Updated: Aug 23
Did you know that there are some Japanese tea farmers who produce white tea? No? I am not surprised since I did not know either. Until two years ago when I received a small sample of some large leaf (now I know is called Shou Mei) Japanese white tea. Since I have never been into white teas so much in the past (mainly because I did not know how to brew them properly & because the ones I got weren't of a great quality) I brewed it mindlessly at work one afternoon in between meetings. You can see that first sample that started it all in the photo below. Unfortunately, the photo is not of a high quality so I apologize for that. The link will take you to the post I made about it on my Instagram in July 2018, so more than two years ago now.
Since I was rather busy at work that day, I did not brew it very well I must admit. I used low temperature, like 70 degrees Celsius & far too much water. I brewed it without thinking much about it. The liquor was almost transparent, it was slightly flavoured. I did a couple of brews. I found it smooth & pleasant.
I threw the leaves after those couple of brews. Yes, I know, awful. But you know, the more you learn about teas the more you realize how little you really know & also how much you thought you knew.
Even though I did not brew it as it really deserved, the Japanese white tea left a long lasting impression in me. So long lasting that I was waiting for two years to be able to obtain it once again, since when I inquired the following year it was sold out. So, did you get some in the end?
Yes, I finally did. But I did not get a large quantity. Mainly, I got a bit for me to experiment with it & age it, plus a small amount to be offered to a number of selected customers of The Japanese Tea Hub. If you are interested send me a message. It was my very first time getting this type of tea so I did not really know as much about how to deal with it until I received it. I did not plan to sell it this year. Depending on the feedback I receive & how much interest it generates, I might consider to get a higher amount next year, if it is available again. I organized a couple of giveaways around it so people get to know that it exists. Maybe I can get hold of a larger amount & prepare a nice & shiny eco friendly packaging for it next time. I would love that & I am sure you would love that too.
Since the process of making white tea is quite laborious, plus it isn't so common in Japan, it might not be always available. In addition, I am also trying to find out if I could get hold of other Japanese white teas from different vendors. It is always advisable to compare different teas within the same category. So now I need to get some good white Chinese teas in order for me to compare & pick up on the similarities & differences. Such a hard life! My plan is to test it thoroughly in order to provide feedback to the farmer. If any of you who got this tea has some feedback you would like to share with the farmer, please send it my way. I will make sure it reaches him.
Is Japanese white tea a popular type of tea?
While some farmers in Japan produce it, it isn't so easy to find. The production highly is limited, so there is not much of it available. In fact it is already sold out in origin but I am not even surprised, not only because is rare but also because is great!
White tea has been traditionally produced in China. Even though we can also find white teas in India, Nepal & even Sri Lanka (Ceylon white tea is a rare & exquisite treat) the most commonly & widely known is the Chinese white tea. The Japanese white tea is something unheard of. I have been reading a number of articles about white teas in order to write this article, Japanese white tea is never mentioned in any of the listings. Very few specialized tea retailers carry this type of tea outside Japan. And I am not sure how widespread it is within the country. Even some Japanese people I know get a bit surprised when I mention I got white tea produced in Japan. And some Japanese tea dealers get taken aback when I ask them if they can source some for me. A Japanese friend of mine who lives in Japan got a bit of it directly from the farmer since I told her where to find it. She was lucky, the tea was sold out but the farmer sent her some probably from his own stash. Before I talked about Japanese white teas with her, she had never heard of such a thing. I am glad she got the chance to try it, she said it was really good. Japanese tea makes people happy! So I would not say it is a popular type of tea, yet. I believe it is upcoming & that it has the potential to become more popular in years to come due to its high quality.
I put some in a clay jar last week, sealed with soy wax with the intention to age it. My plan is to taste it once a year on the same date it got sealed to compare with the tasting notes I will share with you in this article. I will be also adding some of the tea to another clay jar but I want to control the humidity levels in that one. I am not planning on sealing it. And I will also leave some of it in a tea pouch that I will close with some pegs, which I will also compare with the other two. This could be a really interesting experiment, at least for myself. It is not the same reading about it than doing it yourself. The aim is to age it in different ways in order to observe how it evolves. Specially because it is uncommon & the farmers themselves haven't done any experiments with it yet. They usually sell it straight away instead having it resting for a year.
But what is white tea?
Before I get to review this marvelous jewel, I would like to talk a bit more about what is white tea & also how it is made. White teas aren't my specialty so if you think something should be corrected please let me know & I will be happy to look into it. Reading about white teas in Chinese sites & translating the articles & papers into English provides a lot of fun.
In some of these Chinese sites dedicated to white tea, they described it as a micro-fermented tea. Since oxidation/fermentation is a topic that requires a whole dedicated article, I will not be debating this here. On due time I will release an article on this subject, I need quite some time for research & possibly some assistance. But I found it interesting since I have never heard that statement referring to white tea production before. Maybe they meant to say micro-oxidated. Many of the sites I checked however agree with the following statement: white tea is the one that is minimally processed, barely oxidized & made using the youngest leaves of all. The highest grade of white tea is always made with the youngest buds which are covered by small white little hairs (called pekoe.) According to what I read, the presence of the small white hairs confirms that the tea is of the highest quality.
