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.
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