Thursday, October 27, 2011

Definitions of White Tea: Raising Eyebrows

This post was inspired by a series of conversations that I had with Tony Gebely of Chicago Tea Garden and World of Tea.

Perhaps this is the mathematician in me speaking, but I believe definitions are important. Without clear, agreed-upon definitions, dialogues, conversations, buying and selling, advertisement, and a variety of other business activities and everyday activities can become problematic. In some cases, such as in the case of white tea, definitions are not straightforward.

Definitions for a class of objects become problematic not in "typical" examples of their class, but in the atypical ones. One such problematic tea is pictured here:

This is shou mei(寿眉, longevity eyebrows) tea, purchased from Ten Ren tea. I chose this particular batch of shou mei to picture because it is the darkest in color that I have ever sampled. It looks like it may be closer to gong mei (tribute eyebrows), an even darker tea that is similar in style, and rarely available in the U.S. as it is considered low-grade.

The aroma of the dry leaf of this tea is suggestive of autumn leaves, so much so that it reminds me of playing in leaf piles in fall as a child. When brewed, this aroma becomes even stronger, and it has a dark brown color, a rich, caramel-like sweetness, and an almost tannic sort of astringency. In overall character, it is a lot more like a darker oolong than most white teas, but it shares many qualities of aroma in common with white teas; lighter shou mei can be very similar to darker examples of white peony / bai mu dan.

Is shou mei a white tea?

In order to keep this post as objective as possible, I have so far avoided the claim that shou mei "is" a white tea. Some individuals, tea companies, and other sources classify it as a white tea, but there are definitions floating around, such as two I reference below, under which it would not be classified as a white tea. However, I want to start by noting an observation: I have never seen any company selling shou mei tea and classifying it as anything other than a white tea. The companies which use definitions of white tea that would exclude shou mei do not sell shou mei. If you know of an exception to this rule, let me know, but I could not find one.

This observation certainly raises eyebrows.

Now, let's explore a couple authoritative sources who would not classify shou mei as a white tea:

Tea Association of the USA:

The Tea Association of the USA defines a number of tea-related terms in their Glossary of Terms: Industry Definitions. Although not the be-all and end-all tea authority, this organization's official definition definitely carries some degree of weight. Their definition of white tea is as follows:

Proposed New Definition
The Tea Association of the USA has proposed a new definition.
In order for White Tea to be so termed it should be:
  • Processed in accordance with the strict harvesting and processing guidelines originally established in Fujian Province, China
  • Made from finely plucked tender shoots (buds) of Camellia sinensis, which are fired or steamed and then dried.
  • There should be no withering, fermentation (oxidation) or rolling of the buds.
  • The liquor of White Tea is very pale yellow in color, and mild tasting in the cup.

Now, I am going to shift to my own subjective opinions. I do not like this definition. I think it is problematic for several reasons. There is one glaring inconsistency which I point out below, but this can be easily fixed or set aside separate from the rest of the points. Besides this, the main reason I object to this definition is that I see it as too narrow, leaving many teas, including traditional Chinese white teas like shou mei, such that they could not be included in this definition.

Here are some things I dislike about this definition:

  • "strict harvesting and processing guidelines" -- why give one particular method of producing tea preference over others? This comes across as possibly stifling innovation by labelling experimental processing methods as "not true white tea". I want to encourage and promote diversity in tea culture, traditions, and production, which includes both the embracing of diverse traditions, as well as the facilitation of developing new traditions. This aspect of the definition has the opposite effect.
  • The definition refers to the liquor of the cup and the flavor...which are highly variable, depend on brewing methods, and are to some degree subjective, and the definition given is very constraining. Even white peony or bai mu dan, which nearly everyone agrees is a white tea, has a widely variable color and flavor. I think that in general, a good definition for a broad class of teas (like white tea, black tea, green tea, etc.) does not refer to color or flavor at all.
  • This definition is internally inconsistent, depending on how you interpret words..."no withering" and "no oxidation" would actually exclude all white teas. In most usage that I've seen, "withering" refers to the normal drying process used to produce all white tea. And all white teas, including silver needle, are a tiny bit more oxidized than green teas, because they are allowed to dry naturally rather than being heated to stop all oxidation, as green teas are. This is why green teas have a more vibrant green color than white teas. The definition refers to white teas being "fired or steamed and then dried", but this specification sounds more like the processing of green tea, and this part of the definition would include green teas made from tips or leaf buds.
  • (This is my biggest criticism of the definition) The "plucked tender shoots (buds)" part of the definition would leave a number of teas, such as shou mei, without a clear way of being classified as any type of tea other than just "tea".

