• The Oolong Drunk

The Inconceivable Lie We've ALL Been Told About White Tea

“You won’t change it if you won’t be held accountable for it…,” is the how this chilling and ominous discussion began.

“Everyone on every level knows it, and everyone goes along with it,” Derek continued.

When investigating a claim that began as a wild conspiracy theory, to begin a conversation about tea with such a bold statement, I knew that the truth would be a lot more complicated than what any conspiracy theory would allow.


Before we go further, let me preface all of this by taking you back to the end of November/beginning of December, 2020. I was drinking a brown-looking white tea-cake in a late night virtual tea session with close-friend Shawn.

I tea-drunkenly stated, “Have you ever noticed how all the majority of all of the aged white tea we see are all from the same few-years? And how nearly every company we know started selling them in 2017-2018? Could you imagine if all of our aged-white tea is faked?”

I sounded like a conspiracy theorist, Shawn laughed, and we moved on to other wild tea-related observations that would die with the end of our session…

Until a little over a month later when I accidentally stumbled upon an online tea-shop that sold ‘browned-white tea’. This random 3:00am discovery not only lit a fire within me to research the topic, it led to me to a video chat with Derek.


(Image: Fuding White Tea Market 2021 -- Source: One River Tea)




Derek, who’s originally from Kansas City, now lives in Guang-Dong while being one of three who runs One River Tea.

“I really got into tea back in 2009. I was quitting smoking cigarettes, and decided to replace the habit with tea,” he explained. After diving into the world of Big-Box Store-Brand tea bags, he transitioned into medicinal tisanes which later led to the world of loose-leaf teas. However, exploring the world of tea in China looked very different than you’d imagine here in the Western Market. After bringing up the tea he sold in his online-shop that sparked this conversation (which goes by the name of ‘Browned Shou Mei), he later explained how white tea can be processed to appear to be brown in color.


Before I go into that, let me explain what the more traditional way of processing white process looks like:

  • Tea leaves are plucked/harvested, then traditionally spread thin and evenly on large bamboo mats, while being lightly turned to air-dry in the sun — a process that both withers and dries the tea, before being sent to lightly cook to completely dry the leaves.


However, unlike the more traditional process of white tea, producing browned-white tea goes through a process that looks like this:


  • The tea leaves are plucked and harvested, before being spread thick on large bamboo mats. The tea also air-dries in the sun, but since teas are packed on the mats more densely, they create hot-humidity. The hotter the pile of leaves become, the quicker the moisture evaporates from the leaves — making the pile more humid in a continual cycle. In this continual cycle, the leaves turn brown.


Derek explained that this process of making traditional white tea is very technical, it also takes more skill to master — whereas processing browned-white tea is not nearly as technical, it results in a much larger yield. Tea farmers and producers can move a lot more product onto the wholesaler, much quicker. The appearance and quality aren't nearly as important with browned-white tea as it is greened-white tea, because most of the flaws in processing are masked when the tea is browned in processing. It’s not only cheaper to process tea this way, it also makes more money.


(Image: Raw Tea Being Sold at Fuding Tea Market 2021 -- Source: One River Tea)





However, while this answers one question, it doesn’t quite explain another. While recalling my original thought to Shawn, I observed that the sell of aged white tea was a lie because it was all primarily aged from the same years. In my original thought, I pointed out to Shawn that aged-white tea is primarily sold in the western-facing market from the years of 2009 or 2011, and 2014 or 2015. While that’s not always the case, it seems to be the majority across many vendors. However, after explaining this to Derek, he had a great explanation for why I observed something that’s actually not a conspiracy — I observed something that’s very real.


It can all be linked to the following term:



一年茶三年药七年宝


Or,

Yi nian cha san nian yao qi nian bao

Have you seen this term before? Or even heard it in passing? Well, for those who aren’t familiar with mandarin, the translation essentially goes like this:



One Year Tea, Three Year Medicine, 7 Year Treasure



But, how does this slogan tie back to my original observation?


