Around the time of the Qingming Festival in early April, Pan Chunhua - who runs a 10-hectare tea plantation in Anji, eastern Zhejiang Province - is usually so busy that she has to hire local female tea pickers to help harvest her Anji White Tea, one of the most coveted and rarest tea varieties in China.
Qingming is a traditional Chinese festival where people go and sweep tombs and commemorate their ancestors. The harvest for Anji White Tea is short because its tea leaves mature quicker than most other tea varieties and Pan and her helpers have just 30 days to pick and process their entire crop. Usually, after pickers finish their day, Pan and her son Gui Xincai start the drying and tea baking process, often working through the night until early next morning.
Anji White Tea, famed for its jade-white leaves, sweet aroma and stress-relieving properties, is widely appreciated in China. It is one of 200 geographical indications (GI) protected under an agreement between China and the European Union that came into effect in March 2021, making Anji, a town of dense bamboo forests and vast tea plantations, famous.
The EU-China GI Agreement protects around 200 iconic European and Chinese goods against imitation and misuse, and recognizes 100 GIs each from the European Union and China, with a second batch to follow that will include an additional 175 GIs each from the EU and China within four years.
China has a tea-drinking history of more than 1,000 years with the tradition spreading to the rest of Asia, including Korea and Japan, before Portuguese priests and merchants introduced it to Europe in the 16th century. Today, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water.
The term “white tea”, or “bai cha” in Chinese, was first mentioned by Lu Yu, a Tang Dynasty tea master best known for his monumental book, The Classic of Tea. Lu praised the quality of white tea and even recommended it be sent to China’s emperor as a tribute tea.
But Anji White Tea was believed to be extinct from the first half of the 20th century, until it was rediscovered in 1982, when local government workers found a century-old white tea tree during an agricultural survey. The tree’s young leaves were pure white and only the main veins were slightly green. Later it was bred into the "baiye No.1" variety of tea and Pan’s family owns the fabled mother tree of Anji White Tea.
Baiye No.1’s amino acid content is significantly higher than ordinary teas and its tea polyphenol content, which typically accounts for the bitterness in tea, is low. These attributes make it both delicious and nutritious, beating a wealth of other varieties in competitions from the late 1980s to early 1990s and shooting the variety to overnight fame.
Contrary to what the name implies, Anji White Tea is actually a green tea and is processed in the same way as green tea. It is a completely different cultivar from other white teas, which are commonly planted in some parts of Fujian Province, southeastern China.
The traditional Anji White Tea is characterized by its leaves, which are yellow and shaped like phoenix feathers – long and narrow with a recognizable fold along the length of the leaf. It has a long-lasting aroma and a very mellow taste.
In the first month of the spring season each year, when the daily average temperature in Anji is lower than 23°C, the shoots of Anji White Tea trees lack chlorophyll and show a bright white appearance. As the temperature climbs in late April, the light green leaves turn darker, which diminishes the crop’s value.
To Pan, it is a miracle that an entire industry has been spawned from one sapling, becoming a pillar of the local economy. As of 2017, the white tea planting area in Anji County has reached 170,000 mu, with a total output of 1,860 tons and a total value of about 2.5 billion yuan (US$417 million).
Today, more than 15,800 households plant the variety and 198,000 people work in the industry chain, with a per capita annual income of more than 5,000 yuan.
“You need to take great care [when picking], whether you use modern or traditional methods,” said Gui. “I hope I can pass on this family tradition to my son.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletters to stay up to date on the latest consumer trends and developments in agriculture.