China Travels in Spring with the Rare Tea Lady

It's not the rolling flow of green terraces below me, or the wide shade trees stretching above, the weave of wild flowers or even the song of strange birds that floors me - every time. It's the smell.

The smell of a freshly plucked stem broken from the growing tip of a tea bush makes me weak at the knees, like new love.

Every spring I venture off into the tea fields to select the new harvests and visit our tea families around the world. Last year it was the Indian Subcontinent. I travelled from the thin mountain air and soft clouds of Sikkim in the high Himalayas to the thick tropical heat and abundance of Sri Lanka. This year it was China.

Layers of tea in Guizhou

Generational experience

Sampling the local delicacies

The spring season is not long enough, nor my legs strong enough, to take me to every tea growing region every year. I have to choose from among so many friends and adventures. Mostly the tea dictates my movements. I am lead through life by tea, and I follow gladly.

This year I needed to visit a new garden to supply us more White Silver Tip. We have reached the capacity of the farm we have worked with for many many years. It's time to broaden our scope and embrace new terroirs. Hard to imagine now - but when I first started buying this tea back in 2003 it was just a few precious kilos. When I tried to get people to try it I got responses like - “white tea? That’s tea with milk.”

I was told I was insane to try to sell white tea.

“No one has heard of it!”

Crazy to offer only loose leaf.

“No one will drink it if it's not in a bag.”

But they didn't trust in people like you.

I love tea too much to EVER bag it up. It needs room to unfurl and expand as it infuses. You don't need the bleach and the glue and the chemicals and the plastic. The planet doesn't either.

15 years later you can buy our White Silver Tip nationwide in the larger Waitrose stores and try it across the world through our network of friends and collaborators who serve it in their hotels and restaurants.

But I haven't forgotten the start. I remember once being at a trade show in the early 2000s and there was only one other tea company there - hard to imagine now when there is such a plethora - but we were the leaf tea pioneers in a sea of industrial bags. The owner was a young man, much younger than me, who was also into rare China tea. He had a very rich father and the resources for a large and swanky custom-built stand. Mine was a shonky trestle table.

My friend Simon, who was the production manager for a magazine in Edinburgh had, out of kindness, knocked up the logo and designed the labels to the plain foil packets. Not because he was a designer but because he knew about print. There was only me at Rare Tea at the start (we are now 12) and the friends I had roped in to help.

The other tea chap had a big, slick team around him from the start. Expensive looking packaging. Posters. Everything branded and bold. I was so impressed and a bit bloody jealous. My father died leaving me nothing but a happy childhood and a delight in mischief. I had started Rare Tea with my life savings and a lot of hope. The hope stretched further than the cash.

Anyway, I was intimidated by the professionalism and splendour of this other tea brand. But I was also impressed, curious and, along with the mischief, my father taught me to be polite. I went over and introduced myself. I wanted to try this chap’s tea.

He was very courteous and asked me what tea I would like to try? I asked if he had any white tea. -Why? Wouldn’t you like something else? He was clearly unimpressed. With all the wonderful craftsmanship of green and oolong tea before me, why the pure, unprocessed-in-any-way, white? Asking a member of his staff to make me a white tea he moved on to talk to other visitors to his stand.

I stood there thinking about the unasked question that had hung between us like a fart.

Why?

It’s always been the smell. No, not farts! The delicious aroma of the tea...

Chinese wildflowers erupting in spring

A gift from lovely locals

The inimitable scent

When you put hot water on the best, precious white tea plucked in the first days of spring, it smells of the newly plucked shoot. It makes me so very very happy. That's why I chose it and continue to choose it. As the steam wafts from your cup it might transport you like a magic carpet, or a beam from Scotty, to the tea gardens in springtime and the leaf bud being gently broken from its stem - releasing the aroma of rising sap.

White tea is plucked and dried in the sunshine. No processing. No crafting. Its beauty is all in its precise and artful picking at the very moment the leaf bud is on the point of unfurling. So clean and pure and lovely. The taste of springtime in the mountains, the green terraces rolling down the mountains threaded with wild flowers.

Imagine if this view had a smell - that's our White Silver Tip

I drink our White Silver Tip almost every single morning - certainly when I am at home. It's one of my first tea loves I fell for around the turn of the millenium. I call it my “bed tea” because I take that first fragrant cup back to bed with me, to wake up with, slowly. You can imagine how intimate I am with this lovely leaf, my precious bedfellow.

I cant just pick up another farm’s tea to supplement our ever growing demand. None of our tea is ever selected willy-nilly, but our White Silver Tip is particularly close to my heart.

This year I ventured away from the fabled hills of Fuding in Fujian province - the champagne of white tea. I went instead to visit the small organic farm in Guizhou to see one of my oldest Chinese tea friends. He was growing and harvesting a new crop of White Silver Tip just for us.

The buds are a bit smaller. The different terroir affects the shape and the size. It's far higher in altitude. The growth is slower. The buds less fat. When I first infused it I was afraid. Maybe it just wouldn't be good enough.

But I didn't have to drink it to know it was sublime. I just had to lift the lid of my teapot and smell the aroma. It’s sublime. The taste is transporting.

 


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