According to Derek, this famous slogan can be seen all across Fuding. Due to popularity, this slogan is commonly found all over, and can even be found when labeling tea-packaging. However, it’s not just a second-hand account either. Tea entities such as Teavivire and Tching even referenced this slogan going back to 2014. According to one of the tea-farmers Derek works with, they personally didn’t start seeing this slogan until around 2010. In fact, this farmer didn’t start seeing it in 2010 by mistake — it was a deliberate marketing tactic that can be tied back to Chen Xinghua, the former director of the Standing Committee of the Fuding Municipal People’s Congress.


In 2007, Chen led a development group of the Fuding Ding City to overhaul the region’s development of white tea. To help gain traction of the push for white tea, Chen displayed the world’s largest white-tea brick at the first tea expo in Fujing. However, it wouldn’t be until three years later in 2010 when Chen took over an initiative at the Shanghai World Expo to present a re-branding of Fuding white tea.


This massive rebranding of Fuding white tea not only put white tea on the industry’s radar, it exploded in it. At the time, Fuding only had around 11 companies who branded and produced white tea. Now, there are well over 400. This massive overhaul proved to be profitable and spread like wildfire all over China. This re-branding not only ties back to the famed slogan 'One Year Tea, Three Year Medicine, 7 Year Treasure', it’s also where our current dilemma lies.

This is where the famed slogan comes into play with my original observation. It goes something like this: We only started seeing aged white tea from the years 2009/2011 and 2014/2015. In my original observation of tea-companies, these teas started being released by a wide-variety of tea companies in 2017-2018. In my original, in 2017, a white-tea from 2014 would just now start becoming medicine, and white tea from 2011 would now start becoming treasure.


After linking pieces of the puzzle together, I ran my theory by Derek. While catching on to something that’s very real, but not having enough data to back my observation, he did say I was correct on one thing: We are being lied to about the age of our white tea when it's sold to us.


Fuding White Tea Market 2021. Source: One River Tea

(Image: Fuding White Tea Market 2021 -- Source: One River Tea)


We are being lied to about the age of our white tea.

“Going to the whole-sale market, you see a 2020 Shou Mei. And some of it is green, some of it is brown — from the same producer. They’ll say, ‘We can make it green or we can make it brown depending on your needs’”

When asking what the needs are, Derek continued, “The famers at the wholesale market will even say brown sells better because it looks older.”

After pausing from hearing this jaw-dropping admission, he continued, “To hear it directly from producers like that is really miraculous.”

Now that we know where the marketing of white tea starts, I asked Derek how far up the chain this goes.

“One family, or one clan — usually in one village, will pull their resources and land harvested and process it together. The goal here for them is to sell their tea. The goal for them is to sell their tea, and make money,” he added

After a moment, Derek continued, “It starts at the farmer, then to the wholesaler, or the wholesale market. Then people will buy that tea loose, [process it], and label it however they want.”

Derek then gave an example about how false marketing doesn’t only start with the farmer — it can also start with a vendor.

“We were looking at some really nice BaiMuDan — spring harvested tea that looked really good. The label said, YeSheng.” (野生, which means ‘Wild Harvested’)

"I asked them if it was wild and they said no, [a vendor] just wanted them to put that label on there," Derek concluded.

Given that Fuding has subsidy programs for farmers to encourage the promotion, sell, and growth of white tea, you’d want to make the most money you can. If it were possible to produce a tea that'll bring in more profit without the extra effort, a lot of farmers and producers might be inclined to sell tea that way.


After talking to Derek further, I learned that lying about the age and origin of our white tea may not be the simple choice we all think it is. Derek proceeded to show me a video of a tea-plantation in a farm in Fuding being cut-down for failing to pass a herbicide test. Derek claimed that Fuding takes the production of their products very seriously at the farm. So when it comes to repaying the Fuding government for their subsidized loans, they may not be as reluctant to be as strict for what happens to the tea after its processed, as long as its sold. This suggests that people in the industry might not be lying by choice, but instead, may be lying out of necessity.