I'm not even a member of this Tea Association, and I have no standing or authority to do so, but I vote no on this definition! Send it back to the drawing board and come back with a new definition!

Harney and Sons Guide to Tea:

Another source that carries some degree of authority is the Harney and Sons Guide to Tea; written by Michael Harney (of Harney and Sons), a major and well-respected figure in the tea community. This book has a wealth of information about tea, is well-written, and is accessible to newcomers in the tea world. How does this book define white tea? Although the book does not set out a clear definition of white tea in one place, the book talks as if there is a well-accepted definition, and from various quotes we can piece together what this definition might be. Both of these quotes are from page 19 of the book:

White tea buds are plucked and "withered" or "air dried"...

Consisting only of buds, white teas...

This remark seems to be going even further down the line of the "white tea must consist of tender shoot and leaf buds" definition that I have seen in a number of sources. "Consisting only of buds" would exclude certain teas that nearly everyone would agree is a white tea, including white peony / bai mu dan. In fact, this fact highlights an inconsistency in this book, for later, Michael Harney goes on to write a section on mai mu dan, in which he unambiguously writes from a place that Bai Mu Tan is a white tea, yet he acknowledges (p, 28):

...Bai Mu Dan also includes some mature tea leaves.

To be more accurate, there are some white teas, such as silver needle, which consist only of buds, just as there are some black teas, like Yunnan Golden Buds (dianhong jinya/滇紅金芽) which do as well. But this attribute does not define or characterize white teas as a whole.

Perhaps I am an odd sort of person, having studied so much mathematics that I want things to be logically consistent. But I do care about consistency, and I would like to encourage as many people as possible to question their definitions, and embrace definitions that do not have these sorts of problems. Perhaps the problem with Michael Harney's book is that it never clearly defines white tea, because I suspect, given Michael Harney's level of knowledge, that if he sat down and thought about this matter, he would be able to come up with a definition that did not have any of these contradictions or drawbacks.

How to define classes of teas?

So I don't claim to have all the answers, but I personally believe that a good definition for a class of tea (black, green, white, oolong, yellow, etc.) is:
  • Consistent.
  • Simple.
  • Based on production process, not particular cultivar, not appearance or color of the cup or leaf, and certainly not flavor.
  • General or flexible enough to encompass diverse traditions, to encourage innovation within the category (including styles of white tea that may not have been invented yet), and to leave out as few "problem teas" as possible.

I'm not proposing any definitions here. You can read what I have on RateTea's page on white tea. I don't claim to like my own definition; if you check the site frequently, you'll know that that page has changed and evolved as I've researched this topic. I even go back and forth on some Xue Ya (Snow Buds) a white tea or green tea? What about moonlight white (which I've seen classified as a white tea, black tea, green tea, or Pu-erh). But one thing is for sure...shou mei is a white tea, in my world.

Back to shou mei:

Why do I think this tea, so dark in color, is a white tea? The simple answer is that the production process is more similar to other white teas than to anything else: the leaves are plucked, allowed to wither naturally, and dried. There is a clear continuum of flavor and aroma from shou mei to bai mu dan to bai hao yinzhen (silver needle) and, at least to my palate, it is clear that these teas belong to the same class.

