Albino tea cultivars are tea trees whose leaves at some time (for example, in spring, at the beginning of the vegetation season) are notably lighter in color than those of common tea trees. Such trees are mentioned in The Treatise on Tea (大观茶论, Da Guan Cha Lun) written by the Chinese emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty in 1107. The emperor, whose end is known to be an unhappy one, stated that white-leaf tea trees are very rare, but very delicious tea is made from them, if a proper processing method is applied.
At present, one can speak of a surge in interest in albino tea cultivars, they are actively and comprehensively studied. Before making a short review of such studies, we’d like to make a couple of remarks.
First, leaves of albino tea cultivars can be almost white, light green, and yellow. They are lighter in color than “standard” green tea leaves, but usually they are not pure white. Second, usually, albino leaves are used for making green tea. It can look like ordinary green or white tea. It’s not an extreme rarity. Anji Baicha green tea, which is often found in tea shops, is made from an albino tea cultivar, for example.
So, at the moment, there’s a number of tea cultivars, which, if properly reproduced, allow us to receive albino tea trees. Here is a list of Chinese albino tea cultivars which we came across in scientific studies. The names are given the way they were mentioned in the studies:
- Baijiguan. Wuyishan (Fujian province).
- Anji Baicha (aka Baiyecha 1, aka White leaf No. 1, aka Bai Ye Yi Hao). Anji (Zhejiang province).
- Huangjinya. Ningpo (Zhejiang province).
- Anji Huangcha. Anji (Zhejiang province).
- Suyuhuang. Wuxi (Jiangsu province).
- Huangjincha 1. Hunan province.
- Zhonghuang 1. Zhejiang province. Developed by Tea Research Institute (TRI) of CAAS, Hangzhou.
- Qiannianxue. Zhejiang province, expanded in also Sichuan and Guizhou.
- Yu-Jin-Xiang. Zhejiang province.
- Jinguang. Zhejiang province.
All albino tea trees can be divided into two groups: photosensitive and thermosensitive. Photosensitive cultivars have light-colored young shoots during the time of the year when the sun is most active, and when there’s less sunlight, their leaves become darker and acquire usual green color. Huangjinya, Yu-Jin-Xiang and Jinguang are photosensitive albino cultivars. Young leaves of thermosensitive albino tea trees are lighter in color when air temperature is cool, but when it raises up to 20-22 °С, the leaves become greener. Anji Baicha and Xiaoxueya are thermosensitive albino cultivars.
The main properties of teas made from albino leaves are approximately the same and do not depend on the nature of albinism. In teas made from leaves of albino tea cultivars, comparable to non-albino teas, there are more amino acids and similar compounds (including theanine), less caffeine and less catechins. As a rule, albino teas have more pronounced umami taste, no bitterness, and less astringency.
As any potential micro-driver of the market, albino teas are subjects of many studies nowadays. The collection of these studies is systemless, so our review will most likely remind a patchwork kilt.
If albino tea trees are shaded, their leaves turn greener, but the content of catechins in them remain slower than in non-albino teas.
Near-infrared spectroscopy and chemometrics make it possible to quickly and non-destructively distinguish between white tea and green tea made from albino tea leaves. This is, undoubtedly, a very valuable piece of knowledge, since we all have spectrometers which are only gathering just now.
DNA-markers help identifying albino tea trees and their young plants at times when their leaves are green (e.g. in autumn).
In Sichuan and in Hubei newly introduced albino tea cultivars were compared with local commonly used cultivars. In Sichuan, albinos Huangjinya, Jinguang and Yujinxiang were compared with Fudingdabaicha; and as a result it was noted that Yujinxiang has strong production potential. In Hubei, albinos (Huangjingcha 1, Anji Baicha and Zhonghuang 1) were compared with Echa 1, which was a dominant tea cultivar in Hubei. Besides the analysis of biochemical components, the study focused on sensory quality detection, which showed that “Anji Baicha was the most excellent one, followed with the Huangjincha 1, and Zhonghuang 1 showed a similar level with Echa1”. The three albino tea cultivars were found suitable for high grade green tea production.
And below there’s a link to a Japanese study, where they say that Japan also has its own albino tea cultivars (Hoshinomidori, Kiraka, Yamabuki and Morokozawa), that one of them was first registered in1981, and that, at present, they use leaves of albino tea cultivars to make light-green matcha tea.
Check your tea knowledge with our Brief Tea Quiz series! The second issue includes a question about albino teas.