(Video: Farm being cut down. Source: @sweetestdew / instagram)




After ending my conversation with Derek, I went to my white tea stash and separated the tea into two-piles: One pile was tea I bought that was advertised as fresh at time of purchase, and another pile that was advertised as aged at time of purchase. Shockingly, I had a mix of both greened and browned-white tea on both ends. This even became more dizzying and confusing when I pulled out a cake of black tea and couldn’t make out the difference between the black and white tea in these cakes.


However, in the pile of tea that was advertised as ‘aged’ at the time I purchased it, the only variation of greened-white tea I owned came from Bitterleaf Teas. After making this realization that these might be the only ‘actual’ aged white teas I own, I reached out to the co-founder and co-operator of Bitterelaf Teas, Jonah for comment.


I started our conversation by asking him if the age of white tea is being lied about. Shockingly, he replied, “Yes, definitely.”

He continued, “It’s probably safe to assume that if there is money to be made off something that can’t be verified, someone, somewhere, is lying about it, unfortunately.”

When talking to Derek, he mentioned that the issue lies with every level of the tea industry — from the farmer, to the vendor. This made an even deeper impression when Jonah mentioned that the the issue is much more muddled than we think.

“Some people are just relating the information that they’ve been given about the tea,” Jonah said.


I started our conversation by asking him if the age of white tea is being lied about. Shockingly, he replied, “Yes, definitely.”

However, in my mind, the simplest solution to this issue would be transparency. When mentioning this to Jonah, he indicated that the road to being transparent is an inherently problematic one.

He said, “You can share as many pictures of tea trees, processing, sourcing trips, cakes, etc. on social media, but not a damn bit of it can be used to prove that's what your tea is in the end. Anyone in Yunnan (or other provinces) can find a garden with gushu in it, walk around, shoot pictures and videos, then buy some junk roadside maocha.”

While conversing with Jonah, I realized he made another point that Derek had made before. White tea was bottle-necked in the industry, and Fuding white tea didn’t explode onto the scene until after 2010. What this means, any aged-white tea that’s before 2010 is almost guaranteed to be a fake. More specifically, like I had found out before, only a small handful of tea-companies were driving Fuding white tea. Event that, white tea wasn’t as profitable then as it is now. Farmers rarely produced and kept white tea for long-term storage, and it often got tossed. If the white tea was saved, it would be incredibly rare. We wouldn’t be able to easily access it, given that we could.

Jonah and I ended our conversation about how to spot fake-aged white tea long before buying it.

With an exceptional piece of knowledge, Jonah advised,”If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Or in the same vein, you get what you pay for. This couldn't be more true with tea. People need to treat the $25 Laobanzhang cake or 2005 white tea cake on Amazon the same way they would a Gucci bag being sold out of someone's trunk.”


Later, I looked back at my own stash, and one question was left to be answered — how do I know which one of my aged white teas is a fake? We already know that if it originates past 2010 it should automatically be assumed to likely be faked. However, what else can I look out for? After reaching back out to Derek, he touched on something that Jonah later echoed — there’s really no ‘true’ way to know.


(Image: Pile of loose-leaf browned-white tea at Fuding Tea Market -- Source: One River Tea)




Despite so, Derek did suggest to perform a smell-experiment that works like this: When a browned-white tea is processed, it won’t ever obtain all of the delicate notes that greened-white tea has. However, if a greened-white tea is aged naturally, it’ll still hold all of the notes that comes with a fresher tea, such as grass or flowers. The older it’s aged the more woodsy it’ll become, and despite it being aged, it’ll still have traces of grass/flowers mixed with the wood. Whereas, browned-white tea will never have the floral/grassy aspect to it.


After talking to Derek and Jonah, I went back to my piles of of tea that I had bought that were advertised as aged at the time of purchase and performed a smell experiment. Then, I went back and performed the smell experiment with the pile of teas that I had bought that were fresh at time of purchase. Surprisingly, none of the aged browned-white teas from the stack possessed any grassy or floral notes. However, when comparing the aged greened-white teas with the fresh ones, there was noticeable similarities in odor between the two. With this in mind, I then pulled the aged browned-white teas with the new browned-white teas I owned and performed a smell experiment for a final time.


