Photo credit: Wight Tea Co
White tea is named for the beautiful white down (little hairs) covering the leaf, and is known for its subtlety of fragrance, taste and color. White tea is subject to controversy and contradiction – even within China, there are differing opinions about what white tea is, where it comes from and how it’s made. Read this lesson to learn more about what differentiates white tea from the rest of the tea leaves made from the Camellia sinensis plant.
WHITE TEA ORIGINS
Pan-fired green tea production was well established in China before white tea was first devised in the late 1700s in Fujian Province. To make white tea, the leaves were not pan-fired like green teas were; white tea leaves were harvested in early spring, carefully sun-dried for several days if conditions allowed, given a brief roasting to remove residual moisture and prevent degradation of the leaves while being stored. Otherwise, they were brought inside to a room where heat and windows were used to regulate ambient temperature.
During the 19th century in Fujian, cultivation of the Da Bai Hao bush (a Camellia sinensis cultivar) increased, and it was discovered that certain types produced large, fleshy buds and leaves covered with fine white hairs (down) – these cultivars were designated as authentic white tea cultivars. Authentic Silver Needle tea still comes from these cultivars in Fujian today.
Around 1922, a new type of white tea was developed – White Peony – which included not only buds but also two leaves along with each bud plucked.
In 1968, another new white tea was developed – Shou Mei – in Fuding, Fujian province. This tea was often made from older leaves, lower on the branch, and was allowed to oxidize in order to create deeper, oolong-like flavors.
WHITE TEA PROCESSING
Although white tea undergoes the least amount of processing of any tea, it still requires care and skill to get just right!
PLUCKING: Silver Needle traditionally comes from Fujian Province, China and only consists of the leaf tips/buds of the Dabai cultivar when they first appear in early spring. Only buds may be plucked, or they could be separated from other leaves after plucking. White Peony and Shou Mei white teas also include leaves.
WITHERING: The leaves are laid out to wither after they are plucked, in order to reduce their moisture content. They may be withered outside, if the weather is warm and dry enough. Otherwise, they can be weathered indoors in temperature-controlled rooms.
DRYING: The moisture content is reduced further in order to stabilize the leaf while it is packed and stored. It could either continue to be withered outdoors, or could be baked dry.
WHITE TEA TYPES
One of the rarest and most expensive teas. Traditionally from the Dabai cultivar of Fujian, China, only the finest tea buds are plucked – it takes more than 4,500 hand-sorted leaves to make a pound of this tea! Silver Needle is known for its potent health benefits, because the bud is where the tea plant stores most of its antioxidants and other beneficial compounds (as well as caffeine!).
Includes both leaves and buds of the tea plant, generally picked later than Silver Needle. The leaves have multiple colors due to varying degrees of oxidation – green, gray and brown – and a silvery bud. It produces a stronger infusion than Silver Needle and is thus preferred for making white tea blends.
Translated directly as “Longevity Eyebrow,” Shou Mei is produced from leaves and buds that may have been plucked later than Bai Mudan, making it darker and coarser. The leaves may have colors ranging from green, golden, black and red, and the flavor is stronger, reminiscent of some types of oolong tea. Considered a lower grade white tea because of fewer buds and later-harvested leaves, Shou Mei also may contain the lowest amount of caffeine of all white teas. It is sometimes pressed into cakes and allowed to age! We love this Aged Shou Mei from Teabook. Learn more and access a special discount here.
Left: Silver Needle | Middle: White Peony | Right: Shou Mei
WHITE TEA BLENDS
You can find a variety of blended, scented or flavored white teas. White Peony is commonly used as the base tea because it is fuller-flavored and more easily accessible than Silver Needle. Often, companies will sell only pure Silver Needle because it is such an exquisite tea, best appreciated in its pure form. But you may find some very nice Silver Needle blends with flowers such as jasmine, osmanthus or chrysanthemum.
Here are a few examples of flavored or blended white teas we love:
TASTING WHITE TEA
White teas are revered for their delicate, floral aromas and flavors. Some descriptors for white teas could include: floral, honey, fruity, peach, apricot, sweet, delicate, silky, hay, oats. Note any silvery hairs that appear on the surface of your cup – this is a sign of high quality!
CAFFEINE CONTENT IN WHITE TEA
White tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant, which naturally contains caffeine, so it should never be referred to as “decaf” or “caffeine-free” unless it explicitly says so on the package – and even then, there will be at least trace amounts of caffeine.
