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White Tea


buying-guide-white-tea.jpgShop for white and yellow teas.

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Teas are made from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) or one of its varietals, cultivars, or clonals.

White teas are very special, and many are quite rare. They are usually silvery in color due to the “hairs” on the buds from which they are made. They go through very minimal processing and generally have a short shelf-life if not stored properly. The demand for white tea has been on the rise since some manufacturers of anti-aging skin care and beauty products are now adding it to their formulae. They are also showing up in “ready to drink” teas. The taste range is pretty wide and based on the tea plant varietal. For example, White Peony (Bai Mu Dan or Pai Mu Tan) have a light amber color (similar to oolong) and a sweet flavor that is great hot and surprisingly refreshing and hearty when iced.

Yellow tea is a slightly processed green tea that tends to be less grassy tasting than many green teas. This is achieved by harvesting early in the year and letting the teas oxidize slowly, imparting to the liquid a sweet, mellow flavor and a bright yellow color. The leaves will usually be small and unbroken, and the liquid is high in antioxidants, low in caffeine.

Harvesting and Production of White Teas

For white teas, the leaves are almost always harvested by hand. And those “leaves” are often actually buds consisting of a very new inner leaf and two outer leaves wrapped tightly around it. The trick to harvesting is getting these buds at the right time.

White teas are harvested once per year in the Spring. The buds are plucked before they have opened and while they still have fine white hairs on them. Care is taken to assure they are not broken. They are then sorted, steamed, and dried, often right in the fields to prevent any oxidation. The higher the ratio of buds to leaves in the tea, the higher the quality generally speaking. Some white teas like Bai Mu Dan or Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) have few buds and lots of leaves.

The production process:

  • Withering — The leaves are picked and then spread out in the sun, weather permitting, so the cell walls soften and draw moisture out for evaporation.
  • “Kill-Green” — Usually not done.
  • Rolling/Forming — Usually not done for the best grades.
  • Drying — Sun drying, pan heating, or hot air are used to set the final moisture level in the leaves, stop oxidation and mold growth, remove grassy taste, and develop the aroma. 

Preparation Techniques for White Teas

Generally white teas are extremely light weight so you have to be sure to add enough leaf to the cup or pot.

White teas are generally steeped in cooler temperatures (ranging from 170-185° F), varying with each tea. The steeping time is usually longer to allow the buds to open fully, starting with 4-5 minutes for the first infusion, then 5-7 minutes for the second infusion, and 6-8 minutes for the final infusion. With very high-quality teas like Yinzhen Silver Needles, use more leaves and steep multiple times for short durations.

The light flavor should be enjoyed by itself, not with food, and makes white tea a great alternative to green tea for those who want the health benefits without the grassy flavor or stomach upset that some experience.

Storing White Teas

White tea leaves are exposed to a small  amount of processing and are subject to a natural enzymatic breakdown called oxidation just like other tea leaves. For best longevity, keep this tea in a cool, dry place in an airtight container. You could even store them in a refrigerator which actually improves the taste of the tea as long as you don’t pull it out of the refrigerator and then put it back in. This out and in and the resulting temperature changes can degrade the tea.

Specific White Teas

Chinese white teas come mainly from Fujian Province, with a few coming from Guizhou, Chongqing, and Zhejiang Provinces:

  • Bai Hao Yinzhen (Silver Needle or Silver Tip) — a rare tea considered to be the top grade white tea, and one of the 10 Most famous Chinese teas, produced in the Fuding and Zhenghe areas of Fujian Province, comprised entirely of buds covered with silvery “hairs,” each hand-plucked before the leaf opens, then gently steamed; the brew is delicate and mellow, with a hint of sweetness and peach and a fresh, lasting finish.
  • Peony White Needle — a premium grade tea from the Chongqing Province. Made of needle-shaped leaves covered with delicate hairs that steep up a delicate, lingering fragrance and fresh, sweet, mellow taste. Rules for picking: only leaves picked between March 15 and April 10 are used, harvesting commences when the leaves are dry and have no morning dew, only unopened and unbroken buds are used.
  • Da Bai Hao Jasmine White Tea — a Da Bai Hao (big leaf ) tea scented with night-blooming jasmine flowers; light and delicate with a long-lasting floral aroma after with every cup.
  • Gu Shan Bai Yun (Drum Mountain White Cloud) — from Drum Mountain, home of a historic Buddhist monastery where the monks have harvested tea for centuries. The environment is cloudy and misty (“yun wu”) and gives this white tea a wonderful fragrance and a taste that is mild, sweet, and slightly nutty.
  • White Pearls (also called Panda Pearls by some vendors) — a very rare traditional handmade tea from Fujian Province. Only a few thousand kilos are produced each year and are considered a symbol of good luck. Place 6 or 7 pearls in the cup, add water heated to 180-190° F, steep 3-4 minutes, and the pearls will unfurl. Good for 3-5 infusions.
  • Star of China — excellent, rare, delicate, and subtle. Each one consists of five individual leaf buds covered in soft velvety hairs and hand-tied into a star.
  • Snow Dragon — a premium exquisitely hand-crafted tea with each dragon being twisted by hand from select downy covered leaf buds. Hints of jammy pungency are a hallmark, and several infusions are possible. Highly respected by connoisseurs.
  • 100 Monkeys — a premium grade tea. The tea leaves unfurl and return to their original state during steeping.
  • Bai Mu Dan or Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) — a second grade of white tea, which is made from the buds and leaves that remain after the famous silver tip white tea has been harvested.
  • Gong Mei (Tribute Eyebrow) — the third grade of white tea, uses leaves from the Xiao Bai or Small White tea trees.
  • Shou Mei (Noble, Long Life Eyebrow) — the fourth grade of white tea; it is plucked later than White Peony; a fruity, furry white tea that is a blend of tips and upper leaf and has an oolong-like flavor according to some tea drinkers.

