Beyond the Leaf
Who would think tea professionals would ever get into disagreements that escalate into shouting matches? Certainly not I. But I’ve seen that when tea industry folks talk about white tea. I’ve even seen this at trade fairs and tea discussion panels at conventions. Thank goodness no punches were thrown—although with tea geeks like me, it probably would have been limited to ineffectual slaps? For the whole month of August TeaSource will be shining a spotlight on white teas, so this seemed the perfect time to talk about a fundamental tea difference of opinion.
Freshly plucked leaf for white tea
The first question is: what is white tea? In terms of production: white tea goes through the simplest of production processes. It begins with a unique gentle solar withering step, which can extend many hours, even into days, where they are using sunlight to help wither the leaves. Second, very limited oxidation occurs with white tea. This step is typically eliminated in the production process. But a minimal amount of oxidation occurs naturally over the course of manufacture. And thirdly, white teas typically, have no physical manipulation of the leave itself during manufacture: no rolling, twisting, panning, shaking, jiggling, caressing, tickling, etc. So stated very simplistically the production process of white is: a very long sun-wither, followed by drying. In terms of history: white tea traditionally is made in and around three small locales in Fujian province of China, the counties of Fuding, Jianyang, and Zhenghe. And naturally it would only be made from tea plants native to those locales. Some people say only tea made from those locales and those plants can be called white tea.
And this is where the fight begins. Is white tea defined by production process? Or is it defined by geography? This is very similar to the argument over Champagne. Does it have to be from the Champagne region of France? Or is a sparkling wine, made with the same production process the same grapes, and tasting roughly the same, but made in regions outside of France, still Champagne? I tend to not to take these kind of arguments too seriously, but to be fair this is a very legitimate question; especially for those small tea farmers in Fujian who have been making white tea for generations. All of a sudden white tea has grabbed worldwide attention and consumer interest. After more than a century of hand-making a wonderful little tea, mostly for their own local consumption, finally there is a larger demand for their product. This is their chance to get ahead. Is it right for folks who have only been making white tea for the last 5-10 years, to cash in on this sudden interest in white tea? But on the other hand these newbie white tea producers are typically using the exact same Fujian production processes, often using the Fujian tea plant cultivars, and not infrequently bringing in Fujian tea growers and manufacturers themselves to new regions to make these teas. In many cases this new white tea production has added a much needed spark to local tea industries outside of Fujian. And their white teas may look and taste as close to a Fuding white tea, as Fuding white tea tastes compared to a Zhenghe white tea. As I said, we are now in the realm of tea geeks.
TeaSource Bai Hao Silver Needles, from Fuding, Fujian, China on left, and Silver Peony White tea, from Yunan Province on right
But nonetheless this is an important question, and you should consider it as you buy white teas. You should know where you tea vendor stands on this issue, and exactly where their white teas are from. I believe the “process” defines white tea, not the geography. So TeaSource may carry white teas from many different regions. But we will always identify them when that is the case. In the past if we didn’t say otherwise we assumed people knew it was from the traditional regions of Fujian. In the future we will always try to be more specific, even about teas from the traditional areas. We hold this position (of white tea being defined by the process) because we believe the world of tea is constantly changing and evolving. And we think this is a very good thing. There are many teas that didn’t exist a few years ago. For example, Ruby 18 from Taiwan didn’t exist five years ago. White tea from Ceylon didn’t exist about 15 years ago. Shou puer didn’t exist 40 years ago. Tea from India didn’t exist 175 years ago. This kind of change and evolution is part of what makes the world of specialty tea exciting and vibrant. As with any change there are some who like it and some who are dismayed. We feel this kind of change is part of the natural processes in the world of tea. So who the heck else is making white tea? Many other China provinces, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Malawi… I had the privilege to purchase the very first white tea ever produced in Sri Lanka, almost 15 years ago. I was visiting the Lumbini Estate in southern Sri Lanka (one of our favorite estates and favorite tea growing families), when Chaminda, the son of the Lumbini founder and now manager of the garden, showed me something special he had been working on, a small batch of Bai Hao Silver Needles. Needless to say his dad was very skeptical of his son’s ‘far-out” tea-making efforts. The tea was FANTASTIC. I bought all of it on the spot, about 40 kgs. When I got back into Colombo, on the way to the airport I had to stop and buy two gigantic duffle bags (think hockey equipment bags) to stuff this tea into and bring onto the plane as additional luggage. This was pre-9/11 when you could get away with this kind of thing. Although getting through Customs in Mpls, took some explaining. Unfortunately this Bai Hao Silver Needles from the Lumbini Estate has become so popular in Japan that the price has gotten out of the range of TeaSource.
Before long I think this fight about what constitutes white tea will start to fade away. For better or worse I think this horse has left the barn. The good news is that then when everyone stops talking about the definition of white tea, we will focus more on the tea itself. For white tea is a unique gift to the world of tea. The dry leaf is stunning, a botanical work of art. And the steeped cup is soft, shimmering, sweet, creamy, and evokes calm, peace, and grace. All through August we will have white teas on sale and tons of info and sampling available. And expect some additional posts about white tea.