What are the different qualities of white tea? Traditionally, there have been three top qualities used in the white tea production. The origin of the white tea is attributed to the Chinese region of Fujian. It is considered a special grade tea. It is believed that no white tea was produced anywhere else until the production in Fujian began.
As the Chinese say: one year is tea, three years is medicine, seven years is treasure. White tea is one of the major six types of tea in China.
Bai Hao Yin Zhen (白毫银针) or Silver Needle - Known as the beauty or the tea king. It only contains buds that are long & thin & resemble white snowy needles, hence its English name. The needles are around 3 cm long on average. The raw material usually comes from Fuding (福鼎) or Zhenghe (政和)Dabai tea plants, even though there are a number of other regions which also produce the tea leaves to make white tea in China. It is usually minimally processed, basically withered, sun-dried or dried in the shade (which is known as baked.) Since China is so vast, the white tea produced in different regions might present slight variations. Not only in the way it has been processed but also in the way it looks & tastes. Bai Mu Dan (白牡丹) or White Peony - The second best grade for white tea. It is known as White Peony due to the silvery white heart shaped leaves (like a flower), the green leaves have very tender buds, when brewing they look like a blooming flower. The leaves of white peony are elongated soft & tender, their colour is white/green with their back covered by white hair. Only two leaves & a bud from the first flush are used, known as the three whites. The aroma when brewing this type of tea is fresh & aromatic. They yield a bright golden apricot liquor which is soft, smooth, refreshing & delicate in flavour. Once brewed the leaves might present veins in a reddish tonality. The raw material also comes from Fuding (福鼎) or Zhenghe (政和)Dabai tea plants usually. Shou Mei (寿眉) -The third best grade for white tea. Made from Fuding (福鼎) Dabai trees. Shou mei leaves are slightly larger yet tender. There is a mix of some buds, leaves & part of the stems are visible. It can look like a messy pile of discarded leaves or be shaped an eye brow. Their fragrance is still nice & delicate. Gong Mei: (贡眉 ) is quite similar to Shou Mei, however this type of tea is made from the fresh leaves of Xiaocai Cai cha (小菜茶) whereas Shou Mei isn't. Xiaocai small leaf tea trees are unique to the Northern region of Fujian. They can be found growing everywhere in front of the farm houses within the mountainous regions of Fujian. Xiaocai is the tea tree variety with the longest history in China,thousands of years. The Zhenghe & Fuding varieties have been around for about 150 years old. It is believed that the Gong Mei white tea produced at the Royal Tea Garden Beiyuan was made using Xiao Cai cha. Gong Mei is known as the tea reserved for the emperor which could only be made using this type of tea tree. The Maocha (毛茶) (also known as Mao Tiao, is unrefined tea, the equivalent of aracha in Japanese teas) made from tea leaves is called Xiaobai to distinguish it from Dabai Maocha, made using buds & leaves of Fuding or Zhenghe Dabai tea trees. Since this article is a review of a specific Japanese white tea, I will not be writing much more about Chinese white teas production. However, I have linked the name of the teas to one of the sites I read about the different types & grades of white teas (in Chinese) in case any of you wants to read more about it. It seems to be a Chinese version of the Wikipedia. Maybe the translation isn't exactly perfect yet it serves as a good point of reference. Reading the book Lu Yu wrote about tea (which is considered as the first one ever) is also highly recommended. Probably some of you have already done that which grants you a certain advantage .
Tell us more about that Japanese white tea of yours!
Ok, so back to the rare Japanese white tea. The young farmer who made this marvelous jewel has some tea gardens in a small village in Kyoto. He grows all his teas naturally & pesticide free.
He makes white tea in an artisan way using tea leaves from zairai tea trees. And even though he started to produce white tea only a few years ago, he makes an exquisite product. His yearly tea production is very small. In 2020, he only made 1.5 kg of white tea in total.
Since I received the white tea (which took almost a month, 14 days of which was sitting in customs) I have been playing with the tea leaves a bit. Sadly, I did not record all the steps or brewing parameters from my first brewing sessions or took any notes. Nevertheless, I mentally recorded the interesting points so I could run a more thorough test using different parameters later on.
First series of brews (parameters not recorded) I used boiled water straight from the kettle for all my brews. Even though we tend to say the water is at 100 degrees Celsius at this point, this statement isn't technically correct since by pouring the water inside the teapot or brewing container, its temperature already drops down. This is another interesting topic I would like to write about in the future. These are the brewing parameters of my very first brew. I used 4 grams of bai mu dan, 75 ml water for all the brews, what changed was the amount of time used for brewing the tea.
1st brew, 1 minute, it was pleasant but weak.
2nd brew, 2 minutes, nicer, more colour, better taste, my favourite, flowery.
