Shoumei (寿眉) is a type of white tea that is made from the upper leaf and tips of the tea plant. It has a stronger taste than other white teas and is often compared to lighter oolong teas. Shoumei is primarily grown in Fujian and Guangxi Provinces in China.
The tea is made from Da Bai or Large White leaves and is technically a by-product of Baihao Yinzhen tea production. Shoumei can vary in color, but should still have a green hue. Some lower grades of Shoumei may have golden color with black and red leaves, resulting in a darker brew with more depth.
What is Shoumei Tea?
White teas come from two main regions in China – Yunnan and Fujian (specifically Fuding and Zhenghe). In Fujian, there are three different grades of white tea based on the type of tea tree and picking standards: Baihao Yinzhen (silver needle), Bai Mu Dan (White Peony), and Shoumei.
The name “Shoumei” comes from its leaf shape, which resembles the eyebrow of a long-living man, that’s why its other name is “Longevity Eyebrow”. Shoumei tea is made from the Dabai tea trees and is picked in the spring, summer, and autumn, with one bud and the fourth and fifth leaves picked.
Because the source leaves are older and have more tea stems, Shoumei tea looks like withered fallen leaves, which can give the impression of low quality. Additionally, the leaves belong to the lowest level in the grading system, so it is often considered a low-grade tea.
However, Shoumei tea has a longer picking period than Silver Needle and White Peony, which allows for more leaves to be produced, making up over 50% of the total yield of white tea. This abundance of supply leads to a lower price for Shoumei tea.
Is It Cheap and Low Grade?
Shoumei tea may have a low price and be made from low-grade source-leaves, but that does not necessarily mean it is low-quality. As a type of white tea, Shoumei is known for its minimal processing, which retains more natural ingredients. After picking, the leaves with stem are left to wither for several days to remove the grassy smell and undergo a slight fermentation. They are then roasted into rough tea.
Tea masters screen and blend the rough tea to create the final products, with the highest quality Shoumei previously known as Gongmei. In the past, Chinese export products only featured Gongmei and not Shoumei, which may be more familiar to some people. To preserve the tea for a longer time, the tea masters steam the white tea leaves to soften them and then compress them into a cake, similar to the process of making dark tea. The old leaves and stems in Shoumei tea are useful for aging since they contain more natural ingredients that facilitate the aging process.
Aged Shoumei tea has a medicinal aroma and develops a mellow taste, which makes it a favorite of many tea lovers. It is essential to note that Shoumei leaves can be picked from spring to autumn, and the quality differs with each season. Generally, the highest quality leaves are obtained in the spring, making spring Shoumei more suitable for aging.
The Difference Between Shoumei and Gongmei White Tea
Shoumei white tea is also known as Gongmei tea, which can lead to confusion as tea merchants often use the names interchangeably. However, Gongmei and Shoumei are different types of tea.
Gongmei means “tribute tea” in Chinese and is said to have been exclusively supplied to the emperor in the past. However, this claim lacks evidence. Gongmei and Shoumei were both made from the Xiaobai tea trees in the past, but now they are made from different types of tea trees.
Gongmei is made from the buds and leaves of population cultivar tea trees and has a smaller, longer, and thinner leaf with more buds. Shoumei, on the other hand, is made from the buds and leaves of Dabai, Narcissus, and population cultivar tea trees, and has a bigger leaf and stem with fewer buds.
In 2018, the Chinese government promulgated regulations that redefined the standards for Gongmei and Shoumei tea. These regulations differentiate Gongmei and Shoumei tea and provide a simple way to identify them.
While tea merchants may still make mistakes in their packaging, it is important to note that low-grade does not necessarily mean low-quality. Both types of tea are worth trying, and one should not let the grading system determine their enjoyment of tea.
How to Identify Fresh vs. Old Shoumei Tea
White tea is unique in that it isn’t fixed during processing, which allows the leaves to continue fermenting over time. As a result, the flavor of Shoumei tea can change significantly with age. Shoumei tea that has been stored for less than a year is considered fresh, while tea stored for 1-2 years is considered aged, and tea stored for over 3 years is considered old.
Fresh Shoumei tea has a delicate aroma and a clear, rich mouthfeel. But after a few months of aging, the flavor begins to change, becoming richer with a slight floral aroma and a softer mouthfeel. Over time, the tea develops a mature, mellow flavor with a strong floral and Chinese medicine aroma.
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous merchants may try to pass off fresh Shoumei tea as old tea. To avoid being duped, look for these signs:
- Appearance: Old Shoumei tea may contain many broken leaves due to its long storage time. The fuzz on the leaves will have mostly fallen off, and the surface of the tea cake may appear to be covered with a layer of wax. Fresh Shoumei tea looks brown-green or grey-green, while the color of old Shoumei tea will be darker.
- Smell: Some artificially aged Shoumei tea will have a strong warehouse smell. Natural aging Shoumei tea, on the other hand, has a pleasant and natural scent.
- Infusion Color: The simplest way to distinguish between fresh and old Shoumei tea is by the color of the infusion. Fresh Shoumei tea produces an apricot-colored infusion, which deepens to orange and finally red as the tea ages. However, be aware that some Shoumei tea cakes may appear slightly red due to their source leaves being picked in summer, so the color isn’t always a reliable indicator.
Improving the Flavor of White Tea Through Aging
Aging is a process that can enhance the flavor of both white and dark tea, but their underlying theories are different. For white tea, the active enzyme effects are critical, while dark tea relies more on microorganisms. Therefore, it’s important not to store white and dark tea together, or else one of them will spoil.
When storing Shoumei white tea, there are four aspects to consider:
- Keep Out of the Sun: Since white tea is not fixated, it retains a lot of chlorophyll, and the leaves will turn yellow when exposed to the sun for an extended period. This exposure can cause natural ingredients to break down, leading to the loss of the original flavor.
- Keep Dry: Dark tea thrives in a slightly humid environment, but white tea needs to remain dry. Ideally, Shoumei tea should be stored in a place with approximately 45% humidity. If white tea is exposed to a damp environment for an extended period, it can easily develop mold and produce a “plum aroma.”
- Temperature: As a slightly fermented tea, Shoumei is sensitive to temperature. An ideal range is 10℃ to 25℃. If it’s too cold, the enzyme activity slows down, making the aging process too slow. If it’s too hot, the fermenting process speeds up, and the flavor can become damaged.
- Storage Container: Choosing the right storage container for aging Shoumei tea is crucial. Unlike dark tea, white tea doesn’t need ventilation during storage, and the container must be sealed. Additionally, white tea can easily absorb nearby smells, so the container should be non-smell. An iron or cardboard can with a foil interior can be a good choice.
The brewing process for Shoumei can vary greatly, but it is important to use high-quality mineral water to bring out the tea’s sweetness and aroma. Over-brewing can lead to a bitter and strong taste. White teas are typically brewed at a lower temperature than black teas, with a temperature of around 70 degrees Celsius being ideal. Steep times can range from two to five minutes, depending on personal preference.
For Gong fu style of brewing, where larger quantities of leaves and smaller quantities of water are used, a gaiwan or yixing teapot is preferred. Steep times for this method can be as short as seconds.