Perhaps a stronger argument is that classifying shou mei in any other category becomes more problematic. It's clearly not a black tea, there is no bruising and full oxidation process, even though it is more oxidized, and although it's dark in color, it does not remotely resemble any black teas in aroma. It also does not closely resemble green's not immediately heated the way green teas are, and it tends to retain no more green color than other white teas, and its aroma and flavor have almost none of the characteristic qualities of typical green teas. It's oolong-like in character, and shares the partial-oxidation with these teas, but there is little else that that would qualify it as an oolong. If forced into one of these categories, I can see it being treated as a green tea or oolong tea, but I think most people would agree that this wasn't a very accurate classification.

And because shou mei is not made primarily out of tips or leaf buds, a definition of white tea cannot be limited to "tippy" teas.

What do you think?

I would encourage you to propose your own definition of white tea. I don't really know how to define it, and I'd like to refine and improve on the definition I have on RateTea. The purpose of this post is mainly to step on some toes and provoke some discussion, but also to invite criticism of my own definitions and articles with the goal of refining my own definitions.

And...if you're one of those people who likes the narrower definitions of white tea, limiting it to only include teas with a large portion of tips / leaf buds, could you please answer my question: how the heck would you classify shou mei?


  1. I've found the above quoted Tea Association's definition very troublesome (or to be blunt, I would say it's deeply, deeply wrong...)

    If a white tea is left alone, it's supposed to be more and more oxidized over time, because its oxidation enzyme is not killed/denatured in tea processing. For the same reason, most newly-made white tea must have certain level of oxidation. Saying white tea has no oxidation is just the opposite of the truth.

    I think your definition is fine and it sticks to the basic facts of tea processing.

    Also I think some of the above mentioned examples of other definitions embody the trend in tea world that things are often overcomplicated, and even worse, distorted in the over-complication.

  2. I agree with you that classifications should be fairly broad and based on processing. Classification systems can not be perfect due to the wide variations in characteristics of individuals. (This is quite evident in biological taxonomy as well. See: the Hyrax and the Elephant.)

    Overall, though, I think that it is clearest to put teas into the category that defines them the closest, so in your example Shou Mei would be put into the white tea category. The alternative would be a lot of teas falling into the "other" category, or a myriad of new categories or subcategories, which I don't think would be useful. Really, all teas fall somewhere within the oxidation/processing spectrum, and with sufficient information attached to the individual teas within each category there shouldn't be confusion.

    The specific names of individual teas is something that needs to be more strict, and can be without running into the same tangle. Bai Hao Yin Zhen is a particular white tea tea, from a specific region, made from a specific part of the Camellia sinensis plant, processed in a specific way.

  3. I'm a little wary when people remark that Bai Hao Yin Zhen or Silver Needle has to be produced in a specific region in order to "be" that tea. Unlike Pu-erh, Darjeeling, or Keemun, and also unlike two-part names like Huangshan Mao Feng, the name of the tea does not make any reference to region, it just describes the tea's appearance.

    Also, I've sampled white teas produced in other regions that were not labelled as "silver needle", such as Adam's peak (see this review for an example), which resembled silver needle both in appearance and other qualities. So, from a practical standpoint, it makes sense and is useful to buyers to identify these teas as "silver needle".

    To resolve any potential controversy over "authenticity", I chose to classify teas on by style and region separately. When we list a tea as a style, there is no claim of authenticity; it only means only that the tea is produced in a similar manner or produced so as to emulate a certain other tea. And the claim is that this emulation is an attempt--not that it is successful; that is up to reviewers to judge.

    For example, Keemun from Hubei or Taiwan we list as originating in whatever region it originated in, but being in the style of Keemun. The question of whether or not it "is" Keemun is ontological, and is a matter I'm not particularly interested in discussing. My concern is truthful and sincere marketing...that companies do not make claims (implicit or explicit) that a tea originates in a specific region when it does not.

    Just because a tea originates in and has historically been produced in a specific region, in my opinion, does not justify "ownership" of that name, unless the name references a place.

  4. I am less concerned with ownership and authenticity than with trying to minimize deception. Teas grown and processed in different places, even with the same techniques, are different. I would prefer that the teas from non-traditional origins give their teas a new name and identify the teas as "grown, plucked and processed in the style of X tea." That way tea drinkers know what they are buying.

