Some days it’s only about the tea, there’s no story with it. I had been standing before my tea shelf for an inordinately long time before deciding to visit my small collection of white teas. I had some Silver Needles (brought out only for those who will appreciate it), some Bai Mudans (the go-to white), and a couple of yet-to-be opened Shou Mei.
In India, we do make the Bai Mudan, or White Peony, and the Baihao Yinzhen, or Silver Needle, and the varieties from Kangra, Darjeeling, Arunachal Pradesh and the Nilgiris are simply wonderful. Cream-yellow in colour, the good whites are almost velvety smooth and rich.
However, we don’t get Shou Mei here—the one I had is from its original home in Fujian, China. What’s more, it came in two variations, a 2018 Shou Mei and a 2021 Shou Mei. As luck would have it, there was also a 2018 Fujian Bai Mudan. It was time to steep the old teas. Correction: rested teas.
Like most Chinese tea names, Shou Mei has an appropriately grand sound, if slightly odd translation: Longevity Eyebrow or Long Noble Life Eyebrow. It ranks below the Silver Needle and Bai Mudan in the white tea hierarchy, since it is plucked after the leaves for the Bai Mudan are harvested, and made from larger leaves. It resembles a Bai Mudan, with the slightly wild appearance of dry leaves but more twiggy, still greenish, and sweet-smelling. The name comes from the leaf —long. Why “long noble life” is anybody’s guess.
I started with the 2021 Shou Mei. It smelt sweet and tasted pleasant, meeting all the expectations of a good white tea. Not especially memorable or complex but with enough discernible flavours. And then I tried the two old teas.
The Chinese tea gurus have a saying that translates to: “One-year-old tea is just tea. Three-year-old tea is a medicine. But seven-year-old tea is a treasure.” I compared the 2018 and 2021 Shou Mei, and the 2018 Bai Mudan. Three years of resting had created a deeper and more mellow sweetness evident even to a less practised palate. While I enjoyed the older Shou Mei more than the new one, the Bai Mudan was discernibly more complex in aroma and flavour.
I followed this with a tasting of the 2021 Fujian Shou Mei, a 2020 Bai Mudan from Kangra and a 2022 Silver Needle from the Nilgiris. Each holds great appeal. I have often wondered why the green tea brigade hasn’t converted to white tea yet—if we are talking health and antioxidants, then white teas are as, or more, healthy. In taste, they trump the green. What’s more, while greens are best drunk fresh, white teas keep well if stored in an airtight container and out of reach of strong aromas and flavours.
The teas mentioned here are Fujian Shou Mei, Fujian Bai Mudan from serenetea-cha.com, Himalayan White Peony from Dharmsala Tea Company, Silver Needle White Imperial from Rimpocha Tea, and Silver Needles from Korakundah.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.