Due to the high prices now being charged for white teas, they are now being produced in other countries, including Taiwan, India, Northern Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Eastern Nepal.

About Silver Needle

White tea is becoming increasingly popular among tea connoisseurs, and Silver Needle remains regarded as the top tier since it is made entirely of unopened buds covered in silvery hairs. Fuding county in Fujian province, China, is said to be the place where this tea originated and where the best quality of Silver Needle comes from. Zhen He county (in Fujian province) tea growers also produce a very good version.

Making Silver Needle: The sweetest of the white teas, Silver needle is made up of only buds from the tea bush. Meticulously separated from the stem, the buds are fanned on to a single layer on a bamboo tray and dried in the sun until 70% of their moisture is removed. The withering process is completed indoors as the tea is roasted over charcoal. During the roast, the tea is separated from the charcoal by bamboo trays lined with paper. The very low temperature drying of this tea is designed to preserve the white color of its buds. Too high of a temperature will make the buds yellow. Unlike green tea, white tea is never fired or steamed to kill the enzymatic action that causes oxidation. Instead, oxidation of the leaves is prevented by their lack of moisture. The withering process is very long and gradual, thus slight oxidation of the leaves (or buds) will naturally occur. With this slight amount of oxidation, white tea’s color is typically not as bright or green as you would expect from a green tea.

Judging the quality of Silver Needle: High quality Silver Needle should be made up of large, healthy tea buds with most of their white down intact. When infused, the buds will turn to a light green color right away. The color of the infusion is like a light honey. When compared to infused green tea, it will appear slightly yellow. The fragrance is light, akin to freshly bloomed flowers. The flavor is more juicy than dry, filling the mouth with a smooth and lingering sweetness. For first time tea drinkers and seasoned aficionados alike, Silver Needle is a very approachable tea. It is easier on the stomach than a green tea and even a long infusion in high temperature water will not bitter the flavor. You will find it very easy to drink and very easy to brew.

More Info on White Tea

White tea is characterized by heavy withering and slight oxidation in processing. When making green tea, high heat is applied to kill the enzymes and stop the oxidation process. In contrast, when making white tea, fresh tea leaves are left to wither for up to 3 days. It is "white" because of its downy hairs. These tiny hairs give the young tender shoots a silvery-gray appearance, which is often regarded as a sign of quality. Tea enzymes cause the leaves to mature, but factory conditions have to be precisely controlled to minimize oxidation. The tea is then sun or oven dried to reduce moisture to 5% or lower. It uses a special process in which relatively low heat and no rolling is applied. White tea is often regarded in Asia as a "cooling" tea, as it contains the least "fire" of all Chinese teas.

Legend and History of White Tea: According to legend, white tea tree was discovered by a girl named Lan Gu from Fuding county of Fujian Province in China, where the beautiful Taimu Mountain is located in. While taking refuge in a cave in the mountain, Lan Gu found a special tea tree whose young buds were covered with silvery hair during spring. When a widespread epidemic broke out in the village, Lan Gu healed them using the leaves from this special tree. In honor of her kindness and important role, people called her after the name of Goddess Taimu and named the mountain as Taimu Mountain. This legend coincided with historical records that the tea was first produced in Fuding County in 1796 and later spread to two other counties (Zhenhe and Jianyang) in Fujian province.

White Tea Production Area: White tea was first made in China and is commonly seen as a specialty of Chinese Fujian province. The main white tea producing area includes Fuding, Zhenghe, Songxi and Jianyang Counties. Now white tea was also produced in some other countries such as India and Sri Lanka. Varieties of White Tea White tea comes in many varieties and types and sometimes it is hard to tell them apart. Their old poetic names with an air of mystery and exclusivity are interesting but fail to tell us much about the tea itself.