Travel Back In Time With Your Tastebuds To Fu Ding, The Birthplace Of White Tea

Travel Back In Time With Your Tastebuds To Fu Ding, The Birthplace Of White Tea

This article is part of a series covering all of the major historic terroirs in China for tea. This time, we’re headed to Fu Ding, the hometown of white tea! 

You can read the Top Terroir Harvest Guide here too. 

History & Significance of Fu Ding for Tea:

With mountains to the west and ocean to the east, Fu Ding is a picturesque county-level city under the city of Ning De in East Fu Jian Province. Though the city's establishment is relatively recent, in Qing Dynasty (1739 AD), the land has long been recognized as prime terroir for tea. The region had been mentioned in Lu Yu’s “The Classic of Tea,” though the tea produced t was likely green tea. White tea, as a style of tea, not a type of tea tree, has only around 220 years of undisputed history.

It is believed that a beautiful mountain popular with tourists, Tai Mu Shan (often mispronounced as Tai Lao Shan), is where tea trees were first planted in the region. In 1857, records indicate that a merchant migrated some tea trees from Tai Mu Mountain to Dian Tou, Fu Ding, and started producing the white teas we know today. However, records from Fu Ding suggest that locals were already making white tea with indigenous varietals as early as 1796. Despite this disagreement, Dian Tou of Fu Ding is now recognized as the most renowned origin of white tea.

Dian Tou today remains the most important town for white tea. It has the most organized and bustling tea market, for fresh leaves and rough teas, in all of the historic terroir across China. To understand white tea, we must first look at why the tea market in Dian Tou is so unique.

The Unique Tea Market of Fu Ding:

Quality tea starts with quality fresh leaves. And quality fresh leaves come from quality terroir and cultivar. This is why we see the price of tea primarily dictated by its terroir, with price differences already demonstrated at the fresh leaf level. Depending on the tea region, fresh leaf trading ranges widely in their activities. But, even with regions with very little trading of fresh leaves, there’s always a market price for it, which can fluctuate from morning to afternoon. This is the first indicator of the year’s final price of the fully finished tea. It’s important to distinguish the concept of the tea plant, fresh leaves, rough tea, and finished tea. In Chinese, there are dedicated terms applied to each; the word tea in Chinese (cha) actually refers to the finished, ready-to-be steeped leaves.

To brush up on these terminologies, visit the Tea Terms Glossary.

In many historic terroirs, the tea farmers might also sell their fresh leaves as they see the price fit; most produce the bulk of their fresh leaves. In Wu Yi Shan, we see a trend where better producers buy their neighbor's prized fresh leaves to apply their better processing technique in producing the tea. But this kind of trading is highly private and often has a 1-1 relationship.

For white tea in Fu Ding, however, we see this evolved role separation of farmers and producers much more. The majority of the farmers in Fu Ding have quality fresh leaves but do not produce their own tea. Instead, they sell their fresh leaves to producers with better techniques or larger facilities. The method of trading can be picked up - where a producer goes to a farmer to select and pick up the fresh leaves; or in the case of Dian Tou, the tea farmers take their fresh leaves to the market at noon and late afternoon to have access to more producers and vice versa.

This is why in the case of white tea, there might be villages better known for their fresh leaves, but Dian Tou remains the most recognized terroir for white tea. Dian Tou also has an equally busy and popular rough tea and finished tea market in the mornings, but reputable producers do not sell there.

Watch the market action in these fun YouTube videos for more details!

What Does White Tea in Fu Ding Taste Like?

Even though we want to focus on terroir, in the case of white tea, we still want to make a clear distinction of two very different processing styles within the category that can contribute to a greater difference in taste that might cover the nuanced character of the terroir.

The most traditional way of making white tea is with the sun and the wind. As you can tell, this is highly subject to the weather. It also takes longer (>72 hours) and is very labor intensive. Long story short, the tea maker can only regulate the temperature and moisture in tea leaves by adjusting its angle to the sun and the direction to receive the wind and might need to repeatedly move the leaves indoors and out, depending on the progress. When white tea is made with this much care, it’s warm and bright, full-bodied and crisp, like sun-soaked cotton.

A vast majority of white teas nowadays are made in facilities on oxidation beds where a producer has more control of the timeline. One ton of tea can be made in as little as four hours. White teas made using this method are yeastier, heavier, and sweeter. When over-steeped, flaws like stinky green and notes of rotten apple often come through. They also would have a darker liquor compared to their sun-dried counterparts.

