Unveiling the Elegance of White Tea - English Tealeaves

Unveiling the Elegance of White Tea

Michele Lillie

Although white teas are becoming more common today, a few years ago many had not ever heard of white tea. It is a wonderful and elegant type of tea and in this post, I will explain just what it is.

White tea is made from the newest leaves of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant and it is known for its subtlety of fragrance, taste and color. 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.

Originally, white tea only came from the Fujian province of China. Today you may also find white tea that has been grown in other provinces of China as well as other countries such as Sri Lanka, India and Taiwan.

White tea is the least processed of any tea as will be explained below. 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 plucking 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.

Firing is a process that is done for other types of teas but traditionally, white tea is not fired at all. However, certain lower-quality white teas may undergo firing, which changes the taste and appearance of the tea.

One step that is missing from the above processing is any discussion of oxidation. From our Tea Primer, you will recall that black and oolong teas undergo oxidation, with black teas considered fully oxidized and oolongs being only partially oxidized. Green teas are unoxidized as they undergo a process whereby the oxidation enzymes are inactivated.

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 either 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.

There are two different ways in which 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 that has been grown in a specific location and processed in a specific way.

Others say white tea is defined by the processing alone. So, any tea leaf from any origin that is processed in the same manner as white tea manufactured in the Fujian province may be called white tea. That would be that the tea leaves undergo natural withering without any rolling, shaping or de-enzyming.

You may have heard or read 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. Stay tuned for another post with the truth about tea and caffeine.

Silver Needles dry tea leaves

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 particular cultivar of the tea plant called Da Bai or Da Hao.

Traditionally, Silver Needles comes from plants grown in the Fujian province of China. 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.

White Peony dry tea leaves

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.

A third type that some outlets may carry is 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 either 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 that is 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.

 White tea is a light, bright, refreshing and elegant tea that we hope you will try. Let us know what you think!

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