Previously, we looked at how tea began as what is known today as green tea and then inadvertently spun off into yellow tea and dark tea (AKA post-fermented tea). The puzzle is still incomplete, though, as there are another three basic categories of teas that have yet to be accounted for.
White tea – origins unknown
White tea is the least processed type of tea, its processing consisting of just two simple steps – wither the leaves in the sun and then dry them by either light baking or sunning. Experts, however, are divided as to white tea’s origins.
Some say white tea’s origins trace back to 1064, based on Emperor Song Huizhou’s treatise on tea in which a “white tea” is described as one covered with downy fur, not unlike the white teas of today. However, it was believed that although that may have been the precursor to the white tea of today, it may have merely described the appearance of that tea, similar to why “Anji White Tea” is still classified as a green tea.
Another school of thought places the birth year of white tea at 1554, when the first records of withering leaves in the sun in lieu of chaoqing (roasting to halt enzyme activity) were found. At that time, chaoqing was still a relatively new technique and often inexperienced producers burned the tender buds. Consequentially, they turned to sunning the leaves instead.
What is commonly known as white tea today, though, traces its beginnings to 1796 in Fuding, where the first silver needles were made by withering and baking buds made from the Dabaicha cultivar, a tree that yielded sturdier buds with white downy furs. Teas made from the Dabaicha cultivar produced tea with a fuller, sweeter taste that won the hearts of tea lovers.
From white tea to black
Black tea was birthed by combining the fundamentals of producing green, white, and dark teas around 1650 in Xingcun, Wuyishan, Fujian. It added the withering of tea leaves to the basics of green tea production and modified wodui to wohong, a step that expedites the oxidation of tea leaves via heat and humidity. This created a markedly different product from green tea and the production method was eventually exported to the entire world.
The rise of Black Dragon
Oolong (or wulong) tea is literally translated as “black dragon.” As to how it got its name, there are several theories. Like yellow tea, its discovery was almost certainly accidental. Whichever theory you choose to subscribe to, the process of yaoqing, or rattling the leaves to bruise them and cause oxidation, was unlikely to have started as a deliberate act.
In any case, this beautiful “mistake” resulted in the most diverse and (in my somewhat biased opinion) rewarding category of tea. From the almost green tea-like taste of green-style Tieguanyin to the aromatic black tea-like nature of Oriental Beauty, there is no other category of tea with such a wide spectrum.
Like white tea, the origins of oolong tea are somewhat disputed. However, most are certain that by the 18th Century, the production of oolong tea was prevalent in Fujian, both in the north (Wuyishan) and the south (Anxi). Eventually, oolong spread to Guangdong and Taiwan and it is these four areas that remain the main oolong production areas in the world today.
When ever I see a post from you, Derek, I immediately stop reading and make a cup of tea while I ingest your knowledge about my favorite subject. The story of teas origins is always appealing as there are so many different versions to consider. I love how mistakes or circumstances of the times birthed the next generation of amazing teas.
I’ve often wondered about the tremendous variety of oolongs. My first experience was with Tieguanyin which I loved because of my passion and devotion to green tea. I’ve never met a green tea that I didn’t like. I did make the initial mistake that I loved oolongs, only to be introduced to some that were more reminiscent of black teas, which I tend not to enjoy. Would you say that Taiwan is the recognized king of oolongs today?
I challenge myself not to remain too complacent with green tea by encouraging myself to try different teas each week.
Thanks for the comment.
That’s diversity for you, it’s hard to please every palate with such a wide-range although I do wonder if the ‘black tea like oolong’ are actually ‘true oolongs’ as mentioned by this article http://teaguardian.com/what-is-tea/semi-fermented-tea-vs-oolong-1.html#.UYmZTJMzgmA
As for Taiwan, as with most matters that are subjective, this is contentious.
Personally I disagree vehemently. While Taiwan has very good oolongs- of course I say this, I sell them ;p- in my opinion it is not comparable to the finest Chinese oolongs.
Though the production standards are very high, apart from a few, it lacks character and soul of the traditional Chinese oolongs.
A good Dancong, Yancha or traditional Tieguanyin moves and touches the soul while the best Taiwanese oolongs soothes the body.
You won’t mistake a dancong for a yancha but only a seasoned buyer can tell the difference between a Alishan, Lishan and Dayuling for example.
Hi Derex. Good article, though I wonder if black tea ( either Chinese or Indian) was invented or discovered.
Accounts differ but I do think that for most categories of tea, it would involve some fortuitous discovery- perhaps an ‘over-withering’ or forgetting to heat in the case of black tea.
But thereafter it would be a series of experiments to nail it down.
It was not clear exactly how it begun but the first accounts of black tea were as written below, before it was replicated in India and other British colonies then.
*above* I meant
There interesting literature regarding the history of black tea (Invention or Discovery):
1) Michael Harney in his book GUIDE TO TEA (The Penguin Press, NY, 2008) writes ( pages 103 and on):
…It is a miracle that Chinese black teas exist….
..How Black tea first emerged is a mistery. Scholars believe that they first appeared at some point in the 1700s, in China Wuyi Mountains, in northern Fujian province.It`s probable that tea makers in that area had grown frustrated by the poor quality of their green teas. Looking for something to catch the attention of the Imperial Tea Tribute Board, they began to experiment with other teas to make some money.
2) K. C.Sangmanee,C. Donzel et al in their book THE LITTLE BOOK OF TEA ( Flammarion) write ( page 28):
..In China black tea is is reserved exclusively for export. The story of black tea comes from the accidental fermentation of green tea during a long journey is likely based in a legend..
3) J Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson in their book THE NEW TEA COMPANION ( Benjamin Press, 2005) write ( page 8):
..All Chinese tea was green under the Ming Dynasty( AD1368-1644), instead of beingformed into dried compressed cakes as in tyhe previous time, the delicate dried leaf was sold loose and consequently was easily spoiled before it reached the customer. So the profit conscious Chinese producers devised a method of manufacturing BLACK TEAS. This meant that the leaf lasted longer and travelled better..
4) Seven cups: http://www.sevencups.com/about-tea/black-tea/
As I said, there are numerous accounts.
My views are closest to Austin/Seven Cups, not surprising since I suspect we have access to the same source of info.