I’ve been doing tea a long time, but I just recently learned a delicious secret about Japanese teas. Here it is... [caption id="attachment_203" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Ponzu sauce. This stuff is great. I recommend getting the Kikkoman brand.[/caption] I think this may only work on certain Japanese teas. But it works amazingly well on our brand new Kabusecha green tea. Kabusecha may be a less well-known Japanese green teas, but our new lot is getting rave reviews. Some people call Kabusecha ‘Gyokuro’s Little Sister’—which is a pretty good description, assuming you know what gyokuro is. Our new Kabusecha is INCREDIBLY fresh-tasting with sweet notes. We recommend steeping it like a gyokuro; use a little more tea than normal, around 170 degrees, steep for no more than a minute. And you will be able to re-steep these leaves for multiple wonderful infusions. [caption id="attachment_195" align="aligncenter" width="300"] When steeped, the Kabusecha liquor is a deep, almost brilliant, green.[/caption] It’s worth noting that this type of Japanese green tea is one the few teas in the world that is not supposed to be clear. Most Japanese teas come out somewhat cloudy in appearance. This is a result of how the Japanese blend the different grades (and sizes) of tea leaves to make the finished tea. [caption id="attachment_197" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Freshly steeped Kabusecha leaves[/caption] When you are done steeping tea pour a few drops of Ponzu sauce over the leaves and chow down for an absolutely delectable treat. As a reference for westerners, it is similar to eating “greens” (turnip, collard, kale) with a lemon zest. There is no bitterness or edge, and the sweet, fresh notes come bursting out. Deeeeelicious! [caption id="attachment_196" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Kabusecha leaves with a touch of Ponzu[/caption] This idea came from Eri, who is the backbone of our wholesale staff. [caption id="attachment_194" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Eri packing a wholesale order for shipping[/caption] The world of tea is amazing because it can take you to such unexpected places. -Bill
This is a very short, primer on puer; so in coming blog posts as I describe my recent travels in Puer and Yunnan, everyone will have some context when I talk about visiting a puer factory and seeing puer cakes made, walking amongst ancient puer trees, making my own puer cake. There are six categories of tea: black, oolong, yellow, green, white and dark tea. Puer (pronounced “Poo-argh” with a little pirate roll of the “argh”) is a sub-category of dark tea. There are two things that make a dark tea a dark tea. First, it goes through some degree of aging/storage as part of its manufacturing process. This can range from a few months to more than a century.
Dark tea "logs" aging outdoors.
Second, during that aging/storage process of dark tea, active micro-organisms come into the stored leaf. These micro-organisms trigger a natural bacterial fermentation process in the leaf, thus changing the chemistry, the taste, the very nature of the leaf and the steeped tea. Oooohhhh… micro-organisms… bacteria… bugs… Despite my daughter’s initial reaction at learning this (“Yuck, that is totally disgusting”), we eat lots of foods with active micro-organisms: yogurt, cheese, pickles, some breads, beer, olives and many others. So there really is nothing weird or yucky about it. The most well-known dark tea is puer. What makes a puer tea a puer is the fact that it comes from Yunnan province of China, which has a unique ecosystem, environment, and terrior. Also the micro-organism in puer, Aspergillus niger, is different than those in other dark teas. In addition, the manufacturing and aging/storage processes in Yunnan are unique to puer. They also use a different cultivar to make puer.
That’s a huge honking tea leaf. Despite being native to SW China, this is from the botanical branch Camellia sinensis assamica (as in Assam, India); not from Camellia sinensis sinensis which is the cultivar native throughout most of China. I told you this was going to get geeky. There are two main types of puer: sheng puer and shou puer. Sheng puer (pronounced “shung” rhymes with “young”) is traditional puer, made in the same manner for hundreds of years, even though there are many regional, family, or company variations. The aging/storage process of sheng puer is typically a long process over years or often decades. The bacterial fermentation process is a very slow gradual process. So the longer a good sheng puer ages, in theory the better and more complex the flavor gets. But that means people have to wait a long time to get their tea. And people are not patient (again I refer back to my daughter). Sheng puers are also called raw puer, green puer, or uncooked puer. At TeaSource we call them sheng or uncooked puer. Sheng puers when well-made and aged numerous years can be medium to full-bodied with very thick, rich, complex flavors. But a good sheng puer can also be delicious when it is new (or “young”). The steeped cup is lighter, some sweet and possibly some bright notes, usually no earthiness. It might be mistaken for a green tea.