In conclusion, I found there was absolutely zero difference between the two…


Reaching this conclusion was not only concerning and devastating, it was out-right damning.


However, as we may enjoy these teas, the way in which it’s marketed and sold to us is a massive problem. After realizing that so many of the tea companies that we know sell versions of aged browned-white tea, I reached out to a large number of western-facing vendors. Surprisingly, not one company who sold tea in this was agreed to speak with me regarding the topic. This is not only when I realized that many of the tea companies we know not only have knowledge about the issue, they partake in it too.

In conclusion, I found there was absolutely zero difference between the two…
Reaching this conclusion was not only concerning and devastating, it was out-right damning.

With this, I fear that many tea-drinkers may jump to defense and say, “Well I don't know about anyone else, but I believe my tea is actually aged.”

If you think that your tea is the ‘only honest one’ for whatever reason you have, unless you aged it yourself, then your bias already made you buy into the lie. Even if the source of your aged white tea reassure you of the validity of it, and you believe it, then you’ve already been pre-conditioned to carry on the lie.

Like Jonah mentioned before, your source could unknowingly be lied to as well.

After reflecting back on times when I talked and reviewed about aged white tea on my blog and social media, a harrowing question came to mind…Did I unknowingly help carry the lie?

With all of this new information, I became sad. White tea in the way in which we know is so new to the market that we don’t inherently think to question it. We can assume that the larger lies within the market haven’t touched it yet, when Instead, it’s rooted in it. Unless we do more to educate each-other, the problem will only continue to get worse.


While packing up all of my white teas, I put aside the tea-cake that originally sparked this journey — the brown-colored white tea that I had when having late night tea with Shawn back in the winter. With a whiff of the 2020 cake, all I smelled was a sweet woodsy bourbon, laced with brown sugar. Despite not picking up on any grassy or floral notes, I remembered an excellent point that Derek previously made, “Just because it’s browned, doesn’t mean it taste any less. It’s still good tea, and there’s a reason why it’s so popular.”

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. This tea is one of my absolute favorite white teas that I own and the fact it’s browned never affected my enjoyment of it.


After finishing my investigation, I took that tea cake before storing it away and pried myself a few grams for a solo session. I then sat down on my papasan, turned on my kettle, and pulled out my phone to call Shawn.

Upon Shawn answering the phone, I started in,

“Remember that wild conspiracy theory I once came up with back in December about aged white tea? Well, I did some research and you’re never going to believe what I’m about to tell you….”


~The Oolong Drunk

"Blissfully Tea Drunk"


(Image: Virtual tea session with Shawn / Sharing my findings)



If you find any typos/mistakes in spelling, please notify contact@theoolongdrunk.com

I'd like to personally thank Derek, Jonah, and Dylan for their contributions to this report.

I would also like to thank Neldon H. and Sarah H. for assisting with editing.

I'd also like to personally thank Shawn S., Tabitha S., Joshua Z., Neldon H., Alex H., Jann, and Joe L. for the love and support they've given me while writing this report.

This report took 5 months worth of work across several countries and dozens of people.

This was truly a community effort.

To all of those who talked a big game and couldn't show up -- fuck you... and thank you for the motivation.


With love,


~Cody

Source/References:

  • Derek of One River Tea. Interview. Conducted by Cody ‘The Oolong Drunk’, 26 March, 2021

  • Jonah of Bitterleaf Teas. Interview. Conducted by Cody ‘The Oolong Drunk’, 5 April, 2021

  • M.sohu.com. 2020. Chen Xinghua: White tea lives up to its original intention. [online] Available at: <https://m.sohu.com/a/433177831_698232?ivk_sa=1024320u> [Accessed 30 March 2021].

  • M.sohu.com. 2020. Chen Xinghua: White tea lives up to its original intention. [online] Available at: <https://m.sohu.com/a/433177831_698232?ivk_sa=1024320u> [Accessed 28 March 2021].

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