If you study Chinese herbal medicine, you’d notice that a lot medicines have very poetic names. For example, “Arum” in Chinese is literally called “Southern Star/天南星”. (Chinese herb medicine uses arums to treat stroke, epilepsy, coughing, and many other symptoms.) If you don’t know what it is, it’s nearly impossible to figure out what the medicine is used for.
The artistic but confusing naming system is because most Chinese herbal medicines use names of the plants instead of their scientific medical names.
Throughout the Chinese history, the medical use of different herbs were discovered. Tea leaves were originally used as medicine as well. The ancient legend says that “Shen Nong/神农”, a mythological Chinese deity, was food poisoned on his journey of “tasting all herbs” in the world, and it was tea that cured him.
Of course, we cannot verify whether this story is true or if “Shen Nong” even existed; however, we can still find some traces of tea’s medical background in white tea.
White tea has a very minimalistic tea-making. It’s the most natural and direct expression of tea plants. Aged premium white tea products have a distinct herbal medicine aroma. This aroma is usually developed after aging for 3+ years.
What does it smell like?
When we say “herbal medicine aroma”, many people would assume it’s a bitter, astringent, and unpleasant smell.
This is a big misunderstanding. First of all, not all herbal medicines are bitter. Secondly, the bitterness is often the result of herbs being brewed. When herbs are dry, they just have an earthy aroma.
White tea’s herbal medicine aroma is the same. It’s a sedative, secluded, and long-drawn aroma. Some white tea lovers would use this smell to calm themselves before a yoga meditation or a calming incense-burning.
What kind of white tea can have this “herbal medicine smell”?
The short answer is a good quality white tea with a certain period of aging. An “aged” low-quality white tea is still considered as a low-quality tea, and it won’t carry the herbal medicine smell. Remember, aging won’t turn a bad tea into a good one,
Because white tea doesn’t have a “kill-green/杀青” step, which uses heat to terminate the fermentation, white tea can be aged and its active enzymes can be transformed in storage. After several years’ enzymatic oxidization, fragrance substances in white tea leaves can develop a charming “herbal medicine aroma”.
Is this aroma exclusive to aged white tea?
Well, it depends on how we define the term “aged”. Typically, aging for 3 years is considered as the threshold. Good quality white tea products aged for 3 years normally have a herbal medicine aroma. But the “3-year” rule is not always required. Very high quality white tea products can also develop the herbal medicine aroma within a year.
If we want to experience an aged white tea, must we brew it?
The best way to experience a white tea’s aroma is to infuse it with a standard china Gaiwan.
As a material, china doesn’t absorb smells. Therefore, it can best present the transformation of a white tea’s aroma.
Brewing is also a good way to taste a white tea. But if we want to experience more aromas, brewing is not recommended.
This is because brewing’s constant high water temperature stimulate the evaporation of white tea’s fragrance substances. After brewing for a short time, all aromas will escape.
Finally, we’d like to make clear that a good quality aged white tea definitely has the herbal medicine aroma, but it cannot have just the herbal medicine aroma only. A good aged white tea should also have other common aromas such as aromas of reed-leaf, crops, jujube, flowers and fruits.
Normally, these aromas won’t decrease or disappear with aging. They only get mellower with time.
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