There’s no doubt about it, if you’re truly serious about your love of the leaf, then Anji Bai Cha, or Anji (a county in Zhejiang province) White Tea is simply one of the teas you’re going to have to taste before you eventually depart for the great tea garden in the sky.
Before we go any further, a point of clarification. When we talk about “white tea” in this post, we are referring not to white tea as in the production method as we understand it today, but rather a green tea made with leaves so pale in colour that they appear to be almost white.
Be under no illusions, however – you will need to dig deep into your tea buying kitty to get your hands on this tea. It’s a rare, beautiful thing, and as we all too painfully know, scarce and precious don’t often come at discount prices, but rest assured, it will be worth it.
In China, if you want to impress someone, or show them great respect, you give them a gift of Anji Bai Cha, or serve the tea to them.
Anji Bai Cha has a fascinating backstory. Song Hui Zhong, the Song Dynasty emperor, in his book “Treatise on Tea“, written in 1107, dedicates a whole chapter to this type of tea, without referencing its origin. Centuries earlier no less than Lu Yu, the great Chinese tea sage, spoke well of the teas of Anji county.
Time passed, and the tea faded from view, with many tea scholars considering it a legend, until 1982, when it was rediscovered.
Just two mother-bushes remained, but since the 80s enough bushes have been cultivated to support the production levels we see today. As with other teas tied to a geographical region, there are strict regulations and limitations regarding when a tea can be called a true Anji Bai Cha, something else that limits the amount produced.
It’s a very elegant looking tea – the super-fine bud and leaf pluck is harvested “pre-qingming” – this early pluck ensures that the already pale leaf has less time to develop chlorophyll and polyphenols, making the leaves even paler and less bitter.
The “killing the green” heating process is done with the leaves being moved in a sideways motion rather than being rolled in a wok, hence the beautiful needle like appearance of the dried leaf.
The low levels of chlorophyll and polyphenols, as well as giving the tea its trademark appearance, also mean that it’s a very forgiving tea – you can wander from the ideal in terms of steeping times and water temperature, but the tea won’t go bitter on you.
Another noteworthy aspect of the leaf’s character – depending on who you believe it has anything between two and four times the amount of theanines as other varieties of tea, making it a true “feel-good” tea! The low chlorophyll level also means that this is a green tea without those grassy notes you sometimes encounter with teas in the class.
I found this tea when buying something completely un-related at House of Tea – I just happened to notice that they had Anji Bai Cha in and so in the virtual shopping trolley it went.
I paid 229 Swedish Crowns (£20.52, €23.90, US$26.82) for a 50 gram packet of tea made from the Bai Ye Yi Hao cultivar, which elevates this purchase to the No. 1 spot on my “expensive teas bought” league table. Remember, though, that this is the real deal – a top quality, pre-qingming, hand picked and processed genuine Anji Bai Cha, making the price almost immaterial. You want it, you pay it, and with a tea as good as this, you will want it!
As I said earlier, despite its name, this is a green tea, and should be steeped accordingly. Water was at 80°C. I was steeping in a 150 ml gaiwan, and so used 6 grams of tea leaves. Just a quick word on those leaves – 6 grams will be deceptively bulky, and you will have to take care when removing the long slender leaves from your caddy, as they are almost too large for even a Chinese tea scoop, and the last thing we want with these fine leaves is to have them ending up on the kitchen floor. After a few near misses, I now pluck the dried leaves out of the caddy with my fingertips.
I don’t normally rinse green teas, but after watching the way Don from Mei Leaf prepared his Anji Bai Cha I likewise started off my session with a very quick rinse. The aroma from the leaf was exquisite, clean and vegetal with a sweet, nutty aspect reminiscent of walnuts.
I performed flash steepings starting at 10 seconds, adding 5 seconds to each subsequent steeping.
The tea had a wonderful mouth-feel, creamy and full bodied but still light on the palate. The complex flavour hinted at asparagus or perhaps broccoli, but with a sweet, baked background note that was almost like vanilla pods.
The tea was so delicious that you found yourself fighting the urge to simply neck the entire cupful in one go.
Usually with good quality tea you get excellent value for money when you consider the actual yield, and that was the case here. Over the course of the session I managed 11 steepings, with the final three being 1½, 3, and 5 minutes in duration. By that time the tea had surrendered all the flavour it had, so I called a halt to the session there.
Anji Bai Cha is one of the prettiest teas you will ever come across, and that can also be said for the used tea leaves. After they’ve done their thing the leaves show their pale colour in all its glory, and it’s also possible to see the characteristic “crease” down the middle of the leaves. Beautiful.
Yes, this is a seriously expensive tea, but truly one worth getting to know, even if it’s only once.
Go on, treat yourself….