Aged White Tea History

Aged White Peony Tea Cake

If you’re a more adventurous tea drinker, you may already be familiar with compressed tea, which is tea that has been processed and pressed into a brick or a cake. Durable, shelf-stable, and easy to store, these cakes are typically Chinese puerh teas that are fermented and designed to improve with age. In recent years, however, a new type of compressed tea has been moving into the market: white tea cakes, first innovated during the early 2000s in Fuding, Fujian Province.

To better appreciate the role that white tea cakes have come to play in the aged tea market, we must first step back for a look at contemporary Chinese history. In the late 1970s, after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping assumed leadership of the People’s Republic of China and began a series of sweeping economic reforms designed to modernize the country. To provide a sense of stability and cultural connection amidst such changes, Deng and the Chinese government encouraged citizens to consider the values and doctrine of classical Chinese thinkers. Ancient literary and philosophical masters such as Confucius and Lu Yu (see Notable People in the History of Tea), previously condemned by the Communist party, were looked to as a source of stability and national identity. With this change in ideology came a renewed appreciation for all things traditional, historical, and aged – classical texts, classical education, classical tea.

Aged White Tea Manufacturing in Fuding

Aged White Tea Manufacturing in Fuding

The next few decades saw a surge in demand for compressed puerh. Savvy merchants emphasized the value inherent to aged dark tea or thousand-year old cultivars, and puerh cakes sold briskly in both domestic and foreign markets. Inspired by the ongoing trend, white tea growers began to experiment as well. Their hope was to produce a tea that, while not fermented, could withstand aging and even improve in flavor over time. By the early 2010s, Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) tea cakes had begun to sell across China and were moving into Western markets. As it turned out, the floral and delicate characteristics of this white tea matured beautifully over time, gaining a woody complexity and sweet, muscatel finish. What had begun as a gamble to take advantage of market trends had actually produced a complex and high-quality tea unlike anything that had been seen before.

As the world of white tea cakes continues to expand, more and more varieties are appearing in Western tea stores. In addition to Bai Mu Dan, Bai Hao Silver Needle and many other white teas are beginning to become available in aged cake form. As tea producers look to history to inspire new innovations, many cite an ancient Fujian proverb: “One year a tea, three years a medicine; seven years, a treasure!”

Here at Dominion Tea, we are excited to currently be carrying 2014 Bai Mu Dan tea cakes, 2019 Moonlight White cakes, and perfectly travel-sized aged White Tea Buttons. Stop by today to explore this new and innovative corner of the tea world yourself!

By Jen Coate

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3 Popular Tea Gifts

Gifts for Tea Lovers - Chinese Gaiwan

Stunning Glass Gaiwan with Dragonwell

Admittedly, buying gifts for a tea snob can be very hard. Beyond figuring out what they like to drink, there is all the equipment, which they may already own. So we like to turn to the experts at giving tea gifts, the Chinese, to find the right tea with the right meaning for our favorite tea snobs. Below are the 3 popular gifts for tea lovers in China and the stories behind why they are so popular.

  1. Ti Kuan Yin – This beautiful oolong named after the Iron Goddess of Mercy is prized for its beautiful flavor and story about its creation. It is also one of the oldest oolongs produced in China, having been created sometime during the 18th century. Giving the gift that came from the Iron Goddess of Mercy shows the gift receiver that you wish them health and prosperity well into their future.
  2. Puerh from Yunnan Provence – Given for its health benefits, Puerh tea is thought of as the fine wine of tea. It only gets better with age. This fermented tea is over 2,000 years old and can be made with a black, green or white tea base. The bacteria that is added to allow for the fermentation creates a naturally sweet and smooth tea with lots of complex flavors. This tea is usually purchased in cakes or bricks and is broken apart to make a cup of tea.
  3. Bai Hao Silver Needle Organic - Classic Chinese Tea Gifts

    Bai Hao Silver Needle – Exquisite first pluck of the newest growth of the tea plant.

    Bai Hao Silver Needle – This prized white tea has been under production during the Song Dynasty (969-1269 C.E.) but did not enter the European literature until the 1800’s. Its soft and floral flavor as well as the silver hairs on the tea leaves are distinctive characteristics that cannot be found in other teas. This is a more expensive tea as it can really only be plucked during the first harvest of the season. This tea was often given as a gift to the reigning Emperor as it was the first tea of the season.

There are a few characteristics these teas share, each one has been manufactured for centuries, given as gifts to Chinese Emperors to bring them good health and luck, and have exquisite and complex flavors.

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Malawi Tea and Satemwa Estate

One of many flags of the world, in this case the flag of Malawi

Malawi Flag (Public Domain)

We’ve recently added three specialty teas from Malawi to our growing tea collection so it only felt right to provide a bit more background on this land locked African nation.