As evidenced in the photos above, the dry leaf of sheng puer can have some light and dark green color, maybe some light brown, maybe some downy looking leaves. In the top photo it sort of looks like a dark green leafy salad squished down into a solid shape. Imagine leaves that have fallen to the ground, in your garden 4-9 days ago. The steeped leaves can look like green tea leaves. Starting probably in the mid-twentieth century, puer manufacturers tried to make a puer that did not take years or decades to be good to drink. So they came up with shou puer. Shou puer (pronounced “show” like a TV “show”) became available in the early 1970’s. They can make finished shou puer in a matter of months, rather than years or decades. They do this through very deliberate and controlled manipulation of the leaf and the environment. Manufacturers try to simulate what happens over a matter of years/decades with sheng puer, so that similar chemical changes occur over a matter of months. And the tea is ready to sell relatively quickly. Shou puers tend to be darker, richer, thicker, and red to deep red, sometimes almost black in color. Some people describe the flavor as earthy or peaty. Shou puer is sometimes called ripe puer, dark puer, or cooked puer. At TeaSource we call them shou, or cooked puer. Shou puer usually has very dark brown leaves of varying shades. Imagine leaves that have been in your compost pile for 3 months.
A couple of additional puer observations
Many tea “purists” think of shou puer as a lesser tea, sort of a poo
r man’s version of sheng puer. They look down their long pointy noses at folks who drink shou puer. It addition to being full of themselves, these folks are full of “it.” It’s a mistake to think of shou puer as a short-cut tea or a lesser version of sheng puer. I prefer to think of them as two separate teas. There are some wonderful shou puers and some wonderful sheng puers. It is true to that sheng puers, because of their very nature and their aging process can go to places shou puer can’t. But it’s definitely a mistake to think of shou puer as Pabst Blue Ribbon and sheng puer as Sam Adams Lager. Be very wary of buying a puer that claims to be more than 8 years old, make sure you are buying from someone you trust. There was a puer bubble a few years back. It was just like buying Florida swampland in the 1920’s or dotcom stock in the 1990's. And an incredible amount of counterfeit and dishonestly labeled puer was made and sold, and is still out there floating around. Most of this stuff is mediocre at best and really funky at its worst. So buyers beware: buy from folks you trust. Puer comes in many styles: loose leaf, bricks, cakes, mushroom shapes, etc. A Beeng Cha is probably the most common shape of puer (pronounce “Beeng” like the search engine, Bing). It is a cake around 8” in diameter. Its shape is like 3-4 pancakes stacked on top of each other and then smushed into one unit with a hollow spot punched into the bottom. Typically they are 357 grams, about 12.6 oz. That makes about 130, eight oz. cups of tea. And that is only on the first steep. All puers yield numerous steepings from the same leaves.
After nearly six weeks of travel, I am back in Minnesota. In addition to the piles of mail on my desk, there are many packages of tea from all over the world, waiting to be evaluated. Last week, we laid out 19 different Darjeeling 2nd flush samples to cup and evaluate. Everyone always thinks this is one of the coolest things about my job, tasting teas, and sometimes it is. Yesterday, however, was not one of those days. Nineteen Darjeeling teas in a row and out of all of them there were only two remote possibilities. And even those two weren’t that great, they were only OK. That’s 90 minutes of my life I wish I had back, and boy did I have cotton-mouth. But that is a major part of my job; tasting mediocre teas, so our customers don’t have to. And it just means I have to work a little harder to find some great 2nd flushes, and I’m confident we will. We’ll keep you informed. -Bill
We had a booth at the recent World Tea Expo in Las Vegas (probably the largest gathering of tea professionals in the world). We had the privilege of sharing our space, and the booth next door, with the family/company that makes most of Dark Teas, who were visiting from Hunan, China. We wanted to make a splash about Dark teas, so we had an informal talk at the booth featuring the brilliant woman who makes most of our Dark teas, Ms Zhang Liumei, with me assisting. We talked a little, answered some questions, then in response to a common question we get about Dark tea, “What do you do with those big logs of Dark Tea?” I pulled out a Makita Variable Speed Band Saw and proceeded to show exactly what you do with one of those logs of tea. And then we had drawings for the tea cakes we produced right there. FYI this is the exact same tea we have for sale in the store and on the web, the 100 Taels Tea, available in full logs (yoga mat sized), and small cakes (around 125 grams). There may even be some special “Bill Cut” cakes in the stores in the next few weeks. -Bill http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCCXUn75FOE
China has 55 recognized “ethnic minorities.” 25 of them are found in Yunnan province. So this Puer Festival was also a festival of the various ethnic minorities of Yunnan, many who have been making puer teas of their own traditions for hundreds of years. We were treated to performances, exhibitions, and meetings with members of many of these ethnic groups. One night, at an outside banquet, members of these different ethnic groups were performing. This video shows a group of young folks from the “Bai” people (excuse me if I make an error, we met a lot of folks from different ethnic groups over a short period, and I am afraid I may make a mistake on one of the group’s names). One of the wonderful things about these people is that singing (along with tea) is one of the most important activities in their culture: for them singing is a social bond, it builds community, they sing all day and evening as they work, visit, etc. It is almost impossible to overstate how vital singing is to their lives. There will be some more videos of these folks later one. These people touched my heart as much as anything did this entire trip. -Bill http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ta_q3oBeLj8&feature=youtu.be