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.