White tea is not often judged by grades. There are simply too many kinds out there – from China alone – to pinpoint a hierarchy. However, there is a general understanding that the “Big 3″ are Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yinzhen), White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), and Longevity Eyebrow (Shou Mei) rounding out the triad. However, once you take into account other growing regions – such as those in India, Sri Lanka, Africa, and even the U.S. – into the mix, it throws the trinity into question. One thing that isn’t argued is that these came first.
Shou Mei is considered the lowest grade because it is the byproduct of Silver Needle and White Peony production. The leaves that are left over (Da Bai varietal, usually) are incorporated into Shou Mei. I guess you could think of it as the kukicha of the white tea world. And yet, strangely enough, I don’t think I ever tried it.
So, when the opportunity came to try, not just a Shou Mei but an aged Shou Mei, I jumped at the chance. I have to thank the purveyor of this here site for forwarding this to me. I sat on it for awhile, though, because…well…I had no basis for comparison. What did actual, young Shou Mei taste like?
Roughly a month after receiving the aged stuff, I got a package in the mail containing some gifted Shou Mei from a fellow tea blogger. Now I had no excuse to put off trying both and compare. On with the show…er…Shou Mei. Heh…heh…okay, I’ll stop now.
First, the old: This was, apparently, a 20-year-old Shou Mei. I wasn’t aware that white tea could be aged. After all, the type was known for its…well…youngness. Up to this point, I had tried pu-erh cakes pressed with tea buds but never a full-on ancient white tea. I assumed the process used for this was similar to the way they aged oolongs – brought out after a few years, re-roasted, then put back in storage.
The leaves for this looked like loose, raw (sheng) pu-erh – green-to-brown leaves with an earthy aroma bordering on musty. It was more pleasant than I anticipated, though. More so than an oolong of equal age.
The new: The leaves for these resembled Bai Mu Dan to me. The only thing that indicated a difference was the color – more brown than green. However, like all white teas should, it possessed the downy fur indicating the youth of the leaves. That and there was a light, melon-like aroma.
There is often some debate as to whether or not Shou Mei can be considered a white tea. From what I was seeing here, there is no argument. It looked and smelled like a lovely white.
Brewing Instructions: I really didn’t have much to go on here. I read that one could use anywhere from 176F water to 190F. That was quite a spread. I opted for a middle-ground of 180F and a two-and-a-half-minute steep for both. (I was told that the aged stuff could hold well at a regular white tea prep.)
Comparison: First I sipped the young Shou. The liquor was pale yellow, pretty typical for a white tea. The aroma was alarmingly sweet and grape-like. It was treading on Bai Mu Dan territory in fragrance. Taste-wise, it had an expectedly fruity forefront that transitioned into a nectarine texture. I can see where people can mistaken it for an oolong. This reminded me of a Chinese-grown Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao).
The two-decade-old Shou Mei brewed much darker, bold gold rather than pale yellow. The aroma was expectedly earthy, strikingly similar to a pu-erh of equal age. On taste, once I got past the initial feeling of “old”, it settled rather nicely into a smoky, wild-seeming sensation. There was a hint of grapiness, but it was overshadowed by the overall ancient feeling on the tongue. Some comparisons could be drawn between it and an aged oolong. While I liked those, this was far more pleasant.
As a capper to the precedings, I did something no right-minded connoisseur would do. I mixed the two. And…you know what? I think that was my favorite sipping. Yes, I have a weird tongue.
Verdict: For those desiring something soft, sweet, and not as subtle as other white teas…go for the young. Pu-erh fans will find a lot to like in the aged variety. Personally, I would stick with white bud pu-erhs, but this still has its merits. For one, it lasts several infusions. And if you have the opportunity, mix the old and new.
That should raise a “longevity eyebrow”…or three.
Written by Geoff
Its All About the Leaf Reviewer
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