Imperial tea gardens were sometimes developed in secret to cultivate these rare teas. Poets spoke of these special teas as being white like the clouds, green like a dream, pure like snow, and as aromatic as an orchid.
White tea is the least processed among the five different categories of tea. The production utilizes the gentle process of withering, curing, and drying which give white teas delicate flavors, a smooth mouthfeel, as well as a subtly fruity or sweet finish. White teas tend to have less bitterness than other teas and can be more forgiving of water temperature and infusion times than green teas.
We can trace the origins of white tea as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), although it is not what we know it to be nowadays. The special white tea of the Tang Dynasty was picked in the early spring, during this time the abundant new growth resembles silver needles. These first flushes were then used to make the compressed tea. It was steamed, crushed, poured into molds, 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 flavorings such as ginger, orange peel, clove, or peppermint.
Later on, during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) white tea became the tea of choice for the royal court and was always given as a tribute to the emperor.
The tea cakes were ground into a very fine powder and then whisked in boiling water to produce a frothy liquid (similarly to matcha). For the emperor’s tea much more subtle flavors were used; such as jasmine, lotus, and chrysanthemum. These flowers replaced the spicier additions of the preceding Tang Dynasty.
White tea can only be hand-picked during a few days of early spring and has to be handled with great care. The tedious process of preparing this tea equaled to a price that only the Emperor himself could afford.
The first mention of White Tea appeared in “Treatise on Tea”, written by the Emperor Huizong (1107-1110). The emperor was well-known tea connoisseur, while white tea was his tea of choice. His book included profoundly detailed descriptions, as well as rules for the making and evaluation of tea.
The white tea that we know today was first commercially produced from the very first white tea plant varieties discovered in China’s Fujian province in the 1700s. Subsequently, a loose leaf version of white tea was developed from these plants, known for producing large and beautiful tea buds. Today these bush varieties are still used to produce white tea. Only in the late 1800s Silver Needle became popular and was being exported out of China, followed by White Peony in the early 1900s. Today the most popular types of white tea remain White Peony and Silver Needle.
Before that, because these delicate teas were made from young buds and were minimally processed, it made it difficult to store and transport without spoiling. White teas were rarely available outside of the tea growing regions in Fujian. As loose leaf tea production methods improved, the process for creating white teas expanded beyond the Fujian province. People who have had the opportunity to try this rare and exquisite tea were eager to have it available outside of the original production region.
Just like in ancient times, white teas are still revered today for their delicate, rare and beautiful aromas and flavors. Although they are still pricier than other tea types, we are lucky to have them available to us. Even now most white teas are being handpicked and hand-processed. White tea is a genuine sensational experience. While sipping on a cup of quality white tea, we can truly feel the artisanship that went into its making.