Profile of Malawi

The country of Malawi is located in Africa, south of the equator near Madagascar and is about on the same latitude as Brazil and the northern part of Australia. Given that it isn’t too far south of the equator it should come as no surprise that agriculture is a large part of the economy of Malawi. According to the CIA World Fact Book, this country which is about the size of Pennsylvania, exports tobacco, tea, sugar, cotton, coffee, and peanuts in decreasing order.  Indeed tobacco is the largest by far making up more than 50% of exports from the country.

As countries go, Malawi is relatively young. It was created as a British protectorate in 1891 and only became an independent nation in 1964. While it is a democracy now the people of the country experienced many strict laws under the one-time “President for Life” Hastings Banda.

Today Malawi continues to experience some challenges as it grows and develops including a poor reputation for environmental production, low education rates, and high rates of HIV/AIDS. As recently as January 2015, the country experienced severe flooding which left hundreds of families in the south of Malawi homeless in the southern part of the country including nearby Thyolo and Bvumbwe and Satemwa Estate. As recently as mid-February the area still recovering with 4,500 families impacted by the flooding.

Malawi Tea from Satemwa Estate

Satemwa estate is in Southern Malawi near Thyolo and Bvumbwe

Map of Malawi with insert of Southern Malawi and Thyolo.

Located in the southern tip of Malawi, Satemwa Estate has been producing tea and coffee since 1923, long before Malawi became an independent country. It produces a wide variety of tea products including specialty orthodox tea. The tea estate is located in the southern highlands of the country well south of Lake Malawi and a mere 35 minutes from the countries highest peak, Mt. Mulanje.  The Satemwa Estate actually has tea fields spread around the city of Thyolo extending up to Bvumbwe  including a field at higher elevations along the slopes of the Michiru Mountain Conservation Area.

The Satemwa Estate tea plantation employs a large number of people in the region. While Malawi struggles in many areas, the plantation features numerous programs to support the well being of its staff. Programs include a health clinic which provides medical care to all employees and their families along with students from the Satemwa Primary School. Its health efforts even include work with the United Nations International Labour Office (UN ILO) to increase awareness and protection around HIV/AIDS. It is supporting national efforts for community policing and even has sporting activities for its employees. Finally, the estate maintains a primary school to combat education challenges in the country, providing schooling for about 900 students.

Satemwa Estate is also committed to reducing its impact on climate change, protecting the environment, and sustainable farming demonstrated through training programs for workers and community members. It is Fair Trade Certified as well as holding certification by both UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance.

Dominion Tea’s Selection of Specialty Tea from Satemwa Estate

Dominion Tea offers three teas from Satemwa Estate:

  • Treasure Variety Satemwa Estate – This handmade black tea from Satemwa Estate in southern Malawi features caramel and floral notes. The beautiful large leaf unfurls when steeped to release a bright golden liquor. 
  • Puerh Leaf Satemwa Estate – Produced in the modern style (cooked vs aged), this leaf puerh produces a mild, earthy, and woody experience. Although China is known for its Puerh, this leaf puerh from Malawi shows that it can be done in other parts of the world.
  • Bvumbwe BSP Satemwa Estate – This white tea from Malawi features broken leaf of various sizes, shapes, and colors. Grown on a very specific field along the Michiru Mountain Conservation Area in southern Malawi, Bvumbwe BSP is named for a nearby village. The infusion yields a delicious brew with hints of caramel and an aroma that smells a bit of sweet bread and chocolate.

Sources Referenced

CIA World Fact Book, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mi.html

Satemwa Estate, http://www.satemwa.com/

Malawi: Heavy Rains Leave 700 Families Homeless in Thyolo, By Sungeni Nyoni, January 16, 2015, allAfrica.com, http://allafrica.com/stories/201501161479.html

Picking Tea and Condoms in Malawi, United Nations International Labour Office, http://data.unaids.org/pub/ExternalDocument/2009/20090402_ilomalawi_en.pdf

Thyolo-Thava MP Reaches Out to More Flood Victims, February 18, 2015, The Malawi Voice, http://malawivoice.com/2015/02/18/thyolo-thava-mp-reaches-out-to-more-flood-victims/

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White Tea: Bai Hao vs Bai Mu Dan

In the middle of a cold snap, there  is nothing better than enjoying a warm drink that reminds me of spring. White tea fits that bill beautifully. There are not that many pure white teas in the US market, there are plenty of flavored white teas. The two most commonly found here in the states are Bai Hao (Silver Needle) or Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) also known as Bai Mudan. These two teas couldn’t be more different in appearance or taste.

