8g. 150ml gaiwan. 195 degrees. Relatively quick steeps.
Some years ago, I ordered a dozen or so samples of various white teas. I wanted to understand what “white tea” meant. A very surface level definition is easy to find. “White tea and green tea have zero oxidation.” “White tea is the least processed of all teas.” “White tea retains the most antioxidants of all types of teas, because it is the least processed.” “White tea is soooooooooooooooooooo good for you.” “Black tea is bad for you like coffee. Uck, how can you even drink that stuff? I only drink white tea because it is such an exotic, Asian miracle tonic.”
I hope some day that real information is easier to find about why certain teas are called what they are called. Many other people have written and spoken about how the naming of teas can be very misleading, so I won’t delve too deeply into that, but I wish I knew what “white tea” meant, or didn’t mean, when I first started to get into tea. White tea is… and we really need to start throwing these classifications out the window, for the most part, tea that is withered in the sun, and air dried. Another way to think about white tea is that it isn’t rolled. That, above all else, might be the defining characteristic as far as I’m concerned. That may not be a good beginner definition of white tea, but as we will see when we look into yue guang bai cha, moonlight white tea, as a case study, the popular definition of white tea that is pushed by the mass market tea companies really doesn’t help tea newcomers to understand the nature of teamaking.
When I first had a moonlight white tea, I was struck by how different it was from other whites. It was deep and had a very rich mouthfeel. Unlike a more common, albeit sublime, silver needle or yin zhen bai hao, moonlight moves away from the toasted squash and seed flavors and takes us towards dates and figs wrapped in a milky smoothness. I have spent years trying to figure out why it is so different. Only when I came across a blog post at www.WildTeaQi.com, did things finally start to click. I had heard the very romantic version of this tea’s processing, but I think that Wild Tea Qi put it very well here:
The buds and leaves had a pure white on the outside and jet black on the other side (although sometimes green) resembling the moon. Zhang Tian and other Moonlight White producers that Wild Tea Qi works with consider this type of tea an art form. They pick the buds in the spring, between March and April, early in the morning around 4-5 am. At that time the mountains have strong fog, spurring the tea buds starts to grow a lot. They get lots of dew from the moisture, thus the tea is more fresh and higher quality fresh leaf tea than during any other season then they immediately put it in the sun during the sun rise. What makes this even more fascinating is that they try to time it so that they process the tea on the full moon as they believe it contains a special energy from the moon. Not all Moonlight White is processed in this way. The processing method has been kept a secret for a longtime.
-www.wildteaqi.com, accessed 2015
Simply, moonlight white tea is the product of processing Yunnan large leaf varietal tea by air withering until slightly oxidized and sun or low heat drying. It pains me a little to take such a complex tea and to distill it down to such a dry definition, but I actually came to appreciate the tea even more when I could strip it of its mythology. It is the result of a very serendipitous meeting of a slightly unique white tea processing and rustic, indigenous Yunnan large leaves. But that is the beauty of tea, isn’t it? An unassuming leaf of an unassuming tree becomes something sublime and of immense value with a little human touch. I know the agriculture of tea isn’t 100% perfect, and that many would argue that humans only ruin the natural world every time we interact with it, but I would dare say that every one of us tea nuts clings to the image of someone plucking wild tea leaves, taking them home, and processing them with very little technology as something profound. We like to think (hope) that the root of teamaking is something pure. Only time will tell if the entire supply chain of tea can benefit equally.
But all things aside, let’s talk about why moonlight white tea sits at the head of my personal pantheon of teas. As far as the characteristics of its taste are concerned, moonlight white offers a depth and balance that constantly draws your senses this way and that. Complexity is what I am talking about here. I believe this is what brings certain styles of tea to fame. Couple complexity with craft and you get a tea like Whispering Pines silver moonlight white. Typical moonlight characteristics are that date and fig taste, a creamy mouthfeel, and the assamica-ish aromatic earthiness. They steep well, nearly impossible to oversteep, never unfolding into a bitter tea, but merely getting more robust when steep times increase. There is no bitterness and if you find a really well made one, there is very little astringency. If there is some astringency, it is balanced out by the creaminess and that little bit of sugar in the sap of quality leaves. Whispering Pine’s moonlight offers pronounced date and fig, such a pleasant mouthfeel and an unmistakable assamica-style aroma. In latter steeps, there is a quality that feels like drinking assam with milk and honey, if I can be so blasphemous to suggest that a Chinese tea is enjoyable because there is a hint of “cuppa” in it. Whispering Pine’s particular offering has more downy buds than others I have had. I don’t know exactly what that does to the overall character of the tea, but it may make it a bit softer than others. Visually though, moonlight white is one of the most striking teas. The charcoal-black leaves with their creamy white underbellies have such contrast that you want to handle the leaves and admire all the budsets. They are chunky and delicate at the same time, large like a bai mu dan, so much that I use a larger than normal gaiwan to steep them. You need a lot of standing room to get a good leaf ratio if you are steeping gong fu method.
Lets talk about the successive gong fu steeps of moonlight white. Unlike a green tea, pu’er (ripe or shou), or an oolong, moonlight white tea doesn’t go through as much of a transformation throughout the steeps. It doesn’t have a distinct front end, middle and tail. It doesn’t have a bitter phase and a sweet phase. It doesn’t go from fruitiness to minerality. Instead, I think that the only transition that it goes through is that the date/fig flavors give the lead to the milk and honey flavors as you steep it further. This lack of an obvious unfolding of flavors doesn’t take away from the tea, because I have found moonlight to surpass most other teas in its ability to continually give off a full, round steep without falling flat. I would say that it rivals some shou pu’ers in how it just gives and gives. Perhaps it can be compared to a high end red/black tea like a Yunnan golden tips, or a Qimen. See, this is why this tea blows my mind. And the more time you keep rotating this tea into your gaiwan or western style ole steepin’ jar, the more you understand why some people call it a black/red tea, some a pu’er, some a white, some an oolong. It does many of the things that all of these teas do simultaneously. It is made of the same Yunnan large leaves as pu’er. It is delicate like a white and was born of the same process. It is partially oxidized like an oolong. It has curious black/red tea notes.
Steeping the tea western style is wonderful as well. You aren’t playing the game where you negate the bitterness of steeping leaves for minutes at a time by keeping a low leaf to water ratio, because moonlight doesn’t get blown out and bitter. As I said above, it is nearly impossible to oversteep. I have enjoyed a tall thermos of western style moonlight white quite often.
I’d like to come back to Whispering Pines’ moonlight offering. Take everything that I have said about this tea, and couple it with my enthusiasm for this style of tea. Apply a value to it. This is how good moonlight white can be. It is my desert island tea. Whispering Pines offers the best moonlight white to date. I have a few other vendors that I need to try, and I hope to find something even better. But… I heard through the grapevine that Whispering Pines has an even higher quality moonlight coming down the pipe. Stay tuned. Moonlight White wars is on the horizon.
Thanks for reading. This cup’s for you. 干杯