The King and I

Posted by Arthur Tong on 16th May 2016

2014 – t’was a good year, a very good year – so I had thought.

Reviewing our stock shelves one day,several divvied up small bags of 2014 King Peony caught my eye. It triggered a feint memory, a hint of something I had once treasured. In frugality I chose a near empty bag and hustled up to the mezzanine. The glow from the dimly lit tasting station beckoned. The cups, gaiwan and pourer glistening as our faithful gooseneck kettle began to rumble as if by my mere approach. The scene was set.

It had been a while since I brewed King Peony, so I deferred to our brew guide. 3 tbsp, 90C, 50 sec. I dug the tea measure into the pouch with some haste, emptying each filled scoop into my gaiwan. However, something didn’t seem quite right. The contents did not pertain the green of yesteryear and staring back at me instead were numerous dulled, broken leaf and bud shards. I brewed it according to the guidelines anyway doubting my own intuition, too hopeful of reviving past glory.

L: King Peony, unbroken R: Broken leaves found at the bottom of white tea containers. Two very different results from the same pack. Especially with white tea, how the tea is physically handled and selected from the pack can make a big difference to the brew.

Inevitably, what came of the extraction was far from my reckoning. A brew most foul with bitterness and devoid of life. “How can this be!”

I ran back down, and snatched another bag of 2014, this time a full pack. I busted open the ziplock and peered inside. Yes – full buds, green leaves!

I brewed from this bag with the same parameters as before, this time, the result much better but still a distance from what I remembered. Sensing my anguish, my disciple hurried over: “Master, those are 2015 parameters, you must lower the temperature and shorten the brew for the 2014.”

With that I bowed – nay, kowtowed so low my forehead dented the tatami. The nectar then flowed, even better than I remembered. Sweet pears and peaches.

Key learnings to avoid white tea fail –

1. Tap the packaging on a hard surface several times as to allow any broken leaf and dust to fall to the bottom then select the leaves and buds from the top using clean, dry fingers. Avoid using scoops or spoons, they can break the brittle whites.
2. Especially if you followed step one, always discard the last layer in your container. The frugality is not worth the disappointment, just use the broken remnants as compost.
3. White teas can age, in many cases they can peak at the three-year mark. If using aged white tea, brew with a cooler temperature and a shorter steeping time than parameters recommended for the year it was produced.
4. Remember that 5g of whole leaves and buds is completely different to 5g of broken leaf and tea dust. Parameters should always change to fit the leaves’ characteristics.