Known to be one of the most delicate tea varieties, White tea is harvested before the tea plant’s leaves are fully opened, when the young buds are still covered with fine white hairs, hence the name “white” tea.
Giving the tea its name, the fine white hairs, are also a sign of good quality. Considered by some connoisseurs to be the height of gourmet tea white tea is just starting to make an impact in the west.
All true teas – white, green, oolong, black and Pu-erh come from the Camellia Sinensis plant, an evergreen bush indigenous to both China and India. A key differentiator between tea styles is in how the various teas are processed and oxidised – that is how long the tea leaves are exposed to oxygen once they have been harvested – for each tea style. See Tea 101 for more details
How did White Tea Originate?
During the early imperial Chinese dynasties (between 600 and 1300 BC) tea drinking and tea culture was flourishing across the country and a tea tax was introduced. Citizens were required to pay a yearly tribute to the Emperors in the form of rare and fine teas. This imperial tea tribute was typically made from finest tea plants using their youngest, newest and most delicate buds
These tributes are considered the earliest forms of white tea. During the Song Dynasty and Emperor Huizongs rule in 960 – 1297, young tea buds would be plucked in the spring, steamed and stripped of their outer leaf, meticulously rinsed with spring water, carefully air dried and then ground into a silvery white powder. This white powder would be whisked into hot water to create the finest tea available to the only person in China who could afford it – the Emperor. This is not the white tea we know today.
An alternative theory says that the original White Teas came from the Fujian province of China during the 18th Century Qing Dynasty. In 1885, specific cultivars of tea bushes were selected to make these teas. The most common cultivars include Da Hao (Big Silvery-Hair), Da Bai (Big White), and Xiao Bai (Small White).
Each type yields silvery-white leaf buds, which are traditionally harvested in the early spring. Because this annual, bud-only harvest produced a very limited crop, open leaf white tea production began in 1922 with the creation of White Peony (aka Pai Mu Tan or Bai Mu Dan) – increasing white tea production. These teas included the first and sometimes second open leaf along with the bud.
Most of the world’s white tea comes from China, however over the last few years, many tea growing regions of the world have started producing white teas using their own cultivar, most notably, India and Sri Lanka. These teas are different from those grown in China.
White Tea Flavors
White tea is known to be the most subtle of all tea varieties with a soft and delicate flavor profile when compared to green and black tea. This is because only the newest leaves from each bush is used, there is minimal processing and oxidation is not encouraged manually.
White teas flavor profile is often described as: grassy, fruity, melon, peach, vanilla, chocolate, citrus, honey, herby, mild, light and sweet.
White Tea Processing
There are three primary steps to white tea production:
The plants used for white tea production are typically grown at a very high elevation (usually 5000ft to 6000ft above median sea level). This environment and the cold air surrounding the plants, intensify the aromatic compounds within the plant, most of which are concentrated within the young buds and new leaves.
The buds and unfurled leaves from the newest growth on the tea plant are hand plucked. In the finest white teas, only the unopened buds – still covered by fine white hairs are hand plucked and harvested, in others the newest leaves are plucked soon after opening.
These freshly picked leaves are then quickly spread out and allowed to wither until they are completely dry. The leaves are meticulously handled as they are not allowed to oxidise, like you would when producing other tea styles. This minimal processing and low oxidation results in some of the most delicate and freshest tea available.
Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate on the day of harvest, when this happens a dryer set at a very, very low temperature and is used to help the leaves wither faster.
The three most popular white teas are:
Silver needle (Chinese name: Baihao Yinzhen) – The Chinese translation of this teas name is; white hair silver needle, so called because when looking at the tea there appear to be white hairs on each leaf. This type of white tea is the crème de la crème of white teas. Only the unopened leaf (bud) is plucked between March and April. It is very delicate and has a sweet, fresh floral note to it. Being the highest grade of white tea, Silver needle commands an equally high price.
Bai Mu Dan (Chinese name: White Peony) but also known as Pai Mu Tan. The name of this tea is said to have been inspired by Peony flowers. Like Silver Needle, this tea consists of unopened buds with the addition of two young leaves underneath the bud. The flavour of White Peony is fresh, mellow and sweet but more robust and fuller than Silver needle
Shou Mei (Chinese name: Longevity Eyebrows) – the long wiry look of its tea leaves give rise to its poetic name. With Silver Needle, the buds are picked, Bai Mu Dan, a bud and two leaves, Shou Mei often has three leaves plucked which also gives rise to the robustness in the cup. The flavour and aroma of this tea is reminiscent of a lighter oolong tea. This tea is less expensive to the other teas.
There are only about 10 milligrams of caffeine in a 230 ml cup of white tea, giving it a relatively low level of caffeine, in comparison to other caffeinated beverages. Although, this does vary depending on cultivar.
White tea can provide an energetic boost, isn’t as addicting and doesn’t result in withdrawal symptoms as say, a black tea.
Brewing / Preparing White tea
You will hear many “rules” on how to brew a cup of white tea but white teas are very forgiving and versatile making their smooth, naturally sweet qualities excellent teas to use when learning about brewing tea.
When brewing white tea a thing to consider is to brew the tea in cooler water (around 80C – 82C) for a longer time. This will yield sweetness and a soft, delicate quality. Hotter water, around 87C for a shorter time will make a brighter cup with more body.
Use about +2 heaped teaspoons of loose leaf tea to 230 ml water as most white teas can be very large and fluffy.
A single serving of white tea can be brewed several times, with each steeping revealing another flavor element.
Experiment with these methods to find the perfect cup of white tea to fit your tastes.
Effective in reducing risk of tooth decay / cavity
Reduces risk of various cardiovascular disorders
Aids in managing diabetes
Helps prevent cancer
Protects skin against effects of ultraviolet light
Aids in maintaining healthy and youthful skin
Reduces risk of premature aging
Beneficial in weight loss