White tea is a germ among the premium Chinese teas. The premium white teas have been traditionally produced in limited pocket areas of the Fujian Province of south-east China, such as Fuding, Zhenghe and Jianyang. Fuding (福鼎) white tea is considered to be the best in quality and a 35% price hike was recorded in a year in 2017. The market price of Fuding Silver Needle has tripled during the last 10 years.
Many reasons have contributed to such a price hike of white teas in recent years in comparison to other teas, for example the cousin green tea.
Like all highly sought after products with limited supply, increasing demand is the main driving force.
The limited production
White tea plants
The tea plant used for producing the authentic Fujian white tea is unique, the most famous one being the ‘Fu Ding Da Bai Hao’ (福鼎大白毫 - Fuding Big White Down). The tea leaves are characterized by being strong, full and bold with needle shaped tip buds and covered with the white down fur - where the name Silver Needle is derived from.
White tea plants take years to gown into maturity before yielding corps of rich nutrients and flavor. The harvesting typically starts 3-4 years after the new plants are planted. Many prime tea plantations are however over 50 years old and have been harvested by many generations.
The areas that are suitable for producing the premium white teas are also highly constricted. The pocket areas of the Fujian Province mentioned above are known to have the ideal soil and climate conditions for the white tea production.
For example, the famous Tai-Lao-Shan (太姥山) area of Fuding is known to produce the best of the best Fuding white teas. The area and the tea plantations have been established for a long time and is effectively not expandable.
What is a white tea
White tea has traditionally been defined as:
- Mainly produced in the pocket areas of the north Fujian Province
- Made of tea leaves harvested from the tea plant Fuding Big White Down
- Processed by a simple yet highly skillful technique called Wei-Diao (萎凋-withering) then dried
- Traditionally dried in the shade or under the sun depending on the weather conditions, some using low temperature charcoal (below 50oC)
White tea grades
Unlike other categories of Chinese teas, white teas are graded in a quality hierarchy:
- Top grade Silver Needle - made of only the young bud leaves of the tea plant.
- White Peony - made of one bud leaf plus a couple green leaves beneath.
- Shou Mei/Gong Mei - made of mostly mature tea leaves.
The techniques to perfect a white tea are considered as intellectual properties and carefully guarded by the local tea producers. The fine details are obsessively monitored and controlled during the tea processing.
White tea 'new products'
Due to the increasing demand, there have been some ‘new products’ on the market during the recent years: some are white teas produced from tea plants other than the Fuding Big White Down; the others produced from the tea plant Fu Ding Da Bai Hao, but recently cultivated elsewhere than those areas in the Fujian Province where the soil and climate conditions are different.
There is also the Yunnan white tea, which is produced based on a traditional Yunnan tea product Yue-Guang-Bai, processed with slightly different techniques and use tea leaves from Yunnan tea trees instead of Fujian white tea bushes.
These white teas are considered as ‘mimic’ white teas and are mostly considered to be of lower quality than the traditional Fujian white tea. The market prices of these teas are lower, but some merchants market and price them as the traditional white teas sold to the naive white tea consumers.
The reason behind the fast-growing demand for white teas
Health benefits associated with drinking white tea
Many health benefits have been reported during recent years associated with white tea drinking. As a result of their unique natural state, white teas are believed to have preserved the most of the anti-oxidants found in the tea leaves.
The reported potential health benefits include:
- Lowering blood cholesterol level, blood pressure and thus cardiovascular diseases
- Cancer preventive
- Weight loss
- Anti-inflammatory & infections
- Enhancing body immune system
- Lowering blood sugar level and increase glucose tolerance
- Improve bone density
- Preventive of Alzheimer's disease
The popularity of white tea is increasing not only in China but worldwide. People around the world now have the access to both the information and the supply of white teas, credit to the wide use of the internet.
This is a local rhyme about white teas: tea for the 1st year, medicine after 3 years and treasure after 5 yeas. The white tea's value therefore will only increase with time.
It works as such: The tea prices have a baseline upwards movement due to the general constricted supply and inflation. The value of the teas with aging potential increases faster than average. For example, the value of a Pu-erh tea (a classic aging tea) is generally expected to increase by about 10% per year. This is because through careful collection and storage, tea merchants and consumers can avoid the two fold increase of both the baseline upwards trend and the value increase as the result of aging.
A pure white tea, by name and nature, appears to those who are health conscious and after an enjoyable life style. Since the supply of the best white teas are strictly limited, the increasing demand will inevitably drive up the prices.
From a tea supplier point of view, my opinion is that there are some alternative options than paying the top prices. For example, the Fuding Shou Mei is at a much lower price on the market than the Silver Needle, as the result of its longer harvesting time and higher production volume. They are not as delicate when fresh, but with similar health properties and a huge potential for aging. The aged Shou Mei is highly sought after in some south-east Asian regions for its mellow taste and valuable health benefits.