Today, many producers use a hybrid method for their high-end white tea. Meaning the traditional sun-dried method is used as much as the weather allows and accommodates rainy days with various sizes of machines that can blow warm air onto the leaves.

Overall, Fu Ding white teas are still highly recognizable with their fat buds and fluffy hair. In comparison to the “tofu note” in Zheng He white tea, Fu Ding teas are hardier and more buttery. White teas from areas surrounding Fu Ding but not from the historic terroir often have greener buds and grayer hairs with a significantly grassier and more bitter taste.

White teas from other provinces, such as Yun Nan (Moonlight White) and Gui Zhou often exhibit amplified characteristics of facility-made tea with a sugar-yeasty note and stinky green finish. Due to cultivar differences, white tea from these southern provinces also appears longer with pointier ends and tighter hair.

When Is Harvest Season in Fu Ding?

Not only is Fu Ding the traditional home of white tea, but it’s also the main region of white tea in the north.* Much larger white tea volumes come from newer regions in Southern China, such as in the provinces of Yun Nan, Gui Zhou, and Guang Xi. These warmer terroirs have an earlier harvesting time that can start as early as the days after Chinese New Year. Even though white tea has an earlier harvesting time than most other styles of tea, Fu Ding still is the last to begin due to its colder climate.

To read more about the relationship between harvest time and macro and micro terroir, visit the Harvest Guide here.

The harvesting window for white tea begins early and is longer than most styles. This is because a wide range of picking grades can be made into white tea. In fact, traditional white teas from Fu Ding, are named after their picking grade. Below, we are laying out for you the harvesting season for each picking grade of white tea in Fu Ding.

Bai Hao Yin Zhen (Silver Needle) - This is the highest picking grade of white tea that consists of only buds. This is the fat, tender bud of early spring and the first to be harvested. The harvesting time typically begins right around mid-March and, depending on the weather, can last until the end of March.

Bai Mu Dan (White Peony) - This is the name of the second picking grade of white tea with one fat bud and one to two leaves. Early picking of Bai Mu Dan oftentimes is less of a maturity constraint but instead, a style preference of the tea maker. This means some Bai Mu Dan will have an overlapping season with Bai Hao Yin Zhen, but the tea maker has chosen to make the leaves into Bai Mu Dan. Bai Mu Dan usually harvests shortly after mid-March and can extend into early April.

In recent years we started seeing later harvested teas being titled Bai Mu Dan to upgrade their status, which extends the harvesting season of Bai Mu Dan to mid-April or even later. Many of these teas are borderline Gong Mei, the next picking grade to discuss.

Gong Mei - This third picking grade of white tea, Gong Mei, consists of one skinny bud and two larger leaves. In the spring, the weather right after Bai Mu Dan season starts to get warmer and more humid. This can cause leaves to turn darker, which downgrades them into Shou Mei. Therefore, whether you have a traditionally made spring Gong Mei highly depends on the weather.

Fall is the prime time for Gong Mei, as even early harvest during the fall season (in September) can only give us skinny buds, but the weather is cooler and drier, which is ideal for the traditional method. If Gong Mei is harvested in spring, the season will be in the second and third weeks of April.

A requirement for Gong Mei is that the leaves need to stay green, just like Bai Mu Dan. This is a key element in distinguishing Gong Mei from Shou Mei when the picking grade is not apparent.

Shou Mei - This is the last picking grade of white tea and is traditionally an exportation-only tea. This picking grade can range from tiny buds with large leaves to just large leaves. Depending on the weather, Shou Mei can be harvested after Bai Mu Dan or Gong Mei in the late spring or early summer. Shou Mei is highly distinguishable from the other three picking grades both in their appearances and taste. Shou Mei usually is of a brown color and produces golden liquor and heavier and woodsier tea.

To read more on cultivar and nuanced processing techniques for each picking grade of white tea, read the White Tea Fundamentals here.

*A vast majority of China’s tea regions are all in the southern half of China. So, when we say “north” - we really mean the north of the tea region, which really is more in the center line of the country.

Watch These Tea Country Videos From Fu Ding: 

Buying White Tea at a Fresh Leaf Market in China 

For more from the Terroir Month Series:

Visit the Harvest Guide for details on what factors affect harvesting schedules.  

Learn about Lu An, a 1000-year-old tea region famed for it's bold green and yellow teas

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