My favorite tea is Yin Zhen Bai Hao, White Hair Silver Needle-Bai Hao means White Hair. This is a white tea from north and east Fujian province. It is all buds and processed in the oolong manner using sunshine withering. The best I have ever had comes from Tea Master Jason C.S. Chen at C.C. Fine Tea in Seattle. Master Chen’s Silver Needle is both authentic and traditional. Historically, real white tea was very difficult to find, even in China. In his remarkable book on Chinese tea, John Blofeld laments never having tasted real white tea in his life. Today, the American airwaves are full of commercials for “white tea” yet the tea they are promoting is really just another green tea. There is also a low-chlorophyll green tea that is sold as white because it is lacking in color. Phooey!
Thanks to changes in policy in China, in recent years, real white tea is available, but you have to know where to look. The two most available types are White Peony—Bai Mu Dan—which is two leaves, one bud, and sunshine withered, and…Bai Hao Silver Needle. Ah, if I could write poetry in Chinese, I would write love songs to this tea. According to Tea Master Chen, three steps are necessary to produce a true white tea: “1. Outdoor Withering (also called sunshine withering) 2. Indoor withering 3. Very light fire drying (long and gentle and with care so the white bud is still white). These three extra steps allow traditional white tea (Bai Hao Silver Needle and White Peony) to retain more medicinal benefits and still have a special flavor and fragrance.”(1)
Silver Needle brews to a beautiful golden color with lingering flavors of bamboo and orchid. My western palate translates orchid into vanilla—and, vanilla is a member of the orchid family. But this orchid flavor is very subtle. In an otherwise very fine book on Chinese tea, I must take exception to one sentence from Master Lam Kam Cheun: “When you drink white tea, it seems quite tasteless—as if you were drinking hot water with a slightly milder and more subtle taste than normal.”(2) Granted, he goes on to extol the virtues of white tea, but I believe he must be getting inferior white tea in England. Perhaps it is too old.
One of the many virtues of white tea is the lingering flavor. All good teas linger in the mouth. It is a godsend, I suppose, that bad tea does not linger. Every time I raise a cup to my mouth and take one sip of Silver Needle, I think this is all I need, one sip and the lingering. But, I am greedy, and the first sip is followed by a second, on to the Seventh Cup. And if any tea could transport one to the Sacred Island of Horaisan, it would be Yin Zhen Bai Hao. I feel “the breath of cool wind”(3) rising in my sleeves just thinking about this superb tea.
On their deathbeds, great Zen Masters are often said to end their lives with a poem, the last line being a shout. I am not a Zen Master but I feel my life will be complete if I can end it with one last sip of Silver Needle, uttering an “Ah” as I leave this world.
1. Tea from China by Master Jason C.S. Chen 2006
2. The Way of Tea by Master Lam Kam Cheun with Lam Kai Sin and Lam Tin Yu 2002
3. The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo 1906