White tea is renowned for being the least processed kind of tea, even less so than green tea. Crafting a white tea usually involves just a few simple steps — handpicking young buds and leaves, withering, and air or heat drying.
Because this tea involves such little processing, it has become quite appealing for those looking for a kind of tea that epitomizes purity, rejuvenation, and health.
And yet, in spite of its deceptive simplicity, did you know that this form of tea has the lengthiest history of all? Many, for instance, trace white tea’s origins to the Song Dynasty (920–1269 AD), but there’s good reason to push its date back even further.
Although it’s a far cry from our current understanding of white tea, we know that during the far earlier Shang Dynasty (1766–1050 BC), tea preparation was a little more experimental. The tea leaves were plucked from wild growing tea trees along with leaves from other herbs, often set out to air dry. These ingredients would then be combined with other fruits and spices into a boiling pot of water to create a medicinal drink. Because of the way the tea was processed, it would have been very similar to a white tea, except the finished product would be much more similar to the tea blends of today (although far more potent in flavor).
As history would have it, it wouldn’t be until more than almost two millennia later that tea would evolve in an important way, becoming less regarded as just another ingredient in a medicinal drink and more appreciated as a satisfying drink in and of itself.
It was during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) that tea drinking started to flourish as a common way of life, not just for royalty and wealthy, but a special drink to be shared amongst one’s closest confidants (much like the custom of wine-drinking). It was also during this period that tea grew as an important trading commodity, leading to the establishment of the famous Tea Horse Road.
Given these innovations and cultural achievements, it’s no wonder that this is the period that produced the famous tea sage Lu Yu (733–804 AD) who sought to teach and educate us about tea, helping people view it as a rich, aesthetic experience that contributes to a fulfilling life.
Following the tea revolutions during the Tang Dynasty and continuing to refine them to a point of perfection was the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). During this period, the white teas that we know today were first discovered in Fujian Province where tea farmers were beginning to craft what would come to be known as Silver Needle and White Peony. Selecting only the most delicate of tea buds in an effort to craft the perfect tribute tea, these new cultivars were dazzling to behold in the sunlight, covered in splendid, shimmering white downy hairs.
Interestingly enough, when the finest teas were selected for tribute, the practice at this time was to pulverize them into a fine powder to be mixed with boiling water and whisked, much like how one might prepare matcha today.
Eventually, however, thanks to a royal ban on brick teas in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), farmers and artisans found themselves challenged to find ways to craft, process, and dry loose-leaf teas, relying on them for trade and personal enjoyment. It was also decreed at this time that the loose-leaf teas for tribute must be white teas, creating additional pressure for developing this type of tea in particular.
Although much of the style of white tea enjoyed today hearkens back to this Ming-way of preparing it, it’s astonishing to reflect back on the amazing journey that this type of tea has made, and perhaps even more astonishing that the many steps it has taken can still be found with us today. For example, just like the original tea during the Shang Dynasty, we still find white teas selected as a base for exotic tea blends.