3rd brew, 3 minutes, the liquor becomes yellower, more flavourful. 4th brew, 4 minutes, it keeps yielding colour & flavour, the smell of the wet leaves changes constantly.
5th brew, 5 minutes, yellower, with more body.
After that 5th brew I decided I was full so I used the leaves for an ice brew instead. The best idea I have ever had. The brew was nice, smooth, refreshing, with a full body & an extra melony flavour. I in fact did a couple of ice brewing rounds & the leaves weren't exhausted yet. I find this extremely interesting since I have read some articles & watched some videos from some people within the tea industry saying that ice brewing the leaves is not good. Well, judging by my own experience I can tell you that the flavour I got was incredibly good after so many hot brews, so I can definitely recommend using this method. Do it yourself & let me know what you think about it. In the end, I used some of the spent leaves to eat together with a potato salad dressed with ponzu sauce & I still did an additional cold brew for 24 hours. This cold brew was really good, yet I prefer the ice brew if I am perfectly honest with you. I also tried ice brewing the white tea leaves straight away without having done any prior hot brew, the liquor wasn't so good as it was after doing the hot brews. The exact word I can use to describe this is weak for a number of rounds.
After all this, I was surprised & excited since finally I have been able to test this wonderful tea to its limits & also to prove myself that its mild flavour after a deficient brewing got stuck in my palate memory for a reason. I followed a similar path for brewing the Shou Mei, the ice brew yielded a very fragrant & floral liquor. No melons this time. Shou Mei always delivers flowery notes, last time I brewed it cold after a hot brewing round it tasted a lot like roses.
Then I did a proper tasting, taking notes & photos. This is how it went. Additional round of brews (recorded) Bai mu dan, 4 grams, 75 cl, clay, bankou houhin, 100 degrees Celsius.
1st brew, 5 mins Liquor a bit greenish just a shadow Smooth, gentle Pleasant flavour yet a bit weak 2nd brew, 4 mins Yellower liquor The astringency started to come out just a bit A bit more of the green notes Still smooth & pleasant to the palate 3rd brew, 3 mins A bit more of the astringency came out, not that much It became floral Nice brew with a tingling feeling in the tongue 4th brew, 2 mins Still smooth, not that much of the astringency Nice & gentle With a bit more of flavour Slightly more floral 5th brew, 1 min Super smooth Green notes more noticeable A lot of more body 6th brew, 5 mins again Smooth & clean Nice & gentle yet flavourful Flowery & fruity
I decided to ice brew it at this point, the liquor was nice, bodied, melony, yellow, light & crisp. Still really good. I also did a couple of ice brewing rounds, then I did a cold brew. The cold brew was also melony but a bit weaker. If I had to choose, the first test round I did would be my preferred method. I really pushed this tea's boundaries to the max. Some friends of mine who work in the tea industry told me they tend to boil the tea leaves once they feel they don't want to make any more hot brewing rounds. I haven't tried this except for making some nice sweet treats. They hadn't tried to ice brew the tea leaves once they were considered spent, so I advised them to give that a go. Some of them came back to me saying that they would have never guessed how good the ice brewing after the hot brewing would be. See? Testing by yourself is always the best way to discover new things. Since I already had brewed it at a lower temperature before I did not want to follow that route this time, I still remember how weak & mild the brew was.While it was pleasant, it still felt like something was missing. Maybe brewing it at a lower temperature works well for you. Someone mentioned on Instagram that when cold brewing bai mudan all the essence is transferred to the liquor & then is gone. Here I went to try that myself. After a couple of hours I tried the liquor, it was smooth, nice & pleasant but slightly weak & it still had a lot of the green taste. Four cold brews later, the green notes started to dissipate & the floral/melony notes began to appear. The flavour was still smooth & crisp & I am sure I could have been able to continue extracting more & more from the tea leaves. But I got excited about a recipe I wanted to try so I boiled them with vanilla extract to make the dessert. I also tried to hot brew the leaves once I got tired of the cold brews. It wasn't nothing too special so I will not be doing this again. I don't see the point. Since I have gotten some feedback from some of you with regards of using an iron cast teapot for brewing this tea, I will try that as well. Plus larger leaf teas are usually brewed in Japan using a different type of teapot called doubin. Luckily I have one at home. The only thing I need now is a silver teapot to complete the testing, unsure I can get a decent one that might be affordable though.
If you have been lucky to get some of this tea, please make the time to enjoy it like it deserves. And let me know how it went, what are your thoughts & how did you brew it. What were the results you obtained? Did you like this post? Don't forget to hit like (the little heart at the right bottom) & consider to subscribe to the blog so you don't miss any of the future posts. You can also find me on Instagram (daily Japanese tea based pairings plus giveaways) & Tik Tok (Japanese tea based drinks.) And the Spanish version of this article should be released at some point on the Spanish blog. And if you haven't done so, subscribe to the newsletter and get 10% OFF from your first order.
Keep enjoying the summer! Until next Monday!