Although white teas are becoming more common today, a few years ago, many had not ever heard of white tea. It is a beautiful and elegant type of tea, and in this post, I will explain eight facts that you should know.
What is it?
White tea is made from the newest leaves of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant, the same tea plant that is also used to make black, green and oolong tea.
There are two different ways to define white tea. One way is that it can only be called white tea if the leaves are from a specific cultivar of the tea plant (Da Bai Hao) grown in a specific location (Fujian, China) and processed in a specific way.
Others say white tea is defined by the processing alone. So, any tea leaf from any origin processed in the same manner as white tea manufactured in the Fujian province may be called white tea.
Where is it grown?
Originally, white tea only came from the Fujian province of China. Today, you may also find white tea grown in other provinces of China as well as other countries such as Sri Lanka, India, and Taiwan.
Why is it called “White” tea?
It is named for the white down that covers the new leaves. These are tiny hairs that protect the new bud from insects, winds, sun, rain, etc.
How is it processed?
White tea is the least processed of any type of tea. You may wish to review our Tea Primer for a general overview of how tea leaves are processed and made into different types of tea.
Historically and traditionally, white tea in China was made from the earliest spring flush/harvest. Even today, some argue that this early plucking is a minimal requirement for the authenticity of white tea. Others maintain that the tea is defined by the process, not the time of the year of the plucking.
There are two types of pluckings depending on which white tea is desired. One is where only the downy leaf buds are plucked without any open leaves. This is what is done for Yin Zhen and Silver Needles. Other white teas, such as Bai Mu Dan and Shou Mei, are made from a mixture of buds and young leaves.
After plucking, the leaves are spread out over bamboo racks and left to air dry for 12-24 hours, although some will speed up the drying process with fans.
After drying, the leaves are sorted to remove any broken leaves or other debris. Every effort is made to preserve the whole buds & leaves. This is a process that can be done by hand or machine.
One step missing from the above processing is any discussion of oxidation. From our Tea Primer, you will recall that black and oolong teas undergo oxidation, whereas green teas are unoxidized as they are heated to inactivate the oxidation enzymes.
What about white tea? That is a debate in the tea community. Because nothing is done to encourage oxidation, as with black and oolong teas, many consider these teas unoxidized. However, nothing is done to inactivate the enzymes, as with green teas. The leaves are handled very gently so the cells are not ruptured or bruised. However, some disruption of the leaf integrity will likely occur, causing some minor natural oxidation.
Does white tea contain caffeine?
You may have heard that white tea is lower in caffeine than other teas. However, the leaf buds contain a high level of caffeine, which acts as an insecticide to protect the new shoots. Depending on how you brew it, your cup may or may not be high in caffeine. See this post for the truth about tea and caffeine.
Are there different kinds of white tea?
At English Tealeaves, we currently carry two different varieties of white tea. The first is Silver Needles (Yin Zhen Bai Hao, Bai Hao Yin Zhen, Yin Zhen). It comes from a specific tea plant cultivar called Da Bai or Da Hao.
Traditionally, Silver Needles comes from plants grown in China's Fujian province. It is harvested early, from late March to early April. Only carefully hand-selected unfurled leaf tips (buds) are plucked. It takes more than 4500 hand-sorted leaves to make a pound of tea, thus contributing to its cost.
The leaves will indeed have the look of “silver needles.” The tea in the cup will be very light yellow with a sweet, nectar-like flavor and a rich, savory finish that some compare to straw and mushrooms.
The second type we carry is White Peony (Bai Mu Dan). With this version of white tea, two leaves are plucked In addition to the buds. It is then processed in the same manner as Silver Needles. It has a slightly stronger body than Silver Needles with mellow-sweet notes of fresh hay and accents of honey and nectar.
Some outlets may carry a third type called Tribute Eyebrow (Gong Mei). Although it looks similar to White Peony, the leaves are from a different plant varietal and are smaller and thinner. It brews up a much darker amber color with a stronger taste. As it is considered a lower-grade tea, it is less in cost.
A final type is Longevity or Long Life Eyebrow (Shou Mei). It is a coarser tea made as a by-product of Silver Needles & White Peony production or sometimes with a plucking later in the season. It is a much lower grade of white tea often made from older leaves lower on the branch. It may even undergo some intentional oxidation. This, of course, affects the flavor, leading some to describe it as an oolong-like flavor.
How should you brew it?
Amount of tea – You may want to review our prior post on brewing loose-leaf tea. As that post explains, we recommend one rounded teaspoon of tea for six ounces of water. However, white tea leaves are larger than many other teas. Therefore, you will need more. If you do not have a scale to weigh the leaves, you will want to start with two teaspoons for every six ounces of water. You can always adjust up or down to suit your tastes.
Water temperature – The typical recommendation is to use water between 165° and 185°F. There is some disagreement on this point. The contrary thought is that the protective coating on the tea buds somewhat repels water. Therefore, hotter water (minimum of 195°F) may be needed to get the buds to release their flavor.
Brewing time – The same expert that recommends hotter water advises a brewing time of only 30 seconds to a minute and then adjusting to your preference. Some professionals will brew for 3-5 minutes. Many others, including English Tealeaves, recommend 2-3 minutes.
Flavored white teas
The flavor of white tea is elegant and refined. Because it is so mild, it does take on other flavors very well. For example, English Tealeaves offers a Peach Blossom, which has a lovely peach aroma and flavor. Often, white teas are blended with green teas and other flavors. Our Red Rose White is a blend of white and jasmine green tea and floral notes. Divine Temple combines white tea and jasmine green tea with delicious tropical flavors.