White tea is a kind of niche tea. Even in Fujian (福建), the production of white tea only accounts for 2.31% of the tea in Fujian, according to the 2011 report on the development of Chinese tea. For the true taste of tea, white tea is probably the one closest to the original ecology.
White tea is a kind of simple tea. The manufacturing process involves only withering and drying; there are no frying or rubbing techniques involved. The “snow buds” (i.e., the newest leaves and buds) are picked from the branches and spread out into slices which gradually dried in the sunshine and breeze, resulting in a baked white tea which could be preserved for a long time. Such a simple and natural tea-making craft began in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.)
Although the white tea harvesting process is simple, it is undertaken with great care. Only the newest buds and leaves are used. The size, variety, tenderness and water content of the fresh leaves are taken into account. The selected leaves are spread for drying, in such a way that the leaves do not overlap. If the tea buds drying process is too slow, the buds will turn black. If it is too fast, the leaves will turn red. When every aspect of the drying process is favorable, the chlorophyll will partly transform into olive-colored demagnesium chlorophyll. This gives white tea a silver, white, gray and green tea body, and the original flavor in the tea can be optimally retained.
The fresh and sweet taste of white tea mostly comes from amino acids, and different amino acids have their own flavor. Theophylline is fresh and has the fragrance of charred sugar, propylene has the fragrance of flowers, amphetonine has the fragrance of rose.
Of the varieties of white tea, Fuding (福鼎) “silver needle” (银针) has the highest amino acid content, followed by “white peony” (白牡丹), and “showmei” (寿眉). Tea trees peak in spring, leading to the best white tea, with high protein content and less ammonia and polyphenol.
Enzymes present in white tea also contribute to white tea’s flavor. The oxidation and condensation of catechins and amino acids not only result in white tea’s color but also contribute to its mellow taste. The soluble sugar present in white tea gives the beverage its sweet taste.
The last step is “baking” in the sunlight. The purpose of baking is to retain the flavor. If the temperature is insufficiently hot, the color and aroma will not develop effectively. Sometimes, white tea has a “green grass smell,” and the green leaf alcohol and green leaf acetal which bring this smell are aromatic substances with a low boiling point. Only in white tea can these features be preserved; they are often lost in other tea-making techniques.
With a cup of white tea, we can taste tea trees, sunlight, and cool breeze… What a wonder!
［原创］Edited translation by zenteaone.org from posting of The Five Petals Tea Hut.