Bai Hao (Silver Needle Tea) White Tea

Bai Hao Silver Needle White Tea

Bai Hao Silver Needle

Bai Hao, or Silver Needle White Tea, is the grandfather of white tea. This bud-only tea is believed to have been around since the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) but only appeared in the late 1800’s in European publications. The cultivar Da Bai of Camellia Sinensis is the plant typically used to make Bai Hao as it produces the longest and largest buds. Bai Hao is only picked in early spring, usually in April and consists of the buds from the first flush (first growth) of the season. These buds produce the longest of the silver hairs that appear on the outside of the leaf. The name Silver Needle comes from the appearance of needle shaped buds covered with downy hairs. The buds are typically dried in the sun, some may be dried in a drying room if it is large production or weather prevents drying outside. The tea is usually only 5% oxidized. Brewing this tea requires care as you do not want to put boiling water on it as it will burn the tea. If brought to a boil, the water should be cooled down to 170° Fahrenheit before adding the tea. It only needs to be steeped for 2-3 minutes and will produce a pale yellow drink with a smooth sweet flavor.

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) White Tea

Bai Mu Dan White Tea

Bai Mu Dan White Peony

Bai Mu Dan was developed in the 1920s in Fujian as China worked to meet the demand for unique teas from the United States and Europe. Bai Mu Dan is usually a bud and either one or two small open leaves. When you look at the dried leaves they resemble small peony flowers; hence the name White Peony. The bud in Bai Mu Dan is shorter than Bai Hao typically as it is made from different cultivars of Camellia Sinensis. Bai Mu Dan is also dried in the sun. However,it is typically baked after drying resulting in a wide array of colors in the leaves from silver to the dark brown you would expect from a black tea. Still,the tea is only around 5-7% oxidized. This white tea can be brewed just like Bai Hao, however you should experiment with brewing it like an oolong, with a water temperature up to 190° Fahrenheit and 3-5 minutes of steeping. It produces a very different flavor  depending on how it is prepared. Brewed as you would a white tea you get a smooth floral tea. Brewed as you would an oolong (closer to 190°) and you will get strong muscatel flavors with a hint of nuttiness from the very pale yellow liquor. Unlike Bai Hao, this tea is used as the base for most flavored white teas, as it is produced in much larger quantities making it a more cost efficient.

Whether Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) or Bai Hao (Silver Needle), white teas are a smooth and refreshing addition to your tea collection.

 

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White Tea – Delicate, Subtle, and Delicious

White tea with downy hairs.

Himalayan White with Downy Hairs from Nepal

White tea can be a real treat, offering delicate and subtle taste, beautiful appearance, and creamy pale yellow liquor. It is produced from the buds and young leaves of the camellia sinensis plant and only lightly processed before steeping in your cup. The sign of a truly fine white tea is the presence of lots of fine white (downy) hairs on the leaf, like the bud-only, Bai Hao Silver Needle. There are also white teas made of bud and one to three of the young leaves. The white hair is where its name comes from. To preserve these hairs, the tea is handled very carefully. The tea is hand plucked. It is withered in the sun to dry and then is further dried in the air, sun, or mechanically to stop oxidation. It is not pan fried, steamed, roasted, or rolled since those methods would destroy the fine hairs.

Delicate Hairs For Self Defense

The camellia sinensis plant typically produces the most hairs on its first buds and new leaves of the season. It is not unusual for plants to have hairy leaves or buds as the hairs serve multiple defense functions for the plant like protecting the buds from sunburn and insects (Evert, 2006). As the leaves get bigger, the hairs fall off. So there is a very small window at the start of the growing season to pick the buds with the most hairs. This means there are very limited quantities of true white tea, and if weather interferes there could be seasons with little to no white tea available.

Origin of White Tea

There is no definitive answer as to when the first white teas were produced. The name silver pekoe starts to appear in the mid-1800’s in English publications referring to a fine black tea with silver hairs. Back in the 1800’s, teas were either black or green. If the tea was steamed, it was green and all other teas were black (Hanson, 1878). Most of these silver pekoe teas came from the Fujian and Zhejang provinces of China. Those provinces are still considered home to the finest of Chinese white tea. China, however, does not have a monopoly on white tea. India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Kenya also produce white teas. As tea farms take hold in Hawaii, they too are making white teas.

White Tea Preparation

White tea normally has a creamy pale yellow liquor like that from the bud-only tea of Bai Hao Silver Needle

White Tea – The bud-only style of Bai Hao Silver Needle and creamy pale yellow liquor.

When preparing white tea, be careful to prepare gently, in the spirit in which it was produced. Boiling water should never be poured on a white tea since it will produce a very bitter brew. It is best to allow the boiling water to cool to between 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit or even cooler before introducing the tea leaves. White tea is also only brewed between 1-3 minutes though it depends on the origin and variety. The flavors of various white teas range from floral to fruity to nutty with all brews being smooth. Most white teas can be infused 3-6 times and not lose their flavor. Since this tea has the lowest amount of oxidation, it brews a very pale yellow cup.

White tea is a variety well worth exploring.

 

Works Cited
Evert, R. F. (2006). Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body: Their Structure, Function, and Development, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Hanson, R. (1878). A Short Account of Tea and the Tea Trade. London: Whitehead, Morris and Lowe.

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