This summer, Wuyi tea farmer and Taoist tea ceremony instructor Li Xiangxi introduced us to her friend Weng Wenkan and his family in Fuding. Mr. Weng and his family are young, passionate tea farmers growing white tea on the misty peaks outside Hulin above Fuding. We were extremely excited to meet them since we have been trying to find inspiring and sustainably produced white tea for years. So often, white tea can be too light and lacking nuance. Because of its recent surge in popularity, there aren’t as many standards or public knowledge of what makes a white tea fine. This has led to a proliferation of factory-farm white tea, heavy with pesticides.
When we met Mr. Weng and his wife, we were taken back by their quiet calm. Mr. Weng learned his trade growing and processing tea in Anxi before moving back to Fuding in 2011 with his life savings where he and his wife bought a small plot of land high up in the mountains. On the day we arrived, we drove into a rain cloud perched over the peaks. The Weng Family bought this mountain plot to take what they had learned about modern tea cultivation and apply it to white tea on a small, family farm scale.
His plot is beautifully situated with old terracing and plants between twenty and fifty years old, all Da Bai varietal. On one side of the mountaintop are his curving terraced fields, and on the other side is a grove of wild bamboo interspersed with wildly-germinated white tea bushes allowed to grow unrestrained alongside bamboo. Mr. Weng is interested in preserving this wild forest on his land and picking tea from the wild plants to see how their flavor is different from cultivated crops. In his first years of tasting, he fell so in love with the wild flavor profile that he stopped cutting back his white tea like everyone else in Fuding and has allowed it to grow into thicker taller hedges.
Without cutting back his tea each year, his yield is decreased, but the complexity of flavor grows each year as the roots go deeper and the plant becomes stronger. He explained to us that not only does he get less yield from the lack of cutting, but his plot is nestled in a particularly misty microclimate that means cooler weather and a lower yield overall. He is proud of this fact, as it means sweeter and richer tea.
Instead of reverting to pesticides and fertilizers like larger factory farms, Weng Wenkan grows soybeans and canola around his crops. The insects prefer the beans and leave the tea mostly unharmed. At the end of each growing season, his family mulches the soybeans and canola to use as natural fertilizer. Growing beans alongside tea further reduces total yield per acre, but increases biodiversity and provides natural insect management. All of this makes his tea taste better.
This land management strategy is extremely sustainable, and over many years will help Mr. Weng consistently offer high quality white tea in Hulin and grow a reputation for his family. Mr. Weng is ready to invest the time in doing things right. Indeed, he just finished construction on his own greenhouse building for perfectly controlled tea drying. Most farmers in Fuding take their tea down to the city for processing, but Mr. Weng wants his tea to be finished in the cleaner country air, right after picking.
He insists on drying tea in thin layers on bamboo racks at a 45 degree angle in his air-circulated greenhouse at a consistent temperature of 30 degrees celsius. Mr. Weng is very critical of most white tea on the market. Much of it isn’t dried properly. Heat tumble drying alters the natural flavor of the tea, and simple sun drying retains far too much moisture. White tea is so delicate that almost all moisture needs to be removed to prepare it for storage, otherwise it changes and degrades in flavor too quickly. He explains that complete moisture reduction is the main difference between sun dried sheng pu’er maocha and white tea. Eliminating the moisture eliminates the possibility for fermentation.
As Mr. Weng and his wife brewed tea for us using a modern gongfu set up on a giant pine wood table they built for their workshop, they explained to us that while white tea’s moisture needs to be completely removed, it is still a very rewarding tea to age. Under climate-controlled and fully sealed conditions, white tea can become darker and richer over time. They showed us their archive of the last six years of teas, pressed into cakes, loose, and labeled with different seasons and plots. They are extremely excited about aging their white teas, and work to advocate aging to the white tea community. It is because of the aging potential for white tea that Mr. Weng is so strict about insisting on moisture and heat standards for finishing white tea. WIthout standards, white tea can mold from too much humidity.
We asked Mr. Weng about health benefits and caffeine in white tea. There is so much buzz around white tea’s health potential that we were interested in his take. He couldn’t help laughing. With a smile, he told us that he grows white tea and drinks it every day because it is the most delicious and nuanced tea out there. He says he isn’t concerned about the specific health benefits of this or that, one tea versus another. In his opinion, people should drink whatever tea they love and enjoy it fully.
We have to admire his response. He doesn’t feel the need for white tea to lean on hype. He firmly believes its flavor and quality alone let it stand tall among the greatest teas in China.
Tasting 2013 Aged Bai Hao Yin Zhen with the Weng Family in Hulin
Mr. Weng is so confident in his tea, he even recommended that we try iced white tea. The flavor of his tea both hot and cold is captivating. We have to agree that his efforts to bring intentionality and discipline to white tea production have paid off. Every tea of the Weng Family’s that we tried was rich and packed with flavor. They were crisp, clean, full bodied and aromatic. We are excited to see a family like his innovating with tea, producing Shou Mei, Bai Mudan, Silver Needle, aged teas, and even blended cakes. We are eager to see how he continues to innovate and improve Fuding white tea over the coming decades.
We first had a chance to share the Weng Family’s tea with our Tea of the Month Club in November. We are excited to make these teas a part of our permanent collection and support the Weng Family’s investment in sustainability and quality.
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