    Of course, your rating system on RateTea handles this by clearly identifying the origin and the style, which helps accommodate this need for maximum information.

  5. I would go so far as to say I would prefer all teas to list their region of production!

    I have another question about this though: how do you determine which teas have a name implying a certain production area, and which do not?

    I'm skeptical of claims of exclusivity in region of production because of the financial motivation behind it. For example, few people ever seem to complain about gunpowder tea when it is produced outside of Zhejiang (or even China). How is silver needle any different, other than its price and exclusivity? Is it at all deceptive to sell a tea marked only as "gunpowder" if it is from Guangdong province? Or Taiwan?

    I think it's important for naming schemes to be independent of money and financial considerations. For teas where the name of the tea directly refers to the region (like Dian Hong, as Dian - 滇 - refers to Yunnan province), this is fine. This is why I'm a little more skeptical with silver needle.

  6. I agree absolutely that all teas should list their origins. (I'm surprised when I encounter teas that don't, but I might be assuming orgins based on names, which is why this is problematic.)

    As far as names being specific to regions, I think it depends on historical precedent in each particular case, but I agree with you that the names should be independent of financial considerations. A good example is Jin Hou (Golden Monkey), which is the name of a black tea produced in, and historically associated with, Fujian. It would be clearer for black teas from Yunnan not be called "Golden Monkey" in spite of the similarity of the tea because the name seems to point to a different origin.

    All of that aside, functionally I don't assess what a tea actually IS based on name alone; I need to know where it came from and how it was produced.

  7. Great post, Alex. I agree that the proposed definition would simply give us all a lot of headaches.

  8. Well this appears to be a very precise crowd, so I might not fit in.

    I agree that I gave several thoughts about White Tea. When I wrote that " White Tea is only buds" I was not precise enough. As mentioned several times in that chapter it is the bud and sometimes leaves made with the white method (see below). That is a broader and more comprehensive explanation of white tea.

    I have bought Shou Mei in the past, and it does look pretty. As mentioned, it is like autumn leaves. However, nowadays, I avoid it as a substandard tea. I like the lighter ones. Yes, Shou Mei would qualify as a white tea if it is made in the white method:

    Plucked with big buds, dried either in the sun or inside barns until dry. Sometimes finished in ovens, but not often. This process allows for a slow chemical wither. The sugars, proteins and fatty acids degrade and recombine during this period, making for the complex, slightly fruity flavors found in whites (versus the clean vegetal flavors found in many green teas.) There is a bit of oxidation which darkens any leaves (Baimudan or ShouMei) and seen in the liquor. Also the chlorophyll in the bud is not mature, thus is not stable. Thus the buds turns white or silver (Yin Zhen.)

    I find the white tea liquor from Sri Lanka can be cleaner and sweeter than from Fujian, probably they finish it ovens.

    I hope that I have sat and thought enough. Although it is always possible to do more.

    Enjoy your white tea!

  9. Thanks you so much for reading and for the comments, Michael Harney! And you are definitely more than welcome here.

    And you actually raise another point or question that I've been thinking about. I've also tried white teas from Sri Lanka and also from Kenya, including ones made exclusively from buds, looking very much like silver needle. One that I recently tried from Kenya, called Kenya Silverback White, was so particularly toasty in aroma that, although its appearance made it look like silver needle, its overall qualities were more like a roasted oolong, and it produced a dark infusion in the cup.

    This got me this particularly tea a white tea? Perhaps it is and it is a "roasted white tea", much like we classify hojicha as a roasted green tea, as it is produced like other green teas and then roasted to turn it a very un-green-tea-like brown color.

    It may seem strange how much I like to think about this, but I see it as important because there is so much innovation happening in the tea industry right now (which I think is generally a good thing), and without clear definitions it is hard to even talk about honesty or integrity in the marketing of a company's products. The outcome I'd like to see from these sorts of discussions is that companies are not able to get away with claiming names or labels for inferior-quality teas produced by shortcut methods that compromise quality, but that definitions are not so rigid as to exclude novel forms of artisan teas that are being developed into worthwhile styles of their own.