There is a lot of misinformation circulating in the US regarding white tea – such as the myth that all white tea is “lowest in caffeine and highest in antioxidants.” In fact, you shouldn’t estimate relative caffeine content based on the tea type, but rather how tippy the tea is, or the proportion of the tea that consists of tea leaf tips and buds.
The tip-top buds are the part of the tea plant that contains the highest caffeine concentration, because the tea plant produces caffeine to defend the delicate buds against insects. The bud also contains high levels of antioxidants and L-theanine (read more about L-theanine in Lesson 108), which counteracts the effect of caffeine on your body by creating a relaxed calm – meaning you might not actually feel the higher caffeine in silver needle.
Caffeine levels in white tea depend on a range of factors – the specific type of white tea, if it’s loose or bagged, where it comes from, how you steep it, and so on. In general, white teas contain anywhere from 10-75mg of caffeine per cup (compared to ~100-200mg in a cup of coffee). If you’re trying to avoid caffeine as much as possible, go with less tippy types, such as Shou Mei or White Peony, or white tea blends that have a lower proportion of actual tea. Also, try to avoid tea bags as they generally contain more caffeine. Read more about caffeine in tea with Lesson 109.
BUYING AND STORING WHITE TEA
When choosing a white tea to purchase, there are a few factors you should keep in mind:
SILVER NEEDLE (BAI HAO YIN ZHEN): Should only consist of buds - the buds should be plump, consistent in size and shape, have silvery soft hairs, and there should be no bud or leaf pieces or open/hollow buds. In the cup, high grades will be a pale yellow with a subtle aroma and flavor, and you may be able to see some little hairs floating up to the surface.
WHITE PEONY (BAI MUDAN): High quality White Peony should have two intact greenish-gray leaves attached to a bud covered with silvery hairs. They should be uniform, and unbroken for the most part. The liquid should be clear with a fresh, mildly sweet flavor with little or no astringency.
SHOU MEI: May have a light amber color in the cup and a sweet flavor. While Shou Mei is sometimes regarded as a “lower grade” white tea, that doesn’t mean it’s low quality – its fuller flavor may be preferable in iced teas and to accompany foods.
White tea should be treated similarly to delicate green teas when storing – it should ideally be consumed within 6 months to a year of purchase (if it’s relatively fresh when you buy it), however, some Shou Mei white teas can last longer, and may even be intentionally aged – you should check with the tea vendor or on the package for guidelines specific to the tea type you are purchasing. As with most teas, you should store your white tea in a cool, dark place, away from moisture and strong smells, and ideally in an airtight container or sealed package.
PREPARING WHITE TEA
While it’s always best to check with your tea vendor or look on the package/website for brewing instructions specific to your white tea type, here are a few general guidelines:
HOW TO BREW WHITE TEA
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
- Water Kettle or Pot to Heat Water
- Tea Leaves / Sachets / Bags
- Teapot with Filter / Teacup / Personal Mug and Filter
STEP ONE: HEAT THE WATER
- 160℉-190℉ // Below boiling
The exact temperature depends on the specific type of white tea (some white teas can be brewed a bit longer and with hotter water than green teas, but others are more delicate and should be treated like green tea)
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a way of setting the temperature on your method of boiling water, bring the water to a soft boil (tiny bubbles) and then allow it to cool down or transfer into another pitcher before pouring into your tea. Never use boiling water for green tea!
Pro Tip: Use filtered water for the best tasting cup!
STEP TWO: MEASURE THE TEA
- 2-3 g leaf per 8 oz water (white teas are generally fluffier than other sorts, so instead of 1 tsp leaf, you should measure closer to 1 tbsp of leaf)
Pro Tip: Add tea leaves to an infuser that lets them open fully, or you can put them straight into the teapot and use a strainer when you're pouring a cup!
STEP THREE: STEEP THE TEA
- 2-3 minutes depending on the type and your strength preference
Pro Tip: Don't let your tea steep for too long! It's best to take the leaves/sachet/bag out when the time's up so you aren't left with a bitter cup. Taste your tea after the recommended steeping time and then decide if you’d like it to steep a little longer.
Pro Tip: Cover your tea while it steeps to keep all the heat and aroma in the steeping vessel.
Additions: Try the tea straight up first! If it’s really necessary, you may want to add a touch of honey or other natural sweetener to accentuate the flavor. We don’t recommend adding much else because the flavor is so delicate already.
STEP FOUR: ENJOY :)
Note: Cold brewing can help bring out more of the sweet, fruity, or floral notes in some white teas. Learn how to cold brew tea here.
Check out this short video on how to prepare white tea:
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Written By: Melanie Mock