled that only loose leaf white tea could be served as a tribute to the emperor, thus changing our understanding of white tea processing and its preparation forever.
Over the next several centuries, powdered white tea and the Song Tea Ceremony were abandoned for loose-leaf tea. Leading to modern-day white teas that can be traced to the Qing Dynasty in 1796. Teas were processed and distributed as loose tea that was to be steeped, and they were produced from chaicha, a mixed-variety tea bush. The white tea process differed from other Chinese green teas in that it did not incorporate de-enzyming by steaming or pan-firing. Also, the white teas that were produced from the chaicha tea bushes were thin, small, and did not have much silvery-white hair.
It was not until 1885 that specific variety of tea bushes were selected to make “Silver Needles” and other white teas. The large, fleshy buds of the “Big White,” “Small White,” and “Narcissus” tea bushes were selected to make white teas and are still used today as the raw material for the production of white tea. By 1891, the large, silvery-white down-covered Silver Needle was exported, and the production of White Peony started around 1922.
White tea was first produced in the Fuding area of Fujian province, and then spread out to the nearby Shuiji and Zhenghe areas. The earliest types of white teas grown in these areas were silver needle, white peony, and then later Gongmei and Shoumei.
The birthplace of silver needle white tea – famed for its white pekoe covering – is in the area around Taimushan Mountain in Fujian. During the reign of Emperor Jiaqing – in the late 1700’s – silver needle was very rare, being made only from the small buds of the local variety of tea tree. A major evolution, that cemented this teas popularity, occurred around 1857, when the Fuding variety of the tea tree was discovered. The buds of this tea tree where much larger, and had a much richer covering of pekoe and a much stronger taste and fragrance. The silver needle tea produced from Fuding tea had a much more enjoyable, stronger flavour and fragrance and could easily be produced in much greater quantities. By the time of Emperor Guangxu in the late 1890’s, export of silver needle to foreign countries began, and during the early 1900’s the popularity of this tea overseas grew rapidly.
White peony white tea was originally produced by the local farmers in the town of Shuiji in Fujian in the 1870’s from the local large leafed tea trees. It’s popularity grew in the 1920’s when production began in the nearby Zhenghe county, which soon became the main production area in China. Today White Peony is mainly produced in the counties of Zhenghe, Jianyang, Songxi and Fuding, all in the province of Fujian.