by Phil on May 16th, 2014
For tea lovers, this is a special time of year. There is a sense of anticipation as we wait for the new Spring Teas from China and First Flush teas from Darjeeling. Samples start to arrive early in April and continue into May. For the last three years I have been travelling at this time of year and have missed the excitement of parcels arriving: being in China during spring is of course an amazing experience but there is something very special about tasting fresh teas back here. I guess that comes in part from doing it for so many years and getting to know the tea calendar. In fact, if there were to be a tea equivalent of an advent calendar it should be for the month of April.
This week I have tasted China white, green and yellow teas, and I’ve decided to write about two of them, both called ‘White Tea’: Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), a classic white tea from Fujian, and Anji Bai Cha (Anji White Tea), a famous green tea from Zhejiang.
Bai Mu Dan
I won’t go into the method of making white tea, as it is on a previous blog.
Bai Mu Dan (BMD) is a good introduction to white tea for those who are new to it – starting with Silver Needle is probably too large a leap to attempt in one go. It has a smooth mellow taste with some hints of black tea, and is very easy on the palate. So far so good, but is there is more than one type of BMD, as I found out last year, there are can be up to four grades of good quality, plus another three or four of a much lower standard, normally called Shou Mei. The top grade, sometimes called ‘King A’, has a large proportion of silver buds, with some leaf pieces, greenish in colour. It is very light in the cup with a delicate flavour, quite different from the more familiar BMD grades. It looks great, and I have a client who stocks it as a premium alternative to their standard BMD. The second and third grades look more scruffy, with less buds and more leaves, green and brown, but have a much richer flavour. Once you get below that the quality drops quite quickly, but I have seen many ‘Shou Mei’ types sold in the UK, and presumably they can be ground up for use in teabags. Let’s not go there.
There are two places in Fujian associated with white tea: Fuding and Zheng He. Each has its own Da Bai Hao bush varietal, and this week in the Tea Club we sent out samples from each as a comparison. The Zheng He variety has darker silver buds, and is oxidised for slightly longer, giving it a deeper flavour; it is the variety of choice for those who buy Bai Mud Dan for ageing. The Fuding variety tends to have brighter green leaves and slightly smaller buds, and is seen as more visually appealing but less complex in flavour. The trend in demand is probably more towards the Fuding variety, as some of the classic Zheng He BMD teas are quite brown and unattractive to those unfamiliar with the teas. In fact there does seem to be a trend in China towards teas that are bright green in appearance, and this is even having an impact on the flavour of classics such as Tieguanyin Oolong.
I enjoy Bai Mu Dan, as I think it has an informal charm, a lack of airs and graces. Some people can get very pretentious about Silver Needle, a tea that I think is somewhat overrated (others will disagree, I know). I enjoy the mixed up leaves and deeper flavour – a bit rough round the edges but with some depth. I would be content to be described in that way. Here is a picture of me drinking it in situ.
Anji Bai Cha
There are a few places I have visited that are close to perfect, and one of those is a farm in Anji. Imagine a wooded upland valley, heavy with the scent of Wisteria, alive with birdsong and the hum of insects. The owners of the farm have removed all traces of chemicals over the last five years, and the wildlife is flourishing as a result. It also seems to have an effect on the tea, which is silkier and sweeter than others I have tasted, which tend towards grassy.
Anji gives its name to a beautifully elegant needle-style green tea. So why is it known as Bai Cha? I have come across several explanations over recent years, including the bush variety, but the one I find most compelling is the appearance of the young leaves as they open in spring. They are so delicate that they are translucent, and when sunlight shines through them they look almost white. The teas produced in early spring have a remarkable freshness and sweetness, and I find that it is ideal to serve to people who ‘don’t like green tea’. The needles are striking to look at, and gradually unfurl into perfect pale green leaves. It is customary to display one of these leaves in a small cup when tasting the peak season teas.
I can get very excited about Anji Bai Cha, and it is probably the tea I serve most often to people at home when they ask for something special. Those of you who read my ‘What’s so great about green tea?’ blog will be surprised to hear this. It shows how remarkable a tea it is, and this season’s samples did not disappoint.
This tea has become a key part of the range at one of my clients, a grocery store on Piccadilly in London. They buy tea made on a single specified day –April 16th this year – and market it in that way. The fact that it is made on a single day is a simple story and has created great interest amongst their customers. It’s good to have found a successful way to promote really fine green tea. I am still looking for a similar ‘hook’ for other green teas like Zisun Cha and Bi Luo Chun. All suggestions welcome.
Needless to say, the early teas attract huge interest in China, and prices are staggering. In one boutique I found a woven bamboo basket containing 25 x 2g sachets of the best spring tea, priced at around £300 per unit, i.e. over £10 per sachet. It would make a very attractive gift to someone special who likes a cup of green tea.
For those who haven’t tasted, there is some 2013 tea still available on the Canton website, or you could wait to see what 2014 brings. Or maybe do both.
Here is a slideshow & video I made about my visit in 2012: