The History of White Tea
The history of white tea is like a complex and difficult jigsaw puzzle. Everywhere you look you can see bits of the puzzle, a bit of the history that is unfolding before your eyes, but never the complete picture. The web is littered with hundreds of different resources, talking about the history of white tea, the health benefits, and how white tea is produced, but there are too many contradictions to count. Hopefully then, we can start to present a more accurate picture in this article.
First, it is important to start off with a definition of white tea. White tea is classified based on both processing and plant cultivar used. White tea is the least processed tea since it is simply plucked and air dried without being heated. But just as important, true white tea only comes from a few different varieties or cultivars of the tea plant, and mainly from the Fuding Da Bai and the Da Hao tea bushes, both of which have lots of little white hairs of the buds and leaves. Contrary to popular belief, white tea is not necessarily the young buds and leaves, although some white teas are picked very early such as Silver Needle white tea.
As mentioned before, white tea processing involves simply picking and air drying tea leaves, therefore it should come as no surprise that white tea processing has been around since tea was discovered. In early tea drinking cultures such as during the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC – 1050 BC), tea leaves were air dried and then typically added to a boiling pot full of other herbs and spices to create a medicinal concoction. The earliest predecessors to modern day white tea tended to be very bitter though because the leaves typically came from wild growing tea trees, which were full a healthy, but bitter component of tea called tannins.
It was not until the Tang and Song dynasties though that tea production started to focus more on improving the taste and beauty of tea rather than just the medicinal value. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), tea drinking took a more aesthetic and spiritual role in Chinese society, with focus starting to shift away from bitter concoctions to more “pure” tea. Lu Yu, one of the famous tea masters at the time, encouraged tea drinkers to drink pure tea without the addition of any spices, berries, etc. Most tea during this period was still pressed into cakes however to help with transportation and preservation issues or ground into a powder and whisked similar to matcha tea that you find in Japan today. Even though brick tea comprised most of the tea produced during these eras, it is important to note that the white tea plant, the Da Bai and Da Hao teabush, had been discovered in Fujian, China. Tea farmers were starting to produce the earliest and most famous form of white tea called Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) as well as another common white tea that we find today called White Peony (Bai Mu Dan). Silver Needle is comprised of only the most delicate buds, which are covered in beautiful white hairs where white tea gets its name. Due to transportation and storage issues however, white tea was not heavily traded or experienced outside of the few white tea growing regions in Fujian.
Loose leaf tea production finally started to take off during the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD – 1644 AD) when emperor Hongwu banned brick tea in China. Searching for a new way to store and preserve tea, Chinese tea farmers and tea masters perfected drying and fermentation techniques leading to modern day white, green, wu-long, and black tea. It was during this era that white tea started to become well known due to more refined techniques for drying and storing the tea leaves for trade.
Even today, however, white tea is just starting to gain in popularity. In fact you now see that many different tea growing regions are trying to imitate white tea production to take advantage of spike of interest in white tea due to recent health studies. The true white tea, however, has been in Chinese culture for thousands of years since tea’s initial discovery as this article hopefully helped illuminate.