Friday, July 22, 2011

White Peony - Not A Flower Tea

Last night my friend J came over to have tea at our house. He brought over some White Peony (白牡丹 - Bai Mu Dan) bought during his recent trip to Nanjing, China. He said he likes the tea a lot for its rosy fragrant and lasting aftertaste. So we tried the tea. I took a look at the dry leaves before putting them into the teapot and they look like some sort of oolong tea. The appearance was good for an oolong. But it smelled exactly like a flower tea (花茶 - tea with added floral aroma). A lot of red flags here.

So it turned out the tea wasn't bad, just like J described, with a floral fragrant and decent aftertaste. The leaves used to make this tea was of good quality and the tea was crafted well for an oolong - no obvious bitterness and quite smooth with good body. I think the tea would be better if the floral fragrant weren't added because the floral taste totally overwhelmed the tea's own taste. Traditionally dried flower is used in tea making to cover unwanted (read unpleasant) flavor or to add flavor to flavorless tea. Ironically nowadays flower tea is actually amount the best selling tea. So tea makers just add floral fragrant to all kinds of tea, even decent ones like this oolong J bought. Please note that flower tea must be distinguished from other tea that naturally carries a floral or fruity aroma.

Getting back to the "White Peony" we had last night. We steeped the tea a few times before I told J that what we were drinking was just flower tea, not White Peony. He looked at me like "What?" I then explained to him what a White Peony really is and I want to share what I told him with my readers here.

Different grades of White Peony dry leaves

First of all, White Peony is a white tea, not an oolong. A white tea is not oxidized during the tea making process, whereas the oolong is oxidized partially.

Secondly, White Peony gets its name from what it looks like when steeped, not what it taste like. It gets its raw leaves from the same type of tea bush with the Silver Needle. So common sense can tell that if the Silver Needle doesn't carry a floral aroma, then the White Peony shouldn't either. The name White Peony is a direct translation from its name in Chinese 白牡丹 (白= white, 牡丹= peony). The "white" part of its name is descriptive of the white hair that covers bud and the back of the one or two attached leaves used to make this tea. The "peony" part of the name comes from the look of the bud and leaves when steeped. The hairy bud on top of the green leaves makes it look like a flower on a stem. As to why peony was chosen, instead of the many other famous flowers, there are many explanations out there. I personally err on the side that believe peony was chosen because Chinese people traditionally call it the king of flower and its long presence in Chinese history.

I hope this clarify the misunderstanding that White Peony should have a floral aroma. I have tasted different White Peonys that taste quite different, but none of it with a floral aroma. The different taste, of course, is the result of different tea bush characteristic and tea maker's craftsmanship.

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